The Texans' defense was one of the best in the NFL in 2011. With the young talent in place and a full offseason under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips on the horizon, it should be even better in 2012.
Every one of the Texans' end-of-season defensive starters is under contract for next season. The average age of those players is 27. Barring any changes, the Texans' oldest starter on defense next season will be Pro Bowl defensive end Antonio Smith, who will be just 31.
"We should be able to hold the group together," head coach Gary Kubiak said a day after the Texans' season ended at Baltimore on Jan. 15. "They should only get better under Wade's scheme and the coaches as we move forward. We get an offseason with them. It's exciting across the board, and probably the biggest thing is the young influence that's been on our football team."
There is one major question mark, of course. Mario Williams, the Texans' 6-6, 280-pound Pro Bowl outside linebacker, is an impending free agent. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, Williams had a team-high 5.0 sacks in 2011 before suffering a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 5.
"Obviously, Mario is a tremendous player," Kubiak said. "He's done a great job here. Those things will work themselves out. I know Mario wants to be with this organization and this football team. That's part of the process. We'll get going with the process, but Mario has always worked extremely hard and been a very positive influence with this organization and this team."
Even if the Texans don't re-sign Williams, they should improve after their first full offseason under Phillips. They had just six weeks of training camp and the preseason to switch from a 4-3 to Phillips' 3-4 before the 2011 regular-season opener on Sept. 11.
Phillips installed his playbook in gradual, simple phases, even as the season progressed. In the week before the Texans' Division Round playoff game at Baltimore, Phillips said the Texans probably had about 30 percent more of their playbook down than when they had faced the Ravens in Week 6. It's unclear if the entirety of Phillips' scheme was ever even implemented this season.
"I was still learning a lot as we were going on, just with little wrinkles here and there, and I'm sure a lot of other guys were as well – and we still were playing lights out," Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph said after the season. "So if we can get a full offseason in together and understand everything more collectively as a defense, I think it'll be just be even better for us."
The Texans' defensive players also should have better chemistry in 2012. Joseph, free safety Danieal Manning and rookie standouts J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed were all new to the Texans this season. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin, inside linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Glover Quin all played new positions.
"The biggest thing you got to look at is the young players and how they played," Kubiak said. "I mean, when you look at the way Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt ended these last five weeks and to think, these two guys are rookies and what's ahead of us; Danieal Manning and what he brought to the team; Johnathan. I think Cushing had as good a year as any linebacker in football. I think DeMeco (Ryans) was back playing like DeMeco of a couple years ago the last five or six weeks of the season."
Joseph said 90-95 percent of the defensive players plan to stay in Houston and train together for the bulk of the offseason. Players decided that in the locker room at M&T Bank Stadium after their playoff loss at Baltimore at the urging of Smith, Ryans and other veteran leaders.
"I think that speaks tremendous volumes about the guys, because you can have a full offseason and do anything you want to do," Joseph said. "Everybody wants to push each other, stay here together this offseason, learn from it. We can only get better. It's a big family here, so guys don't want to take off the offseason and do their own thing. We kind of want to stay here together, bond and just move forward."
The Texans improved from 30th in defense in 2010 to second in 2011, 91.2 yards better per game. It was the third-best turnaround in modern NFL history. They ranked second in yards allowed (285.7), fourth in rushing (96.0), third in passing (189.7) and fourth in points (17.4). They set a team record with 45 sacks and had 27 takeaways, nine more than in 2010.
"They're relentless," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said. "Our guys up front, they create a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the run game, we're physical. Those guys inside played outstanding stuffing other teams' run games, so they force them to throw. Then our cover guys, the guys we brought in, Johnathan Joseph, Manning coming in, Kareem (Jackson) played really well this year, GQ (Quin) going to safety and what he did for us.
"We just had every piece of the puzzle working in concert, and the pressures that we would bring on third down, it just makes life miserable on opposing offenses."
All signs point to plenty more misery for opposing offenses in 2012.