NFL Nation: Rick Dennison

All signs point to the Baltimore Ravens naming Gary Kubiak their offensive coordinator as well as adding Kyle Shanahan and Rick Dennison to the staff. What does this all mean? Let's take a look.

When did Kubiak become a candidate?

Judging by how the search unfolded, it looks like Kubiak became a viable option late in the process. Coach John Harbaugh named four candidates last week to the team's official website, and Kubiak wasn't mentioned. The interest in Kubiak gives the impression that the Ravens had a change of plans after second interviews with Shanahan and Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson. Kubiak should've been near the top of the Ravens' list when the search began. But he's still getting paid by the Houston Texans and he reportedly turned down the Cleveland Browns when they looked at him as coordinator. So, the Ravens must have made it worth his while to peak his interest.

How will the offensive staff look?

It's all speculation at this point. The most logical move is Shanahan becoming the quarterbacks coach. He served in that role in Houston in 2007. What will be interesting is to see how Dennison fits. Before Dennison was the Texans' offensive coordinator for the past three years, his background was the offensive line. But Harbaugh has already named Juan Castillo as his offensive line coach. How Harbaugh defines Dennison's responsibilities will be more important than his title. The only other opening on the offensive staff right now is running backs coach, and I don't envision Harbaugh putting Dennison at this spot with no prior experience at this position. It's unknown whether there will be further shakeup. The other offensive coaches on staff -- wide receivers coach Jim Hostler, tight ends coach Wade Harman and former offensive line coach Andy Moeller -- have all been with Harbaugh since he came to Baltimore in 2008.

Are there too many "cooks in the kitchen?"

This was asked by Scott Graham, one of my Twitter followers. I can understand the question because you don't want too many voices in Joe Flacco's ear. This was a problem years ago when Brian Billick, Jim Fassel and Rick Neuheisel all had their own opinions on the direction of the offense. But Kubiak has a history with Dennison and Shanahan. Dennison has worked under Kubiak for 11 years, and Shanahan has been on his staff for four years. They know how to put a game plan together, and it showed in the results with the offenses in Denver and Houston. In the end, it's better to bring in three coaches with a proven track record than simply promote within just to keep cohesion.

The Baltimore Ravens were expected to name either former Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan or Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler as their offensive coordinator Monday. But the Ravens apparently have set their sights higher, and for good reason.

Gary Kubiak, the former head coach of the Houston Texans, has emerged as the Ravens' leading candidate, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. If the Ravens were looking to make a splash at offensive coordinator, this is the biggest one they could make right now for an offense that finished No. 29 in the NFL this past season.

Hiring Kubiak would be a bolder statement than Shanahan or Hostler because of his track record. In eight seasons with the Texans, the offense ranked in the top five three times and in the top half of the NFL seven times. Before that, in Kubiak's three seasons as the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator, his unit never finished below No. 7.

Kubiak was reportedly on the Cleveland Browns' radar for their offensive coordinator position, but the interest wasn't mutual. It looks like Kubiak has been eyeing the Ravens.

The question with Kubiak is health. He suffered a transient ischemic attack, or "mini-stroke," on Nov. 3 while walking off the field at halftime of a loss against Indianapolis.

According to Schefter, Kubiak is the only coach on the Ravens' wish list. The Ravens are attempting to add Shanahan and former Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison to the staff as well. This would add three experienced NFL playcallers to a staff that previously had only one.

This isn't the direction many thought the Ravens were heading for the past week. Head coach John Harbaugh obviously had much bigger plans under wraps, and it would be an impressive makeover of the offensive staff if he can pull it off.

Gary Kubiak might coach from press box

November, 15, 2013
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HOUSTON -- Texans coach Gary Kubiak opens each post-practice press conference by running through his injury report.

Today, he added himself.

Kubiak
Kubiak said he expects doctors to officially clear him later Friday, though he might have to coach from the press box -- the highest point in the stadium that includes people, and a place where you need binoculars to properly see the players.

"You don't hear everybody hollering at you, I guess, that's probably the advantage," Kubiak said for laughs. "I don't know. I did that for 20-some years before I became a head coach. Actually, I was on the field initially in my career. It's calm up there. It's quiet. Just a different way of looking at the football game."

Kubiak coached from the press box as a coordinator, just as offensive coordinator Rick Dennison does now. He'll leave defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who coaches from the sideline, in charge of the red challenge flag but provide guidance on when to use it.

"You don't feel emotion up there like you do when you're on the field," Kubiak said. "You've got to have guys help you with that, talk to you about stuff like that. But it's just something I've got to work through right now."

Kubiak's return will come two weeks after he suffered a transient ischemic attack, or "mini-stroke," at halftime of the Texans' game against the Indianapolis Colts. He did not travel with the Texans to Arizona last week. Phillips was the interim head coach in his absence.
Andre Johnson and Calais CampbellGetty ImagesAndre Johnson and the Texans visit Calais Campbell's Cardinals without head coach Gary Kubiak.



TEMPE, Ariz. -- Emotions will be at a peak for the Houston Texans when they make a midseason trip to the desert Sunday. They will be without head coach Gary Kubiak, who will be at home recovering from a mini-stroke, but Houston brings the league's top-ranked defense to Arizona in hopes of ending a six-game losing streak.

Awaiting the Texans will be a team with confidence. The Cardinals come off the bye week healthy and rested, having played only one game in 24 days when kickoff arrives. That'll either be a blessing or their demise, as the rust may have set in.

ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss Sunday's matchup.

Weinfuss: What kind of impact will Kubiak's health issue have on the Texans this week and on Sunday?

Ganguli: It was a chaotic, confusing and scary halftime for the Texans when Kubiak collapsed as he left the field Sunday. Kubiak is well liked by his coaches and players, so they'll miss him, but knowing he will make a full recovery will help the team emotionally. On the football side, the biggest change will be on offense. He's handing off offensive play-calling duties to coordinator Rick Dennison, who called the second half from the press box against the Colts. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips takes over as the overall decision-maker. They've tried to let their head coach rest, but they can't keep him from thinking about the team. He calls to check in a fair amount.

Can you give me one player who has been a pleasant surprise and another who has been an unpleasant one for the Cardinals this year?

Weinfuss: It might seem obvious but Tyrann Mathieu has been a pleasant surprise to a lot of people. He not only has earned playing time by making game-changing plays, but he recently has become a starter. I think the Cardinals expected Mathieu to be good eventually, but the fact that he has come on so quickly has been a pleasant surprise for everyone. As for the flip side, tight end Rob Housler has been an unpleasant surprise. After finishing strong last season, Housler's progress was hampered by a severely sprained ankle during training camp. It caused him to miss the first two weeks of the season and he hasn't returned to last season's form.

Does Case Keenum have what it takes to right the ship for the rest of the season?

Ganguli: Keenum is still learning a lot about being a quarterback. Phillips noted Wednesday that it's important for the team to not try to do too much with a young quarterback. He's learning how to read defenses and learning what chances to take and not take. I was always of the minority opinion that the quarterback situation was only part of the problem for the Texans rather than the whole problem. They're still having issues on special teams and defense that they had with Schaub.

It has been a frustrating season for Andre Johnson but he has been part of a lot of bad teams and doesn't complain. Larry Fitzgerald is another elite receiver who has seen some lean years, though he does have a Super Bowl berth while Johnson doesn't. Has Fitzgerald ever shown frustration with his team's situation, or is he also a guy who keeps that to himself?

Weinfuss: Larry Fitzgerald isn't the type of person to air his dirty laundry no matter how bad it gets, such as last season when he caught passes from four quarterbacks. There's no doubt he has been frustrated, especially during the past few seasons when his production has decreased. But Fitzgerald has kept his opinions to himself and I don't see him venting in the locker room. Fitzgerald has been the prototypical team player. He doesn't bash anyone and keeps talking about trying to improve and getting back to the playoffs, even making a run to the Super Bowl again.

Speaking of the playoffs, what do the Texans have to do during the final eight games to make a run to the postseason?

Ganguli: They have to be able to finish and put together a complete game. They've got to stop committing costly penalties. The most recent example was a hold on the return after the Colts' final punt lost them critical yards on a drive that ended with a failed 55-yard field-goal attempt. And speaking of that, kicker Randy Bullock has to improve. Being 2-6 means the margin for error is tiny. The Texans have shown the ability to dominate good teams in spurts (they had double-digit leads over the Seahawks and the Colts and played the 9-0 Chiefs close). But spurts won't get them there.

How do you explain the discrepancy between the Cardinals' road and home records?

Weinfuss: Like a lot of teams, the Cardinals are simply more comfortable at home. Their routines are set, they know what's coming, they know their surroundings. And University of Phoenix Stadium is also a tough place to play because of the noise levels, which the Cards have become accustomed to. Some might scoff at the notion of a true home-field advantage, but the Cardinals have one. As for why they can't win on the road, if I had that answer, I'd be making a lot more money.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's not just the Houston Texans who'll have to adjust to a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator on Sunday when they play the Arizona Cardinals.

Without head coach Gary Kubiak, who suffered a mini-stroke at halftime of Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Texans aren't the same team. Interim coach Wade Phillips will continue to run the defense from the sideline but now offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will take over the play-calling duties. But it goes beyond the coaching personnel.

"Once you have a different playcaller, that's a change," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "There are no tendencies. You have to throw all of that out the window and just play the offense the way it's designed to be played. Defensively, you play your defense.

"There's nothing that we have on Rick Dennison other than a half of football."

While the Cardinals scrambled to adjust their game plan and watch their game film, the Texans are trying to focus on Sunday. Fortunately for them, Kubiak left the hospital Tuesday morning and returned home, putting their minds at ease for the time being.

But halftime Sunday was nothing short of chaotic.

Phillips, whose coaching resume now includes three stints as an interim coach to complement his three head coaching jobs, said immediately after the Texans' loss that he didn't think halftime had an impact on Houston's second half. But as he spent more time thinking about it, Phillips now believes it did.

"Even I, along with everybody else, was kind of at halftime [wondering] ‘What's going on? What happened? Where is he? Is he OK?'" Phillips said. "We didn't even know those things during the ball game in the second half. You always certainly have concerns for people that you care about and that's one that everybody cares about with our football team, our head coach.

"There were a lot of unknowns. You still have to play football and you have to do what you have to do, but there was certainly kind of a haze there as far as what was going on."

Phillips listed the types of decisions a head coach has to make compared to a coordinator, and it could be overwhelming to someone who hasn't been in that position before. A lot of the decisions made by a head coach are based on situations, Phillips said, and most of those are based on offensive strategy. There's deciding whether to go for it or kick a field goal or punt, when to use time outs, or when to slow down or speed up.

But if there's one person to assume those responsibilities, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt feels comfortable with it being Phillips.

"You never want to be in a situation like this but when you are put in a situation like this, it's good to have a guy who has head coaching experience and a guy like Coach Phillips, who has been around the game for a long time and is knowledgeable and knows how to handle the situation," Watt said.

Watt has texted with Kubiak, who's stayed in touch with Phillips and Dennison.

Even without Kubiak, it's business as usual in Houston. The Texans are trying to snap a six-game losing streak, which means more practice, more film study, trying to find a way to "get the ball rolling," Watt said.

And while the Cardinals are spending their time figuring out a way to defend a Dennison-coached offense, the Texans are just as focused.

"Obviously, you think about your coach and it will always be on your mind but we're professionals," Watt said. "We come in here and we know we have a job to do."

Texans say Hopkins wears DBs out

April, 26, 2013
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The spot opposite Andre Johnson on the Houston Texans' depth chart is DeAndre Hopkins' for the taking.

The Clemson wide receiver was the 27th pick in the draft and the Texans’ first rounder.

Receiver was their biggest need. He’s the first first-round pick used on offense since left tackle Duane Brown was drafted in 2008 and just the second since Johnson was taken in 2003.

Kevin Walter was cut for a combination of salary cap savings and lack of explosion and DeVier Posey, who was emerging at the end of last year, tore an Achilles tendon in the playoff loss at New England.

In search of an additional dynamic threat that would make them rely less on Johnson, the Texans needed a player with enough experience to be able to contribute right away.

Hopkins started for three years at Clemson. While he’s not a blazer, with 4.51 speed, he is regarded as a fine route-runner with good size (6-foot-1, 214 pounds) and body control.

"He’s going to catch the ball when it’s in his zip code,” Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said in Houston. “That’s the thing I like about him."

Dennison also said Hopkins is fast enough to beat defensive backs and wears them out.

That sounds like the right formula for the Texans, who still need linebacker help and could also look at a nose tackle, a safety and an offensive tackle Friday night.
The way the Houston Texans used -- and didn’t use -- James Casey was an issue I struggled with in 2012. Gary Kubiak increasingly forced a round peg (a quality pass-catcher with great hands capable of being a matchup problem) into a square hole (a fullback who worked as a lead blocker far more than a pass target).

It’s one of the objections to the Texans offense for Robert Mays of Grantland, too.
"As teams find new ways to use players who don’t fit certain boxes, the Texans are trying to shove their players into them," Mays writes in a piece about the shortcomings of the Houston offense.

“... Offensively, the Texans have a specific plan, and against most teams they execute that plan well. The run game wasn’t nearly as effective last year as it had been in years past (mostly due to a lack of consistency and the resulting shuffling on the right side), but the run-first, play-action-later Houston offense still had plenty of moments. It’s when the running isn’t an option -- either because of ineffectiveness or a big deficit -- that the plan falters. Former Texans lineman Ephraim Salaam refers to it as 'staying on schedule,' but with offenses like the ones in New England, New Orleans, and Green Bay, relying on point production that can so easily come off the rails just doesn’t feel like an option anymore.”

It doesn’t feel like an option when the Patriots, Saints or Packers are blowing a game open early. And to succeed in the playoffs in the next few years, the Texans are almost invariably going to have to get past Peyton Manning’s Broncos or Tom Brady’s Patriots, if not both. (Manning was still finding his footing in Denver when the Texans won there last season.)

It’s a very well done and well-argued article.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsUsing a run-first offensive philosophy, Houston is tied for the NFL's fifth-best record during the past two regular seasons.
The one element of it I consider debatable is the idea that a zone running game can’t be bread and butter for a team in today’s NFL.

"These days, very few teams lean on the straightforward zone running game for the majority of their offense," Mays writes. "[Mike] Shanahan’s new team did plenty of zone blocking this year, but it was combined with read-option looks and the constant running threat of Robert Griffin III. No offense to Matt Schaub, but I’m not sure teams are too worried about his feet.”

But what’s it matter how many or how few teams lean on a zone running game for the majority of their offense? With such a philosophy the Texans are 22-10 over the past two regular seasons.

Yes, games against some good teams with high-powered offenses came apart and couldn’t be salvaged.

That’s a problem heading forward. I’m not sure, however, that the way to fix it is to decide that a primary tenet of your organization has to be scrapped.

They've got a lot invested in this system and only four teams have a better two-year record -- Green Bay, New England, San Francisco and Atlanta. (Baltimore has fared the same in the two-season sample.)

Say you have the sixth-best team in the league, but not one of its preeminent quarterbacks.

How do you improve enough that you can get past the teams that do?

Well, Schaub needs to play better in games against those high-caliber opponents, and he needs more help to do so. Part of that help might come from enhanced schooling that gets him ready for, and gives him freedom to make, adjustments to what a defense is doing on a given play. Houston’s defense, meanwhile, needs to get a better handle on the league’s top quarterbacks, right from the start of games against them.

Yes, the Texans offense needs to evolve. Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison need to develop the new talent that is drafted, but they also need to tinker with their system, and the needed tinkering goes beyond strengthening the existing scheme or getting better at it.

What changes can they make to the scheme to ensure that it’s not over-reliant on being run-first and play-action second? How can their offense, lacking a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at the helm, still stand toe-to-toe and be in games against those talents at the end?

I’m better at asking the questions than answering them, but I don’t doubt football minds far better than mine can solve the puzzle and increase Houston’s chances.

Is the only way to beat a high-powered team these days to become a high-powered team? If so, then no, the Texans aren’t going to find themselves getting past the second round of the playoffs, where they’ve stalled the past two years.

It’s a quarterback league, but not everybody gets to have a complete stud. The Texans aren’t going to magically land a Colin Kaepernick, particularly as they pledge their fidelity to Schaub and just gave him a giant deal a year ago.

I still believe a unique team centered around a strong running game and a strong defense can make a run with a quarterback like him, provided he doesn’t wither at key moments.

Schaub isn’t going to get more dynamic. They can get him more dynamic weapons, field a more forceful defense, peak at the end of the season instead of at the start and have a chance.

It seems better to me than suggesting they completely revamp the offense when such a revamp would require a different kind of quarterback who’s not readily available and who a lot of other teams are looking for, too.

Look back: Assistants to watch

February, 12, 2013
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Continuing a periodic look back at stuff we wrote before the 2012 season to see how on target we were and how things panned out.

In July, we looked at an assistant to watch on each of our four teams.

Here’s what we said then and what we think now.

Houston Texans

Then: “While [Gary] Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will be heavily involved in the offense, a new [quarterback] coach [Karl Dorrell] is certain to have a bearing on [Matt] Schaub’s performance. And Schaub’s performance may be as important of a story as there is in the AFC South this season.”

Now: I don’t think Dorrell did a bad job, but he certainly didn’t help stop a late-season slide for Schaub, who finally got into some big games and didn’t perform particularly well in them. All three coaches didn’t do well enough to get Schaub to play up to the moment.

Indianapolis Colts

Then: “Can [offensive line coach Harold] Goodwin help the new group jell and have it provide quality protection for Andrew Luck and some push for a group of unproven running backs?”

Now: The line was not good, but Goodwin did not have a lot to work with. Given the patchwork nature of the group and some injuries that forced lineup shifts, I’d say Goodwin did good work. Bruce Arians certainly thought so, as he took him to Arizona to be his offensive coordinator. Goodwin’s been replaced by Joe Gilbert, who served as Goodwin’s assistant last year.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Then: “[Receivers coach Jerry] Sullivan and those receivers are all reliant on improvement from quarterback Blaine Gabbert. But they are all reasons the team expects that improvement, too.”

Now: Laurent Robinson did little before he was sidetracked by concussions and Justin Blackmon took a long time to get going. But ultimately Sullivan, a good get by Mike Mularkey as he put together his staff, did good work with Blackmon and Cecil Shorts and he was held over by new coach Gus Bradley.

Tennessee Titans

Then: “An improved pass rush is a must if the Titans' defense is going to improve. [Pass rush coach Keith] Millard will be right in the middle of what happens, or what doesn’t, in that department.”

Now: The Titans jumped from 28 sacks in 2011 to 39 in 2012 with non-defensive linemen contributing 13.5. Young linebackers Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown certainly got better as rushers later in the year, a good sign regarding Millard’s influence.
By the end of Sunday, it's possible the Chicago Bears will have concluded their first round of interviews in what has already been an epic coaching search. Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was scheduled to be the 13th known candidate to speak with general manager Phil Emery. If there are more first-round interviews scheduled, they haven't been reported.

My educated guess is that some interviews have been completed in secrecy, so I wouldn't be surprised if Emery has spoken with 15 or more candidates. We've discussed the possibility that Emery is using this opportunity to pick the brains of as many smart assistant coaches as he can, but I think we have also seen an undeniable quality emerge as well.

Here's how Tennessee Titans general manger Ruston Webster put it last week during an interview with my AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky on 104.5-FM in Nashville: "I know Phil Emery, and Phil Emery is about as thorough of a human being as I've ever known."

Meanwhile, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, two of the coaches Emery has spoken with said "they never have interviewed with anyone as prepared and detailed" as him.

So before we try to ascribe some kind of ulterior motive to Emery's approach, and rather than conclude he is flailing blindly in the night, perhaps this search is best viewed as a physical extension of Emery's meticulous personality. Where and when it ends remains anyone's guess. Former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson tweeted that Emery favored his former assistant, current Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman, but nothing more has come of what appears to be Johnson's personal view.

For the record, here are the Bears' Lucky 13 to this point:
  1. Arians
  2. Atlanta Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong
  3. Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell
  4. New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr.
  5. Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements
  6. Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis
  7. Houston Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison
  8. Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy
  9. Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer
  10. Vikings special assistant to the head coach Mike Singletary.
  11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan
  12. Trestman
  13. Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub
I can tell that a few of you are starting to get antsy about the Chicago Bears' coaching search, which is now well into its second week. All I can tell you at this point is that it appears the first round of interviews will continue at least through Sunday.

According to this timeline from Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com, the Bears were scheduled to interview Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements on Thursday. Houston Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will interview Friday, Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on Saturday, and Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will meet with them Sunday.

All told, the Bears have sought out first-round interviews with at least 13 candidates, including their special teams coordinator, Dave Toub. According to the Chicago Tribune, however, Toub interviewed recently for a job as an assistant with the Carolina Panthers, and also has a meeting scheduled with the Kansas City Chiefs.

At some point, the Bears presumably will narrow down their field and bring finalists to Halas Hall for second interviews. But you're looking at next week at the earliest for that portion of the process, assuming the second round doesn't start until the first round ends. Stay tuned.

Thoughts on Houston's second day

April, 28, 2012
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Thoughts on the Houston Texans' second day...

DeVier Posey, the Ohio State receiver taken 68th in the third round, is a value at that spot, the team believes. He was part of the Buckeyes crew suspended for selling memorabilia and receiving improper benefits, and the missed time as a senior lessened his profile and value on draft boards.

[+] EnlargeDeVier Posey
Phil Sears/US PresswireDeVier Posey played in just three games for Ohio State last season due to a suspension.
“We thought we had a talent that was comparable to some of the guys that were taken a lot earlier,” offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. “At that point, we thought it was a good choice for us.”

“… He runs great routes and has good ball skills. He’s very precise in everything and works hard. He works in the run game. He’s a good-sized guy. He fits with the rest of our guys. We’re trying to supplement our wide receiver group and we think he does a good job with that.”

The Texans traded out of the second round (58th overall). The Giants drafted LSU receiver Rueben Randle 63rd between where the Texans would have picked and did pick.

Offensive lineman Brandon Brooks was the pick at No. 76, the selection the Texans got from Philadelphia in the DeMeco Ryans deal.

At nearly 6-foot-5 and 353 pounds, he’s big for Houston.

“I’ve never coached a guy at that size, but we feel that he can do what we do,” Dennison said. “He moves around well. The East-West Shrine Game is where I first noticed him and he functioned and did very good for a guy that size. If you look at him, he doesn’t look like he weighs that much. Most of his weight is in his lower body. He can still run under a five-flat 40, which is what we ask our guys to do. We really don’t have, at least to my knowledge, we don’t tell everyone you have to be under 300.

Dennison said Brooks would work as a guard to start off.

Indications are he is strong, versatile -- he’s been projected as best in a man-blocking scheme, but has experience in the sort of zone system the Texans employ -- and football smart.

“I had three different offensive coordinators, so you name it, I ran it,” Brooks said. “I ran zone, inside, outside; I ran power, isos, draws, everything.”

With first-round outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, Posey and Brooks, the Texans have addressed their three biggest needs.

AFC South Stock Watch

December, 6, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. The Jaguars’ ability to score points: OK, it’s not fair to say it's falling. It’s been poor all season and showed no sign of improving. The Jaguars came back from a 10-0 deficit against San Diego on Monday night to take a 14-10 lead. But once San Diego got more than 20 points, the game was over –- the Jaguars haven’t scored 21 points all season. And the Chargers were over 30 before the fourth quarter started on their way to a 38-14 victory. With Blaine Gabbert quarterbacking and Maurice Jones-Drew as the offensive centerpiece, this isn’t a team that can make much of a charge from behind.

Maurice Jones-Drew
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThough Maurice Jones-Drew is solid, he doesn't much add to Jacksonville's quick-strike options.
2. The luck of Andre Johnson, Houston Texans receiver: For the second time this season, Johnson went down while running without taking any contact, victim of a hamstring injury. Last time cost him six games. This time it’s the other leg and doesn’t appear nearly as serious. Although the Texans are calling him day-to-day, they could again be without their top weapon in the passing game. Absent Johnson, teams can load up to stop Arian Foster and Ben Tate, taking their chances against rookie quarterback T.J. Yates as he looks to less-threatening downfield weapons.

3. Offensive line play in Indianapolis: The offensive line has actually played better much of this season than we could have reasonably expected, especially once the injuries started to pile up. Now it’s struggling with penalties and giving up sacks. In New England, the line accounted for four of the Colts’ five penalties with false starts and holding. With the minimal margin for error, they simply can’t afford that. A hold that might save a hit it one thing, but a false start is the sort of undisciplined stuff that gets bad teams killed.

RISING

1. Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans coach: He gave credit to offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp for a sleepless week working to get Yates ready and teach two new backups the system. But Kubiak calls the Texans' plays, and Yates made a solid showing in his first NFL start. Jim Harbaugh might run away with coach-of-the-year honors for his work turning San Francisco around, but that seems only slightly more improbable to me than what Houston’s doing considering its injuries. While defensive coordinator Wade Phillips gets a lot of credit for the transformation, here’s a small bid for giving Kubiak his fair share.

2. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans running back: He’s here a second week in a row after a second big game in a row, and this one came after he lost weight because he was so sick in the days leading up to the team’s trip to Buffalo. The Titans have waited and waited, and Johnson finally looks like he’s back to the form that earned him a giant contract after his holdout this summer. To make a push for a wild-card spot out of a division the Texans are very likely to win, the Titans will need more big contributions and explosive plays from Johnson. Everyone was getting blame when it was bad, as coach Mike Munchak pointed out, everyone should get some of the credit now.

3. Taylor Price, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver: A third-round choice by the Patriots in 2010 out of Ohio University, he didn’t make a mark with receiver-needy New England. But the Jaguars are even more receiver-needy. They got him Monday with a waiver claim, and even if Price does nothing in the remainder of the season, he’s a good piece to add to the mix for the upcoming offseason. The 90th overall pick by a team that drafts well is definitely worth a look, and even if the team really addresses the position in free agency and the draft, Price could have an opportunity to stick in Jacksonville.
T.J. YatesJerome Miron/US PresswireThird-string quarterback T.J. Yates will likely take the reins in Houston after an injury to Matt Leinart.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Texans third-string quarterback Sunday felt compelled to take some snaps from center Chris Myers during intermission.

Tight end Owen Daniels sure hoped he wasn’t needed, but with Matt Leinart out and rookie T.J. Yates the only other active quarterback dressed for the game, he knew he was one play away from potential action.

“I was just trying to stay focused on my job at the current time,” Daniels said after the Texans beat the Jaguars 20-13 at EverBank Stadium. “But if the worst-case scenario came along, our coaches make sure we know the game plan pretty well. I had confidence that I could go in there and hand the ball off or maybe make a simple throw.”

The Texans were conservative with Leinart in his first start in place of injured starter Matt Schaub. They were even more conservative when they had to turn to Yates, who was in uniform for his first NFL regular-season game.

The fifth-round draft pick out of North Carolina hit 8 of 15 passes for 70 yards and played well enough to help his team turn a 20-10 lead, built while Leinart was in the game, into the win.

Now they are prepared to go forward with Yates as their starter. Multiple reports quickly surfaced that Leinart was finished for the year with a left collarbone injury, one he suffered in 2007 with Arizona. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported "all indications are it's broken."

Gary Kubiak was unwilling to share details of Leinart's injury, suffered as he was hit by Jeremy Mincey. The coach said the X-rays from EverBank Stadium were unclear, which sounded a little like a dog-ate-my-homework deal once Leinart spoke.

“I think there is a pretty strong possibility that I won’t be coming back this season,” Leinart said. “But we’ll see what the doctor says.”

So the Texans will likely move on with their third starting quarterback in three games.

“It’s why we drafted him,” offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said of Yates. “He’s a calm guy, he’s a smart guy and he knows what we do. We’ll see how it goes the next couple days, the next week. If that’s what we have, that’s what we’ll get done.”

The Texans signed Kellen Clemens to be their third quarterback after Schaub went on IR last week. Now they will shop again, and a newcomer will have a chance to challenge Clemens to be Yates’ backup. (Clemens was inactive Sunday as the Houston suited up two quarterbacks, just as it has all year.)

Barring a clean X-ray from Houston that overrides what Leinart was feeling, it will be Yates who gets the call next week against Atlanta and beyond. The Texans prefer a quarterback who’s spent time studying their system and understanding its nuances. They believe such a guy can fit in well with a team that can win by featuring the run game and strong defense. They believe that’s better than a big-name quarterback outsider who is unfamiliar with what Kubiak, Dennison and quarterback coach Gregg Knapp do.

So don’t expect any trips to Mississippi by Texans officials to talk to Brett Favre or any phone calls to check on the health of David Garrard.

Instead, expect a more open game plan for Yates.

Right tackle Eric Winston said the Texans were wary of anything against the Jaguars that could get Yates hurt because they didn’t want to test Daniels’ quarterbacking skills. It’s a mistake, Winston emphasized, to put too much in to what the rookie did, or didn’t do.

“I think next week you’ll see a much different T.J. because he can make some huge throws,” Winston said. “He’s much more athletic than Schaub or Leinart. That will work well with some of what we do. He can get out of the pocket, he can make some throws. I am not worried at all. I think that he'll meld well with what we’re doing in the play-action game.”

They Texans can’t oversimplify game plans. Those plans don’t have to be 100-plays deep, and the Texans don’t need 100 plays to win.

Yates has been a sit-and-learn, third-string guy until Sunday. He’s unlikely to be Cam Newton or Andy Dalton as a starter.

But he is surrounded by a better team. He spent a good share of the summer during the lockout working with Schaub and Dan Orlovsky in Houston. And he has run the scout team for the bulk of the season.

“T.J. man, he’s a professional NFL quarterback,” defensive back Sherrick McManis said. “He’s definitely got room for improvement and needs time to grow like most of us. But on scout team he’s done exactly what he’s supposed to do.”

Yates said while that work is intended to mimic the opponent of the week, the Texans do their best to shape it for him in a way that translates to their own scheme.

“Every week we try to get the same things from our offense into other offenses,” he said. “Kind of tie it into our offense as much as possible.”

After running eight plays at the end of the second quarter, Yates returned to the field after the half with Schaub.

Schaub, who’s wearing a protective boot on his right foot and will soon have surgery, told Yates that a lot of people will tell him how to move forward. Houston’s starting quarterback told him: Stay calm, be confident in yourself, you’re ready to play, don’t think too much.

He did well enough.

Now the expectation is he will step into the spotlight and be under far greater scrutiny.

Next week against the Falcons is a game the Texans might have lost even with Schaub. A trip to Cincinnati the week after won’t be easy either.

Then, however, the team that would be the AFC’s top seed if the playoffs started today finishes with Carolina at home, a trip to Indianapolis, and Tennessee at home.

Houston might still win 10 or 11 games with Yates at quarterback.

What it can do if it wins the AFC South and goes to the playoffs will be a much different question.

“They have a big-time offensive line and a great running game, but in our league you’ve got to be able to do both,” Jacksonville linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “They are a good team. They’ve scored a lot of points in the past.

“But a lot of that, I think, was because Schaub does a great job managing that offense. That’ll be a challenge for them for sure.”

Can Leinart speed things up in Act II?

November, 25, 2011
11/25/11
2:44
PM ET
Replacement quarterbacks are winning about a third of their starts, points out ESPN.com’s venerable John Clayton. He wonders how Houston’s Matt Leinart will fit in with that, starting Sunday in Jacksonville.

In this Insider piece, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. discusses Leinart in detail.

“Leinart fits the Texans' scheme much better than what he was asked to do in Arizona. He has been in this system for a year and a half now, and Houston's designed rollouts and play-action passes off of an elite running game play to Leinart's strengths. Can coach Gary Kubiak win games and manage his offense much as Jim Harbaugh is doing with quarterback Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers?

“If Leinart is able to manage the game and distribute the football reasonably well -- particularly to Johnson -- while leaning heavily on running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, Houston should have no problem winning the AFC South.”

Williamson says Leinart has “very average physical tools” and is “ slow and deliberate in everything he does.” So a key to his performance will be how he can speed things up, but be in better control.

I’ve not joined the chorus of those projecting doom for the Texans, and not just because the division is weak and Leinart’s surroundings are strong.

We haven’t seen him in meaningful action in some time. He’s been working with great quarterback teachers in quarterback coach Greg Knapp, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and coach Gary Kubiak.

It’s possible Leinart is a guy with a quality second act in him, who plays well after learning from different coaches and gets to play with a second team in a more favorable situation.

It’s actually what I am expecting.

Like Williamson, I’m just not sure it will extend into the playoffs.
Matt Leinart’s seen how Brooks Reed has produced for the Texans since Mario Williams went down.

[+] EnlargeHouston Texans quarterback Matt Leinart
Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIREHouston Texans quarterback Matt Leinart is ready to step into the starting role.
He said in a conference call with reporters Monday evening he’s hoping to fill in for Matt Schaub with similar success.

The Texans have said Schaub is getting further examination on his foot, but that he’s out for sure for the team’s next game, Nov. 27 at Jacksonville. Adam Schefter reports the lis franc injury is a season-ender for Schaub.

Leinart joined the Texans for the 2010 season and was third in line behind Schaub and Dan Orlovsky. He liked things so much that while he might have been able to find a situation that could have got him on the field sooner, he re-signed and came back as Schaub’s primary backup, ahead of rookie T.J. Yates.

“I’m really bummed for Matt,” he said of Schaub. “But he knows and everyone knows in this profession things happen and the next guy has to step up and that’s my job, my responsibility as a quarterback, to take his place right now and to help this team win.”

“It’s a great opportunity and I’m on a great football team and I love these guys and I’m just excited about the chance.”

Leinart sounds like he believes he’s a different guy than the first-round draft pick who did not pan out in Arizona.

He loves working with Schaub and has high praise for coach Gary Kubiak, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and quarterback coach Greg Knapp.

“The quarterback coaching here is second to none, it’s unbelievable.” Leinart said. “I think that’s why Matt has been able to be so successful and efficient for years now.”

It’s demanding in a way he said is intended to bring out the best in a quarterback and that’s how it should work for him now that he’s older and more mature. His job now is to trust what the coaches tell him, manage the offense and be efficient.

He’s worked hard on his footwork, and it’s supposed to help steer him to throw the ball to the right place.

The offense should be the same, as he shares strengths with Schaub.

“That’s something I’ve always been comfortable with, in college we ran (bootleg) all the time, as much as we do here,” he said. “And it’s part of the reason why I love this offense so much. At Arizona, we weren’t a big boot-action, play-action and boot-pass team at all. Obviously here with the way we run the ball so well, that’s a huge part of our offense and that’s something that I really feel comfortable doing.”

A healthy stable of weapons expected to include Andre Johnsonafter a long-stretch out with a hamstring injury will help Leinart a great deal, and the team can continue to lean on running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate.

“I imagine now defenses are going to try to make me throw the ball to win,” he said. “We’ve got some great guys on the outside to do that… It’s going to be fun. Matt is the leader of this team and he got us to this position.

“I told Gary, we’ll just continue to go and win for him and keep this thing going forward.”

Schaub is a big loss.

But Kubiak is a great quarterback guy and he's really high on Leinart. We should wait and see if he shows us why before we start ripping up the tickets we've been writing for the Texans' first trip to the playoffs.

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