AFC South: Vance Joseph

Peyton Manning and Johnathan JosephUSA Today Sports, Icon SMIComing off an unexpected loss, will Peyton Manning's Broncos overlook Johnathan Joseph's Texans?

Quarterbacks tend to pull for each other. They know what it's like to shoulder so much of a team's fate, they understand the pressure better than outsiders could.

"I do think it’s a unique fraternity," Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Matt’s an excellent quarterback. I think he’ll be fine."

This weekend Manning and his Broncos will visit the Houston Texans for a rematch of a game played last year under very different circumstances.

Fittingly, after a season of quarterback turmoil, the Texans are returning to the man they started with at the position. Because of an injury to Case Keenum, Matt Schaub will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The last time Schaub started, he entered the game to boos so hearty that the Texans had to go to a silent count on some of their plays.

On the opposite sideline will be one of the best to ever play the position. Manning has played against the Texans 19 times and lost only three times. ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.

Ganguli: Manning is very familiar with the Texans. Has his (soon-to-be) record-setting season been as impressive to watch up close as the stats suggest?

Legwold: No question the numbers have been staggering, even by Manning’s standards. But the intersection of Manning as a 37-year-old quarterback who was willing to sort of remake himself with a team ready to offer him the place to do that has lifted his play even more. The Broncos have constructed a playbook that is a mix of what they had on hand and what Manning has always done. They've added a warp-speed no-huddle portion and given him targets all over the formation, and Manning has played with the discipline of a veteran quarterback who understands what needs to be done. His coaches have said he forced just one pass in the team’s first eight games and his accuracy has been elite for much of the season. He isn't a power thrower now, and a windy day in the postseason could derail some of what the Broncos like to do, but he is an accomplished pitcher who knows his opponents and can hit all the spots.

Gary Kubiak is still well-liked around the Broncos’ complex, with many people who worked with him still in the building. What has been the reaction of players to his dismissal?

Ganguli: Kubiak was well-liked in the Texans' building, too, especially with, but not limited to, the players. After his dismissal, you heard a lot about how well he treated people, regardless of their role on the team. He’s always been known as a players’ coach, and that’s part of what has made Houston an attractive destination for free agents. Several players exchanged text messages with him after it happened. Some took public responsibility for it. They didn't like seeing him lose his job, but the firing wasn't a tremendous surprise given how the season had gone. The players’ reaction to Kubiak's health scare after suffering a "mini-stroke" on Nov. 3 said a lot about what he meant to them.

You covered another head coach's health scare this season. How did the Broncos weather John Fox’s absence?

Legwold: There have been seasons over the past decade or so when neither the locker room nor the coaching staff would have been as equipped as this year's group was to deal with something like Fox’s four-week absence following open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach, and players often spoke of his composure and leadership during that time. Manning, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey and others helped keep everyone in the locker room pointed in the right direction, while Adam Gase and rest of the offensive staff kept things humming on that side of the ball. The team went 3-1 in that stretch, with two wins over Kansas City and one against San Diego. The loss was an overtime defeat at New England, when the Broncos let a 24-point halftime lead get away. Through it all, the Broncos showed themselves to be a stable organization, able to overcome the most serious of issues.

An awful lot of folks believed when the season began that the Texans would be in the hunt for the Super Bowl title. What are some of the major issues that have prevented that from happening?

Ganguli: How much time do you have? It starts with the quarterback. The Texans don’t have the luxury the Broncos have of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Their situation at the position has been tenuous all season. Schaub’s costly turnovers early on put the Texans in a precarious position. He didn't play as poorly as some indicate until Week 5 against San Francisco. He just looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from start to finish, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six on the first pass of the game. Schaub’s foot and ankle injuries the following week opened the door for Kubiak to make a switch to Keenum, who spent last season on the Texans’ practice squad. Keenum did well before opponents deciphered him, and since then he has struggled. I’m not ready to say he’ll never be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but his play over the past eight games has been a big factor in the losses. To be clear, quarterback is not the only factor in the Texans’ 12-game losing streak, but it’s been a big one. Further, the handling of the quarterback situation played a part in Kubiak’s firing. He benched Keenum for Schaub against Oakland and Jacksonville. That kind of uncertainty didn’t help matters.

That’s one question I get asked a lot. Another is this: Who will the Texans’ next head coach be? I covered Del Rio for his final season and a half as the Jaguars' coach. From what you've seen in Denver, do you think he gets another shot at being a head coach?

Legwold: I spoke with executives from around the league in recent weeks, and it seems Del Rio helped his cause with the way he conducted himself and led the Broncos during Fox’s absence. If the Broncos can snap out of their current defensive funk and go deep in the playoffs, it would help his cause even more. (He interviewed with USC during the bye week, the day before Fox suffered the dizziness and light-headedness on a golf course that led to his open-heart surgery.) Del Rio would need an owner/team president to look past the offense-first mentality everyone seems to be looking for these days, and he would have to present a clear, concise picture of what he would do on offense. But if the Broncos make the Super Bowl, or even win it, and the defense makes some plays along the way, Del Rio should be on some short lists.

How has Wade Phillips handled the interim job? He’s seen Manning plenty over the years, how do you think he’ll have the Texans go at the Broncos’ offense?

Ganguli: It wasn't a particularly good situation to come into, as tends to happen with interim jobs. The results have been similar to Kubiak's tenure, though Phillips has been more proactive in trying to curb the Texans' penalties. He's had Big 12 officials at practice several times, and puts players in timeouts if they commit a penalty. Not a lot has changed for the better, and the injury situation has gotten worse. The Texans now have their first- and second-string running backs on injured reserve, as well as their starting tight end, starting middle linebacker and starting strong safety. Phillips' defenses have always been very aggressive -- they blitz a lot. The play calling is being done by defensive-backs coach Vance Joseph now, but that doesn't change a lot. Manning's statistics against the Texans are better against a four-man rush than against blitzes.

Teaching a priority for Vance Joseph

December, 13, 2013
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HOUSTON -- Vance Joseph's playing career wasn't long, but it gave him an important tool for the next phase of his football life.

He played offense at the University of Colorado, but when Joseph went to the NFL as an undrafted free agent, he turned into a defensive back. There he learned how fast the game can go on the back end, and how simple explanations helped him more than complex ones.

That's a lesson Joseph uses still.

"He’s a former player so we see things in the same way," cornerback Brice McCain said. "The way he explains things is very clear. If you don’t get it the first time, he’ll go back over and make sure you get it before you go on the field. Every coverage. He explains why we’re doing it. Technique. Why they’re doing it."

[+] EnlargeHouston's Vance Joseph
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsDefensive backs coach Vance Joseph will call plays for the Texans' defense.
Seven years after the last season in which he played, Joseph is taking over play-calling duties for the Houston Texans' defense. This will be the first time Joseph has called plays in his eight seasons as an NFL assistant.

"It’s special and I’m honored by it," Joseph said. "It’s going to be good. I’m excited about it, (interim head coach) Wade (Phillips) is excited about it, the players are excited about it. It’s time to win a football game. That’s what it’s about -- winning."

Joseph didn't know exactly how excited some of his defensive backs were until I told him about it. He said he was honored to hear it. He didn't realize that many of them see a head coaching position in his future, and respect him enough that they're rooting for it.

Part of the reason for that is the work he's done individually with each player. Nowhere is it more visible than with starting cornerback Kareem Jackson, who struggled through his rookie season in 2010, the year before Joseph became his position coach.

"He’s helped me progress my game tremendously, technique-wise, recognizing splits, formations, the whole nine," Jackson said. " ... The way he explains things, he’s a very technical about things as far as going in depth with it (and) making sure that come Sunday, we definitely know what we’re going to see. The only thing we have to is just react and just play ball. He’s definitely is one of those guys that can progress into a DC or a head coach."

As he progresses, that individual teaching he's so good at won't be as big a part of his job. And Joseph knows that. This could be the first step to his growth toward being a defensive coordinator, but that will depend on how he adapts to the diversity of roles he'd have to take on for that.

Right now it's a gradual change.

"I’m in my meetings still," Joseph said. "I’m doing the intro meeting for the defense and that’s about it. After that I’m with the DBs. It’s normal for me outside of that intro meeting and outside of the coaches meeting. It’s the same role I had last week, a tiny bit more."

The Texans defensive coaches have worked together on the game plan this week. It'll be up to Joseph to know tendencies and make the decisions during the game.

He has a very specific goal in mind as the Texans travel to Indianapolis, where they have never won a game.

"I want to honor Kubiak by winning there," Joseph said. "That’s my goal this weekend."
Keshawn Martin, DeVier Posey, Lestar JeanGetty ImagesKeshawn Martin (82), DeVier Posey (11) and Lestar Jean (18) are being counted on to strengthen the Texans' passing game.
HOUSTON -- One full-speed practice didn’t give me too much to judge the Texans' young receivers by.

But it’s not a secret that Keshawn Martin is the best of the three kids at this point, a notch ahead of DeVier Posey and Lestar Jean.

Houston’s counting on the three to give it options beyond Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter at receiver in the passing game.

Martin practiced with authority as the third guy Tuesday morning. He looks like he knows where to be and how to get there.

After practice, I spoke with quarterback Matt Schaub and defensive backs coach Vance Joseph, who’s coaching guys to defend these receivers.

They gave me mini-scouting reports -- all positives, of course -- on the trio.

MARTIN

Schaub: “He’s extremely quiet; he reminds me of Andre when I first got here. You couldn’t beat two words out of him. Same thing with Keshawn, but I like that about him. He’s just a worker. From the time he came in here, he doesn’t say anything -- a couple things here and there maybe -- but he does the right things, he’s in the right spots. It’s almost like he’s a third- or fourth-year veteran. He understands what we are doing. He gets lined up, he knows his routes, he knows his adjustments. He doesn’t have hardly any MAs [missed assignments], which is odd for a young receiver. You don’t see that because we ask our receivers to do some much in the pass and run game. We’re excited about what he brings after the catch. He’s got catch-and-run ability and an ability to separate from DBs. He’s got confidence with his hands, he attacks the ball with his hands; he’s not a body catcher.

Joseph: “From Day 1, he showed up to me. He’s got great feet, great quickness, great burst. It’s not too big for him, he’s a great worker. He can catch the ball in traffic. Keshawn Martin is an NFL receiver.”

My thoughts: That ability to find yards after the catch is big -- it fits in with Johnson, tight end Owen Daniels and running back Arian Foster as pass-catchers and is a big key for the Texans when the offense is really clicking.

POSEY

Schaub: “He’s a big-body guy. He fits the mold for the outside type receiver in our scheme. He’s coming along with all of his adjustments and assignments. But he’s very bright. He’s one f the hardest working young players that we have. He’s out there early catching balls, he stays late catching balls. You like that about him, because he has that want-to, to achieve the most he can out of himself and he knows he can help us. We know he can help us. That’s why we play preseason and training camp, because we need to get him there.”

Joseph: “Posey’s got all the physical gifts you want from a guy. He hasn’t played football in a whole year, almost [because of a suspension at Ohio State[. He’s coming along. He’s playing so much faster than he did in the spring.”

My thoughts: It sounds like he’s making progress. I think when they took him the Texans knew he might not explode from the start because of the minimal playing time in his final year in college.

JEAN

Schaub: “He was coming on last year and unfortunately has his injury that took him out for the year. He’s got such a bright future for us. He’s a deceptively fast receiver. When you see him run on tape, you don’t think, ‘Man, he can run.’ When you put him in a route and there’s coverage, he pulls away from guys. I think one of his strengths is his ability to go up and get the ball and attack it with his hands. You give him a chance one-on-one downfield, he’s going to fight back and go up and get the ball. Find it at its highest point and take it off the rim. He’s a big body, he’s willing to take a hit and he’s very confident in his hands. We really like what he brings in our outside deep game.”

Joseph: “He’s a big body who can catch the ball in traffic.”

My thoughts: The way Schaub speaks of Jean’s speed is very interesting. Sure, they want to have guys running after the catch, but they also want to find home runs over the top. If Jean can be a guy to do that, he'll earn some snaps.

On Kareem Jackson's weak spot

June, 11, 2012
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LX from Chuco, TX: writes: "...Kareem Jackson makes me question the Texans' sanity. In the chat you said "Kareem Jackson looked fine" and "Yes, (Alan) Ball is in line to be (Jason) Allen. Good addition, I think." Those seem to be contradictory statements; If Kareem was really "fine" then the response to the Ball question should be that Jackson is the starter and that Ball is a backup. As much as the Texans love Kareem (or at least hate to admit an error) do you think they will ever get rid of him?"

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Brett Davis/US PresswireHouston CB Kareem Jackson played in 15 games in 2011, netting 42 tackles, one FF and one INT.
Paul Kuharsky: Their feeling about Jackson and yours (and many fans’) are certainly far different. They are not anywhere close to getting rid of him, nor should they be. You don't cut guys because they affect the sanity of someone in Chuco.

And I don’t believe my statements were contradictory. It’s completely possible for Jackson to look good at OTA practices and for the team to still decide to help him with Ball.

That’s not going to be sorted out now, but will be sorted out in camp.

I’m not big on splitting a starting job in half, but the Texans made the Jackson-Allen combo work. Allen moved on to Cincinnati as a free agent, and Houston was wise to find a veteran from the outside who can take Allen’s role if the Texans need him to.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the team’s top player in the defensive backfield, Johnathan Joseph, both said good things about Jackson during OTAs. (They also said good things about Ball.)

Said Phillips: “(Jackson) was a better zone guy than he is man. The other guy was better man/press than zone. That was last year. I think Kareem is getting better at man. He played man, I don’t mean he couldn’t play man. But Jason was a good press guy, but he had trouble playing off.

“(Joseph) will play the best receiver, whoever he is, zone or man, we’ll put him on the best receiver. I don’t know if we’ll substitute for Jackson or not. But we’ve got some other guys who look like they can play.

“We have several guys that are pretty good at (man) and that’s why we brought in Alan Ball, too. Because he can play, he can play either one. When I was in Dallas, my last half year, he was one of our best players. We said, ‘OK, we’ll just put him at safety.’ He was playing corner and he was playing real good but we couldn’t get him on the field because (Michael) Jenkins and (Terence) Newman had played real good and we almost led the league in scoring defense.

“So we put Ball at safety and then Jenkins and Newman didn’t play worth a d--- and I wish I would have kept Ball at corner for those guys that half a year, because they just played terrible for a while.”

Jackson’s widely regarded as the weak link in the Texans’ defense, including by me. He got a lot better last year, in large part because of defensive backs coach Vance Joseph.

The big question is whether he will be the best option in man coverage or if the Texans will still feel safer with a platoon where someone else, like Ball, comes in for press situations.

Said Joseph: “They drafted him here in the first-round to be a fulltime corner, not to be a split-time corner. I know he understands that. I look at a player who progressed from Year 1 to Year 2, and in OTAs I’ve noticed him progressing and we expect it from Year 2 to 3 in training camp.

“He’s a smart football player overall, you can put him in man or zone. He has responded well. We don’t have any doubt in our mind at all about Kareem.”
We’ll wait until next week to start building the All-AFC South Team, and you’ll have a big chance to offer input there.

This week we’ll pass out hardware for individual awards.

Drum roll please:

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Joseph
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJohnathan Joseph, new to the Texans in 2011, helped revitalize Houston's secondary.
Player of the year: Johnathan Joseph, Texans cornerback. Runner up: Brian Cushing, Texans inside linebacker.

Joseph, Cushing and Antonio Smith were the players I sorted through here, and you can make a case for any of them. While the Texans were a better defense at every level, it was the secondary that had the biggest room for improvement. Joseph’s ability to match up with a team’s best receiver eased the pressure on everyone else in the secondary and helped transform a miserable pass defense into an excellent one. In the Texans’ playoff loss in Baltimore he blanketed Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, rendering him a non-factor.

Offensive player of the year: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars running back. Runner up: Arian Foster, Texans running back.

It’s hard to fathom that Jones-Drew was the NFL rushing champ considering that defenses could regularly key on him without fear of any real threat from the passing offense, which ranked dead last in the NFL. He showed no signs of wearing down and averaged 100 yards a game. It felt like a waste on a five-win team. Foster missed some action early with hamstring issues or he would have likely challenged Jones-Drew in rushing yards. He’s a tremendous combination of power and speed and does excellent work as a pass catcher.

Rookie of the year: J.J. Watt, Texans defensive end. Runner up: Brooks Reed, Texans outside linebacker.

Watt was installed as a starter the moment the Texans drafted him and was an impactful player from his first snap. A relentless player, he was a force against the run and the pass and played beautifully in concert with the rest of the defensive front. His ability to get his hands on balls at the line of scrimmage turned into a monumental interception return for a touchdown in the playoff win over Cincinnati. Reed filled in very well after Mario Williams was lost for the season and may actually help the team decide Williams is expendable.

Best assistant coach: Wade Phillips, Texans defensive coordinator. Runner up, Mel Tucker, Jaguars defensive coordinator.

Phillips was a factor in the personnel decisions that brought Joseph, Danieal Manning, Watt and Reed into the fold for Houston. In his first year as defensive coordinator, he injected a huge dose of confidence into the Texans defenders and wisely drew up schemes that featured guys’ strengths and marked their weaknesses. The sort of turnaround the defense made in one year is practically unheard of. In Jacksonville, Tucker was given a huge boost with new personnel, but as he took over play-calling from Jack Del Rio, he excelled.

Best position coach: Dave Ragone, Titans receivers coach. Runner up, Vance Joseph, Texans secondary coach.

Ragone had no experience working with receivers coming into this job, but did fantastic work. He deserves a great deal of credit for the vast improvement and maturation of Nate Washington and the emergence of Damian Williams as a threat and Lavelle Hawkins as a guy who did some good things with the ball in his hands. In his first season with the Texans, Joseph helped some guys regain confidence while overseeing a successful move of Glover Quin from corner to strong safety.

Executive of the year: Rick Smith, Texans general manager.

He had lots of help, but completely nailed free agency, signing Joseph and Manning rather than Nnamdi Asomugha. And the top of the draft was fantastic, with Watt and Reed. As Houston suffered injuries at running back, receiver, linebacker and even punter, the Texans showed good depth and an ability to fill in holes with quality outsiders.

Best unit: Texans offensive line. Runner up: Texans linebackers.

Led by center Chris Myers, who may be the division’s most unsung player, Houston’s offensive line blocked consistently well for the run game and protected three different quarterbacks well. Left tackle Duane Brown and right tackle Eric Winston both earned mentions on various All-Pro teams. Antoine Caldwell filled in nicely when Mike Brisiel missed time at right guard. The Texans linebackers, even without Mario Williams, did spectacular, work stuffing the run and swarming quarterbacks all season long.

Worst unit: Jaguars receivers. Runner up: Colts cornerbacks.

Mike Thomas might be a No. 2 receiver and can certainly be a good No. 3, though his play in 2011 dropped off after he got a contract extension. But Jason Hill, who started as the No. 2 guy, wound up getting cut and guys like Jarett Dillard, rookie Cecil Shorts, Chastin West and Kassim Osgood did little to show they were NFL-caliber guys. Blaine Gabbert suffered the consequences. The Colts were insufficiently stocked at corner, though Jacob Lacey bounced back well late in the season after he was benched.

Most improved: Nate Washington, Titans receiver. Runner up: Connor Barwin, Texans outside linebacker.

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Timothy T. Ludwig/US PresswireFollowing a big contract signing prior to the season, Titans RB Chris Johnson failed to play up to the high expectations.
Washington’s maturation was remarkable. An excitable guy really calmed down and settled in working under offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and Ragone and with Matt Hasselbeck. Washington figured to be better with those guys while working as the No. 2 behind Kenny Britt, but Britt was lost for the season early on and Washington wound up with a 1,000-yard season and seven touchdowns. I give him the nod because I didn’t believe he had untapped upside. That was not the case with Barwin, who the Texans have expected to be a pass-rushing force since they drafted him in 2009.

Most disappointing: Chris Johnson, Titans running back. Runner up: Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars tight end.

I don’t care what sort of defenses are offered up for Johnson. He simply did not run as hard after coming out of a holdout with a giant new contract. There were other issues, but too often he appeared to lack fire and desire. In the rare instances he wound up in a one-on-one situation he was hardly the threat he’s been in the past. If he doesn’t bounce back in 2012, the contract will turn out to be disastrous. Lewis was supposed to be transformed by his MMA training during the lockout. If it impacted him, it made him worse. Expecting another 10 touchdowns was unreasonable. Producing none was unacceptable.

Best position revamp: TIE, Jaguars safeties and Texans safeties.

Both teams were terrible at the position a year ago and despite a draft class that was incredibly thin, reshaped the spot with great results. The Texans shifted Quin from cornerback and he was very solid alongside free-agent addition Manning. The Jaguars signed Dawan Landry from Baltimore and traded for Dwight Lowery, shifting a guy who’d played mostly corner to play with Landry. Applause to both teams for fine work addressing a trouble position.

Surprise of the year: T.J. Yates, Texans quarterback.

The finish in the playoff loss to Baltimore was a big disappointment. But Yates took over a good team when Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down in quick succession and played beyond what could reasonably be expected from a fifth-round rookie quarterback.

Colt of the year: Pat Angerer, middle linebacker.

As Indianapolis was not mentioned here at all, we create this category for the Colts. Angerer showed himself to be a quality starter who has to be in the lineup going forward. That may mean the end of Gary Brackett, the veteran middle linebacker who was hurt in Week 1 and missed the season. Angerer is a rangy, instinctive player who’s sure to impress new general manager Ryan Grigson.

At safety, Quin giving Texans more

January, 3, 2012
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The Houston Texans' defense was a mess last season, and while Glover Quin had a lot of skills befitting a safety, I was among those that questioned the logic of moving the team’s best corner.

But in with everything else the Texans did from 2010 to 2011 to transform their defense, Quin’s shift to safety has worked out beautifully.

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireMoving Glover Quin to safety has worked out well for the Texans.
He lines up at strong safety in the base defense, but covers a lot of tight ends and running backs in a dime package the team uses a lot too -- when Troy Nolan or Quintin Demps takes his place.

“I feel like a safety but I play so much man-to-man too,” he said. “Call me a hybrid.”

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. loves the work Quin has done and likes him as a piece of a strong secondary.

“I really like Quin at safety,” Williamson said. “Unlike most teams, the Texans have big cornerback types at safety, which gives them a lot more flexibility with their coverage. Quin can walk down and cover the slot or handle deep patrol in centerfield or in Cover-2. And he doesn’t lack for physicality.”

As a corner last season, he pulled in three interceptions. This year has produced none, though he said his teammates still give him grief for one they think he should have had at Jacksonville.

Texans defensive backs coach Vance Joseph called Quin the poster of consistency.

“We thought he was going to be an average, OK corner, but a pretty good safety,” said Joseph, who’s in his first year with Houston. “Any time you can find a safety with corner qualities, that’s a big-time safety. It’s been natural for him.

“He’s a tough, physical tackler and with his corner ability he can cover some of the flat receivers one-on-one. He gives us the opportunities versus some of the three-wide teams to stay in our base package on first and second down. That allows us to play our man coverage, to play our zone coverage and to keep the box heavy with linebackers.”

Quin chipped in with five tackles when the Texans beat the Bengals 20-19 in Cincinnati on Dec. 11.

In Saturday's rematch, he will surely be a factor in limiting quarterback Andy Dalton's passes to tight end Jermaine Gresham, the team's second leading receiver with 56 catches this season.
Johnathan JosephAP Photo/Steve RuarThe Texans say that CB Johnathan Joseph's work ethic has been as important as his cover skills.
Make a case for New Orleans running back Darren Sproles if you'd like. Philadelphia defensive end Jason Babin has been a sack machine. Matt Hasselbeck could get some votes for his work as a culture changer and quarterback in Tennessee.

But my vote for the best free-agent addition in 2011 goes to Johnathan Joseph, the Houston cornerback who’s been the key component in a transformation of the Texans’ secondary.

A miserable pass defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last season now stands tied for second, a ridiculous jump that could only happen with multiple ingredients:

New coordinator Wade Phillips and his new 3-4 scheme.

A consistent rush from a swarming defensive front, bolstered by the team’s top two rookies, end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed.

And the addition of Joseph and safety Danieal Manning to a young secondary.

“Joseph has been exactly what they needed,” a scout told me this week. “After a horrible first-round draft pick in 2010 in Kareem Jackson, they made up for it with Joseph. He is fast, athletic and can match up with most receivers in the AFC. He plays bigger than his size (5-foot-11, 191 pounds), because he has good functional strength.

“The added pass rush has helped him, but he is a good player versus run and pass. He was added to the top of the group which allowed players like Jackson and others to play more of a role instead of trying to get things out of them that they were not capable of doing.”


Joseph has regularly matched up with the opponent’s best wide receiver, and his work earned him a Pro Bowl spot.

Sunday, when the Titans are in their base offense and Nate Washington lines up outside, Joseph will track him. In his first two years in the league after he was the 24th pick out of South Carolina in the 2006 draft, Joseph played on the right. The three years after that he was on the left.

Flipping around hasn’t been a problem and he’s happy to be looked at to slow an opponent’s best guy.

“It was something new that I had to adjust to,” Joseph said. “If that gives us our best chance to win, that’s what I am up for. Covering the top guy, you’ve got to go out each week and try to win your battle. We have a saying here about going out and being 1-0, whether it’s one play at a time or one game at a time. If you’re on the top guy, you’re going to get some balls thrown your way.”

The Colts’ Reggie Wayne, the Raiders’ Darrius Heyward-Bey and the Ravens’ Anquan Boldin had big games against the Texans. (Joseph covered Pierre Garcon in both games against Indianapolis.) But in their past nine games, no receiver has accounted for more than 82 yards against them. That was Carolina’s Steve Smith.

The Texans have played 75 percent man coverage, according to defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. He said his top corner has been a fantastic example for the Texans' stable of young, contributing defensive backs: safeties Glover Quin, who’s been excellent as a starter converted from corner, and Troy Nolan, and corners Jackson, Brice McCain and Sherrick McManis.

“He’s practiced every day,” Vance Joseph said. “That was important for our young secondary to see. Every day he was out there working whether he was sore from the game, sore from previous injuries. He worked every day. Those guys take his lead. Every day was game mode, every ball was contested, every ball they could pick off they picked off.

“So that’s the foundation of what we’ve been here on the back end. Johnathan wants to be the best and he’s worked to be the best every day. That’s been amazing for a veteran player of his caliber to come in and practice every day.”

Houston grabbed Joseph from the Bengals with a five-year, $48.75 million contract with $23.5 guaranteed. The Texans were players for Nnamdi Asomugha, the cornerback who was viewed as a singular prize player in free agency. But Asomugha moved slowly, and the Texans feared winding up without either Asomugha or Joseph. Plus, Joseph’s price meant the team could also add Manning at safety.

They were lauded for the strategy and it panned out perfectly.

Pro Football Focus rates Joseph as just the 10th best cornerback in the league at this point. The website can’t always know coverage assignments, but it says he’s given up three touchdowns, catches against him have averaged 12.3 yards, the passer rating on throws into his coverage is 71.3 and quarterbacks have completed 57.9 percent of balls thrown against him.

Those numbers aren’t worthy of being posted in neon lights. But in the context of the Texans’ defense and the Texans’ season, his play has been excellent.

The team and a lot of NFL people agree with Joseph that, so far, things could not have turned out any better. He’s got four interceptions, 15 passes defensed, a forced fumble and rave reviews.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say it’s been a 10,” Joseph said. “It’s been an awesome experience coming in here, being with the guys, adjusting to the different way things are done here. It’s been tremendous all together. There is not one bad thing I can say about the experience that I’ve had.”
Cornerback Kareem Jackson got a game ball for his efforts in the Texans’ Sunday win over Atlanta.

[+] EnlargeKareem Jackson
Brett Davis/US PresswireSunday against Atlanta, Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson 'probably had his best game as a pro' according to Texans coach Gary Kubiak.
“Kareem probably had his best game as a pro,” coach Gary Kubiak told Houston media Monday afternoon.

Kubiak credited the development of Jackson, the team’s top pick in the 2010 draft who struggled mightily in a starting role as a rookie, to defensive backs coach Vance Joseph.

“Vance has come in and done a great job with him,” Kubiak said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence, he’s had a lot of ups and downs, he had the expectations of a first round pick and then there was what we went through last year. His toughness has shown, mentally and physically. Johnathan coming here has helped him, he’s kind of got a little bit of a mentor back there.

“…We’re very excited to see him playing well.”

Atlanta receiver Julio Jones actually had a chance to catch Matt Ryan’s desperation pass on the last play of the game into the left side of the end zone. My read of the replay is unclear. It could count as another drop for Atlanta on a day when they had a lot of trouble hauling passes in. Or, as Kubiak said, Jackson could get credit for making it impossible for Jones to grip it. (Either way, it was a scarier play than it should have been and overtime was closer than we might have thought.)

Jackson had an early interception of Ryan on a flea flicker the Falcons botched. Michael Turner’s pitch back to Ryan was high and threw off the timing and Ryan was unwise to make the throw intended for Roddy White deep down the middle in the first quarter.

The Texans' applause for Jackson is unsurprising. They anoint first-rounders as starters the moment they arrive and do their best to defend them even if things don’t go well. Jackson’s certainly been a beneficiary of that.

Earlier this season, when Jackson wasn’t playing as well and there was clamoring for more of Jason Allen, Kubiak repeatedly said the team counts both players as starting-caliber and it used both opposite Johnathan Joseph.

Against the Falcons, when Jackson was having the game of his career, he was still rotating with Allen and he was still not part of some of the defensive packages with five- and six- defensive backs.

I felt like the team was over-substituting in the defensive backfield, but it’s hard to complain with the results in this game or to change what’s been working.

Still, I’d say this is a completely fair assessment:

If Jackson’s work in this win was a corner-turning performance, we’d better know it if he’s on the field more going forward. And if he’s not on the field more going forward, I’m not sure I’m buying that the coaches believe it was a corner-turning performance.
At the midpoint of the 2010 season, Wade Phillips was out of work after being forced out as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

At the midpoint of the 2011 season, he’s being touted by virtually everyone as the most influential coordinator/assistant coach in the league.

As the Houston Texans defensive coordinator, Phillips has guided a team that was 30th in defense last season to a 29-spot gain. Through nine games, the revamped Texans defense is first in the league.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireTexans coordinator Wade Phillips gives his players credit for being the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.
“A year ago about now I didn’t have a job, after eight games I didn’t have a job, he said with a laugh when I asked him to compare head-coaching life to coordinating. “It’s what I do. It’s football coaching and I try to do the best I can wherever I am and I’ve been lucky to be in a lot of good situations …

“It’s head coach of the defense, that’s the way that I’ve always looked at it. I’ve had autonomy most of the time, as far as head coaches letting me run it. The head coach has control and I am a good soldier on whatever he wants done … It never has mattered either way, really. I’m coaching and that’s what I love to do. I’m around the players, I’m hopefully helping them get better. That’s what I’ve always tried to do whether I am head coach or coordinator.”

And Phillips certainly isn’t reading the clips that are naming him assistant of the year at the halfway point. He's deflecting attention and credit.

“It still comes down to them, it’s what kind of players you have,” Phillip said. “Part of it is utilizing the talents that you have, the guys who can play inside linebacker, putting them in the right place and give them opportunities to make plays, playing different techniques with different guys. That’s the coaching part of it. The X's and O's are important, the calls are important and all of that stuff.

“But it comes down to the players. I’ve been lucky to be with a lot of good players over the years and that makes me look good.”

Phillips also praised the work of line coach Bill Kollar, linebacker coach Reggie Herring and defensive backs coach Vance Joseph.

Kollar was the lone position coach holdover from the defensive staff Gary Kubiak had last season with Frank Bush as coordinator.

Herring and Joseph were connected to Phillips and hired on his recommendation. And Phillips had major input into player acquisition as the Texans added veteran defensive backs Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning and drafted heavily on defense, starting with end J.J. Watt and linebacker Brooks Reed.

Those coaches and players have been key elements to the Texans' rise to defensive prominence.

Stay tuned for more out of my conversation with Phillips.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

With secondary coach Vance Joseph, transparency is vital, writes Jeffrey Martin of the Houston Chronicle. “Players openly discuss each other's weaknesses, but not in the hopes of tearing down a teammate. Rather, the openness allows the players to feel comfortable, to ask questions that might not have been asked before and to even volunteer suggestions.” He’s definitely qualified as a difference-maker on a team that has several.

Indianapolis Colts

Jim Irsay took to Twitter to chime in on the possibility of Peyton Manning returning to practice this season, says Phillip B. Wilson of the Indianapolis Star.

The Colts have difficult choices ahead as they decide what to do at wide receiver, says Brett Mock of Coltzilla. I think it would be awfully difficult to let Reggie Wayne walk, but predicting the timing and speed of his drop-off is something the Colts have to do correctly.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive end Aaron Kampman is trying to keep the Jaguars’ situation in perspective, says Vito Stellino of the Times-Union. Jack Del Rio chimed in, too: “Until you drive a stake through me, I’m going to fight for every inch and so we’re not conceding anything,” Del Rio said. “But we’re in a situation now, we’ve got such a big hole we’ve just got to put the next game in front us and go out and win that game. Worrying about anything else would be counterproductive.”

Tennessee Titans

David Climer of The Tennessean gives props to Mike Munchak for using Javon Ringer over Chris Johnson late in the win over the Colts. “Instead of sticking with standard NFL protocol and repeatedly giving the ball to Johnson so he could work on that 2.8 yards-per-carry average, Munchak chose to go with Ringer on the last three offensive series when the Titans were protecting a lead.” I’m more curious about what happens going forward, as the Munchak and the Titans have to stick to the thinking that prompted the change.
In a best-case scenario, Danieal Manning will be out four weeks following surgery to repair a broken fibula. Odds are, it’s longer than that.

Gary Kubiak said the team would love to be able to wait for Manning, the veteran who was brought on board in the offseason from Chicago to settle a position that had been a big issue.

Troy Nolan (a seventh-round pick in 2009) now takes over at free safety, and depth becomes a serious issue. Dominique Barber is on IR and rookie Shiloh Keo, who just appeared in his first game, lacks speed and experience. He didn't make the cut out of camp.

“We do have a couple other options,” Kubiak told Houston press on Monday. “Torri Williams has the ability to possibly come up [from the practice squad], but right now, we really like what we see from [cornerback] Brandon Harris. He’s a smart player. We think he can go play some safety, so those are the options that we have. We’re going to see how things go this week, watch those guys work and decide where we move from there. Having a guy like Brandon up along with [Sherrick] McManis helps us in special teams too. We’ll see. We’ll see who can handle it the best, but Troy becomes a starter.

“… Harris is a bright player, understands schemes, understands what’s going on and we think [defensive coordinator] Wade Phillips and [defensive backs coach] Vance Joseph think that we can catch him up real quick. We’re going to take a look and give him an opportunity to do that and work with him over the course of this week.”

The Texans traded up to get Harris in the sixth-round, 60th overall.

Nolan was steady after stepping in for Manning in the first half Sunday. But the Texans again lack experience at safety as the other starter, Glover Quin, is in his first season as the spot after converting from cornerback.

Kubiak praised Nolan’s confidence and knack for the ball, qualities that the Texans were lacking last season, which prompted them to sign Manning and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

RTC: Securing Peyton Manning long term

May, 27, 2011
5/27/11
10:12
AM ET
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

New Houston defensive backs coach Vance Joseph has to rely on film to study his players, HoustonTexans.com's Nick Scurfield reports.

Vonta Leach came in at No. 65 on the NFL Network's list of the top 100 players in the game, much to Leach's surprise.

Indianapolis Colts

Colts owner Jim Irsay remains confident the team will be able to sign quarterback Peyton Manning to a long-term deal once the lockout ends.

Director of pro personnel Clyde Powers says he was fired, which is contrary to the initial report that he was retiring.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville's running back corps may be the "most competitive position group we have on our team" according to general manager Gene Smith.

Wide receiver Jason Hill makes Pete Prisco's list of players poised for a breakout season in 2011.

Tennessee Titans

Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the lockout in a conference call with Titans season-ticket holders.

Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan said the players are trying to schedule a team-wide practice in June that includes not only veterans but recent draft picks as well.
Vance JosephKirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireNew Texans secondary coach Vance Joseph inherits the league's worst passing defense from 2010.
Good defensive backs should have short memories. Typically that cliched line is applied play-to-play or game-to-game. In the case of the Houston Texans, season-to-season would be good, too.

Houston had the worst pass defense in the NFL in 2010, yielding 267.5 yards a game. The Texans gave up single-game passing totals of 419, 403, 329, 305 and 301 yards.

Their plan to rely on young cornerbacks Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and Brice McCain backfired.

“They are terrible,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said of Houston’s defensive backs. Veteran safeties Eugene Wilson and Bernard Pollard could both be replaced.

“In fact, they are right there with division-mate Jacksonville as the worst secondary in all of football. The Texans' safeties -- who are terrible in coverage -- deserve a lot of blame, as does a pass-rush that could use upgrading," Williamson said.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith and Kareem Jackson
Bob Levey/Getty Images2010 first-rounder Kareem Jackson, right, struggled through his rookie season.
"But I blame the secondary much more than the pass-rush. As for the cornerbacks, it is way too early to write off Jackson. I did like him coming out of Alabama and he has to get better in Year 2. But wow, he was pretty terrible as a rookie.

“I would classify Brice McCain and Troy Nolan as ‘just a couple of guys’ and they need to be down-the-line contributors. Glover Quin is the best of the group right now, but in the end, I like him as a No. 3 corner with Jackson as one starter [possibly] and someone to be determined as the opposite starter. As for adding a veteran [Champ Bailey?], I am all for it. Not only does this secondary need veteran leadership, but so does the entire football team.”

Surely the Texans will be players in free agency -- if and when there is free agency. If they add a superstar corner like Nnamdi Asomugha or Bailey, shift each corner the Texans already have down a peg, find better safeties and get a better pass rush out of the 3-4 being installed by new coordinator Wade Phillips, things could be a lot better.

But Vance Joseph, who after five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers replaces David Gibbs as Texans secondary coach, can’t depend on that big addition. He’s got to focus on who he has right now.

Joseph has met and talked with his young guys about having clean slates and about how they can develop.

As is the nature of football in February, Joseph is relatively upbeat.

“I’m aware of what they did last year, I’ve watched the film and I’ll tell you, it’s not as bad as everyone thinks,” he said. “You’ve got to play better. And until those guys go out there and play better, that’s going to stick to them. We’ve got to do a good job of protecting those young corners.

“Obviously getting some pass rush helps, having some scheme things tweaked where they won’t be on their own a lot helps. But you regain confidence by playing well. So until they play better, that won’t be the case.”

When a new position coach joins a team to help fix a problem area, I want to know what he sees early on that he believes can be changed. Joseph said he often saw guys in position who couldn’t make the play.

Joseph said while secondary guys always need to be wary of getting beat for a big play over the top, fear of that can really cost a defense.

Expect the 2011 Texans to be closer to pass catchers on shorter stuff.

“That’s the part I’ve got to get right, finishing and making plays and giving them tools to make and finish plays,” Joseph said. “…On early downs, it’s back-pedaling, staying square and challenging routes. In the NFL, [receivers] are going to catch balls, but you want to make them bang-bang plays. When they catch the ball, I want them tackled.

“That’s something we can help them with, playing more square from the line of scrimmage and not bailing as much. When you’re bailing, you’re conceding most routes. You say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to get beat deep but I’m going to give you a 20-yard comeback.’ We’re going to play square and we’re going to challenge routes.”

While Joseph hopes his group will be able to play a wide variety of coverages, he also believes it’s important that in times of crisis they can fall back on something standard.

Last season, the defensive backs rarely seemed to have that reset mode. Going forward, Joseph’s hope is they always can return to something they know they are good at that can help them get through a tough day with a good result.

Phillips’ new defensive system won’t affect the secondary like it will the defensive line and linebackers. But there will be benefits out of a more unpredictable front for defensive backs.

“The beauty, I think, of playing defensive back in the 34 is the disguise mechanisms,” Joseph said. “You’re going to start in a basic two-shell, then move into your coverages. When you’re a 4-3 team, they know the four rushers, they’re down with their hands on the ground.

“Now, we can hold our coverage and the offense doesn’t know where that fourth rusher is coming from …. It kind of helps protect corners. Until a ball is snapped, that quarterback won’t know what we are in.”

Young guys, in disguise, able to fall back on something they know they are good at, eager to prove they are better than 32nd in the league. It’s like a lot of offseason recipes, filled with hope and promise.

Shooting for the stars is fine, but the Texans' secondary doesn’t have to be filled with stars to alter its reputation and play winning football.

“We don’t need guys who are going to Hawaii every year,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to stress here that we just need guys who fit what we do and are capable of doing the job within the system.”
The Colts got a jab from me for a delayed announcement about their new running backs coach, so to be consistent, the Texans deserve a double jab.

Friday they announced two hires we’ve known about for quite some time: Reggie Herring as linebackers coach and Vance Joseph as defensive backs coach.

Like Indy, Houston did give us something in its news release that actually qualifies as news, the names of the team’s two, new lowest-ranking assistants.

John Butler is a defensive assistant and Jim Ryan is an offensive assistant. They will work with special teams coordinator Joe Marciano in addition to their primary responsibilities.

Butler came from the University of Minnesota. Ryan played and coached with the Denver Broncos and was with the UFL’s Omaha Nighthawks last year.

Coaching staff check-ins

January, 19, 2011
1/19/11
4:23
PM ET
Checking in on the coaching staffs around the division…

Houston Texans

Wade Phillips replaced Frank Bush as defensive coordinator. Vance Joseph replaced David Gibbs as secondary coach. Reggie Herring interviews today and is the top candidate to replace Johnny Holland as linebackers coach. Assistant offensive line coach Bruce Matthews is not signed for 2011 and is talking to Dallas.

Indianapolis Colts

Gene Huey was fired as running back coach after 19 years with the franchise. We’ve heard nothing about the potential for further changes or about who could be in line to replace Huey.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The staff remains intact as Jack Del Rio predicted it would, largely because the team declined to give St. Louis permission to talk with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter about the same post with a more secure deal. After they signed defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, the assistants have one year remaining, Jack Del Rio has two.

Tennessee Titans

Jim Washburn left to take over the defensive line in Philadelphia. Jeff Fisher, a lame duck, will now have to lure a replacement with just a one-year deal. Mike Heimerdinger is the only assistant under contract. Fisher hopes to have his staff together by week’s end. It’s unclear if there will be any further shuffling and no one will get a contract longer than his.

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