HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans' defense is brimming with confidence, expecting to swarm, believing it’ll be dominant.
And why not?
The Texans' D was second in the NFL last year in yardage allowed, balanced in stopping the run and the pass. A stable of young talent should get better. And last season's ascent on defense came after a lightning-quick installation during training camp following the lockout -- there was no offseason with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the staff.
“We’re going to be a whole lot better, because everybody fully understands the defense and all the concepts,” second-year defensive end J.J. Watt said. “So now we can just go out and have fun and not have to think about it.
“It’s going to be tough [on offenses]. They’re going to have to decide, really. If you want to block Brooks Reed, you’ve got me. If you want to block me, you’ve got Antonio Smith. If you want to block Antonio, you’ve got Connor Barwin. If you want to block all four of us you’ve got Brian Cushing. We’ve got guys coming from all over and Wade can draw up some serious schemes. So good luck. Who do you want to try to block?”
Many teams wound up playing a lot of max protection against the Texans last season, and Houston will often take that and chalk it up as a win. Even if you keep the Texans from hitting your quarterback, you’ve narrowed your options in the passing game by choosing to field extra blockers over pass targets. The defense has solid options to shut down primary weapons in such situations as well, starting with corner Johnathan Joseph, who will cover the top receiver.
Max protection certainly qualifies as a sign of respect for the Texans’ pass-rushing powers.
When Phillips was hired to revamp the defense last year, much of the talk was about the success his scheme had had in the first season virtually everywhere he’s installed it.
Before he joined the Texans, the seven teams with a first-year Phillips defense had posted a .571 winning percentage and gone to the playoffs five times. Last year’s team went 10-6 and won the AFC South.
Not everything is in a defense’s control, of course.
But teams with a second-year Phillips defense have not fared as well, posting a .471 winning percentage and advancing to the playoffs only once.
“He hasn’t talked about it at all and I don’t see any reason that would happen here,” Watt said. “If that’s the true stat, then we’re going to change that stat. Because we won’t let that happen. We were No. 2 last year, this year we want No. 1.”
Phillips doesn’t see any sort of trend.
The 2003 Falcons lost quarterback Michael Vick to injury. The 2005 Chargers and the 2008 Cowboys both finished 9-7.
“It’s not like the defense had a bad year, it just didn’t go quite the same as the year before,” he said. “New Orleans we were better, Philadelphia we were better. I was coordinating in those places too …”
“What we want to do is pick up where we left off at the end of the year, that’s the goal. We want to be near as good starting off as we were finishing last year. I think that’s the key to how well we play this year.”
Five of Phillips' previous seven teams were worse in points allowed in the second season than they were in the first.
Maybe the Texans are on the verge of becoming a defensive football team that constantly clamps down on opponents. But it’s also possible we see some sort of regression.
The Texans aren’t engaging in that idea, nor should they be.
“I think those kind of comparisons are not really fair,” Barwin said. “Every year is different. Every team is different. I don’t think you can really use those stats to say we’re not going to make the playoffs because Wade only did it once on the last five teams he coached.”
“We’ve got a good football team, a well-rounded football team.”
The one big question is about a new guard and tackle on the right side of the offensive line. The Texans won a playoff game with a rookie quarterback at the helm and will have Matt Schaub back in place. As they defend their first division crown, their competition all has bigger questions.
The Texans proved to have a deep defense that controlled a lot of games last season. They expect to do even more of that.
“I think with the players we have, we’re confident we’re only going to get better and improve,” said Cushing. “Last year we were still learning our defense in camp and through the first couple games of the season. Now we’ve got OTAs and a full season under our belt. We have a ton of confidence.”