As much of a Houston Texans fan as I am…this was my birthday present this year —>…there is no way I could have ever had predicted that the Texans defense would have transformed as it has. What was the 30th ranked defense in the league (and was laughable at best) has now become the top ranked defense. It almost appears that someone flipped a switch and the Texans defense came to life in Frankenstein-ian fashion.
Looking at this year’s defense there are a number of factors that have contributed to the great success of the defense. Key acquisitions in both the coaching staff and during free-agency made a huge impact as did this year’s draft. After parsing what we have seen thus far I have come up with what I consider to be the seven biggest contributors to the success of the Texans defense.
Whether you agree or disagree with my analysis there is no refuting the evidence. The Texans have allowed the second fewest passing yards/game in the league (182.6) and the fourth fewest rushing yards/game (91.4). Offenses are only managing to accumulate 274 yards/game TOTAL against the Texans which is the league’s best. The Texans are tied for fourth for sacks with 24 up to this point; last year the Texans managed 30 sacks through the entire season. They are also tied for fifth in interceptions (11).
Here are what I consider to be the key ingredients to this year’s success for the Texans defense:
At the end of last season Texans owner Bob McNair realized the same thing that the fans did…this team needed a major overhaul on the defensive side of the ball. Luckily, for the team and fans alike, Mr. McNair is a family friend of the Phillips family. His relationship with Bum Phillips was helping the Texans well before last season had ended. Bum and Bob were seen together at many of the games and you could tell that they had a special comradery together.
When all was said and end at the end of last season the fans were calling for Coach Gary Kubiak’s head served up on a platter. However, Coach Kubiak was not the source of the team’s woes as much as he was the fall guy. Now, do not get me wrong, I too was initially calling for the extermination (yes, I meant extermination) of Coach Kubiak. However, after looking at the games that were lost last season it was evident that the offense was not the problem.
Enter Wade Phillips…
After the Dallas Cowboys finished the first half of the season with a 1-7 record (defeating only the Texans ironically enough) owner Jerry Jones had had enough. Wade Phillips had proved his mettle as a defensive coordinator but as a head coach, well, he was fired after the first eight games of last season.
Mr. McNair, using his relationship with Bum, gave Wade the opportunity of a lifetime. He offered him a job as the defensive coordinator in the city that had kick-started his career. Houston had been the city where Wade had coached his first college, highschool, and NFL teams. This was an offer not likely to be refused by Phillips…and it was not.
The Houston Texans brought Phillips in as the defensive coordinator and immediately things began to change. His hybrid 3-4 defense would be a tremendous change for the Texans who had been a 4-3 team since its beginning in 2002. Only adding to the pressure was the NFL lockout which shortened the amount of time and contact that Phillips would have with Texans players. When the lockout broke you could almost see the anticipation in Phillips’ eyes as he immediately began drilling his system into the players. He moved full speed ahead as he prepared the team for a new era of defense with some amazing changes.
His movement of players like Mario Williams and Connor Barwin (from DE to OLB) and Glover Quin (from CB to FS) seemed ludicrous to most. However, once the season began it was obvious that his expertise at coaching defenses was much better than that of the average arm-chair quarterback.
Wade Phillips is, by my standings, the best acquisition that the Texans made that contributed to the success of the defense. He took the pieces and talent that he had and made it work like a well-oiled machine. He applied enough pressure to get the players that he wanted in the draft and through free-agency. All-in-all Wade Phillips has made this defense what it is…with the help of a few other key factors.
Buying into the System
It would have been easy for Wade Phillips to storm into Houston and demand that the defense play it his way. He could have enforced his will upon the players and said to hell with the rest of them, but he did not. He showed them that his defense was easy enough to learn and they bought into it wholeheartedly.
You could tell that the Texans defense had a new feeling to it when they began practicing during training camp. Players were making bigger plays, they were staying on their assignments (for the most part), and they were applying a new level of pressure to the offensive line.
Perhaps the champion of the cause was OLB Mario Williams. His willingness to make the transition to a new position paved the way for other players to realize the potential of Phillips’ defensive scheme. He began playing his position with a fiery determination and demanded the same from his teammates. Even when the media wrote him off as a linebacker he continued to push and push the boundaries of what he had once thought he was capable of doing.
As other players such as Glover Quin, Connor Barwin, and Antonio Smith began to buy into Phillips’ style of defense you could see a metamorphosis of the team. Players began playing with power, passion, and attitude. They began holding each other accountable while keeping each other fired-up between plays. This was a new team!
As this season has progressed the Texans have developed a new attitude, a new persona altogether. Sure, they have been called “dirty” players (mostly on the offense) but they took that label and ran with it. They began making bigger defensive plays, running faster, and hitting so hard you would think they were trying to immobilize other players.
Impressively, this new attitude has not only made a difference for the team’s veterans but has also affected the play of the rookies and free-agents who joined the team. The entire defense began to change in a way that began to scare the crap out of opposing teams. The Texans became a “blood-thirsty” group of hell-hounds bent on destruction and pain.
This new attitude has contributed a great deal to the Texans success this season. No longer are they hanging their heads after they miss plays. Rather, they are coming back stronger and meaner the next time around. They have even taken to fining each other for missing interceptions and fumble recoveries. What fans are seeing in this year’s Texans is reminiscent of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers defense in previous years…and they like it!
Perhaps no player on the Texans defense has stepped up bigger than ILB Brian Cushing. When the team decided to add new captains a few weeks ago Cushing’s name was a unanimous choice among the players. In fact, Cushing appears to be playing better this season than he did in his Pro-Bowl rookie season.
He has acquired a new quickness and focus that is scary to watch.
He gets to the ball, wraps up the player, and punishes them for even considering getting past him. His fiery determination has contributed to his 61 total tackles (39 solo, 22 assisted) and his interception. It has also been a key factor in his ability to apply pressure to the quarterback. Although his two sacks do not seem like much what you do not see is how often he is flushing the quarterback out of the pocket or forcing the quarterback to throw the ball away in order to avoid a sack.
Recent pictures of Cushing have shown him with blood streaming from his face. These pictures are a good representation of how he has been playing. He has become an all-out, blood-and-tears, stomp you into the ground type of player that drives forwards with relentless abandon. His gritty determination and drive helps provide a push for the entire defensive unit. I would be very surprised if he did not make the Pro-Bowl again this year.
When free-agency opened during the preseason it was a no-holds-barred, knock-down fight for the best free agents. This was, by all accounts, the most eventful free agency of the past decade. When it came to the Texans the majority of the fans were begging for the team to sign CB Nnamdi Asomugha (I was not one of them). Asomugha has long been considered the league’s best shutdown cornerback and he would have been a valuable acquisition for the Texans. However, I argued that the Texans should save their money, go after someone a little more affordable, and add more depth to the backfield of the defense…apparently they heard me.
When the dust finally settled around Asomugha it was the Philadelphia Eagles who had ponied up the fattest paycheck for the stud corner. Texans fans were left scratching their heads until something amazing happened. The Texans added not one, but two great players to their roster when they signed CB Johnathan Joseph and S Danieal Manning.
*While Manning has been a huge contributor to the Texans his injury and absence, as of late, is why I am not focusing on his contributions to the team at this point.
Joseph’s contributions to the Texans defense have paid off exponentially up to this point. Just half way through the season and he has 13 deflected passes, three interceptions, and a forced fumble. When he is not making great plays to get the Texans the ball back he is busy keeping wide receivers on lock-down. He has tremendous speed and athleticism which allows him to keep up with the best of receivers in the league. Likewise, his football intelligence keeps him involved in every play in which the ball is coming his way.
His adaptation to Phillips’ defense and the Texans new attitude has made him, in my opinion, a better acquisition than Asomugha has been for the Eagles. Not only has he contributed to the team through his athletic prowess but he has also spent valuable time coaching up teammates Kareem Jackson and Jason Allen. Because of him all of the defensive backs have become a more solidified and cohesive unit.
When this season first began I predicted that OLB Brooks Reed would end up starting for this team. Needless to say his contributions to
the team as a back-up, and now a starter, have been tremendous. In fact, Reed is averaging a sack/game for every game that he has started. If he continues on his current trend he will finish the season with 11 sacks or more as a rookie. As of this past week Reed has the third most sacks of all defensive players drafted this year!
His continuous motor allows him to not only come off the edge on the rush but also means that he is good at dropping into coverage as well. He is, in reality, a great linebacker. For Phillips to transition him from defensive lineman to linebacker at first seemed questionable, now it is, without a doubt, a stroke of genius.
J.J. Watt, the Texans first-round draft pick, has also been a major contributor to the defense’s success this year. He is tied for sixth, among rookies, for sacks with his two. Much like Cushing though, it is what is not seen on paper that has been most impressive. His athleticism and freakish strength make him a bully on the defensive line. He quite often manhandles opposing offensive lineman and drives them backwards as if they were tackling dummies.
He has meshed well with both Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith. He learns from their experience and contributes to the overall success of the defensive line. His relentlessness and stoic attitude make him a fearsome competitor. He has not missed a game yet and looks to continue that streak right into the playoffs (Lord willing).
The Texans drafted for need more than want this year. With Wade Phillips leading the way they made draft picks that not only added value to the defense but also brought additional depth to the roster. The combined value of Watt and Reed is immeasurable at this point, however, if the Texans reach the playoffs (which they are almost guaranteed to) their value will be quite obvious.
The “M” word has been like a four-letter word to the Texans in seasons past. Mostly because they had it going in the wrong direction. This year, however, the Texans are riding victory after victory through the season. They have won their last three games and are, for the first time in franchise history, three games above .500.
All NFL teams know how important it is to ride the wave of momentum throughout a season. The truly good teams ride the crest of the waves and endure the valleys…that is what the Texans have done this season. Rather than hanging their heads in shame when they have lost games that were winnable, they instead come out the next week and punish the next team in line.
The AFC South is a weakened division and the Texans have capitalized on that fact. They have also traveled to Miami and Nashville and beat those teams in their own house. They have seven games remaining, two of which are against opponents with winning records. If the Texans can continue to maintain their momentum throughout the season, and especially through November, then they could finish the season as good as 11-5.
When the Texans reach the playoffs (yes, I am claiming it now) they will need to build upon their momentum even more. They will be in uncharted territory and will face some very good opponents. However, this is a new Texans defense that is capable of shutting down the best of offenses. Teams have reached the Super Bowl on defense alone…this year the Texans could do the same.