INDIANAPOLIS: Manning is as ruthlessly efficient as ever when it comes to carving up pass defenses, with Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark fitting the mold of "spectacularly efficient", the oxymoron that best describes this entire organization. Anthony Gonzalez missed most of last season with a knee injury, but is back opposite Wayne, and Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie are better for the experience gained last year. The chink in the armor is up front, where only center Jeff Saturday and tackle Ryan Diem are reliable parts.
There's no obvious weakness on the defense, and the clear strength is in bringing pressure off the ends in a 4-3 attack. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are a pocket-crashing duo, and the interior is very ably manned by Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir. A front four that can whip people cures a lot of ills and Jim Caldwell has that. The back seven is mostly steady and unspectacular, but that could change if Bob Sanders can stay healthy at strong safety, bringing another big-play element to a good unit.
HOUSTON: The Texans nearly made the playoffs for the first time in their eight-year history last year and one of the league's top stories this year is whether '10 is when Houston finally gets over the hump--and whether head coach Gary Kubiak can survive a failure to do so. The second question's the easy one to answer--no. The pressure is on in Houston, and they will reciprocate. Like their rivals at the top, the Texans bring pressure off the ends, led by Mario Williams (remember when the football world was outraged that he was chosen ahead of Reggie Bush in the '05 draft? Looks like somebody in Houston knew what they were doing). The problem is that Williams is the only real playmaker on a defense that is a sieve. The plus side is that there's talent in the secondary, and therefore, possibilities for development.
Moving the ball isn't a problem, with Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson emerging as an elite quarterback and receiver, respectively. Schaub has good secondary targets too, in reliable Kevin Walker and tight end Owen Daniels. The problem is in the running game. The line is average at best and Steve Slaton was unreliable at running back, showing problems taking care of the ball. Houston drafted Auburn runner Ben Tate, a back who was very underrated in college, and played as well last season as his Heisman-winning rival in Alabama, Mark Ingram.
TENNESSEE: Vince Young's time to show he can play in the NFL is running out. The Titans have a good team around him, but Young's erratic play is the main concern. This team is going to run the ball. The offensive line is outstanding, with the front five being strong, smart and quick. Chris Johnson is a great back, stringing together 11 straight 100-yard games to close the season. The receiving corps isn't as good as their counterparts in Indy or Houston, but Nate Washington and Kenny Britt can stretch the field, while tight end Bo Scaife has reliable hands.
The defense is a similar story--a good unit, but problems at one position could create huge problems. Free safety is the issue here, where Michael Griffin played poorly last year and may lose his job this time around. The defensive line is decent and could be a real asset if end Derrick Morgan can develop further as a pass rusher. The linebacking corps is respectable, though they could use a true middle man. Overall, the D is good enough to compete--but not if your free safety is biting on play fakes and being maneuvered out of position. Not anywhere in the NFL and definitely not when you're aiming to overtake Peyton Manning's tam.
JACKSONVILLE: David Garrard is another quarterback with a career at the crossroads, but in this case the Jaguars have some problems on the offensive line that should demand their primary attention. Brad Meester is aging at center, and Uchi Nwaneri can be beaten at guard. It makes the great year for running back Maurice Jones-Drew all the more impressive. Though currently hurt, Jones-Drew is expected to be ready for the season opener. Garrard's receivers are functionable and if Mike Thomas can continue to be productive in his second year, could become a difference-making area.
The Jaguars are a mix of their division rivals on defense. Like Indianapolis and Houston, they have very talented pass rushers at defensive end, in Aaron Kampman and Derrick Harvey, with good supporting help inside. Like Tennessee, they could be held back by uncertainty at free safety. Reggie Nelson didn't get it done last year and the Jags might like to go with Anthony Smith in spite of doubt about his physical tools. Another problem area is corner, where Rashean Mathis can be on the undisciplined side.
NOTEBOOK PICK: The defense, the steady receivers and...oh yes, a guy named Manning make this one still an easy call for Indianapolis.
Further down the blog are previews for the NFC South, along with the East & North in both conferences. Previews continue on Wednesday with the NFC West.
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