Inside AFC South: Most Troubling Stat?
Phillip B. Wilson
Five weeks into the NFL regular season is sufficient time to identify what’s working and what’s not.
So what’s been the statistic that stands out more than any other for the wrong reason when analyzing AFC South division teams? The Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans each have troubling numbers that need to improve.
Here’s a look around the division at what writers of the respective Sports Illustrated-powered sites consider the most glaring statistic so far.
Matt Galatzan/Texans Daily
We hate to keep coming back to the same thing over and over again, but the most troubling stat for the Texans has to be quarterback Deshaun Watson taking hits in the pocket. Through the first four games, Watson had been under fire in taking 16 sacks and 35 hits.
After investing so much money in the offensive line and left tackle Laremy Tunsil, the lack of protection has been especially troublesome.
In Week 5, however, they had a great turnaround in allowing Watson to be sacked only once and be hit a season-low five times. As a result, the Texans were able to route the Jaguars behind a dynamic offensive performance, in which they accumulated nearly 500 yards of offense, and season highs in both passing and rushing.
The problem is the Jaguars aren’t exactly known for their pass rush, and have just five sacks for the season as well as one of the league’s worst defensive units statistically. So, we don’t really know if the Texans really made any improvements to their blocking scheme or to the run fits. What we do know is the team came out with a new energy behind interim head coach Romeo Crennel and with Tim Kelly calling plays.
Thats not a measurable thing in and of itself, and it’s purely subjective. But the Texans seem to be trending in the right direction. Whether or not that can continue going forward is the real question, because the Titans boast one of the league’s best defensive units, including former Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and newly activated defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons.
Phillip B. Wilson/AllColts
Take your pick on which offensive statistic should be considered more alarming — the Colts’ inability to convert on third down or not scoring touchdowns after driving inside the 20-yard line? The red-zone ranking of 29th (42.11%) is worse than the third-down inefficiency of 27th (34.92%).
The difference is, at least the Colts have come away with points after being stopped in the red zone. The fact that rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship leads the NFL with 56 points and has 15 field goals speaks to the red-zone failings. Another telling trend is that the Colts have scored four touchdowns on opening possessions, then just four TDs after that in five games.
But not being able to earn first downs when it’s third down has to be more important. In the beginning, the Colts tried to explain the shortcoming as coming from a small sample size, that it would improve eventually over the course of the season. Head coach Frank Reich spoke of how sometimes first downs were gained without reaching third down. The Colts were the last team to have a three-and-out possession, and that was in Week 4.
So why are the Colts still sputtering on third down? For starters, they’re not a lock to move the chains on short-yardage rushes. They’re just 31st in rushing yards per carry at 3.55, and have been stuffed on numerous occasions.
The larger issue is quarterback Philip Rivers. In Sunday’s 32-23 loss at the Cleveland Browns, the Colts converted four-of-11 third downs, but two of those were on Jonathan Taylor rushes. Rivers completed just four passes on the other nine third downs, and two of those completions didn’t move the chains. Worse yet, both of his interceptions were on third down, including an inexplicably bad pick-six returned 47 yards to make it 27-10 Browns early in the third quarter.
The Colts paid Rivers $25-million to be the wise, 38-year-old passer in his 17th NFL season who is capable of reading any defense and making the right decisions. But that clearly wasn’t the case in Cleveland, and the Colts can’t keep saying that being ranked among the NFL’s worst on third down is a byproduct of not playing enough games yet. Five weeks is enough time to get an accurate read on the leading cause of the problem.
Most troubling stat for the Jaguars? It's tough to pick just one. The Jaguars are throwing the ball more than any team in the league, which is never a positive when you’re 1-4. They also lead the league in time spent trailing, even behind the 0-5 teams. They’ve also lost to winless teams in each of the last three games, the first NFL team ever to do so. But right now, another stat symbolizes where things have gone wrong for the Jaguars.
Entering Week 6, the Jaguars are about to start their fifth different kicker. The Jaguars are in the midst of perhaps the worst kicking situation in recent NFL history, seeing a true carousel of kickers come through the roster since Josh Lambo was placed on IR with a hip injury after Week 2.
In Week 3, the Jaguars turned to rookie Brandon Wright, who missed an extra point before sustaining a groin injury that resulted in him being waived. Aldrick Rosas kicked in Week 4, making four-of-five field goals before being placed on the practice squad injured ahead of Week 5. Finally in Week 5, the Jaguars started Stephen Hauschka ... who missed two field goals within a minute of each other last Sunday, resulting in him being released on Monday.
Now the Jaguars will be turning to Jon Brown, a journeyman backup kicker, to fix their kicker woes before Lambo returns. If this week goes like any of the last several, the Jaguars should expect some more headaches.
It’s a good thing the Titans offense has gone up and down the field as effectively as it has through the first four games because the defense can’t get off the field.
Tennessee has the NFL’s worst third-down defense, having allowed opponents to convert 60 percent of the time (30 out of 50). Even in Tuesday’s 42-16 rout of Buffalo, the Bills moved the chains 13 times on 17 third-down attempts, beginning with a 15-play, first-quarter TD drive that included four conversions.
“Going to have to get better on third down,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “… We played well defensively, but that all got overshadowed on third down.”
It was not just the Buffalo game, though. The Titans were next-to-last in the league headed into that one. They also had a terrible third-down performance in Week 2 against Jacksonville (four stops in 14 attempts) with decent efforts versus Denver in Week 1 and Minnesota in Week 3. Those teams were a combined seven-for-19.
The defense is on pace to allow more third-down conversions in 10 games than it did in all of 2019, when just seven teams finished with a better percentage.
Part of the problem is an unproductive pass rush. Tennessee has just five sacks in four games. Only one of those is by an edge rusher (Harold Landry) while the wait continues for free-agent additions Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley to get a quarterback to the ground for the first time.
It also seems fair to wonder about the retirement of former coordinator Dean Pees, whose last five defenses between Baltimore and Tennessee were all 40 percent or better on third down.
What is certain is that the Titans have to be better in that regard.
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)