Houston Texans: What Are the Reasonable Expectations for Wade Phillips' Defense?
Now that Houston head coach Gary Kubiak has hired former Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips on as defensive coordinator, much speculation has swirled about a possible playoff appearance for the Texans. With an already prolific offense, a good defense could be enough to accomplish that.
But just what are the reasonable expectations for Phillips' defense in 2011?
As good a coordinator as Phillips is, there's almost always a transition year for a defense switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
That said, the Texans have a great amount of defensive talent that seems to fit remarkably well into a 3-4. With players like Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, JJ Watt and Antonio Smith, Houston could have enough talent to cover up any first-year deficiencies.
So can Wade Phillips give the Texans what they've been missing in their first nine years?
Let's find out.
Sources: ESPN.com, Scout.com, WalterFootball.com
With the switch to only three down linemen after playing with four all its years, the Houston Texans will have improved depth along the defensive line.
Some of the team's defensive tackles will switch to 3-technique (defensive end), while others will be designated a 1-technique (nose tackle).
Veteran Antonio Smith will likely start at one defensive end spot. The 6'4", 295-pounder registered 38 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble in 2010. The other end spot will be a battle between 2011 first-round draft pick JJ Watt and former first-rounder Amobi Okoye, who will be switching from defensive tackle.
No matter who wins the job, depth will be good at this position.
Nose tackle is one of the Texans' biggest question marks. Earl Mitchell and Shaun Cody are candidates for this job, but neither one has made a significant impact on the team and both are undersized.
The Texans would do themselves very well to find a serviceable veteran to start at nose tackle until they can find a permanent solution via the NFL Draft. A few free-agent possibilities are Pat Williams, Ron Edwards, Kris Jenkins and Jamal Williams.
If neglected, nose tackle could be a weakness for this defense. But the Texans' solid defensive end positions should be enough to make this at least a halfway decent defensive line.
How they'll rank: 15th-18th
When a Houston opponent takes a look at the Texans' four starting linebackers, I can just imagine the chill going down his spine.
With Mario Williams and Connor Barwin at outside linebacker and DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing at inside linebacker, this corps looks like it could instantly be one of the NFL's best.
Williams was a sack machine for the Texans at his old defensive end spot, racking up 8.5 sacks in just 13 games in 2010. His career totals are an impressive 48 sacks and 10 forced fumbles in just 77 games.
At 6'6", 295 pounds, the NC State product will be a huge mismatch for offensive tackles when coming around the corner at full speed. Think DeMarcus Ware plus two inches and 30 pounds.
On the other side will be Barwin, who had a nice rookie season in which he recorded 3.5 sacks in a third-down role. After registering no stats in 2010 because of an injury, Barwin is one of my choices forbreakout players of 2011. If he can stay healthy, he'll be a force across from Williams.
The inside linebackers could collectively be even better than the outside linebackers. DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing are both incredibly gifted players who have made big impacts early and often in their few seasons with the Texans.
While Ryans was injured much of last year, he hadn't had fewer than 112 tackles in each of his first four seasons. Cushing was suspended for the first four games of 2010 but recorded 76 tackles in the last 12 games. He burst onto the scene with 134 tackles and five sacks as a rookie.
Both Ryans and Cushing are two of the NFL's top linebackers, and the combination of the two could be deadly for opposing running games.
Not only do the Texans have great starters at linebacker, but they also have good depth with players like Xavier Adibi, Zac Diles, Brooks Reed and Darryl Sharpton.
In short, look out for the Houston Texans linebacking corps in 2011.
How they'll rank: second-fifth
The Houston Texans secondary is a bit of a question mark for 2011.
Okay, a huge question mark.
The Texans were dead last in pass defense last season, giving up 267.5 yards per game through the air. First-round draft pick Kareem Jackson was a mild disappointment last year, but he is still one of the best defensive backs on the Texans' roster.
Houston made an attempt to fix the problem by drafting cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Rashad Carmichael and safety Shiloh Keo in the '11 Draft. While Harris could be an instant starter, having two starting cornerbacks with a grand total of one year of experience is not going to cut it against Peyton Manning.
On top of that, cornerback Glover Quin needs to be moved to nickelback or safety, while Bernard Pollard may not be back in 2011. Pollard was relatively inept in pass defense anyway despite defending the run exceptionally.
The Texans simply must find help via free agency for its last line of defense. They could pursue guys like Josh Wilson, Carlos Rogers or Eric Wright at cornerback and Quintin Mikell, Michael Huff or Dashon Goldson at safety, among others.
No matter who they get, the secondary needs to improve in 2011, because a defense is only as strong as its weakest link.
As long as they bring in some free agents to compete with their young draft choices, some improvement should occur.
How they'll rank: 17th-20th
Realistic Expectations: Defense Pulls Its Own Weight in Playoff Season
Overall, Wade Phillips looks like the right hire for Houston. Gary Kubiak was given one more chance by owner Bob McNair after the Texans stumbled to a 6-10 finish, and he isn't wasting the opportunity.
Under Phillips' guidance, this defense looks like it has the tools to be successful—for the most part.
If they really want to ensure a playoff berth, however, the Texans must make it a top priority to fix the secondary. Finding help at nose tackle certainly wouldn't hurt either, but Houston's run defense ranked a cool 13th in the league last season, relegating that need to the back seat.
As long as the secondary improves, this defense will be strong enough to support a high-powered offense that features Andre Johnson, Arian Foster and Matt Schaub.
Look for the Texans to earn their first-ever playoff berth in 2011.