NFP: Okoye must spark defensive turnaround

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In my continuing series on impact players, here are four players in the AFC South that are expected to produce in 2009 and show up on film.

Photo Okoye, right, and the Texans need to do a better job vs. the run.
(James Lang/US Presswire)

Houston Texans: DT Amobi Okoye(notes)

I have made it no secret that I love the Texans’ ability to score points on offense, but their defensive attack is a different story. In 2008, they gave up almost 25 points a game (tied for 26th in the league), 336 total yards a game and over 122 yards a game on the ground. In this league, you can’t win giving up numbers like those.

I like the development of defensive end Mario Williams(notes), who has a total of 26 sacks the past two seasons, but he needs help getting to the quarterback and he needs help stopping the run in the AFC South. Okoye, a former first-round pick, needs to apply a push up front and become a dominant defensive tackle if this team wants to be serious about contending for a division title and playoff spot.

Every season, we talk about the Texans as a surprise team. If we really examine this team, the defense – the line especially – is the key to any success it will have. If you can’t stop the run in the AFC South, you might as well stay in the locker room. Okoye can be that type of player on the inside for Houston, but talk is cheap. We need to see it starting in September.

Indianapolis Colts: S Bob Sanders(notes)

I’m picking Sanders for the Colts because when he isn’t on the field, their defense suffers. Starting with the Colts’ Super Bowl season of 2006, Sanders has played in only 25 regular-season games. If he isn’t healthy in 2009, the defense will have issues stopping the rest of the AFC South.

If we think about the rest of the division, all three teams – Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville – base their offenses on an ability to run the ball and get the running backs involved in the passing game. A safety such as Sanders, who can be the best eighth defender in the box in the entire league, is crucial to the Colts’ ability to limit first- and second-down runs and be a major factor in third-down sub packages – but only if he is on the field.

I understand the way Sanders plays the game invites collisions and the threat of injury, but the former Defensive Player of the Year is as good, and as essential to this success of a defense, as Troy Polamalu(notes) in Pittsburgh and Ed Reed(notes) in Baltimore. If he plays an entire season, the Colts will compete for the division title.

Jacksonville Jaguars: QB David Garrard(notes)

The Jags added wideout Torry Holt(notes) and locked up running back Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) for the foreseeable future. However, where is the Garrard that burst onto the scene in 2007?

The Jags averaged less than 19 points a game in 2008, and we can all agree that Garrard was one of many issues that hindered this team’s development. Now, he has to prove that he’s worthy of the franchise-type quarterback money he’s being paid despite the fact that Matt Jones(notes), his leading receiver from ’08, and Fred Taylor(notes) are gone.

Can Holt be the weapon Garrard drastically needs on the outside, or do the Jags funnel their entire offense through Jones-Drew, who will be carrying a full load as a feature back for the first time in his career? Garrard is expected to produce and must produce for this team to compete in this division. Make plays and engineer drives that produce touchdowns – that’s what the Jags should expect from their quarterback in ’09.

Tennessee Titans: WR Nate Washington(notes)

We all know that the Titans are a team built on a strong running game and defense, but the addition of Washington this offseason from Pittsburgh gives quarterback Kerry Collins(notes) a new weapon to work with on the outside.

Last season, tight end Bo Scaife(notes) led the Titans with 58 receptions, while running back Chris Johnson was next with 43. Adding Washington, a veteran receiver who has shown he is capable of the big play, gives Collins and this offense another outlet – someone who can work outside the numbers and produce in the intermediate-to-deep passing game, which I like with Collins and his big arm.

The Titans also drafted receiver Kenny Britt(notes) from Rutgers and still have a deep-ball weapon in Justin Gage(notes), who averaged an eye-opening 19 yards a catch in 2008 to go along with 6 TDs. There are no big names at wide receiver like we see in Indianapolis and Houston, but Washington is an ideal fit for this offense, and as long as he can offer that needed production, this offense will be more effective in 2009.

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