As Tim alluded to in his postgame writeup, the defense came to play last Sunday. Matt Schaub and Steve Slaton owe the defensive squad a few baskets of muffins for giving up only 7 points on three first quarter turnovers. While the Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Bills are not exactly an offensive juggernaut, allowing zero second half points is impressive against any NFL team.
Speaking of playing a sub-standard offensive team, the issue of nitpicking because of the competition came up after a strong showing by the defense against the Oakland Raiders. Since that game though, the defense has played what in my estimation is likely the best five consecutive games in Texans franchise history.
In the offseason, there was a general consensus among the commenters on this site. The defense obviously needed to improve the abysmal play under Richard Smith, but several areas were specifically identified. The defense was shredded regularly in the preseason and after the first three games of the season, and for good reason--the improvements were nowhere to be found. What areas have the Texans improved, and which ones still haven't appeared yet?
1. Stop the run - The turn around in the defense's ability to stymie the run is remarkable. After the first three games of the year, the Texans were dead last in rush defense, averaging 205 yards allowed. Since that time, the defense has given up a paltry 291 total in five games. That's only 52 yards per opponent. Before anyone criticizes those opponents, four of those teams have averaged over 100 yards rushing a game when not playing the Texans (Cincinnati 141, Buffalo 112, San Francisco 107, Oakland 101).
It's been a team effort to create this change. The defensive linemen have all improved at the point of attack, especially Amobi Okoye and Antonio Smith. Neither has crazy statistics, but both are having success penetrating into opposing backfields. While the Jacques Reeves interception was namely due to miscommunication between Fitzpatrick and Terrell Owens, Amobi Okoye forced the early errant throw. The combination of Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans at the second level has been incredible because not only do both have a nose for the ball but they have rarely missed tackles (in the last five games). Lastly, the Texans have three defensive backs that are extremely good at defending the run and screen passes--Bernard Pollard, Glover Quin and despite all criticism, Dunta Robinson.
That's only half the answer though. The other half is that Frank Bush has been selling out against the run. It is very common to see Pollard creep into the box leaving only three defensive backs in coverage positions. This is one reason why two halves of these five games were marred by aerial attacks that garnered 21 points each (Cardinals and 49ers). While this has been working, someone will burn the Texans beyond anything the offense can repair in one game because of the next point.
2. Create Pressure/Sacks - I put both for a reason. The Texans have created a decent amount of pressure, but not nearly enough sacks. Only the Jaguars and the Chiefs have produced less sacks than the Texans, although quarterbacks are often hurried by a mixture of natural pass rush from the front four and a myriad of blitzes called by Frank Bush.
There are two problems with this phenomenon. First of all, supplying pressure without the sack works well against inexperienced/bad quarterbacks, but good/great quarterbacks deliver the ball whether they're going to get hit or not. The other problem is that the Texans secondary, while very good at supporting the run and short passes, is not great in coverage. Pollard is a true strong safety, Quin is learning, and Dunta just hasn't shown the ability to cover No. 1 receivers anymore. Eugene Wilson is good, but you need more than just one good coverage safety.
Antonio Smith was brought in to create disruption that opposing teams would have to focus on and therefore not double-team Mario Williams all of the time. Sometimes it works the other way around; both sacks against Buffalo were caused by Williams' pressure. In fact, despite a lingering shoulder injury, Wlliams often makes opposing quarterbacks to change their position in the pocket. If Bush can figure out a way to capitalize on this more regularly, like he did with Brian Cushing on his blitz on Sunday, we could start to see more sacks. Pressure also leads to one more thing...
3. Turnovers - The Texans had created 9 defensive turnovers at the halfway mark last year and had 22 at the end of the season. They have 15 this season, 11 of which have come in this particular five-game swing. Of those 16, only 6 are interceptions, going back to the point that the Texans do not employ a coverage-oriented secondary. The turnover numbers aren't record setting, but a 66% improvement is substantial.
The biggest catalyst of turnovers?... Brian Cushing. We've kicked the "I was wrong and I am so glad" horse beyond death, but criticism of Cushing remains. He's not an All Pro, maybe not even a Pro Bowler, but what would you have done for a SLB with a statline of 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 7 pass deflections, 1 safety and 66 tackles halfway through last season?
Who is responsible for these changes? Is it the new defensive coordinator? Is it the free agent pickups (Smith, Cody, Pollard)? Maybe the rookies (Cushing, Quin)? Probably a little of all of the above. That creates one more interesting and possibly detrimental aspect though; this is a young defense that is still learing how to play together. There are five current starters who didn't play in Houston last year, and that number goes up to seven if you count Dunta Robinson and Zac Diles, who both missed at least half of last season due to injury.
The defense will continue to have lapses of inconsistency because of youth and inexperience. In the offseason though, we were hoping for marginal improvement. After all, the confidence in the offense is as high as ever, so the theory of "a mediocre defense makes this team good" remains valid. There will be highs and lows, but if the defense plays close to the level that they've shown in the last five games, they can be much better than mediocre.