HOUSTON -- For a long time, the Texans were a popular pick to break through.
Coming off the season in which they finally did, they now rank as a favorite to repeat as AFC South champs.
But the tone in Houston hasn’t changed a bit.
Steady coach Gary Kubiak’s talked about starting from zero again, and though salary cap issues and free agency dented them a bit, this confident team knows it will need to show some grit to build off of last year’s experience.
“The window is open,” said quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed the team’s final six games and the playoffs after suffering a serious foot injury. “We have the talent, we have the people, we’ve got to go out and do it. It’s the next link in the chain…
“We’ve got the right mindset to keep everyone focused. If we see someone not focusing on the next job, we make sure he gets it right.”
There’s been some Super Bowl-or-bust talk, and this season will present the Texans with a chance to measure themselves against the teams they could see in the AFC playoff bracket: New England, Baltimore and Denver.
If the right side of the offensive line was not being replaced and if Schaub was a little bit more of a sure thing, they’d be a popular pick to represent the AFC in New Orleans.
Even with those issues, it doesn’t take much imagination to see them there.
THREE HOT ISSUES
The offensive line: The franchise’s zone-blocking scheme is really what the whole franchise is built on, and last year’s offensive line was among the league’s very best, producing the NFL’s No. 2 rush offense.
Right tackle Eric Winston was let go to save some serious salary cap money and right guard Mike Brisiel left for Oakland when the Raiders offered an above-market deal. The favorites to replace them, Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Butler, have significant time in the system, and everyone seems to think it can be a seamless transition.
Rookie Brandon Brooks, a third-round pick, brings uncommon size and could challenge Caldwell. Derek Newton, a seventh-rounder from a year ago, is on Butler’s heels. They won’t both win, but one could.
The Texans did allow 33 sacks, ranking 20th in sacks per pass play. There is room for improvement there no matter who's playing.
The receivers: Johnson dealt with separate injuries to each hamstring last season, then needed offseason knee surgery, then lost camp time to a groin strain. If he’s on the field, the team has enough at receiver to supplement him. If he’s not, then it’s a question.
Kevin Walter is a fine No. 2 if Johnson is on the other side of the field, which allows Walter to run precise, shorter routes and throw quality blocks. If Johnson’s out, Walter isn’t as dynamic, and the three youngsters vying for the third spot become more important. Keshawn Martin's had the best camp to this point, but DeVier Posey and Lestar Jean are also in the mix.
Johnson missed nine games in 2011. The Texans couldn’t really rely on Jacoby Jones week-to-week (and released him in the offseason). With tight end Owen Daniels and running back Arian Foster playing big pass-catching roles, they still did fine.
Coverage: Johnathan Joseph is an excellent corner who will be asked to track the top wideouts on the other teams. The list will likely include Demaryius Thomas, Kenny Britt, Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson, Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Reggie Wayne and Percy Harvin.
The combination of their quality pass rush, Joseph’s good work and some help may often get the job done.
But on the other side, Kareem Jackson has been more comfortable in zone coverage than man, and had a security blanket platoon system in place with Jason Allen. Allen’s now in Cincinnati, and early indications suggested the new veteran, Alan Ball, won’t be as much of a help.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
This team has firepower and star power, which make it tough for plan for, tough to stop and difficult to move against.
Johnson and Foster rank in the top three in the NFL at their positions and Daniels remains a very effective weapon. The defense is loaded with stars who’ve produced: Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, Joseph, Brooks Reed and Watt. The third outside linebacker, Whitney Mercilus, is a first-round pick.
There isn’t a bad egg or an out-of-control ego on the list.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
Outside of the division, the Texans road games are at Denver, at the Jets, at Chicago, at Detroit, at New England. I don’t think the Jets are going to rate as one of the league’s best teams, but those other four may well be in the top 10.
I don’t think expectations are going to be a problem. But a year ago they played 13 of 16 games at noon CT and just once outside of Sunday. This time they’ve got four night games and a Thanksgiving Day game, and four of those five are away from home.
That’s a different deal that could prove a test.
Joseph is far more outspoken on the field than he was last year. It’s a testament to his comfort level and confidence. That people on both sides of the ball listen shows how respected he is.
Defenses and nickelbacks won’t be able to come into a game against the Texans anticipating one particular receiver in the slot. Different plays, different motions and different matchups will mean Walter, Johnson and Martin all get looks there.
Something will really have to go wrong for Justin Forsett not to be the third running back behind Foster and Ben Tate. He’s really shifty and Forsett could easily be part of a committee elsewhere. In a red zone period I watched him catch a short pass in the flat, slam on the brakes and allow Reed to fly past, then accelerate to the end zone.
Brooks, the rookie guard, impressed me. He can really hold his ground, and while speed gave him problems a few times, he’s mature beyond his years. I think he’s got a real shot at nudging Caldwell out of the right guard spot.
I’d like to see the Texans throw to James Casey more. He’s not really a fullback, though he is capable of doing what they ask and need. He’s got great hands and can make more plays that he gets called for him.
It’s hard to envision Trindon Holliday holding up based on his history and size. If he can, and he can master ball security, he’ll be a nice weapon as a returner. If being able to contribute as a receiver in a pinch is a requirement of the job, I can’t see it. Defensive backs will relish a chance to muscle a 5-foot-5 player at the line, rendering his speed largely irrelevant on any route that involves timing -- and don’t they all?
Houston gets enough out of the Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell defensive tackle combination. But it still seems like one of maybe only two spots in the base defense where the Texans could actually benefit from an upgrade.
There are not a lot of depth questions on this roster, and it’s a team that saw the value of quality depth last season, over and over. Inside linebacker’s an issue with Darryl Sharpton (hip) out. Cushing is close to indispensible. Left tackle Duane Brown is a guy the team might struggle without. But the Texans have won minus Schaub and without Johnson, and can win without Foster. The defensive line wouldn’t be the same minus Watt (out for the preseason with an elbow injury) or Antonio Smith. That said, what would the reaction have been last year at this time if we hypothesized Mario Williams would miss all but five games?
Rookie kicker Randy Bullock has plenty of leg. Considering they picked him in the fifth round, he’d have to fall flat on his face the rest of the way for the team to choose Shayne Graham over him, right?