Following the 2011 season, expectations were high for the Houston Texans' defense, as they should have been. In 2011, the defense, which fans emphatically referred to as "Bulls on Parade," was nearly unstoppable.
The pass rush devastated offenses. The combination of Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed, Antonio Smith, J.J. Watt and even Brian Cushing was too much for opposing offensive lines. Neither of the aforementioned defenders were superstars at the time, but they all contributed consistently and wreaked havoc together.
And in the secondary, Johnathan Joseph was enjoying the best season of his career. His incredible play vaunted him into the top tier of cornerbacks, and he was considered one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the NFL.
The pass rush reached opposing quarterbacks at a ridiculous rate; Joseph ensured that the No. 1 receiving target would almost never be open in time for the quarterback to get bailed out. It was a cycle the worked nearly to perfection. It was expected to continue in 2012.
While the Texans still fielded a solid defense last season, it was nothing compared to the elite unit that dominated each and every game in 2011.
What went wrong?
The easy answer is that the secondary, which failed to live up to its hype, allowed opposing receivers to get open too early and too often. And this is true. The secondary did struggle, mostly because Joseph—who was playing with multiple injuries—did not even come close to playing at his 2011 form.
But Joseph was not the sole problem in the secondary. Danieal Manning allowed a startling 72.3 percent completion percentage. Glover Quin was a great run defender, but his coverage was average at best.
Slot cornerback Brice McCain played inconsistently, and he struggled mightily at times. And when McCain landed on the IR, sophomore cornerback Brandon Harris was unable to even meet the level of McCain's inconsistent play.
Yet, despite all of its shortcomings, the Texans' secondary was not the main reason for the defensive regression that the team experienced in 2012.
It was the pass rush. Yes, Watt was absolutely dominant. He had one of the best defensive seasons in the history of the NFL, in fact.
But defenses are not made by one player. Watt was incredible, but his fellow pass-rushers were terribly unreliable. After a great 2011 season, Barwin became one of the least efficient outside linebackers in the league. And while Brooks Reed was valuable against the run, his two-and-a-half sacks stands as a testament to his inability to reach the quarterback.
But what about Antonio Smith, you ask? Yes, Smith had an excellent season rushing the quarterback.
But in the Texans' defensive scheme, the blunt of the pass-rushing force is supposed to come from the outside linebackers, and the two starting ones—Barwin and Reed—combined for a measly 5.5 sacks. Backup Whitney Mercilus, who did not receive much playing time, totaled more sacks than the two starters.
As obvious, the Texans' 2012 pass rush cannot even compare to the pass rush in 2011. And the secondary suffered for this. Opposing quarterbacks—especially elite ones—had a lot of time in the pocked to diagnose the defense and wait for their receivers to get open. Then they tore apart the Texans' secondary.
This all has to change this season. If the Texans are to take down the Tom Bradys of the NFL, the passrush will have to dramatically improve.
And while this improvement is not yet tangible, it is certainly possible. Brian Cushing will be returning from his ACL injury. His very presence on the field will play a major role in improving the pass rush. Mercilus, the Texans' first-round pick in 2012, had a promising season last year, and he will be given the opportunity to contribute at a much higher level with Barwin now on the Philadelphia Eagles.
And if Brooks Reed can manage to surmount his 2012 sack numbers—which he almost certainly will—the pass rush will certainly benefit for it.
Although it is impossible to guarantee, it seems that the Texans' pass rush this season should and will be better than last year. And if it is, the Bulls on Parade might just be ready for a return.