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2 HOUSTON TEXANS

Sept. 05, 2011
Sept. 05, 2011

Table of Contents
Sept. 5, 2011

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
NFL PREVIEW
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
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2 HOUSTON TEXANS

Scoring? No problem. Now it's time to stop the other guys

This is an article from the Sept. 5, 2011 issue

It would be easy to look at the Texans—in particular their defense, which in 2010 allowed the most passing yards in the league (267.5 per game) and the fourth-most points (26.7)—and see a team teetering on the brink of disaster. But Danieal Manning sees a team on the brink of something else. "Since '08 I've been keeping my eye on them and thinking they're close," says the safety, who spent the first five seasons of his career with the Bears. "They're on the verge of winning something really big."

Manning needs to practice his pronoun usage: In July he left Chicago as an unrestricted free agent and signed a four-year, $20 million contract with Houston. Eight months ago Manning was a touchdown away from playing in his second Super Bowl. Now he'll try to help the Texans reach the playoffs for the first time. It was a smart signing by Houston, which had little trouble on offense last year—thanks to the emergence of NFL rushing leader Arian Foster—but watched its defense lag. "We failed as a football team in the last 10 weeks," says coach Gary Kubiak of the Texans' 2--8 season-ending stretch. "We had to find a way to get better."

Step one: Kubiak hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. Phillips, who was fired as Cowboys coach following Week 9 last season after going 34--22 in 3½ years, is back where he started his NFL career 35 years ago—he was linebackers coach for the Houston Oilers under his father, Bum. At his last seven coaching stops Phillips raised his defenses' overall ranking by an average of six spots in his first year. He started his latest turnaround project by replacing Houston's 4--3 base unit with a more aggressive 3--4. He also rearranged his personnel, going with a thicker tackle at the point of attack, 6'4", 304-pound Shaun Cody, instead of Amobi Okoye (who was cut in July and signed with the Bears). Phillips moved dynamic linebacker Brian Cushing, the '09 Defensive Rookie of the Year, from outside to inside, next to two-time Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans. And he shifted the team's best pass rusher, Mario Williams, from defensive end to outside linebacker in hopes of goosing a pass rush that tied for 23rd in sacks last year with 30. "The outside 'backers have led the league in sacks in a lot of places that I've been," Phillips says. "It's the premier position as far as this scheme is concerned. But you need a guy who can do it."

The transition has forced a slew of fundamental changes in Williams's game, the most significant being his stance. Williams's height—he is nearly 6'7", tall even for a defensive end—means that concentrating on the most basic technical nuances (like keeping his knees bent) will be crucial. The sixth-year pro spent the off-season breaking down tape of the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, another power-forward-sized sackmeister (he led the NFL with 60½ over the last four seasons) whom Phillips used as a 3--4 outside 'backer to great effect.

Williams believes Phillips's scheme will be just as good for his game. Being farther back from the line of scrimmage gives him a more complete view of the field and eliminates a lot of the guesswork he used to do before the snap. "In a 4--3 there's more of an urgency to fill up holes along the line because you have more of them," Williams says. "But in the 3--4, there's really only one predominant hole. Everything will be digested as you're reading on the run."

Any improvement in the Texans' pass rush will be a boon to the secondary, which has been dramatically overhauled. Along with the playmaking Manning, the Texans add a lockdown left corner in sixth-year vet Johnathan Joseph (formerly of the Bengals) and will rotate last year's starter at left corner, third-year vet Glover Quin, to safety. Quin, who finished second on the team in tackles (85) and tied for first in interceptions (three), has the skills to excel at the position but lacks experience calling coverages and reading the quarterback. "I can't go off looks anymore," he says.

Even if many members of the unit are on a steep learning curve, the Texans should finally have a defense that can create quarterback pressure, force turnovers and get off the field after third down. While it's not yet a match for the offense, the unit appears stout enough to hold its own late in games. (Five of the Texans' 10 losses in 2010 came by seven or fewer points.) "We want to be a top five defense," says Quin. "From top to bottom we may be the most talented team in the NFL."

To hear Manning tell it, that confidence might have been the missing piece all along. "That's the thing that I want to bring to this locker room," he says. "If we're playing for the Super Bowl, let's say Super Bowl. Eventually you get guys running to the ball, stripping the ball. If you get that going, it's going to be tough to beat us."

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 3

QB MATT SCHAUB

ATT 574

COMP 365

PCT 63.6

YARDS 4,370

YD/ATT 7.61

TD 24

INT 12

RATING 92.0

RB ARIAN FOSTER

ATT 327

YARDS 1,616

REC 66

TTD 18

FB JAMES CASEY

ATT 0

YARDS 0

REC 8

TTD 0

WR ANDRE JOHNSON

REC 86

YARDS 1,216

AVG 14.1

TTD 8

WR KEVIN WALTER

REC 51

YARDS 621

AVG 12.2

TTD 5

TE OWEN DANIELS

REC 38

YARDS 471

AVG 12.4

TTD 2

LT DUANE BROWN

G 12

SACKS 6½

HOLD 0

FALSE 4

LG WADE SMITH

G 16

SACKS 0

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

C CHRIS MYERS

G 16

SACKS 0

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

RG MIKE BRISIEL

G 12

SACKS 2

HOLD 0

FALSE 2

RT ERIC WINSTON

G 16

SACKS 9½

HOLD 2

FALSE 3

WR JACOBY JONES

ATT 51

YARDS 562

REC 11.0

TTD 3

RB DERRICK WARD

ATT 50

YARDS 315

REC 7

TTD 4

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 30

DE ANTONIO SMITH

TACKLES 38

SACKS 4

INT 0

NT SHAUN CODY

TACKLES 38

SACKS 0

INT 0

DE J.J. WATT (R)

TACKLES 62

SACKS 7

INT 1

LB MARIO WILLIAMS

TACKLES 28

SACKS 8½

INT 0

LB BRIAN CUSHING

TACKLES 76

SACKS 1½

INT 0

LB DEMECO RYANS

TACKLES 54

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB CONNOR BARWIN

TACKLES 0

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB JOHNATHAN JOSEPH

TACKLES 42

SACKS 0

INT 3

SS GLOVER QUIN

TACKLES 85

SACKS 0

INT 3

FS DANIEAL MANNING

TACKLES 72

SACKS 0

INT 1

CB KAREEM JACKSON

TACKLES 70

SACKS 0

INT 2

LB BROOKS REED (R)

TACKLES 47

SACKS 6½

INT 0

SPECIALISTS

K NEIL RACKERS

FG 27

FGA 30

XP 43

PTS 124

P BRETT HARTMANN (R)

PUNTS 54

GROSS 40.1

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 6--10

September

11 Indianapolis

18 at Miami

25 at New Orleans

October

2 Pittsburgh

9 Oakland

16 at Baltimore

23 at Tennessee

30 Jacksonville

November

6 Cleveland

13 at Tampa Bay

20 BYE

27 at Jacksonville

December

4 Atlanta

11 at Cincinnati

18 Carolina

22 at Indianapolis (Thu)

January

1 Tennessee

COACH: GARY KUBIAK

AGE: 50

SIXTH SEASON WITH THE TEXANS (37--43)

Flinty, with a brilliant offensive mind, the Houston native is intent on being known as more than just John Elway's old backup and Mike Shanahan's ex-assistant. One way he can do that is by leading his hometown franchise to its first ever playoff appearance. But to get there, he'll have to prove he can build a solid defense too. If he can't, he might be searching for a job at season's end.

SPOTLIGHT

ARIAN FOSTER, Running back

Two years ago Arian Foster was an undrafted rookie on the practice squad bent on proving he belonged in the NFL. Now he's anxious to build on a breakout season in which he set franchise records in carries (327), touchdowns (18) and rushing TDs (16) while leading the NFL in rushing yards (1,616)—but not because he's worried about being seen as a flash in the pan. "I just think the whole notion of a fluke is ridiculous," he says. "I could see if I had one good game. But it was a whole season. And it wasn't just running and catching. I blocked, I read my assignments well, I graded out well every game."

One thing he and the Texans offense didn't do was start fast. With 390 points, Houston was among the league's top offenses, but it scored more than twice as many points in the fourth quarter (128) as in the first (53). The sluggish starts caused the Texans to fall behind early—seven of their 10 losses came after trailing by 10 or more points at halftime—and that put pressure on Matt Schaub (whose quarterback rating jumped from 69.6 in the first to 94.8 in the fourth) to rally the team through the air. Foster, who ran for more yards (412) and touchdowns (seven) in the fourth quarter than in any other, thrived under pressure too. But he wants to prove he can do it earlier. "The passing game has to work with the running game," he says. "When I'm on my A game, this offense runs a lot more smoothly."

PHOTOGREG NELSON (MANNING)HIT MAKERS The new coordinator has changed the scheme; the Texans hope Manning (above), an import from Chicago, brings a new attitude to a downtrodden D.PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (KUBIAK)PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (FOSTER)