Fiery rookie cornerback Fred Bennett gave the injury-depleted Texans defensive backfield a boost in 2007, leading the team with three interceptions.
Despite an onslaught of injuries, the Texans' defensive backs rallied together to help the team to its best record in history.
Six of the 17 Texans to go on injured reserve in 2007 were from the secondary. Star cornerback Dunta Robinson was lost for the year with a knee injury at Oakland in Week 9, and starting strong safety Glenn Earl suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason.
C.C. Brown, the only Texans defensive back to start all 16 games in 2007, finished fourth on the team in tackles with 83 stops and had two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception.
Rookie cornerback Fred Bennett, whom Robinson mentored when the two played together at the University of South Carolina, led the Texans with three interceptions in eight starts and also recorded 55 tackles and a team-leading 14 pass deflections.
Free safety Will Demps joined the team as a free agent in Week 2. The sixth-year pro cracked the starting lineup in Week 11 and established himself as a physical presence in the defensive backfield. He totaled 42 tackles, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Veteran Von Hutchins was a versatile contributor, starting eight games at free safety and the final seven at cornerback. He finished third on the team and led all Texans defensive backs with 93 tackles, including 77 solos.
Injuries from the start
The Texans entered the preseason with Robinson and DeMarcus Faggins at corner, Earl at strong safety and Brown at free safety. The four started a combined 56 games in 2006.
When Earl went down with a foot injury in the first preseason game, veteran Jason Simmons stepped up as his replacement. Michael Boulware was added for depth in a trade from Seattle on Sept. 1, the same day that rookie safety Brandon Harrison was placed on injured reserve.
Simmons entered the regular season as a starter for the first time in his 10-year career, but blew out his left knee in the first half of the season opener and was lost for the season.
The injury overshadowed Robinson's 10th career interception in the season-opening 20-3 victory over Kansas City.
Brown moved from free safety to strong safety. Hutchins became starting free safety. The Texans also brought in Demps, a free agent who had 100 tackles in 16 starts with the New York Giants in 2006.
Demps and Boulware both were given a crash course on defensive coordinator Richard Smith's playbook.
All systems go
Hutchins took a quick liking to his starting role, notching a game-high 11 solo tackles in the Week 2 win at Carolina. Robinson continued what was beginning to look like a Pro Bowl season with his second interception in as many games.
Brown emerged as a silent leader in the secondary and had a team-high eight tackles and an interception in the Texans' 22-19 victory over the Dolphins in Week 5, helping Houston to an unprecedented 3-2 record.
But the defense struggled in three consecutive losses, giving up more than 36 points per game as the team fell to 3-5.
Bennett up, Robinson downBennett earned a promotion to the starting lineup alongside Robinson for the Week 9 contest at Oakland. Faggins became the nickel back.
But the secondary suffered its toughest blow of the season when Robinson went down with a brutal injury, tearing his ACL and ripping his hamstring off the bone as he tried to pry a ball loose from an Oakland receiver.
Robinson, a leader in the locker room and regarded as one of the hardest pound-for-pound tacklers in the NFL, is not expected to return from the injury until midway through the 2008 season.
His injury created a glaring need in an already hurting secondary. Before the Oakland game, nickel cornerback Jamar Fletcher, who had started twice early in the season, had a bout of appendicitis. It would keep him out until December.
The Texans signed third-year safety Curome Cox during the bye week as Robinson was placed on injured reserve. Cox had played for Denver when Kubiak was offensive coordinator there in 2005.
Over the bye week, Hutchins moved over to corner, his natural position, across the field from Bennett. Demps was slotted at free safety.
The Saints had the third-best passing attack in the league in 2007, but the defensive backs shut down the high-powered attack in a 23-10 win. Hutchins had nine tackles and picked off quarterback Drew Brees, while Brown had seven tackles and recovered a fumble at the Texans' one-yard line.
"The coaches really got us ready for it, and we were hungry and ready for the challenge," Demps said. "The media wrote us off. The challenge was there and guys being undrafted, being sixth-round [picks], a mix-matched defense, 'Who's going to play corner, who's going to play nickel, who's playing safety.' We didn't buy into any of that, and it showed today."
Finishing the season strongThe Texans employed a conservative defense for the remainder of the season, rarely leaving defensive backs isolated in coverage. That limited the defense's ability to be aggressive, but it allowed untested players to thrive as the Texans went 8-8.
Bennett had three interceptions in his first four games as starter – one at Oakland, one at Cleveland and one at Tennessee – and finished tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles.
Demps had 12 tackles in Week 13 at Tennessee, eight tackles and a forced fumble that he recovered against Tampa Bay and seven tackles with three passes defensed against Denver.
That strong play earned Demps Pro Bowl alternate honors, despite his limited action in the 2007 season.
In reserve duties, Fletcher recorded 13 tackles, including 12 solos, and was a valuable special teams player. Fourth-year corner Dexter Wynn provided valuable depth at cornerback, kick returner and punt returner.
Boulware saw action in all 16 games as a reserve defensive back and on special teams. Cox was a standout special teams player and added depth in the secondary.
Changes in store
The secondary is an area that general manager Rick Smith has already said the Texans will look to address in the offseason through free agency and the draft.
That process will start with the players on the 2007 roster. Demps, Hutchins, Earl, Simmons, Wynn, Boulware and Roc Alexander are all unrestricted free agents. Brown is a restricted free agent.
Smith and Kubiak will assess the current talent and decide where outside help is needed.
"The coaches made adjustments that, to me, were effective," Kubiak said of dealing with the injuries this season. "They gave us a chance to win throughout the back end of the season, but at the same time, some of the simplicity that we had gotten to because of our changes really ended up hurting us in some games.
"If we're going to beat the Colts, we have to cover the Colts. We have to look hard at our secondary. We have to have guys that can go out there and lock some of those guys down so we can be aggressive and blitz and those types of things. I think our secondary is a concern.
"We have a lot of work to do back there to become an improved defensive football team."