In 2011, the Texans defense was nearly unstoppable. Almost every member of the front-seven was able to consistently pressure the passer, and opposing quarterbacks struggled heavily when they were matched up against the Texans.
In 2012, the exact opposite happened. Yes, J.J. Watt rose to superstardom, but the other members of the front-seven—excluding Antonio Smith—took a major step back.
Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, the team's two starting outside linebackers, combined for a pathetic five-and-a-half sacks. Barwin had three and Reed had two-and-a-half.
In the Texans' defensive scheme, it is critical for pressure to come from the outside; this collapses the pocket and forces the quarterback to step up into inside pressure.
Last season, pass-rushing pressure only came from the inside, which would allow the quarterbacks to escape outside the pocket, granting them much more time to either find an open receiver or make a play on their feet.
The result was bad. The Texans defense seemed a shell of its former self.
In order for the Texans to take down elite quarterbacks this season, the pass rush must regain its dominant form. Brian Cushing, who missed the majority of last season, will certainly strengthen the front-seven.
But the key lies with Whitney Mercilus and Reed. Mercilus, who only saw limited action last season, stands poised to make a huge impact on the defense. Reed, though, who despite being an effective run defender, is a concern when it comes to rushing the quarterback.
So, will the pass rush generate outside pressure, or will it rely on inside pressure, placing much more stress on the secondary?