The difference from last season is so stark, it's almost hard to believe.
The Texans have gone from 30th in defense to first in Wade Phillips' first season as coordinator. They rank second in passing defense and scoring defense after ranking 32nd and 29th, respectively, in 2010. They're 10.1 points and 107.2 yards (89.1 passing, 18.1 rushing) per game better than they were a year ago.
They've done all of that despite Phillips having an abbreviated offseason to install his 3-4 scheme, and despite the loss of top pass rusher Mario Williams to a season-ending injury in Week 5.
The Texans have done it with pressure – 28 sacks through 10 games, compared to 30 all of last season. They've done it with takeaways – 20 with 14 interceptions, compared to 18 with 13 interceptions last season. And they've done it collectively – seven players with at least two sacks, six with at least two interceptions.
Inside linebacker Brian Cushing, the Texans' leading tackler, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph, the Texans' top free agent acquisition, are having Pro Bowl seasons. Rookie linebacker Brooks Reed, who became a starter after Williams' injury, leads the Texans with five sacks. First-round draft pick J.J. Watt has played like a veteran from day one. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin and defensive end Antonio Smith both have 4.5 sacks, already matching their season-highs with the Texans.
Seemingly every change the Texans have made under Phillips has worked. New linebackers coach Reggie Herring and new defensive backs coach Vance Joseph have been difference-makers. New players like Joseph and Watt have been exceptional, and old players in new positions like Cushing and cornerback-turned-safety Glover Quin have thrived.
Despite injuries to Williams, free safety Danieal Manning and backup linebacker Darryl Sharpton, the Texans have held four consecutive opponents to 231 yards or less. As players continue to settle into Phillips' system, there should be plenty more defensive highlights over the final six games.
On to the HoustonTexans.com Defensive Bye Week Awards:
MVP: Brian Cushing
The leading tackler on the league's top defense, Cushing has been a sideline-to-sideline wrecking ball from the Mike linebacker position. His ferocious play prompted Phillips to call him a "holy terror" earlier this season, and that was before he played with a bloody forehead courtesy of a headbutt from Browns guard Shaun Lauvao in Week 9. Cushing's overall numbers (69 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions) aren't particularly gaudy, but he has led the Texans in tackles eight of 10 times and has 24 more tackles than his next-closest teammate. Texans coach Gary Kubiak has repeatedly said that Cushing is playing as well as any linebacker in the NFL.
Unsung hero: Johnathan Joseph
Stats don't show how important Joseph has been to the Texans' defensive turnaround. "J Joe" gives the Texans a true No. 1 corner who can lock down the opposing team's top receiver each week. So far in 2011, only two wide receivers have topped 100 yards against the Texans, and only two others have even topped 80 yards. That's saying something for a team that had the seventh-worst passing defense in NFL history in 2010. Joseph has three interceptions and is tied for fifth in the NFL with 11 passes defensed. He plays with a swagger that rubs off on his young teammates in the secondary and seems to break up at least one pass with a big hit in every game.
Breakout player: Brooks Reed
If not for the emergence of Reed, Williams' Week 5 pectoral injury could have dealt a crippling blow to the Texans' defense. A rookie second-round pick from Arizona, Reed is tied with Williams for the team lead in sacks after stepping into the starting lineup in Week 6. He started his first game at Will linebacker, Williams' position on the weakside, but switched sides with Barwin a game later. From the strongside, the high-motor, relentless Reed has recorded a sack in four consecutive games.
Top individual performance: Cushing at Tampa Bay (Week 10)
As he has been all season, Cushing was all over the field against the Bucs in Week 10. He led the team with eight tackles and had one sack and an interception. He helped the Texans limit Josh Freeman to a 33.6 quarterback rating, running back LeGarrette Blount to 34 yards on 10 carries (3.4 average) and the Bucs to 231 yards overall, more than 100 yards less than their season average.
Top team performance: At Tennessee (Week 7)
In a battle for first place in the AFC South, the Texans completely shut down the Titans at LP Field. Running back Chris Johnson had only 18 rushing yards on 10 carries (1.8 average). Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who entered the game second in the AFC with a 95.9 passer rating, had a rating of only 38.8 (14-of-30, 104 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). He was pulled in the fourth quarter in favor of rookie Jake Locker, who was promptly sacked by Reed on his first play. The Titans had only one drive in the entire game longer than 48 yards, and eight of their 11 drives netted 10 yards or less.
Injury to watch: Danieal Manning
Manning, the Texans' starting free safety, has been out since fracturing the fibula in his left leg in Week 7. His recovery was estimated at anywhere from 4-10 weeks, and this Sunday makes four weeks. Kubiak said before the bye that Manning was able to run on a treadmill at his full body weight last Friday. He could begin rehabbing on a side field during practice in the coming weeks. Troy Nolan and Quintin Demps have played well in Manning's place, but there's a reason the Texans signed Manning from the Chicago Bears on the first day of free agency. He provides a stabilizing, playmaking veteran presence at the back end of the defense, one that will be welcomed back with open arms when he's finally able to return.