In the past couple of seasons, it became a running story in the viewing room at NBC, as the cast of
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.
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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