10 Houston Texans Players Who Have Improved Most Since 2010
We interrupt this regularly scheduled article about how Matt Leinart is no Matt Schaub to bring you something positive.
Yes, regardless of recent events, there is still plenty to be excited about in Houston for the present and the future.
I said in preseason that it appeared that this team already had a lot of talent, mostly on the defensive side of the ball, that appeared to simply have been coached poorly in 2010. That's the only explanation for adding Wade Phillips, and all of a sudden, they're good. Really good.
There are a few others on the offensive side of the ball, but when I start thinking about 10 Texans players who have improved the most since the end of the nightmare that was the 2010 season, it's going to be mostly defense.
With that said, let's take a look at those players now.
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Casey has been sidelined or limited the past six weeks, but there is no denying the improvements he made over the offseason. When Vonta Leach departed and he was named the starting fullback, I'm not sure even the team believed he would work well there. This was evidenced when they signed Lawrence Vickers to compete with him in camp.
Not only did Casey win the job, he produced big numbers on the field. Giving the offense yet another weapon, Casey went off in the shoot out against the Saints in Week 3 to the tune of 126 yards receiving as well as a highlight reel diving touchdown catch.
Since having the pectoral injury, his snaps have reduced with Vickers playing so well, but I expect to see Casey back in there for meaningful time down the stretch for the run to the playoffs.
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What a difference a few weeks can make. A little over a month ago, fans in Houston were ready to run Jacoby Jones out of town. Perhaps the coaching staff was, too, since they went out and traded for veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason.
I don't know if this finally lit a fire under Jacoby or what, but since the trade, he has compiled 13 catches for 277 yards and a pair of long touchdown catches.
But it isn't just receiving that Jones has improved in 2011. He is doing things now that we have never seen in the past, such as being a willing and capable blocker downfield. Also, his performance returning punts has improved. He is dancing less this season and just catching the ball and running forward as he should.
Hopefully, his improved performance hangs around once Andre Johnson returns the next game.
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I know at this point everyone is ready to close this article and move on. But when you think about how awful Kareem Jackson was last season, how could you not expect some form of improvement in year two?
Jackson is already the favorite target of opposing quarterbacks. That's just going to happen when you have Johnathan Joseph playing at an All-Pro level on the other side of the field. But something that happened last year with Jackson was that he gave up six everytime that happened.
He is still giving up the big play here and there, but instead of getting beat by 10-plus yards by some guy who was working at a tire shop the week before and falling down, he is tackling really well and keeping his guy in front of him for the most part.
The past three weeks, Kareem has had four passes defended, including what looked like a sure touchdown (pictured above) against Tampa.
Kareem is never going to be a lockdown guy or even a guy you feel comfortable with. But Wade Phillips has seen what his abilities are and isn't asking him to do more than that. So neither should we.
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It's hard to say that Duane Brown has really improved when he wasn't really ever a problem to begin with. But a good offensive line from last season has become amazing in 2011, and it is in no small part due to Brown, who is playing the best football of his career.
Be it in run blocking or coverage, Duane is handling his assignments with ease and just flat out getting it done in the tranches.
This should be Duane's first Pro Bowl appearance, and he deserves it.
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Mario being on here is another one where people are going to say "What the hell are you talking about?"
With him done for the 2011 season after only 17 quarters of play, it's very hard to say he improved over a full 2010 season. But that's just what I'm going to do.
Before his unfortunate pectoral injury that has him as a spectator on the Texan sideline, Williams was well on his way to his best season as a pro. In just four games and a quarter, he had accrued five sacks and was applying consistent pressure to opposing quarterbacks. All the while learning a new position and getting better at it each week.
No one knows what Mario's future in Houston is, and it's unfortunate that we may not ever get to know how much success he would have had under Wade Phillips, but early indications were that it was about to be something special.
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Antonio Smith has never been what anyone would call a disappointment during his tenure in Houston. But he looks like a completely different player under the Wade Phillips defense.
Through the first five games of the season, the "Ninja Assassin" had tallied 4.5 sacks and was causing as many disruptions as anyone in the league. Sure, he's fell off a bit on the stat sheet since Mario Williams went down, but he is still doing a ton of things that don't show up on the game logs.
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Having Owen Daniels back at full strength makes this one a lay up.
Daniels did start 10 games for the Texans in 2010, but he didn't look to be back to his normal level of play until the final four contests of that season, which led many to hope that he would be back to his Pro Bowl-caliber play in 2011.
His stats are good, but the thing that OD has done this season that makes him so valuable is how many times he has made a big time catch in the clutch. Several times towards the end of a game that the Texans were trying to close out, he made the big reception (on a bad pass) on third and long to put the game out of reach.
Most knew when the team gave him a multi-year deal that was pretty rich, the team felt pretty confident in his rehabilitation. Thus far, he's earning it in 2011.
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I was one of the guilty parties in the preseason that thought Brice McCain should have been cut. I cited his height and lack of coverage skills for that reason, and I didn't even have to bring up his play in 2010.
But, much like with Mario Williams and Arian Foster, I have absolutely no problem eating some crow on a player I was wrong about.
First of all, you have to discount last season when talking about a defensive player currently on this roster. Because for any player to excel in that trash scheme that Frank Bush rolled out there last season would have been amazing. It set players up to fail, and McCain was in on his share of that.
But in 2011, not only is McCain making plays, he's getting his hand on passes and pulling some of them down. Two interceptions and seven passes defended is monumentally better than anything he did in a scheme in 2010 whose mantra was basically "go out there and stop the other team."
Oy, Frank Bush...
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If you took a poll from Texans fans before the season about which starter not named Kareem Jackson they'd most like to see replaced, Shaun Cody would have been pretty high on the results. I was guilty of it myself, always stating that he "couldn't even start on an 0-16 Lions team."
But, once again, a Texans player is making me have a heaping helping of crow.
Much like Antonio Smith, Cody seems like the chains have been removed in Wade Phillips' scheme. He has been an unsung hero at the nose and has been dominant against the run.
Saying Cody is the future is a long shot, and I still think they take a heavier nose tackle in the draft this year, but let us give credit where credit is due.
Cody has been outstanding.
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If I had to put a guy at the top of this list, Brian Cushing would be it. Not only is he the most improved player on the Texans this season, he just might be the most improved player in the league on the defensive side of the ball.
After being the victim of a four-game suspension and then multiple position changes, Cushing disappeared at times in 2010 and seemed to lose all the burst and energy he showed as a rookie. This led many to write him off as a "juicer" and a "product of steroid abuse."
This season, Cushing has been quoted by teammate Antonio Smith that this kind of talk is what has him playing with such a chip on his shoulder this season. He's used it to motivate himself, and it has worked on a high level. His teammates have responded to his play as well by voting him a team captain at the season's halfway point.
I've gotten into debates on our podcast (see link below) about how everyone calls Clay Matthews the best at his position, but I've challenged them to tell me one thing he is doing this year that Cushing isn't. Matthews has a couple more sacks, Cushing has a couple more interceptions but doesn't have long blond hair and commercials.
Cushing does have a ton more tackles than his former USC teammate, however.