Monday night offers a first-hand look at how quickly things can change in the NFL.
Two years ago, the Texans' defense ranked among the league's worst. No team allowed more passing touchdowns, and Houston's plus-20 touchdown-to-interception differential was the league's worst. The Texans brought in Wade Phillips to run the defense, and good investments through the draft and free agency have remade Houston into a talented and deep defense.
The depth has been especially important, given the injuries to impact players. Week 1 starters Brian Cushing, Johnathan Joseph, Bradie James and Brooks Reed have all missed significant time with injuries this season, but the Texans are still 11-1 and in the AFC driver's seat.
Here are three areas to watch for on Monday night:
1. High Watt-age: J.J. Watt has been incredible this season, especially when considering the traditional responsibilities of a 3-4 defensive end. After a Wednesday stat correction awarded him a sack on a Jake Locker fumble, Watt has 16.5 sacks this season and trails Aldon Smith by one for the league lead. This alone is impressive, but also represents only part of Watt's impact. He's defended 15 passes this season as well, a total that trails only Tim Jennings (19). Watt's 31.5 dropbacks disrupted (sacks, passes defensed and interceptions) this season are 12.5 more than the next-closest player, and Watt has been responsible for disrupting 6.15 percent of all dropbacks the Texans have faced this season. The player with the next-highest disrupted percentage is Smith (3.82 percent, 17.5 dropbacks disrupted). Given that Houston has also allowed the second-fewest rush yards (1,051) and fewest rushing touchdowns (two) this year, Watt seems to be the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year.
2. Ground and pound: Houston runs the ball more than any team, averaging 34.4 rushes per game. Arian Foster is the clear focal point of the Houston ground game, with 68.5 percent of the total rushes and 64.4 percent of the rushing yards. Foster is the only back in the league with rushing touchdowns in nine different games this season, and his 13 rushing touchdowns are four more than the next-closest backs (Pats' Stevan Ridley and Bucs' Doug Martin). Though the Texans' reputation is that of an elite rushing team, their production reflects quantity over quality. The Texans average 4.1 yards per rush, 17th in the league, and Foster's 3.9 yards per rush average ranks 28th out of 45 qualified rushers. Foster is averaging a half-yard less than last year, and losses along the offensive line can't be blamed. The full half-yard difference is coming in Foster's yards after contact average, which has dipped from 1.8 (35th of 53 qualified rushers) last year to 1.3 (41st of 45) this year.
3. Play-action passing: One by-product of Houston's reliance on the run is an increased emphasis on play-action passing. Matt Schaub has 10 touchdowns and two interceptions on play-action passes this season. His 10 touchdowns (tied with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees) and plus-8 differential both lead the league. Andre Johnson has come alive of late as well, and has been used effectively to stretch the field for Schaub in recent weeks. Johnson's average target depth is 17.3 yards downfield on play-action passes this season, compared with 10.4 yards downfield on passes without play-action fakes. Though he wasn't targeted deep in Sunday's win against the Titans, Johnson caught 8 of 14 targets at least 15 yards downfield in wins against the Jaguars and Lions before that. He's among the most talented receivers in football, and if Houston can establish its running game early, Schaub is likely to employ play-action and take a shot downfield.