Thursday, August 29, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The AFC South

Was it Andrew Luck, or simply dumb luck that got Indianapolis into the playoffs last season?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The South was a top-heavy division in 2012, with both Houston and Indianapolis qualifying for the postseason and Tennessee and Jacksonville largely serving as punchlines for some joke about stagnant franchises with no real support.

Despite all this, the top three spots in the South appear to be up for grabs in 2013. Indianapolis rode rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to a Wild Card berth last year, but are the Colts as good as their 11-5 record says, or are they a team that allowed 30 more points than they scored (yes, they are) and caught a few breaks along the way?

Houston again had one of the league's most balanced offenses and best defenses, but the Texans do have concerns in the secondary. Can newly signed safety Ed Reed stay healthy and play like the ball-hawk he was two or three years ago, or will he be an unexpected downgrade from the underrated and now departed Glover Quin?

Then there's Tennessee, a team with talent at the skill positions and a suddenly promising offensive line. A below average defense and inconsistent play from quarterback Jake Locker doomed the Titans in 2012, but we've seen quick defensive turnarounds in this division before, and Locker did show flashes in his first full season as a starter.

The Jaguars… Well, uh…. They're still in Jacksonville.

Storyline(s) to Watch

Will Indy's Luck Run Out?

As I mentioned above, the Colts posted an 11-5 record and earned a Wild Card spot, despite being outscored by 30 points on the year. What makes this even more interesting, is the Colts weren't even particularly lucky on the turnover front, as they were -12 in that department and were also out-gained by about 200 yards on the year. Oh, and the Colts ranked in the bottom half in the league in scoring offense and defense.

Ok, I give up, how the hell did this team win 11 games?

Well, to put it bluntly, a lot of luck, but also a little Luck.

The Colts played in 10 games decided by a touchdown or less and won nine of them. That simply doesn't happen very often, and you could chalk a lot of that up to luck with a lowercase L. But, you still have to account for quarterback Andrew Luck, who led the Colts on seven different fourth quarter drives to reclaim the lead and ultimately win the game. Like Stanford great John Elway before him, this Cardinal alum seems to shine in the biggest moments.

But, he can't keep this up forever, right? The Colts seem like everybody's pick to regress in 2013, and the fact that you can't expect to win 90% of your close games is a major reason. Luck's 18 interceptions actually have me more concerned, but I expect continued improvement from one of the league's brightest young signal callers. Plus, a few free agent acquisitions should help Luck and the offense.

After allowing 41 sacks a year ago, the Indy offensive line welcomes tackle Gosder Cherilus, fresh off a stellar campaign with the Lions, and versatile interior lineman Donald Thomas, who played well when called upon in New England. Running back Amhad Bradshaw should give the Colts another reliable back and capable set of hands, and the addition of speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey is intriguing to say the least.

While he never developed a skill-set to go with his long-striding speed in Oakland, Heyward-Bey seems like an ideal complement, physically, to the ageless Reggie Wayne, emerging slot target T.Y. Hilton and pass catching tight end Coby Fleener. Add in the defensive additions of LaRon Landry and rookie Bjoern Werner, and this team may not need luck to get into the playoffs in 2013.


Player(s) to Watch

Cecil Shorts, Maurice Jones-Drew

Hey, look at these freakshows! They're on the Jaguars and they don't suck!


Chance Warmack

While many will be looking for quarterback Jake Locker to take the next step, he won't be able to do it on his back. The Titans had all kinds of issues along the offensive line last year, particularly on the interior, and this first round pick out of Alabama could fix that in a hurry. Alongside free agent acquisition Andy Levitre, Warmack has the chance to lead a revival of the Tennessee offense.

Heralded as one of the best college in-line blockers of the last decade, Warmack should open holes for the often angsty Chris Johnson, and give Locker the time he needs to find the talented trio of Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Nate Washington downfield. Add in the addition of the versatile Delanie Walker at tight end, and you have a suddenly interesting offense in Nashville.


Ben Tate

In 2011, you could have made a decent argument that Ben Tate was actually a better runner than Arian Foster. He wasn't as good an all-around back - Foster still has a clear leg up on 3rd downs as a receiver and blocker - but as a runner Tate might have had the edge. Tate averaged 5.4 yards per carry to Foster's 4.4, and Tate had a DVOA of +12.5% (i.e. he was 12.5% better than league average on a per-carry basis), 8th-best in the league, compared to Foster's +2.3%, just 24th-best. In fact, that advantage for Tate was so large that he even ended up finishing higher in DYAR (which weighs DVOA based on number of carries) than Foster as well - Tate was 10th in the league with 151 yards above replacement (the "YAR" in DYAR), Foster was 14th with 122.

So what's the point?

For a team that's (a) looking for a balanced attack, and (b) looking to keep Foster fresh for a prospective postseason run, Tate should get a lot of carries in the regular season. He only played in 11 games last season and nursed an injury for most of the year, which is why he was eclipsed on the depth chart by Justin Forsett. This year, they've ditched Forsett and Tate has been running over people in pre-season.

Houston will likely only go as far as Foster can carry them, but if Tate can carry Foster during the regular season, the Houston ground game could peak come January.


Jeremy's Picks

Texans: 11-5
Colts: 9-7
Titans: 5-11
Jaguars: 2-14

Joe's Picks

Texans: 11-5
Colts: 10-6
Titans: 6-10
Jaguars: 2-14

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