NFL Team Previews: Houston Texans

The Houston Texans broke through last season. Their 10-6 record and subsequent first round victory over Cincinnati produced the franchise’s first playoff berth, first AFC South title and first playoff win, all in one fell swoop. Now it’s time to the next question—the Patriots have flaws. The Ravens & Steelers are getting old. Is now the time for the Texans to win an AFC crown? TheSportsNotebook previews their chances in 2012…

OFFENSE: Houston ran away with the division early last year, meaning the season-ending injury to quarterback Matt Schaub left them plenty of time to mess around, blow a couple games and settle on T.J. Yates as the backup. The only games the team won with Yates were a regular season game against Cincinnati, then the playoff win over the same team.

Given that, it’s surprising the organization made no effort to strengthen the backup position. Schaub can be a prolific quarterback, a Fantasy player’s dream, but there are questions about his ability to close games and his durability. Furthermore, he doesn’t have the playoff experience the rest of the team has. We know he’ll throw the ball well enough to make this team a contender, but we don’t know much beyond that.

Schaub can be secure knowing that when he turns to hand off there’s Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the league’s best 1-2 running back punch, waiting to take the ball. Foster is the consensus choice among Fantasy players as the best back in the league right now and from a non-Fantasy standpoint, he’s got tremendous vision and lateral agility between the tackles.

The backs need to be good, because there’s question marks on the offensive line and with the receivers. The line has two great pieces in left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers. But they lost another quality piece in right tackle Eric Winston, who hit the free agent market. There are no viable replacements and the guards are shaky. Foster and Tate are going to make a lot of their own space.

If Andre Johnson is healthy all is good with the receivers. As good a big-play threat as there is in the game, he wasn’t healthy last year though and while expected to play when the regular season starts this year, a groin injury is already acting up. Tight end Owen Daniels has had injury problems of his own and there are no quality secondary threats.

DEFENSE: Wade Phillips showed that, for whatever his faults were in his ill-fated tenure as head coach in Dallas, he knows how to coordinate a defense. He took over this side of the ball for Gary Kubiak last year and frankly saved Kubiak’s job. Consider that Phillips took a team built for a 4-3, switched them to the 3-4, lost Mario Williams to a season-ending injury and still turned a unit known for failure into one of the best in the league. Had Schaub not been hurt, I think this defense would have put Houston in the Super Bowl and probably won it.

There aren’t many 3-4 schemes that have two defensive ends who get after the quarterback like Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt, who combined for 12 sacks—a good number in a scheme designed more to liberate outside linebackers. Speaking of which, one of those OLBS, Conner Barwin posted 11 sacks and Brooks Reed is a good pass rushing threat on the other side if opposing offensive lines forget to account for him. When you move to the inside, you find Brian Cushing, one of the best ILB’s in the business and a steady presence in Bradie James. The only soft cog in the front seven is nose guard Shaun Cody.

Jonathan Joseph gives Philips a lockdown cover corner as good as anyone not named Darrelle Revis. The secondary overall, is a good, but not great unit. Opposing quarterbacks can pick up Kareem Jackson on the other corner and while strong safety is Danieal Manning is tough against the run and in short coverage, he can beaten if the defense gets spread out. Free safety Glover Quin is reliable, but perhaps lacks the interception instincts you’d like to see from someone playing on a defense that’s going to force a lot of rushed throws.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 9.5—Are you kidding? I’m debating whether to pick Houston to reach the Super Bowl. They won ten games with Schaub missing substantial time, Johnson missing substantial time and Williams—gone in free agency to Buffalo—missing the entire year. Taking them for a 10-win season and the Over is an easy call.