The Texans special teams were truly special this year.
Houston went from four wins and last place in the AFC South in 2017, to 11 wins and the division crown this season, and the special teams facet was instrumental in the seven-win difference.
Clearly, the main reason for the win-total jump was quarterback Deshaun Watson, who started all 16 contests after his rookie year was submarined by a knee injury just seven games in. Plus, going from 28th place in turnover differential (-12) last year to second overall (+13) this season played a big part. Getting defensive end J.J. Watt and his 16 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles back in the fold was another huge component to the improvement.
But without the fanfare of Watson, Watt and the turnover differential turnaround, coordinator Brad Seely’s bunch improved drastically over last season’s special teams unit.
A year ago, the Texans let opponents start, on average, at the 29.7 yard line. That was 26th-best in the NFL. This year, Houston was the best in the League in that category, as opposing teams started on average four yards further back, at the 25.5 yard line.
Conversely, the Texans offense began its drives on average, at the 31.3 yard line. That was the second-best mark in the NFL, and over six yards better than their League-worst average starting field position in 2017 at the 25.2.
Seely, and his assistant Tracy Smith, deserve a lot of praise for the improvement, according to head coach Bill O’Brien.
“I give them a ton of credit,” O’Brien said in late December. “I probably should do it more. Between the players and the coaching staff, those guys have really done so much to help us get to this point. I think our special teams has much improved.”
In 2017, Houston was the worst in punt return coverage, giving up an average of 12.4 yards. This year, they lopped five yards off that average and were tied for 10th overall in the NFL at 7.5 yards per punt return.
A pair of rookies in A.J. Moore and Buddy Howell joined the team off the waiver wire on September 2, and wound up leading the team in special teams tackles with 11 and nine, respectively. Veteran Johnson Bademosi chipped in with nine of his own, and rookie Peter Kalambayi was right behind him with eight.
In addition to the coverage improvements, they also saw excellence at the kicker spot from Ka’imi Fairbairn. He led the NFL in scoring with 150 points and 37 made field goals. Both those marks are franchise records. Fairbairn connected on 88.1 percent of his field goals and made a pair of 54-yarders, which were his longest of the year. He was perfect on his final 15 attempts of the season, and made all 21 attempts inside the 40. Plus, 63.7 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks.
“He’s a very valuable guy on our team,” O’Brien said. “He’s one of our best players. He can make all the kicks. He’s come up big for us in the field goal, obviously, part of it, but also in the kickoffs. When we’ve asked him to direct kickoffs and do things like that, he’s done a great job.”
His sterling play down the stretch earned him the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month award in December. Fairbairn, though, was quick to describe the importance of long snapper Jon Weeks and holder Trevor Daniel’s role in his success.
“Huge,” Fairbairn said. “I can’t say enough about it, honestly. There’s so much that goes into it and I wish they got more credit for an award like this.
Daniel’s rookie season as a punter saw him finish fourth in the League with 36 punts inside the 20-yard line.
“He’s a very talented guy, really strong leg, another great guy and he’s really worked hard to improve, but he’s done a good job for the most part of helping us play field-position football by placing those punts inside the ten,” O’Brien said.
Getting better on special teams was a point of emphasis for general manager Brian Gaine, who spoke about it multiple times after his hire last January. The Texans got better, and then some, in just one year’s time.
The Houston Texans roster in photos. (Updated 11/13/2019)