by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

What a difference twelve months can make!

At this time last summer, the Indianapolis Colts were still the kings of the AFC South. Peyton Manning’s neck injury was no secret, but it also wasn’t expected to cause him to miss much action. Meanwhile, Gary Kubiak seemed squarely on the hot seat as the coach of the Houston Texans, granted an 11th-hour reprieve by owner Bob McNair after the 6-10 disappointment of 2010. Kubiak, entering his sixth season, had yet to coach the Texans to the playoffs, where in fact the franchise had never so much had reached in its history. Kubiak was under a win-now, playoffs-or-else edict from the owner.

Twelve months later, a lot has changed, with the AFC South axis now based at Reliant Stadium after Kubiak guided Houston to its first division crown and playoff berth, which included a win in the wild card round over the Bengals.

Elsewhere in the division, Manning never got on the field last fall for the Colts, who collapsed to 2-14 in his absence and prompted a thorough offseason Spic-and-Span housecleaning at Lucas Oil Stadium. Jacksonville is beginning a rebuilding project under new HC Mike Mularkey; Tennessee looks to be in modest transition mode as it turns the reins of its offense over to second-year QB Jake Locker.

The NFL season is fast approaching! For the best weekly inside scoop and analysis on the Texans, the NFL and college football, click here to subscribe to the online version of THE GOLD SHEET now!

Thus, it’s no wonder the Texans are now rated the most-prohibitive of division favorites entering the 2012 campaign. Las Vegas sports books have attached a draconian premium to Houston’s posted division-win prices, which sit at 2/11. The Texans’ season-win ‘total’ of 10 is also three wins higher than the next highest-rated team (Tennessee) in the division.

Moreover, Houston is rated behind only the Patriots in AFC-win prices, with the Texans at 4/1 to prevail in the conference, and Nevada wagering parlors also list Kubiak’s team also is one of the shortest-priced to win the Super Bowl at 10/1.

All of this respect was born from developments last fall when Houston won the South more easily than the final standings might suggest, when Tennessee finished only a game behind the 10-6 Texans. Houston, however, had clinched the division long before the end of the regular season and was playing down the stretch with third-string QB T.J. Yates, a rookie from North Carolina who led the Texans to wins in his first three appearances before Houston concluded the regular season with three straight defeats after the division crown had been secured.

Yates, who had relieved starter Matt Schaub and then-backup Matt Leinart in late November, was still resourceful enough to pilot the Texans to their wild card playoff win over the Bengals before Houston lost honorably at Baltimore in the division playoff round.

Consider, too, that Kubiak’s side accomplished much of what it did a year not only with a rookie QB forced into action down the stretch, but also minus other key components for large swaths of last season due to injuries. Star wideout Andre Johnson missed nine games, while since-departed All-Pro DE Mario Williams was out for 11 games a year ago.

Kubiak’s best move a year ago, however, was probably hiring the respected Wade Phillips as his defensive coordinator. Phillips, whose NFL history suggested he would be much more effective in an assistant, rather than head coaching, role, immediately turned around what had been an underachieving Texans stop unit which ascended to second-ranked in the league after finishing 30th the previous year.

Although Williams (to the Bills) and productive LB DeMeco Ryans (to the Eagles) both departed via free agency, Phillips is likely to have another robust platoon on his hands, especially since the Texans addressed Williams’ departure so decisively in the draft. Looking to fill a potential pass-rush void, Houston selected Illinois DE/LB Whitney Mercilus (right, in preseason action vs. the 49ers), the nation’s top sacker last season with the Illini and impressive in early preseason work. High-energy Nebraska DE Jared Crick was added with a later selection.

Expect Mercilus to be utilized at a variety of roles, either as an OLB in Phillips’ base 3-4 looks or as a weak-side rush end in the nickel package where his speed from the edge will come in handy. As for Crick, he’s expected to play in three-man fronts as well as become involved in the defensive line’s rotation in passing situations. Whatever, Phillips expects the effect of Williams’ departure to be minimized.

Mostly, however, greater familiarity in the second year of the Phillips defense figures to be a bonus in 2012. Phillips has made a couple of other adjustments aside from finding roles for draftees Mercilus and Crick. One of those has seen leading tackler Brian Cushing (left) switched from a strong-side to a weak-side LB role in hopes of putting the former Southern Cal LB in position to make more plays and rush the passer.

And getting to opposing QBs will be an important theme this fall as several high-profile signal-callers will be on the 2012 slate. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Peyton Manning, and Joe Flacco are all slated to oppose the Texans this fall, and Phillips wants to make sure that a pass rush that generated a franchise-record 44 sacks a year ago doesn’t regress. OLBs Connor Barwin (with 11 ½ sacks last year) and Brooks Reed emerged as pass-rush demons from their stand-up positions on the edge, while DEs J.J. Watt (suffering from a dislocated elbow early in training camp) and Antonio Smith also demonstrated they can collapse the pocket. Adding Mercilus and Crick to this mix should enhance the pressure generated against opposing Qbs.

Questions in the DB corps mostly revolve around LCB Kareem Jackson, who was the weak link in the secondary last season but had problems in downfield coverage, especially vs. taller receivers.

Of course, keeping the defense off the field is another way to slow many of those gunslinger QBs that Houston will face this fall. And the Texans did a pretty good job of that in 2011 when their offense led the league in average time of possession thanks to a well-coordinated infantry assault paced by RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate (right, at training camp) that churned for 153 ypg, ranking second behind only Denver in 2011 NFL rush stats. Expect more of the same this season.

Kubiak’s offenses have never had much trouble moving the ball, and one wonders how far the Texans might have progressed last season had QB Schaub not suffered his season-ending foot injury in late November. Under Schaub, the “O” was scoring at a healthy 27.3 ppg clip, and much of that was without star WR Johnson, whose two separate hamstring injuries a year ago caused him to miss more than half of the season.

Schaub, knock on wood, has stayed healthy as the preseason has progressed, but that hasn’t been quite the case with Johnson (left, at training camp), who suffered a groin pull in early workouts and is being slowly worked back into game shape and has seen limited action in early preseason games. Which has allowed Kubiak and o.c. Rick Dennison take looks at other wideouts such as Lestar Jean, Kevin Walter, DeVier Posey, and Keshawn Martin. One intriguing grouping to watch for in the fall would be a “jumbo” WR look with an all big-target collection of Johnson, Jean, and Walter on the field at the same time.

Meanwhile, mini WR/return specialist Trindon Holliday, a North Carolina product, has emerged as a feared kick return threat in the summer, taking back both a punt and kickoff for TDs in the first pair of preseason games vs. the Panthers and 49ers.

As for the QB situation, Kubiak feels more comfy than at this time a year ago when looking for a suitable backup for Schaub. Yates’ baptism under fire last fall, however, convinced “Kube” that pursuing another reliever in the offseason was not a top priority.

Instead, the concerns (aside from getting Andre Johnson healthy) for this year’s strike force regard a restructure on the right side of the offensive line after loth T Eric Winston and G Mike Brisiel were cap casualties and allowed to walk in the offseason. A couple of high-ceiling types who have been hampered by injury problems in th past RT Rahsad Butler and RG Antoine Caldwell, are penciled in as the replacements. And it is in those spots where AFC South sources believe Kubiak could experience his greatest headaches this fall.

Also, don’t expect the Texans to sneak up on the oddsmakers this fall after recording a stellar 13-5 spread mark a year ago. But note how Houston was able to make Reliant Field a fortress a year ago, winning and covering 7 of 9 as host.

Phillips presence also altered the Texan ‘totals’ profile from one of an ‘over’ team (11-5 in 2010) to an ‘under’ team (11-7) last fall.

Summary...Thanks in large part to various stages of disrepair at other locales within in the AFC South, the Texans look to have a clear path back into the playoffs. And with the new-found expectations, Houston fans are now measuring how their team matches up with the NFL’s elite, rather than just wondering if they can scramble for a first-ever postseason appearance.

We suspect Wade Phillips has built a championship-caliber defense at Reliant Stadium, but for the Texans to take the next step to being a legit Super Bowl contender, they’ll have to make sure to keep Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson healthy on the attack end. Nonetheless, the pieces are in place for an exciting autumn and early winter in Houston.


Return To Home Page