AFC East: Houston Texans

HOUSTON -- Friends are the people you can tease without consequence. That's always been my motto as least, and it seems to be one shared by Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien and Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone.

"He's a liar, I never liked that guy," Marrone said.

O'Brien
"You want me to respond to that?" O'Brien said. "Now you know why he doesn’t have many friends. You’re starting to figure that out."

They've known each other since 1995, when O'Brien joined Georgia Tech's staff as a graduate assistant. Marrone was the team's director of football operations. O'Brien's wife introduced Marrone to his wife before either of them knew O'Brien. Marrone later returned the favor, introducing O'Brien and his wife Colleen.

Marrone doesn't remember that introduction, though.

"I probably didn't think Colleen would ever like him," Marrone said. "I couldn't believe she liked him."

Said O'Brien: "His wife is a lot cooler than him."

The two young coaches spent hours together, seeing each other more than they saw their wives.

"Hours were not, you didn’t even question the hours," O'Brien said. "You were in at five in the morning and stayed there until the work got done. Doug was the line coach and I was the running backs coach, so we did a lot of work together. ... That taught us a lot about coaching."

Garrett
Marrone
"I don't think either of us could have gone through that alone," Marrone said.

They grew together, becoming position coaches at Georgia Tech before heading in separate directions to pursue their dreams. When Marrone became the New York Jets' offensive line coach in 2002, O'Brien was Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator. When O'Brien made a surprising move to become an offensive assistant with the Patriots in 2007, Marrone was the New Orleans' Saints offensive coordinator, the job that led the way to his first head coaching job.

They overlapped as college head coaches for one season. Marrone was Syracuse's head coach from 2009 to 2012, while O'Brien led Penn State in 2012 and 2013.

O'Brien called Marrone "blunt" this week. It's a word many use to describe O'Brien, too, part of why they clicked.

"In all seriousness, that’s why he’s a good friend," O'Brien said. "He is a good friend, but you have to know him. You have to know him really well to be his friend because he’s very direct and he tells you the truth. I think that’s why the both of us are friends."

Still, the jabs are fun.

"I was a scholarship player at Syracuse," Marrone said. "Bill went to Brown. He's from Massachusetts and went to some hoity toity prep school. I went to high school in the Bronx."

Countered O'Brien: "He’s a Yankees fan and I’m a Red Sox fan. I’ll put it to you that way."

Suddenly, he remembered where he was.

"Although I do like the Astros," O'Brien said. "I don’t want to get in trouble."

Bills vs. Texans preview

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
8:00
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On Sunday, the Houston Texans host the Buffalo Bills. These are two teams that surprised people with 2-0 starts and will meet after their first losses.

The Texans (2-1) beat Washington and Oakland before coming down to earth during a road game against the New York Giants. The Bills (2-1) beat Chicago and Miami before losing to the San Diego Chargers.

They'll both aim to show the first two games, not the last one, was indicative of who they really are. But can they? ESPN.com's Mike Rodak and Tania Ganguli sort through some details about the teams.

Ganguli: So, Mike, let's start on a happy note for both teams. One of the bright spots in the Texans’ loss to the Giants was receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who made one incredible catch that didn’t count and had 116 yards on catches that did count. His college career at Clemson was intertwined with Bills receiver Sammy Watkins’. Hopkins got his chance to shine while Watkins was suspended. It’s probably what made him a first-round draft pick. How has Watkins been so far?

Rodak: Watkins has been up and down through the first three games. He had a quiet opener, broke out for eight catches and a touchdown in Week 2 and went quiet again in Week 3. After making a few highlight-reel catches in training camp and generally impressing anybody who watched those practices, Watkins took a hit in the preseason that bruised his ribs. Last week, more than a month after that initial hit, he called it a "nagging" injury but downplayed its effect on his performance. While I think Watkins is still very much bothered by his ribs -- there was a play at the end of last Sunday's game where he clearly looked to be avoiding contact -- it's not the entire story to his slower-than-expected start. Part of the blame has to fall on EJ Manuel, whose inaccuracy has made life more difficult for Watkins.

Bills fans are all too familiar with Ryan Fitzpatrick. How is he being received in Houston and how secure is his starting spot?

Ganguli: He's not seen as the long-term solution here that the Bills apparently thought he was when they gave him a six-year, $59 million contract extension back in 2011. His starting spot is secure, especially if he plays more games like Weeks 1 and 2, when he protected the ball well, and fewer games like last week. Despite the fact that Fitzpatrick didn't come to Houston with great expectations, the reaction to last week's three-interception performance was strong. I got the sense fans felt like the dam was about to break. That doesn't have to happen, though.

Let's stick with quarterbacks since you mentioned Manuel when discussing Watkins. To what do you attribute Manuel’s struggles? Can he get better?

Rodak: There is no more pressing question for the Bills than this one. While I think Manuel has generally looked better than he was last season, the differences aren't striking. The problems we saw throughout training camp and the preseason are still there: Manuel is too spotty with his accuracy on intermediate and deep patterns and he tends to rely more on checkdowns and shorter patterns. Are either of those "fixable" issues? It's debatable. The Bills brought in a quarterbacks coach (Todd Downing) this offseason and Manuel also works with his personal coach (Steve Calhoun), so there are "teachers" who theoretically should be able to improve his play. While there have been some bright spots for Manuel in his young career, the bad has so far outweighed the good.

What's the latest on the Texans' backfield? How well did Alfred Blue fill the void last weekend?

Ganguli: Arian Foster is at a similar point he was last week, testing his hamstring to see how it does. It didn't go so well last week during practices. The Texans insist they made the decision not to start Foster immediately before the game, after working him out in New York, but based on some things I've heard, that decision was made much earlier than that. The Texans definitely lost something with Foster gone, but Blue did well. He gained 78 yards on 13 carries. He carried a lighter load than Foster had prior, in part because the Texans kept finding themselves in passing third-down situations and in part because they were playing from behind for so much of the game.

Numbers-wise it seems the Bills' run defense is a lot stronger than their pass defense, which bit them against the Chargers. When the Texans were forced into more passing situations last weekend, they struggled with Fitzpatrick throwing three interceptions. Could you see the Bills taking advantage of that as well?

Rodak: It's always a chicken-or-the-egg argument when it comes to run versus pass defense, but I think the Bills' defensive line would like to control the game as much as possible. That applies to both phases. If they can keep the running game contained, then yes, it will force the Texans into more passing situations. That's when the Bills' defensive line tends to really shine. There are three Pro Bowlers -- Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus -- who can cause all sorts of problems for an offensive line without the need to blitz. The Bills rank 23rd in blitz rate but 12th in disrupted dropback percentage, so they're putting some pressure on QBs. That should help a secondary that was exposed a bit against the Chargers last week.

How is this Texans team 2-1? Does Bill O'Brien deserve most of the credit or was this a talented roster that had a down year in 2013?

Ganguli: It's so hard to make sweeping statements about why the Texans' record is what it is when there are only three games to examine. The roster definitely isn't a 2-14 roster; it has a lot of talent on it. The head coach's message has done well with his players. But with 13 games remaining, they can still define their identity.
Before the season even kicks off, the clock is running on two quarterbacks: the Buffalo Bills' EJ Manuel and Houston Texans' Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Texans traded a conditional seventh-round pick for Ryan Mallett that turns into a sixth-round pick if the quarterback plays in 40 percent of Houston's offensive plays this season, a source told ESPN. And the feeling around the league is that it will not be long before Mallett gets his starting opportunity in Houston and that the conditional draft pick traded to New England turns out to be a sixth.

Meanwhile in Buffalo, even some within the Bills organization have reservations about whether Manuel is going to be able to succeed. Buffalo, per one league source, is "not afraid to pull the trigger" on a quarterback change and turn to recently signed Kyle Orton.

Live blog: Patriots at Texans

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New England Patriots' visit to the Houston Texans. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
12:00
PM ET
Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

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