Friday September 23rd, 2011

In the past couple of seasons, it became a running story in the viewing room at NBC, as the cast of Football Night in America, including me, watched the Houston Texans take a lead into the fourth quarter and consistently and arduously find a way to blow it.

One week they'd get steamrollered with the run by Chris Johnson, another week they'd fumble it away and the defense couldn't make a stop, another week some quarterback would shred a Houston secondary playing with cement feet. Maddening.

"You're not the only one I heard that from,'' Texans linebacker and defensive captain DeMeco Ryans told me this week. "I've gotten that so much from friends the last couple of years. 'Y'all always get up, then find some way to lose it at the end.' We know. We felt that. And coming into this year, we knew we had to find some way to change that.''

So far, so good ... with an asterisk. In the first two weeks of the season, Kerry Collins and the Peyton-less Colts, then Chad Henne and the Dolphins, were no match for the Texans' new Wade Phillips-choreographed defense. The Texans held Indy and Miami to 20 points in eight quarters. Now comes the real test: Drew Brees and the Saints, at the Superdome, Sunday at high noon in New Orleans.

"Everybody's been talking like that,'' said Ryans, "but we're not making it any bigger than any other game. Our mindset each week is to go 1-0.''

Well, OK. But going 1-0 this week is going to be a lot harder than it was either of the previous two weeks. What has the Texans encouraged is how they're playing against the pass and on third down. Those were two big problem areas for the team, as these numbers (table, above) show:

All the commotion on the Houston defense in the early going has been Mario Williams' adjustment from a down defensive end in the 4-3 to the weakside outside linebacker in the 3-4, playing next to Ryans. Williams has been good to very good so far. Three other new Texans have made the defense work well, too: left end J.J. Watt (first-round pick from Wisconsin) and two new secondary guys acquired in free agency, free safety Danieal Manning and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

Watt debuted with a bang against the Colts, pressuring Collins five times. Manning has played every snap and been a steadying influence for a young group, and Joseph, before injuring his ankle against Miami (he should be fine this week), has been the kind of physical presence at corner -- and a good cover guy -- Houston GM Rick Smith hoped he'd be when he outbid Detroit for him in July.

"It's easy to see the impact of Joseph and Manning,'' Ryans said. "It's confidence. Our young guys back there, instead of going into a play and thinking, 'Don't get beat deep,' now they're thinking, 'I'm going to make this play. I can jump this route.' When you've got veterans back there who've made so many plays, you have more faith in your own game.''

Ryans, like many of his teammates, is new to Phillips' 3-4. "I've taken a liking to it more than I thought I would,'' he said. "It allows you to disguise what you're doing better than in the 4-3. In the 4-3, the ends have to show their hand. It's hard to run the fire zones [the zone blitzes when defensive linemen drop in coverage] with the 4-3, but now I feel we're not as limited in what we can do.''

All sounds good now. The matchup of the weekend -- the one I'll be watching with the most interest Sunday afternoon -- is this one. Houston-New Orleans will tell us a lot about whether the Texans have really changed on defense, and whether they'll be real challengers to the AFC elite come January.

This week's "NFL Podcast With Peter King'' guest is Baltimore pass-rusher Terrell Suggs, and, as is his custom, he had interesting things to say about the Steelers, movies and being the bad guy.

You can find the podcast on iTunes and on SI.com.

Suggs on the intensity of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry: "I love being public enemy No. 1. It's the greatest honor, I think, that I can have against the Pittsburgh Steelers ... On the first third down of last season, when they played here [Baltimore], we got to Ben and we broke his nose ... And that was awesome. I mean, you don't want to hurt anybody, but it just goes to show how physical and grueling this game is. And then early in the third quarter I get my mouth busted. So, I love the simple fact that there was a lot of blood and gore in that game. I tell my mom and my daughter all the time, we're barbarians, we're the gladiators of our time. Him with the broken nose, blood coming out, me with the busted mouth, that game couldn't get any better than that.''

Suggs on the rules to protect defenseless players: "I think [the NFL] is getting too soft ... I think it's a disgrace. It's a disgrace to everybody who loves this game. Now don't get me wrong, I don't want to see anybody get hurt ... With that being said, we knew the risk we were taking when we decided we wanted to play professional football. Like I said, some guys are trying to hurt people -- we don't need that in our game. But a great hit, a physical great hit, that's football and you can't take that away. Now the protection over the pansy-ass quarterbacks is a disgrace also.''

Suggs on his favorite recent movie: "I loved Black Swan. ... I loved that it kept me on the edge. I loved that they showed the things dancers go through. A lot of people don't respect dance, but you've got to master that just like you master being a football player, just like being a journalist or a surgeon. And it really captured and showed that.''

Next week, I'm going to try something different on the podcast. We'll have a good guest -- still being finalized -- and we're going to hear from one of my favorite writers in the country, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to help me preview the Week 4 games. You've got to listen to Bob, one of the best football writers in America.

Philadelphia WR Steve Smith (No. 11). Eli Manning's favorite receiver for three years (Smith caught 107 balls for the Giants in 2009) is just 26, but the Giants allowed him to go to the Eagles in free agency after last season because Smith was recovering from microfracture surgery in his knee, which is always a dangerous career harbinger. But he's recovered well, and he should be on the field for 20 or so snaps in three- and four-wide formations Sunday in the Eagles' home opener. Knowing how much Smith wants to show the Giants they made a big mistake in letting him walk, look for Mike Vick to find Smith a few times.

1. Fakery. Giants safety Deon Grant's diving Monday night got the league's attention, and I hope any further delay-of-game tactics will be met with penalties and fines. I saw that Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris called the practice "great coaching technique.'' I call it bush league.

2. Mike Vick's head. Expect Vick, recovering from a concussion, to play Sunday against the Giants. Expect Andy Reid to call zero designed runs. Expect Vick to run some anyway; it's who he is. Expect Vick not to last 16 starts. By the way, how weird is it that Vick got dinged by his own guy, in his own pocket?

3. Matt Ryan's health. Underrated injury note of this week: Ryan barely worked Thursday in practice, recovering from a couple of whacks to the knee Sunday night against Philly. Ryan's taken 17 hits in the first two games of the season. Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has to find a way to throw more curls and intermediate stuff to keep his quarterback upright.

4. More offense. Record point totals, record passing yards, record fun in the first two weeks of the season. When Matt Hasselbeck riddles the Ravens for 348 yards and Cam Newton has more 400-yard passing games in his first two games than Tom Brady had in his first 145, you know it's shaping up to be fill-the-air-with-footballs season.

5. Miami as road warriors, or a road worry. The stats are bizarre. The Dolphins have lost 11 of 12 at home, and won six of their past eight on the road. They enter a stretch of five road games in their next six outings Sunday at Cleveland. A winnable game, obviously, but how does anyone know which Henne shows up at Cleveland Browns Stadium?

6. Jay Cutler running for his life. Rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi, out, turnstile Frank Omiyale in. Hand it to Matt Forte 38 times against the Pack, Mike Martz. Last week Cutler was kicked in the throat at New Orleans. Wonder which body part will take the biggest hit Sunday.

7. Colin Baxter. He hadn't snapped the ball to Mark Sanchez until Nick Mangold was lying on the field last Sunday in New Jersey with a high ankle sprain. Now the undrafted college free-agent center (waived by the Chargers, signed by the Jets) makes his first career start in a sold-out Black Hole, with Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and John Henderson -- with 29 combined years of NFL experience knocking around kids like Baxter -- trying to grind him into the turf. Should be interesting.

8. Tony Romo. Expect Romo to play Monday night against Washington with his broken rib and partially collapsed lung, but in this week's Shameless Plug Dept., you can find out for sure Friday evening when he's a guest on our Versus NFL preview show at 6 p.m. ET. Russ Thaler, Mike Florio and I will get the goods out of Romo, whom we'll interview after Dallas' practice this afternoon.

9. Andy Dalton to A.J. Green. Last week in Denver, they became the first rookie combo to connect on 10 passes in a game. "They're really starting to be good together,'' offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said this week. We can see that.

10. Indy trying to keep America from changing the channel Sunday night. It looks bad for the Colts, with the Steelers coming to town. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, start your engines. You're the Colts' only hope, banging Big Ben around Lucas Oil Field.

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