The Texans' defensive line was part of a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL against the run (96.0 yards/game) in 2011. Much of the pressure generated by Wade Phillips' 3-4 front started with outstanding play from defensive ends Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt.
Smith, a team captain, set a career-high with 6.5 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl. The self-proclaimed "Ninja Assassin" had at least half a sack in each of the first five games of the season, his eighth in the NFL out of Oklahoma State.
"Antonio's a vital part of this defense," Phillips said last September. "He's a really good pass rusher, and we try to put him in positions where he can get one-on-one… He's an all out player. He plays as hard as you can play every play."
Watt had a Pro Bowl-caliber rookie season after being drafted 11th overall out of Wisconsin. He had 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks, a team-high 7.0 tackles for loss and four passes defensed. He had 3.5 sacks in the playoffs, tying for the NFL postseason lead, and a sensational 29-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Wild Card victory over Cincinnati.
"He is a very smart player," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's got a tremendous nose. When he can't get to the quarterback, he watches the quarterback's eyes, he gets his hands up. We ask him to do a lot in our zone-dog schemes and stuff, and he's just exceptional."
Nose tackle Shaun Cody enters his fourth season with the Texans and eighth in the NFL. He had 23 tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss in 2011 while rotating with Earl Mitchell, who tallied 27 tackles and a sack in his second season out of Arizona. A Houston native, Mitchell added more than 20 pounds of muscle this offseason to better help withstand double teams.
The Texans have no shortage of depth on the D-line, starting with defensive end Tim Jamison. An undrafted free agent in 2009, Jamison played in all 16 games last season and recorded 2.0 sacks and one forced fumble. The Texans also have rookie defensive end Jared Crick, a fourth-round pick who had 20 career sacks at Nebraska, and rookie nose tackle Hebron Fangupo, an undrafted free agent from BYU who missed most of OTAs (organized team activities) with a knee injury.