- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- J.J. Watt is the attention-grabber, the show-stealer. With two sacks and a fumble recovery, the defensive end continued a torrid production pace in the Texans’ 38-14 beat down of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Reliant Stadium.
“We joke around now on defense,” outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “It’s a race to the ball to see if you can get there before he gets there.”
In this win, though, it wasn’t all about the front seven. The secondary jumped in at decisive moments, reminding us all that while the Texans have remarkable talent up front, the defensive backfield has serious playmaking potential as well.
“We can play back there and we knew that,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
Three plays helped set the tone and alter the scoreboard.
Phillips said the Titans were sliding toward inside linebacker Brian Cushing. Locker said he didn’t see Quin at all. Quin said he plays a lot of man-to-man on tight ends so it was easy to miss him and the Titans never pointed him out.
Locker will have an MRI and we’ll see what his status is. But it’s the same shoulder he separated in the opener and he was already wearing a harness. He will likely need some time to heal and be ready to land hard on it again. So it’s a play that may affect the Titans’ huddle for some time.
Matt Hasselbeck said he was somewhat tentative in some situations knowing he couldn’t get hurt as the Titans didn’t have another quarterback. (Receiver Damian Williams is the Titans' emergency option. Third quarterback Rusty Smith was not active.) How much that contributed to poor play is hard to say.
Hasselbeck was sacked three times, threw the two picks that were returned for scores and lost a fumble. All in all, an awful showing.
2. With the Texans only up 14-7 and the Titans hanging around and looking like they’d challenge, Hasselbeck threw a first-down pass for rookie tight end Taylor Thompson. Thompson reached back and got a hand on it, popping the ball in the air. Safety Danieal Manning pounced on it, then went on a nifty 55-yard cross-field sprint for a score that effectively broke the game open.
“That pick was timely,” Manning said. “It was great coverage by GQ, we had a great call. They actually ran a great route but we had great coverage and it forced the quarterback to throw the ball high. Tipped ball and I was able to make the play.”
In what hardly amounted to a vote of confidence for the rookie Thompson, Hasselbeck said he thought Jared Cook was in the game. The quarterback said he wouldn’t have made the throw had he realized who was running the route. No matter the intended receiver, it was an off-target toss that asked for trouble.
“That changed the game a ton,” Manning said. “Those guys were never able to get back in the game from that point. It changed.”
3. In the fourth quarter, cornerback Kareem Jackson jumped Williams’ route on the left side, brushing or bumping the receiver’s shoulder as he snatched Hasselbeck’s pass and took it 63 yards, high-stepping at least the last 10 on the score that made it 38-7.
Jackson is routinely seen as the weak link on the defense. He’s improved a lot and is fulltime now, not getting replaced in certain situations. And while “weak-link” may still fit, it’s increasingly because of how good everyone else is, not his deficiencies.
He understandably scoffs at that stuff.
In this instance, he said homework paid off.
“I got a pretty good read on it and it’s something I saw all week on film,” Jackson said. “I just kind of jumped in there and was able to make a play.”
So there are the three big plays.
Looking at the bigger picture ...
With Darrelle Revis out for the year for the Jets, Johnathan Joseph can stake a claim to playing as well as any cornerback in the league. Among the decisions made while putting the Texans together, the one where they chose to sign Joseph and Manning in 2011 rather than continuing to pursue cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was a key.
The free-agent half of the starting secondary gets better and better in Phillips’ system and shouldn’t be forgotten while we’re marveling at Watt, who Joseph has taken to calling Megawatt.
“You know we’re all brothers back there,” Joseph said. “We all like each other, love each other, care about each other, want to see each other have success. So to see those guys go out and make those plays, it’s just like I made the plays. I’m just as happy for those guys.
“It speaks volumes about this defense. Anybody can do it.”
In building a 3-0 record, the Texans had three picks -- one each for starting corners Joseph and Jackson and one for Cushing.
But the group wasn’t happy with the total and felt it botched a couple chances last week in Denver.
A fine system is in place, Joseph said. Drop a pick in practice and you pay $20. Boot one in a game and it’s $100.
“It can get pretty pricey if you happen to get your hands on a couple and don’t make the play,” Joseph said. “We’re on each other hard. It’s about turnovers in this league and making a play when the opportunity comes. Today was a prime example. Those two guys capitalized.”
Search for a soft spot in the Texans’ defense at your own peril. It will take a good while to find even something small, and the odds you can attack it effectively while holding up defensively aren’t great.
Of course bigger challenges named the Packers, the Ravens and the Patriots await.
In the meantime, Phillips will have to do what he can to find stuff to harp on in meetings.
“Our second team didn’t do very well (at the end),” he said. “I’m a little disappointed there.”