What to Make of the Defensive Success of the Houston Texans Preseason

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What to Make of the Defensive Success of the Houston Texans Preseason
HOUSTON - AUGUST 20: Cornerback Kareem Jackson #25 of the Houston Texans and Devery Henderson #19 of the New Orleans Saints get into an altercation at Reliant Stadium on August 20, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The Houston Texans are 3-0… in the preseason. The Texans record in exhibition games is just the latest feather in the cap of the team that has tried to sell the city of Houston on one more chance for head coach Gary Kubiak with the addition of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

At least the wins in the preseason are tangible results, as opposed to what the fan-base received over the offseason: a lot of talk about the draft, position changes, free agency and defensive overhaul in general. For some fans, the exhibition victories were exactly what they needed to see in order to be enthused about 2011.

A greater portion of the city is still skeptical after years of disappointment from watching promising teams inevitably fail yet again. This group simply points to the obvious fact that preseason success not only means nothing, but it can also be very deceiving. After all, the Lions went 4-0 the year that they went 0-16 in the regular season.

The preseason has some value, but it is only for the discerning fan’s eye. It’s not enough to know a player’s statistics; you have to know who he was going against and who was or, more aptly, wasn’t on the field with him. There are so many variables in the preseason that they only way to judge the product is to watch every snap.

So what should be made of the Texans' efforts thus far? The only game left is the fourth game in which the starters will not really be asked to play too much, so an accurate assessment of the players who will play the most in the regular season can be given. 

As everyone knows, the defense is what needs to progress the most for the team to be better in 2011. Below are my thoughts on that side of the ball, and later I will publish my thoughts on the offense.

Pressure on the Quarterback

The difference is night and day. So many people focus on the Texans' secondary for the worst pass defense in the league last year, and for good reason. What is commonly overlooked, however, is that the pass rush, or lack thereof, exposed a bad secondary and made it worse.

So far, through three games, the Texans have 14 sacks, tied for most in the NFL. Over half of those have been by the starters. While this doesn’t mean you should pencil in the Texans for roughly 80 sacks this season, it does mean that there is marked improvement over the old scheme, which produced four sacks in four games last season.

The reasoning for the improvement is multi-faceted. One factor is better personnel. J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed have been spectacular thus far, especially for rookies. Watt has yet to earn an official sack even though his pressures have led to several, and Reed has played against first and second string blockers with success. Getting Connor Barwin back from injury is like getting a new player as well.

The other factor is creating better matchups. Antonio Smith is much more productive rushing from the inside because most guards do not have the athleticism to match up against him one-on-one. Opposing blockers don’t have the option, though, of double-teaming him and leaving the rest of the line exposed to one-on-one blocks with J.J. Watt and Earl Mitchell.

The result is that the Texans are getting an interior pass rush, something that has been lacking since… forever. Couple this with better rushing off the edge, and the Texans have been making opposing quarterbacks' lives miserable. One other silver lining? Wade Phillips hasn’t used extra blitzers as he is known for because it is the preseason.

Getting Run On

It’s not all sunshine and roses. The Texans have been getting run on, and in an embarrassing way. It may not be hugely prevalent in the statistics, but anyone that watched the Jets or Saints game saw runners finding success right up the middle of the Texans' defense.

One factor is inconsistent personnel. DeMeco Ryans is coming off a season-ending Achilles tendon injury but has also been hampered by an elbow injury sustained this preseason. The other starting inside linebacker, Brian Cushing, has been slow to recover from an offseason knee injury and missed part of camp and the first preseason game.

The Texans have surprising depth here, given Darryl Sharpton and Xavier Adibi’s performances filling in for the two starters. Adibi especially has been a revelation in Cushing’s spot. Despite that, the best tandem by far would be Cushing and Ryans, and it’s not even close. If Cushing could play like he did in 2009, he would be amazingly effective in this defense.

The other thing that must be fixed is the reactions of the front five. As you’ve no doubt heard many times by this point, Phillips employs a five-man front on most first and second down plays. Until these five players become more used to reading the run and performing the responsibilities associated with it, the problem will persist.

For a much more thorough explanation of this phenomenon, read my column about it here.

Competence in the Secondary

The back end has been… OK. The defense had to play without prized offseason acquisition Johnathan Joseph until the last game against the 49ers, but they fared decently without him. New safety Danieal Manning got burnt for a long touchdown, and corner Jason Allen gave up a 43-yard pass while in man coverage. Other than that, there weren’t the typical huge plays given up.

The sieve-like coverage from 2010 has not been seen for a myriad of reasons. One is lack of competition. Mark Sanchez and Alex Smith won’t be confused for All-Pros anytime soon. All the same, though, Smith burnt the Texans for three second half TD’s in 2009, and Sanchez had three of his own including one that won the game.

Drew Brees is a handful for any pass defense. Against the Texans, his stat line was a pedestrian 7 for 14 with 109 yards. 109 yards in less than a half may not be cause for celebration, but they held him to no touchdowns. I don’t even want to think about what he would have done to Frank Bush’s defense.

As stated before, the pass rush has helped the secondary immensely. Brees was driving on the Saints' first series, but Antonio Smith sacked and forced a fumble that was recovered 24 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Quarterbacks have simply not had the time to hold on to the ball and let their receivers get down the field.

The other reason is better play, especially that of the safeties. Glover Quin has been physical against the run but has not lost any of the coverage skills that had made him the Texans' best corner before he switched positions. Manning has also been a treat for fans used to Eugene Wilson and Bernard Pollard.

Conclusion

The Texans' defense will not be elite this season. The personnel will still be learning the nuances of this defense well into the season. They still also have serious questions at corner, nose tackle and maybe even inside linebacker.

They are already incredibly better than they were last season. The 49ers are very bad, but past Texans' defenses have made any quarterback not named Rusty Smith look amazing. Last season, several quarterbacks had their best game of 2010 against Houston.

The preseason may not matter in terms of wins or losses, but don’t fool yourself; no NFL teams want to do poorly in exhibition games or don’t care if they do. Every team played the Texans as best as they could and were limited by the defense. 

All of this is not to say that success in the regular season is guaranteed. Texans fans, however, have seen evidence they can believe in that the defense will be better. If the offense can remain as good as it has been in the past, the team should take a huge step forward in 2011.

Don’t agree or have thoughts of your own? Let me know either in the comments or on Twitter (@JakeBRB).

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