JACKSONVILLE – Senior correspondent Brian Sexton examines the AFC South entering Week 3 of the 2023 NFL season …
The big guys are making a big difference for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley in the first few weeks of the season. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner wrecked the middle of the Jaguars' offensive line in Week 1 and linemate Grover Stewart did it last week in the Colts' win over Houston against the Texans' depleted offensive line.
"Normally, you don't say that the first guy we need in our defense is nose (tackle)," Bradley said. "The way [Stewart] has played the last couple weeks; I don't know what it would be like without him. Those two interior guys, Buck and Grove, are playing at a high level right now. When that occurs, it gives you more flexibility on the back end."
The Colts are raw in the secondary with veterans such Stephon Gilmore and Rodney McLeod playing elsewhere this season. The defensive line group has leveled the playing field, pressuring Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence repeatedly in Week 1 and sacking Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud six times with five more hits in Week 1.
The Colts have eight sacks this season, tied for the fifth most in the league. Through two weeks, they're allowing 2.6 yards per carry, which is among the best in the NFL.
"We have to be the ones to take over the game and dictate the outcome," defensive end Kwity Paye said.
A season ago, the Colts posted 44 sacks, third most in Indianapolis history. With most of the group returning and a few key additions, the sense is that they will continue to improve.
"We feel like we're the engine of the defense," said defensive tackle, Dayo Odeyingbo who had a sack and a forced fumble in Houston.
With rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, and without star running back Jonathan Taylor, they might be the engine of the whole team this season.
The Texans enter Week 3 incredibly beat up – and with a makeshift offensive line trying to protect a rookie quarterback who is trying to figure things out, it might make sense to give the football to running back Dameon Pierce.
Pierce, who averaged 4.3 yards per rush as a rookie in 2022, is averaging 2.7 per carry this season. A guy who made tacklers miss almost five times per game last season is barely getting the chance this season.
Part of that is the injured offensive line, and part is an offense throwing the ball trying to play catch up in double-digit losses to Baltimore and Indianapolis. Still, it seems clear the Texans need to get one of their best players more involved and quickly.
"We can run the ball better," Head Coach DeMeco Ryans said this week. "It starts with our communication up front, just leaning on the details again and communicating where we're going, where we ID and just being on it. And also, just how we're running it. Just staying after it, making plays. We have some plays there to be made, but there's one guy free in the hole.
"If we can make sure we're on the right person and be where we're supposed to be, there's some explosive plays in the run game to be mad."
The Texans' 2.5 yard per carry average is the NFL's lowest. With three starting offensive linemen out, it's unlikely that number will grow soon. But if rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud's injured shoulder remains an issue, they might have to get stubborn about it.
Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill bounced back in a big way in the Titans' 27-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday. A week after throwing three interceptions in a Week 1 loss at New Orleans, he completed 83 percent of his passes with a touchdown, no turnovers and a league-leading 10.3 yards-per- completion average.
"I knew last week wasn't who I am as a player," Tannehill said. "I knew I was going to bounce back this week. But it's nice to feel that support from your teammates throughout the week."
The interesting part is that Tannehill was doing a lot of it with an injured wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and with a less-than-effective running back Derrick Henry battling a toe injury. His 70-yard connection with second-year wide receiver Treylon Burks opened things up and got the passing game going. It proved enough to snap the Titans out of an offensive skid and end an eight-game regular-season losing streak.
The Titans got back on track based on their quarterback while in years past their offense ran through Henry. Henry is second in the NFL through two games with 40 rushing attempts, but only 35th in yards per carry at just 3.5. At no point in his career has he averaged less than 4.2 yards per carry.
Perhaps time and an incredible workload are the only things that could truly slow down Henry and force the Titans to modernize their offense.