NFL Nation: Brandon Harrison

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It’s 52 degrees and expected to rain at MetLife Stadium during the Texans-Jets game tonight.

Such weather might hurt the Texans pass game, but the Texans run the ball more than anyone else in the league. So Houston won’t have a problem adjusting the play-calling if the elements dictate it.

But Ben Tate won’t be available to ease the workload of Arian Foster. Tate is out with a toe injury, meaning Justin Forsett is the No. 2 running back.

The Jets are far more banged up, with cornerback Darrelle Revis and receiver Santonio Holmes out for the year and four other starters out tonight. Rookie receiver Stephen Hill, tight end Dustin Keller, fullback John Connor and defensive tackle Sione Po’uha are all out.

A New Jersey native, this is my first time at the new Stadium.

Giants Stadium was still pretty new when my family arrived here, so I feel pretty old. It’s a nice building. That feels like a tighter, more vertical version of Giants Stadium. Of newer stadiums, it’s most in the style of Baltimore.

Here are the complete lists of inactives:

Texans
Jets

Draft Watch: AFC South

March, 10, 2010
3/10/10
12:00
PM ET
NFC Recent History: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Recent history.

Houston Texans

The best move the Texans made in the past three seasons was trading a second-round pick in 2007 and 2008 to Atlanta for Matt Schaub, a quarterback who’s the key to their offense and team. With so many teams in need of a quality starter, that trade seems like a steal now. They’ve taken four defensive backs with the 10 picks they’ve made in the fifth round or later, and out of Brandon Harrison, Dominique Barber, Brice McCain and Troy Nolan they’ve not found a guy who has been able to contribute consistently. It’s time to spend a big pick on a free safety or corner who has great ball skills.

Indianapolis Colts

Skill positions get attention early, with receiver Anthony Gonzalez and running back Donald Brown grabbed with the two first-rounders in the past three years. The hits in the third round and later have become significant players: Clint Session, Pierre Garcon, Jerraud Powers, Austin Collie, Pat McAfee. Trouble spot? Look to the five offensive linemen who haven’t really panned out. That’s understandable with Steve Justice (sixth in 2008), Jamey Richard (seventh in 2008) and Jaimie Thomas (seventh in 2009), but Tony Ugoh (second in 2007) and Mike Pollak (second in 2008) have left the team with holes and problems that need to be addressed in April. Out of five picks there has to be at least one starter, probably two.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Two first-round picks out of Florida have not met expectations, but the Jaguars still hope safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Derrick Harvey can become consistent players. Of 25 picks, only one is established as a playmaker on offense, Mike Sims-Walker (third-rounder in 2007). That’s a big part of the reason the team’s not especially potent on offense beyond Maurice Jones-Drew. The top four from the 2009 draft got significant starting experience as rookies, and the 2010 class will have similar opportunities. While Harvey can be steady, he’s not an explosive pass-rusher, and Quentin Groves has struggled. Even with Aaron Kampman signed, they still need another pass-rusher.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans have fared nicely with pass-rushers from lesser-known schools -- William Hayes of Winston-Salem State is on the brink of big things and Jacob Ford of Central Arkansas is a skilled rusher. Contributions from second-rounders have been minimal -- Chris Henry is already gone, Jason Jones hasn’t stayed healthy or consistent and Sen'Derrick Marks had no impact as a rookie. After hitting a home run with seventh-rounder Cortland Finnegan in 2006, late-round corners Ryan Smith, Cary Williams and, so far, Jason McCourty, haven’t panned out. A quality corner is a need early in this draft.

Vlog: Super Bowl Wednesday

February, 3, 2010
2/03/10
12:43
PM ET

Super Bowl Wednesday from Paul Kuharsky on Vimeo.


Paul Kuharsky ponders Dwight Freeney, guys on IR and practice squader Brandon Harrison.
 
 Bob Levey/Getty Images
 Bernard Pollard has shored up the strong safety position for the Texans, who haven't had a steady presence at the position during Gary Kubiak's tenure.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky

Since Gary Kubiak became head coach of the Houston Texans in 2006, he’s deployed seven different starting strong safeties.

A secondary in need of a steady physical presence didn’t get great consistency out of Glenn Earl, Jason Simmons, C.C. Brown, Brandon Harrison, Nick Ferguson, Dominique Barber or John Busing. Injuries prompted some of the changes.

But in Bernard Pollard, whose insertion into the lineup has coincided with improved defensive play, perhaps Kubiak and the Texans finally have found their man.

In October, the Texans were the fifth-best defense in the league based on yardage surrendered, and 10th in scoring defense. The defensive improvements from the first three games to the last five are remarkable, as you can see in this handy chart the team provided.

Houston's defensive improvement, 2009
Category First 3 games Last 5 games Difference
Rush yards/game 205.0* 58.2** -146.8
Pass yards/game 231.7 202.2 -29.5
Total yards/game 436.7* 260.4 -176.3
Points per game 28.7 16.4 -12.3
* Worst in the NFL.
** Best in the NFL.

All these defensive developments are wonderful for a team with the third-ranked passing game and eighth-ranked offense. Defensive consistency is a major boon for any team keyed around a potent and efficient passing attack.

What has Pollard brought?

“I take pride with my tackling, I take pride in being in the right places,” he said. “I watch games around the league and you see guys get interceptions. I wish that could happen with me. But I don’t have time to try to bait quarterbacks, because when you try to bait, things happen. Some guys get away with it.

“I’m not that player. I am a player if you expect me to be wherever on the field, that’s where I am going to be. If that makes the quarterback go to another read, then that’s going to be a coverage sack or he’s going to go somewhere else. But I take pride in tackling, I take pride in coming in with high intensity and trying to get my teammates around me to get pumped up.”

Pollard was initially a 2006 second-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs out of Purdue, selected 54th overall. In 2008, he delivered the hit that ended Tom Brady's season, carrying himself with grace after the accident.

The Chiefs’ new regime made him part of its roster turnover and released him on Sept. 5. But David Gibbs, the Texans' new defensive backs coach, had come to Houston from K.C. He helped facilitate adding Pollard to Houston’s roster.

Pollard has not solved the Texans' troubles by himself. He has been a positive influence in exemplifying the theme that’s so popular around the league: Do your job while trusting that the guy to your right, to your left, in front of you, and behind you will do his. He said he’s seen that trust grow, and with success comes additional confidence.

Now he will try to help slow Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts' offense Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in a game that’s fair to rate as the biggest in the Texans’ history.

A win would put the Texans at 6-3, three games over .500 for the first time ever. A victory will keep them in range of the AFC South-leading Colts, who would be 7-1. A rematch at Reliant Stadium on Nov. 19 looms.

One of Manning’s biggest weapons, tight end Dallas Clark, said the Texans' defense starts up front, but that Pollard’s on his radar.

“Their two ends [Mario Williams and Antonio Smith] and their linebackers, that's the strength of their defense,” Clark said. “The safeties and the corners, a lot of the things they do is because of the pressure and [the ends] getting the quarterbacks to make bad decisions. Still, they're there to make the play, which is what their defense needs. But I think everything they do well starts up front …

“[Pollard] is a big safety. He's a guy who loves to hit and loves to make plays. As a receiver, you have to make sure you know where he is.”

Tackling was a major issue early this season, when, for example, Tennessee Titans halfback Chris Johnson accounted for 284 yards against Houston. Sixty-nine of them came when he lined up wide to the left uncovered. Kerry Collins got the ball to him immediately, and the Texans didn’t even have a chance to miss tackles. It was Barber’s mistake, and he was benched for it with Busing replacing him.

Now concerns over such matters are much smaller.

“He’s done a nice job of coming in and kind of taking up what we are teaching, our concepts, our program,” Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush said of Pollard. “He’s brought a physical presence to us first of all. The kid’s a big [6-foot-1, 224 pounds] and physical football player, he enjoys the contact. He seeks it. He’s the most physical presence in that secondary and all the guys try to emulate what he’s doing.”

“He’s smart, he takes good angles to the ball, he tries to keep himself out of harm’s way as far as angles on running backs and then he brings a load to the party when he hits you.”

That’s a pretty good addition when you sign a guy after the season’s under way and he quickly becomes a player others are looking to follow. Bush was surprised to get such a quality player at such a time.

Pollard appears to be a solution at what has been a questionable spot.

“He’s kind of shored it up for us and let us feel confident about what we want to call. He’ll go out and execute our program,” Bush said.

After being part of two miserable seasons in Kansas City where the Chiefs were 6-26, Pollard said he’s thrilled to be on a 5-3 team that’s got reasonable expectations of a playoff berth.

But he’s not yet sure he’s a long-term answer for a team who’s been searching for a solution at his spot.

“I hope I ended it,” he said. “Nothing’s settled until you actually sign a long-term deal and you know you are in this city for a certain amount of time. So no player gets that gratification until it’s actually done. I am very happy with what I am doing, where I am. And I hope that I prove myself. It’s still a long season and things can happen.

“Do I look for them to happen? No. I’m going to prepare myself to bring my A-game and to get my teammates, and for them to get me, hyped as can be to play football at a high level every Sunday from here on out.”
 
  Bob Levey/Getty Images
  Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and the Texans defense have a new attitude.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

HOUSTON -- React or act?

Give a group of guys who've spent a lot of time doing the former to do the latter and you'll be greeted with glee.

That's the Houston Texans' defense's feelings for first-year coordinator Frank Bush, promoted by Gary Kubiak to replace Richard Smith.

Camp Confidential: AFC South
Titans: Mon., Aug. 3
Jaguars: Sat., Aug. 8
Colts: Sat., Aug. 15
Texans: Fri., Aug. 21
Training camp index
"His leadership and the way he comes off to the players, it's a different feeling," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It's a different attitude, a different mentality which carries over to the guys and our attitude. We're a lot more physical team. I don't want to say we were too passive.

"I think we had guys thinking too much, we had so many checks and this and that. It was too much, you're thinking so much to where you can't just line up and go tee off on someone. Now we can just line up and get it, there isn't so much too it. It's simplified to where we don't have all the checks."

The primary word being used for the team's new approach is "aggressive," and that's not a term that characterized them too often with Smith at the controls. The mild mannered Bush has the defense excited and determined not to let the Texans be known exclusively as an offensive team.

While Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Steve Slaton and Owen Daniels will go a long way towards determining if the Texans can build on consecutive 8-8 seasons and make the playoffs, Mario Williams, Ryans and linebacker Brian Cushing, a first-round pick, bring a good dose of star power to the defense.

Fantasy Football: 32 Questions
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"They are getting tougher and tougher to go against every day," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "They've improved themselves with a bunch of players, they've been rushing the passer better and they are making it tough on us."

To graduate to being a playoff team, the Texans have to reverse some trends. They'll need to play better early so they aren't left to fight so hard to get back to .500. They need to fare better within the division, finding ways to finish off their primary rivals when they have the chance.

They expect the Titans and Colts to be strong again. The Texans will likely have to chase one or both of those teams down.

Anything less than double digit wins and a playoff berth won't be considered a success.

Key questions

1. Can the offense fix turnover and red-zone issues?

The Texans ranked third in total offense last year, but it didn't mean as much as it should have because they were 17th in points per game. The two big themes heading into the 2009 season are cutting turnovers and getting better production once they get inside the 20.

They were minus-10 in takeaways/giveaways last year, third worst in the NFL. They scored touchdowns on just 45.9 percent of their red zone possessions.

"I think if we can make those two adjustments, we can win at least two more games," Shanahan said. "If we can do that I think we will be a playoff team. We were a good offense last year statistically. But that was the first thing I talked about on the first day of OTAs this year, that doesn't mean anything. The top three offenses in the league last year were New Orleans, Denver and us. None of us made the playoffs. Moving the ball does not matter unless you move it across that goal line."

2. Do they have enough in the secondary?

Their top cornerback, Dunta Robinson, has not been with the team because he's upset about getting slapped with a franchise tag, but he will ultimately sign it and play for a guarantee of nearly $10 million.

Jacques Reeves will miss the start of the season with a fractured fibula, which means Fred Bennett will get some time as the second starter. Rookie Glover Quin is currently the nickel and they like his physical play.

But the safeties and the defensive backfield depth are question marks, even if the defensive front gets more of a pa
ss rush and forces the ball out quicker. Can they get steady enough play from Eugene Wilson and second-year man Dominique Barber, the presumptive starters at safety on opening day against the Jets?

 
  Defensive end Mario Williams
  Defensive end Mario Williams accounted for 12 of the Texans' 25 sacks last season.
3. Does Williams have enough pass rush help?

The Texans had just 25 sacks in 2008, fewest in the division. And Williams accounted for 12 of them. Houston made moves intended to get pressure from elsewhere -- first by signing free agent defensive lineman Antonio Smith, then by drafting Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin with their first two picks. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar is a fiery type who preaches pocket penetration and may just be the team's biggest addition.

An effective rush from the front can help take a lot of pressure off the secondary, which ranks as the team's weak link.

Market watch

Ideally, Jacoby Jones would be in line to replace Kevin Walter as the No. 2 receiver in a year if the team doesn't or can't re-sign Walter. But Jones lacks maturity and consistency and his job security could be in jeopardy. The team is looking at kickoff return man Andre Davis, a better receiver, as a punt return possibility. If Davis succeeds there, Jones could be expendable.

Jones can be very good, but he can also put the ball on the ground too much as a punt returner. And Kubiak is not a fan of specialists. He wants football players who can fill multiple roles. That describes Davis, who can cover kicks as well as return them in addition to catching passes. It may not cover Jones much longer.

Newcomer to watch

Smith
Smith wasn't regarded as any sort of premier pass rusher when he hit free agency. But he's a versatile lineman who is very good with his hands. If things go the way the Texans hope, he can be an early down end and a third down tackle, having a positive influence and taking on a leadership role for youngsters Williams, Amobi Okoye and Barwin.

"He's a kid that can move from outside to inside, he's a big man that's a real good athlete," said Bush, who also worked with him in Arizona. "He's a 285-pound guy with good knee bend. He's extremely tough, has no problem playing over a center, guard or tackle. He takes a lot of pride in his performance and he came up through the ranks the hard way, he honed his craft and made himself what he is.

"That whole sense of a guy that came from virtually nothing to what he is right now kind of helps our team. Other guys can see it and aspire to be that way."

Observation deck

Antwaun Molden got hurt in his rookie season when the team wanted to bring him along slowly. He's a physical cornerback who could provide some great insurance or become a real alternative now if he's needed. ... Dan Orlovsky hasn't looked very good, but the team knows it will take him a while to be comfortable in the system and are convinced with coaching he can be a quality No. 2 quarterback for them. Even before a hamstring injury Rex Grossman wasn't going to challenge him for the backup quarterback job. ... Ryan Moats is like Slaton style-wise and Arian Foster is Chris Brown-like. But the undrafted rookie back may have missed his chance with a preseason injury and a too-slow return. Brown's ability to stay healthy will be a big question for the offense. ... While he's a popular fall guy with media and fans, defensive tackle Travis Johnson, who's missed camp so far recovering from hernia surgery, generally does what the team asks, taking up blockers. That it's a contract year won't hurt his motivation either. ... Undrafted free agent John Busing hits and plays good special teams, which may give him a shot at a roster spot that has belonged to Nick Ferguson or Brandon Harrison. ... The team also likes undrafted defensive end Tim Jamison, but will there be room for him? ... Frank Okam is big, quick and smart and he's been a pet project for coaches. When Kubiak complimented his offseason, Okam knew it meant something, "because it's difficult for an Aggie to give a Longhorn a compliment." ... Rookie tight end James Casey can play fullback, line up wide or throw. That's versatility that makes him Houston's Wildcat candidate. ... Want an undrafted possibility on offense? If Jones is out, there could be room for receiver Darnell Jenkins.

 
  Getty Images
  While the Texans made some expensive offseason additions to their defense, they did not add any high-profile competition for Nick Ferguson and Eugene Wilson, their presumed starters at safety.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Defensive upgrades were to be the theme of the offseason for the Houston Texans.

They grabbed defensive lineman Antonio Smith with a big-dollar free-agent contract. They drafted linebacker Brian Cushing with the No. 15 pick overall.

But outside of adding fourth- and sixth-round cornerbacks and a seventh-round safety/special-teamer in the draft, the Texans didn't add anyone of note to their secondary.

What does that say?

Either the Texans liked what they had enough to believe it will work better with an upgraded front seven, or they didn't like the options in free agency or the high value spots in the draft. Perhaps both.

"We have some quality guys back there, that if things are going correctly, they can contribute and make plays for us," said defensive coordinator Frank Bush, who took over as defensive coordinator for Richard Smith, whom Gary Kubiak let go. "Of course it's all tied together. Hopefully the front seven can do some things that are going to ease some of the pressures on the back end."

Bush said his veteran safeties are smart, contentious and understand the system and that the younger guys at the position are following suit.

Had there been a "gotta have him" first-round safety, he could have landed in Houston. There wasn't, so at organized team activities (OTAs) this week the Texans have lined up with Nick Ferguson at strong safety and Eugene Wilson at free safety on the first-team defense, with Brandon Harrison and Dominique Barber behind them.

The résumé lines for the four, with assessments from Bush:

  Ferguson

Ferguson has played nine seasons with the Jets, Denver and Houston. Last year he was considered a nice addition for depth and to assist in further establishing the culture coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith wanted to grow.

Bush: "Nick's a very tough kid. He hits a ton, he studies a tremendous amount. He's got real good zone coverage awareness. He might have a little bit of problem with some man-coverage things, but all in all, he's solid."

  Wilson

Wilson has 12 interceptions in five seasons playing both corner and safety. He was a second-rounder, 36th overall, for New England in 2003 and was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams. He signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay last year and didn't stick before finding a home in Houston. He started the last nine games of 2008 at free safety.

Bush: "He's been playing safety, but he played corner in college. He's more athletic, more of a coverage safety, more in the middle of the field, a ball hawk. He's a willing tackler. He will come down in the box and lay some wood on you when he has to. But he's really comfortable ball-hawking, breaking on the ball and making plays on the ball."

  Harrison

Harrison was a fifth-round pick by the Texans out of Stanford in 2007 but missed his rookie year with an injury. He played in 15 games, starting six last season.

Bush: "Harrison is a Stanford kid, so of course he's smart. He's a big, physical presence. He's probably over 220 pounds, a kid that can strike you, runs well and moves real well for a big guy. His biggest deal is to keep getting quality reps and more experience. A big kid like that, you probably want him closer to the box. He's got almost linebacker size, but he's capable of playing in the middle of the field."

  Barber

Barber was presumed by many to be heading for the starting strong safety spot opposite Wilson this year, and still could be. At 6-foot, 218, he's thick and can thump if he's finding his way to the right spots.

Bush: "He actually played some nickel-type linebacker for us last year. He's another kid you like towards the box. But he has a tremendous understanding of the game -- his dad played, his brother played -- he really understands football. We're able to put him in the middle of the field and he can help guys get lined up and do things that way. He's got a lot of football savvy."

Troy Nolan, the seventh-rounder out of Arizona State has nice ball skills, but will have his initial opportunities on special teams.

If things pan out as the Texans envision, the club will get improved pla
y from the group of holdovers, boosted by a pass rush that will consistently force quarterbacks to make quicker decisions. If they don't, the spotlight will very likely chase the safeties and feel more like a searchlight.

It seems they have three candidates to be the in-the-box kind of guy. But they could have set things up better for competition at free safety, where I will be interested to see how Wilson can do.

"It's going to be on the DBs to cover so that the front seven can work and get those sacks," Barber said. "We know the front seven is going to get that push and it's going to come down to us making that play on the ball."

 
  Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMI
  New coordinator Frank Bush is looking for more discipline and accountability from his defense.

During this offseason work, the safeties have an additional chance to prove themselves as leaders. Cornerback Dunta Robinson will re-emerge eventually, either after signing the franchise tender that upset him or with a long-term contract. Without him around, Jacques Reeves -- a popular target of fans -- and Fred Bennett are the frontline corners.

Part of the appeal of fourth-round defensive back Glover Quin out of New Mexico was his versatility, but Bush said Quin is working with the corners for now along with sixth-rounder Brice McCain out of Utah.

The expectations Bush has for the safeties and defensive backfield are in line with the message for the whole defense, he said.

"More than anything, more discipline, being more consciously aware and accountable for their techniques and the things that we ask them to do," he said. "We're going to be sticklers for the details and by doing so make those kids more prepared to do the same things over and over and over again and get the same looks instead of , I won't say just ad-libbing it, but instead of having different techniques. We want the same things over and over and over again, so it becomes habit."

Barber said new defensive backs coach David Gibbs has streamlined a big piece of the safeties' lives.

"He's helped simplify a lot of the calls for the safeties and it makes all of the adjustments easier," Barber said. "And in three days of practice, you can tell we are flying around and have made a lot of progress already."

When Houston played its best defense last season, it was when coaches became less cautious and more aggressive. That was a big theme for Kubiak as he made the change from Smith to Bush, and players have universally talked about how they prefer the mindset.

Does a safety in that line of thinking have to be less afraid of giving up a big play?

"It's a controlled caution, I guess you would say," Bush said. "We will always try to give them the different techniques and the pointers to help them out in those situations. When we feel like we need to be aggressive, we're going to always give them some tools to protect themselves. Football is aggressive. If we can just play to those principles, we should be fine."

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