Houston Texans fans are all worked up over the new look of the 2011 team. We are not talking about a change in the uniform but a change in the way the Texans players carry themselves. The players are beginning to find their “swagger” and the NFL is taking notice. The Indianapolis Colts will not be the offensive juggernaut that they previously were without elite QB Peyton Manning. In all reality, the Texans are poised to take over the AFC South this season. However, there are three burning questions that the Texans must answer before we should all be convinced that they are going to make it into the playoffs.
Is Wade Phillips’ new 3-4 defense going to be as effective as it needs to be?
When Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips joined the team you could hear a collective sigh of relief from Texans fans everywhere. Finally, the Texans had a bona-fide, top-notch, defensive-minded coach who could make something of the Texans’ defense. This is a man who could take all of the puzzle pieces he was given and create a Di Vinci. However, it remains to be seen if the Texans have the right puzzle pieces for the job.
Mario Williams is, by all accounts, the biggest question mark for the defense. Wade is taking a 6′ 6″ 290lb. defensive end and attempting to turn him into a QB destroying, nightmare inducing OLB. Many people point to DeMarcus Ware as an example of what
Mario could become but Mario has yet to show that he has the necessary skills to be successful at the position. During the preseason he has been disruptive but he had absolutely zero sacks.
Perhaps the next biggest concern of the Texans’ defense has to do with stopping the run game. Both the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars have big time running backs who are capable of gashing defenses for big yardage. With Wade’s hybrid 3-4 the weak-side linebacker (Mario) is rushing the QB on almost every down. This means that you are left with three LBs, assuming the strong-side linebacker is not rushing as well.
If both OLBs are rushing then you are left with ILBs DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing to stop the run. Any running back worth his paycheck will find a way to penetrate the initial rush of the defensive line. Making it past only two LBs could be a RBs dream. This is where the Texans could find some trouble. If the initial push from the defensive line can not stop the running back then they could wind up exposed and could give up huge yardage in the run game. They must address this issue and ensure it does not happen or else the improved pass defense will be for naught.
Can the Texans stay healthy?
Last season the Texans started with a healthy 4-2 record before going into the bye week. It was the final game before the break, against the Kansas City Chiefs, in which defensive captain DeMeco Ryans was injured. Texans fans know the rest of the story. The team went on to have another two wins before finishing the season with a despicable 6-10 record. Fans were calling for Head Coach Gary Kubiak’s job and demanded a complete redo of the coaching staff altogether.
However, two other injuries that most people overlook are those of WR Andre Johnson and RB Arian Foster. The two backbones of the offense were both injured during the season but still managed to put up great numbers. Foster finished the season with a league best 1,616 rushing yards and Johnson ended the season with over 1,200 receiving yards, both while injured.
Granted, Foster and Johnson are freaks-of-nature being able to put up such amazing stats while injured. Still, the Texans must ensure that they are healthy if they want to make it deep into the season. They already have a beat-up second-string defensive line, Foster is nursing a hamstring issue, Johnson broke his finger, and the team looked hobbled entering into the final game of the preseason. Winning games is a must but winning does not happen when your players are broken.
It was disheartening to watch the Texans lose some of their games last season. It almost seemed like Coach Kubiak was handing the other team the ball with too much time or wasting valuable time for his offense in every game last season. Plays were called that ate away at the clock and often left the Texans empty-handed as they watched the last few seconds of their game tick away. Other times the defense was so ineffective that any amount of time given to an opposing offense seemed like more than enough.
This preseason, however, I noticed a change in the way Coach Kubiak was calling plays. He was running his offense in a well-tuned, methodical fashion that ensured the team had the most possible opportunities to win. The end result was three wins in four games and it was the first time the Texans won their first three preseason games. Sure, its just the preseason but the fact remains that Coach Kubiak looked like a new man.
Perhaps Coach Phillips has lifted a burden from Coach Kubiak. By having a competent defensive coordinator Coach Kubiak is freed to run the offense the way that it should be. He is no longer having to rush each play in order to make up for the deficit of the defense. He has looked more relaxed and more like a head coach this season.
If the Texans can maintain an effective defense, stay healthy, and manage the clock better this season then there is no reason why they can not take the AFC South. However, if they fail in even one of these areas they could wind up with another disappointing season and the fans could end up burning an effigy of Coach Kubiak and Co.