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Brees, Saints will tell us a lot about Houston's revamped defense

ColdHardFootballFacts.com breaks down Sunday's Houston at New Orleans game (1 p.m., CBS).

The Houston Texans head east on I-10 to New Orleans for an inter-conference battle that pits playoff hopefuls with high-powered offenses but questions on defense.

1. New Houston defensive coordinator Wade Philips may have cured the team's long-term statistical ills. An inability to play pass defense has been the Achilles' heel of the Houston organization since its founding. Year after year opposing passers shred the Texans defense as if it were an Enron balance sheet.

The 2010 Texans, for example, were dead last in Defensive Passer Rating (100.5), the best way to measure pass defenses because it consistently has a high correlation to wins and losses. Champions throughout history are almost always among the very best in the league at Defensive Passer Rating.

Put another way, opposing passers posted a cumulative 100.5 passer rating against Houston last year. Only nine teams in NFL history were more pathetic on pass defense. The Texans made every QB on the schedule look like Tom Brady. That's no way to win football, no matter how many stars you have on offense.

Well, that's all changed in 2011 -- at least through two games -- behind the scheme instituted by first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Texans are No. 4 right now with a 69.5 Defensive Passer Rating. They're No. 1 in completion percentage against them (45.9%). So pass defense, right now, is clearly the biggest reason for optimism in Houston.

2. But Saints QB Drew Brees will tell us if that defense is legit or not. It's easy for Houston fans to get excited by their teams 2-0 start and obvious improvements on defense. But keep in mind that Houston has not exactly faced Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana in their two games this season. Their victories have come over Kerry Collins' Colts and Chad Henne's Dolphins. It's easy to look good against pedestrian passers.

But Brees, of course, is anything but pedestrian. He walks into this game with a boatload of passing records and a Super Bowl MVP award on his resume. More importantly, he appears to have shaken that pesky interception bug that plagued him in 2010. Brees followed up his brilliant Super Bowl-winning 2009 season with 22 interceptions in 2010, the most in his career. Only Eli Manning was worse (25).

Brees is back in championship form this year: the Saints are No. 11 in Passing Yards Per Attempt (7.33 YPA), No. 3 in passer rating (114.9) and No. 4 in what we call Real Quarterback Rating, a new indicator at Cold, Hard Football Facts that measures all aspects of quarterback performance, not just passing. It's quickly proven an incredible indicator of success: teams with a better Real Quarterback Rating are 28-4 (.875) through Week 2.

Brees has thrown 6 TD passes against zero interceptions -- the best TD-INT. ratio in the NFL so far.

If the Texans can make him look merely mortal, it might be time for Houston fans to start pricing out tickets to Indianapolis in February. If Brees torches the Houston D the way he did the Packers and Bears, we could be looking at more of the Same Ol' Texans in 2011.

3, Houston's offensive backfield shows us why they call the NFL the Not For Long League. Last year Houston running back Arian Foster was the NFL's great surprise success story. He was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009 who carried the ball just 54 times that season playing behind Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats.

He was suddenly the NFL's best back in 2010. His 1,616 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns and an awesome 2,220 yards from scrimmage were all best in the league and made the previously unknown Foster a fantasy football favorite from coast to coast. Houston's 2009 rushing leaders, meanwhile, have disappeared. Slaton has barely touched the ball since Foster's ascendancy and Moats is out of football.

The 2011 season has turned just as quickly as the 2010 campaign in the Houston backfield. Foster injured his hamstring in the preseason and has been a non-factor, with just three touches in two games. And he may have already lost his starting job in the Not For Long League.

The Houston offense has barely missed a beat behind Ben Tate, a second-round pick whose injury last year opened the door for Foster. Tate has already logged 47 carries for 219 yards, a healthy 4.7 YPA average, while adding four catches. Only Buffalo's Fred Jackson (229 yards) and Oakland's Darren McFadden (222) are ahead of Tate on the rushing leaderboard through two games.

Foster is reportedly day to day with his hamstring injury, while Tate is ready to roll into New Orleans.

The Saints should provide Tate his stiffest test yet: New Orleans has surrendered 55 points in its first two games, but 42 of those were scored by the high-powered Packers in Week 1 at Lambeau Field. The Saints otherwise have stopped the run fairly well. They've surrendered just 163 yards on the ground in two games. Only six teams have been better.

The Texans are 2-0 and a much more well-rounded team in 2011. In fact, through two games, the Texans rank No. 2 overall in our Quality Stats Power Rankings.

However, numbers like that can be misleading this early in the season: the Texans have had the benefit of playing two bad teams with blah quarterbacks (Indy, Miami). The Saints opened the season against Super Bowl champ Green Bay and then faced Chicago, the team the Packers beat in the NFC title game. So clearly, one team has faced a tougher early road than the other.

You can see the difference on our Relativity Index, which tells us how each team performs relative to the quality of their opposition. New Orleans is No. 6 on that indicator while Houston is No. 12. In other words, the 1-1 Saints have actually performed better relative to the quality of their opposition than the 2-0 Texans.

Last year, this was a slam-dunk victory for the Saints, even as Brees had a down year. Houston's historically inept pass defense simply would have been incapable of slowing him down. This year, the Texans have more than a puncher's chance.

But not enough of a chance. Brees has been razor sharp this year, tearing up both the Packers and Bears, teams that fielded two of the best pass defenses in football last year. In fact, Green Bay was No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating. Chicago was No. 3.

Brees has toyed with both units: 67.4 percent completions, 689 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT, 8.0 YPA and 114.9 passer rating.

Houston's pass defense may be an improved unit. But it's not a proven unit until it shuts down somebody like Brees. The Packers and Bears were not up to the task. It's hard to believe Houston will overcome that challenge on Sunday.

Pick: New Orleans 30, Houston 23

Last week's pick: New England 27, San Diego 24Last week's result: New England 35, San Diego 21

Season record: 2-0.

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