NFL Nation: Tim Dobbins

When the Houston Texans drafted Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, they talked of giving both a chance to win the strongside linebacker spot.

The team needs to sort through candidates for two of its four starting linebacking spots -- an outside linebacker to replace Connor Barwin, who went to Philadelphia as a free agent, and an inside guy to play beside Brian Cushing, with the team moving on from Bradie James.

In his second year, Whitney Mercilus is in line to start at weakside linebacker, where Barwin played. Brooks Reed can remain the strongside starter if an inside guy like Darryl Sharpton or Tim Dobbins seizes the inside job. Or Reed can go inside if Montgomery or Williams has a strong camp and the Texans feel best about starting one of them.

I found one twist in that, however, when I spoke to Williams last week.

I asked him about simultaneously becoming friends with and competing against Montgomery.

“He’s playing a different position now, he’s on the Will, I’m on the Sam,” Williams said. “We both compete in pass rushing, but other than that he’s basically working on honing his skills on that side of the field while I’m working on dropping back.”

Williams doesn’t know how much the team will ask him to drop into coverage, but plans on being ready when asked.

“I believe it will be more of a pass-rush deal, setting the edge at times,” he said.

Williams said he and Montgomery get along very well, that they kind of have the same personality.

“Whatever comes to our minds, we pretty much say and do,” he said.

Like Montgomery, Williams is a college defensive end shifting to 3-4 linebacker. That transition will be something to watch in the middle of the linebacker competition during training camp.

"It’s taking some time, a gradual change,” Williams said of starting plays off the line of scrimmage, standing up. “I don’t think it’s completely different than a three-point stance. It takes a lot of balance and building habits. I don’t feel it’ll be a problem, I’ll be practicing it over the next several weeks …

“The big difference is the initial attack. Usually in a three-point stance you have a more explosive attack. In a two-point stance you’re required to use a little more technique, using your arms and your footwork. It needs to be more coordinated. It’s not difficult.”
Wade PhilipsAP Photo/Patric SchneiderWade Phillips will have a lot of options when putting together Houston's linebacking unit.

The Houston Texans have uncertainty at linebacker. But they also have flexibility and time.

Two things are certain: Brian Cushing will be back from a torn ACL and manning the weak inside spot, and second-year man Whitney Mercilus will graduate to the starter on the weak side.

Two things are uncertain: Who mans the inside spot next to Cushing, and who will line up on the strong side?

There are two primary scenarios.

  • One of the team’s rookie outside linebackers, Sam Montgomery or Trevardo Williams, shows up big from the beginning and starts on the strong side, nudging Brooks Reed to the inside.
  • One of the team’s injury-prone inside options, Darryl Sharpton or Tim Dobbins, earns the spot alongside Cushing, allowing Reed to remain on the strong side.

Either scenario could be fine on a defense looking to replace Connor Barwin, the weakside linebacker who had a disappointing 2012 and left for Philadelphia as a free agent, and needing to find the right guy to play inside with Cushing.

"The one thing I've learned about Wade Phillips is he knows exactly what he's doing when he drafts a player," Cushing said. "He sees things in people and prospects other coaches and scouts don't. He will always play the best players and we have a lot to pick from now."

Reed can key a lot of the flexibility.

“Brooks can do it [inside], he played inside some last year and he played real well,” said Phillips, Houston's defensive coordinator. “It’s not something foreign. He’s played inside enough where we can say, ‘Wow, he can play inside, too.’ And we’d still rush him on third downs outside. You’d still get the rush factor with him. It’s a possibility.

“But right now, we’re just looking at those two rookies to see how they do. It just depends on how good our young players are, and what they can do.”

Sharpton isn’t part of the Texans' organized team activities right now, still recovering from a hip issue that landed him on injured reserve at the end of the regular season.

For Montgomery and Williams, who were 4-3 defensive ends at LSU and UConn, respectively, the big transition might be about dropping into coverage.

That’s nowhere near as complicated as some people make it out to be, Phillips said. The Texans' defense can drop the strongside linebacker into the flat, but “he doesn’t ever cover the tight end,” Phillips said.

“It’s not that big a deal,” Phillips said. “I think people can go overboard on what kind of drop guy you have to have, because he doesn’t drop all that much.”

Rushing the passer remains the primary job, and the defense rushes five players almost all the time -- typically three linemen and both outside backers.

“This is what we normally get, guys who played defensive end in college," Phillips said. “We’re excited about both of them, we think both of them can do it. I’ve had a lot of them in the past who’ve done it, and these guys both have the ability. We’ll see what happens. Both of them can rush the passer No. 1, and that’s what we look for in outside backers.”

Phillips and the Texans want to have three outside linebackers they can rotate. But in 2011 they lost Mario Williams early, and Barwin and Reed played virtually all the time. Last season, Mercilus wasn’t ready to contribute early, then Reed missed four games because of injury.

If both Montgomery and Williams pan out, and both Sharpton and Dobbins stay healthy, the Texans could have serious depth and actually be able to rotate more on the outside.

But Phillips won’t set any playing-time goals. He said it depends on how good guys are, and what kind of stamina they have. He’s had starters who have played 94 percent and guys who have played 80.

Cushing was lost when he tore up his knee in the Texans' fifth game last season. He looks very good now, Phillips said, and Houston expects him to be on the field on opening day with no issues.

That will be the biggest, and best, change to the linebacking corps.

“He’s running around, he’s running fast and moving well right now," Phillips said. "So I think three months from now he’ll really be ready to go. … He’s a fantastic player, he’s a difference-maker.”

“The type of energy that he brings out there,” Mercilus said of Cushing, “it’s unreal.”

[+] EnlargeWhitney Mercilus
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireWhitney Mercilus says he is ready to assume a starting role.
Even without Cushing, and with eight players starting at linebacker at some point, the Texans were seventh against the run in 2012.

Owner Bob McNair said after the season that the team needed better linebacker depth, but it’s silly to think any team can have better depth than the Texans did. Any team needing to play that many guys at one position will have problems.

Moving forward, with defensive tackle J.J. Watt, Cushing and safety Ed Reed, the Texans' defense will be strong up the middle with star players. That is the reigning defensive player of the year in front of Cushing, and a future Hall of Famer behind him.

The team’s 2012 first-round pick, Mercilus, will take over Barwin’s spot, and expectations are high for his second season. He got on the field more late last season when Brooks Reed was hurt and had a bigger role once Reed returned from his groin injury.

Mercilus had six sacks, the third most on a team that relied heavily on Watt, who notched 20.5.

“In Year 2 I can do a lot more, especially coming into a starting role,” Mercilus said. “Run techniques are something I’ll be focusing on a lot more so that I’m a more well-balanced player than I was last year.”

“The position they put me at plays a lot to my strengths. I’m pretty good at rushing the passer, getting after the quarterback. There’s not really a whole lot of thinking, it’s just getting out there and playing ball.”
Before the 2012 season, I thought a bit too much of Rashad Jennings and a bit too little of Tim Dobbins.

The former was the Jacksonville Jaguars running back who took over as the starter while Maurice Jones-Drew held out through the preseason and was first in line after MJD got hurt. Jennings wasn't as effective in his chances as I expected, and wound up dealing with injuries himself. His next NFL act will unfold in Oakland, where he he will provide some depth at running back.

Dobbins, meanwhile, wound up with an increased role for the Houston Texans after Brian Cushing was lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. I came to think he can be a pretty effective inside linebacker in the 3-4. But to earn and keep playing time, Dobbins simply must get past the sort of nagging injuries that sidelined him when he got his chance last season. Ultimately an ankle injury kept him out of the playoffs in a season where the team suffered too many injuries beyond Cushing at the position.

Jacksonville added Justin Forsett to take over Jennings' role.

The Texans are likely to draft an inside linebacker who can compete with Darryl Sharpton and Dobbins for the second starting role. If that pick is skilled enough, he might even be able to keep the team in base and nickel personnel more often.
Tania Ganguli reports that Houston Texans free agent safety Glover Quin is going to Detroit for a visit with the Lions. Kevin Seifert had an inkling earlier that it was going to unfold this way.

That’s not a good development for Houston, which isn’t going to be able to add a lot in free agency but wanted to work hard to hold together its roster. Quin is a key starter for the Texans, and his versatility -- in terms of coming forward to make tackles, helping against the run or running with receivers in coverage -- is a big cog in Wade Phillips’ system.

Detroit top safety, Louis Delmas, just became an unrestricted free agent.

It’s unclear if the Texans have made any sort of contract proposal to Quin. They passed on a franchise tag worth about $6 million. There are a lot of safety options in free agency and in the draft if the Texans wind up needing to replace Quin.

I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. if he saw any obvious choices among veterans or draft prospects who are Quin-like.

"I don’t think he is as rangy as Quin and has an injury history, but Kenny Phillips of the Giants is a quality safety for sure," he said. "This is a very deep safety draft and while I have a lot of work to still do on draft prospects, guys like Matt Elam, Jonathan Cyprien, Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid and maybe some other guys in the third-round or later could fit that bill. I am not a DeAngelo Hall fan overall, but some seem to be looking at him as a FS with some Quin-like skills as a bit of a CB/FS hybrid."

Two other Texans free agents, cornerback Brice McCain and inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, reached the market with what appear to be unreasonable expectations. They share an agent in David Canter and he said on Houston radio Tuesday that McCain was worth between $3.5 and $5 million annually and that Dobbins deserves a long-term deal with a signing bonus.

I'm guessing we'll have to see what Canter thinks of the value of those two clients in two weeks, when he doesn’t get a sniff of deals like he’s envisioning.

Quick Take: Bengals at Texans

December, 30, 2012
Five things to know about next Saturday's Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans AFC wild-card game at Reliant Stadium:

Bengals seeking revenge: The Texans beat the Bengals twice last season. They clinched the first playoff berth in team history after winning 20-19 in Cincinnati on Dec. 11, 2011. Then they won the first playoff game in franchise history on Jan. 7, 2012, 31-10. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates was at the helm for Houston in both games since Matt Schaub was done from the year as a result of a serious foot injury he suffered in the middle of the season. Cincinnati will be seeking revenge for that game, and will surely tire this week of seeing replays of J.J. Watt’s point-blank interception and 29-yard touchdown return from the postseason matchup.

Late-season struggles: The Texans lost their final three regular-season games last season after that playoff-berth-clinching win at Cincinnati, then won their playoff opener. The Texans lost three of their last four regular-season games this season. When coach Gary Kubiak talks of flipping things back around and getting the Texans playing like they were when they raced out to an 11-1 record that had them looking like the best team in the NFL, he speaks from experience. Last season they were able to regain the form that got them into the playoffs after an end-of-season lull. Of course being without their starting quarterback was a big story a year ago. Schaub is healthy and playing now, but he’s been struggling.

Tough defense: The Bengals went into Week 17 as one of just five teams in the top 10 in the NFL in overall defense, rush defense and pass defense. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (13 sacks) is a highly underrated player who can give major problems to the Texans' interior line, where rookie right guard Ben Jones has been a part of recent problems. Michael Johnson is also a pass-rushing force, with 11.5 sacks. Cincinnati was first in sacks per pass play and 12th in third-down defense. Schaub is not playing his most confident football right now, and if the Bengals are able to knock him around early and set a tone, it could have a strong bearing on the result.

Linebacker depth issues: The Texans suffered a tough blow when inside linebacker Brian Cushing suffered a torn ACL against the Jets on Oct. 8. Now two guys who’ve been part of replacing him may be in doubt for this game. Darryl Sharpton, who was on PUP for the first nine games of the season with a hip issue, came out of the season finale with a hip issue. And Tim Dobbins, who’s been slowed some with a shoulder injury and missed a game, has another injury that Kubiak identified as a big concern after the loss in Indianapolis but was somehow unable to identify.

Pressure on Schaub: The Texans' offense all spins off their ability to run. If they can get Arian Foster going, then play-action and their rollout/bootleg game tends to really work. But in their three recent losses, they’ve gotten to 100 yards twice and run OK at least in stretches. What’s been a problem is Schaub’s decision-making. He’s clicking with Andre Johnson, but that doesn’t always mean good things. The quarterback has a tendency to be over-reliant on his top target when things aren’t going so smoothly with the Texans passing attack. He’s got to do better spreading it around. This is his first playoff game, and he’s long faced questions about big-game performance. He can do a lot for his reputation if he can lead his team to a win over the Bengals.
Bill Belichick and Gary KubiakGetty ImagesBill Belichick has steered the Patriots to the top of the AFC, but Gary Kubiak and the Texans are now gunning for the conference's perennial top team.
It’s been a while since the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl, but they remain the standard-bearers in the AFC.

They’ve been to two of the past five Super Bowls, including the most recent one. They’ve been in five of the previous 11 Super Bowls and won three in four years from 2001 to 2004.

For teams looking to become consistent AFC powers, the Patriots are the target. One of those teams, the Houston Texans, is heading to New England for "Monday Night Football."

No matter the result, the Texans will still have at least a one-game lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This could be an AFC Championship Game preview.

Can the Texans overtake the Patriots?

"I think they can," one AFC executive said. "They have the talent, they have the consistency of scheme on both sides of the ball to do it. The wild card is their health, particularly on defense."

"That's going to be a tough one," said Rosevelt Colvin, who played six of his 10 NFL seasons as linebacker with the Patriots and spent a training camp with the Texans. "Patriots are the closest thing to consistency you will find in this era of NFL ball. Two big reasons: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady."

New England’s coach and quarterback have the skins on the wall and the credibility that come with them. That doesn’t mean someone new can’t break through, though only three other teams have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl since the Patriots came to prominence: Oakland once, Indianapolis twice and Pittsburgh three times.

Are the Texans poised to break through?

"Everybody would like to do what they’ve done over a long period of time," Texans coach Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters. "This league’s about consistency. I think I learned a lot about that in my time in San Francisco and Denver. Doing things right all the time.

"We’re trying to become a very consistent organization here and put a consistent product on the field week in and week out and do things the right way. We’re very young in the process, but we have a lot of respect for what they do."

One major similarity: Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Texans owner Bob McNair are widely regarded as two of the best owners in the NFL. They are willing to spend to make things first-class, and they back their coaches.

Let’s look at some other ways the Texans are similar to the Patriots and some ways they are different:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTom Brady's consistent play has made the Patriots annual Super Bowl contenders.
Scheme: The Patriots morph as required, not just season to season but sometimes week to week.

They drafted two high-quality tight ends when they saw Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez available and shifted their offense to be predominantly two-tight. When both missed time because of injury -- Gronkowski won't play Monday -- they easily shifted to three-wide. They’ve been a 3-4 team. They’ve been a 4-3 team.

Belichick adapts to what he has and the circumstances.

The Texans don’t morph.

They’ve updated and improved Kubiak’s offensive system since he took over in 2006, but the principles are the same. The zone-blocking line cuts defenders down, and the back is asked to make one cut and go. They run a ton of play-action and ask quarterback Matt Schaub to roll out and run bootlegs off that. It’s not a common scheme, which makes it a bit tougher for defenses to handle.

Defensively, they struggled to find an identity until they brought in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. As leader of the defense, he installed his brand of 3-4 and stamped the Texans with a personality they had been lacking. Now they are locked into a defensive system that same way they are locked in on offense.

They are both top-eight rushing teams, but running is less important to New England because its passing game is more straight drop-back and shotgun while the Texans rely on far more play-action.

Leadership: Belichick is the team’s authority, although while the Patriots came to prominence much was made of how he worked in tandem with Scott Pioli in the front office. If they didn’t agree on a player, they would move on to the next one.

Pioli left to become the general manager in Kansas City in 2009. Belichick remains the powerful agenda-setter, but he has resources when he wants them -- including director of player personnel Nick Caserio and senior football adviser Floyd Reese.

Although the Texans have always stayed mum publicly about who has final say, Kubiak was hired first and general manager Rick Smith joined him. League insiders see the Texans as a coach-steered franchise. Kubiak and Smith have an excellent relationship and get good input from front-office personnel, coordinators and assistants.

Kubiak and Belichick have vastly different public personalities. Belichick is gruff and controlling. Kubiak is personable and agreeable.

Belichick wields more power, but the setups for both coaches in their organizations are comparable.

Depth: Belichick once lost Brady in the Patriots opener. He plugged in Matt Cassel and won 11 games.

Overall, New England has done exceedingly well plugging reserves in when needed and getting sufficient production. The Patriots also move guys around with success. We’ve seen them play receiver Troy Brown at corner. Currently, Devin McCourty can line up at cornerback or safety.

Although veterans generally want to stay in their winning atmosphere, the Patriots have not been sentimental about keeping guys. If a player gets too old or too expensive, they’ll let him walk.

The Texans went to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates playing because starter Schaub and backup Matt Leinart both got hurt. Outside linebacker Mario Williams was out after five games, and receiver Andre Johnson missed nine. Houston showed off its depth in overcoming the absences.

The team let Williams leave as a free agent, traded inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans and released right tackle Eric Winston in the offseason while fitting other pieces under the cap. They got Schaub and left tackle Duane Brown locked up with long-term contracts before the season kicked off.

Houston is showing off its depth again this season. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing went down after five games, and Tim Dobbins has played well in his place. Brooks Reed missed last week and will be out a few more, and the team has first-rounder Whitney Mercilus to insert into a shuffled linebacker corps.

"Keeping the talent pool full of younger guys that can run that system is key, as well as coaching consistency," Colvin said. "They have a good mix right now."

Rolling Texans have causes for concern

November, 22, 2012
J.J. WattAP Photo/Rick OsentoskiDefensive end J.J. Watt recorded three sacks on Thursday as the Texans improved to 10-1.
DETROIT -- They dragged their drained bodies around the visitor’s locker room at Ford Field, the cumulative effect of nearly 10 quarters of NFL football in five days showing itself.

The Houston Texans were smiling after their second consecutive overtime win, this one a 34-31 Thanksgiving Day thriller over the Lions.

Fortunately, they’re a nice group of guys.

Because they could have easily listened to some questions about their defensive struggles and gotten severely ticked off: “We just got to 10-1, we’re exhausted and you’re asking about struggles?!?”

They know, however, that while a championship-caliber team finds ways to win when it doesn’t play its best, it also can’t yield 458 yards like it did against Jacksonville or 525 yards like it did in Detroit and get where it’s planning to go.

“There are always going to be things to clean up,” said defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who sacked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford three times and knocked down two of his passes. “Obviously we haven’t played our best football these last two games. But like a great team, you find a way to win no matter the circumstances.”

Said cornerback Kareem Jackson: “Everybody on this team is relentless. We finish by any means necessary.”

The Texans’ pass defense has allowed the Jaguars’ Chad Henne 354 passing yards and four touchdowns and Stafford 441 yards and two touchdowns. Against 96 combined pass attempts, Houston recorded five sacks.

Halfway through the season, the Texans had one sack for every 11.4 pass attempts.

In their last three games, the Texans have one sack for every 28.5 pass attempts.

Watt boosted his season total to 14.5 sacks, but he said not to leave him off the list of guys who need to do more. That’s a new franchise record for quarterback takedowns.

“Hopefully I’ll keep breaking it and breaking it and breaking and breaking it,” he said. “Hopefully I’m not done.”

“We need to get to the quarterback more often,” said outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who left the game in the first half with a groin injury that his coach rated as a big concern and that will require an MRI on Friday. “Make the quarterback feel more pressure and it’ll help him throw bad balls, help out our secondary that way. That’s the best cure for pass defense, I think.

“The stats show it. We haven’t been getting to the quarterback enough.”

Making things worse against the Lions and their No. 1 pass offense was the hamstring injury to Johnathan Joseph.

The cornerback who would have followed receiver Calvin Johnson around didn’t play, and his replacement, Alan Ball, should never have drawn the job. After Johnson pulled in five catches for 103 yards and a touchdown against Ball, the Texans switched to Jackson as the primary defender for Johnson after intermission.

Jackson fared better, limiting Johnson to three receptions for 37 yards in the second half plus a long overtime.

“We knew we were going to give up some plays,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “Hopefully we don’t give up the real, real big plays. ... Everybody got a chance to figure out a way to help us win.”

Injuries beyond Joseph’s have contributed to the Texans' issues.

Nose tackle Shaun Cody and inside linebacker Tim Dobbins were also out. Reed and inside linebacker Bradie James (hamstring) didn’t finish.

That’s five starters missing by the end of the game, not counting linebacker Brian Cushing, who was lost for the season Oct. 8.

“Getting Shaun back [at Tennessee on Dec. 2], that should help us,” Kubiak said, referring to low numbers on the defensive line. “Now we’ve got a couple other issues we’ve got to work through. But we’ve got to keep plugging. Obviously we’ve got a lot of things to fix. But it’s nice to find a way to win.”

The other concern I can see with the Texans is their play against top-flight quarterbacks.

They beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos at Denver in Week 3 and they got creamed by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 6. Stafford is not in that class, but he's the third-best signal-caller they’ve faced.

Against that trio, Houston’s defense has allowed 10 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 100.1 while not managing a single interception.

Against the 11 other quarterbacks the Texans have faced in their eight other games, they’ve allowed nine touchdown passes and a passer rating of 42.5 while grabbing 11 interceptions.

Most teams are going to fare worse against the league’s better quarterbacks. But that much worse?

Unless things fall in a really fortuitous way for them, they’re bound to cross paths with Manning or Tom Brady -- or both -- in the AFC playoffs.

They’ll need to be better than they've been the past two weeks or against those top QBs.

“We understand we can always get better,” said left tackle Duane Brown, whose side of the ball has been picking up the slack. “But it’s not easy to get a win in this league. We’ve got 10 of them right now. We’ve very proud of that. We still have a lot of football to play, a lot of progress to make.”

DETROIT -- Thoughts on the Houston Texans' 34-31 overtime win over the Lions at Ford Field:

What it means: The Texans came from behind late again and pulled out an overtime win for the second week in a row, adding more fuel to a team-of-destiny feel. Houston is 10-1, and, no matter the results from around the rest of the conference, it will head into Week 13 with a two-game lead in the AFC race for home-field advantage in the playoffs. (Houston holds a head-to-head tiebreaker with Baltimore.)

What I liked: In a tense, tight game, Danieal Manning pulled the ball free from safety Brandon Pettigrew and Darryl Sharpton recovered it to end the first possession of overtime. The offense moved to position Shayne Graham for a 51-yard field goal attempt. But he missed wide left. Detroit got a 47-yard chance at a winning field goal, but Jason Hanson dinged the right upright. Houston then drove 49 yards in six plays to position Graham for a 32-yarder with 2:21 on the clock that won it.

What I also liked: More broadly, I liked the same things as I like in most Texans wins -- the resolve, the versatility, the ability to find the plays in the shape of the game in front of them that are needed to win it.

What I didn’t like: First and foremost, the rule that prevented a review of Justin Forsett’s 81-yard “touchdown run” where he appeared to be down. Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw his challenge flag. But scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and throwing the challenge flag actually negates the review possibility and earns a 15-yard penalty on the subsequent kickoff. Schwartz has to know that. But it’s still silly not to review the scoring play. The Texans got a huge break out of all of it.

What I also didn’t like: Plenty of pass defenses struggle with Calvin Johnson, but the coverage plans with corner Johnathan Joseph (hamstring) out were bad, and Megatron had a field day with eight catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. Houston did do better on him in the second half, after deciding Alan Ball wasn't up to trying to cover Johnson on his own. The original plan was a poor one. After benefiting from the non-review, the Texans pulled even at 24-all. Rather than seizing control, the Texans gave up a 23-yard run up the middle for a touchdown to Joique Bell and had to fight back to evened-up again to force overtime.

Injury issues: Joseph, inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, nose tackle Shaun Cody and running back Ben Tate didn’t play. Outside linebacker Brooks Reed (groin) and right tackle Derek Newton (right knee) left the game early, and inside linebacker Bradie James suffered a hamstring injury in the second half and didn’t finish. The Texans have a mini bye now and need it to heal up.

Inevitable? The Texans had not allowed a rushing touchdown all season. They allowed two in this game, a 2-yard run by Mikel Leshoure in the first quarter and Bell’s 23-yarder in the fourth.

What’s next: The Texans play at Tennessee on Dec. 2 and at New England on "Monday Night Football" on Dec. 10.

Pressure on Texans corners

November, 22, 2012
DETROIT -- If the Texans lose to the Lions today, I think two things will have contributed.

I think they’ll turn out to be tired from what they had to expend on Sunday to beat Jacksonville in overtime.

And I think Calvin Johnson will have to do damage for the Lions.

That will be easier because Houston is without the cornerback who would have tracked Johnson. Jonathan Joseph is out with a hamstring injury. Johnson will move around and surely draw primary coverage from Kareem Jackson, Joseph’s replacement Alan Ball and nickelback Brice McCain.

Detroit would be wise to test Ball, who is certain to have help. Houston will be hoping that Jackson gets a lot of time with Megatron. Jackson’s not just been much improved this year. Most of the time he’s been quite good.

Other notable inactives: running back Ben Tate, inside linebacker Tim Dobbins and nose tackle Shaun Cody. Justin Forsett will work as the second running back, Daryl Sharpton as a starting inside linebacker and Earl Mitchell as the starting nose tackle.
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips asks absolutely reasonable questions when he wonders about the NFL’s $30,000 fine against Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins for a hit on Jay Cutler Sunday night.

Boiled down from Tania Ganguli’s story at the Houston Chronicle web site, is this:

Why is a hit to a quarterback on a play where he’s throwing the ball -- and after which he was able to stay in the game -- so much more costly than a hit to a linebacker’s knee that puts him out for the season?

Brian Cushing suffered a torn ACL when he was hit by Jets offensive lineman Matt Slauson in the Texans' Oct. 8 "Monday Night Football" win against New York at MetLife Stadium. Slauson wasn’t flagged, but it was judged an illegal peel-back block on a change of possession and resulted in a $10,000 fine.

Meanwhile, Dobbins’ hit on Cutler was priced at three times that.

Both games were on national TV.

The league can attempt to judge intent, severity, danger, result and anything it likes when doling out discipline. But while officials can slow down the tape and watch it from every available angle, they cannot get inside people’s heads.

And do we know, definitively, that Cutler suffered the concussion on the hit from Dobbins, and not on the very next play when he crashed into Kareem Jackson at the end of a scramble on the very next play? If the concussion came from that and not the Dobbins hit, would the league’s fine have been less? Should it have been?

I share Phillips’ confusion. He’s just on the sidelines in a headset and I’m just in the press box with binoculars. Imagine how much harder it is for amped up players at full speed to make judgments in play that leave them to sort through a FedEx envelop that is delivered to their lockers.

It was a dumb hit by Dobbins. He shouldn’t have been aiming so high. I’d even raise the dollar figure a bit for his denial that he hit Cutler in the head when it was clear he did.

It’s too easy and too dangerous to say the extent of an injury should have a bigger weight in the penalty assessment. Freak injuries happen in every game, and two of the same hits in the same circumstances -- as if there could be such an exact duplication -- wouldn’t necessarily have the same result.

The league can do better, however, at contextualizing what unfolds and comparing it to what else has unfolded. And it can do far better at making defenders feel like they aren’t half as important as their offensive brethren.

While concussions are the big issue now, let’s not disproportionately apply justice to plays connected to illegal hits connected to head injuries while minimizing others to different body parts. To at least a small degree, the league is telling Cushing that his knee means less than Cutler’s head. The two offenses shouldn’t automatically be the same fine. But they shouldn’t automatically be dramatically different, either.

It’s complicated stuff to sort out.

Take for example, the opinion of a defensive star in the league like Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.

“I think they shouldn’t allow cut blocks because our knees are important to us, too,” Urlacher said, the same week his quarterback suffered a concussion, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. “I know concussions are a big deal, too, but I think cut blocks are a big deal but that seems to be OK with the NFL so they’re not too concerned about safety. They’re concerned about long-term concussions, but immediately they are not concerned about your knees or your ankles or anything like that. I think that should be an issue."

That helps illustrate the league is hardly where it needs to be in getting a handle on player safety.

And while it can get a better handle, one might argue getting a good handle is simply never going to be possible given the game we’re discussing.

Dirty Laundry: Protection for non-QB

November, 15, 2012
I've saved this season's Dirty Laundry posts for events that genuinely fall into a gray area of officiating or spur significant confusion, and I think we have one that qualifies this week.

The second-quarter play that left Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler concussed, took $30,000 from the pocket of Houston Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins and officially never happened (because of offsetting penalties) has led to a disparate set of contradictory explanations and protests. So let's sift through the layers and explain why the penalty flag on Dobbins was justified regardless of other circumstances.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears QB Jay Cutler looks on after suffering a concussion against Houston on Sunday night.
First, a reminder of what happened on the play. With two minutes, 56 seconds remaining in the first half Sunday night, the Bears had a third-and-nine from the 50-yard line. Cutler scrambled from the pocket, headed upfield and threw a short pass to receiver Devin Hester as he approached the line of scrimmage. An instant later, Dobbins flattened Cutler with a hit as Hester turned the pass into a 42-yard gain.

Referee Gene Steratore's crew threw multiple flags: One against Cutler for an illegal forward pass (beyond the line of scrimmage), and the other against Dobbins for unnecessary roughness. In his announcement, Steratore said Dobbins was penalized for a "hit above the quarterback's shoulders."

That wording prompted justifiable confusion; if Cutler was in fact beyond the line, he was no longer protected by the NFL's long list of rules regarding hits on quarterbacks, otherwise known as "roughing the passer." Instead, he would be viewed as any other ball carrier. The NFL rule book states in case study 12.50 that "roughing the passer rules apply on all legal or illegal forward passes, as long as the pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage."

I realize it was a close call as to whether Cutler was fully past the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball, as required for that penalty to be called. For the sake of this post, however, let's assume Steratore was correct and that Cutler was merely a ball carrier and not a quarterback. Dobbins' hit would still be illegal.

Unnecessary roughness rules, applied to all positions, prohibit a player from using his helmet to forcefully hit an opponent. Here is the exact wording from Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8(g) of the rule book: "A player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/'hairline' parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily."

Go back and watch Dobbins' hit. The front of his helmet appears to hit Cutler's jaw and facemask. Cutler's head turns pretty decisively to the left on impact. Was Cutler turning away from the contact or did the force of Dobbins' blow cause that movement? It's difficult to tell for sure, but the play sure appears to fit the description of using "any part" of the helmet to "ram an opponent violently." (Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now an analyst for Fox Sports, drew the same conclusion this week).

Dobbins might not have gotten the same opportunity to make such a hit on a running back or receiver, of course. Most ball carriers would be better braced for impact than Cutler was as he focused on Hester. But if he had, based on NFL rules, the same unnecessary roughness penalty would be justified.

During a Twitter discussion Wednesday, some of you thought Dobbins' $30,000 fine suggested the NFL viewed Cutler as a passer. I'm not sure about that. There is precedent for players to face elevated fines for helmet-to-helmet hits on non-quarterbacks. Two years ago, in fact, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson was fined $50,000 for a hit that gave Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson a concussion.

Now, let's update our NFC North penalty tracker, updated through Week 10:

Jason Campbell's downfield reticence

November, 14, 2012
Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is "getting better" as he recovers from a concussion suffered three days ago, coach Lovie Smith said Wednesday. In reality, as we've discussed already, we won't have a meaningful update on Cutler's condition and playing status until we find out if he joins the team for its first practice of the week Thursday.

Would the Bears clear Cutler to play Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers without a full week of practice? There is no way of knowing that. But the Bears would be foolish to rush Cutler back after spending $3.5 million this spring to sign backup Jason Campbell.

So while we have a moment, let's circle back on a portion of Campbell's relief appearance Sunday night that no doubt had some fans concerned. As we noted, Campbell attempted only two passes that traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, a conservative approach that grew less understandable as the clock became a factor in the fourth quarter.

Research from John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information suggests Campbell has played that way for much of his career. Since the start of 2008, during which he has thrown more than 1,500 passes, Campbell's average throw has traveled 6.6 yards past the line of scrimmage.

That's the lowest figure for all quarterbacks who have thrown at least 1,000 passes over that time. The highest average belongs to the New York Giants' Eli Manning (8.8). Cutler, meanwhile, ranks No. 9 at 8.2 yards.

Campbell has a strong arm, and in some cases that average has probably reflected the scheme he has been in. But it might be a bit much to expect a quarterback to depart dramatically from a trend that's carried over from three franchises over that period.

Related: Houston Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins was fined $30,000 for the hit that caused Cutler's concussion. We will circle back Thursday with a more detailed post on the rules that did and did not apply on the play in a Dirty Laundry post.
Tim Dobbins didn’t expect the shot that left Jay Cutler with a concussion Sunday night to result in a fine.

But Adam Schefter has a source who says Dobbins is being fined $30,000 for the blow, ruled a hit above the shoulders by referee Gene Steratore at Soldier Field.

Dobbins is the replacement for Brian Cushing in the Texans lineup since Cushing went down with a torn ACL suffered Oct. 8.

After the game against the Bears, he ridiculously denied hitting Cutler in the head though replays showed he banged his helmet into the quarterback’s chin. Dobbins told me he hit Cutler in the chest.

I asked if he feared he’d get fined: “I don’t think so and I hope not. I felt like it was on time.”

Did he hit him in the chin? The head? “I hit him in his chest. I did not hit him in his head.”

I cringed as he said it, because I was picturing a replay of the hit paired with that audio -- which producers should be working on now if they weren’t before.
Michael BushNuccio DiNuzzo/Getty ImagesThe Texans forced four turnovers from a Bears team that hadn't given up the ball much all season.
CHICAGO -- The Houston Texans beat up the Tennessee Titans when they played, just like the Chicago Bears did.

But when Chicago did it, it had more amplitude -- four turnovers forced by Charles Tillman punching balls loose followed by a presidential endorsement by a Bears fan of the cornerback as defensive player of the year.

In the buildup to Sunday night’s Texans-Bears matchup here at Soldier Field, the Bears-as-a-turnover machine was very much the lead story.

In a league full of imagined slights, that was taken as a real one by the Texans. So they really relished winning the game, between teams that started the night with 7-1 records, and announcing with the 13-6 result in high winds and heavy rain that they’re equipped to travel whatever route necessary to victory.

“You know in every defensive category the Texans are in the top five,” outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “Obviously, they deserve credit for all those turnovers they get. I think people kind of overlooked our defense as a whole and kind of focused in on what they do as far as turning the ball over. I think we were conscious of that and wanted to show everybody.”

While defensive coordinator Wade Phillips downplayed things in his traditional aw-shucks manner after the game, Barwin was echoing Phillips' Saturday night message.

On this night, it was the Texans with four takeaways to Chicago’s two, it was the Texans who allowed only two third-down conversions and it was the Texans who knocked a starting quarterback out of the game.

“They made more big plays than we did,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said.

Houston coach Gary Kubiak said he was exceptionally proud of the overall effort given the weather conditions, environment and caliber of competition.

“We were able to win the way we had to tonight,” he said.

Compare their ability to win in a low-scoring slugfest with the much different kind of victory they notched in Denver in a 31-25 game on Sept. 23. It’s yet another display of balance for a team that can win with offense or defense, by running or passing, with pass rush or secondary play.

Plays came from all over the defense against the Bears, with former Chicago safety Danieal Manning leading the way with a forced fumble and an interception. Glover Quin forced a fumble, too, while inside linebackers Tim Dobbins and Bradie James took care of the recoveries. Kareem Jackson chipped in with an interception as well.

The Bears' often maligned offensive line didn’t yield a sack and did solid work against the usually dominant lineman J.J. Watt, but Dobbins dealt a big blow to the home team with a shot to Jay Cutler toward the end of the first half.

Cutler was flagged for throwing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, a call that stood up to a challenge, while Dobbins was whistled for hitting Cutler “above the shoulders.” It was a play that left Cutler sprawled on the turf for a bit and with a concussion, though he remained in the game until intermission.

“I was wondering what happened to him, a lot of us were,” said Dobbins, who replaced Brian Cushing in the lineup after Cushing sustained a torn ACL against the Jets on Oct. 8.

“I felt like [the hit] was on time,” said Dobbins.

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastArian Foster had 102 yards on 29 carries and scored the only the touchdown of the game on a diving catch in the second quarter.
He wasn’t sure if it was his blow or one delivered by Jackson at the end of a Cutler scramble on the very next play that ultimately meant Jason Campbell would play the second half.

“I have no idea, I have no clue,” he said, before touching on the increasingly taboo topic of knocking a player from the game. “But it was good that he was out, though. I mean you always want to take the quarterback out of the game. I hit him in his chest. I did not hit him in his head. Nowhere near it. I did not touch his helmet.”

Typically Dobbins said he would look to hit a quarterback hip-high, but as Cutler was still trying to make a play, he felt going higher gave him more of a chance to “mess up the throw as well.”

Multiple Texans said that once Campbell was in the game, the Bears simplified what they were trying to do and became easier to defend. Chicago got just as many first downs with Campbell playing as it did with Cutler (four) and more yards, thanks mostly to a 45-yard Campbell-to-Brandon Marshall connection.

Never playing from behind, Houston relied on running back Arian Foster to help eat up the clock. With about eight minutes left he approached Kubiak and asked him for the ball. Foster finished with 29 carries for 102 yards and five catches for 15 yards, including a diving catch on the goal line of a 2-yard throw from Matt Schaub for the game's only touchdown. (Marshall dropped Chicago's best chance.)

Yes, they’re able to do anything and win a game of any shape. But the Texans are built around their ability to run and that defense.

In the buildup to the Texans’ next game, feeling somewhat slighted won’t be an issue.

Jacksonville will bring one of the NFL’s two worst teams to Houston for a game that won’t be played anywhere near prime time.

As for how we all discuss the Texans between now and then, defensive lineman Antonio Smith would like to sing us all a lullaby.

“They can keep sleeping on Bulls on Parade, man,” Smith said, invoking a defensive nickname known more locally that nationally. “Chicago this, Chicago that. I don’t know what the stats were, but it sure looked like we played a better defensive game than they did.

“We knew it was going to be a defensive battle. It’s like a competition. Every time they made a play it just got us more amped up to go out there and make a play on our end. So it worked against them, making good plays.”

Heading into Monday night’s game at the New York Jets, we examined ways teams can try to attack the Houston Texans.

One of them was to try to run up the middle, to go after the combination of Shaun Cody or Earl Mitchell at nose tackle and Bradie James at inside linebacker.

Now that Brian Cushing is lost for the year with a torn ACL in his left knee, it looks like a strategy opposing offenses will try even more.

Cushing covers a lot of ground and has a knack for getting to the ball-carrier. Even with him in the lineup, the Texans gave up 140 rushing yards up the middle to Chris Johnson in Week 4 against the Titans. With Cushing out of the mix, other teams equipped to do so will spend time and effort trying to get a running back to the second level right up the gut, where James will be paired with Tim Dobbins for now. Mister Alexander and Jesse Nading are also options.

In a few weeks, Darryl Sharpton could be ready to come of the PUP list and make a contribution.

None of the three inside backers, of course, have Cushing’s skill set or instincts.

And as I wrote coming out of the game, he’s hardly one-dimensional -- offenses fear him as a rush threat and know he can run and cover.

The Texans have vulnerabilities they didn’t have 24 hours ago.

Next man up worked for them multiple times last season. Replacing Cushing is a different challenge still.


Roster Advisor