NFL Nation: Frank Bush

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams are long-time friends.

Or perhaps they were long-time friends.

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyGregg Williams, a new senior assistant/defense for the Titans, and Jeff Fisher have a distant friendship at this point in time.
The coach of the St. Louis Rams said at the combine that he has not spoken to Williams since the NFL reinstated the assistant. Williams recently completed a year-long suspension for what commissioner Roger Goodell judged to be his role in a pay-for-injury program in New Orleans.

Williams is now senior assistant/defense in Tennessee where he previously worked with Fisher.

Fisher fired Blake Williams, Gregg’s son, after the season in St. Louis and made it clear he had moved on from Gregg Williams, the man he brought to St. Louis in 2012 to be his defensive coordinator.

Friday, Fisher said that decision didn’t come after the season, but during it.

“I made that decision well-before the season ended, that we wanted to go a different direction,” Fisher said. “It probably wouldn’t have been as easy had we not had the assistants that we did on the staff. But when you’re talking about Dave McGinnis and Chuck Cecil, then coach (Mike) Waufle, you’ve got guys who have coordinated. I’m very fortunate to have gotten Frank Bush, who has also coordinated.

“We just felt like we wanted this to be the Ram defense so we’re moving a little different direction than from what Gregg’s philosophies are.”

That’s a tidy answer. But if all that defensive coordinator experience helped make Williams expendable, it seems a bit odd none of those coaches were named defensive coordinator. Instead Fisher recently hired Tim Walton as his new coordinator. Walton previously coached defensive backs for Detroit under another former Fisher assistant, Jim Schwartz.

Fisher expressed no ill will toward Williams. And I wouldn't expect him to publicly.

“I’m very happy that it worked out the way it did,” Fisher said. “I believe Gregg can help the Titans and help coach (Mike) Munchak and of course Jerry Gray. The other side of that is that they can help him, to reestablish himself back in the league.”

We have no idea how Williams feels about Fisher at this point, either.

But when the Titans introduced him, Williams trumpeted how important it was for him to work with people he knows, like Munchak and Gray.

Well, he knows Fisher, too.

NFC West a little wilder with Rob Ryan

January, 24, 2013
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Rob Ryan's expected hiring in St. Louis, reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, gives the team five current or former defensive coordinators on its staff.

It also has the potential to liven up NFC West rivalries given Ryan's propensity for speaking his mind freely.

Ryan will serve as the St. Louis Rams' coordinator after the team went through 2012 without one. Head coach Jeff Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, secondary coach Chuck Cecil and new linebackers coach Frank Bush were also defensive coordinators in the NFL previously.

The Dallas Cowboys fired Ryan as coordinator after last season in part because they hoped to generate more turnovers, according to coach Jason Garrett.

"It also didn't help Ryan that his flamboyant and boastful personality was never a good fit with the button-downed Garrett," Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote. "After making a few statements that turned into bulletin board material for opposing teams in 2011, Ryan was instructed by Garrett to tone it down before the 2012 season. He did his best [to] stay out of trouble with his mouth in 2012, but his penalty for going on the field to jaw with an opposing player in a game against Cincinnati didn't sit well with Garrett."

The Rams already played with attitude in 2012 while posting a 4-1-1 record in the division. With Ryan and a veteran defensive staff, one of the NFL's youngest teams won't be hurting for experience on the sideline and coaching booth.

Ryan served as defensive coordinator for Oakland, Cleveland and most recently Dallas before reaching an agreement with the Rams. He has favored a 3-4 defensive alignment in the past, but the Rams aren't looking for a new system. I anticipate Ryan adjusting to the defensive style Fisher favors.

Fisher played for and coached under Ryan's father, Buddy, years ago. Fisher and Rob Ryan have not worked together previously.
Since the Titans added seven players in the draft, I’ve said several times that I am a bit scared of their leanings toward potential over production, or the weight of athleticism in several of the selections.

But it’s important to note that of the seven players, that “complaint” centers on less than half the class.

Second round outside linebacker Zach Brown brings some questions about being more of an athlete than a football player. Fourth-round cornerback Coty Sensabaugh is an excellent athlete with great speed. Fifth-round tight end Taylor Thompson is a big-time athlete who didn’t play tight end in college.

(“You may say there are some more productive,” GM Ruston Webster said of Brown, “but few are more talented.”)

Perhaps those perceptions from draft analysts are off.

Perhaps three Titans assistants -- linebacker coach Frank Bush, secondary coach Brett Maxie and tight ends coach John Zernhelt -- will coach that trio up, and they will pan out in just the way the team imagines.

Perhaps we’ll rave about how their athleticism benefits the team.

It’s also worth noting that the rest of the class, led by receiver Kendall Wright, appears to be composed of guys who qualify, without question, as football players.
Colin McCarthy has proven to be a very good football player as a Titans’ rookie middle linebacker. So much so he might wind up a magician, too. He might make injured veteran Barrett Ruud disappear.

[+] EnlargeColin McCarthy
Fernando Medina/US PresswireTitans linebacker Colin McCarthy has made the most of his playing time this season.
McCarthy’s been the Titans' guy in the middle for the bulk of the past three games, and he’s been an upgrade over Ruud, who has missed time with a groin injury.

A fourth-round pick out of Miami, McCarthy’s an instinctive playmaker who is Tennessee's third rookie in the starting lineup on defense, joining defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers.

Wednesday, both defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and linebackers coach Frank Bush offered big praise of McCarthy, who’s been reporting to work as early as 5:30 a.m.

“I think if he had come from another university other than the University of Miami -- those guys work with a swagger, and I am serious,” Gray said. “He feels like he belongs there. He’s not afraid to get up in front of the huddle and tell those guys, 'Shut up, let’s go.' That’s what it takes out of a middle linebacker -- ‘Just because I am a rookie doesn’t mean I am going to be a shy guy.’”

Said Bush: “He’s done an excellent job coming in and really not being intimidated by the gravity of the whole situation. It’s a tough job to come into a veteran group and be a rookie leader, and he’s done a good job being himself. He’s got a little bit of swagger, a little bit of confidence and all the guys seem to be listening to him.”

McCarthy’s more of a force in the run defense, but he’s also on the field when the Titans go to two linebackers in nickel or just one in dime, so he’s able against the pass as well.

In the three games -- two starts and an early entry as Ruud’s replacement when he aggravated his injury -- McCarthy’s got 33 tackles, four for a loss and an interception.

So long as he's healthy, McCarthy should remain in the spot.

His production is earning him the ultimate, simple praise from teammates that means a lot at the start of a career.

“He’s a player,” safety Jordan Babineaux said.
Andre Johnson/Matt SchaubBob Levey/Icon SMIAndre Johnson and Matt Schaub help lead a Texans team that has a clear path to the division title.
It’s a bit easy to say the AFC South should belong to the Houston Texans this season.

But I’m joining the chorus and saying it anyway: If this team can’t win this division, it’ll be time for owner Bob McNair to crumple up the plan and aim it for the closest trash can.

The Texans have a championship-caliber quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back (maybe two or three of those) all working with a smart and skilled offensive line that understands how it needs to work.

Mindset is the only question mark on offense, starting with Matt Schaub’s ability to rise to big moments. Even if he’s only average in that category, with Peyton Manning out for at least the bulk of the season, Schaub is the best signal-caller in the division by a wide margin.

The Schaub-Andre Johnson-Arian Foster combination is among the league’s best. Who has a better trio?

Philadelphia perhaps, with Michael Vick-LeSean McCoy-DeSean Jackson. Maybe Matt Ryan-Roddy White-Michael Turner in Atlanta. If we sub tight ends for running backs, San Diego with Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson is in the conversation as is Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireThe Texans' defense had an outstanding performance in its first game under coordinator Wade Phillips.
The revamped Houston defense was outstanding in the opener. Sure, much of that had to do with the Colts' offense in its first game with Kerry Collins playing in place of Manning. But we saw all the elements of a defense that can win games -- stout run defense, consistent pressure on the quarterback, quality coverage, the ability to cope with sudden-change situations.

One can see swagger and confidence in the body language of guys thrilled to be working under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. I think he’s too low key, but it can clearly work for him as a coordinator. He has a way of keeping things simple and keeping the mood light, and players have bought in. I never sensed a similar feeling when Richard Smith or Frank Bush manned the post, though they obviously didn’t have the same quality of personnel Phillips will enjoy.

On special teams, Neil Rackers has a big leg that will make a lot of touchbacks and long field goals. Jacoby Jones and Danieal Manning can provide a jolt in the return game. Rookie punter Brett Hartmann isn’t proven yet but has a big leg.

The schedule is hardly a breeze, but look at the quarterbacks they could face: Collins twice, Chad Henne, Matt Hasselbeck twice (or maybe rookie Jake Locker), Luke McCown twice (or maybe rookie Blaine Gabbert), Colt McCoy, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton.

Houston’s been called a soft team, a finesse franchise. Not too many soft teams produce the NFL rushing champion the way this team produced Foster last season.

If the Texans' offensive blocking scheme amounts to a finesse one, so be it. The Colts have won the division eight times in nine seasons with a lot of finesse. They’re fine with you insulting them over it while admiring their success.

The Texans can show their toughness this season in how they stand up to Pittsburgh on Oct. 2 and at Baltimore on Oct. 16 and in how they fare in their games with the Jaguars.

The Colts' issues should be a huge assist for the Texans, as will the fact that the Titans and Jaguars are trying to stay afloat with temporary quarterbacks while developing top-10 draft picks in Locker and Gabbert. Although both teams may be ascending, their talent doesn’t match Houston’s.

If the Texans can make it through the first three-fourths of the season with a good record and in good health, they should be golden with a home stretch against Cincinnati (away), Carolina, Indianapolis (away) and Tennessee.

It sets up for success.

If this team folds under the expectations, if it cannot go get what’s so attainable, it’s going to have to be dismantled. It will require no more Mr. Nice Guy from McNair, who will have to part ways with a lot of nice guys he truly admires, starting with GM Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak. McNair will have no choice but to look for a different tone after a house cleaning.

I don’t think that’s how things will play out. I think Manning’s injury is a big break that opens the door, a door the Jaguars and Titans are not ready to approach. The Texans are more than talented enough to storm through it if they don’t complicate things. Run the ball. Work the play-action and bootleg game off of it. Rush the passer. Build from there as the season goes on and finish strong.

Watch pundits pick you to be a team that can do damage in the playoffs, and respond to it.

It sounds simple.

It just might be.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some quick thoughts on Tennessee's opening practice of training camp, before a run to the airport.
  • With Matt Hasselbeck looking on, unable to practice until Thursday, Jake Locker worked as the starting quarterback. He had a several very shaky throws before the defense was even part of things -- a short ball to the left that sailed well over Lavelle Hawkins, a short pass wobbled over the middle that may have slipped out of his hand, a high deep ball that amounted to a punt Jared Cook had to wait on. But he settled down as the practice went on and didn’t look out of place.
  • Kenny Britt didn’t practice. He ran in the morning and the team is being careful early with a guy who had a hamstring issue last season. He looks to be fit, thin even.
  • Without Britt, Nate Washington and Justin Gage worked as the starting receivers with things rotating quickly. Joe Tronzo was the fullback leading Javon Ringer. Fernando Velasco plugged into Leroy Harris’ left guard slot. (Jim Wyatt broke the news during practice that Harris agreed to return with a two-year deal.)
  • The starting defensive line, left to right, was William Hayes, Jovan Haye, Jurrell Casey and Jason Jones. Will Witherspoon was a middle linebacker between Akeem Ayers and Gerald McRath. Alterraun Verner was at corner opposite Cortland Finnegan.
  • While Ayers is bigger than any Titans linebacker in memory, the most impressive size was in free agent defensive tackle Shaun Smith (325), who can't yet practice, and Haye. Haye played last year at 275 and told me he’s now 312, heaviest in his life. He feels way more powerful. Protein shakes, his wife’s cooking and heavy weights helped him bulk up to line up with the new staff’s emphasis on size. He’s benched 405 when he never topped 315 before.
  • Chris Hope was here and at strong safety. He was due a $500,000 roster bonus Friday and there has been no news of a restructured deal. That means he got it and isn’t going anywhere unless something big changes between now and opening day.
  • The coaches are a vocal bunch. Two of note I didn’t hear were offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews. No surprise there. McRath dropped a tipped ball for a pick and linebackers coach Frank Bush told him: “Don’t be afraid to be a hero. All they’re going to do is put your name in the paper.”
  • Receiver coach Dave Ragone drilled the first pass of one positional drill into the facemask shield of Nate Washington. He warned that balls would be on guys fast out of their breaks, but this bullet may have been too fast and too early for Jerry Rice. Washington had to wipe down the shield before getting into back into line.
  • The Titans voted to reconstitute the NFLPA.
Jerry Gray is a far different guy and different coach as he comes to Nashville to be Mike Munchak’s defensive coordinator than he was when he left the franchise in 2000 after four years coaching as an assistant.

To what degree that’s a good thing is something we’ll find out in time.

He had a talented group in his two years as a position coach with the Titans. The franchise played strong safety Blaine Bishop as a hybrid corner/linebacker while asking its corners, keyed by Samari Rolle, to survive on an island in a high pressure 46.

Even if Munchak is looking for a defense to return to those roots, it’ll take time to find that sort of talent, something not easily done these days. Tennessee has evolved into much more of a cover-2 team since Williams and Gray left and Bishop’s time with the team ended.

In the team’s announcement of the hire, Gray said his scheme will fit his talent.

“I am looking forward to really getting to know our personnel on defense and creating a defense that takes advantage of our strengths,” he said. “I am an old school guy that likes to get after the opponent, but you also have to have the players to that -- you can’t force those things. Our defense will fit what we can do well. I also want to thank Coach Brown and University of Texas. I know the timing of this isn’t ideal, but this was something that I couldn’t turn down.”

Gray went with Gregg Williams to Buffalo in 2000, when the Titans’ coordinator got the head coaching gig and Gray became his defensive coordinator.

He outlasted Williams in Buffalo, serving as coordinator through 2005 and then reuniting with Williams, who was coordinating in Washington and coaching the Redskins secondary through 2009.

Last year he oversaw the secondary in Seattle but he had moved on to work for Mack Brown at his alma mater as the head of the University of Texas’ defense.

He was a four-time Pro Bowler as a player, including in his one season with the Houston Oilers in 1992.

“Jerry has a number of qualities that I think are assets for this role: he played the game, he coached a position group and he has coordinating experience,” said Titans head coach Mike Munchak. “I respected him as a player and coach and he was someone that I knew right away that I wanted to talk to about the position. It was evident to me during interview process that he will fit well with us – he is familiar with our system and the type of players that we have on the roster. He is a great teacher and a great person, and I think the players will respond well to his style.”

One side effect I anticipate is that Marcus Robertson, the current secondary coach who was Gray’s free safety in 1999 and 2000, is more likely to remain on the staff.

Gray will have a strong voice in choosing a replacement for defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who left to take the same job with the Eagles, and decided if linebackers coach Dave McGinnis will remain. Munchak has interviewed former Houston defensive coordinator Frank Bush, who could take over linebackers.
The Tennessee Titans staff might have included three coaches with offensive-line backgrounds. But John Clayton reports the Jets declined Tennessee’s request to talk to Bill Callahan about its open offensive coordinator post.

New coach Mike Munchak is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who coached the position before being promoted, and he’s already hired another Hall of Fame lineman, Bruce Matthews, to coach the Titans’ line.

Callahan is assistant head coach offense for Rex Ryan, but Brian Schottenheimer is the coordinator and play-caller.

Other names floating around as offensive coordinator candidates remain unconfirmed.

Green Bay Packers quarterback coach Tom Clements' name surfaced Thursday in write-ups citing Nashville's ABC affiliate as the initial source. But an official there said the station did not report that Clements is a Munchak target. And the Packers said they do not confirm or deny information about requests for permission to interview their assistants.

Meanwhile, John Glennon spoke with Frank Bush, the former Houston Texans defensive coordinator, who confirmed he’s talked with Munchak about a position on the defensive staff.

And it appears Jerry Gray isn’t yet sure if he will be Munchak’s defensive coordinator.

Gary Kubiak to return for sixth season

January, 3, 2011
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Texans coach Gary Kubiak will return next season, but defensive coordinator Frank Bush has been fired, the Associated Press reports.

On Monday, Houston also fired secondary coach David Gibbs, linebackers coach Johnny Holland and assistant linebackers coach Robert Saleh.

AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky is traveling and will have more on the situation later.
The Chronicle's John McClain reports that indications out of Houston are that head coach Gary Kubiak will be retained and Wade Phillips will be hired to revamp the defense, replacing Frank Bush. Defensive backs coach David Gibbs will also reportedly be gone.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Patrick Green/Icon SMIFormer Cowboys coach Wade Phillips might resurface in Houston as an assitant.
It’s an understandable strategy though it’s not going to placate the majority of Texans fans.

Phillips can be a high-quality defensive coordinator.

The biggest issue I see is one that was pointed out to me by a reader (sorry, I can’t find our exchange to give you proper credit): It will leave the team headed by two guys with “Aw, shucks” personalities.

That trait -- which would be shared by Kubiak and a new, powerful defensive coordinator -- wouldn't solve one of the team’s primary issues: its lack of a strong identity and anything resembling a killer instinct.

Those are traits that can trickle down from the top men when a team takes on the personality of a strong, forceful head coach.

It’s not how it will work in this setup.

So if this is how things play out in Houston, I think Kubiak and Phillips will need to work hard to find ways to strengthen the team’s backbone. They shouldn’t pretend to be people they aren’t, but they can change to a degree -- and will need to.

Spotlight finds underachieving Texans

December, 11, 2010
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Gary KubiakAP Photo/David J. PhillipGary Kubiak's Texans have struggled to play well for four quarters in games this season.
They are barely alive in the playoff picture, and in a season where many expected them to take a big step, it’ll take a four-game winning streak just to match last season’s 9-7 record.

The Houston Texans will have a full stadium decked out in red Monday night, but will they show America anything different?

They are a team stuck in neutral, unable to move forward. Gary Kubiak is under fire, and it’s nothing compared to what his defensive coordinator, Frank Bush, is facing. But they only have so much to work with on an architecturally flawed defensive roster, and the offense is hardly without issues.

The Texans are well-rested, coming off a Thursday night game. With the national spotlight shining, any team is eager to improve perception.

“I know when you win in the limelight in this league, you get the national scene talking about you and that gives the city momentum,” said Arian Foster, the league’s leading running back. “It gives your team momentum and it kind of just gets the ball rolling for you. We need a win regardless of what day we’re playing on. But since it’s a national spotlight, it would be great for us to start a winning streak on Monday.”

As we await kickoff of Ravens-Texans, let’s look at a few key issues from a Houston perspective.

Sixty minutes

Playing a full game is a big issue for the Texans, who are way too streaky. In their seven losses, the Texans have been outscored 115-49 in the first half.

Some wins have featured impressive rallies, but playing from behind on a regular basis is no way to live in the NFL.

The Texans rank seventh in the NFL in total offense, averaging 373 net yards of offense per game.

But they rank 27th in the NFL in first-half offensive production, averaging only 145.3 yards. Houston ranks first in second-half offensive production, averaging 227.8 yards. The 82.5-yard improvement after halftime is the league’s biggest.

Foster has 16 touchdowns in 18 career games. A dozen of those touchdowns have come after intermission.

Are the Texans’ plans good enough at the start of games? It doesn’t seem like it.

“[The Ravens] are coming to impose their will on you,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “They are a confident bunch. They have swag. They have everything that you’ll ask in a team. I think they know and understand that wherever they go, they are going to punch first and they are going to try to finish that fight.

“That’s where we want to be. That’s where we need to be. We have the talent. We have the players to go out here and play. The big thing with us is that we have to play for 60 minutes and we have to punch somebody in the mouth and keep punching them.”

Leadership

[+] EnlargeDeMeco Ryans
AP Photo/Bill BaptistThe Texans have missed the leadership of DeMeco Ryans (59), who is out for the season.
DeMeco Ryans is a top middle linebacker who’s been missed between the lines and beyond. The team has struggled to fill in for one of its top players, who tore his left Achilles tendon in late October.

The best player on defense, Mario Williams, is playing hurt again with a groin issue and doesn’t have the personality to lead. Tight end Owen Daniels has been in and out of the lineup with hamstring issues a year removed from a major knee injury. Linebacker Brian Cushing hasn't been the same as he was during his defensive-rookie-of-the-year season. Pollard is a great talker whose play doesn’t always match his chatter.

Kubiak talked about missing Ryans and Daniels recently.

“Those guys are leaders,” he said. “You’re talking about two Pro Bowl players. That tells you what they stand for and they’re guys that everybody goes to. When you’re struggling, those are the guys you go lean on. Growing up and knowing they are not there and somebody else finding a way to do it, that’s part of being a team too.”

It’s a department in which the Texans need more.

Blown chance

The Texans had other things fall into place to make a run at the division but have failed to hold up their end. They finally have a year in which they don’t have to post a spectacular record to contend with the Colts, and they’ve struggled. Jacksonville leads the division and plays a giant game in Indianapolis next week.

Houston split the season series with Indy, the team they’ve been trying to catch, but the Texans has missed out on a big chance.

“There’s been an opportunity all year,” Kubiak said. “We get off to a good start as a football team. After six weeks, I think we were 4-2. We’ve lost some really tough games, late in games, here over the course of the last four or five weeks. That’s part of this league. You find a way to win those games, and you seize opportunities. You find a way not to win them, then you’re in a tough, tough position, which we’re in right now.

“The task gets even tougher with [Baltimore] coming in -- a great football team. We’re going to have to find a way to play our football for four quarters, and not two, not three, but we’ve got to find a way to do it for four quarters. That’s our challenge right now. That’s what we need to be concerned with.”

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Does the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan mean the Texans' offense will struggle through an adjustment period?

[+] EnlargeRick Dennison
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireRick Dennison takes over the Texans' offense from Kyle Shanahan, who joined his father's staff in Washington.
Shanahan went to Washington to join his dad’s new staff with the Redskins. The Texans’ offensive system isn’t going to change a lot as Rick Dennison takes over the post. Like Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan, Dennison comes from Denver roots with Mike Shanahan.

The Texans will do everything possible to make for a smooth transition. Still, even with a top-flight quarterback (Matt Schaub) and one of the game’s best receivers (Andre Johnson), Dennison is a different guy and his own man and there is likely to be an adjustment period.

Change at coordinator can often be underrated with regard to that settling-in time. Look no further than Houston’s change -- by choice, not necessity -- last season when Frank Bush was elevated to defensive coordinator. The defense was shaky early and it dented their season. The Texans recovered and played much better later, but their 9-7 record left them just short of the playoffs. (Yes, Bush took over a unit that needed big changes, and Dennison has a group that has proved productive.)

Houston is looking to revamp its interior offensive line and will add a running back it hopes can work in tandem with Steve Slaton. Dennison will be charged with helping weave a more effective running game into an already-explosive passing offense.

There is a lot of reason for optimism there. But how the change affects relationships, tempo, play-calling and more is something we must monitor early on in Dennison’s term.

Can Houston's improved run D slow CJ?

November, 21, 2009
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Chris JohnsonAP Photo/Wade PayneThe last time the Titans faced the Texans, Chris Johnson had a huge day, with 284 total yards and three touchdowns.
Chris Johnson's ridiculous season kicked into high gear on Sept. 20. The Titans couldn't beat the Texans that day, but he embarrassed Houston, running for 197 yards and setting concerns about the Texans' run defense at DEFCON 1.

In the nine weeks since, Houston has transformed into a much more effective defense, and Johnson's moved past 1,000 yards.

So while Vince Young's return to his hometown as the starting quarterback of the much-improved Titans is a big story, the key to the "Monday Night Football" rematch at Reliant Stadium is Johnson. If he can come close to his Week 2 performance, Tennessee is now equipped to ride it to victory. If the Texans can better control him, their chances of improving to 6-4 in front of a raucous crowd will jump significantly.

The Texans' defense in general, and run defense in particular, has improved for several reasons.

The team's done better with the message of first-year coordinator Frank Bush and is more fundamentally sound. Bernard Pollard was signed and took over as the starting strong safety. His reliable positioning and sure tackling have helped raise the standard in both departments.

And the rushing offenses of the Texans' last six opponents now average 22nd in the NFL while the first three opponents -- the Jets, Titans and Jaguars -- are first, second and sixth, respectively.

They gave up an average of 205 rushing yards in the first three and have cut the number to 60.5 since.

“Stopping the run has really been the big thing,” rookie linebacker Brian Cushing said. “Guys really started coming together. I know my game, mentally, has stepped up and a couple other guys have really stepped up too. This defense is just really jelling and we enjoy playing with each other.”

“Hell guys, it had to get better,” Gary Kubiak said of the run defense. “It was as bad as it could possibly be after three weeks this year. It had no way to go but up.”

Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said watching film of the Texans to prepare for the game showed a different team.

“They're playing with much more confidence,” he said. “The first time we played them, there were some breakdowns in assignments and gaps and now you don't see that any more. They're in the right gaps, they're flying to the ball. I don't think they'll play us the same way, and it's not so much the success we've had, I think it's more some of the breakdowns they had. You don't see confusion anymore.”

Johnson said he thinks he might see some five-man lines from the Texans and he doesn't expect to be able to slip outside as a receiver and be left uncovered as he was on a 69-yard catch and run for one of his three touchdowns in the first matchup.

And because he expects the Texans to adjust and be better coming out of their bye, he said the Titans need to adjust and be better.

“They have more time to prepare against me, some of the things you like to do, some of the plays you like to run,” he said. “So basically as an offense, we've got to go in there and mix it up and do some new things. Because they are going to expect us to do some of the same things since we had so much success.”

He was upset to come up three yards short of 200 rushing and said he hopes to get there this time.

“I think I'm unstoppable,” he said. “I've got great confidence. I expect to do well every time I am on the field.”

In three games since Young took over at quarterback, Johnson's rushed for 495 yards. A run threat at quarterback as compared to a pocket passer in Kerry Collins has opened up even more for Johnson.

They've even been running some option plays.

“With Vince doing some of the things we're doing now, they have to look out for him too,” fullback Ahmard Hall said. “It's not just about stopping CJ anymore.”

This is the Texans' one shot in prime time this year, and Cushing said they know much of their national reputation will be founded on how they perform. The Titans lost in overtime in Pittsburgh in the NFL's opening night game and were crushed 31-9 by Indianapolis in Sunday Night Football as part of their 0-6 start.

Creative on the field, Johnson hasn't had a chance to play a set of bongo drums in a touchdown celebration like he did in Kansas City last season. Maybe he's imagining Monday night will provide a chance to show off not just his speed, but his smile.

“This kid's amazing,” Kubiak said. “What type of year he's having and the pace he's on, you don't see that very often in this league. He's tremendous and it's, of course, the biggest challenge we've had all year long… He's a great player. In this league you play great people and understand that they're going to make plays. But hopefully you can find a way to contain them over a period of three and a half hours.”
 
 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.”
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky

Falling

1. Sleep for Titans’ coaches. Jeff Fisher sent his winless team away for its bye weekend and told players to clear their heads. But Monday, Fisher and a few of his assistants spotted at the team’s facility didn’t look like they had been able to get work off their minds.

Such is life while coaching an underachieving team that hasn’t found a way to win yet.

2. Frank Bush, Texans defensive coordinator. The Texans had a 21-0 lead at intermission. But facing reserve quarterback Alex Smith, the former No. 1 overall draft pick who came off the bench, Bush’s guys struggled to make adjustments and keep the lead safe.

Particularly troubling were the difficulties linebackers and safeties had in tracking 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who managed to find room three times for touchdown catches.

  Garcon
3. Pierre Garcon, Colts WR: It’s nitpicking to choose anyone in the Colts’ passing offense as falling. But Garcon has dropped off in his last couple of games.

Targeted 12 times by the NFL’s most precise and exacting quarterback, Peyton Manning, in victories over winless Tennessee and St. Louis, Garcon hass hauled in just four of the throws.

Rising

  Daniels
1. Owen Daniels, Texans TE. It’s back-to-back appearances here for Daniels, but how can he be left off? His 123-yards receiving (on seven catches) in the win over San Francisco were the second-most of his career.

And his touchdown catch was his fifth of the season, which matches his career best. Plenty of quarterbacks around the league are jealous of Matt Schaub, who’s got Andre Johnson and Daniels who rank first and tied for seventh, respectively, in AFC receiving yards.

  Lacey
2. Jacob Lacey, Colts CB. The undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma State continues to earn the confidence of the coaching staff with good work weeks and had another strong showing in the Colts win in St. Louis.

Playing as the third cornerback, he had a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown to go with three tackles and a special-teams tackle.

3. Kris Brown, Texans K. His 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter was his longest of the season and his 17th field goal of 50 or more yards in his career.
  Brown


Duane Brown’s unnecessary roughness penalty just before the kick pushed it from a 35-yard attempt to a 50-yarder but Kris got Duane off the hook.

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