- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- Yes, they brought in a top-flight defensive coordinator, drafted well and signed some good-looking free agents.
Still, the Texans have been the breakout pick so often in recent years and have come up short that it’s completely fair to ask, even with those changes: Why should people believe? Why should they buy this team?
“I couldn’t sell it to anybody,” said Chris Myers, the team’s underrated center. “We’re doing what we do here in camp. If you’re a Texans fan, you’re a Texans fan. Our offense is the same offense that we’ve had and we’re going to try to make it better. Our defense has brought in who we think can change it, take it in the right direction and make us that complete team.
“That’s the pitch. If you’re going to buy it, you’re going to buy it. If not, we’re still rolling.”
To find their way to the playoffs for the first time since the franchise began play in 2002, the Texans need to find the consistency they’ve lacked on many levels -- start to finish in a game, week to week over the course of the season.
That new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, has a great record of turning defenses around. Gary Kubiak carries questions as a head coach, but not as an offensive mind.
It’s a now or never deal for Kubiak, and he’s got a lot of talent on his roster that knows it.
Receiver Andre Johnson, one of the league’s top players, says the team’s spent the past few preseasons talking about breaking through. This time he wants less talk and more action.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1) How quickly can Phillips shape the defense?
He's coming off a poor term as head coach in Dallas, but his track record as a coordinator is excellent.
Players on the Texans' defense say he’s funny, yet pointed. He’s already infused the group with confidence, and he quickly identified things that amounted to easy fixes. Mario Williams’ false step should disappear, for example, and Kareem Jackson is unlikely to be seen in press coverages.
“Wade Phillips and [linebackers coach Reggie Herring] have brought a credibility and a confidence to the system that they run,” said end-turned-outside-linebacker Connor Barwin. “I feel like it carries over to us. You know if you do what you’re coached up to do that it’s going to work.”
The change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 isn’t as extreme as some imagine, because Phillips’ 3-4 doesn’t demand a gigantic space-eating nose tackle, and it doesn’t ask linemen to be responsible for two gaps. The linemen are really playing roles akin to what they did in the previous system, with Williams now standing up as an on-the-line 'backer on the weak side.
Creating that matchup as often as possible is key, and Williams should be the centerpiece of the retooling.
Though Williams didn’t look comfortable in the preseason opener, end Antonio Smith thinks offenses will really struggle with Williams and his bull rush.
“It has not been stopped in camp yet,” Smith said. “Since he decided to do it, I ain’t seem him lose. You know what you need to do to beat a person. I think that throughout this camp, he’s figuring out how to use that. He’s added it into his bag of tricks and he’s going to figure out how to use it along with his other moves.”
Matt Schaub and Johnson have both talked about how many more balls are contested and broken up in a typical practice. That difference suggests the new philosophy’s growing on a unit that’s needed not just players like Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning but also the sort of direction Phillips is providing.
2) Will Arian Foster be able to have another big season on the ground?
It wasn’t long ago that Steve Slaton ran for 1,282 yards. He’s disappeared since the 2008 season, however.
Foster said that what he did over 16 games last season proved him capable and that the notion of a fluke is ridiculous. But for the Texans’ offense to get better, he’ll have to follow up his 1,616-yard season and rushing title with another big showing.
“When you come out and have a season like that, then everybody wants to see what you’re going to do the next season,” Johnson said. “I think that is important for him, to come out and show people that he is the guy that he was last year.
“I think he’ll do it, there is no doubt in my mind. Because he works hard and he plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
Houston’s play-action can be spectacular with Foster running as he did in 2010. His style is perfectly suited for the team’s blocking scheme, which encourages him to cut once and take all he can get.
Another big year will go a long way toward setting the Texans’ course.
3) Do enough guys have killer instinct?
The Texans' slow starts and inability to finish were major issues last season. Better personnel and coaching will need to be accompanied by a killer instinct this franchise has too frequently lacked.
“You could put it that way,” tight end Owen Daniels said. “There’s definitely never been a lack of effort. I think it’s been missed opportunities at finishing games. ... We need to find something different this year in order to close out those games.”
A guy like Johnson, soft-spoken but intense, certainly has a personality you can win with. But are the Texans, in total, too low-key? I think it’s a fair question.
“You’ve got to have that [killer instinct],” said Manning, one of the key newcomers. “... If you believe, all this other stuff is going to come into play: working together, supporting your man, pushing him, making him work hard, holding him accountable. All that stuff goes hand in hand. I’ve never seen a championship team that didn’t believe, that didn’t finish.”
When they grabbed him during the 2010 season, I don’t think the Texans expected much from veteran cornerback Jason Allen. But the secondary was better with him than it was without him. Now, with a fresh start, he’s mounting a serious challenge to Jackson, the 2010 first-round draft pick. The team would be well served to go with Allen if things come out roughly even. Jackson’s seasoning would be better for now as a role player.
Antwaun Molden looks the part as a 6-foot-1, 200-pound corner. But the team has finally stopped talking up the fourth-year man from Eastern Kentucky. He’s not sturdy enough and doesn’t show enough gumption to be a factor in a group where he’s had a chance to add some depth. He had an interception in the preseason opener, but only after he committed a penalty that washed it away.
Joel Dreessen is consistently underrated. Dreessen can block and, while not as dynamic as Daniels, has a knack for finding open spaces and presenting himself to Schaub. The Texans have a lot of quality tight ends. Look for the team to put three tight ends on the field at times, when they can operate as a heavy package or shift Daniels, Dreessen, James Casey or Garrett Graham into space, depending on the defensive personnel. Anthony Hill is the blocker of the bunch.
After facing questions about durability, Schaub’s played two full seasons. Now the questions are about play in the clutch. He needs to eliminate moments like the one when he threw an overtime pick-six against Baltimore last season.
I expect the Texans to look closely at receivers when the league cuts down rosters. Dorin Dickerson currently looks to be fourth in line, but I saw him fighting some passes in practices and he’s still relatively new to the position. Jeff Maehl heads the undrafted group but didn’t look great, either. Receiver depth is an issue.
Inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton could be the best non-starter on the roster come opening day. He’s in a tough spot behind DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, though injuries are often in play with Cushing.
Myers is a key cog in making the Texans’ offensive line work, and he could be taking his place right alongside Jeff Saturday as an indispensable center in the division.
The team could be an injury away from trouble at end and safety.
Trindon Holliday’s speed is not enough for him to overcome his size as even a situational receiver. Plus, he seems easily hurt. The return jobs are open if the team wants to avoid using Jacoby Jones as the punt returner and Manning as the kick returner.
Count me among those not convinced that Matt Leinart can’t play. If this team needs a few spots starts, I bet he can do OK. One of the NFL’s quarterback-needy teams was foolish not to add Leinart to the mix. He’s better than a lot of guys with a chance to start some games this season.
Lawrence Vickers is better equipped to work as the fullback than Casey, and he should get far more frequent opportunities to lead the way for Foster.