NFL Nation: Whitney Mercilus

Upon Further Review: Jaguars Week 12

November, 25, 2013
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HOUSTON -- A review of four hot issues from the Jacksonville Jaguars' 13-6 victory over the Houston Texans:

[+] EnlargeCase Keenum
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJacksonville brought constant pressure against Case Keenum on Sunday.
Shorts involved: Jaguars coach Gus Bradley and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said they were going to get receiver Cecil Shorts more involved in the offense this week after Shorts complained about getting only two catches in a loss to Arizona. They were true to their word. Shorts was targeted a team-high 11 times and caught a team-high eight passes for 71 yards. The Jaguars got him involved early, too, targeting him four times on their first three possessions.

Good gambles: Bradley's new buzz word is "bold," and he's coaching that way. He went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line on the game's opening possession and also called a Wildcat formation pass by Denard Robinson, a play that would have worked for a big gain had Shorts not dropped the pass. Bradley also told Fisch to stay with the offense and not just call running plays when the Jaguars got the ball back with 4:24 to play and clinging to a seven-point lead. "We preach to our players that we're going to be bold when opportunities present themselves," Bradley said.

Front plays well: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is usually the one who bats down passes at the line of scrimmage, but the Jaguars did a better job of that on Sunday. Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks deflected two and defensive end Andre Branch deflected one. The front seven pressured quarterback Case Keenum all day, sacking him twice and hitting him five other times. The Jaguars generally don't blitz a lot, but defensive coordinator Bob Babich called several middle blitzes to try to get players in Keenum's face. Keenum said he never felt comfortable and could never get in a rhythm.

Henne hangs in: Quarterback Chad Henne took a pounding against the Texans, especially early, but hung in there and had one of his better games despite not throwing a touchdown pass. Henne was sacked four times, including three in the first half, and hit 13 other times. Watt sacked him once and hit him five more times and linebacker Whitney Mercilus sacked him once and hit him four times. Despite the battering, Henne completed 23 of 32 passes for 239 yards. He did not throw an interception. "You just have to sit in there and sometimes you're going to get hit and sometimes you're not, but overall the offensive line did a good job," Henne said. "For the most part we got the ball out on time and really fought through and did really well."

Rapid Reaction: Seahawks 23, Texans 20

September, 29, 2013
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HOUSTON -- Some thoughts from the Houston Texans' 23-20 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

What it means: It took the Seahawks some time to wake up, but until then, the Texans dominated them. The same old mistakes returned late, though, capped by another pick-six from Texans quarterback Matt Schaub to Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who shushed the crowd with his game-tying score. This marked Schaub's third interception returned for a touchdown in three games. The Seahawks won on a 45-yard field goal in overtime.

Stock watch: Schaub's body language on the field reflected the gravity of the mistake he made when he threw the interception that tied the game. The quarterback took a beating from fans last week and played well early in Sunday's game, other than a red zone interception in the first quarter. But his late interception sent his stock plummeting further, despite two touchdowns in the first half.

Texans defensive end Whitney Mercilus had his best game yet with 2.5 sacks against a depleted Seahawks offensive line. For the Texans to win, it was imperative they take advantage of the problems Seattle's line was having. The second-year outside linebacker set a rookie record with six sacks last season and already has 3.5 this season. The Texans constantly surrounded Wilson.

Brian Cushing's value: Cushing left the game in the third quarter with a concussion. On the very next drive, the Seahawks scored their first touchdown of the game, mostly on the back of quarterback Russell Wilson. The drive changed the momentum of the game and preceded a defensive stop by Seattle. Officially Cushing left the game with nine tackles, but that number is likely to increase after the coaches' review.

What's next: The Texans continue their tour around the NFC West, this time visiting the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers lost to the Seahawks in Week 2.
SAN DIEGO -- Last season the Houston Texans didn't use outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus much, but when they did he made a difference.

Mercilus
Their first-round draft pick from 2012 only played 469 snaps last season, putting him in the bottom half of playing time for defensive first-round picks from 2012. Only Fletcher Cox's production rate was higher than Mercilus's last season. With some help from ESPN Stats & Info, I counted impact plays as forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, tackles for loss, sacks, pass breakups and interceptions. The last column, in the chart below, shows on what percent of their snaps each player made an impact play.

Tonight, Mercilus begins his first season as an NFL starter, replacing Connor Barwin, who left in free agency. It's perfectly reasonable to expect his production rate to go down in his new full-time role. Add to the fact Mercilus missed the preseason, forced to be patient while healing a hamstring injury, and there could be an ajustment period.

But Mercilus learned a lot through the course of last season and that's a process every rookie goes through.

"I think I would be able to produce double-digit sacks and I’m pretty confident in myself," Mercilus said. "It’s just a matter of putting in the work to get there."

It's something the Texans could use. Last season a majority of their sacks came from their defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith. Outside pressure is hugely important and they expect the return of inside linebacker Brian Cushing to create mismatches that help their outside linebackers.

"It's actually huge," Mercilus said. "They can’t just focus on one person if we have edge pressure. It’s going to free up J.J. It’s going to free up Cush. It’s going to free up me, (OLB) Brooks (Reed), Antonio when he gets back, and it’s just you can’t just game plan for one guy. As soon as we get that pressure on the outside, guys on the inside are going to come free. Get the pressure on the inside, guys on the outside are going to come free."

Double Coverage: Texans at Chargers

September, 6, 2013
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JJ Watt and Philip RiversGetty ImagesJ.J. Watt and the Texans could make it hard on Philip Rivers if San Diego's offensive line does not hold up.
In the second half of the opening Monday night doubleheader, Houston is traveling to San Diego to put an end to NFL Week 1. The Chargers are in rebuild mode, while the Texans are looking to take the next step this season and become true Super Bowl contenders. While the Chargers’ fan base should be revved up for this prime-time contest, getting J.J. Watt blocked could be a very futile effort for San Diego’s offensive line. ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson and Houston Texans reporter Tania Ganguli bring you their Double Coverage preview.

Tania Ganguli: How has the atmosphere in the organization changed with GM Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy taking over?


Matt Williamson: A change in San Diego was certainly needed. The environment had become stale and the once wide-open window under former coach Norv Turner and a roster stocked with great players has closed. A rebuild is needed, and a new general manager and head coach are what is needed to potentially get this team back where it once was -- or maybe beyond. Has the right side of the Texans’ once-great offensive line been fixed?

Ganguli: It's certainly on its way. The Texans are rightfully very high on right guard Brandon Brooks, and right tackle Derek Newton is healthy. They didn't mind rotation in those spots last year, but stability will definitely help.

Can McCoy turn Philip Rivers (back?) into an elite quarterback?

Williamson: I feel as though we have seen the best of Rivers’ impressive career, unfortunately. That being said, the scheme change, which stresses getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, could be an advantageous move to boost Rivers. He does have a quick release and makes quick reads, making him a good fit for what McCoy is looking to accomplish.

What is the status of Arian Foster, and might Ben Tate have an expanded role for the season and to open the year?

Ganguli: Tate will have an expanded role, especially early in the year. The Texans won't ride Arian Foster too much given he missed all of the preseason, training camp and most of organized team activities (OTAs). He was working, but they're intent on being smart with his return to make sure they have him at full strength late in the season.

What are the biggest problems with the Chargers' offensive line?

Williamson: Once again, the scheme switch to a short passing game should help the protection of this line -- a line that is better-equipped to run block than protect. Still, the true problem with this line is they simply lack good players up front. They added a few free agents, but no one that is even a league-average starter, and they used their first-round pick on D.J. Fluker to play right tackle. However, I have my doubts that Fluker is quick or light enough on his feet for edge protection. Instead, I think Fluker could be a Pro Bowler at guard.

What impact does first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins have on the Texans' offense?

Ganguli: It's difficult for rookie receivers to put up big numbers, but Hopkins will have a major impact on the Texans' offense. He'll take pressure off Andre Johnson, on whom the Texans were overdependent last season in their passing game. He is very skilled on contested catches and will help Houston's red zone efficiency.

What impact does Dwight Freeney have in San Diego?

Williamson: Can he still be productive at 33? Of course it would be ideal to have Melvin Ingram in the fold as well as Freeney, who could be the perfect mentor, but Freeney has looked quite spry through the preseason and should have plenty left in the tank. The concern for me is that San Diego will be forced to play the 33-year-old too many snaps, which could lead to less effective play late in games and especially late in the season.

How big a boost to this team -- tacitly and emotionally -- is it to get Brian Cushing back on the field?

Ganguli: Cushing makes a difference in both ways. He creates mismatches in the pass rush that free up the outside linebackers. His presence in the middle makes things easier on the Texans' defensive backs, too. Emotionally, Cushing provides an edge for the Texans' defense. His maniacal intensity is contagious and the Texans feed off it.

How will Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews impact each other?

Williamson: While Mathews is a decent pass-catcher, Woodhead is an exceptional all-around contributor in the passing game. Their roles should be very distinctive, with Mathews -- who has looked excellent this preseason -- as the early-down workhorse (if he can hold up) and Woodhead being the specialty movement player that is equal parts running back and slot receiver.

Watt is a rare interior pass-rusher, but does Houston have enough pressure coming from their 3-4 outside linebackers?

Ganguli: That remains to be seen. It's definitely been a focus for the Texans' outside linebacker group. Whitney Mercilus, now in his second year, has taken over as a starter opposite Brooks Reed after the departure of Connor Barwin. Mercilus set a franchise record for rookies with six sacks last season, but he missed most of training camp and the preseason. Reed is healthier than he was at the end of last season when he returned from a groin injury. He had an offseason surgery to repair it fully.

The best thing about outside linebacker Willie Jefferson right now is his ceiling.

It's high.

This is only the third season Jefferson has played defense. He switched from receiver after transferring to Stephen F. Austin. Though he made an impact as a defensive end there, he's still learning a lot.

"At the start of minicamp I was like a little fish," Jefferson said. "Right now I'm just swimming in the pool with sharks. Just trying to learn every day. Trying to learn something new. Sitting down with some of the vets, learning what they do to get through practice, get through games."

On Sunday against the Saints, Jefferson seemed constantly in New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees' face. He nearly took Brees down in the end zone once.

Jefferson, an undrafted rookie, played with the starters because of an injury to outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus. Jefferson is still working on his run-stopping, but his pass-rush ability was clear all summer and it continues to improve.

"I just feel like athletes make plays," Jefferson said. "Be out there on the island with a person that's bigger than me and slower than me, I just gotta have the chance to make a play. When I have the chance to make a play, I'm going to make one."

It has seemed easy for Jefferson, but it hasn't been.

"I had a time where it was just everything was just going over my head and I was like 'I need help,' Jefferson said. "Some of the best took care of me. Talk about I just need to calm down, take it one step at a time, learn one step at a time."

His development, which quickly rose past the level of two draft picks at his position, is a testament to staying healthy and making the most of the chances before him.
J.J. Watt's 2012 performance was off the charts.

And when things go off the charts, the expectation is that the follow-up will return to the charts.

Stephanie Stradley of the Houston Chronicle's Texans blog talked to the Houston Texans defensive lineman about the idea of regression, and he didn’t give it much credence. But even Wade Phillips has said it will be hard for Watt to match the sky-high numbers he posted last year (including 20.5 sacks).

Watt
Watt
Tristan Cockcroft looks at Watt’s 2013 potential from a fantasy perspective, where the defensive lineman is a giant presence in a league that includes individual defensive players (IDP).

“History says that it's Watt's position that presents his greatest danger of regression,” Cockcroft writes. “Linemen are the ones most at risk of ‘falling back to earth’ after big years."

Watt is a break-the-mold sort of guy.

Few of us would have said he could have done what he did in 2012. It would be foolhardy to insist we could predict what he will do for a follow-up. Heck, he’s got a healthy elbow now and he didn’t last year.

But it’s not unreasonable to look at history to see what has happened, and what has happened is typically the best indicator of what will happen.

“Watt amassed 61.5 of his 170.5 (fantasy) points from his sacks alone, and had he totaled, say, 12 sacks, he'd have scored a ‘more human’ 145 points yet still ranked among the greatest historical years by any IDP,” Cockcroft said. “Be aware that no player since 1982 has amassed 20 or more sacks in multiple years of his career; only nine players have managed at least 16, or an average of one per game, in multiple years.

“This isn't to say that Watt can't manage a second consecutive MVP-caliber campaign. It's merely a caution that even the greatest defensive players of the past two decades have had a difficult time maintaining the level he enjoyed in 2012.”

I expect Watt to have another big year, though I think the numbers won’t be as good. But I think the attention he draws will help teammates like Whitney Mercilus, Antonio Smith and Brian Cushing be even more productive.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak just said on "SportsCenter" that he isn't concerned with where the sacks come from, as long as they come.

"I think our numbers can improve as a team," he said.
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.”
After grabbing a strongside linebacker in the third round, the Houston Texans went with a weakside linebacker in the fourth: Trevardo Williams from UConn.

The Texans will now ideally have Whitney Mercilus and Williams on the weakside with Brooks Reed and Sam Montgomery on the strongside.

Williams is an athletic guy who was productive for the Huskies.

Like Montgomery, he will be making the conversion from college end to NFL linebacker under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and linebacker coach Reggie Herring.

NFL Draft Scout raves about Williams’ abilities at the snap.
"Explosive athlete with natural edge-rush ability. Extremely quick get-off to go with flexibility that makes him a consistent threat to round the edge on every play. Big-time closing burst in space. Exhibits an impressive lateral quickness when countering back to the inside from the edge. May have the best pure get-off of anyone edge rusher in this year's class. Relentless motor to the whistle. Exhibits acceleration to track down the stretch play from the backside."

The Texans still need to address inside linebacker.
Sam MontgomeryBrett Davis/USA TODAY Sports"I'm sure with the right coaching I will be fine," Sam Montgomery said of questions about his effort.

During his time at the NFL scouting combine, Sam Montgomery addressed concerns about the consistency of his effort as a college player.

The problem is that he admitted there were concerns about his effort as a college player.

He’s now a member of the Houston Texans, who Friday used their second third-round pick, 95th overall, on Montgomery, the LSU defensive end.

If there is an effort issue, it will fall on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring to get week-to-week and snap-to-snap effort from Montgomery. He seems to be a more complex character than they discussed.

At the combine, Montgomery said he didn’t play all-out because weak opponents allowed for some respite.

“You know, some weeks when we didn't have to play the harder teams, there were some times when effort was not needed,” Montgomery said in Indianapolis. “But when we had the big boys coming in, the Bamas or the South Carolinas, I grabbed close to those guys and went all-out.

“Of course, this is a new league, the NFL, and there are no small teams, small divisions. It is all Alabamas and LSUs every week. It's definitely something I have to get adjusted to, but I'm sure with the right coaching I will be fine.”

In a conference call with Houston media, Montgomery said his best quality is his relentlessness -- contradicting the idea that he didn’t give his all against teams like North Texas, Idaho and Towson.

Herring suggested that Montgomery got caught up in entertaining the media, given that he likes to talk, and that his film didn’t show a lack of effort -- something general manager Rick Smith has said he cannot accept from a player.

“If anything, the young man is guilty of being a bit na´ve," Herring said.

A scout I asked about Montgomery didn’t reply with an effort question.

“He plays very hard,” he said. “Good pick.”

The Texans plan to start Montgomery out as a strongside linebacker, so their first four picks have addressed three areas of concern.

DeAndre Hopkins should be the No. 2 receiver, D.J. Swearinger could play a lot as a nickel or dime safety, tackle Brennan Williams could win the right-side job from the recovering Derek Newton and Montgomery should be part of a rotation.

Houston hopes he’ll be part of a three-man gang, along with Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, that splits up the work at outside linebacker.

Last season, when the Texans drafted Mercilus in the first round, they said the same thing about using him with Connor Barwin and Reed.

But Reed’s playing time only really dipped when he missed four games hurt. Barwin, who’s since gone to Philadelphia as a free agent, played 93.8 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Even with four starts, Mercilus was on the field only 46.6 percent of the time.

The Texans will have to learn how well Montgomery can drop and cover, something he wasn’t doing as a college defensive end in a 4-3 scheme under LSU coordinator John Chavis.

“He’s big, strong, powerful, explosive individual,” Herring said. “The one thing that he will have to learn is that he will have to learn to drop a little bit and things that he hasn’t done as a defensive end at LSU -- understanding that they don’t cultivate OLBs in college, so we have to pull from the defensive end position.

“Basically, you have to give and take with their ability to drop out in space, something they haven’t done. That remains to be seen. That’s something we’ll have to work on. As far as playing the run and having pass rush skills and having the play strength that’s above average in college, he has a foundation to be a good outside backer for us.”

One thing that might have hastened the draft drop by Montgomery, once rated as a first-round prospect, was his inclusion on a list of 10 players by LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt.

Moffitt posted the names for scouts and said they were athletes who “miss workouts and always have an excuse.”

“They lack the self discipline and motivation to take care of their responsibilities,” the sign on an office door in the Tigers' facility said. “I will not answer questions regarding their performance numbers or character, as they care only about themselves.”

ESPN.com scout Matt Williamson said he likes the idea of Montgomery as a strongside linebacker in Phillips’ system.

“They really play a 5-2, so strongside 5-2 defensive end/outside linebacker,” Williamson said. “Supposedly had some awful interviews at combine, though.”

Williamson is the second person in one night who mentioned that to me.

Clearly, Montgomery’s interview with Houston was fine, but a guy who bombed in multiple other opportunities seems concerning.

Perhaps what Montgomery said about playing with Antonio Smith hints that he can qualify as wacky to some, wacko to others.

Montgomery said he knows Smith, the Texans defensive end who calls himself the "ninja assassin."

"I'm willing to take the ninja's teaching," Montgomery said, “and make ninjasonic out of it."
Personality-wise, Connor Barwin was one of the most affable, likeable guys in all of the AFC South.

Production-wise, after a big drop-off from 2011 to 2012, we’re going to have to wait and see.

Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle reports that Barwin's six-year deal with the Eagles is worth $36 million, with incentives that can lift the value to $40 million. That’s close to what the Texans offered him before the 2012 season, she adds.

That’s a great payday for a guy who will have plenty of chances to rush the passer in Philadelphia’s new 3-4 defense.

The team he left behind had the foresight to draft a first-round outside linebacker last year. Whitney Mercilus didn’t force the Texans to play him as much as the team and player would have liked, but he did get to show off some pass-rushing skill. He will have to fare better against the run.

And Houston will need to draft another outside linebacker, a spot that is a regular restock position for plenty of 3-4 teams. Bryan Braman is a fan favorite for his work on special teams but has not looked comfortable or ready when given a chance on defense.

The Texans got insufficient pass rush from everyone on defense except J.J. Watt last season. Brooks Reed, Mercilus and whoever else lines up on the edge will find plenty of one-on-one matchups they have to win.

It’s unfortunate that the Texans are in a position in which free-agent defections affect what they do in the draft. But losing Glover Quin and Barwin means they have to restock with a safety and an outside linebacker, even if veteran safety Ed Reed joins the team.

They have to have contingency plans for an aging veteran and develop someone for when he’s done.

My plan for the Houston Texans

March, 7, 2013
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My plan for the Houston Texans as we approach the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year:

Finances: Cut wide receiver Kevin Walter, saving $2.5 million in cap space. Restructure the deal of wide receiver Andre Johnson, reducing his base salary from $10.5 million to $940,000 (giving him the rest now as a bonus), resulting in a salary cap savings of $7.17 million. Restructure the deal of cornerback Johnathan Joseph, reducing his base salary from $7.5 million to $940,000 (giving him the rest now as a bonus), resulting in a salary cap savings of $4.373 million. Extend defensive end Antonio Smith, reducing his 2013 base salary of $6 million and his cap charge of $9.5 million significantly.

Continuity: Re-sign safety Glover Quin. The Texans didn’t use the franchise tag on him but would face a tough hole to fill if they let him depart. He’s carved out a good role on this defense, and it would be mutually beneficial for him to stay. In addition to extending Smith and saving money, invest in inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who counts $4.643 against the cap in the final year of his initial deal and is due $3.143 million in base salary.

Turnover: Allow outside linebacker Connor Barwin to leave as a free agent if he gets a good deal. Although it would be nice to keep him, the team is equipped to move on without him and should be able to draft a player who can be the third guy at the position behind Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus. Brice McCain can be a nice nickel but should be replaceable if he finds an opportunity he prefers. Be done with nose tackle Shaun Cody.

Additions: Sign a free agent defensive tackle like Roy Miller from Tampa Bay. He’s a good run stopper who could replace Cody and be better in tandem with Earl Mitchell in Wade Phillips' 3-4 front, which allows for a smaller nose. Mike DeVito (New York Jets) could also work and wouldn’t have to transition to 3-4 thinking.

Draft: Swing big for a wide receiver who can line up opposite Johnson and pose a matchup threat. Perhaps Cal’s Keenan Allen or Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins fits the bill. Tavon Austin from West Virginia, who is smaller and quicker, could give the Texans the sort of weapon they don’t have. Use other early picks on inside linebacker, safety depth and corner/nickel depth. Emphasize linebacker with late picks, looking to boost special teams coverage and blocking.
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Houston Texans traded DeMeco Ryans after the 2011 season and as they look to recover from a 2012 filled with injuries at inside linebacker, I’ve maintained that a one-dimensional position doesn’t require big attention. It can be easily filled.

Tom Gower of Football Outsiders and Reading and Thinking Football sees it as a bigger need. He argues, basically, that if the Texans had a better inside linebacker to go with Brian Cushing, they wouldn’t be so quick to get out of their base defense.

That versatility would be helpful and give defensive coordinator Wade Phillips more options for how to, say, cover a tight end like Rob Gronkowski.

It’d be good if Phillips had extra alternatives, sure. The Patriots' quick-snapping offense gave the Texans all kind of troubles last season, twice. Perhaps if Houston could simply have stayed in base, we'd have seen less panic and more preparedness to matchup with what New England does so well.

So what’s general manager Rick Smith think about an inside linebacker spot where injury-prone Darryl Sharpton is the primary option at this point?

“Obviously you want the best players you can find, a guy that can stay on the field,” Smith said at the scouting combine. “You make a mistake if you try to limit yourself just to trying to fit a particular player in a particular role. I think what you try to do is you get the best football players and you let it sort itself out.”

If the team adds an inside backer who could be a three-down player, how much might Phillips change how he deploys his personnel?

“What I think is it gives him some options,” Smith said. “If we have two inside backers who can stay on the field in passing situations and matchup better against [tight ends], I think that’s a positive. If he wants to employ a three-safety system in other situations whether it’s longer distances or a blitz package or whatever it is, if he wants to employ those he can. I think the more you have players who can stay on the field and impact the game I think that’s the option, that’s the ultimate for him because it gives him the flexibility that he likes.”

There is one other possibility at play here.

If the Texans re-sign Connor Barwin, as they say they want to, then they’ll have Barwin, Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus as outside linebackers.

Coach Gary Kubiak indicated they could look at Reed inside.

"He's very capable of being a stack player, playing inside in our 3-4,” Kubiak said. “Yes, that could happen. But we'd liked him as a Sam, he's a heck of a Sam player. But you've always have to have some flexibility with one player or two players in various situations when you come across like what we did last year.

“Depending on what happens with our football team moving forward right now with Connor (Barwin) and some other things, we're always looking for some flexibility."

We’ll have to stay tuned.

But with or without Barwin, I expect the Texans will be adding a linebacker in free agency or the draft. The questions remain, with how much of an investment or with how high a pick?

Greetings from Reliant Stadium

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
12:00
PM ET
HOUSTON -- Greetings from Reliant Stadium where we are approaching kickoff of the biggest game between division teams this season so far.

The big lineup/personnel question is about the Colts' offensive line, where A.Q. Shipley is in at center for the injured Samson Satele and Jeff Linkenbach is in at right tackle for the injured Winston Justice.

The Texans’ pass rush beyond J.J. Watt has largely stalled, and it would be giant if the outside linebackers, Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus, could generate some consistent pressure or make some big plays against quarterback Andrew Luck.

It was pouring outside when I came in at about 9:30 a.m. CT. The Reliant Stadium roof is pretty much always closed, so there was no doubt it was going to be closed today. Fans here often stay away rather than venturing out into the rain, the Houston Chronicle's John McClain tells me. It will be interesting to see if the weather manages to help the Colts by keeping some people away and making it a bit less loud. The over-under for when I dry out is halftime. I'm taking the over.

A couple notes of interest heading into this game, thanks to ESPN Stats & Information:
  • Luck needs 260 passing yards to break Cam Newton’s rookie record of 4,051 set last season.
  • The Colts have allowed 3.2 yards per rush before first contact this season, the fourth-worst rate in the NFL. The Texans have rushed by design 48.1 percent of the time this season, second-highest in the NFL.
  • The Texans are coming off a 28-point loss to the Patriots, their largest margin of defeat since 2008. According to Elias Sports Bureau, only four of the 46 Super Bowl winners lost a game by at least 28 points: the 2003 Patriots, 1994 49ers, 1979 Steelers and 1976 Raiders.
  • Arian Foster has 46 touchdowns over the past three seasons, 12 more than any other player.
  • Over the last four games, the Texans are allowing a league-high 439.0 yards per game. Through nine games this season, the Texans were second in the NFL in total defense, allowing 281.6 yards per game.

The full list of inactives:

Colts
Texans

Key injuries in the AFC South

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
5:43
PM ET
A look at the key injuries and what they mean in the AFC South…

Colts

Safety Tom Zbikowski, right tackle Winston Justice, inside linebacker Kavell Conner, center Samson Satele and running back Delone Carter are out.

Of the new missing guys, replacements will be right tackle Jeff Linkenbach, inside linebacker Pat Angerer, center A.Q. Shipley and running back Mewelde Moore.

Jaguars

Running backs Rashad Jennings, Maurice Jones-Drew and Jordan Todman, cornerback Aaron Ross and defensive end George Selvie are out. Montell Owens will start at running back again.

Austin Pasztor is expected to start at let guard, where Mike Brewster is done for the season and Eben Britton is seemingly out of chances. Receiver Cecil Shorts is expected to play.

Texans

Outside linebacker Brooks Reed and cornerback Alan Ball are out. Whitney Mercilus will continue to work as the outside linebacker replacing Reed.

Inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton, safety Glover Quin (hip) and right tackle Derek Newton are questionable. Quintin Demps would replace Quin.

Titans

Designations come tomorrow since they play Monday night. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is not expected to play and Tim Shaw would start for him again. Receiver Damian Williams and end Scott Solomon also missed Friday practice.
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."

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