There was so much excitement about the way the Houston Texans began the 2012 season, beating their first four opponents by a combined 70 points. They then followed up their first big defeat of the season by dismantling the eventual Super Bowl champions as their season rumbled on behind the stunning play of Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. They stuttered towards the playoff however, losing three of their last four games, surrendering a first-round bye in the process. That led them back to New England in the divisional round of the playoffs where, for the second time in six weeks, they allowed over 40 points and limped out of the playoffs.
While it’s easy to view the season as a disappointment given how well it started, it’s given them something to build on this year. While the Texans were limited in what moves they could make in free agency, they’ve managed to hold onto the bulk of their starters from 2012 as they gear up for another run at the Super Bowl.
Reasons to be Confident
1. J.J. Watt
There’s no point starting anywhere else, especially considering Watt is coming off arguably the best single season by a defensive player of all time. That might seem like high praise but it’s warranted in this case, with Watt becoming the first player to break the +100.0 grade barrier in a single season at PFF. There are not really enough superlatives to do justice to his 2012 season, so dominant will have to do. Finishing the year with 83 total pressures and 16 batted passes from 687 pass rushing snaps, he was an absolute nightmare for opposing offensive lineman and quarterbacks alike. He was just as dominant against the run, with 52 of his 55 tackles resulting in a defensive stop and a Run Stop Percentage of 17.1%. Some will consider it difficult for Watt to ever achieve a season like that again, which isn’t entirely unfair given his play at times verged on the ridiculous. Yet just two seasons into his career there’s plenty of reasons to believe we’re still to see the best from the man that’s changing the way 3-4 defensive ends are viewed.
2. Andre Johnson
He may not have been the receiver with the surname Johnson to rack up the most receiving yards last season, but Andre Johnson was still our highest-graded player at his position. That’s not surprising, however, when you compare what he did to Calvin Johnson in terms of the opportunities each was afforded in 2012. “Megatron” may have put up more yards, but his total number of routes run, 770, dwarfed the 531 ran by the Texans’ star man. Considering this, Andre actually averaged a higher Yards Per Route Run figure (3.01 compared with 2.55). Away from all the numbers, Johnson remains a dominant receiver, even now at the age of 32, and will again be counted on by the Texans as they attempt to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy.
3. The Offensive Line (Part One)
While the Texans’ offensive line as a whole isn’t the most dominating in the league, they do boast two of the best players at their positions in Duane Brown and Chris Myers. Though his first two seasons in the league were up and down, Brown has grown into one of the top left tackles in the game and he followed up an impressive regular season by having two of his best games of the year in the playoffs. At center Myers wasn’t quite at the level he was in 2011, but was still impressive. He’s never finished ranked any lower than 11th at his position in the PFF era, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to play well in 2013.
4. Watt’s Defensive Line Teammates
While Watt rightly gets a lot of the praise, a couple of his partners in crime along that defensive line are no slouches in their own right. Defensive end Antonio Smith might not be the dominant player that Watt is against the run, though he’s certainly not a liability, but he’s finished as our second-highest-graded pass rusher at the position in each of the past two years. Meanwhile Earl Mitchell proved himself to be the Texans’ best option at nose tackle last season, making it easy for them to let free agent Shaun Cody walk. There’s no doubting that Watt is the most impressive part, but don’t sleep on the rest of this defensive line.
5. Opposite Andre
Though they have been able to boast an incredible talent in Johnson for much of their existence as a franchise, the Texans have really struggled to find someone opposite him for opposing teams to be concerned with. The teams’ No. 2 receiver from last year, Kevin Walter, left for Tennessee in free agency. Even if they had retained him, he’s more of a solid option than a consistent threat. Keshawn Martin was fairly disappointing as a rookie, racking up an uninspiring 85 yards and dropping 10 of the 26 passes thrown his way. That all prompted the team to use their first round draft pick on Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins and, with solid early reports coming out of training camp, there is hope that they have finally found that explosive option opposite their star man.
Reasons to be Concerned
1. What are they getting in Ed Reed?
A few years ago a signing like Ed Reed would have been considered a major coup by the Texans. At this stage in his career however, it’s fair to question what contribution he’ll actually make. Not even taking into consideration questions about whether or not he’ll be on the field, with his hip currently leaving his status for the beginning of the season up in the air, when Reed was on the field in 2012 there were plenty of flaws. After getting back to his best in the latter part of 2010, where he got his hands on 17 passes in 12 games, his playmaking ability lessened in the past two seasons with nine interceptions and 16 pass breakups. And then there’s the missed tackle problem. In the 20 games he played in 2012, Reed missed 21 tackles. To put that in context, the Texans tandem of Danieal Manning and Glover Quin combined to miss just 15 throughout the year. There’s no denying that Reed might be able to help the Texans with his experience, but in a purely “on the field” sense, they might find themselves wondering why they signed a player that their fellow conference contender didn’t seem too concerned to let go.
2. Pressure from the Outside
On the surface it may seem like the Texans will have their work cut out for them to replace outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who left for the Philadelphia Eagles via free agency. In truth, however, Barwin’s play as a pass rusher didn’t live up to his raw numbers over the past two seasons. While they won’t miss him and his -32.1 pass rush grade over the past two seasons, they still don’t have a genuine threat from the outside linebacker spot to complement the fantastic play of Watt and Smith at defensive end. Neither Brooks Reed (-12.4) nor rookie Whitney Mercilus (-13.4) did much to impress last season and if neither steps up, they’ll again find themselves at a loss in that area.
3. The Offensive Line (Part Two)
While they have two elite players in Brown and Myers, the rest of the line leaves a lot to be desired. At left guard, Wade Smith doesn’t give you much cause for concern, but then he doesn’t leave you with much reason to be excited either. On the right side, the Texans continued to rotate players throughout last year which was made even more surprising by the fact that it was the lesser of the two players in Derek Newton (-13.0) who saw the majority of snaps compared with Ryan Harris (+6.3). Though they brought Harris back for another year, it seems that he’ll again be behind Newton in the pecking order in 2013. At right guard, Brandon Brooks has drawn praise early in training camp and it would be a big boost if he can take a step forward in his second season.
4. Schaub’s Second Half
Like the team on the whole, quarterback Matt Schaub started the year off well, grading positively in seven of the first eight games of the season including a particularly impressive performance against the Miami Dolphins to open the season. Over the second half of the season however, he graded positively just twice. It wasn’t that he was particularly awful, with two games where he graded at -2.0 or lower, but there was little to get excited about beyond his performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11. The good news for Texans fans is that this was out of the ordinary for him but if they are to contend for a Super Bowl, he’ll need to avoid a repeat in 2013.
5. Replacing Glover Quin
Looking simply at his grades over the years, it might come as a surprise to see Quin considered much of a loss for the Texans this season but that doesn’t take into account his versatility. Though he very rarely wowed you on the field, his ability to play so many different roles at a decent level allowed the Texans to move him around depending on the package. He saw time deep downfield, in the box, and in the slot, and didn’t look particularly out of place in any role. Given all that, it will be interesting to see if the Texans believe someone like Shiloh Keo can step into this role or if they look to fill it with multiple players.
What to Expect
There’s no denying that the Texans are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, something they established last season, and as it stands look like the best team in the AFC South. They will however, be wary of the threat from the Indianapolis Colts, who’ll pose an even bigger threat to their AFC South crown if Andrew Luck takes a step forward like many expect him to in 2013.
That being said, the Texans won’t be content with just a division crown or a playoff berth and, with a bitter taste left in their mouths from last year, they’ll want to prove lessons have been learned from previous failures in the postseason. Given all that, fans and players alike know that anything short of a Super Bowl appearance will be considered a big disappointment in 2013.
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