NFL Nation: Eugene Wilson

Troy Nolan, Courtney GreeneAP PhotosHouston's Troy Nolan, left, recorded three interceptions in 2010, while Courtney Greene picked off one pass and forced a fumble for Jacksonville.
If Peyton Manning dropped back and looked downfield against the secondaries of the Texans or Jaguars right now, he’d find a safety pool that averages 2.25 years of experience and has an average draft spot of No. 205.

Collectively, Troy Nolan and Dominique Barber of Houston and Don Carey and Courtney Greene of Jacksonville have five interceptions, three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in 31 career starts.

They are nice guys with some promise, but it’s hard to tab any one of the four as a star in the making.

As Houston and Jacksonville head toward a draft where the safeties are not highly regarded, it screams the question:

How can teams trying to catch Manning’s Colts playing in an increasingly quarterback-driven league be so poorly stocked as such a critical position?

It’s hard to figure.

At least the Jaguars have taken a big swing, missing badly on No. 21 overall pick Reggie Nelson in 2007, a feeble tackler who tended to take terrible angles. He was traded to Cincinnati before the 2010 season. Jacksonville was also the first team to have Bob Sanders in for a visit after he was cut by the Colts in February, but he ultimately lined up to go to San Diego.

Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio talked of his desire to add “that guy,” whether he came in the form of Sanders or not.

The Jaguars’ last homegrown safety of influence before Nelson was Gerald Sensabaugh, a fifth-rounder in 2005 whom the team let walk to Dallas as a free agent after the 2008 season and who’s scheduled to be a free agent again.

The team simply asked too much of young guys last season. Carey moved to safety from corner. He had never made calls before, but he was usually responsible for adjusting one half of the pass defense once it lined up, a tall task in games against the likes of Manning and Matt Schaub.

“Even when you crack down on your film study, when you get to a game it’s still very frustrating because they kind of know what you’re going to do in certain situations,” Carey said. “You try hard to hide your coverages; it’s a real chess match.”

Carey said he can’t worry about who’s brought in, he just needs to work to get better. General manager Gene Smith still sees Carey as an “ascending” player. Del Rio said Carey needs “technique clean-up.”

“Will he ascend to the starter we need him to be?” Del Rio asked. “I don’t know that. I think the jury’s still out.”

For a team that wants to build through the draft, Houston has devoted virtually no resources to the safety position. Of the 76 draft selections the Texans have made since they got off the ground in 2002, they've spent eight on safeties, but only one as high as the fourth round.

They relied on veteran castoffs the past few years but released the ineffective Eugene Wilson and made it known the one-dimensional Bernard Pollard will not be re-signed.

One personnel man told me recently that the state of the positions in the league is average, that this draft is thin at the spot, that the options are better at free than strong and that teams may look more than ever to try to convert corners.

Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com thinks these five corners could wind up being NFL safeties: Aaron Williams of Texas (second round), Marcus Gilchrist of Clemson (third), Jalil Brown of Colorado (third or fourth), Chris Culliver of South Carolina (fourth) and Chris Rucker of Michigan State (fourth or fifth).

Many teams are increasingly blurring the lines between the roles and ideally like to have two players who can both run and cover and step up to play the run.

Teams like the Texans and Jaguars would surely be pleased, however, to have one player with a talent on each end of the safety spectrum who could serve as an upgrade and help reduce the stress on the cornerbacks.

Houston may move Glover Quin to free safety, but then it will be playing its best cornerback out of position.

How much could better play from the safeties help a group of young corners that really struggled in 2010?

“I think it’s significant,” Texans general manager Rick Smith said. “I mean you’re looking at a former safety. So I value the position significantly.”

Both Texans coach Gary Kubiak and the Jaguars’ Smith have said they hope to add a veteran at the position as well as examining the draft options.

“You’d always like to have a veteran at the safety position,” Gene Smith said. “Playing safety is like playing quarterback, and you’d always prefer to have a veteran at quarterback. You don’t always have the luxury of being in that position, but that would be a good area to get a veteran player.”

A guy like San Diego free safety Eric Weddle, who could buy a real secondary ownership stake by signing with Houston or Jacksonville, should be an attractive option if he reaches the market. And he or Indianapolis’ Melvin Bullitt could help one of the incumbent kids or a rookie grow into a role quicker. Signing him could also help weaken the division’s top team.

Their values, when free agency arrives, should be high no matter who’s been drafted.

Even if the Colts re-sign Bullitt, they probably will be looking for safety depth. And while Tennessee maintains faith in free safety Michael Griffin, it should be looking for a player to challenge slipping veteran Chris Hope.

That’s just four teams in need of six players at the position in a draft where ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay thinks Rahim Moore of UCLA may be the only guy in the draft capable of stepping in as an opening-day NFL starter.

“He’s a really good player, great angles, ball skills,” McShay said. “The thing that keeps him from being elite is he’s not fluid in man-to-man coverage. But he has good range and is very instinctive.

“After that there is a big drop-off. Jaiquawn Garrett from Temple is a good player, but not elite. Ahmad Black from Florida is a great athlete, quick, and hits hard for a small guy, but he’s really small. DeAndre McDaniel from Clemson is so overrated.”

Those are hardly two paragraphs that will get Texans and Jaguars fans excited.

They may have an entirely different effect on Manning and the quarterbacks slated to throw against those teams if and when we get kickoffs this fall.

Draft Watch: AFC South

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:29
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» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Needs.

Houston Texans

Where to start? The defense needs a major personnel infusion, starting at safety, where this draft is weak. Eugene Wilson (cut) and Bernard Pollard (not tendered in case he would be restricted) are not going to be back. They need candidates for both starting spots.

Outside linebacker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 is a void, where rehabbing 4-3 end Connor Barwin is slated to be one guy and there is a blank on the other.

The team has talked confidently about Shaun Cody, who got a two-year contract, and second-year man Earl Mitchell being capable of playing the nose for Phillips. They can certainly upgrade.

The best answer for a group of too-young cornerbacks would be a veteran, not a rookie, but who knows how the next guy arrives? And a No. 2 wide receiver better than Kevin Walter who can do what they’d hoped Jacoby Jones would do would be nice.

Indianapolis Colts

We’ve been hearing about the need to get a tough yard in a crucial situation with the run game for some time and haven’t seen the personnel changes necessary. Then Bill Polian said during the season that yes, offensive tackle Rodger Saffold (drafted by the Rams in the second round) could have helped the Colts. The team needs offensive linemen, plural. At least one high-quality guy who can contribute from opening day would be big.

When they're healthy, Indianapolis has a great four-pack of receivers in Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez. But health questions on Collie and Gonzalez will linger; none of those guys looks to be an heir to Wayne’s role, and the Peyton Manning-era Colts have spent premium picks on skill guys.

The corner depth proved pretty good, but even if they are ultimately able to re-sign Melvin Bullitt, the Colts need some depth at safety.

Jacksonville Jaguars

While Courtney Greene may be a serviceable NFL safety, Don Carey probably is not. Odds are the Jaguars draft one and sign one at a position that was a big weakness in 2010.

Linebacker is also a spot of need. Daryl Smith is locked in, but the team probably will allow Kirk Morrison and Justin Durant to walk as free agents, meaning they need a starter on the middle and the outside.

Defensive end wouldn’t seem a need considering the team drafted Larry Hart and Austen Lane last season after adding veteran Aaron Kampman. But the pass rush is not where they want it, and a rush end could well be a position they address.

Inconsistent quarterback David Garrard needs to see the team have a legitimate alternative, and he should come from this draft. And those two quarterbacks plus Luke McCown need a No. 1-caliber receiver to head a group that won’t bring Mike Sims-Walker back.

Tennessee Titans

It starts under center, where the Titans do not have a No. 1 or No. 2 quarterback. They intend to add one veteran and one rookie and could easily spend their first or second pick on a signal-caller.

The team needs to get bigger and more durable on the defensive line. A beefy tackle and a rugged defensive end are on the wish list, and both could help make things easier for the rest of the defense. The interior didn’t collapse the pocket a lot, and the smallish ends wore down. Three of them are heading for free agency -- Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Jacob Ford.

Stephen Tulloch is heading for free agency, and the Titans didn’t get enough plays out of the linebackers last year, so they could upgrade.

Chris Hope’s replacement at strong safety doesn’t appear to be on the roster. While it’s a thin draft at the spot, the Titans need to find a candidate.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Texans have major needs on defense.

They need a defensive tackle, at least one outside linebacker, maybe two new starting safeties and, ideally, a veteran cornerback.

At No. 11, they could have a lot of options that fit. But what if a stud wide receiver is there?

Gary Kubiak was asked Friday if there is anyway the team wouldn’t go defense in the draft.

“I think you are always talking about taking the best players for your football team," Kubiak said. "You and I both know, we have big problems on that side of the ball last year. We made a big commitment to [new defensive coordinator] Wade [Phillips] to come in and get our defense going very quickly.

“We have a lot of improvements to make in that area. We will have to evaluate the draft. That won’t change, but obviously that’s a big part of our football team that needs to be corrected.”

Translation: Boy there would have to be a tremendous offensive talent for us to not take a defender. (At least I hope that's what he's saying.)

Kubiak said he loves the way Phillips evaluates players and the team will lean on him in that department.

Safety is a major need. Eugene Wilson was released and will be replaced at free safety. Incumbent strong safety Bernard Pollard, who can be a great run player but doesn’t help a great deal in pass defense, is not under contract.

Glover Quin was the team’s best cornerback and plays well inside in the nickel. Kubiak said he could be moved to safety depending on who the team adds. Houston isn't drafting a savior safety 11th. I think it would be a mistake to move Quin, but I’m saving further thoughts on the division’s safety issues for an up-coming column.

Hope you’ll come back to find that when we get to it.
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.”

Texans regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 14

[+] EnlargeFoster
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireArian Foster rushed for 1,616 yards and 16 TDs this season.
Biggest surprise: Houston liked what it saw from Arian Foster late in 2009. The team believed he would feed off the motivation and opportunity it offered him in the offseason. But even plugging him into the Texans' best-case scenario, it would have been hard to envision Foster earning the NFL’s rushing title as a part of a pass-centric offense backed by a shaky defense. He burst onto the scene with 231 rushing yards against the Colts, and it stood up as the biggest rush game of the season. He carried 327 times for 1,616 yards (a 4.9-yard average) with 16 touchdowns. He was also the team’s second leading receiver with 66 catches for 604 yards and two more scores. It was an incredible season.

Biggest disappointment: The defense was not going to be the strength of the team, but it would have been hard to envision just how poorly this group was going to do. The front didn’t hurry quarterbacks enough, and they posted a collective 100.5 passer rating against the Texans. In their last 10 games, they beat only Titans rookie Rusty Smith and Jacksonville backup Trent Edwards. The veteran safeties, Eugene Wilson and Bernard Pollard, were ineffective against the pass and did little to offset the inexperience of the Kiddie Corps Corners -- Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and the eventually benched Brice McCain. Jason Allen was an improvement when he came in, but not by a ton. Houston gave up 33 passing touchdowns, a number bigger than its sack total (30).

Biggest need: Defense. It starts with a replacement for defensive coordinator Frank Bush and several other new defensive assistants as the Texans are sticking with head coach Gary Kubiak. From there, whether they stick with a 4-3 or unwisely move to a 3-4 which would hurt Mario Williams, they have desperate needs. At least one penetrating defensive tackle, safeties who are comfortable in coverage and fast, and a veteran corner who could lead a young group would be big additions.

Team MVP: Foster. It’s hard to look another direction considering Andre Johnson dealt with an ankle injury all season and missed three games. Foster was steady and could have produced even more but for some questionable play-calling, particularly in the loss at Indianapolis.

Work as a unit: Fullback Vonta Leach earned a Pro Bowl spot for his work leading Foster, but none of the offensive linemen was even named an alternate to the all-star game. The group and tight ends, led by Joel Dreessen, did fine work making things happen for Foster in their first season without the offensive line coach who set up their scheme, Alex Gibbs. The pass blocking was not as good as Matt Schaub was taken down 32 times, even if a share of those were on him. If the Texans can improve there, this batch of relative unknowns could really have an impact in 2011.

Wrap-up: Broncos 24, Texans 23

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
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Thoughts on the Texans’ loss to the Broncos in Denver.

What it means: The Texans are 5-10 and have lost eight of their past nine games.

Hard to believe, but true: The Texans, a team known for making big comebacks only to lose, jumped to a 17-0 halftime lead only to allow the Broncos to mount the comeback. Matt Schaub threw for 310 yards with a TD and a pick on a tipped ball, but Houston’s defense allowed rookie Tim Tebow to match him. Tebow threw for 308 yards with a TD and a pick, and he ran for the game-winning score.

What I liked: Filling in for Andre Johnson, out with his ankle injury, Jacoby Jones caught five passes for 115 yards. Eugene Wilson was listed in the official game book as not having played despite being in uniform. Troy Nolan probably isn’t the answer at free safety, but neither is Wilson.

What I didn’t like: The Broncos fumbled four times, but the Texans didn’t manage to take one away. Houston’s offense, the unit that needs to carry this team, converted only one of eight third downs. The chance at a late score to win it disappeared when Brian Dawkins tipped Schuab’s pass and SyQuan Thompson gathered it up.

What’s next: The Texans conclude their season by hosting Jacksonville. The Jaguars still have a shot at the AFC South crown, if they beat the Texans while the Titans win at Indianapolis.

AFC East Week 11 decisive moment

November, 23, 2010
11/23/10
1:00
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» NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

The Miami Dolphins got rid of cornerback Jason Allen two weeks ago because he was a liability.

He continued to hurt them Sunday even though he was 1,300 miles away and wearing another uniform.

With 24 seconds left and trailing by four points, the New York Jets needed a touchdown against the Houston Texans. The Jets had the ball on the Texans' 48-yard line.

Allen, picked up to help an obviously desperate Texans pass defense, lined up against Braylon Edwards.

Edwards sprinted up the right sideline, drifted farther outside and got behind Allen with no resistance. Mark Sanchez feathered a gorgeous pass in between Allen and converging safety Eugene Wilson for an astonishingly easy 42-yard reception, moving the Jets to the 6-yard line with 16 seconds to go.

The Jets closed out their awesome triumph on the next play, another pretty Sanchez pass to Santonio Holmes in the left corner of the end zone.

But the long completion to Edwards was the backbreaker.

How I See It: AFC South Stock Watch

October, 6, 2010
10/06/10
9:49
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FALLING

Chris Johnson and the Titans’ run blocking: All sort of explanations are rolling in, and some in Nashville are even asking for more Javon Ringer carries. That’s craziness. But Fisher had said the run game isn’t operating as it should be and with that being the case the Titans really have issues. The line needs to block better and Johnson needs to be decisive. He tweeted a pledge for a big October.

  1. Chris Johnson

    ChrisJohnson28 I wnt 2 let all my fantasy ppl & myfans kno not 2 worry ima have a gr8 oct its tkng a little time 2 adjust 2 the 8 n 9 inthe box #NOPRESSURE
Colts safeties: Antoine Bethea is an excellent player. But he’s like to be stretched thin with the team’s three best options aside from him -- Bob Sanders, Melvin Bullitt and Jamie Silva -- all out now. The Colts are hoping for a late-season return from Sanders. In the meantime, their options on the roster are inexperienced DaJuan Morgan and rookie Brandon King, a converted corner who’s had a hamstring issue. Matt Cassel may not be able to take advantage of that, but I suspect Donovan McNabb and Matt Schaub will.

Jamie Winborn, Titans linebacker: He’s been workmanlike and serviceable as a fill-in, but the dynamic Gerald McRath returns from his four-game suspension this week. The Titans should plug him directly back into the lineup and hash out what they will do when they decide to use nickel personnel. But Jeff Fisher’s already spoken of the expectation of rust on McRath, which might mean Winborn retains a part time role for a bit.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMike Thomas
Justin Cooper/Icon SMIJaguars receiver Mike Thomas is averaging 12.2 yards per catch this season.
Mike Thomas, Jaguars receiver: As I mentioned in Tuesday’s High Energy Player of the Week post on Tiquan Underwood, I think the Colts’ game was indicative of where the Jaguars are heading -- to a shorter passing game that won’t ask David Garrard to make the sort of throws that failed him in the losses to San Diego and Philadelphia. Thomas had a solid game against Indianapolis and will be a big beneficiary of this alteration.

Troy Nolan, Texans safety: The second-year safety had two picks in Oakland in his first action on defense, which prompted Gary Kubiak to pledge more playing time for him. I think Eugene Wilson qualifies as a weak spot for the defense and even if healthy, the team should stick with Nolan and give him a chance to be part of this young defensive backfield that’s trying to grow up quickly together.

Josh Scobee, Jaguars kicker: He doesn’t rank high on the scoring list, but he’s extended a great preseason into the regular season and four games in he hasn’t even attempted a FG from under 44 yards. He’s connected from 45, 44, 48, 51 and 59 for the Jaguars so far this season.

Final Word: AFC South

October, 1, 2010
10/01/10
4:03
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

[+] EnlargeAaron Kampman
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAaron Kampman has 1.5 sacks in his first season in Jacksonville and could cause the Colts some problems.
Containing Kampman: I believe the Colts loved what they got from offensive tackle Jeff Linkenbach in Denver last week. But I am not sure if they are ready to go with an undrafted rookie against crafty and explosive veteran defensive end Aaron Kampman or if they want to get Charlie Johnson (foot) back in the lineup to deal with Kampman. If it’s Johnson, we know they are bringing the rookie along slowly and allowing Johnson more time to heal. If it’s Linkenbach, it says they love him and he’s better than a banged-up Johnson, or has better upside than Johnson, or both.

Deep speed: Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner had a wonderful training camp and preseason, making a ton of plays. The question about him is his deep speed. And so I’d expect the Broncos to work quickly to test his deep speed in his first start in place of Jason McCourty, and to find out how well Verner and the Titans’ scheme can cover for it. The Titans are one corner injury from trouble now. The next guy up, Ryan Mouton, struggled as a rookie in 2009 and watched McCourty and Verner sprint past him in the preseason when the open job was supposed to be a three-way battle.

Survivable: The Texans aren’t getting sufficient pass rush and their defensive backfield isn’t making plays. They shouldn’t be relaxing because Bruce Gradkowski isn’t Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb or Tony Romo. But you’d think they’d be able to survive their deficiencies a bit better against Oakland than against their three previous opponents. If Troy Nolan can make the most of his work at free safety -- he and Dominique Barber are expected to split time -- he could stake a claim to the fulltime job.

Back or benched? Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox lost the team’s faith after what the coaches lauded as a great rookie season. Surely they can play better pass defense against Manning with Cox involved than without him. Cox picked off Manning to end the Colts’ first drive in the season opener in Indy last year. Jacksonville has the sort of secondary issues that would suggest a quarterback who has been practically perfect so far can carve things up.

Quick out of the gate: The Texans' defense has played OK in the first quarter, and then far worse after that, according to Aaron Schatz and Football Outsiders. To give the defense the best chance, a hot start by the offense would really be big. Get Matt Schaub in a rhythm, get Arian Foster going and get multiple scores on the board and the Raiders will have to chuck it. Given that scenario, Houston could pick off its first pass of the season just by accident.
The Texans need a turnover.

Through three games the defense has one takeaways, and takeaways can do wonders to offset the sort of passing yardage they are giving up.

The Texans are tied for 27th in the NFL at minus-four in giveaway-takeaway ratio. They’ve recovered one fumble, but are one of just three teams with no interceptions. The others are Buffalo and Baltimore.

“[We’re] very hungry,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “I think we’ve dropped three in three games, and I think as a secondary guy, you want to get your hands on the ball. I think when we’re playing the way we’re playing, you really don’t have an opportunity to get picks like you want to because, what, we’re giving up almost 400 yards passing a game, all they’ve got to do is just back up and throw the ball right down the field.

“You’ve got a one-on-one with a cornerback, you’ve got to hope your free safety gets over the top or your strong safety if we’re in Cover 2, so we’ve got to get better; we really do. We’ve got to get better. We understand what we’ve got to do and we’re ready to do that.”

The free safety at the start will be Dominique Barber instead of the dinged Eugene Wilson. We could see some of second-year man Troy Nolan too.

Wilson’s a problem. I’m not sure Barber is the solution. But the Raiders passing offense could be -- Bruce Gradkowski and Jason Campbell have thrown two picks each.

But Oakland has fast receivers as always, and being overly anxious for a pick could mean trouble over the top. The Texans can’t force it.

Houston will be thinking turnover all game.

“Yeah, we’re all talking about turnovers,” DeMeco Ryans said. “… I think now, guys are more conscious of it during the week, so I feel like it will carry over on Sunday and I feel like we’ll definitely get a couple out.”

How I See It: AFC South Stock Watch

September, 29, 2010
9/29/10
12:25
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» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. David Garrard: A bad game and maybe he gets skipped a week. A game as bad as his against Philadelphia and he’s really sinking. Granted, his protection wasn’t good. But he can probably do more against the pressure that resulted in six sacks. He simply has to throw for more than 105 yards. Will Trent Edwards ultimately put pressure on Garrard?

2. Eugene Wilson: In the loss to the Cowboys, he dropped a pick-6 in a game where the Texans desperately needed a big play from the defense. Wilson also didn’t seem to be of great help to the young corners. He might not have had responsibility to help Kareem Jackson on the short Roy E. Williams catch that went for a 63-yard touchdown. Still, if he’s so gimpy he can’t pursue better than he did, he should sit and they should have a look at Troy Nolan.

3. Titans' interior offensive line: Against the Giants, center Eugene Amano and right guard Jake Scott didn’t seem to recover well from the line’s poor game against Pittsburgh. The Titans don’t need Kevin Mawae back, but jelling and communicating might still be taking some time for this gang. Scott got called for three penalties worth 20 yards.

RISING

Austin Collie
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesAustin Collie leads the NFL in receiving yards and receptions.
1. Austin Collie: The guy had a superstar game in Denver with 12 catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns, showing a psychic connection with Peyton Manning. Some evaluators thought coming into the season that Collie had approached his ceiling last season based on his age (26 in November) and role. But he’s proven he can be a top option for Manning and the offense.

2. Will Witherspoon: Keith Bulluck played for the Giants against the Titans. But given a choice between Bulluck and the player the Titans signed to replace him, Witherspoon seems the clear choice to me right now. He’s a defensive spark for Tennessee at the linebacker level, and he’s the guy who tipped Eli Manning’s left-handed pass into the end zone to set Jason McCourty’s interception in motion.

3. Jeff Linkenbach: An undrafted Colts' rookie offensive tackle, he made his first start in Denver and did about as well as could be expected given the circumstances. Does he fill in for Charlie Johnson beyond that game? We’ll get our first hint on Wednesday when we find out if Johnson (foot) can return to practice. Perhaps Linkenbach did well enough that the Colts try to allow Johnson to recuperate?

Applause for Kubiak candor on pass D

September, 27, 2010
9/27/10
7:04
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Bravo to Gary Kubiak for what he had at his Monday press conference about a couple of Dallas touchdown passes plays a day earlier in Houston's first loss of the season.

Far too often, coaches pussyfoot around in the postgame conversation and on Mondays after watching films, refusing to name names as if players will get their feelings hurt. Coaches also fear they’ll appear to be passing the buck, but there is a way to convey a message of personal responsibilities without throwing a guy under the bus. I think Kubiak knows how and should teach some seminars.

Mistakes have been thoroughly dissected in film review by the time a coach comments. And while a player like safety Bernard Pollard talked a bunch Saturday about accountability “to each other,” a similar accountability with the media and the fans does two things: It wins good faith and it assures the wrong guy isn’t fingered as a culprit.

Kubiak said rookie corner Kareem Jackson was not expecting safety help when Tony Romo altered a run play and threw a quick, short pass that Roy Williams took 63 yards for a score.

“It was just an adjustment on their part and Kareem has got to make that play,” Kubiak said. “He’s in bump-man. No, he’s not getting any help. He’s just got to lock him down and they’ve got a bad play [for Houston]. He gets out of whack. Roy is a big kid and threw him, got his body out of whack and it ends up being a home run. But no, he was not expecting any help.”

Even thought Eugene Wilson might have had no responsibilities there, once Jackson fell down and Williams was behind him, Wilson seemed gimpy or half-hearted or both in his pursuit of Williams.

On Williams' earlier 15-yard TD catch, nickel corner Brice McCain was beat but turned with palms up toward Wilson after the play as if he had expected something different.

“McCain is in man coverage there also, sitting on his outside shoulder” Kubiak said. “There’s help in the middle of the field, but there’s not help vertical. So he’s got to squeeze that route and make that play.”

As for the defensive failures so far for the Texans, Kubiak said his team hasn’t lived up to the offseason emphasis on 60-minute efforts.

“I thought we played very good defense for 40 plays,” Kubiak said. “We had us in a 10-3 game, had kept them in check and gave us many opportunities offensively to be in the ball game. We thought we’d be in a game like that. We had a span, from the 41st play to the 54th or 55th play, 14- or 15-play span, where we gave up 182 yards and two touchdowns. Big plays have been our Achilles' heel on defense up to this point in this young season. It’s something that has to get fixed. There’s no reason for somebody to walk in our stadium and for us to give up 385 yards of offense. I don’t care who we’re playing. We’ve got to get it fixed, whether we’re young on the back end or not. None of that matters. We’ve got to get it fixed…”

“I keep seeing spurts of us playing very good defense. First off, you go to the Colts game and up until the point where GQ [Glover Quin] may get that pick in the fourth quarter, we’re fixing to hold Indy to 10 points. That’s unbelievable to do that. But yet, we didn’t. We got bad at the end of the game. Washington, we played very poorly for three quarters, and in the fourth quarter we hold them to 20-something yards and come back and win the game. Then yesterday, we played 38 minutes of great, great defensive football. So there are signs that we are capable of doing that and the fact that we get bad in certain periods of the game, for whatever reason, is causing us to give up way too many yards and too many points and too many big plays. It’s just about consistency, and the only way to get it is to go do it. This would be a good week to start.”

Romo outplays Schaub as Texans fall

September, 26, 2010
9/26/10
7:32
PM ET
Matt SchaubBrett Davis/US PresswireMatt Schaub and the Houston offense struggled to put points on the board against Dallas.

HOUSTON -- When the Houston Texans move the ball, their offensive rhythm can rival anybody’s.

Sunday’s herky-jerky performance hardly suggested as much, and a team with a wonderful story of a 2-0 start leveled off in an ugly 27-13 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Just one of nine Texans' offensive drives did not include a sack or a penalty or end with a turnover, and that drive was the only one that produced a touchdown. It came far too late, after it was clear the Reliant Stadium guests would win for the first time this season.

An offense of the Texans’ caliber can’t go more than 58 minutes without a touchdown, particularly when Arian Foster is able to rush 106 yards on just 17 carries. And the defense is not equipped to keep the team in such a game.

“If we’re going to do what we want to do this year, we can’t go 58 minutes without a touchdown and settle for six points,” Matt Schaub said. “We’ve got too many playmakers. We were moving the football but wound up hurting ourselves.”

Schaub is a smooth and efficient quarterback. When the offense is clicking his work can be something to behold. In an impressive comeback from a 17-point deficit to win in overtime in Washington last week, he threw for a remarkable 497 yards.

This day was far different. I thought on all three of Dallas’ four sacks that Schaub was the primary culprit, simply wanting so badly to make a play that he held the ball for too long on drive killers. He couldn’t find a play bigger than 26 yards. Schaub couldn’t string together the longer chain of singles needed for points where there aren’t any home runs.

In the pocket presence/pocket awareness category, he was outplayed in a big way by Tony Romo. The Cowboys quarterback wasn’t sacked and outscored Schaub on the passer rating card, 127.6 to 77.7.

While Dallas collected 14 points in two red zone visits, Houston twice settled for field goals in goal-to-go situations.

“We’ve just got to play more physical,” said Houston's Rashad Butler, who played his first game at left tackle for the suspended Duane Brown. “They were just more physical than us. I hate to say it, but that’s what it comes down to in the red zone especially when you run the ball down there.

“It comes down to the trenches and they won the battle in the red zone. It definitely hurts me to say it. I know the five guys we’ve got are a lot tougher than those guys. But today they proved us wrong.”

Said Owen Daniels: "Being good in this league is about being good on the red zone. Those are some things we’ve been trying to clean up since the offseason.”

Against Romo, the Texans finally suffered the consequences of an ineffective defense. With no sacks and no takeaways, the Texans didn’t have to give up a third consecutive 400-yard passing day to lose.

The locker room talk was of how it’s in the Texans’ power to fix things, but that’s an ingrained, automatic reaction. Rarely in the NFL does anyone proclaim ownership of an unfixable problem. If you just work harder, play smarter and execute assignments, everything is cured.

The coping mechanism is too neat an explanation, of course, and it doesn’t include enough credit for the other side except for the obligatory “Not to take anything away from them” that comes before the “but ...”

“We can't spot teams 27 points and expect to win,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said, acknowledging that the Week 2 comeback over Washington is a rarity. “Let’s be real about that.”

The Texans' pass defense allowed Roy Williams 117 receiving yards, his best yardage in 39 regular season games dating back to Sept. 23, 2007 when he was with Detroit.

Safety Bernard Pollard emphasized that the run defense was bad early last season, got fixed and became quite effective. But part of what fixed it was his arrival as a late free-agent addition. There is no personnel addition the Texans will bring in for this one. They’ve decided to go young at corner. They will have to endure growing pains from Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and Brice McCain and errors like a dropped chance at a pick-6 by veteran safety Eugene Wilson.

Pollard was involved in a mix-up that sprang Williams on a 63-yard TD pass that put the game out of reach with just under 10 minutes left on the game clock. Pollard said everything is about Houston’s “MAs” -- missed assignments.

“We have to get sound as a defensive unit,” he said. “You’ve got to put pride aside, sometimes you get embarrassed because you don’t want that on film. There are going to be some lessons tomorrow, we’re going to have to man up, understand that we’ve got to take coaching, that we’ve got to be accountable to every other guy on this team.”

Just like we couldn’t put too much stock into Week 1 and Week 2 success stories, we can’t put too much into a Week 3 failure.

I think the Texans are a good team with a good chance at a big season.

I think they are the sort of team that should go to Oakland in Week 4 and make it quickly clear that they are more talented than the Raiders.

It was a tough game to take for the Texans. But quick perspective is something good teams need, too.

“There’s a lot worse places to be after three games than 2-1,” Schaub said.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 21, 2010
8/21/10
10:19
AM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 14

For three years, they’ve been picked as a breakout team. In those three years, the Houston Texans went 25-23 with zero playoff appearances.

So why are the 2010 Texans going to be different? Why do they deserve that sort of faith yet again? What’s changed when the personnel alterations have been pretty minor?

“What’s different? Experience, togetherness,” Amobi Okoye said. “I feel like by the time we will kick off, we will have the full definition of team. If there was a meter of T-E-A-M, we are right at the halfway of M… By the time the season starts, we’re going to completely spell TEAM.”

Said Bernard Pollard, the feisty safety who didn’t arrive until a few games into last season: “We have so much more team chemistry. We know and understand what we are good at. We know and understand that we can’t step out of the box and have to play our game. We’re turning that corner.”

To finally get to the postseason, the Texans have to play more complete games. They have to play better in the red zone. Perhaps above all else, they have to play better in the AFC South, where they were just 1-5 last season.

Catching the Colts is a tall task. The Texans aspire to do it, but they also know there is a route to the playoffs without a division crown. They just have to drive it more smoothly.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Can the pass rush pick it up?

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriThe Texans need some pass-rushing help for star end Mario Williams.
Mario Williams had nine sacks to go with a bum shoulder he’s still reluctant to talk about. He needs more support in chasing the quarterback, and the Texans need to hurry and hit quarterbacks more often to help those three young cornerbacks -- Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and Brice McCain -- cover.

Connor Barwin should be opposite Williams on clear rush downs, and he might be the most improved player on defense. Inside, there are now alternatives to Okoye, who might just not be a good pass pressure guy. Rookie Earl Mitchell could wind up part of the nickel package along with Antonio Smith, who will shift inside to make room for Barwin.

Will the run game do its part?

Everyone is encouraged about the run game, but what’s changed? Second-round pick Ben Tate is lost with an injury. Guard Wade Smith was the only significant addition to the line, where interior issues were a big part of the problems. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is from the same school as predecessor Kyle Shanahan, and line coach John Benton learned under the departed Alex Gibbs.

“We have to get better running the football,” Andre Johnson said. “That helps win games, especially in the fourth quarter when you’re up and you want to kill the time, you have to go on those four-minute drives where you have to get those big fourth downs. We have to get better in that part of our offense.”

They are largely counting on young guys getting better, which begs the question: What if they don’t?

Are the supplementary pieces good enough?

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriHouston's stars, including Matt Schaub, match up with the best players on any NFL roster.
The Texans' stars match up with virtually anyone’s. But beyond Johnson, Williams, Brian Cushing, DeMeco Ryans, Matt Schaub and Owen Daniels, have head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith done enough to unearth the right sort of players on the next tier?

Pollard and Eric Winston certainly fit the bill. Antonio Smith, Kevin Walter and Zac Diles might. That next level of player might be where this team is a little short, and it’s those kinds of guys who might well be the key to transforming a good team into a very good team.

And so we’re watching the likes of Quin, Barwin, Joel Dreessen, James Casey, Jacoby Jones and the offensive line beyond Winston, because they might wind up telling the story.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Linebacker Darryl Sharpton: The Texans figured one of three veteran linebackers would be in the lineup during Cushing’s four-game suspension. But a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness has put Xavier Adibi, Danny Clark and Kevin Bentley on the backburner because rookie Darryl Sharpton's been such a consistent playmaker. He might be short, but he packs a good punch.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Injury to Ben Tate: As the Texans search for the right combination of running backs to help balance their offense, second-round pick Tate figured to be a key piece. But he was lost for the season with a serious ankle/leg injury in the preseason opener. That puts the load on Arian Foster, Steve Slaton and either Jeremiah Johnson, Chris Henry or a back not yet on the team.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Texans are regarded by some as a finesse team, but the defense is emphasizing physicality. Cushing, Pollard, Smith, Jackson, Quin and Mitchell have all joined the team in the past two years and are physical players.
  • Expect Foster to get first crack at the carries closest to the goal line as the Texans really concentrate on running better at close range. Johnson definitely could be heard from in the running game, too -- he might be the best fit for the one-cut and go zone scheme Houston uses.
  • [+] EnlargeNeil Rackers
    AP Photo/Rick ScuteriKicker Neil Rackers has a chance to beat out incumbent Kris Brown.
    If Kris Brown and Neil Rackers continue to be virtually even in the kicker competition, it makes sense for the team to go with Rackers. Sometimes guys just need a change of scenery. If Brown stays and fails on a crucial long field goal on opening day against the Colts, the thinking will be, “Why didn’t they make a change?” If Rackers does the same thing, I’ll think, “At least they tried someone different.”
  • Houston’s defensive tackles are quick, up-the-field types. But they’d sure love if their one big space-eater, Frank Okam, forced his way into action.
  • The Texans want to get the ball in the hands of Jones since he averaged 16.2 yards a catch on his 27 receptions. But I am not so sure that means he’s going to nudge ahead of Walter for the No. 2 receiver job. Walter is smart and super reliable, and reliability is awfully important. Jones might displace Walter or get a share of snaps in two-wide formations, but look for Jones most in a heavy dose of three-wide formations.
  • Troy Nolan might be a credible alternative to Eugene Wilson at free safety if Wilson gets hurt again. I’ve been critical of the team for not adding to the spot, but Nolan missed his rookie season with an injury and appears to be a high-caliber special-teamer.
  • Daniels’ speed is a big part of what helped set him apart. When he returns soon from another ACL reconstruction, will he still have it in the same way? That's the big question with him.
  • The offensive line is set with Duane Brown at left tackle, Chris Myers at center and Winston at right tackle. Guard jobs remain up for grabs. It seems to me that Wade Smith, a free-agent acquisition tailored to the system, and Antoine Caldwell, a third-rounder from 2009, would make the most sense.
  • It sounds less likely that Trindon Holliday has to be a serviceable receiver to make the team than it did during OTAs. If he convinces the team he can be a consistently special return guy, he’ll stick. He looked good to me when the Texans worked with the Saints.

Eugene Wilson hit was not dirty

August, 18, 2010
8/18/10
12:20
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- When I got Mike Sando’s e-mail pointing me to this entry, Eugene Wilson had already jumped on one of the Texans’ buses to head back to the team hotel between joint practices with the Saints.

So I couldn’t get a reaction to Matt Leinart’s comment that didn’t name Wilson but basically called the safety’s hit on Larry Fitzgerald in the preseason Texans at Cardinals game dirty.

It’s crazy to call the hit anything but a good play, I think. You throw over the middle, you risk the receiver getting buried in such a fashion. Good for Wilson that he was able to dish one out. Good for the Texans that it's on film and could factor in to what a quarterback or receiver are thinking about in similar situations in the future.

Wilson's been on the other side of this sort of conversation.

Last year, many made light of Brett Favre’s crack-back block on Wilson while split wide in a preseason game. It earned Favre a $10,000 fine and cost Wilson the opener against the Jets with a knee injury. That one was dirty, for sure.

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