The Indianapolis Colts have made the playoffs in nine consecutive seasons, tying the 1975 through 1983 Dallas Cowboys for the NFL record. The Colts have won the AFC South division in seven of the last eight years. However, both the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans have added significant pieces to their teams in free agency and have emerged as serious threats to end Indianpolis’ record-tying streak of consecutive playoff berths.
The Colts have only lost one significant player, linebacker Clint Session, during free agency so far. However, Session signed with the rival Jaguars, who finished 8-8 last season and have been amongst the most aggressive teams in the abbreviated offseason. Jacksonville also added former Ravens safety Dawan Landry and former Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny to beef up a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL last year, allowing 371.8 yards per game. Session, who played in only five games last year due to injury but made 103 tackles in 2009, and Posluszny, who had 151 tackles last year, provide speed and physicality, respectively, and should complement each other nicely to immediately improve Jacksonville against the run. Landry made 111 tackles last season and should give the Jaguars a physical presence in the secondary who can be an eighth man in the box or can make tackles in the middle of the field. Posluszny, Session and Landry are 26, 26 and 28 years-old, respectively, and Jacksonville is hoping they can each continue to improve as they enter the prime of their careers.
It is unclear, though, how these moves will help the Jaguars’ pass defense, which was amongst the worst in the NFL. Jacksonville finished 28th in passing yards allowed, surrendering 4,004 yards. They allowed the most yards per attempt (8.3) of any NFL team and opposing quarterbacks had a 98.5 rating against them, second-highest in the league while throwing for 28 touchdowns, tied with Buffalo for the sixth-most allowed through the air. A large part of the problem was a lack of pass rush. No Jaguar had more than five sacks and the team combined for only 26. While Posluszny, Session and Landry are all good tacklers and good run defenders, they do not do a good job of pressuring the quarterback. The trio has combined for 9.5 sacks in 159 combined games in their respective careers. Jacksonville must continue to be aggressive in free agency and find a pass rusher who can get to the quarterback consistently to help take pressure off its secondary.
The Jaguars finished 15th in the NFL in total offense last season, averaging 341.3 yards per game. David Garrard (2,734 yards passing, 64.5 completion percentage, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 90.3 QB rating) lost wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker (43 catches, 562 yards, seven TDs) via free agency, a move that could hurt an already weak passing game that ranked 27th last year, averaging just 191.6 yards per game. However, Maurice Jones-Drew (299 carries, 1,324 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, five touchdowns) should continue to give Jacksonville one of the league’s best running games to keep pressure off Garrard. While their offense should take a small step back due to the loss of Sims-Walker, the Jaguars are banking that an improved defense and strong running game will push them over the hump and into the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Offense has never been a problem for the Houston Texans. Behind quarterback Matt Schaub (4,370 yards passing, 63.6 completion percentage, 24 TDs, 12 INTs, 92.0 QB rating), receiver Andre Johnson (86 receptions, 1,216 yards, eight TDs) and running back Arian Foster (327 rushes, 1,616 yards, 4.9 YPC, 16 TDs), the Texans finished third in the NFL in total offense, racking up 386.6 yards per game. Even with their prolific attack, Houston finished only 6-10, thanks to a porous defense that surrendered 376.9 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. The Texans had the worst passing defense in football, getting torched for a league-high 4,280 yards through the air while tying the Dallas Cowboys for most passing touchdowns allowed with 33. Opposing quarterbacks had an NFL-high 100.5 QB rating against Houston and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, second-highest in the league to Jacksonville.
To address those issues, the Texans went out and drafted defensive players with six of their eight draft picks, including their first five selections. They also signed former Bengals cornerback Jonathan Joseph and former Bears safety Danieal Manning. Joseph gives new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips a cornerback who can play man-to-man defense on the outside and tutor last year’s first-round pick, Kareem Jackson. Manning should give the Texans some protection over the top of their defense.
While those two players will help the pass defense immediately, much of Houston’s success will hinge on how their personnel can learn and adjust to Phillips’ 3-4 defense after playing in the 4-3 scheme. Former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams, who had 43.5 sacks as a 4-3 defensive end over the last four seasons, will particularly play a big role in how successful the new defense is, as he will play a pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker in the new scheme. If Williams can pick up his new position quickly and thrive in it like the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware did while Phillips was Dallas’ head coach, the Texans defense could finally stop allowing points in bunches. If Williams fails in his new role, the Houston defense will continue to be in trouble. An improved defense is all that stands between the Texans and their first-ever playoff appearance.
With one more playoff berth this season, the Colts will make NFL history. However, their AFC South rivals, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans have been aggressive in adding pieces to their respective defenses this offseason. They believe that with the current state of their offenses, an improved defense could make up the ground between them and the aging Indianapolis Colts. There are question marks surrounding both teams, like did Jacksonville do enough to improve its pass defense and how will Houston adjust to the 3-4 defense? Time will tell but the Jaguars and Texans have loaded up this offseason to finally end the Colts’ playoff run.