We have all known that the national media does not really have packaged storylines for both of this season's best teams, the now 10-1 Houston Texans and the 9-1 Atlanta Falcons. This is the primary reason why they harp on those other nationally-known teams (New England, New Orleans, Peyton and the Nu-Manningettes, and New York) and seemingly shove the Texans and Falcons to the kiddie table, to borrow from some Thanksgiving imagery. Now that the Texans are a virtual lock to be one of 12 teams with a real shot at calling themselves World Champions, Houston has to be talked about and stories need to be generated.
For the media, Houston's recent defensive struggles are that story. Too many yards and points to Jacksonville. Too many yards and points to Detroit. According to the media, these are worrisome problems that make the Texans vulnerable and not as strong as Denver and New England. The problem here is that the media has jumped at the surface storyline and refused to do any leg work as to why there have been struggles.
With the Jaguars, the media harps on the overall image of offensive-anemic Jacksonville. This is an easy story to pitch to the nation. However, they have not really told you what caused the offensive spark, because the one-win Jaguars are not relevant and it creates a juicier story to blame Houston.
The gameplan for Blaine Gabbert was to put the onus on Gabbert and make him be a real quarterback. It did not seem like Houston would do more than blitz four and drop into zone. In the past, Gabbert would throw bad, inaccurate throws or let the pass rush get to him. However, once Gabbert left the game, a real quarterback stepped into the helm to play Pick-Apart-A-Zone, but the quarterback change was not the only issue with the defense.
Noticed by keen observers, the Jaguars, for the first time all season, and in a major philosophical shift for King of Iso-Routes Mike Mularkey, ran combination routes. For the uninitiated, combo routes are routes that offenses run to create open space. They are in place to take advantage of zone defenses by moving receivers, disguising routes, and creating faux-picks to create an open man.
A new offensive scheme and competent quarterback, plus a few missed bad tackles, created a prime opportunity for Jacksonville to shock the Texans. Eventually, and some might say belatedly, Houston would adjust and begin to frustrate Chad Henne and swat his passes, but a combination of unknowns changed the entire gameplan installed over the previous week and created a much closer game.
After a brutal defensive slugfest in Chicago and a five-quarter divisional showdown, the Texans came to Detroit, on a short week, against a team fighting to keep its postseason hopes alive and break a nine-game Thanksgiving Day losing streak. Additionally, their starting nose tackle and shutdown cornerback sat on the sideline and would soon be joined by a starting outside linebacker. Yet the game is still being cast as a defensive breakdown on the part of the Texans.
The most puzzling aspect? It's not as if the Lions have a bad offense. They entered the game as the second-best offense in the NFL. Calvin Johnson is a top-five receiver and a near indefensible talent. Matthew Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards last year. Brandon Pettigrew is another first-round talent, and Ryan Broyles would have gone in the late first or early second round last April had he not been injured. There are a lot of guys with legitimate skills on that roster.
While Detroit's offense is filled with talent, the current regime has also built a nasty attitude and aversion to losing in that locker room. Yes, they are young and prone to mistakes, but they are tired of talking about that Turkey Day losing streak. You knew this team would come in amped up to end that streak against a worn out Texans squad.
Yes, Alan Ball should never have been covering Calvin Johnson. Yes, Kareem Jackson actually did slow Johnson down in the second half. Yes, it sucks that the defense finally allowed a rushing touchdown and 21 first-half points, but is there no praise for making adjustments? No praise for holding Detroit to 10 in the second half and overtime? No praise for seven different players defending 13 passes? No praise for enduring another 87 plays after two brutal games in the past week-and-a-half?
Do not get it twisted. Everyone knows the defense still has things to fix. Darryl Sharpton needs to continue to get into game-shape, Shaun Cody and Johnathan Joseph need to get healthy, and the pass-rush needs someone else, preferably on the outside, to step up next to J.J. Watt, he of the 14.5 sacks, 13 passes defensed, and 24 tackles for a loss.
It is amazing that a 10-1 team still has things to work on and improve, but that is great for Houston and should be part of the narrative. The media is looking for a story, but they want to harp on a struggling defense, without acknowledging the circumstances, instead of focusing on the zombie-like Texans who will not die and give you everything they can in 60-plus minutes,
As for that defense, if they struggle against Tennessee, after a mini-bye, then it's time to panic. Right now? No one could have predicted the past week-and-a-half, but the defense still made enough adjustments to uphold its part of the bargain. It is far too early to freak out, and it ignores too much of what actually is happening--a 10-1 squad who could enter next week's game as the NFL's first team to clinch a playoff berth and the first with a legitimate shot to clinch their division.
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