Sat, 13 Aug 2022

Williamson's Look Around The League: AFC South

The Steelers
29 Jun 2022, 06:30 GMT+10

Matt Williamson

Matt Williamson is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. You can download the podcast here. Williamson's opinions do not reflect those of the Steelers organization.

Indianapolis Colts (Last year's record: 9-8)

The Steelers travel to Indianapolis on Monday 11/28, Week 12 of the NFL season. That is Pittsburgh's only matchup against an AFC South opponent this year.Indianapolis produced 5.7 yards per play on offense last year. Only nine teams were better. Yet, the Colts have moved on from Carson Wentz as their starting quarterback in favor of Matt Ryan. This offense will still run through Jonathan Taylor, possibly the best running back in the NFL and Indianapolis is counting on Michael Pittman as their top receiving threat. The left tackle situation is currently unclear, but third round pick Bernhard Raimann could surprise in that capacity. The Colts first three draft picks were used for offensive reinforcements.Only eight defenses allowed more yards per play than Indianapolis last year, yet the Colts only gave up 21.5 points per game which was 12th best in the league. But the Cowboys were the only defense that took the ball away more often than Indianapolis. Matt Eberflus took the head job in Chicago and the Colts replaced him with Gus Bradley, so schematic changes are sure to result on defense. Indianapolis also added established veterans Yannick Ngakoue and Stephon Gilmore to this side of the ball and already have returning stars DeForest Buckner and Darius Leonard.The Colts average game ended with Indianapolis winning by five points. That was the best in the AFC South and only six teams had a better point differential in the entire league. The Colts also had the NFL's best turnover differential. Yet, Indianapolis failed to make the postseason in 2021.

Houston Texans (Last year's record: 4-13)

Houston's offense averaged 4.7 yards per play in 2021. Only the Panthers averaged less. And only two offenses produced fewer points per game. Maybe the biggest problem Houston encountered last year was running the football on 1st and 10, which of course then put the offense in a compromised position the rest of the drive. Houston wasn't very aggressive in free agency, but they did address this problem in the draft with the selection of Kenyon Green with the 15th overall pick and power back Dameon Pierce in the fourth round. Green and Laremy Tunsil could give Houston a real foundation on their offensive line. Although he is recovering from an injury, second round pick John Metchie also could round out the Texans wide receiver room with Nico Collins and Brandin Cooks, one of the NFL's most underrated wide receivers. The Texans will see if Davis Mills is the long-term answer or not at quarterback, but his rookie season was encouraging.The Ravens were the only defense in the league that surrendered more yards per play last year than Houston, who also gave up the sixth most points per game. The Texans did take the ball away 25 times, which was the 10th most. With the third overall pick in the draft, Houston grabbed Derek Stingley, who has the potential to develop into a true lockdown cornerback at the next level. Jalen Pitre and Christian Harris will also be counted on early for Houston's young defense.Houston's -1.2 yards per play differential was the worst in the NFL last year. The Jets (-.9) came in at 31st. On average, the Texans lost every game they played by 10.1 points, third worst. Special teams was one phase where Houston did well in last year. The Texans moved on from David Culley and bumped Lovie Smith up from defensive coordinator to head coach. Of course, Houston's biggest offseason move was trading Deshaun Watson to the Browns. This remains a roster that is still in its infancy stages but is finally starting to build in the right direction.

Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year's record: 3-14)

The Jaguars' 5.1 yards per play on offense was only better than eight teams in 2021, but their 14.9 points per game was dead last in the NFL. And only the Giants turned the ball over more often. Jacksonville is counting on a massive step forward from last year's first overall selection, Trevor Lawrence, something that very much could be in the cards. As has become the case most every year, the Jaguars spent big again in free agency. On the offensive line, they franchised and then extended Cam Robinson as well as giving Brandon Scherff huge money. Third round center Luke Fortner might just step right in, and Jacksonville spent quite a bit to get pass catchers Christian Kirk and Evan Engram for Lawrence to throw to. Jacksonville also got nothing from their second first round pick and Lawrence's college teammate, Travis Etienne, in his rookie year due to injury. The Jaguars are banking on big changes on this side of the ball next year. And big improvements.Only five defenses allowed more yards per play than Jacksonville last year and only four gave up more points per game. Also, the Jaguars only created nine turnovers in 2021, five fewer than the second worst defense. With the first overall pick in the draft, Jacksonville selected Travon Walker to team with Josh Allen, giving them two potentially star edge defenders. They also added another first rounder to the defense in Devin Lloyd to team with free agent acquisition Foye Oluokun. The second level of Jacksonville's defense could be quite strong. An under the radar addition was Foley Fatukasi, a power player in the middle of the defensive line that should allow the Jaguars new linebackers freedom to make plays all over the field.Only four teams had a worse yards per play differential than Jacksonville in 2021. The average Jaguars game ended with Jacksonville losing by 12 points. That was the worst in the NFL. Jacksonville's -20 turnover differential was far and away the worst in the NFL. The Jets were second worst at -13. Jacksonville was also amongst the worst teams on special teams. The Jaguars were quick to move from Urban Meyer and hired Doug Pederson as their new head coach. They have a super prospect at quarterback and there is reason for optimism here, but this is an organization that has one winning season in the last 14 years and is 15-50 over the past four seasons.

Tennessee Titans (Last year's record: 12-5)

The Titans 5.1 yards per play on offense was only better than eight teams in 2021. But the Titans also turned the ball over 25 times. Only eight offenses had more turnovers. This is a very physical offense led by Derrick Henry. But the Titans only got half of a season from their star ball carrier last year. The biggest move Tennessee made was trading AJ Brown, their best receiver, to the Eagles and replacing him with first round pick Treylon Burks as well as veteran Robert Woods, who is still recovering from a major injury. Austin Hooper also should give this offense some reliability at the tight end position. They really need Henry to get back to his dominance. An interesting addition was third rounder Malik Willis. Don't be surprised if Mike Vrabel uses Willis in a similar manner to how Lamar Jackson was employed early in his rookie season with specific packages for the talented rookie quarterback. This is a pivotal year for Ryan Tannehill, who will be 34 years old when this upcoming season kicks off.Tennessee's defense surrendered 20.8 points per game last year. Only the Bills, Patriots, Broncos, and Saints were better. Understandably, Tennessee is going to roll back pretty much the same group on this side of the ball in 2022. A big wild card here is last year's first round pick Caleb Farley, who would have been selected much earlier had he not been injured. A healthy season from Farley would be huge for this group, but the Titans also used their second round pick on another cornerback, Roger McCreary.The Titans were the top seed in the AFC playoff picture last year, but certainly were not themselves without Henry. The AFC is loaded with premium teams, and it will be a real challenge for Tennessee to hang with the top teams in the conference. But this is a stable organization with a strong coaching staff and should be back in the thick of the AFC South race.

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