Texans would be wise not to overlook Raiders

Sep 26, 2010; Glendale, AZ, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski (5), left, and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson during the game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Raiders 24-23. . Photo via Newscom

The Raiders are about where everyone thought they’d be at this point in the season: sitting with a losing record.

The Titans crushed them in Week 1, they hung on to beat the Rams in Week 2 and Sebastian Janikowski missed a 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds against Arizona last week that would have put them at 2-1.

But at least Al Davis’ team has shown that they have a pulse and a lot of that has to do with the spark that quarterback Bruce Gradkowski has given them. According to ESPN.com, his 10.6 yards per attempt average leads all NFL quarterbacks this season, which provides some proof that he’s throwing the ball vertically and staying aggressive in the passing game.

After Davis acquired Jason Campbell from the Redskins this offseason, not many people expected Gradkowski to be leading this team so early in the season. But he’s playing well and now has a golden opportunity to make a name for himself if he can lead Oakland to a victory over Houston this weekend.

The Texans currently rank 31st in total defense and 32nd in pass defense. They start a rookie in Kareem Jackson at one corner and a second-year player in Glover Quin at the other. There’s no need to make Gradkowski out to be Peyton Manning, but he could definitely do some damage against the young, inexperienced secondary that he’ll face this weekend.

Houston may also be depleted, as Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels have both missed practice this week with injuries. Johnson says he’ll play, but a high ankle sprain has left him sore throughout the week and Daniels is dealing with a hamstring injury (and is still recovering from knee surgery). It should go without saying that teams can’t overlook any opponent in the NFL, but that’s especially the case this Sunday for the Texans when they travel to Oakland.

Could there be an upset in the making?

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Should the Texans hold Andre Johnson out in Week 4?

Houston Texans Andre Johnson celebrates his touchdown against the Washington Redskins to tie the game in the fourth quarter during their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland September 19, 2010. REUTERS/Molly Riley (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Andre Johnson isn’t 100% healthy. He wasn’t 100% last week and if doctors deem him healthy enough to play this Sunday, he won’t be 100% then either.

With that in mind, should the Texans hold him out against a beatable opponent in the Raiders this Sunday? Or do they run him out there because he’s played through injuries before and every game is vital in the NFL?

Johnson suffered a high ankle sprain against the Redskins in Week 2 and aggravated it in Houston’s loss to Dallas last Sunday. The Texans’ team doctors claim that the injury is no better or worse than what it was a week ago, but Johnson says that it feels “more sore” this week than it did when he played on it in Washington.

If the Texans decide to hold him out in Oakland, that means Matt Schaub will have to get by with Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter in the passing game. It would be nice if tight end Owen Daniels were healthy enough to have an impact, but he’s still trying to recover from knee surgery and the team is taking it slow with bringing him back into the fold.

Houston could probably beat Oakland with a run-first approach and solid defensive play, but every game is crucial in the NFL and no opponent can be overlooked. That’s why if Johnson is healthy enough to play, it’ll be hard for Gary Kubiak to rest him, even though that may be the smart thing to do.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Texans handle things this Sunday. Johnson has played through pain plenty of times before, so he may give it a go and then reassess the situation after a couple of series. If he’s fine, then there’s no reason to keep him on the sidelines.

AJ owners are waiting with bated breath to see whether or not he plays on Sunday. It’s an afternoon game, which complicates matters, because it makes it more difficult to find a last-minute replacement if he is an injury scratch. Ideally, fantasy owners have Jacoby Jones or Kevin Walter to plug in if AJ sits. But that’s not always an option. My gut says that he’ll play; I don’t think he wants to sit knowing that he’ll miss a matchup with Nnamdi Asomugha. Fantasy owners with solid early-game options on the bench — I’m talking about guys ranked in the teens or 20’s — should go ahead and plug them in for AJ. In three matchups with Asomugha, Johnson has totaled five catches for 94 yards and zero touchdowns, so this is a bad matchup, anyway. Throw in the bum ankle and the late-game uncertainty, and it makes more sense to go with the safer option in a better matchup.

2010 NFL Preview: AFC South Predictions

Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning throws a pass against the Buffalo Bills during the first half of their NFL preseason football game in Toronto August 19, 2010.  REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

For over a decade, the Colts have been the models for consistency in the NFL. But will things change that the Texans and Titans are strong? Can guys like Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson of Houston, and Vince Young and Chris Johnson of Tennessee help their respective teams overcome Peyton and the Colts?

We’ll find out soon.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC South this season. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes in 2010. (If no link is provided, check back because one will be before the start of the season.)

1. Colts

What to Like: First Name: Peyton. Last Name: Manning. As long as Peyton Manning is still playing football, the Colts are going to be contenders – I don’t care if he has to use a walker to get out to the field. The Colts retain a top 3 offense led by Manning, who has a slew of playmakers at his disposal in Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Anthony Gonzalez, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. The offensive line isn’t the best running blocking unit in the game (or the best in pass protection, for that matter), but it plays well collectively and Manning masks any weaknesses. Defensively, the Colts own two of the best pass-rushing ends in the NFL in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Gary Brackett and Clint Session are solid from their linebacker positions and the return of Bob Sanders (if he can stay healthy) will dramatically help the run defense.
What Not to Like: The defensive tackle position is a huge concern. Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson are weak as the starters and rookie Fili Moala failed to impress as a rookie. Their play is masked thanks to the ends, but the interior of the Colts’ line is soft and could become a problem come playoff time. At cornerback, Kelvin Hayden struggled with injuries but the bottom line is that quarterbacks were able to complete 65.8 percent of passes on him last season. There’s no excuse for that. On the other side, Jerraud Powers is expected to start but he had surgery to repair his foot in February and missed the final two preseason games.
Keep Your Eye On: Philip Wheeler
The 25-year-old out of Georgia Tech has the physical ability to start at the outside linebacker position – now he just has to prove he can stay there. He enters his first full season as a starter and coaches have already remarked how much he’s improved in his defensive reads. He’ll have the fortune of playing alongside quality veterans like Sessions and Brackett.
The Final Word: Another 10-plus win season is on the horizon for the Colts, who only play five playoff teams from a year ago. The interior of the defensive line, cornerback and special teams are this team’s greatest weaknesses, but the Colts have remained the most consistent team in the NFL for over a decade. They know how to win and with Manning under center, they’re going to challenge for the AFC title once again. That said, they will get pushed by the Titans and Texans in the division.

Indianapolis Colts 2010 Question Mark: Defensive Tackle

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Will inexperience at cornerback hold the Texans back in 2010?

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 08: Pierre Garcon #85 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball while defended by Jacques Reeves #35 and Glover Quin #29 of the Houston Texans during the NFL game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 8, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts won 20-17.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Merry preseason, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing whether or not inexperience could derail the Texans’ playoff hopes.

As we head into a new season, you get the sense that the Houston Texans are on the verge of making their first playoff appearance in franchise history. They have a great core on offense featuring Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub and Owen Daniels (when healthy), as well as several young defensive playmakers in Amobi Okoye, Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans.

But unfortunately, the Texans still have plenty of question marks at the cornerback position, enough to make you wonder if this team will once again come up short in their bid to make the postseason.

Their top corner left via free agency this offseason when Dunta Robinson signed with the Falcons. Some pundits will point out that Robinson struggled last year – and he did, recording zero interceptions despite playing the full 16-game slate.

But I asked both Daniels and wide receiver David Anderson this offseason about what Robinson brought to their team and they both essentially said the same thing: Toughness. Despite being 5’10” and 182 pounds, Robinson often played like a middle linebacker in that he never shied away from contract and loved coming up to make a big hit.

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Paying Andre Johnson a classy, no-brainer move for Texans

ST. LOUIS - DECEMBER 20: Andre Johnson #80 of the Houston Texans hauls in a pass against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on December 20, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Texans beat the Rams 16-13.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Andre Johnson has seen his fair share of down years while playing in Houston over the last seven seasons. But to his credit, he has never once complained publicly about his team or vented his frustrations through the media like so many other players do across all sports.

To show their appreciation for what he’s done for their franchise, the Texans are prepared to make Johnson the highest paid receiver in the NFL according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. Johnson’s new deal will exceed the four-year, $40 million contract that Larry Fitzgerald signed in 2008 and likely come with a hefty signing bonus.

It’s hard to argue that Johnson doesn’t deserve to be the highest paid at his position. In the last two years, he has hauled in 216 passes for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also hasn’t missed a game in two years, which is important considering he missed seven contests in 2007 while battling an injury.

But even if he has been deserving of a new deal, the Texans weren’t obligated to give him one. Let’s be clear: they had the leverage here, not Johnson. After signing an eight-year, $60 million contract in March of ’07, he wasn’t set to become a free agent until 2015. If the Texans wanted him to honor his contract, nobody would blame them.

That said, owner Bob McNair realizes what a special player the Texans have in Johnson and want to ensure that he finishes his career in Houston. The new contract is a classy gesture by McNair and a team that is moving in the right direction.

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