There are good cornerbacks in the NFL, and then there is Johnathan Joseph.
He has been one of the keys to the Texans' defensive turnaround this season. A year after ranking 32nd against the pass, the Texans rank 10th through four games. The season is still young, but it's a monumental improvement from a year ago.
Joseph was signed as a free agent from the Cincinnati Bengals in July, much to the delight of Texans coach Gary Kubiak.
"The difference between great corners and good corners is good corners can cover," Kubiak said. "Great corners can cover and they make the play on the ball. He's got great hands. If the ball comes his way, he tends to get his hands on it."
That is a good description of what Joseph has done for the Texans this season. Just put him under the microscope in last Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His stat sheet shows one tackle, which does zero in telling his importance to that game:
--He scooped up a blocked field goal and ran it in for a touchdown. Oops, wiped out by a penalty.
--With 1:02 left in the game and the Texans up by a shaky 17-10, Joseph intercepted a pass by Ben Roethlisberger and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown to apparently seal the victory. Hold on. There was another yellow flag that maintained the suspense until cornerback Jason Allen picked off a pass with 10 seconds remaining.
"To pick up that blocked field goal, that's tough to do," Kubiak said. "He gives you big-play ability back there. He played pretty darn well against a very good receiver (Mike Wallace). We're excited about his work and moving forward."
Defensive backs coach Vance Joseph appreciates his new cornerback for more than the obvious. There are those little things most fans don't notice that add to the player's stature.
Joseph was in man coverage on Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward on one play this Sunday. It was third-and-one.
"He recognized Hines Ward picking the 'backer, and he fell off Hines and tackled the guy in the flat," Vance Joseph said. "That's experienced, instinctual play.
"That's something most young guys wouldn't do. They would just cover their guy. But he saw the play happening and he punched off Hines and tackled the guy in the flat. That's a great play from a mental perspective."
Joseph was a first-round pick of the Bengals in 2006 after his college career at South Carolina. He helped Cincinnati's defense regain respectability, and now he's doing the same with the Texans. They rank 10th in passing defense through four games, a monumental step forward from last season.
"It's working out now," Joseph said. "It's up to us now to keep things moving the same way forward. We have to stay focused on the same goal, going 1-0 each week."
Joseph leads the defense with five passes defensed and two interceptions and also has 13 tackles. Not to mention those two visits to the end zone that didn't count because of penalties.
"For me, it's all about having our team win," he said. "At the end of the day, we close it out and everybody makes good plays and that's what counts for us."
The Texans try to put their best against the best.
"He's a pro's pro, and every week he's matching the best receiver from the opposing team and he's doing a helluva job," Vance Joseph said. "The backend was so young, here's a guy in the prime of his career. In the past, he wasn't catching the ball, but now he's catching the ball and that's huge plays in a football game."
Vance Joseph has been proud of Johnathan's improvement in catching the ball.
"It's still more there," he said. "He's a young player, and he can do a lot of technique things better. He's obviously catching the ball better now, but he's a young player and he'll get better and better."
Another aspect the coach likes about the player:
"He's played in the black-and-blue division (the AFC North), so he's seen it all. That helps with being a corner and playing against Pittsburgh twice a year and Baltimore twice a year. That's a tough division. That helps you acquire toughness you need physically and mentally. He's where he needs to be right now."
The improved play of the secondary has paid dividends with big plays in the front seven. Everyone is getting in on the act.
Defensive end Antonio Smith and linebacker Mario Williams are among the league leaders with four sacks apiece. Linebackers Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin are flying around making plays. Four different players recorded a sack against the Steelers in Week 4.
"They need us and we need them, and definitely it's a mutual thing," nose tackle Shaun Cody said. "They need to get back there and cause some havoc and we need them to hold up a little more so we can get home."
Joseph has settled into his new home with his new teammates. He's learned their personalities, especially Smith, who after each sack draws an invisible sword and dances to what he calls the 'Ninja Assassin Slash of Death.'"
"I like to get laughs out of seeing him do it at 295 pounds," Joseph said. "It's impressive seeing him do it as well. We look at him as one of the defensive leaders on this team. He's an outspoken guy. We let him do his job and feed off him.
"Coming into this locker room, I didn't know what to expect, and I'm sure no one knew what to expect of me. We've all meshed and jelled like a family and brotherhood."
Joseph has fully endorsed the Texans' motto of being 1-0 each week.
"With football, you have to keep going out and being consistent," he said. "One week you can't go out and give up 200 yards and the next give up five interceptions. You've got to be consistent week by week.
"The comfort zone is getting to where we need it to be, but we still need some more time because we missed so much time in preseason and preseason. It's getting better and better every day in practice."
Joseph has no plans to copy Smith's sword dance, though. One Texans ninja is plenty.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky. Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro sports.