Inside the AFC South: Good Calls
Every Saturday, reporters covering the AFC South teams for SI.com’s NFL community will weigh in on one aspect of the division as it relates to each of the franchises, the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
This week’s topic: Good calls, the best decision each of the team’s head coaches has made thus far during the 2020 NFL season.
Time was of the essence when the game clock dipped under four minutes remaining in the Week 6 matchup with the Houston Texans.
Coach Mike Vrabel still had all of his timeouts but was not ready to use them. So, with Houston ahead by one (30-29) and its offense on the field facing a second-and-1 from the Tennessee 25, Vrabel waited until just before the snap and then ran defensive back Josh Kalu on the field.
The move drew a flag for too many men and gave the Texans a first down. It also stopped the clock – and at that point Vrabel was willing to trade downs and yards for time. From there, Houston scored a touchdown in five plays that took just 1:15 off the clock, courtesy of two Titans’ timeouts and the two-minute warning.
Thus, Tennessee’s offense took the field down by seven with 1:50 to go, and it turned out to be four seconds more than needed. Vrabel used his final timeout with 36 seconds to play and three plays after the Titans forced overtime with wide receiver A.J. Brown’s 7-yard touchdown reception.
The penalty not only allowed Vrabel to save one timeout for his offense, it saved roughly 40 seconds on the clock, both of which were critical in a game his team ultimately won in overtime.
The third-year head coach likes to say that those who know the rules can take advantage of them, and he prides himself in both. Vrabel also regularly says the right things about how players win games and coaches lose them, but it is moves like this that inspire real loyalty and passion from his roster because guys know he is going to give them every opportunity – and every second possible – to be successful.
-- David Boclair, AllTitans
An inconsistent offense has provided several head-scratching moments when trying to understand what third-year head coach Frank Reich was thinking, especially when it comes to pounding the football in short-yardage situations with predictable runs behind All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly. Defensive coordinators know the tendency and those plays have been stuffed more often than not.
But Reich’s Colts are 6-3 because he’s made some smart moves. The best had to be in Week 10, when on a short week in a Thursday game after an offensively inept home loss, he and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni decided to let quarterback Philip Rivers operate mostly without a huddle. They did this successfully when together with the Chargers.
Rivers established the tempo he wanted, made quick decisions, and prevented the Titans from substituting with frequency in a 34-17 victory that lifted the Colts to first place in the AFC South by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Titans.
The Colts have effectively used the no-huddle offense in the past, which begs the question after the Titans game, why not go to it more often? Reich said there are always pros and cons, but said the decision made sense because a short week without rest required simplifying the system. Rivers said it worked so well, he rarely checked out of any of the plays that Reich called.
Expect to see more of the no-huddle offense as the Colts make a playoff push in the final seven games. How much? Only Reich knows. He said the Colts didn’t commit to going no-huddle against the Titans until about a day before.
-- Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts
While the Jaguars have lost eight straight games, they have mostly kept the score close and kept themselves in it each week. As a result, Doug Marrone has still had to make prudent and even bold decisions on a week-to-week basis despite the high frequency of losses. But even with this in mind, the best coaching decision Marrone made this season didn't come in a game.
With Jaguars starting quarterback Gardner Minshew sent to the sidelines due to a right thumb injury, Marrone had a choice to make about who would steady the ship and lead the offense in his absence. Would he go with eighth-year veteran Mike Glennon, who has seen quite a bit throughout his career, or rookie sixth-round pick Jake Luton?
Instead of falling into the trap of relying on experience, no matter how mildly unimpressive that experience was, Marrone stayed firm to his convictions and used Minshew's absence to see what Luton had. Several teams have already spent Sundays trotting out Glennon as a starter, so Marrone knew what he would bring to the offense. Luton, however, presented risk but upside. Marrone could have easily gone with the safer option in Glennon, but he opted to use Minshew's time off the field as a fact-finding mission.
Luton is clearly not going to fix Jacksonville's poor record, so perhaps this move didn't mean that much in the grand scheme of things. But the big picture is that Marrone opted to not waste his offense's time with a veteran who is better off on the sidelines, something not every coach would have done.
-- John Shipley, JaguarReport
It’s slim pickings here for the 2-7 Houston Texans given the poor personnel moves and coaching decisions got them to this very point.
However, in Week 10 against the Cleveland Browns the Texans called a seldom seen play that gave them great field position moving forward. At fourth-and-13 on Cleveland’s 30-yard line and with 4:30 to go in the second quarter, the Texans lined up in a field goal formation for a 48-yard attempt while down 3-0.
Instead of risking a lengthy kick in the high winds, which could have left them in a vulnerable spot had he missed, long snapper Jon Weeks sent the ball straight to kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn who chipped a 26-yard punt to the Browns’ 4-yard line. This pinned the Browns deep with high winds to contend with as they attempted, and failed, to push down the field. Ultimately on their subsequent drive they turned it over on downs and Houston’s offense got the ball back.
First year coordinator Tracy Smith’s special teams unit pulled off a smart play here in tough conditions that put his defense in a great position. And you’ve got to wonder if this play was influenced at all by interim head coach Romeo Crennel, given his special teams background.
Ultimately, it is just a shame their offense couldn’t dig deep in their playbook in what was a thoroughly winnable game.
-- Anthony Wood, Texans Daily