When Peyton Manning had neck surgery you kind of new things were going to change in the AFC South. So it proved with the Houston Texans taking full advantage of the situation to dominate the division, leaving the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars trailing in their wake. The Texans finally turned in a consistent season despite losing key players on both sides of the ball, aided by an excellent offensive line and an invigorated defense after switching to a 3-4.
As we continue to break down the 2011 season, we’re looking at some of the most noticeable (and not always for the right reason) performances from the year gone by in this Trending series. We’re highlighting one player from each team that fits as the Most improved, the Biggest Drop Off, and the one who’s most in need of more snaps. Here’s the AFC South:
Brice McCain (CB): From -10.8 (2010), to +6.8 (2011)
Playing outside–as he did on 93.9% of his 407 snaps in 2010–didn’t seem to work for McCain, giving up four touchdowns and looking out of his depth. Fast forward a year and the Texans moved their former sixth round pick from the 2009 draft into the slot, where he excelled. No touchdowns given up to go with two interceptions and nine pass break ups. Great numbers, better only by the completion percentage of quarterbacks when he was in primary coverage; just 47.1%. An incredibly low number for a slot cornerback.
Biggest drop off
Wade Smith (LG): From +17.8 to -17.0
Smith broke out in 2010 with a series of fantastic displays that made him one of the bargains of the 2010 season. Our own Ben Stockwell felt quite smug about it after predicting it after his end of season form in 2009, but is left feeling less smug after a terrible year from Smith. He gave up an extra nine pressures, but it was his run blocking that fell off a cliff, seeing him drop from second (in our LG rankings) to sixth from the bottom a year later.
Tim Jamison (DE): +6.9 on 336 snaps
It’s going to be tough for Jamison to find time with J.J. Watt emerging as one of the league’s most impressive young players, and Antonio Smith an absolute terror rushing the passer in base and sub-package defenses. But given how Smith can be nullified in the run game, it stands to reason the Texans could do worse than keeping him fresher and getting Jamison more involved, especially in obvious running situations. Incredible as it may sound, Jamison made five more tackles in 80 fewer snaps in the run game.
Philip Wheeler (OLB): From -0.5 to +9.3
The Colts’ third round selection in the 2008 draft, Wheeler flashed talent after a rookie year that saw him play sparingly (49 snaps), but struggled to break into and maintain a place in the starting lineup. Indeed, his finish to 2010 saw him relegated to a backup role, managing just 32 snaps in the last five games of the season. Still 2011 proved more fruitful with the two-down Wheeler providing an impact in the run game with 22 defensive stops; only 13 less than Pat Angerer despite playing 133 fewer snaps.
Biggest drop off
Dallas Clark (TE): From +4.3 to -13.3
If any one player felt the loss of Peyton Manning most, it was Clark, who struggled to develop any chemistry with the Colts’ litany of quarterbacks. This can’t just be blamed on the QBs, though, as Clark dropped eight passes while only picking up 352 yards in the 10 games he played in. In the year prior, he picked up five fewer yards in five fewer games. A sign of Clark on an irreversible slide, or just one of those years? 2012 will be a big season for him.
Drake Nevis (DT): +1.9 on 163 snaps
For years we’ve questioned the Colts for their inability to get any production from their defensive tackle position. Despite countless draft picks, nothing has seemed to work, until this year when it looked like Nevis was on his way to making an impact. Fate intervened as Nevis picked up an injury that limited him to 23 snaps after the Week 4 defeat to Tampa Bay, but before that he’d shown something you rarely see from a Colt DT: the ability to make plays in the run game. Can he be a weapon for new head coach Chuck Pagano?
Eugene Monroe (LT): From -15.6 to +12.1
We weren’t the only ones disappointed with the performance of Monroe in his first two years in the league, so we were pleasantly surprised with the improvement in his play this year. It was enough to earn him consideration as a second team PFF All-Pro, buoyed by doing a much better job of keeping his QB pressure-free. A year after giving up 47 combined sacks, hits, and pressures, it was just 25 quarterback disruptions on the year for the eighth pick of the 2009 NFL draft.
Biggest drop off
Marcedes Lewis (TE): From +17.6 to +5.1
Lewis wasn’t terrible this year, but he just struggled to look like the player that had impressed so much in 2010. It wasn’t just his receiving numbers that were down, but gone was the excellent in-line blocking we’d become accustomed to seeing and back again was the inconsistency that had been apparent earlier in his career. It wasn’t a bad year, but given the highs of 2010, quite the drop off.
John Chick (DE): +6.8 on 180 snaps
Cast in the role of situational pass rusher (Chick was only in on 27 run plays), the 29-year-old Chick was something of a revelation when it came to harassing quarterbacks. 142 pass rushes produced two sacks, two hits and 16 more hurries before his season was prematurely ended by injury. If he can come back from a torn patella tendon and replicate his impact this year, consider me intrigued by what he can do.
Cortland Finnegan (CB): From -14.5 to +15.8
2010 wasn’t the easiest year for Finnegan. The scrappy Titans CB seemed more intent in annoying receivers than covering them, leading to an infamous bust up with Andre Johnson and earning the nickname ‘Torched and Burned Again’ while tracking teams’ top receivers. A year after Finnegan gave up 794 yards and five touchdowns, those numbers dropped to 456 yards and two touchdowns, while facing the new challenge of covering the slot in nickel situations. Nicely played in a contract year.
Biggest drop off
Jason Jones (DE): From +21.6 to -9.3
The Titans wanted to get bigger up front, and nobody saw their performance affected nearly as much as Jones. A terror inside at defensive tackle, the move to right defensive end was a case of putting a very good player in a position he was just never going to succeed in. A free agent, it makes nearly no sense for Jones to return to a scheme that doesn’t get the best out of him.
Karl Klug (DT): +7.3 on 523 snaps
Is it cheating to have a player who featured on so many snaps? Perhaps, but Klug is the most intriguing player on the roster in this category, as I’d really like to know if the slightly undersized defensive tackle could become next years’ Geno Atkins and thrive in an every-down role. Demonstrated plenty of ability to get to the passer with 24 combined sacks, hits and hurries, but will need to make a bigger contribution in the run game.