When you think of the 2012 NFL season, most football fans thought the Houston Texans were an imposter when asked if they were a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Although they had rushed out to an 11-1 record, they failed to capture the imagination of fans or pundits outside Houston.
Sure they had defeated the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens 43-17 in week 7. However mind numbing losses to Green Bay (42-24), and a Monday night massacre in New England (42-14) late in the season, cast doubt on their Super Bowl legitimacy as the playoffs neared. They did finish 12-4 winning a Wild Card game before losing in the AFC Divisional round to the Patriots. Yet the question remains… Who are the Texans?? Are they a team moving up to elite status or are they beneficiary of the AFC as a conference becoming weaker??
Quarterback: Caught in that same identity vortex is quarterback Matt Schaub. Twice in the last four years he has been a Pro Bowl performer yet he leaves you wondering. Coming into last year the team and it’s fans were buoyed with optimism after backup TJ Yates led the team to a Wild Card win the year before. The overall feeling was if they could make it this far without Schaub, they should be able to compete for a title with him being healthy for the playoffs. The fact that they didn’t advance any further raises doubt if they can win it at all with Schaub at quarterback.
Make no mistake this team is better with Schaub at the helm but this may be his make or break year with the Colts coming on strong. In 2012 he completed 350 of 544 passes (64.3%) for 4,008 yards 22 TDs with only 12 interceptions. The perception was he didn’t perform when he faced the league’s elite. To that there is some truth but early in the season he carved up the Denver Broncos with 4 TD passes in a 31-25 victory on the road. He had his chance to show the nation when they lost to New England on that December Monday Night 42-14. In that game he looked disengaged, not the leader you’d want at quarterback, and couldn’t make a play to turn the momentum.
For most, he sits in that abyss of good quarterbacks that aren’t thought of as championship signal callers. Right where Joe Flacco was last year and where Matt Ryan sits this year. This is Schaub’s make or break year. This will be his 7th season as quarterback of the Texans and 11th overall after coming over from Atlanta. Its ironic that he and Ryan are both in the same position. Had Schaub not signed with Houston, he would have taken over the Falcons after Michael Vick’s dog fighting conviction. Yet he’s still a good quarterback that has to prove he can be a championship one. The nucleus of this team is aging and at 32 when the season starts, Schaub will be right there with them. Houston is playoff calibur at quarterback until proven otherwise.
Offensive Backfield: Going into his 5th season, the Texans couldn’t be more solid at running back with Arian Foster leading the charge. Next to Adrian Peterson, no back in football has been more productive than Foster’s 4,264 yards and 39 TDs over the last three years. He isn’t the flashy runner breaking the huge play like CJ2K or Peterson, but he’s a steady performer that churns out important first down after first down as the Texans closer. This is a running back in the prime of his career and has a solid back in Ben Tate (4.3 yards per carry in 2012) to back him up. The offense runs through the one cut and go running game Foster brings to the table. In 3 of the Texans 4 losses last year, Foster failed to rush for 50 yards. Part of it was Coach Kubiak abandoning the run once they fell behind. The Texans are Super Bowl quality at running back and should get a 1,300 yards from Foster this season.
Receivers: A fascinating study is Andre Johnson. When you’re watching him on game film, he doesn’t look as quick as he did a few years back. He seems to only be explosive in spurts now and really gets by on guile.You do realize he’ll also be 32 years of age when the season kicks off. He was the prime target in this offense gathering 112 passes for 1,598 yards, yet only caught 4 touchdowns. What’s missing now is the big play element from the offense with Johnson and TE Owen Daniels (62 rec. 716 yds 6TDs) as the intermediate threats.
It looks as though the Texans realize this and released WR Kevin Walter who was the intermediate receiver across from Johnson. What they need is exactly what they let go in 2011, a Jacoby Jones. Right now this offense is missing a home run hitter that can take the Safeties deep. Houston anointed 2nd year wideout Keshawn Martin to the starting line-up to be the X receiver but he’s unproven. Look for the Texans to add this element in the draft or a free agent signing to compete with Martin. If they can address this they can upgrade their ranking. As it stands they are playoff quality because teams know they can’t get deep and clog the routes 20 yards or under.
Offensive Line: In today’s NFL, the offensive line is measured by how well they can protect the passer by most pundits. However here we grade beyond that. This group allowed only 28 sacks last year which was good enough for 7th best in the NFL. Left Tackle Duane Brown was an All Pro while making the Pro Bowl with Center Chris Myers and Guard Wade Smith. However Smith and Myers will each be 32 by the time the season kicks off. They’re young at the tackles but older on the line’s interior.
One aspect of the game they could use some improvement is run blocking. How can we say that about a group that had 3 Pro Bowl members and a 1,000 yard rusher?? Very simple. Foster isn’t a back that dances. He takes the ball on “Belly” and “Stretch” plays, makes a cut and then goes up-field. However they are 30th in negative rush plays to the strong side with 20 and 31st to the weak side with 28. Further evidence is when it’s 3rd or 4th and goal or less than 2 yards, this group only converted 57% of the time to the strong side which was 20th in the league. This team could only run up the middle where they did convert 75% of the time in obvious power situations. So it’s obvious they struggle with younger more athletic defenders. This will only get worse over time and lowers their ranking to average.
Defensive Line: This group begins and ends with JJ Watt who is the premier defensive lineman in the game. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year had a career season with 81 tackles, 20 1/2 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 16 defensed passes. Sixteen?? That is an obscene number. One thing they should do is move him around more so he can’t be game planned out of being effective. That is what New England did and he wasn’t a factor in the playoff game or the 42-14 loss.
In Houston’s 3-4 the interior linemen are primarily space eaters to clog the line and allow the linebackers to make the tackles. The Texans were 7th in defense overall and 7th against the run. Earl Mitchell held down the point at Nose Tackle and weakside Defensive End Anthony Smith did move crash the pocket for 7 sacks. In this 3-4 he’s limited from a lot of outside moves because Defensive Co-ordinator Wade Phillips likes to send linebackers like he did with the departed Conner Barwin. Because of Watt’s presence this is definitely a Super Bowl caliber group. Twenty seven and a half sacks from a 3 man line?? Come on now…
Linebackers: We just mentioned the loss of Connor Barwin who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. This team can hopefully get a healthy year out of Brian Cushing who could be moved back outside. In fact last year’s infirmary list included Cushing, Darryl Sharpton, Tim Dobbins, and Barrett Ruud missing a combined 27 games last year. This was the Achille’s Heel of the defense but that is understandable when you’re playing second string all year.
Bradie James was the leading tackler on this team with 76 stops and had 1/2 a sack. With so many players injured it’s almost impossible to gauge how effective this group will be. They do have pieces in place and we’ll have to see if they are going to draft an outside linebacker or what we believe… Brian Cushing will go back outside. If they can get their linebackers on the field we think they can be good. However since we haven’t seen them hit the field yet we have to grade them as below average.
Secondary: With a stout pass rush that produced 44 sacks and 11 forced fumbles, this group should have had more than 15 interceptions. CB Kareem Jackson was the leader in that department with 4, and Jonathon Joseph went to the Pro Bowl with 2 picks. The Texans needed to desperately improve their secondary that ranked 20th against the pass. They needed a spark… Enter Ed Reed. We’ll see if Reed will make a huge difference. Had this been 2008, we’d immediately say yes. With him going into his 12th year, we’re taking a wait and see approach
Last year’s Free Safety Glover Quinn was second on the team in tackles with 85 yet intercepted just 2 passes. Now you know why the Texans went after Ed Reed. SS Danieal Manning will come up and make a hit but these guys are limited cover guys. This group is playoff caliber if Reed plays like he did in Baltimore. The Chancellor would like to see more out of this group when it comes to coverage. Could see another draft pick used on corner and safety as well. They need some insurance to keep coverage on slot receivers. With the addition of Reed this is now a playoff caliber group.
Overview: This team is on the verge of having to retool on the offensive side of the ball. They are at a collective age where a crash could happen at any time. Schaub, Johnson, and the center of the offensive line all being over 32 years of age?? Tight End Owen Daniel will turn 31 in November. You better believe the time is now for this group. They couldn’t pull past the Colts while Manning was there and now they have to put up with a completely new Colts regime. One that gained confidence beating the Texans in the finale last year 28-16.
In reality this has been the AFC South’s best team since 2010 yet they couldn’t get that landmark win to push themselves to the top of the conference. The Chancellor’s crystal ball sees more of the same as they won’t make it past the divisional round of the playoffs and may actually be a wildcard entrant. Look at the relative age of this team. Just remember the NFL is a long season for all these thirty somethings. This will be their last year as a playoff team as well…
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