2011 team previews
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The Texans' offense was clearly ready for the big stage in 2010. RB Arian Foster burst onto the scene, leading the league in rushing and adding another dimension to Houston's already potent pairing of QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson.
But for as good as the offense was, the defense was every bit as bad. Houston finished ranked dead last defending the pass, allowing an appalling 267.5 yards through the air each week, and ranked 30th overall defensively. Even worse, the Texans suffered five losses decided by the last possession of the game, including back-to-back defeats on go-ahead TD passes in the final 10 seconds.
The end result was a 6-10 record and eight losses in the final 10 games, and former defensive coordinator Frank Bush and three of his assistants were handed their walking papers.
Enter new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In his previous four stops as a coordinator, Phillips took each team (which all had missed the playoffs the previous season) to the postseason in his first year on the job. He will have his work cut out for him making it five in a row, as the lockout erased most of the offseason — time desperately needed to install and teach his new system.
Head coach Gary Kubiak survived last season's debacle, but even loyal owner Bob McNair's patience has worn thin. With a bolstered defense now accompanied by the right defensive minds, the onus lies squarely on Kubiak to produce results. Anything short of a winning record this season likely will result in a changing of the guard.
The Texans boast one of the more powerful offenses in football. They finished last season ranked third in total offense and were one of only three teams in the league to finish the season ranked in the top 10 in passing and rushing. Coordinator Rick Dennison loves using the play-action pass and rolling out QB Matt Schaub to get the ball downfield. The running game features a zone-blocking scheme that requires patience and vision from its backs.
Quarterbacks: Matt Schaub continued his ascent to the upper echelon of gunslingers last season, becoming the sixth QB in NFL history to throw for a combined 9,000 yards in consecutive seasons. He answered any lingering questions about his durability by starting all 16 games for the second season in a row, despite dealing with a bursa sac ailment through much of the campaign. A Pro Bowl alternate in 2010, Schaub possesses a strong arm and pinpoint accuracy. His intangibles are also impressive, with scouts citing his poise in the pocket as a major plus. Head coach Gary Kubiak loved what he saw of backup Matt Leinart on the practice field last season, prompting the club to re-sign the former first-rounder and release former backup Dan Orlovsky. Rookie T.J. Yates is a classic West Coast passer who will be Kubiak's pet project.
Running backs: There is an embarrassment of riches, with Derrick Ward and Ben Tate backing up 2010 NFL rushing champion Arian Foster. (He also led the NFL in yards from scrimmage, rushing TDs, total TDs and first downs gained.) The perfect back for the Texans' system, Foster makes up for his lack of top-end speed with a terrific blend of power, balance and vision. He is instinctive enough to know where the holes will be and patient enough to wait for his opening before exploding downfield. Team insiders say he's a tireless worker who only can get better if he stays healthy — Foster played most of last season on an injured knee, and is currently dealing with a left hamstring injury that has put his Week One status in question. Ward, who joined the club last preseason, was a godsend. His sensational 6.3 yards per carry doesn't tell the whole story, as the tough, speedy veteran is also a great locker-room presence. Tate, the club's second-rounder in '10 whose rookie season was over before it started because of an ankle injury, is a powerful runner with good burst. He showed no ill effects of the ankle injury in his preseason debut, making decisive cuts and showing great elusiveness once he reached the second level. Poor ball security and durability issues likely have made former starter Steve Slaton the odd man out. With All-Pro FB Vonta Leach now in Baltimore, versatile TE/H-back James Casey will have a chance to compete for a starting role along with veteran Lawrence Vickers.
Receivers: The receiving corps, led by All-Pro Andre Johnson, is filled with big, strong pass catchers. Johnson is as tough and physical as they come. He was sixth in the NFL in catches and receiving yards despite playing virtually the entire season with a high ankle sprain that cost him three games. He runs every route in the playbook, and DBs simply can't jam him at the line of scrimmage, nor catch up to him in space. Kevin Walter won't scare opponents with his speed or athleticism, but he knows how to find openings in zone coverage and is an excellent blocker who has carved out a niche in Houston. Jacoby Jones has shown flashes of his big-play ability, but he is not a great route runner and needs to be more consistent. Converted college TE Dorin Dickerson is still raw, but he fills the bill with his outstanding size and sprinter's speed. TE Owen Daniels, who has suffered three ACL tears in his career, missed five games in '10 because of knee and hamstring ailments. He came on strong late in the season, however, showing his great range and athleticism. Matt Schaub loves targeting Daniels, especially in crunch time. TEs Joel Dreessen and Garrett Graham are extremely capable backups. Dreessen had a career year in Daniels' absence; Graham is a blocking tight end with good smarts.
Offensive linemen: OLT Duane Brown, who missed four games after being suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, is an exceptional athlete who possesses great quickness and agility. Brown's technique and overall grasp of the position remain works in progress, however. OLG Wade Smith possesses great feet and athleticism and has brought a nasty demeanor to the unit. After being slowed by a high ankle sprain in '09, C Chris Myers played very well last season. Mike Brisiel and Antoine Caldwell battled last season for the starting ORG job, with Caldwell eventually taking over once Brisiel went down with a calf injury late in the season. Brisiel is a competitive, quick thinker, but staying healthy has been an issue. Caldwell has good quickness and hand strength, but he could be sidelined awhile after sustaining an ankle injury in camp. ORT Eric Winston is a knee bender with a great understanding of the club's zone-blocking scheme. OT Rashad Butler, OG Kasey Studdard and rookie OT Derek Newton provide depth.
Houston will transition to an odd front under Wade Phillips, though his scheme most closely resembles a 4-3, with each lineman being responsible for only one gap. The return of Mario Williams, who is converting from defensive end to outside linebacker in this scheme, ILBs Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans and OLB Connor Barwin — the team's four best defenders played in only 1½ games together last season because of injuries — will provide a major lift for the unit. Houston also spent six of its eight draft picks on "D," in addition to adding a pair of big-ticket free-agent defensive backs.
Defensive linemen: First-round DE J.J. Watt was considered by some to be the safest pick in the 2011 draft because of his tremendous motor and intangibles. Watt's terrific NFL Scouting Combine performance drew comparisons to that of Mario Williams' back in 2006. Watt's unique blend of size, strength and athleticism will make him an immediate contributor, with the versatility to slide inside on third down. DE Antonio Smith was the club's most consistent lineman last season. He's a productive technician whose value to the team can't be measured in stats. NTs Earl Mitchell and Shaun Cody are expected to compete for the starting job in the middle. Mitchell has great quickness and a strong lower body that makes him difficult to move. Cody, who was very steady as a starter each of the past two seasons, possesses great quickness and explosiveness for a big man, but he struggles with leverage at times. Backup DEs Damione Lewis and Tim Bulman are reliable veterans who will help keep the starters fresh.
Linebackers: Wade Phillips envisions Mario Williams in a similar role as Pro Bowl OLB DeMarcus Ware was featured in under the coordinator in Dallas. Williams, 26, has led the team in sacks for five consecutive seasons and will be asked to charge upfield in search of running backs and quarterbacks about 95 percent of the time in his new post. Scouts say the two-time Pro Bowler, who is entering a contract year, comes off the ball like a freight train, with a great pairing of strength and quickness. Although Williams is almost always the best athlete on the field, he is sometimes undisciplined and has been known to disappear and take plays off. ILB DeMeco Ryans, the heart and soul of the "D," went down for the season in Week Six with a torn Achilles. Ryans is a smart, instinctive 'backer who never gives up on plays and makes everyone around him better. ILB Brian Cushing, who has been slow recovering from a torn patellar tendon suffered last season, was suspended for the first four games of 2010 for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Upon his return, Cushing played two games at middle linebacker in the old scheme with mixed results before moving back to his former strong-side post. He is a strong, disruptive force who is at his best playing the inside edge and rushing the passer. Cushing can overpursue at times, but he and Ryans should have no problems transitioning to inside 'backers in the new system. OLB Connor Barwin, whom the club had big plans for last season before he went down in Week One with a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury, is arguably the club's best pass rusher. Barwin is a natural athlete with a high motor. Rookie Brooks Reed, who will compete with Barwin for the starting SOLB spot, is an aggressive edge setter who plays with good speed and twitch, making him a valuable addition to an extremely talented unit. Undersized ILB Darryl Sharpton, who doesn't shy away from contact, made the most of his opportunities as a rookie, starting six games. Xavier Adibi, who filled in during Cushing's absence, is a solid backup.
Defensive backs: The two biggest free-agent acquisitions, RCB Johnathan Joseph and FS Danieal Manning, dramatically alter the makeup of the secondary. Joseph can play both man and zone coverage, and he possesses great quickness to get in and of his breaks. He is also a sound tackler who has become increasingly physical the past few seasons. LCB Kareem Jackson had a rookie season to forget, but scouts say he will come around and they were impressed that his confidence never waned despite his struggles. A good-sized cornerback with sharp instincts and tackling ability, Jackson should make great strides working opposite Joseph. Jackson's lack of recovery speed, however, can leave him vulnerable. Rookie Brandon Harris is a slightly undersized, athletic ballhawk who was drafted to be the nickel back, but Brice McCain appeared to have an edge on the spot coming out of camp. Former Dolphins starter Jason Allen came up with three picks after joining the team late in the season and could be a darkhorse to wrest the starting job from Jackson. The safeties are interchangeable in Wade Phillips' defense. Manning is a tremendously gifted athlete, but his instincts are questionable. He is a reliable tackler who is decent in zone coverage. Glover Quin is transitioning from corner to safety. Quin is a smart, versatile player who possesses good ball skills and toughness; the coaching staff thinks he has Pro Bowl potential. Backup S Troy Nolan is an up-and-comer with a nose for the football. Houston is excited about the potential of heady rookie S Shiloh Keo, a big hitter whom GM Rick Smith called a "diamond in the rough."
PK Neil Rackers (27-of-30) was outstanding in 2010, but the return and coverage units were terrible. Accomplished returner and speedster Danieal Manning will become the kickoff returner, with the dangerous Jacoby Jones handling punt-return duties. New P Brad Maynard's skills have declined a bit, but he should be an upgrade over 43-year-old Matt Turk.
Following the 2009 season, Gary Kubiak listed the running game and red-zone offense as areas he intended to fix in the offseason. And the Texans delivered, finishing seventh in rushing and fifth in red-zone efficiency last season. This offseason, Kubiak turned his attention to fixing the "D," with Wade Phillips heavily involved in choosing the personnel for his scheme. If Houston can play more disciplined defense and stay healthy, it finally could be ready to overtake the Colts in the AFC South and challenge for a Super Bowl.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.