After a decade that started with terrible play and David Carr at the helm, followed by mediocrity with the beginning of the Matt Schaub era, Houston finally became a force to be dealt with in 2011. The Texans have a lot of star power all over the field, which means they could be the predicted division champions for years to come.
However, this offseason money became the Texans’ enemy, as one of the former faces of the franchise, Mario Williams, left for Buffalo. A few other former starters had to leave town as well. While the keys to the Texans are still in place, some of the problems weren’t fixed either, which should lead to an interesting 2012.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) The Running Duo
After just an okay start to the 2011 campaign, Arian Foster proved during the rest of the season that he wasn’t a one-year wonder. While some backs slowed down as the season progressed, he improved. Through his last four games he averaged 6.1 yards per carry over 90 attempts, and had five touchdowns. He was one of the best receiving backs in the league as well, his 11.8 yards per catch led all backs with at least 20 catches. He will remain at the center of the offense in 2012.
The one-two punch Houston has in the backfield is almost too good to be true. Backup Ben Tate dominated the Elusive Rating in the AFC with a rating of 55.1, while the next highest in the conference was 41.8. The NFL is becoming more and more of a passing game, but it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to give both of these players many touches throughout a game.
2) Hopefully Healthy Johnson
Last year the Texans were without star receiver Andre Johnson more often than they had him healthy. The only times he seemed to stay healthy were the first three games of the season, as well as the last two. In each of those games he had over 90 receiving yards, so there is little doubt he can still play at a high level when healthy. A groin injury has caused some recent problems, but by the start of the season he is expected to be fully fit. We never really saw all of the Texans’ offensive weapons at the same time in 2011, but they were still productive when someone was hurt. It’s scary to think what they might be capable of with everyone on the field at once.
3) Second Year Defense
In 2011, the Texans brought in Wade Phillips who was able to turn the unit around despite a shortened offseason. The biggest problem the Houston defense had in 2010 was their coverage, and one huge piece of the puzzle was added in 2011 with Johnathan Joseph. Only once all season did he allow more than 75 yards in a game, and that was against the Baltimore Ravens in the regular season. He made up for that by only allowing a 9 -yard catch against the Ravens in the playoffs. With more time for Phillips to install his defense and Joseph’s continued emergence as an elite cornerback, the Texans talent on both sides of the football could potentially make them one of the most complete teams in football.
4) Improved Pass Rush
When you’re drafted with the 11th overall pick in the draft, it’s hard to exceed expectations. J.J. Watt did just that in his rookie year. His 10.2 Run Stop Percentage was the second highest for 3-4 defensive ends in the league, which in itself is impressive. What made the team more dangerous was his ability to cause interior pressure with his partner in crime Antonio Smith. Smith had the second highest pass rushing productivity in the league for 3-4 ends at 8.6, while Watt finished sixth at 7.2. They should continue to cause problems for the guards and centers in the league.
The Texans didn’t make any big splashes in free agency, and most of their draft picks were for depth and to develop future players. The one new player that should make a clear immediate impact is Whitney Mercilus. Last year both Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed posted a high number of sacks (22 combined), but didn’t produce nearly as many pressures as you would expect. The Texans have a number of young pass rushers who should continue to improve and make life even easier for their secondary.
5) Offensive Line Studs
If you’ve been to Pro Football Focus enough in the past, you know these two names, but they are worth repeating. In his fourth year as a starter, Duane Brown has developed into one of the better left tackles in the league. He has not allowed a sack in his last 686 pass plays, and has allowed just five hits over that time. It’s hard to get much better than that in pass protection. In the middle of the line is Chris Myers, who in his first game of the 2011 season had a +7.1 run-block rating. Only two other centers had a higher rating over the course of the season. Having such dominant players at these two critical positions will continue to be an asset for the offense.
Five Reasons for Concern
1) The Cornerback Opposite Joseph
Typically a team will have two cornerbacks that play basically every snap. The Texans were the exception to this because they didn’t want Kareem Jackson in all game long. Quarterbacks had a rating of 111.4 when throwing in his direction, which is a bit of a disappointment for a former first-round draft pick. Jason Allen shared snaps with Jackson in 2011, but Allen is now a Bengal. Right now, Alan Ball would be Jackson’s replacement, but he did little to impress in his first year at CB for the Cowboys last season. In 2011, quarterbacks knew they could attack whoever lined up in this position, and that should be no different in 2012.
2) The Other Offensive Linemen
While the Texans at one point had an elite offensive line, it doesn’t seem as true coming into 2012. Wade Smith looked like one of the better left guards in the league in 2010, but then pulled a complete 180 for 2012. His run-block rating of -21.8 was the worst for left guards in the regular season. His pass blocking also declined somewhat, which in large part was due to allowing nine pressures against the Oakland Raiders, compared to 15 pressures all of 2010. While we would expect Smith to rebound in 2012, he might not reach what he was in 2010.
Houston made a very questionable move, in our opinion, in letting right tackle Eric Winston leave town. His likely replacement is Rashad Butler, who last saw significant time in 2010 with a few starts at left tackle which led to a -11.4 rating. At best we can say that Butler is unproven, but it’s highly unlikely he can reach the play of Winston. At right guard the Texans let Mike Brisiel go to the Raiders, so he will be replaced by Antonie Caldwell. Over the past three years, Caldwell has had significant time at the position and he has played decently, so this change won’t be as huge as at right tackle. What once looked like a stable unit now has some uncertainty.
3) Depth at Receiver
The Texans have struggled for years to find the right receivers to put on the field outside of Andre Johnson. While there is a growing concern about Johnson’s health, the need for quality players after him on the depth chart becomes even more important. In recent years Houston has used Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones. Jones is now with the Baltimore Ravens, which leaves Walter as the clear-cut starter. However, his 64.3% catch rate and 12.1 yards per catch aren’t going to scare defenses, and he is at an age where receivers generally decline.
The only other receiver with experience on the depth chart is Bryant Johnson. The past season was his first the Texans and he saw just six catches. His last significant time was in 2010 when he had 18 catches, compared to seven dropped catches. Like the two starters, he is also on the wrong side of 30. The Texans used both third and fourth round draft picks at the wide receiver position, but it’s not often a later round receiver makes a significant impact in his rookie year. This has been a reason to be concerned for years, and it still hasn’t been fixed.
4) Safety Depth
For the 2011 season, the Texans moved Glover Quin from CB to safety and made him a full-time starter. You would expect with a position change that someone would have a rough start and then improve from there. Quin, on the other hand, saw a decline in his play when it mattered most. Over the last four games of the season he averaged a stop only every other game, after averaging 1.4 per game during the majority of the year. In coverage he didn’t record a single pass defense, after having seven earlier in the season. It doesn’t look like Quin is the answer at safety, but Houston didn’t address the position at all during the offseason.
5) The loss of Dreessen
Another player the Texans lost without bringing in someone else is tight end Joel Dreessen. The Texans liked using him, as well as Owen Daniels and James Casey, in a variety of positions, and each player was an asset in the passing game. While it’s unlikely the Texans pass game will be hurt by the departure, theycould see problems in the run game. Dreessen had the third highest run-block rating for tight ends in 2011. The Texans had three starters with positive run-block ratings that year, and now only Chris Myers remains on the roster. Losing a blocker like Dreessen could take a toll on some of the outside runs the Texans attempt.
What to Expect
While the Texans did little to improve themselves in the offseason, other than get healthy, they still were division champions last year. It’s hard to imagine the Colts or Jaguars making much of a run at the title in 2012, so Houston’s main competition will come from Tennessee. Assuming they can beat out the Titans again this year, the question won’t be whether the Texans can make the playoffs, but how far they get once they make it. If the star players can stay healthy, and the new starters can become adequate replacements, the Texans can be serious contenders in the AFC.