After two weeks of virtually meaningless preseason games we get our only chance to see the starters for any significant time in the third preseason tilt of 2013. Traditionally this week's games have been telling in terms of personnel but rarely in terms of scheme. Teams will likely remain pretty vanilla offensively and defensively, looking instead for situational improvements.
The AFC South has been a weak division recently but now features at least two quality contenders for the crown. The Texans, who inherited the belt from Indianapolis after Peyton Manning's departure, are odds-on favorites to win the division while the recovering Colts have legitimate balance for the first time in more than a decade. How will the improved Jaguars shape up? Can the Titans amass enough victories to be relevant? Let's put on our thinking caps and take a look at each time as they approach this critical preseason game.
The 2013 Texans are all about balance. They're a top ten offense and also tout a top five defense. Matt Schaub isn't a liability nor a top five quarterback but with Arians Foster he's got what he needs. They added depth at receiver which should help the passing attack in Kubiak's run-first scheme. The defense is opportunistic and able to create turnovers. They added Ed Reed who may not be an upgrade despite his reputation. He's not made an appearance yet but expect him to be ready for the regular season. They also face the 6th easiest schedule in the league which should make them a playoff lock and a tough obstacle to any team hoping to win the division.
This week they face the New Orleans Saints in what is bound to be a good test. Sean Payton's return to New Orleans coupled with a faster defense will be a solid improvement over last year's disappointing Saints team. Drew Brees will give the Texans secondary a fight and may help shed some light on the Texans shortcomings. Offensively the Texans' run game will be key to slowing a Saints defense that wants to provide play fast.
This matchup is by far the best measure of any AFC South team this week.
The Colts are surging in popularity after a remarkable turnaround behind rookie Andrew Luck and the public support for cancer-survivor Chuck Pagano. Can they challenge the Texans for the division crown?
Through this preaseason the team has looked suspect. After a questionable effort against Buffalo they dominated the Giants. This week they face father time, Brandon Weeden, and the Browns.
The Browns have been surprisingly stiff defensively in the first two weeks of the preseason and Weeden has been effective. The Browns in fact look to win the Super Bowl of the Preseason with a 2-0 record. Let's just say I'm not impressed but that the Browns are at least more capable than previous incarnations which should be a good opponent for Luck and company as they prepare for the season.
This week the Colts secondary will face a tough task in lining up against the new vertical attack installed by Norv Turner. The Browns will certainly look to test Greg Toler and Vontae Davis when in man coverage. That may make room for Trent Richardson to continue his solid preseason in the run game. It's key that Indy's defense get some pressure on Weeden in order to mitigate that attack.
Defensively the Browns struggle to get pressure which plays into Luck's strengths. With improved weapons and Ahmad Bradshaw's debut the Colts look to break Cleveland's resilient defense. While the Browns haven't gotten much pressure they've excelled at preventing teams from getting into the end zone. Look for the Luck to break that streak.
While not an incredible matchup, this week's game will offer a good preview of the Colts as they build on a wildly successful 2012.
The Jaguars changed nearly everything about their team in the offseason except the one piece they need to succeed: quarterback. Draft bust Blaine Gabbert is on his last chance to win over this team and his critics. While new head coach Gus Bradley has inspired swagger and confidence with his crew, he's not got many options with Gabbert and backups Chad Henne.
This week the improved Jaguars will be without Gabbert who is nursing a hairline fracture in his right hand so Henne gets the nod. Neither option is particularly appealing although Gabbert has shown more positive signs than Henne. Still, the journeyman Henne will get the start against the Eagles this weekend which will hamper our ability to know much about the Jaguars offense.
Defensively the Jaguars need to develop a pass rush. Their new scheme and personnel may make this a challenge but it's key to Bradley's approach. Overall they're going to need to work on speed and containment as Michael Vick will certainly give them opportunity to pursue. Vick's ability to get outside the pocket could be considered bad for this group but he's just as likely to cough up the ball which would instill some confidence in the Jags defense.
As a whole there's really not much we're going to learn about the Jaguars from this week's matchup.
This team has the potential to be a mess or a surprise. That's nearly all I should write were they not facing Mike Smith's Falcons.
Offensively the Titans are about Chris Johnson despite Jake Locker's improved preseason. Locker hasn't proven to be accurate nor reliable against quality opponents. The additional depth behind Johnson should help the Titans rely heavily on the run game to power their attack.
Defensively the Titans added a pair of safeties which was simply a requirement in this division. Facing the Colts and Texans twice a year without adequate deep protection is a death sentence. They have pass rush issues like the Jaguars however which will force them into some tough spots and many long drives.
This week the Titans face the Falcons. Mike Smith doesn't care about the preseason although we'll see the starters for at least a half. That said, of all of the week 3 opponents this may be the least telling of the bunch. The Falcons starting offense will likely embarrass the Titans. The defense will play vanilla against the Titans and not show much more than the standard Smith defense. The Falcons are particularly good in the third week of the preseason, a direct result of playing their starters. Otherwise they've pretty much mailed it in.
Other than the tough task of playing deeper against high-quality personnel, the Falcons aren't going to tell us much about the Titans. The Titans have no pass rush to counteract Matt Ryan and offensively are going to face an aggressive Falcons defense. We may know all we need to know about this matchup already.