Can the Texans' secondary improve and key a breakthrough against the Colts?
Things are looking up for the Texans, who had their first winning season and finished second in the AFC South in 2009.
But the big question is whether a pass defense that was 18th in the league last season, allowing an average of 217.9 yards a game, will be better. Let's be blunt: For the Texans to challenge for the AFC South title, they've got to at least split their season series with Indianapolis. They are 1-15 all-time against Indy.
To break through and knock off the Colts, they’ll have to slow Peyton Manning.
In two wins over Houston last year, Manning completed 61 of 85 passes for 562 yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions and a 90.4 passer rating.
But the Texans were certainly in range -- the road loss was 20-17, the home defeat was 35-27.
So how have the Texans gotten better defensively to be ready for Manning?
Sub first-round cornerback Kareem Jackson, a physical player, for Dunta Robinson, who to fled Atlanta in free agency. Add fifth-rounder Sherrick McManis to the cornerback pool that features unproven or inconsistent guys. Add defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who could produce a better push than Amobi Okoye in some situations. They did not address free safety, a position where I think they are overconfident in Eugene Wilson.
In that paragraph, it doesn’t look like enough.
But if second-round running back Ben Tate is what they expect, he’ll complete the offense. He’ll make Matt Schaub's play-action far tougher to read. He’ll convert a couple of crucial third-and-shorts.
That may mean less possessions for Manning and fewer minutes on the field for Houston’s defense.
The breakthrough now may actually be more about coaching and mental toughness than talent.
Preparation, play calling, execution and, yes, mental toughness, are the things that may prove most significant for a tide-turning win.
But even if they get all that, if the secondary isn’t better, it may not matter.
The Texans have some guys who can be in position and still fail to make a play. They may have led the division in near-miss breakups last year. Earl Thomas' ball skills were a big reason a lot of people envisioned them loving him in the draft, but the safety from Texas was gone well before the Texans went on the clock at No. 20 and selected Jackson.
As a secondary, they need to track it, find it, knock it away, catch it. If they do those things more often, maybe they can challenge Indy. If they don’t, they’re playing for second place and a wild-ard berth just like Tennessee and Jacksonville.