AFC South: Shayne Graham

RTC: Locker has shoulder repaired

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
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Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

If the Texans struggled with Aaron Hernandez, how are they going to stop Rob Gronkowski, too? John McClain of the Chronicle considers the question from Houston, while Tania Ganguli looks at it from New England.

Shayne Graham hasn’t missed a field goal shorter than 46 yards all season, says Dale Robertson of the Chronicle.

The Bears will travel to Houston to interview Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison on Friday, says McClain.

J.J. Watt paid tribute to Craig Biggio, who narrowly missed the baseball hall of fame.

Two looks at how the Texans don’t even give themselves a shot in the red zone. Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report picks up on something I wrote and expands on it.

Indianapolis Colts

His inner ear infection is resolved and Bruce Arians is set to interview Sunday with the Bears, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. Jim Irsay’s offered a sizable raise for Arians to stay.

A long and thorough list of things the Star’s Phillip B. Wilson will remember about the 2012 Colts.

If Arians leaves, who will replace him, asks Dunlevy. Andrew Luck will make someone a genius.

Jacksonville Jaguars

David Caldwell will be introduced as Jaguars general manager this afternoon. Perhaps by then a decision will have been made on the coaching staff, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Justin Blackmon and Bryan Anger are on PFW’s All-Rookie Team, says O’Halloran.

Tennessee Titans

Jake Locker had shoulder surgery Wednesday and if his recovery of his non-throwing shoulder goes well he’ll be throwing in June, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Jordan Babineaux hopes he is with the Titans for the second year of his two-year contract, says Wyatt.

Before Dave Gettleman was hired as GM of the Carolina Panthers, Titans vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson interviewed for the job, says Wyatt.
Arian Foster Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsArian Foster became the first running back to break 100 yards in his first three playoff games.
HOUSTON -- Don’t fast-forward too quickly. Wade Phillips won’t. The Houston Texans' defensive coordinator asked for a day before he starts to figure out how to improve on the Texans’ terrible showing in New England five weeks ago.

That’s not unreasonable.

After all, a team with a somewhat-faint pulse sprang back to life at Reliant Stadium on Saturday, smothering the Cincinnati Bengals in a 19-13 victory in the wild-card round of the playoffs that earned the return trip to New England next Sunday afternoon.

“We played dominant defense, we played great, we played inspired,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “It’s good to be firing on all cylinders. We’ve got to get ready to play even a tougher game.”

“We kind of wanted to reset our batteries this week,” center Chris Myers said. “We know what we do best as an offense: Run the ball, pound it and control the line of scrimmage. That’s what we focused in on all week.”

The key numbers that plugged into what Reed and Myers spoke of: The Bengals didn’t convert one of their nine third-down chances and allowed Andy Dalton to hit on less than half his passes for just 127 yards; the Texans gave the ball to Arian Foster 32 times and he gained 140 yards and scored a touchdown while helping his team hold the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds.

Houston’s worst-case scenario got better, and at the very least the Texans will have a 2012 season as good as their 2011, which ended with a divisional-round loss in Baltimore.

“It’s been a gut check for this organization through this past month, and the players led the way today and I’m very proud of them,” coach Gary Kubiak said.

A closer look at some key ingredients that got the Bulls on Parade into the divisional round of the playoffs for the second year in a row:

The quarterback’s first playoff game: Matt Schaub threw a really bad pick-six, and there were stretches where the Texans appeared very reluctant to have him try anything that carried even a mild degree of risk.

But he made enough plays to get a "W" in the first playoff game of his career, connecting on 29 of 38 attempts for 262 yards. He looked to Andre Johnson on 21 percent of his throws, a number far better than the 37 percent he forced during the Texans' three recent losses.

It was tight end Owen Daniels who gave the Bengals matchup fits and hurt them the most with nine catches for 91 yards.

The offensive line didn’t only block well for Foster and the run game, but also created time and comfort for Schaub, who wasn’t sacked and was hit only twice, according to the stat crew.

It crushed Schaub to miss last season's playoff run after he suffered a serious foot injury in the middle of the season.

He’s a 1-0 playoff quarterback now.

Foster’s record: No back in NFL history had topped 100 yards in his first three playoff games until Foster pushed into triple digits Saturday. His line did great work, often getting a 1- or 2-yard push before he caught up to his blockers.

“He’s become a fine, fine player -- and it just seems like the bigger it gets, the better Arian gets,” Kubiak said.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesNine-year veteran Matt Schaub was a winner in his first playoff game, if not without a pick-six hiccup.
Foster rarely went right, where a rotation at guard (rookies Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks) and tackle (Derek Newton and Ryan Harris) has been an issue, but wasn’t anything the Bengals were able to exploit in this game.

When Foster ran for one final first down that iced the game, Texans owner Bob McNair said he wanted to run out on the field and kiss him.

“A nice little hug would do,” Foster cracked.

Red zone: I waited for the good vibe of the day to get sufficient consideration before I asked Foster about the team’s red zone struggles going unsolved. In reply, he took the nickname he has used for me in our periodic conversations the past few years -- Mr. Positivity -- public.

But it doesn’t take a Negative Nellie to know that one touchdown in four chances like the Texans had against the Bengals won’t suffice at Gillette Stadium. The Texans were actually 2-for-2 scoring touchdowns once they got inside the 20 on Dec. 10 at New England. The thing was, they were already down 28-0 when they finally got there.

Schaub emphasized how the Texans didn’t want to force things when they were assured of makeable field goals from Shayne Graham. But the Patriots' offense burns at a higher temperature than the Bengals', and Houston won’t likely be able to choose to be conservative if it wants a chance to advance to the AFC title game.

“It was our Achilles' heel today,” Foster said. “When you get in the red zone, especially against a team like New England, you have to score touchdowns, you can’t kick field goals, because they like to put up points and they like to put up points in a hurry.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in our defense, but that man behind center over there is a great player. You have to keep him off the field and you have to capitalize any time you get the opportunity.”

A healthy Johnathan Joseph: The team’s top cornerback has been inconsistent this season, at least in part because of groin and hamstring injuries. Phillips said once Joseph was back to practicing full-time, he’d return to form.

That sure seemed like the case against Cincinnati.

Dalton didn’t even throw a ball the direction of A.J. Green, his top receiver, in the first half. He looked for him 11 times in the second half and had one big 45-yard completion. But Green stopped on one route in the middle of the field and Joseph, who was sticky most of the game, grabbed an interception and took it 14 yards to set up Graham’s fourth field goal that boosted the Texans’ point total to 19.

“Physically, I’m probably better than I’ve been all year,” Joseph said.

Joseph and the Bulls on Parade were the first playoff defense to hold an opponent without a third-down conversion since the Bengals did it to the Bills in the 1988 AFC Championship Game.

Success will be defined a lot differently at Gillette Stadium against Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Phillips will soon start pondering just what his guys might try differently given this second chance.

Colts revel in win for Chuck Pagano

December, 30, 2012
12/30/12
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Chuck PaganoAP Photo/AJ MastColts coaches Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians celebrated an emotional win over the Texans on Sunday.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Colts took possession with 9:46 remaining in their regular-season finale.

Andrew Luck might have handed the game ball to Chuck Pagano right then and there.

The rookie quarterback let the play clock run down, took 15 snaps, watched his team convert three third downs and forced the Texans to burn their last two timeouts.

Indianapolis arrived at the two-minute warning needing only to kneel out the clock, assuring a 28-16 win over Houston. And so Pagano, back after three months away for leukemia treatment, found offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and hugged the man who’d led the team while he was away.

“We have a 2:00 offense, we have a 4:00 offense, now we have a 9:00 offense,” Reggie Wayne said. “Andrew came in the huddle, he let it be known we need to shut the door on this drive. Guys just bit down on their mouthpieces and found ways to get it done."

“Being a defensive guy… it’s glorious, it unbelievable to watch, because you don’t have to go back out there,” Pagano said. “They just kept grinding it out, grinding it out.”

And so the Colts’ storybook regular season ended with their 11th win just a year after they were 2-14, fired their top people and hired replacements who gutted and restocked their roster.

"They believe, they have faith, they have trust and the love one another,” Pagano said with amazement.

The Houston Texans have still never won in Indianapolis. The Texans may have more talent than Indianapolis, but they do not head into the playoffs as a better team. Houston hasn’t had the same kind of struggle to rally around, and has lost a great degree of what the Colts spent Saturday night talking about: mojo.

“I doubt anybody’s lost confidence,” Texans running back Arian Foster said.

It’s what you say when you were 11-1 and finish 12-4. But there simply has to be an issue with psyche at some level for a few Texans that has the potential to linger into next week’s home game against sixth-seeded Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the guys who wear horseshoes on their helmets spoke of their pride in putting forth a winning effort in a game which gained them nothing in terms of playoff positioning. As the No. 5 seed, they will travel to Baltimore to take on the No. 4 Ravens next weekend.

They signed up for a 16-game season, Pagano said, and they intended to play it out.

After the coin toss, a short video rolled showing highlight of the season and moments when the team rallied for its touchstone cause. Then the cameras showed Pagano on the sideline and the crowd exploded for him.

“It was like a rock star coming out of the tunnel with all the cameras flashing when he walked out,” Luck said.

Houston scored 10 points in the third quarter to move ahead 16-14. But fortunes turned quickly after Shayne Graham’s third field goal, a 37-yarder.

Deji Karim took the ensuing kickoff 101 yards straight down the middle of the field for one score and Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for a 70-yard touchdown. Then cornerback Vontae Davis collected his second interception of Matt Schaub, this one in the Colts’ end zone, to set up the 9:46 of keep-away.

The Colts won a good share of games this season that the stats suggested should have gone the other way. They were outgained by the Texans, 352 net yards to 265. But Davis’ two takeaways were the game's only turnovers. The Colts were better on third down, were more effective in the red zone and played a cleaner game in terms of penalties.

Likely NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt got to Luck just once, and his half sack was washed away when the resulting fumble was changed to an incomplete pass on replay review.

The Colts sacked Schaub four times. One came from one-day Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney. The other three came from guys hardly anyone’s heard of: defensive end Lawrence Guy was playing in his ninth game with the team, defensive tackle Clifton Geathers was appearing in his eighth and linebacker Jamaal Westerman suited up for the fourth time.

Pagano took a long time to emerge for his postgame interview, and through the door leading to the locker room we heard a long-lasting wild rumpus. (See Robert Mathis dance and Pagano talk and accept a game ball, here.)

Pagano said he never reflected on the darkest days of his leukemia treatment, just getting lost in the game.

Wayne’s relationship with Pagano dates all the way back to his time at the University of Miami, when Pagano was part of the Hurricanes’ coaching staff.

The receiver credited his coach with holding tears back throughout the day, though he said the team was giving its coach a pass on it.

“He’s put the fight in this team,” Wayne said. “He makes us go out there, and whatever nick, bruises you have, it’s nothing, no comparison. Whenever you think you’re hurt, you’re not hurt. Our general, he was hurt.”

Maybe, down the road, football games will just be football games again for this team.

Whatever it has left this season isn’t going to be like that.

“To listen to a guy that beat leukemia in 13 weeks and then comes back to the sideline, is unreal,” said punter Pat McAfee. “It’s something like a movie. The speech he gave today, the highlight of it was basically, ‘Week-in and week-out, you get a chance to give people hope just like you did for me when I was fighting for my life…’”

“I think that was a big-time tear-jerker. In situations like this, we realize it’s much bigger than us. There are a lot of things going on that we can’t control, but we can help. It was really cool.”

In a discussion this week of whether Colts first-year general manager Ryan Grigson is executive of the year, we noted the team’s remarkable turnover. Sixty-eight percent of the current roster wasn’t here last year.

“Ryan Grigson had quite a task, he had to renovate a team,” McAfee said. “We refused to use the word rebuild. We used the term reload, Robert Mathis kind of termed that. He brought in a new group of faces, a lot of young guys, a whole new coaching staff, a whole new offense for a brand-new rookie [quarterback] so the guy would have nobody to turn to with questions, he would have to figure it out himself. A defense that’s come together around a guy from Canada making a bunch of plays in Jerrell Freeman. Get a trade from Miami who’s paid off huge in the long run [in Davis].

“We’re just a team of misfits that’s come together around one big cause which is our leader, giving us inspiration and hope that is much bigger than us.”

Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

The usual suspects -- Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster -- led the Texans to another comeback win, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Shayne Graham maximized his chance at redemption, says Tania Ganguli of the Chronicle.

Justin Forsett’s 81-yard touchdown run was one for the rule books, says McClain.

J.J. Watt and defensive line coach Bill Kollar had a heated exchange on the Texans bench, and it sparked a giant game from Watt, says Ganguli.

Ten things Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle learned from the Texans on Thanksgiving Day.

Ndamukong Suh lived up to his reputation with a kick at Matt Schaub, says Steven Braid for the Chronicle.

Indianapolis Colts

A meet and tweet with the Colts, as Phil Richards of the Indianapolis Star sorts through who says what on Twitter.

Colts first-year players are focused on breaking through the rookie wall, says Mike Chappell of the Star.

Jacksonville Jaguars

If Chad Henne plays well in the remainder of the season, he could line himself up as the starter for 2013 and do a lot to stabilize the Jaguars, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

It appears Maurice Jones-Drew will miss at least two more games, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

Tennessee Titans

Jake Locker is increasingly vocal in the locker room and has shown a lot of other signs of growth, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Chris Johnson says he’s not worrying about 2013, when the Titans may be wary of his contract which calls for $9 million to lock in as guaranteed, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

DETROIT -- Thoughts on the Houston Texans' 34-31 overtime win over the Lions at Ford Field:

What it means: The Texans came from behind late again and pulled out an overtime win for the second week in a row, adding more fuel to a team-of-destiny feel. Houston is 10-1, and, no matter the results from around the rest of the conference, it will head into Week 13 with a two-game lead in the AFC race for home-field advantage in the playoffs. (Houston holds a head-to-head tiebreaker with Baltimore.)

What I liked: In a tense, tight game, Danieal Manning pulled the ball free from safety Brandon Pettigrew and Darryl Sharpton recovered it to end the first possession of overtime. The offense moved to position Shayne Graham for a 51-yard field goal attempt. But he missed wide left. Detroit got a 47-yard chance at a winning field goal, but Jason Hanson dinged the right upright. Houston then drove 49 yards in six plays to position Graham for a 32-yarder with 2:21 on the clock that won it.

What I also liked: More broadly, I liked the same things as I like in most Texans wins -- the resolve, the versatility, the ability to find the plays in the shape of the game in front of them that are needed to win it.

What I didn’t like: First and foremost, the rule that prevented a review of Justin Forsett’s 81-yard “touchdown run” where he appeared to be down. Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw his challenge flag. But scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and throwing the challenge flag actually negates the review possibility and earns a 15-yard penalty on the subsequent kickoff. Schwartz has to know that. But it’s still silly not to review the scoring play. The Texans got a huge break out of all of it.

What I also didn’t like: Plenty of pass defenses struggle with Calvin Johnson, but the coverage plans with corner Johnathan Joseph (hamstring) out were bad, and Megatron had a field day with eight catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. Houston did do better on him in the second half, after deciding Alan Ball wasn't up to trying to cover Johnson on his own. The original plan was a poor one. After benefiting from the non-review, the Texans pulled even at 24-all. Rather than seizing control, the Texans gave up a 23-yard run up the middle for a touchdown to Joique Bell and had to fight back to evened-up again to force overtime.

Injury issues: Joseph, inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, nose tackle Shaun Cody and running back Ben Tate didn’t play. Outside linebacker Brooks Reed (groin) and right tackle Derek Newton (right knee) left the game early, and inside linebacker Bradie James suffered a hamstring injury in the second half and didn’t finish. The Texans have a mini bye now and need it to heal up.

Inevitable? The Texans had not allowed a rushing touchdown all season. They allowed two in this game, a 2-yard run by Mikel Leshoure in the first quarter and Bell’s 23-yarder in the fourth.

What’s next: The Texans play at Tennessee on Dec. 2 and at New England on "Monday Night Football" on Dec. 10.

Wrap-up: Texans 43, Jaguars 37 (OT)

November, 18, 2012
11/18/12
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Thoughts on the Texans’ 43-37 win over the Jaguars at Reliant Stadium:

What it means: The Texans posted a remarkable rally from a late two-touchdown deficit and pulled to 9-1 with an improbable overtime victory. It took everything they had to beat the 1-9 Jaguars, who played what ranked as their best game of the season, setting the tone early and fighting like crazy but ultimately coming up short against a team with an awful lot of firepower.

Back in form: Questions about the age and leg condition of Andre Johnson should be about gone by now. He’s been playing better and better and finished this one with 14 catches for a career-high 273 yards. His 35-yard catch on the last possession was crucial for setting up Shayne Graham’s field goal attempt at the end of regulation, but Graham missed it badly. So Johnson took a bubble screen 48 yards for the game-winning touchdown in overtime.

What I liked, Texans: Matt Schaub hit on 43 of 55 passes for 527 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He had a stretch of 17 consecutive completions end on the second play from scrimmage in overtime. The yardage was the second most in NFL history.

What I liked, Jaguars: Chad Henne stepped in for Blaine Gabbert early after the starting quarterback hurt his throwing elbow when his arm was hit by Danieal Manning on a blitz that forced a fumble. Henne was an excellent reliever, finishing 16-of-33 for 354 yards and four touchdowns. No other quarterback since Sage Rosenfels for Houston in 2007 has come off the bench to throw four touchdowns.

What I didn’t like, Texans: There were all sorts of problems defensively. But as the Jaguars connected on a bunch of big pass plays, Houston’s safeties had plays made on them, had receivers bounce off them and generally had a bad day. Manning had a big game last week in Chicago against his old team and Glover Quin has also been steady this season. But whether they just had a bad day or Jacksonville had a sense they were guys who could be attacked, they hurt Houston today.

Overtime: The Texans marched to a field goal on the opening possession of OT. The Jaguars converted a fourth-and-10 with a 15-yard Henne-to-Justin Blackmon pass and managed to get a field goal of their own to extend the game and set up a next-score-wins scenario. That next score was Johnson.

Breakout games: Blackmon was fantastic with seven catches for 236 yards and a touchdown. The rookie receiver showed the combination of physical presence and speed that prompted the Jaguars to trade up for him back in April. On the other side, Keshawn Martin was very productive in the return game, an area where Houston has struggled this season. He had a 71-yard kickoff return and a 54-yard punt return. He also had a 9-yard touchdown catch.

Silly stat: It was just the second game in NFL history with two 200-yard receivers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The only other game in NFL history in which multiple receivers had 200 or more yards was Sept. 23, 2007, when Detroit's Roy Williams (204) and Philadelphia's Kevin Curtis (221) pulled it off in an Eagles win over the Lions.

Defensive standouts: Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny got that blood running from the bridge of his nose dripping down his face from delivering some big hits, and defensive tackle C.J. Mosley was frequently disruptive.

Mixed results: In his first game after roughly a year missed with injuries, Texans inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton had mixed results. He broke through the line for a great tackle for a loss on running back Rashad Jennings but also bit on a run fake and left Marcedes Lewis open for a touchdown pass from Henne.

What’s next: The Texans have a quick turnaround, heading to Detroit for a game on Thanksgiving Day. The Jaguars host Tennessee at EverBank Field.

Rapid Reaction: Texans 13, Bears 6

November, 11, 2012
11/11/12
11:33
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CHICAGO -- Thoughts on the Houston Texans' 13-6 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field:

What it means: The Texans won on the road against a top NFC team in bad weather to boost their record to 8-1 and should get even more attention as a potential Super Bowl team after this effort in Chicago.

What I liked: After all the talk about the Bears’ propensity for creating turnovers, it was the Texans who proved to have more of the playmaking defense with four takeaways -- two fumbles and two picks of Chicago’s Jay Cutler. Running back Arian Foster did yeoman’s work, with 29 carries for 102 yards. He also scored the game’s lone touchdown with a pretty diving catch of a 2-yard pass from Matt Schaub with linebacker Lance Briggs covering him well. While Brandon Marshall made a big 45-yard catch, there were hardly any instances when you felt like a run or short pass by Chicago had a chance to turn into something significant and damaging.

Other good things: While a potential big return by Keshawn Martin was washed away by a holding penalty, and Donnie Jones wasn’t crushing his punts, the Texans' special teams had a reasonably good night. Coverage teams contained Devin Hester, making several one-on-one tackles. And while Chicago’s Robbie Gould missed a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter that would have made it 10-9 Texans, Houston’s Shayne Graham hit his attempts from 20 and 42 yards.

What I didn’t like: On a rainy, windy night, Schaub and the Texans couldn’t find much through the air. A deep, bootleg pass for Andre Johnson on their first series went off his fingertips. Kevin Walter's 23-yard reception in the third quarter was the long pass of the day for Houston.

What I want to know: How much linebacker Tim Dobbins is going to get fined for the hit above the shoulders to Cutler that left the Bears quarterback with a concussion that kept him out of the second half.

What’s next: The Texans host Jacksonville at Reliant Stadium in an AFC South matchup. Houston won the first matchup at EverBank Field on Sept. 16, 27-7.

No Daniels for Texans in rain, wind

November, 11, 2012
11/11/12
7:24
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CHICAGO -- Weather’s going to be a big issue tonight at Soldier Field.

The rain outside the press box window is moving sideways and the flags on top of the stadium and a top the goal posts are screaming “It’s swirling.” Every time I look at them they are going different directions, and one end of the stadium is different than the other.

The Texans will be working without one of their top weapons, tight end Owen Daniels, who’s sidelined with a back injury. Garrett Graham is a capable replacement, but hardly as dynamic. Fullback James Casey, who’s really an H-back, has the best hands on the team and will likely be a factor in the passing game too.

Quarterback Matt Schaub, kicker Shayne Graham and punter Donnie Jones will all have issues with the wind, as will their Bear’s counterparts

The full list of inactives:

Texans
Bears

Wrap-up: Texans 21, Bills 9

November, 4, 2012
11/04/12
6:56
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video
Thoughts on the Texans’ 21-9 win over the Buffalo Bills Reliant Stadium:

What it means: Houston boosted its record to 7-1, continuing to rank as the AFC’s best team with an efficient win over the visiting Bills.

What I liked, offense: The Texans' three stars on offense shined. Matt Schaub hit on 19 of 27 passes for 268 yards with two touchdowns and a 126.8 passer rating. Andre Johnson caught eight passes for 118 yards. And Arian Foster carried 24 times for 111 yards and a touchdown -- he’s now scored a TD in nine consecutive home games. The big three need to carry the offense at times, and they showed themselves completely capable of the task against an inferior team in this game.

What I liked, defense: No touchdowns allowed is always a very good thing. And third-down defense was big, allowing the Bills to convert just twice in 11 chances. J.J. Watt got back in the sack column and added four more quarterback hits while rookie outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus forced a fumble when he sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Better: The Bills are an excellent punt- and kickoff-return team, but in eight chances against the Texans, who’ve been emphasizing improvement, they gained only 89 yards. The Texans, meanwhile, took six chances on 96 yards. Still, there was a big special-teams mistake as Shayne Graham’s 46-yard field goal attempt was blocked.

Familiar visitor: Mario Williams, who jumped to the Bills as a high-priced free agent in the offseason, had a sack of Schaub, another tackle for a loss and seven total tackles.

What’s next: The Texans head to Chicago for a "Sunday Night Football" showdown against the 7-1 Bears. The Texans have been in game-of-the-year scenarios twice before this season, and they got blown out by the Packers and blew out the Ravens.
When the Texans headed into their bye week, the one big point of emphasis was special teams.

Houston is 24th in punt-return-average against and 23rd in kick-return-average against.

Buffalo deploys two kick returners, Leodis McKelvin (who averages 32.0 yards a return) and Brad Smith (34.6). McKelvin handles punts (and averages 24 yards a return). The Bills are No. 1 in both kickoff- and punt-return average in the NFL.

“I told my team that we could single-handedly get beat by these two returners,” Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters. “They’re excellent, punt return, kick return. Obviously we started over from that standpoint with the bye week and our approach and what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to get better. It couldn’t be a bigger test for us right off the get-go.

“If we’re going to change our field position, we’re going to have to get better in those two phases of the game. It will be as difficult this week as it’ll probably be all year so it’s a big challenge.”

Another issue is touchbacks. Shayne Graham has allowed 33 kickoff returns, with only 11 touchbacks. The league leader has 31 touchbacks.

“I don’t think you can all of a sudden say if he’s kicking it two yards deep say it’s got to be out of the end zone,” Kubiak said. “You can do what you can do. He does directional-kick pretty good. The thing we’ve noticed he kicks off pretty well early in games and as the game goes on, they’re not as good. So we tried to focus on that, trying to keep him focused on some things we think can help him.

“We’re going to have to be smart with some of the things we do kicking the ball, too. If you know you can’t kick it out of the end zone, then you better know where you’re kicking it and how you’re going to cover. So we’ve got our hands full there. Hopefully we can start to improve that this week.”

The Texans would have to play poorly beyond special teams to lose this game. But the threat the Bills pose in the return game could scare the Texans into better play.

RTC: On Texans' special-teams woes

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
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Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Shayne Graham and Donnie Jones have kicked and punted well, “[b]ut kickoff returns and coverage need a major overhaul by the time the Texans return from their open date and play the Buffalo Bills in Mario Williams’ homecoming at Reliant Stadium,” writes John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

To which I say: Bryan Braman is an excellent special-teamer, but beyond him the team is lacking in top guys. It’s hard to overhaul the units when you don’t have new people.

Indianapolis Colts

As passing games get better and better, cornerbacks need to be bulletproof with amnesia more than ever, says Mike Chappell of The Indianapolis Star. Jerraud Powers and Vontae Davis talk about their mindsets.

To which I say: In a scheme with more man coverage, these guys are being asked to do even more. Powers has been up and down, but he’s being asked to do much more than in the past.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Backup running back Rashad Jennings and backup quarterback Chad Henne vow to be ready to contribute for the Jaguars in Green Bay, says Ryan O’Halloran. Jennings will start for Maurice Jones-Drew, but Henne will back up the banged up Blaine Gabbert.

To which I say: Jennings went through camp as the starter during Jones-Drew’s holdout. The time has come for him to show why the team has such faith in him.

Tennessee Titans

Recent Pac-12 alumni including defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and DaJohn Harris (USC), linebacker Akeem Ayers (UCLA) and cornerback Alterraun Verner (UCLA) all have recent hands-on experience against Andrew Luck, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

To which I say: Any familiarity helps, but Luck has graduated into a different guy playing with different people in a different system at a different level, so those college experiences only mean so much.
Joe Flacco, JJ WattUS Presswire, AP ImagesHow Baltimore's Joe Flacco, left, fares against Houston's explosive J.J. Watt could be key Sunday.


The last time we saw the Texans and Ravens square off, we were watching a divisional-round playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Terrell Suggs had six tackles and a pass defended as the Ravens' rush linebacker. Houston featured third-string rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback, and his three interceptions -- paired with multiple special-teams gaffes by Texans returner Jacoby Jones -- were big factors in a 20-13 Baltimore victory.

The Texans returned home to rave reviews for their first playoff season but also couldn’t help wonder what might have been if they'd had injured starting quarterback Matt Schaub and played a cleaner game. Baltimore advanced to the AFC Championship Game in New England, where it lost to the Patriots, but a near-catch for a touchdown by Lee Evans could have won it with 27 seconds left and a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff could have forced overtime.

This rematch doesn’t carry the same stakes but could have big implications. The winner will have the AFC’s best record at 6-1.

AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky will be watching closely.

HENSLEY: I think it's easy to say this is a battle of the two best teams in the AFC. Not really going out on a limb here because the Ravens and Texans are the only teams with winning records in this mediocre conference. I know there are going to be nine games after this one, but this is shaping up to be the Ravens' most important game of the regular season.

The result of this game could become a tiebreaker for home-field advantage or a first-round bye at the end of the season. The Ravens, who have won a league-best 14 consecutive games at home, don't want to go on the road in the playoffs. The Ravens' mindset is that they won't have to come back to Houston this year if they win there Sunday. What's the mindset of the Texans after what happened in Houston last Sunday night?

KUHARSKY: Because the Texans are so young, they've played a lot of "biggest games in franchise history." This is certainly the newest one to top the list. Their critics look at the 5-1 record and see wins over mostly softies and a pasting by the Packers on Sunday night. A victory over the Ravens validates everything they've done and regains a firm hold on Best in the AFC. A loss would create some serious concerns. They do have the cushion of playing in a terrible division they simply can't lose. But Baltimore has been an obstacle and ended the Texans' last season in the playoffs. If they meet again with such high stakes, they don't want to be traveling.

It might be a good time to draw the Ravens, too, right? I know Ray Lewis wasn't what he has been, but their first game without a leader like that and without an underrated, great corner like Lardarius Webb may make them a bit more susceptible, no?

HENSLEY: This is the most vulnerable I've seen the Ravens' defense in 13 seasons. Lewis wasn't playing like the Lewis from 10 years ago, but he was still an above-average linebacker in this league. The Ravens have given up more than 200 yards rushing in each of the past two games, and losing Lewis only makes that run defense shakier. Dannell Ellerbe, who has made seven starts since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009, will take Lewis' spot.

Though the Ravens will miss Lewis' leadership, the bigger loss is Webb. He was emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. His nine interceptions since the start of the 2011 season was tied for the league lead. So, the Ravens have taken shots to both their run and pass defenses this week. How do you see the Texans attacking the Ravens' defense Sunday?

KUHARSKY: Although they might not run first chronologically Sunday, the Texans are a run-first team. Everything they do offensively is keyed on the one-cut-and-go running of Arian Foster, who did great work running for 132 yards in that playoff game on Jan. 15. They send him left most often now, because Duane Brown and Wade Smith are steadier blockers than the guys on the right side, where they have two new starters who aren't even full time.

Spinning off that run game, we'll see play-action heavy with bootlegs and rollouts. It's always remarkable to see Owen Daniels out in space awaiting a Matt Schaub pass. Andre Johnson is certainly dangerous too, though they've not been able to feed him the ball as much as usual. He hates the talk that he's getting older and slowing down, but he hasn't looked like the same player so far this season. Two weeks ago, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie really smothered Johnson. I figured Webb would be a guy who could do similar work. If AJ sees someone like Cary Williams instead, it could be a different story.

Speaking of Schaub, let's turn to quarterbacks. He has been quite efficient this year, doing what Houston needs and not getting caught up at all in his numbers. I came into the season not sold on Joe Flacco and thinking the Ravens didn't have the right guy under center to become an offensive team. But he has done some very good work in the games I've seen and started to change my opinion. Even minus Brian Cushing, the Texans' front throws a lot at a quarterback. Green Bay might have exposed some coverage deficiencies. How's Flacco at assessing such things on the fly and taking advantage?

HENSLEY: Flacco's biggest improvement this season has been his ability to audible at the line. The Ravens are using the no-huddle more than any other time in Flacco's five seasons. It's not to the point of being Peyton Manning, but Flacco is constantly changing the play at the line. Flacco, who ran the no-huddle during his college days, is comfortable with this. He has wanted to have more control of the offense and he's now getting it.

A lot of credit goes to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who is familiar with this style from his days with the Colts. Flacco makes his mistakes when he gets pressured. His pocket awareness has improved and he can scramble for yards. But Flacco will rush and make poor throws when a defender is in his face. Left tackle Michael Oher (four sacks) and rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele (three sacks) have struggled at times keeping rushers away from Flacco. Is there any chance the Ravens slow down J.J. Watt and Houston's pass rush?

KUHARSKY: It sure seems like the key to the game for me. Watt is going to get his at some point, and it's not just sacks. Watch how he'll stop rushing when he knows he's not getting there and time his jump to bat down, or even pick off, a pass.

And although the numbers of the other guys aren't in his stratosphere, Brooks Reed, Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin are very effective rushers who will have a bearing on Flacco's pocket comfort. Force some mistakes with that rush, and I like Houston's chances. Get stonewalled and fall victim to the ball coming out super-fast, and I feel differently.

One note about the quicker Ravens offense: With Cushing out, Brice McCain, the nickelback, will have a bigger role in covering players such as Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta on routes. If the Ravens run hurry-up or no-huddle, they can potentially trap the Texans in base if they want McCain off the field. I am eager to see whether they try that. The Texans are obviously are familiar with Jim Caldwell's no-huddling.

How about special teams? Tell me how Jacoby Jones is now reliably explosive? The Texans have some serious special-teams issues.

HENSLEY: Jacoby Jones has been one of the bigger surprises this season for Baltimore. The Ravens were looking to upgrade the return game this offseason and failed to sign Eddie Royal or Ted Ginn in free agency. That's why they jumped on Jones when he was cut by the Texans. He has been average as a punt returner (9 yards per return), but he really keyed the win over the Cowboys on Sunday. His 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which tied an NFL record, was the big play in that game.

The only reason the Ravens turned to Jones on kickoffs was because rookie Deonte Thompson fumbled a kickoff the week before. If you think about it, it's kind of funny that Jones got his chance to be explosive because another player couldn't hold onto the ball, especially after Jones' problems fielding kicks in the past. But that really hasn't surfaced so far with the Ravens.

Baltimore's coverage teams are both ranked in the top half of the league, which is a big improvement from last year. In 2012, the Ravens allowed three touchdowns on returns. Another improvement is at kicker. Rookie Justin Tucker has made 12 of 13 field goals this season and has hit both attempts beyond 50 yards. If this game is close, the Ravens have a lot of confidence in Tucker to make a pressure kick. So, what are the issues with the Texans' special teams?

KUHARSKY: Well, Trindon Holliday was absolutely electric as their returner in the preseason. But it didn’t carry over and they gave up on him. You saw Holliday playing for the Broncos on Monday night. Keshawn Martin is the man now. The team averages only 9.8 yards a punt return and 18.5 yards a kick return.

Their average start after a kickoff is the league’s worst -- the 17.7-yard line. Their coverage isn’t that bad -- it’s 31st in the league instead of 32nd. Opponents start at the 26.9-yard line.

Donnie Jones is a middle-of-the-pack punter in net average. Shayne Graham has been good on field goals, hitting 11 of 12, but is tied for 24th in touchbacks playing at home in what amounts to a domed stadium.

It’s gambler’s logic that the Texans are due to break through against the Ravens. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. If they don’t and Jacoby Jones has something to do with it, it’ll hurt a little bit extra.

It’s certainly no stretch to predict we’ll see these teams facing off again in the playoffs. In what round and where is the question, and Sunday’s winner will lead the race to be in position to host.
Reading the coverage…

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Houston Texans

Shayne Graham knows he’s got to earn the kicking job every week whether or not he’s the line kicker on the roster. There are some quality alternatives out there, including Neil Rackers, the Texans' former kicker who left for a free agent deal but got cut in Washington.

The canny Texans are built around character, says Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.”It's about identifying good people, giving people space to be themselves, and being imminently willing to reward your own as you develop a young core.”

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts gave up a lot to get a player with some baggage, but Vonta Davis is a risk worth taking, says Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. I agree entirely. He gives them a chance to be a lot better on defense, especially if the other top corner, Jerraud Powers, can stay healthy.

Keeping Andrew Luck upright is priority one for the Colts, and it’s not something they’ve proven to be good enough at yet, says Mike Chappell of the Star.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Unsurprisingly, Rashad Jennings is officially in line to start the Jaguars’ season-opener against Minnesota, says Vito Stellino. If Maurice Jones-Drew doesn’t show up today, it’ll be the 34th day of his holdout.

Four Jaguars went to IR and linebacker Clint Session and defensive end John Chick went on PUP as the Jaguars got their roster to 75, says Stellino.

Tennessee Titans

Packages mean that Jordan Babineaux and Robert Johnson will both get starts at safety according to defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, says John Glennon. I hate anything that puts Michael Griffin at strong safety and asks him to come into the box, and when they signed him to a big contract that’s not what anyone should have been envisioning. He needs to be a centerfielder.

Leroy Harris is still rounding into form after a couple offseason surgeries, says Glennon.

Andre Johnson did not practice on Monday, says John McClain.
Time for a run through of Scouts Inc.’s defensive rankings, position by position.

The AFC South is home to just four players in the top 10 of the five lists, though the division has a larger presence at a couple of spots as you look deeper -- particularly at defensive tackle.

Here’s a breakdown with some reflection. The first number is the positional ranking, the second the grade.

Defensive ends:
7) J.J. Watt (85)

12) Dwight Freeney (83)

17) Robert Mathis (81)

23) Jeremy Mincey (80)

31) Antonio Smith (78)


My thoughts: Freeney and Mathis are now outside linebackers in the Colts’ system, and Smith kicks to tackle in the Texans’ nickel package. Mincey may be the top guy in the division as an every-down 4-3 defensive end, and Tennessee’s Kamerion Wimbley will be here but is still rated as a linebacker.

Defensive tackles:
24) Tyson Alualu (78)

27) Jurrell Casey (78)

34) Terrance Knighton (76)

41) Cory Redding (NA)

43) Karl Klug (NA)

47) Shaun Cody (NA)

50) Brandon McKinney (NA)


My thoughts: The top three here are all likely on the rise and should rank higher going into next season. Redding is a base defensive end in the Colts 3-4. McKinney’s now on IR with a knee injury.

Linebackers:
10) Brian Cushing (85)

23) Daryl Smith (82)

26) Paul Posluszny (81)

35) Connor Barwin (79)

38) Kamerion Wimbley (NA)

47) Brooks Reed (NA)


My thoughts: Tough to mash together inside/middle guys and outside guys and 4-3 guys with 3-4 guys, but they all fall together here. I think you can make a case that every guy here from the AFC South could rank higher.

Cornerbacks:
3) Johnathan Joseph (84)

17) Vontae Davis (80)

50) Derek Cox (NA)


My thoughts: Joseph is excellent and Davis is a major upgrade for the Colts. Jason McCourty is a noticeable absence here, and Jerraud Powers would seem a top 50 guy as well.

Safeties:
6) Antoine Bethea (81)

10) Danieal Manning (79)

18) Michael Griffin (78)

30) Dawan Landry (76)

34) Glover Quin (75)

38) Dwight Lowery (NA)


My thoughts: Nice for the Texans and the Jaguars to get both their starters on the list. Manning gets some deserved recognition here. The two spots that are not accounted for -- either Jordan Babineaux or Robert Johnson in Tennessee and Tom Zbikowski in Indy -- could be issues.

Kickers:
3) Rob Bironas (76)

13) Josh Scobee (68)

19) Adam Vinatieri (62)

25) Shayne Graham (59)

 

Punters:
4) Donnie Jones (74)

13) Brett Kern (66)

16) Pat McAfee (62)

30) Brett Hartmann (54)
It sure felt like rookie Randy Bullock was going to be the Texans kicker.

The team spent a fifth-round pick on him and he’d done fine in the preseason.

But he was the reason Gary Kubiak was in a bad mood when he met with the Houston media Sunday.

“We lost Randy, Randy is going on IR [injured reserve],” Kubiak said. “I just found out 15 minutes ago. He has torn a muscle somewhere in the groin area. I don’t know all the specifics. Obviously, it’s going to be a long process back, so it’s been a disappointing last half-hour for me and for us to find this out. It had been bothering him for a couple of weeks and he continued to kick through it.

“He’s very tough and he kicked very well last night. He came in here today, black and blue. We ran some tests on him and so it’s a sad situation. He’s going to kick in this league. He’s going to kick a long time. He’s going to go on IR this year and thankfully we’ve got Shayne (Graham), who has done a hell of a job, too. He was pushing him neck-and-neck to kick for us. It’s a tough deal.”

Graham hasn’t missed a preseason attempt, including a 53-yarder Saturday night in New Orleans.

“He’s kicked off well for us,” Kubiak said. “He’s a guy who throughout the course of his career has been a very, very accurate kicker inside of 40. He’s done a heck of a job. Like I said, it was right down the middle between those two guys. I think we would’ve been proud with either one of them. I think this situation obviously calls for Shayne to move forward and be our guy. We expect him to do well.”

If he doesn’t and no one else has scooped them up, there should be at least two solid veteran alternatives to consider.

The Ravens have cut Billy Cundiff and the Saints will let go of either Garrett Hartley or John Kasay.

In other injury news for the Texans, Kubiak said nose tackle Shaun Cody (back) and end J.J. Watt (elbow) will practice this week but not play in the preseason finale Thursday night against Minnesota.

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