Wouldn't you know, I had most of this set typed up and then suddenly Brian Cushing put it on himself to make me knock one of the questions off. Such a narcissist!
As constructed, this defense probably deserves more than five questions, but here at Five Questions we stick by our guns like Gary Kubiak sticks with Kris Brown. Which is to say, until it nearly costs me a job, I'm not doing anything about it. So here, readers, are my five most pressing questions for the Texans defense in 2010:
1) Can Kareem Jackson (or any of the cornerbacks) replace Dunta Robinson?
Me typing that probably has you in hysterics, Let me allow you a minute to drink a glass of water. Now you've got the hiccups. That's what you get for jumping to conclusions.
No, no, I wasn't referring to last year's Dunta Robinson, who would have been more effective on the sideline shouting "DROP IT!" at nearby receivers than he was on the field. I'm talking about vintage 2004 "6 picks and 3 forced fumbles" Dunta Robinson. This secondary has its share of solid players, but as Steph pointed out in her latest blog piece with KC Joyner, the Texans have gone a long time without having any actual playmakers in the secondary. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but my personal philosophy is that as the passing game has had the rules tilted more and more in its favor, the value of the turnover has gone up.
Enter "Ice" Kareem Jackson, owner of 300 pairs of shoes and, hopefully, opposing wideouts' souls. Jackson may have been the most NFL-ready cornerback in this draft, and I'm not out to criticize the Texans front office on draft picks as I don't write for Stampede Blue, but despite essentially starting from day one as a freshman, Jackson managed just 5 interceptions in three years. This could be something that Kyle Wilson believers will bring up quickly if Jackson struggles out of the gate.
Perhaps Jackson pans out as a true projection pick and starts picking off balls left and right, or perhaps Glover Quin enjoys a leap in his second season and becomes a ballhawk. It's not out of the realm of possibility. But the way things are constructed, and with a cold shoulder to free agent safety Darren Sharper as team policy dictates elderly discrimination, it's not looking like the Texans have a chance to break the low turnover cycle. And that's a shame, because when you play as many close games as the Texans have over the past couple of years, even five extra turnovers would make (and would have made) an enormous difference.
2) How will this team replace Brian Cushing for the first four games of the season?
With a combination of Zac Diles on one side and Danny Clark or Darryl Sharpton on the other, assuming that Kevin Bentley is a special teamer and Xavier Adibi is busy cleaning up the feces of Gary Kubiak's dogs off his lawn. There. Simple question, simple answer.
Oh, you wanted actual analysis. Okay then.
It's never easy to lose a terrific defensive player In fact, there is no upside to it. But there is some good news in the form of timing. There isn't actually a weak link in this brutal schedule the Texans were dealt, but Cushing is missing just one division game and the Texans do get two of the few teams that were under .500 last year on their schedule early on in Washington and Oakland. Of these four teams, Indianapolis, Washington, and Oakland were all varying degrees of awful according to FO's run offense DVOA last year. 20th, 28th, and 26th in the league respectively. In fact, since the Texans ran a shell defense against the Colts in both of last year's meetings, and Diles is actually respectable in coverage, there might not be much of a dropoff at all against Indy's pass game. These three teams also did little to improve their running games in the offseason, and will instead be relying on players like Donald Brown and Darren McFadden to live up to their draft hype or players like Trent Williams to come in and play well as rookies.
Unfortunately, they also scheduled the Dallas game early. That could be a problem. Unless my wishful thinking that the Cowboys' offensive line collapses on itself due to old age comes to fruition, and we all pray it will.
3) Is regression a possibility for the run defense?
Shaun Cody, career role player, came on and delivered an obscene 100% stuff rating in 18 "plays" after joining the starting lineup in Week 4. Of course he has no past record of doing anywhere near that well, it's a small sample size, and his play to people who actually watched the games (i.e., myself and Pro Football Focus) was graded as mediocre. Instead of solidifying nose tackle, the Texans continue to draft smaller and get lighter and quicker up front.
Bernard Pollard came on and had a solid year by any statistical standard, but this was also the first year he ever performed at that level. He's always had promise, but was last year a case of him finally getting it, or was he also playing over his head? I'd tend to believe he got it, but it's not exactly an open-and-shut case, which is probably why the Texans didn't sign him to a long term deal this offseason, instead opting to give him a restricted free agent tender.
These were the two keys to our running defense turning around last year, and just as they came out of nowhere, they very well could return to nowhere this season. Instead of building to solidify their gains, the Texans have continued to focus on speed and quickness. Keep in mind that as well as the Texans run defense played in some of their games last season, BFD has pointed out reasons for doubt against teams with real quarterbacks. Also note that they couldn't stop Jacksonville or Tennessee even with those changes, and the convenient cherry picking dismissal of pre-week 4 stats contains, you guessed it, one game each against Jacksonville and Tennessee.
Of course, the Texans could very well be just as good at run defense as they were last season after Week 4, in which case BFD, Matt, myself, and all other Galactus NT believers will probably sit down in rural Arkansas for the biggest crow helping we've ever had. It's a cultural delicacy there, I hear. But I have my doubts. If a solid run defense is required infrastructure for a good defense, I'd say we've poured concrete around a foundation of super-glued balsa wood.
Oh, and that Brian fellow. Whats his last name? Crushing? Yeah, missing him the first four games might hurt some too.
4) What will the young defensive line core bring to the table?
The Texans come into this year with two reliable pass rushers: Mario Williams and Antonio Smith. Between Earl Mitchell, Connor Barwin, and Amobi Okoye, the Texans need to find 10-15 sacks and more pressure than they've been getting.
I'm most optimistic about Barwin on the outside, and with his skillset and a full year of training camp at a position he's still very new at, he could push Smith inside on more than just passing downs. Okoye's weight loss certainly couldn't hurt at this point, and perhaps it will even make John McClain stop referring to him as a run-stuffer. I'm hoping there's a surprise in Mitchell, but right now I see him as a third down player in this system, perhaps elevated to the starting lineup after the first couple of months.
Simply put, the absolute best way to disrupt these big passing teams is to get pressure right up the gut. Checkdowns and dumpoffs are still possible when you come from around the corner, but if you get right up in a quarterback's face, the play is virtually over. For far too long, the Texans defense has been incapable of getting anywhere up the middle that doesn't come out of a stunt. As I'm sure most of the site knows, I campaigned for Dan Williams for this very reason. Bill Kollar has elected to go with speed over power, and here's hoping he was right, but I have very low expectations out of that middle of the line again this year. Unless...
5) Will a healthy Mario Williams return to full beast mode?
Here's the question that changes everything about the defense. The Texans managed to post their BEST DEFENSE IN FRANCHISE HISTORY (TM) despite a down year rushing the passer from Mario Williams, who played through a shoulder injury the majority of the year. Williams spent the year deciding to learn how to play run defense at an elite level, and was an underrated factor of the actual run defense improvement.
Now, should Williams reconcile this run defense with his 2007-2008 pass rush form, he might very well put the defense on his back and carry the Texans to the playoffs all by himself. In a star-driven league, you only go as far as your stars go. Because as John Lynch reminded us, big-time players need to play big-time games and drink big-time coffee and come to play the game in a manner that is generally big-time. While Williams managed the injury well enough to be great last year, any further pass rush improvement to the skillset he showed last season would cause a cascade effect that would make the Texans defense look mighty good whether they were coached by Frank Bush, Art Shell, or Napolean.
So how about you, BRB? What questions about the defense (involving the players) pop up in your head as more important than these?