What Are the Texans' Biggest Obstacles in Their Path to a Championship?
There are a minimum of 11 games standing between them and a shot at fulfilling the dreams of the team and their fans. What needs to go their way between now and then is a combination of luck and forethought.
The luck not to lose any more key personnel, and the forethought to address the flaws in the offensive line, special teams and other areas of concern. Here is a list of their most pressing needs, including some matters that are beyond their control.
Injuries and the Depth To Overcome Them
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It is a truism that injuries are inevitable in professional sports, and football is no exception. The best antidote to these mishaps is keeping the roster stocked with enough quality replacements.
This is easier said than done, and has been made more difficult by the limitations of the salary cap. In an ideal world, Ben Jones and Derek Newton would be sitting on the Texans’ bench waiting for Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston to go down. Instead, they are getting on the job training as frontline players.
Already, the season ending injuries of Brian Cushing and Tim Jamison have pushed several teammates up the depth chart. Veteran Tim Dobbins and rookies Whitney Mercilus and Jared Crick will now see more action than they would under ideal circumstances.
To stay on top of the AFC and make their postseason dreams come true, there is a long list of players who must stay on the field and off injured reserve. With all the talent on this team, they are too numerous to list here. But think back to 2011, and recall how the continued presence of Matt Schaub could have changed their destiny.
Offensive Line Improvement
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Was the blowout of Baltimore a breakthrough for the line, or an indication of just how beat up the Ravens actually were?
Whatever the case, the beleaguered right side played as if they had been together since their rookie year. Then again, it is RG Ben Jones’ first go-round in the NFL, and Derek Newton is but a year removed from the same status.
The play calls on the ground game have been so “leftist,” Gary Kubiak might be accused of running the Karl Marx offense. But there is no denying that Duane Brown and Wade Smith are more capable and experienced than their youthful counterparts.
If a bit more balance could be struck on which direction Foster or Ben Tate might be taking on any given play, their average per carry (4.0) could rise to something more indicative of their talent.
The Durability of Arian Foster
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Losing to Green Bay was a blessing in disguise for at least one member of the Texans. They were so far behind there was no reason to burden Foster with another 25-carry workload. The ease of scoring points on the Ravens also kept this trend heading downward.
At one point he was a lock to break the single-season mark for rushing attempts. Outside of the Bears second-ranked defense, he does not face another exceptional set of defenders until the Vikings in Week 16.
Over the remainder of the schedule, Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison could diversify the offense and keep their most versatile offensive weapon fresh for the playoffs. Along the way, they can hopefully figure out why his receptions have dropped to where James Casey is ahead of him in that department.
Development of a Third Receiver
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You can count the top receivers for Houston on one hand and still have enough fingers to throw a bowling ball. There’s Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels and, ah, who?
Kevin Walters can open some eyes about every third game, Arian Foster is due to catch about 30 fewer passes than in 2011 and none of the youngsters have stepped up. James Casey is a possibility with 18 catches to date, but his main role is to be lead blocker for the running game.
The lack of options has not interfered with their offensive output, but the Texans cannot hope to get ahead and stay ahead in every game. This shortcoming will become more critical in the postseason, and trying to fix it during the course of the regular season is an iffy proposition.
The Horror of Kick Coverage
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In regards to kickoffs and punts, Houston is not the league worst in either category when it comes to return averages. But if any other team has given up more big plays in this area, they should be pitied.
Except for the Titans game, every week there have been a couple of runbacks that either led to a score or were a tackle away from doing so. It is on the verge of becoming a crisis, and will cross that line if nothing is done to remedy the situation.
Next to turnovers, nothing can turn a close game around faster than a quick touchdown off a kick return. If you plan on scoring a lot of points, then every subsequent kickoff turns into a gamble that can undo all that hard work in a single play.
Weak AFC Conference
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The toughest teams left on the schedule are Chicago, New England and Minnesota. Houston could lose them all and still end up with the best record in the AFC and home field advantage.
The Texans could enter the playoffs knowing they could not make up a deficit against a truly competitive opponent. On top of that, they would understand their enviable position was reached by beating up on the worst collection of AFC representatives in recent memory.
The reality of all this could be buried by the hype of the postseason and still affect their subconscious potential. Sounds like a lot of psychobabble, but when venturing into uncharted territory you can never be sure of what dangers lie ahead.
Home Field Advantage
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As it turns out, this so-called advantage has been less than kind to its recipients. From 2002 to 2011, only three teams have won the Super Bowl with a first round bye and all their playoff games at home. Even more telling, only one has pulled it off in the last eight years.
One theory states the bye week takes the players out of their normal routine and creates a sort of “let-down.” Combine that with pulling the starters from the last regular season game, the two-week vacation ends up “rusting” them instead of resting them.
Whatever the reason, the consequences are too consistent to ignore. Now, who would actually lose games to avoid being in this position? No one, of course, but there it is.
The NFC Is the Better Conference
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Should the Texans be playing on Feb. 3, 2013, they will be facing the survivor of a much tougher conference than their own.
It could be the defending champion NY Giants, the defensive-minded Niners, the resurgent Packers or a Falcons team that finally puts it all together. Whoever lines up opposite them, they will have persevered through a more formidable list of adversaries than the Texans.
This prospect is too far off in the future to make any reasonable speculation on who would be favored to emerge with the Lombardi Trophy in hand. The Texans might be so dazzled by making it to the ultimate game, they could be overwhelmed by it all. Or they could complete a turnaround that would set off the biggest celebration in the history of a city far too accustomed to pro football failures.