Texans State of the Union:  Defense

Three weeks ago the Texans were cruising.  They were riding a three-game winning streak, and at 5-3 Houston was positioning themselves for a run at the post-season.  Now after three divisional losses that were all squandered in the fourth quarter, the season seems lost for the Texans.  Some have begun speculating that head coach Gary Kubiak will lose his job and the franchise will once again start over, while others have already started to focus on the pinnacle of the Texans' season (the draft), while another small contingent of fans cling to hope that the remaining soft schedule will allow the team to pull off a five game miracle finish to sneak into the playoffs. 

The wide spectrum of feelings is understandable.  The Texans have what is undoubtedly their best team ever, but despite that promise, they keep meandering around mediocrity.  The game Sunday against the Colts is a perfect metaphor for the season.  In the first half the Texans looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball, and then in the second half they didn't look like they belonged on the same field. 

So what should we think of this colossally frustrating squad?  I'm sure Tim will write a great breakdown on the train wreck for this weekend, so I want to cover what I think of the future, not just for the season but for next year as well.  In an effort to break it up, I will start with the defense, then move on to the offense and finally look at the coaching staff. 

Author's Note:  Please don't consider this as me giving up on 2009.  I will explain my opinion on what can and should be accomplished in the remaining five games, but I feel the near and far-term future go hand in hand so it's easier to explain it all at once.

The defense was the biggest focal point of the offseason.  It didn't take a genius after 2008 to figure out that side of the ball needed more help.  The vast majority of draft and free agent focus was spent on the defensive squad after Gary Kubiak went out on a limb to give longtime friend and colleague Fred Bush the defensive coordinator position despite having Bush no experience at that level.

- Defensive End: 

- Antonio Smith has been worth the ransom we paid for him.  He is one of the new additions that has created a mean streak that had been lacking last season.  That emotion can be detrimental at times, but I think he is just one of those players who you have to take the occasional bone-headed play from along with his inspired ones.  Smith has applied considerably more pressure than his 2 sacks suggest, and he also has been adept against the run.

- Mario Williams is seriously hurt, and his shoulder likely won't heal until the offseason.  That's a shame too because he finally has a bookend supplying the kind of pressure Williams never had before when he was being singled out by protection schemes.  One thing that still plagues Mario is his aggressiveness.  Opponents continually allow him to rush straight into the backfield and then run the ball right by him.  Williams is a gamer and will continue to give his best, but I don't think he will be back to regular form until next season, and there might even be a possibility of surgery following this year.

-Rookie Connor Barwin is just as raw as expected.  His two sacks were the results of both speed and effort, which constitute the entirety of his pass rushing moves as of now.  While some may argue that second round picks shouldn't be used on projects, the presence of Smith gives Barwin some time to learn his trade before he learns the tricks. 

- Defensive Tackle:

- Amobi Okoye is not a bust, but he's not yet a Pro Bowler either.  I'd like to think that he'll get to that level eventually, but at least he's showing that last year was more of a fluke than 2007 was.  So far Amobi has been better against the run than I thought he'd be, but not as good at pressuring the quarterback as I'd expected.

- The Texans larger nose tackles have been decent to invisible, but out of Shaun Cody, Jeff Zgonina, DelJuan Robinson and Frank Okam, there isn't a single starting caliber player at the position. 

- Linebacker: 

- DeMeco Ryans is about as consistent as possible, which is key considering he plays a position which values that attribute above all others.  Ryans isn't the type of player that will ever have an abundance of sexy stats like sacks or interceptions, but he can almost always be relied upon to know his assignments, lead the defense and plug the middle.  Losing him would be an enormous blow because while he may not be the best defensive player, he is by far the defensive MVP.

- Brian Cushing has been just as good if not better than advertised.  You can nitpick at his coverage technique but no player is perfect, especially a rookie.  All bias aside, Cushing gets my early vote for Defensive Rookie of the Year because while Brian Orakpo has the sacks and Jairus Byrd has the interceptions; Cushing has shown the ability to do it all. 

- Zac Diles has been decent at the WLB position but nothing earth shattering.  Xavier Adibi has seen little of the field since his removal from the nickel package in favor of Cushing in Week Two.  Both are serviceable, but added depth would be beneficial, although low, on the list of priorities.

Cornerback:

- Dunta Robinson is not a number one corner... period.  I know he is still a fan favorite to some, but the tape doesn't lie--he is not good in coverage.  Quick, without looking, how many pass interferences can you remember Dunta committing because he was burnt?  Now how many touchdowns do remember getting thrown to his man?  Now how many interceptions and pass breakups do you think he has?  I will give it to him that he plays the run extremely well for a cornerback, but that's not why you pay $25 million dollars guaranteed.  I would be shocked if he was re-franchised.  Rick Smith won't pay him the kind of money he is looking for, so in all likelihood he has five games left in Houston.

- Glover Quin is the reason that Dunta is expendable.  He plays the run just as well and in the same fashion that Dunta does.  He would, however, be just as abused as Robinson if he was out in the position to cover number one wide receivers, as would Jacques Reeves.  Both are pleasant surprises as a number two cornerback and nickel corner respectively, but that doesn't mean that they can move up the depth chart once Dunta leaves.  A lack of a true good-to-elite cover corner is one the biggest problems for this team, and considering that they don't get to free agency very often, it will likely be a problem next year too.  By the way, you might have been able to tell but I have written off both Fred Bennett and Antwaun Molden.

Safety:

- Bernard Pollard has changed this defense because of a mixture of good play on his part and complete lack thereof on all the other strong safeties prior to Pollard's assumption of the starting role.  He is not a prototypical interchangeable safety that can cover deep just as well as he can play the run, but it is rare to find a safety so good at one discipline.  I can understand Kansas City feeling that they didn't want to start him, but he has made them look terribly stupid for giving him an outright release.  As long as he is paired with a good coverage free safety, Pollard is a huge asset against the run and I am just as in favor of re-signing him as Mike Kerns is.

- Eugene Wilson is a good coverage safety and plays well with Pollard.  The problem is that Wilson has played all 16 games in just one of his 7 NFL seasons, which is probably the reason why the personnel savvy Patriots let him go.  What amplifies this problem is that the depth at safety is probably the weakest throughout the entire team (offense and defense) as Dominique Barber and John Bushing are substandard.

Summation:

- After three games of sieve-like defense, Gary Kubiak was under fire for elevating Frank Bush to a position that he appeared to not be ready for.  Since those first three games, however, the defense has outperformed the offense.  During the four losses in the time period stated, the defense allowed an average of 12 second half points, which is counting the two pick-6 interceptions that Matt Schaub threw.  These were all games that were winnable and while the defense is not without fault, the offense continually showed an inability to put games away. 

- The defense's performance is admirable considering the lack of depth and talent at certain positions, and Frank Bush should be commended for it.  Take for example the lack of talent at NT, which has allowed opposing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket even when pressure is being applied on the outside.  To counter this, Bush has sent Cushing on blitzes, resulting in 1.5 sacks but also making the defense susceptible to outside runs as well as quarterback sneaks like what we saw against Tennessee.  Another huge problem is the coverage.  If zone coverage is called, tight ends like Dallas Clark and Vernon Davis eat the middle for lunch, but if you go with man coverage you either concede Dunta getting burnt or lose a player to continually helping him over the top.  Both options allow for quarterbacks to know exactly where they can deliver the ball and thus avoid pressure with quick throws.  It's a vicious cycle.

Future:

- This season looks good for the defense considering they face the 24th, 22nd, 21st, 12th, and 2nd (in a game that may not feature starters for too long) offenses in the remainder of the season.  Not only are they unproductive, but many are one-dimensionally favored toward running, which is something the Texans have stopped lately, even if marginally so in a loss against a Titans squad that scored 20 points.  I believe that DeMeco will go to another Pro Bowl, and Brian Cushing will be defensive ROY.

- The future looks bright for the Texans' D despite the current holes.  Pollard, Okoye, Williams, Ryans and Cushing have all yet to play their fifth season, making the corps of the unit extremely young.  Cornerback would be my first priority for the draft as it is not only the most glaring weakness but the position also typically takes at least a year or two before a player can rise to a great or even good status.  Defensive Tackle and Safety are close behind with both being slightly less crucial because serviceable players currently fill those spots.

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