Faulty radar in Houston

Posted Dec. 06, 2010 @ 4 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

It looks like the same problems in Houston all over again.

After allowing the Eagles and Michael Vick to come from behind to beat them 34-24 last Thursday night — the fourth time in the last five games they were tied or held a lead in the fourth quarter, only to give up a late score and lose — the Texans are sitting at 5-7 for the fourth straight year.

After winning their last four games in 2009 to finish 9-7 and register the first winning record in franchise history and then starting off this season 4-2, there is leaguewide speculation that Texans owner Bob McNair could be getting frustrated enough to consider pulling the plug on the Gary Kubiak regime.

But while the Texans are down at the moment, they are far from being out of the hunt in the significantly weakened AFC South, where the normally high-powered, Peyton Manning-led Colts are laboring like never before, and the Titans and Jaguars have been almost — but not quite — as uneven as the Texans.

The Texans were feeling pretty good about themselves two games ago after an unlikely three-interception performance by beleaguered CB Glover Quin spearheaded a 20-0 shutout win over the Titans that snapped a four-game losing streak.

But it's very much worth noting that Tennessee's starring signalcaller in that game was raw rookie QB Rusty Smith.

Four days later, Vick proved to be a much more formidable foe with a 300-yard passing performance that continued to expose Houston's weakest link — a pass defense that has been ranked as the worst in the league for much of the season.

"The Eagles loss hurt them," one NFL personnel executive told PFW. "Six wins is winning the division right now. It's almost as ugly as the NFC West, with how beat up the Colts are and how Tennessee has hit the skids with no stability at quarterback. If Jacksonville were to win the division, it would make it that much more difficult for the owner to sit still."

It's hard to find much fault with Kubiak's multitalented offense, featuring Texans "Triplets" Matt Schaub at quarterback, Arian Foster at running back and Andre Johnson, who continues to play at a high level despite a bothersome ankle, at wide receiver.

"If you had to rank head coaches who really understand personnel, I would put Kubiak near the top," the executive said. "He's been well-trained by Mike Shanahan in one of the most proven offenses in the game. As they have done time and time again, they have taken a running back (Foster) who no one wanted to give a chance and turned him into the NFL's leading rusher.

"Andre Johnson is one of the game's top receivers, if not the best. (TE) Owen Daniels is very good all-around. For what the offensive line is asked to do, they are efficient. The offense has been hot and cold and, at times, has taken time to warm up, but they can move the sticks. They can run the football and put points on the board. When they want to be, the offense is explosive."

Yet the defense, especially against the pass, is a different story. The Texans gave up at least 24 points in each of their first 10 games, have held opponents under 200 yards passing only twice this season and managed only five interceptions in the first nine games.

The signature moment that illustrates just how shaky Houston's pass defense has been came when Quin batted a desperation pass right into the hands of an astonished Mike Thomas at the goal line for a game-winning TD in a 31-24 loss to the Jaguars.

Quin was beaten the next week by WR Santonio Holmes for a go-ahead TD that completed the Jets' come-from behind 30-27 victory.

"Their biggest problem right now is in the secondary," another league personnel evaluator told PFW. "They had problems before they let (CB) Dunta Robinson walk. And it has not gotten any better.

"They are big, physical and heavy-footed. They run a lot of two-shell but don't have cover safeties who can get over the top. (FS) Eugene Wilson lost a step, and (SS Bernard) Pollard has never been very good outside the box."

Insiders around the league agree that the season-ending injury to Pro Bowl MLB DeMeco Ryans Oct. 17 with a ruptured Achilles tendon has hardly helped matters.

Initially, Brian Cushing, who missed four games due to a league-imposed suspension for taking performance-enhancing drugs, was moved from the strong side to the middle to try to replace Ryans. But Cushing never felt comfortable and recently returned to his familiar outside spot, with Kevin Bentley taking over in the middle.

Bentley is serviceable, but he's not DeMeco Ryans.  

"You don't lose a linebacker like DeMeco Ryans and not feel the effects," said one league insider in the know. "He was always around the ball and has a great feel for the game. They tried to put Cushing in there, and the game got on top of him too fast from both directions, and they had to kick him back over the tight end. No. 90 (DRE Mario Williams) has been playing hurt (battling a sports hernia much of the season) and has been disappearing.

"When they lost Ryans, they lost their heartbeat. He was the leader out there who kept it all together. It's like taking Ray Lewis out of Baltimore or Chicago losing Brian Urlacher last year. Those guys mean more to the defense for what they bring emotionally, setting the tone and holding players accountable."

Finding players capable of stepping up — particularly in crunch time — continues to be a pretty serious problem, according to many of the people we talked to about the Texans this past week.

"We couldn't finish the deal," Kubiak said after another fourth-quarter collapse in the Eagles game. "You've got to find a way to close, and we found a way not to close in all three phases.

"Not just one."

One personnel exec focused on that specific problem.

"That's what would worry me if I inherited that roster — who are the leaders?" the exec said. "Andre Johnson is talented as could be, but he is not a vocal leader. (ORT) Eric Winston is a rah-rah, fake tough guy. Schaub does not inspire confidence. Foster is a different bird.

"Offensively it's lacking, and then you look at the defense without Ryans. Pollard got run off from Kansas City because he did not fit the culture. Mario (Williams) is a quiet, country kid. This is a tough game, a team game. If you don't have a strong locker room, you don't have a chance."

If the Texans fail to rebound and take advantage of the chance that still amazingly exists to win their depleted division, it just might push McNair over the top and Kubiak out of Houston.