Top 5 Reasons to Be Optimistic About the 2014 Houston Texans
Uncertainty surrounds the potential of the 2014 Houston Texans.
That uncertainty naturally comes with a wide difference of opinion on how successful they'll be during the first season under new head coach Bill O'Brien. After dismissing the ludicrous predictions of 4-12 or 12-4, I think we can all reasonably see their final record sitting somewhere between 6-10 and 10-6.
With the legitimate concerns about what type of production they'll get from their quarterbacks, Arian Foster and Brian Cushing's health, Andre Johnson's participation and how Jadeveon Clowney will transition to a new position, there are valid reasons to predict another disappointing season.
For every reason to be pessimistic, however, there are just as many reasons for optimism; the latter will be my focus during this article.
Better Pass Rush
The Texans pass rush has nowhere to go but up because as bad as it was last season, it only has room for improvement.
In 2013 the Texans finished tied for 29th in sacks with just 32 for the season; the problematic pass rush goes back more than just one season, however.
The last time the Texans' pass rush could be considered great was in 2011 when the nickname "Bulls on Parade" first started. That year the Texans finished sixth in sacks with 44 on the season. While they again sacked the quarterback 44 times in 2012—good enough to be ranked fifth—that was when their problems started because the makeup of their pass rush changed.
Of course, any sack, regardless of who or how it comes about, is a good thing, but if the pass rush is coming from just one person instead of the entire group, it won't be sustainable.
That's what the Texans' problem was in 2012 and more so in 2013.
In 2011 the Texans' sacked the quarterback 44 times with an individual high of 11.5 from outside linebacker Connor Barwin. In 2012 the Texans again had 44 sacks, but the individual high shot up to 20.5 from J.J. Watt.
The percentage of the team's overall sacks accounted for by the team leader shot up from 26 percent in 2011 to 46 percent in 2012. The difference was between the Texans having a balanced pass rush that came from everywhere to a pass rush that came from just one person; the latter is difficult to sustain no matter how talented the player is at getting after the quarterback.
Opponents can slide protection and double-team that one player to slow him down some, as we saw in 2013 when the Texans' sack total dropped off; they can't do that with a pass rush that comes from four or more players.
With the additions of Clowney, Louis Nix III and the expected improvement of Whitney Mercilus in year three, the Texans' defense should get back to rattling quarterbacks and destroying gameplans.
Just with Watt, Clowney and Nix, you have the makings of a terrific rush. If they put Clowney and Watt on opposite sides—one on each offensive tackle most likely—then opposing offensive lines won't be able to slide protection either direction to help with one guy for fear of giving the other an open path to the quarterback.
It's also unlikely that they could double-team both Watt and Clowney very often, unless they go into max-protect, because by double-teaming both, they'd be committing four players on just Clowney and Watt with likely two or three other rushers still to account for and get blocked.
There's doubt that many offensive coordinators will want to use seven blockers and only send three players out into pattern as a receiving target that often.
On top of that issue, if Nix is able to push the pocket with a power rush or bull rush from the interior, then the quarterback won't be able to step up in the pocket to avoid Watt and Clowney on the outside. Nix has better than advertised pass-rush ability in my opinion, but more importantly his interior push will keep the opposing quarterback stationary for Clowney and Watt to tee off.
More pressure equals more forced turnovers. More forced turnovers mean more victories.
The Texans' pass rush will make their defense a nightmare to game-plan against.
Improved Running Game
The reason why I expect the Texans' running game to be improved is about more than just Arian Foster; it's due to nearly the entire offense. From the additions on the offensive line, at tight end, at fullback and even on the coaching staff, they're all factors.
Obviously the offense under Gary Kubiak ran the ball extremely well, but it was a bit one-dimensional with the zone scheme, whereas, in the past, O'Brien has mixed in elements of multiple styles of running attacks to make better use of his roster and keep opponents on their toes.
For the purposes of this article, though, let's focus on the improvements to the roster and how they will impact the running game this season.
The Texans' run game was at its peak in 2010 when Foster led the league in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Soon after that season ended, the Texans lost their Pro Bowl fullback, and, then, later, after the 2011 season, they lost a good blocking tight end and two solid run-blockers on the offensive line.
Losing Vonta Leach, Joel Dreessen, Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston has impacted the Texans' success and Foster negatively over the last couple of seasons; his yards-per-game average has dropped each year since 2010.
After finishing in the top 10 for rushing yards and touchdowns as a team in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the losses caught up to the Texans in 2013 when they finished 20th and 28th, respectively, in those two categories.
Of course there were other factors that caused the drop-off other than just personnel, but not having all the players in place was easily the biggest reason for the decline.
I'm not sure if it was Rick Smith's plan all along this offseason, but, regardless, the talent of the blockers around the backs has improved greatly.
With the addition of Jay Prosch, Xavier Su'a-Filo and C.J. Fiedorowicz, the Texans added three guys who excel as run-blockers, and they have finally found replacements for the pieces they lost in 2010 and 2011. Brandon Brooks' continued development also deserves some mention; some believe he is quickly becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Foster and company should have some giant holes to run through this season.
On top adding talented blockers, Foster's health and adding two new backs should also improve the quality of the running game.
In particular, I'm excited about the rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Blue from LSU who has been compared favorably to Foster. Those are difficult shoes to fill, but his size, vision and ability as a receiver should be enough to get fans excited.
With what the Texans have in a quarterback, they're likely to lean heavily on the run game to put the offense in more manageable third-down situations and to also set up the play-action pass. Lucky for Ryan Fitzpatrick and O'Brien, the running game is well-equipped to carry the load this season.
Fewer Critical Mistakes
Is Ryan Fitzpatrick an overall improvement from Matt Schaub?
You could definitely argue that the new Texans quarterback has been worse over the majority of his career than the longest-tenured quarterback in team history. While that may be the case, you could also argue that, despite that, Fitzpatrick is less likely to commit as many game-killing mistakes.
Confused? Let me try to explain.
Fitzpatrick has been no stranger to committing turnovers over his career. In fact over his only two seasons where he was the full 16-game starter, Fitzpatrick threw 39 interceptions. The worst two-year combined interception total for Schaub is 27, which is considerably fewer.
Those stats make it hard to argue that Fitzpatrick will be an improvement for Schaub, but I think he will be for reasons other than his skill or talent level.
The events and factors that led to the titanic collapse of the 2013 Houston Texans won't be in play this year. It was a perfect storm last season with the predictable play-calling from former coach Gary Kubiak combined with the physical deficiencies and predictability of where Schaub would go with the football.
We all saw the evidence of this terrible tornado with the interception returned for a touchdown by Richard Sherman in the Texans' come-from-ahead loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
They knew exactly what play the Texans were going to run and where they wanted to go with the ball. Since Schaub wasn't allowed to audible under Kubiak and doesn't have the arm strength to fit tough passes into small windows; the result was a disaster.
We saw that same pattern repeat constantly over the majority of the 2013 season.
O'Brien may not be a great coach, but I feel comfortable guaranteeing that he'll be less predictable than Kubiak. A less predictable offense will help a quarterback with physical limitations.
The combination of physical limitations along with an offensive attack that didn't leave the defense guessing too often caused turnovers and lost games the team had no business losing. Their starter still has physical limitations, but an offensive scheme with more of a surprise element will help keep opposing defenses on their toes.
I'll continue to expand on this point in the next slide.
Aside from the more unpredictable scheme, let's not forget that O'Brien has a track record of turning around below-average quarterbacks.
During his first year at Penn State, O'Brien inherited a quarterback who in the previous season completed 54 percent of his passes for 1,571 yards, eight touchdowns to five interceptions with a 118.3 QB rating (that's not a good mark in college like it would be in the NFL).
In that very next season with O'Brien as his coach, that quarterback's numbers jumped up to 60 percent completion for 3,271 yards, with 24 touchdowns to five interceptions and a 137.7 QB rating, which is a drastic improvement.
That quarterback was Matt McGloin.
McGloin was nothing before O'Brien got there, but he improved greatly under him and became a quarterback good enough to start six NFL games. Of course that was partly due to him being on the Oakland Raiders, but he wouldn't have even been signed as a rookie free agent had it not been for the improvement he made under O'Brien.
Fitzpatrick will by no means be a great quarterback, but O'Brien is a good enough quarterbacks coach to get whatever talent he has out of him and onto the field.
Less Predictable Play-Calling
Going off the previous slide, the new coaching staff appears to be much more flexible and versatile with its strategy and how it plans to call plays.
The Texans previous coach—Kubiak—seemed to believe in the philosophy that if his players executed, his game plan and plays were good enough to win, it was OK, even if the opponent had an idea about what was coming. O'Brien on the other hand has frequently talked about wanting to adapt and change the plan of attack from week to week depending on the opponent—like a breath of fresh air.
No two opponents are the same, so why attack them in the same way? It's important to figure out what their weaknesses are and exploit them.
If opponents can't stop the power run, then hammer it up the gut. If they have trouble containing on the outside, then use toss plays and the outside-zone run. If they struggle in pass coverage, then air it out.
This approach shouldn't be revolutionary or groundbreaking, but coming off the Kubiak regime, it certainly feels that way.
The idea of being flexible and adjusting to the opponent will extend to the defense as well. As predictable as Kubiak was last season, the same could be said about Wade Phillips' defense.
On almost every play the opposing quarterback and offensive coordinator knew the Texans would be in man coverage and were more likely to blitz than use extra defenders in coverage. Whenever they faced Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks capable of reading and exploiting the Texans' tendencies, they picked them apart.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady lit them up for a combined 741 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception last season. Those guys are future Hall of Famers, so maybe that isn't the most fair example, but it was more than just Manning and Brady.
In 2012, the trio of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Chad Henne—one of these situations is not like the other—combined to throw for 1,133 yards (377.66 per game) with 12 touchdowns to zero interceptions.
That bears repeating; they threw for 12 touchdowns with no interceptions against the Texans.
Doing the math, the combined total for those five quarterbacks in 2012 against the Texans was 1,759 yards—351.8 per game—with 18 touchdowns and no interceptions. The Texans somehow managed to go 3-2 during those five games, but they allowed an average of 35.4 points per game.
Some may disagree, but Phillips had to go.
I won't attempt to convince you that Romeo Crennel is a defensive genius, but he and O'Brien both want to use a versatile defense both in the formations they use and with an adaptive game plan from week to week.
Adding Clowney and Nix to the roster would certainly help any coordinator, but by not pigeon-holing them into only one assignment, I think Crennel will get more out of them than the previous coaching staff.
DeAndre Hopkins and C.J. Fiedorowicz
Every quarterback needs talented targets to throw to, but that's especially true of average signal-callers who aren't able to throw receivers open and make their teammates better like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady.
Fitzpatrick is certainly not in the same class as any of those previously mentioned quarterbacks. The Texans will be in even more need if Andre Johnson doesn't show up or complains his way into a trade. While very few wide receivers could come close to replacing Johnson, the Texans do have two young targets fans should get excited about.
Those targets are second-year receiver DeAndre Hopkins and rookie tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.
First, regarding Hopkins, the former Clemson star had a good rookie season last year, but he has obvious room for improvement.
His 52 receptions for 802 yards weren't great, but his stat line looks better once you take into account the quarterback play from last season. Hopkins' rookie stat line is also close to what Johnson posted during his rookie season while also dealing with poor quarterback play.
Hopkins has elite physical talents but struggled at times with the mental side of the game which ultimately caused former head coach Gary Kubiak to bench him for too many mistakes. People often say that players make the most improvement between year one and year two, so I expect many of those mental mistakes to get corrected.
Once he makes the mental transition, his physical talent will translate to the field, and we'll see him post big numbers. Predicting 75-plus receptions for over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns would be a great season for a second-year receiver and wouldn't at all be a reach.
The other target you should expect to make an impact is the rookie tight end from Iowa. Fiedorowicz didn't get a chance to display his hands often in college, but he impressed the coaches during predraft workouts, and media draft scouts such as Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com like his potential as a receiver.
Surprising lower-body flexibility to sink his hips to run sharp-angle routes. Has stature and enough speed to threaten the seam. Understands how to use his frame and physicality to create subtle separation.
Makes athletic hands catches off his frame. Sizable catch radius. Shows toughness and concentration in traffic. Lowers his shoulder to deliver a blow after the catch. Can line up in-line or split out.
Will he reach that potential? Hard to say before they put the pads on, but there's no doubt that his upside as a receiver is much higher than I initially thought.
With or without Johnson, the Texans will have plenty of quality targets with Hopkins, Fiedorowicz, Garrett Graham, Mike Thomas and even Arian Foster out of the backfield.
With Johnson returning and being a good soldier, the Texans' receiving core will be one of the best in the league.
Stats are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.