Houston Texans Who Will Play Crucial Roles down the Season's Home Stretch

Ben Layman@@houtexmajorinCorrespondent INovember 20, 2012

Houston Texans Who Will Play Crucial Roles down the Season's Home Stretch

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    If Week 11's emotionally draining win over the Jacksonville Jaguars taught fans anything, it's that the Houston Texans will always rely on their superstars in big moments.

    Fans know Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and J.J. Watt are the lifeblood of the team. No team can win in the NFL without its superstars.

    It's easy to get caught up in the spectacle of Schaub running the two-minute offense, or Watt tossing an offensive guard aside and sacking a quarterback.

    The Texans, however, are more than just a team who leans on its superstars. The roster has been built by general manager Rick Smith on a solid foundation of quality starters and reserves.

    The Texans have a number of players on the roster who play crucial roles for the team every week. Down the final stretch of the season, certain players' roles on the team will become even more important.

    Here are a few players who will be vital to the team's success as the final weeks of the season unfold.

Garrett Graham

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    The Houston Texans' No. 2 tight end has emerged as a vital player to the team's offense as the season has unfolded.

    The fourth-round pick from Houston's 2010 draft class has stepped up in the role vacated by former Texan, Joel Dreessen, who signed with the Denver Broncos in the offseason.

    There were concerns over the Texans' ability to replace Dreessen when the team did not sign a significant free agent tight end in the offseason. Head coach Gary Kubiak must have just been giving his third-year tight end from Wisconsin a vote of confidence.

    Through 11 weeks last year, Joel Dreessen had 14 catches for 233 yards as the team's No. 2 tight end. Garrett Graham has caught 21 balls for 219 yards in that same span in 2012.

    The surprising aspect of Graham's game is his ability to be an impact in the running game, as Dreessen was a solid (not spectacular) run-blocker. The Texans haven't lost the presence of a second tight end in their offense when many expected them to, and appear to be featuring the position as much as ever before.

    Graham's breakout year reached new heights in Week 11's victory over Jacksonville. His eight catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns were overshadowed by Andre Johnson's historic day.

    Starting tight end Owen Daniels has battled a hip injury in recent weeks, which has made Graham's presence on the offense all the more important. Graham should be expected to see a sizable workload going forward, especially if Daniels continues to see limited snaps.

Whitney Mercilus

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    Simply put: Whitney Mercilus needs to play a crucial role down the season's home stretch.

    When backup quarterback Chad Henne throws for 354 yards and four touchdowns off the bench on your defense, there's reason to seriously re-evaluate the personnel.

    Starters Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed aren't playing terribly. They've played too many good snaps of football this season to be thrown under the bus now. They do need help, however, and it's surprising that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips hasn't used his 2012 first-round pick more often.

    Mercilus has seen spotty snaps on defense all year. Oddly enough, he has more sacks (three) than either Reed (2.5) or Barwin (two) in nearly a fraction of the snaps. He has been a solid special teams player for the Texans, but he wasn't selected 26th overall to star on teams.

    The coaching staff likely has good reasons for their use of Mercilus, but it's getting to a point where there's not much to lose by putting him out there.

    Week 11 against the Jacksonville Jaguars was rock bottom for the Texans' pass defense, and this is in a season where Aaron Rodgers threw six(!) touchdowns in a game against this defense.

    Through 11 weeks, the rookie training wheels should be ready to come off. The Houston Texans will face Tom Brady and Andrew Luck twice in the final weeks. They'll see great quarterbacks in the playoffs too.

    It makes too much sense for the Texans to ease Mercilus onto the defense more in the coming weeks. Week 11 should be a wake-up call, and the starters have seen a heavy load of snaps as it is.

    Fans disappointed in the pass defense are anxious to see more Mercilus, and the team won't know how much the rookie can help going forward without game-day snaps.

Shaun Cody

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    The Houston Texans need Shaun Cody back on the nose. The team's starting nose tackle has been out with various injuries since leaving mid-game Week 9 against the Buffalo Bills.

    The Texans are undersized as it is at the position and without Cody they lose their best point of attack player. Cody is a tough body to move, while backup nose tackle Earl Mitchell is more of a quick-twitch player who has to win with leverage. Mitchell has struggled on early downs since taking over and hasn't provided the stout presence Cody did.

    Cody isn't a flashy player on the field, but he frees up the other stars on the defense to make plays. Losing Brian Cushing for the season was a big enough blow. Losing two vital players up the middle of the defense could be crippling.

    It's fine to float by in Weeks 9, 10 and 11 without an important player like this, but down the stretch the Texans will need to firm up the middle of their defense. Cody's return should be welcomed with open arms.

    Cody's injuries were never believed to be serious, and it sounds as if he could be returning to the field soon. Head coach Gary Kubiak spoke about Cody's situation to Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle:

    “I know he had a procedure done that is tied to his ribs, somehow associated with what took place with his ribs,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “The procedure went good. It got him back in position, working back toward the field.”

    Houston's defense needs Cody back on the nose and (more importantly) healthy going forward. The Texans' base defense isn't nearly as effective without him.

James Casey

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    Beyond the obvious stars on offense, James Casey is the new biggest headache for defensive coordinators facing the Houston Texans' offense.

    Who do they assign to Casey? Linebackers aren't fast enough and putting a defensive back on him makes the defense too light. If a defense goes light against the Texans, they'll run it all day with their stable of backs. It's a problem defensive coordinators face every week when scheming against Houston's offense.

    Casey has lined up at fullback for the most part, but has also lined up at tight end and wide receiver. Needless to say, the number of roles he plays on the offense makes him one of the most vital players on the roster.

    Casey has been a matchup nightmare for defenses since the Texans drafted him in the fifth round in 2009. His disguise on the offense gives Kubiak another chess piece to play with when designing the week's game plan.

    Casey has been featured in the passing game this year (24 catches, 231 yards) more than in past seasons, and he's finally getting the credit he deserves.

    The Texans offense would not be able to function at the high level it does without the super versatile James Casey.

Duane Brown

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    One thing not said after Schaub's 527 yard passing day in Week 11: "He must have had some outstanding blocking from his blindside offensive tackle."

    Well, let it be said.

    It's about time Duane Brown gets credit when all the stars on the offense shine. NFL fans can try, but they won't find a more complete offensive tackle in the league than Houston's Brown.

    In a league full of stiff, unathletic players being trotted out at the tackle position every week, Brown is a beacon of athleticism. He has all the feet and quicks needed to fend off the league's best edge players.

    The Texans gave Brown, their 2008 first-round pick, a hefty extension in August and he's earning every penny of it. While Gary Kubiak has sorted through issues on the right side of the offensive line, Brown has given the Texans the consistency needed on the left side.

    Houston's offense finds its most success running the ball to the left, with Brown typically setting the edge when not accompanied by a tight end. Brown is also terrific on screens where he's able to detach from the line and get to the second level of the defense quicker than most offensive lineman.

    Brown has been an anchor on one of the best offenses in the NFL for years now, and it's time the NFL world and fans recognize his play.