With revamped D, 2011 Texans looking to get over hump

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This article orginally appeared in the 2011 Houston Texans Yearbook, the team's official season preview magazine that is on sale now at the Go Texan Store at Reliant Stadium and online right here*.

For four-and-a-half years under Gary Kubiak, the Texans' arrow was pointing up.

In 2005, the year before Kubiak arrived as the second head coach in franchise history, the Texans were a league-worst 2-14. Kubiak led them to a 6-10 record in 2006, 8-8 records in 2007 and 2008 and a 9-7 record in 2009. The latter was the first winning season in franchise history, one that ended with the Texans a tiebreaker away from their first-ever trip to the postseason.

Expectations were sky-high heading into 2010, and they looked justified after six weeks. The Texans had a team-best 4-2 start and were tied for first atop the AFC South.

Then the bottom dropped out.

The Texans were dealt a costly blow in the sixth game of the year, losing defensive captain and two-time Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans to a season-ending injury. They had already lost promising defensive end Connor Barwin to injury in the first game of the season, and reigning defensive rookie of the year Brian Cushing was one game removed from a four-game suspension.

A defense that had struggled with Ryans didn't get any better without him. Unable to finish games or stop opponents defensively, the Texans dropped eight of their final 10 games to finish 6-10 – right back where Kubiak started in 2006.

The team lost in every way imaginable, sometimes in ways that defied the imagination. There was a tipped Hail Mary pass at Jacksonville; a last-second touchdown by the New York Jets when they had to go 72 yards with no timeouts in the final minute; a potential game-winning drive against San Diego that ended when the ball bounced off Andre Johnson's knee and into a defender's hands in the red zone; a pick-six in overtime against Baltimore after Matt Schaub led a roaring second-half comeback from 21 points down; and a late scoring drive by Broncos rookie quarterback Tim Tebow in his second-career start.

Kubiak showed cut-ups of each of those losses to the entire team in the Texans' first meeting of training camp in late July. The message: Finish games.

"We lost five football games in the last two minutes," Kubiak said. "Some of them (two) were in the last 10 seconds. That's this league. You want to be good enough to have the chance to win every week, and then when you got a chance to win every week, there's usually a play or two that separates the good from the average in this business. That's why we were very average or below average, because we didn't win those type of games."

As disappointing as the 2010 season was, there were reasons for optimism. The Texans' offense finished in the top four in the NFL for the third consecutive year. Arian Foster led the league in rushing with a franchise-record 1,616 yards. Johnson had his fifth-career 1,000-yard receiving season despite playing almost the entire year with a high-ankle sprain.

LEAGUE-LEADING TEXANS, SINCE 2008
QB Matt Schaub: Passing yards (2009)
WR Andre Johnson: Receivng yards (2008, 2009)
RB Arian Foster: Rushing yards (2010)
*Texans: Only team with league-leading passer, rusher, receiver since 2006

But the defense ranked 30th overall, 32nd against the pass and 29th in scoring. It was the worst defensive performance in Kubiak's five years as head coach, during which time the Texans' defense has ranked higher than 22nd only once.

"Our offense had done a good job for the last three years," Texans chairman and CEO Bob McNair said during training camp. "It's been more than adequate for us to be competitive. The problem has been our defense, and we had to improve our defense."

Enter Wade Phillips.

The Orange, Texas, native and son of legendary former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips was hired as the Texans' new defensive coordinator on Jan. 5. He joined the Texans with 29 years of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator or head coach.

In those 29 years, Phillips has helped orchestrate 12 top-10 defenses. His teams have made the playoffs in the first season at each of his last seven stops as head coach or defensive coordinator. The Texans are hoping that track record continues as Phillips installs a 3-4 in Houston in 2011.

"When he walks in a room, he doesn't have to introduce himself," Kubiak said. "(Players) know what he's been doing, how long he's been doing it and that it's been successful. Just listening to him, talking to him, and the credibility that he instantly brings to the coaches, the players on this field, to this city, is awesome. I'm just glad to be with him."

Phillips brought with him Reggie Herring, his fiery right-hand man in Dallas, to coach the Texans' linebackers. He got a new defensive backs coach in Vance Joseph, who coached in a similar system in San Francisco for six seasons.

As he evaluated the Texans' personnel, Phillips decided to move Mario Williams and Barwin from defensive end to outside linebacker. He moved Cushing inside to Mike linebacker and Glover Quin from cornerback to strong safety.

General manager Rick Smith added to Phillips' arsenal with six defensive picks in the 2011 draft, including defensive end J.J. Watt, outside linebacker Brooks Reed and cornerback Brandon Harris. Smith bolstered the Texans' secondary in free agency by signing highly-touted cornerback Johnathan Joseph from the Cincinnati Bengals and safety Danieal Manning, a playmaker with Super Bowl experience, from the Chicago Bears.

Because of the lockout, Phillips had an abbreviated offseason in which to put the pieces together, but he's confident that training camp and the preseason was all the time he needed.

"We've always been able to teach things quickly," he said. "I believe the players that have played for us will tell you that we can implement (the system) in pretty quickly. Part of it's being a player-friendly defense in that we want them to know their assignments quickly. I take care of all the complications. I take care of the complicated stuff as far as how we get it done."

DEFENSIVESTARTERS
2010 (4-3) 2011 (3-4)
DE Antonio Smith DE Antonio Smith
NT Shaun Cody NT Shaun Cody
DT Amobi Okoye DE J.J. Watt
DE Mario Williams OLB Mario Williams
OLB Zac Diles OLB Connor Barwin
MLB DeMeco Ryans ILB DeMeco Ryans
OLB Brian Cushing ILB Brian Cushing
CB Glover Quin CB Johnathan Joseph
CB Kareem Jackson CB Kareem Jackson
FS Eugene Wilson FS Danieal Manning
SS Bernard Pollard SS Glover Quin

On paper, this Texans team is more talented than any other in the 10-year history of the franchise. The 11 starters on the overhauled defense average 26 years in age, and nine of them were first- or second-round picks.

The offense returns 10 starters, with fullback Vonta Leach the only departure. Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels are fully recovered from injuries that limited them in 2010, and the entire offensive line returns intact.

"We tried to deal with what we perceived to be the problems, and I think that we've taken care of those problems, so there's no reason why we can't go out with the expectation that every game we play in that we're going to win it," McNair said.

"I think everybody in the league recognizes that Gary's just done an outstanding job with the offense. You take him and shore him up on the defensive side with Wade Phillips, who's as good as anybody in the business, now you've got both sides of the ball covered with outstanding people who are not going to be outcoached. I think we're in good shape."

Now, it's a matter of putting it all together on the field and finishing games.

"I believe they can do it, but they've got to go do it," Kubiak said. "I can't go out there and make the throw or the catch or the tackle or the play. They're the ones that have got to make it, and it's our job to prepare them to make that and get them in position. Taking the next step as an organization and a team is making those plays."

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