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AFC South Review: Week 8

Here’s a review of what’s been happening recently in the AFC South.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Just because the Houston Texans didn’t play football last week doesn’t mean that the poles flip and football stops. No, it keeps spinning. The NFL season thrusts forward into the invisible future. So even though the Texans didn’t play last week, they kind of lost.

Entering last week, there was a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South; the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, and Houston Texans were all at 3-3. The Colts were 2-4. The Jaguars and Titans improved to 4-3 by winning in Week Seven, the Colts dropped to 2-5, and the Texans fell a half game back by sitting out. At the conclusion of Houston’s bye week, this is where the rest of the AFC South stands as it inches closer to the halfway mark of the season.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were the latest team to get obliterated by the NFL’s best pass defense. Just like Houston, Indianapolis allowed ten sacks against Jacksonville en route to getting blanked 27-0. When you get shoved into the locker like that, nothing tastes good. Afterwards, T.Y. Hilton called out his offensive line. Hilton should be upset. His team is bad and this is what happens when Andrew Luck becomes Jacoby Brissett. In the long term, this isn’t that bad of a season for the Colts.

At 2-4, Indy’s season is over. Their next three games are in Cincinnati, in Houston, and against Pittsburgh. 2-7 is more than probable; it looks like a certainty right now. Andrew Luck still has yet to play, and there is no timetable for his return. And you know what? He shouldn’t play. Shut him down for the rest of the season. The only reason he should play is if Indy hovered around .500 and that cyclops busted through the wall with a club, shooting lasers from that one eye. That won’t happen. Give Luck the year off to focus on his book club and allow him to rest up. Collect a top five pick, trade down a few times like Tennessee did, put all that cap space to use to add to the offensive line, fill out the rest of the defense, and get ready for 2018.

The rest of the season is all about finding how who the Colts should carry forward as they try to build their next contending team. In the NFL, the rebuild cycles can be quick. Competitive teams’ life cycles are short, like the lifetime of an insect. Even though 2017 is terrible for the Colts, 2018 shouldn’t be.

Offensively, they can try to develop La’Raven Clark at right guard. He was a third round pick out of Texas Tech and proved too slow to play right tackle. It takes time to learn a different position. It’s not an immediate thing.

Marlon Mack should get every carry for the rest of the year. Frank Gore should be simply released if they can’t even get a sixth round pick for him. There’s no point to waste Gore’s death rattle on this atrocity.

Aside from Hilton, the Colts have young receivers they need to decide what to do with. Do you really want Luck coming back and throwing to Kamar Aiken and Donte Moncrief? Speaking of quarterback, in this quarterback starving league, Jacoby Brissett may be an NFL starter. He has the arm strength and mobility. He is 23 years old. Indy could perhaps trade him for a third round pick or continue to stick with him as a backup, something that is a must-have for a team with Luck’s shoulder.

Defensively, everyone knew the Colts’ defense was going to be gross and unremarkable. They can’t cover, and they have only two pass rushers who can generate pressure on their own. The idea for this season was to hope they forced enough turnovers and could bend enough with Luck coming back early in the season. That’s been snuffed out. The Colts have forced only three turnovers, which is 19th in the NFL, and they have allowed 222 points, which is last.

But it’s not all bad. Even before Luck’s never-ending injury, the main idea for this season was to find pieces to build around for the future. Before shredding his knee like a cheap bag of cheese, Malik Hooker looked like a future star. He is the type of player that can cover the center of the field all on his own. He’s Earl Thomas without being able to shatter players up the middle. The three pass rushers the Colts signed this past offseason, Margus Hunt, Jabaal Sheard, and John Simon, are all having productive years. Each one has eleven pressures or more. The sacks aren’t there, but they have been generating a pass rush. Each of those three is a NFL caliber player. That’s a start. The run defense has been awful, though. They are going to have to rebuild their entire linebacker corps and upgrade at the other defensive end spot to fill in talent around Johnathan Hankins. Right now, there is none.

Seasons like this hurt. But they become loving purple scars once things gel back together, and the team becomes good again. The Colts still have the hardest part of team building figured out in the quarterback position, and they will have draft capital and financial resources to build around Luck again starting this offseason. It’s going to be a 5-11 type season in 2017 with the chance to swing to 11-5 next year.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have become the Denver Broncos. Before this week, they were first in pass defense DVOA at -45.7%. That is such an insane number on its own, and then you take into account second place is Baltimore at -20.3%. Oh, and that doesn’t even include last week’s shutout of the Colts in the soup. Sacksonville has 33 sacks this year, 20 of which came in two games. The second place teams behind them are Pittsburgh and Carolina with 24. Things are inflated with this enormous number, but sacks are the end result of continuous good play. It’s the reward for all that constant havoc. This season, the Jaguars are fifth in pressure rate at 35.4%.

This is what happens when you take a top ten defense, add the two best defensive free agents available, and watch those two continue to play at an elite level. Calais Campbell is leading the NFL with 10 sacks and was tied for ninth in pressures entering last weekend with 16.5. He also has one pass defended, two forced fumbles, and twenty solo tackles. Combining him with Malik Jackson has given the Jaguars one of the best interior pass rushes in the NFL, which in turn has given young players like Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler, Jr. calm meadow strolls to the quarterback on stunts and one-on-one matchups to devour.

Football Outsiders’ Game Charting numbers love A.J. Bouye almost as much as I do. He has been targeted 38 times, compared to Jalen Ramsey, who has been targeted 35 times. On these targets, Bouye has allowed 6.5 yards per pass, has a success rate of 63%, and is allowing only 0.8 yards after the catch. When he’s targeted, he’s been targeted downfield. The average air distance on Bouye’s targets are 16.4 yards, but teams aren’t hitting when attacking Bouye. He’s been sharing a bedroom with Ramsey, who has allowed 4.7 yards per pass, has a success rate of 66%, and is also averaging 0.8 yards after the catch.

The only problem for the Jaguars is they play a strange style of football. They have problems stopping the run. They are 31st in run defense DVOA. They are giving up 5.2 yards an attempt, which is last in the league, though that stat is inflated by the two 70 yard runs they gave up in their loss to the Jets. Nonetheless, this is the type of thing that happens when you have a smaller and quicker defense. Players like Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, and Ngakoue get devoured by offensive linemen in the box.

Jacksonville’s entire offense is running the ball over and over again. Blake Bortles has completed an average of 14.25 passes in the Jaguars’ wins. They are averaging 185 yards in rushing in their victories. For the Jaguars to win football games, they have to get a lead early, claw up yards on the ground, limit Bortles as much as possible, and have their pass defense do the rest as teams are forced to throw to come back. When games are close, or Jacksonville is down, wins aren’t going to happen. The Jaguars are going to have games where they come out flat and look hapless. They’ll have others where they dominate.

They are so, so, so good at the things they do well—run the ball and stop the pass—that they will continue to win games. They just have to hope the incredible happens more often than the disastrous for the rest of the season.

Tennessee Titans

It’s now time to worry in Tennessee. Although they won their last two games to reach 4-3, there is no reason for optimism. It was a struggle to finish off the Colts on Monday Night Football two weeks ago, and this past Sunday it took overtime to score 12 points against the Browns in a 12-9 win.

Last Sunday was especially troubling. Against the Browns, who have the worst pass defense in football, Marcus Mariota was only able to muster 203 yards on 34 pass attempts. His longest completion was for only 23 yards. He’s been struggling to throw the ball to his outside receivers. The Eric Decker signing hasn’t amounted to much. Corey Davis has started only one game this year; he has seven catches on thirteen targets. Rishard Matthews has had a fine year. But in the aggregate, the outside passing game has been disappointing,. Mariota is again depending on Delanie Walker to make things happen.

The exotic methmouth style is still here. Mariota continues to have a ton of time to throw the football. The cute plays that create easy yards remain. The problem is Mariota has to throw the ball downfield for this offense to really work. If his longest pass attempt is 23 yards, safeties are crawling around, there are too many defenders to block, and the running lanes are suffocated. When this happens, you see games like last week, where the Titans faced heavy boxes. They still ran the ball 32 times for only 80 yards, picking up just 2.5 yards a carry.

Some of this is regression for the Titans’ offense. They made an enormous leap last season, going from 32nd to 9th in offensive DVOA. This year they have dropped off a bit, down to 11th. It’s disappointing, considering the preseason narrative, a young quarterback, a specific and exciting scheme, and the possibility of this offense being a top five unit. Regression was more expected than a leap into the best five offenses in the NFL. When teams make improvements by this much in one season, they usually drop off some the following season. Additionally, a lot of Tennessee’s success came from their red zone offense last year. They were first in red zone scoring percentage at 72%. This year they are 31st at 41.18%. This is where to start if you want to know what’s wrong with the Titans’ offense.

The Titans don’t have the defense to win games by a score of 12-9 consistently. They are 27th in points against, giving up 24.7 points a game. Their secondary has been messy. Adoree Jackson is still young, Logan Ryan hasn’t been good enough. Leshaun Sims and Brice McCain have been disasters. This is all while Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, and Brian Orakpo have been solid at pressuring the quarterback. The Titans have a bottom of the barrel pass defense and a mediocre run defense. The only good news from last week’s game is that unlike their offense, the defense was able to take advantage one of the worst units in football, the Browns’ passing offense.

Regardless, the Titans’ offense has to be better. Scraping past Cleveland is a scary sign. The red zone offense has to improve for Tennessee to even sniff the potential of its summer narrative.

The rest of the season is going to be a rock fight between the Texans, Jaguars, and Titans to finish atop the AFC South. All three teams have specific questions, playing styles, strengths, and weaknesses. As they continue to fight for the greatest prize in sports, an AFC South title, each of those flaws is going to be magnified. After all these years, the division is finally fun again. It’s going to be such a damn joy to watch it unfold.