Breaking Down the AFC South Defenses

Whereas the AFC South may be better known for its offensive playmakers, such as Peyton Manning, Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew, the division has some elite defensive talent as well. Scout.com will break down and rank each of the defensive position groups.

Defensive Line

1. Indianapolis (Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis)
2. Houston (Mario Williams, Antonio Smith) 3. Jacksonville (Aaron Kampman, Derrick Harvey, Terrance Knighton)
4. Tennessee (Tony Brown, Derrick Morgan)

As a surprise to no one, the Colts are at the top of our rankings, as their defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are probably the best pair of bookends in the league. The Texans are next as Mario Williams has been stellar since his second season, and Antonio Smith is looking to bounce back from a fairly disappointing first year with Houston. The Jaguars have the potential to be near the top of this list if Aaron Kampman is healthy, Derrick Harvey continues to progress, and youngsters Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu play up to potential. The Titans defensive line is solid, but it's missing star power. Tony Brown is a very underrated tackle, but they will have to depend on too many youngsters for us to believe that they should be anywhere but in the last spot.

Linebackers

1. Houston (DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing, Zac Diles)
2. Jacksonville (Daryl Smith, Kirk Morrison, Justin Durant)
3. Indianapolis (Gary Brackett, Clint Session, Phillip Wheeler)
4. Tennessee (Will Witherspoon, Stephen Tulloch, Gerald McRath)

Even with last seasons Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing slated to serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's PED policy, the Texans linebacking corps is still the best in the division. DeMeco Ryans is one of the very best inside linebackers in football, and Zac Diles goes largely unknown thanks to Ryans and Cushing. Jacksonville ranks second despite their group underachieving a season ago. The Jaguars traded for Oakland linebacker Kirk Morrison and they will play him in the middle and slide Daryl Smith back outside. The Colts' Clint Session played at a Pro Bowl level a season ago and Gary Brackett has been the anchor of that group for seven years. The Titans have good linebackers, but they don't make enough big plays to be considered for a higher ranking. Second-year player Gerald McRath has the potential to be an impact player, but to this point he is unproven.

Cornerbacks

1. Jacksonville (Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox)
2. Indianapolis (Kelvin Hayden, Jerraud Powers)
3. Tennessee (Cortland Finnegan, Jason McCourty)
4. Houston (Kareem Jackson, Brice McCain)

The Jacksonville Jaguars get the nod over Indianapolis thanks to Pro Bowler Rashean Mathis still playing at a solid level, and Derek Cox showing flashes of greatness last season as a rookie. The Colts duo of Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers are very capable as Powers played well last year as a rookie as he was forced into action due to injuries. Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan had an off year in 2009 and will be looking to get back to the form that earned him a Pro Bowl selection in 2008. Houston has an interesting situation as they have a pretty open competition at all three spots with rookie first-round pick Kareem Jackson, second-year players Brice McCain and Glover Quin, and veterans Jacques Reeves and Fred Bennett. If the young guys beat out Reeves and Bennett, both could find themselves looking for work.

Safeties

1. Indianapolis (Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea)
2. Tennessee (Michael Griffin, Chris Hope)
3. Houston (Bernard Pollard, Eugene Wilson)
4. Jacksonville (Reggie Nelson, Gerald Alexander)

The Colts have the most talent at the safety position even with Bob Sanders missing significant time with injuries seemingly every year. Antoine Bethea played at a Pro Bowl level a year ago and Melvin Bullitt was stellar. The Titans duo of Michael Griffin and Chris Hope followed up their Pro Bowl seasons in 2008 with a combined four interceptions in 2009. Hope and Griffin and very talented and hope to get back to their 2008 form in 2010. The Texans made one of the best mid-season pickups last year as they inked Bernard Pollard from Kansas City. Pollard strengthened the Houston defense and finished with four intereceptions in just 13 games. The Jacksonville safeties have physical talent, but former first-round pick Reggie Nelson has regressed since his rookie season. The competition is wide open at the position and they hope that an improved pass rush will help the back end of the defense.

Final Statistics (lower numbers are better):

1. Indianapolis= 7
2(t). Jacksonville= 10
2(t). Houston= 10
4. Tennessee= 13


Numerical Breakdown

If your defensive line can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the entire defense benefits. The Colts may not have the best linebackers or corners (but they are very good), but their duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are second to nobody. They get consistent pressure which forces opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. Jacksonville has restructured its defensive line and if they see the results that the front office is expecting to see, the entire defense will be a much improved unit as the linebackers and corners are very good. Safety continues to be a major concern. The Texans have one great defensive end in Mario Williams, and a few excellent linebackers. They will need to get more pressure on opposing passers and that should help out the young corners. Tennessee has good players at every level but not enough playmakers. Although the Titans had no chance of re-signing Albert Haynesworth before last season and we saw how poorly he is working out with the Redskins, the team's defense hasn't been the same without him.


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