The Houston Texans' defense, captained by legendary talent and eternal good guy J.J. Watt, has long been the pride and joy of this city. The defense dragged a largely sub-par offense kicking and screaming into the postseason last year, only to have Brian Hoyer do Hoyer-ish things and essentially collapse like a dying star on national television. While the offense is markedly improved due to a complete offseason overhaul, the Texans' defense will still be the key to the Super Bowl run that all of Houston has pinned their hopes on this season. The Texans may finally have all of the pieces in place to be the legendary, goes-down-in-history type of unit that they have seemed so close to for so long.
1. Justin James "I Can Play Through A Billion Torn Muscles" Watt will need to be healthy and remain healthy for the duration of the season. Though he is clearly capable of superhuman feats, his return should not be rushed for any reason, and I certainly can't think of a worse reason to rush him back than the lousy Chicago Bears. When Watt is at 100, he is the most dominant talent in the league. Watt's absence from the field in the preseason was a glaring weakness, but his return will shore up what was still an impressive defensive line.
2. Whitney Mercilus has one of the best names for a linebacker that I have ever heard. He has also quietly developed into one of the best defensive talents on the Texans' roster and should have another exceptional season as he makes a push for a Pro Bowl invitation that he will hopefully have an excellent reason to decline (read: Super Bowl prep). In 2015, Mercilus compiled 52 tackles, one forced fumble, two passes defended, and nearly doubled his sack totals from any previous season with 12. These numbers, while incredible, still don't do justice to the impact that he has on the field. If Mercilus' growth continues this season, Houston's defensive front could be the best in the league.
3. Jadeveon Clowney is one of the most polarizing figures in Houston football, and for good reason. The man is essentially a one-man wrecking ball, but most seasons he appears to be made of the least-durable material on earth. When Clowney was drafted in 2014, the possibility of his talent alongside Watt's was almost too exciting for the city to handle. As the video of the "hit heard 'round the world" circulated, the expectation of playoff tickets punched was in the air. Then it all fell drastically to pieces each time the first overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft went down. This preseason was a spark of hope in the Clowney affair, as the linebacker resembled his former self, knocking men over and getting to the QB. If he can stay healthy this season, Clowney's contributions will help push Houston's defense into a deep playoff run.
4. Brian Cushing is a monster on the field and a human hype machine in the locker room. His pregame speeches and mic'd up games are the stuff of legend. Cushing had a huge season in 2015, with 110 tackles and three passes defended; he remains one of the most important pieces of the Texans' defense. His continued leadership and madman ability to make plays all over the field will be essential to a Houston Super Bowl push this year.
5. Benardrick McKinney quickly won the hearts of Texans fans in his first season, racking up 63 tackles and a sack as a rookie. This year, he will return as a huge piece of Houston's defense and a man on a mission to continue his evolution. Lined up opposite veteran Cushing, McKinney has a great talent to model his game after. He has shown an uncanny ability to shake off blocks and stop the run. After bulking up to over 265 lbs. in the offseason, McKinney is poised for another great year of contributions to the Texans' defense.
6. The pool of cornerback talent that is Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Kevin Johnson is poised to be one of the best units in the NFL this season. Jackson (58 tackles, six passes defended, 2 INT, and a FF) and Joseph (58 tackles, 22 passes defended, one INT) both had solid performances last year. The return of second-year CB and 2015 first-round pick Johnson will strengthen the unit and give Houston some much-needed depth in the secondary. While safety is still an area of concern, this top-tier group of cornerbacks will give the Texans plenty of security in the red zone.
Houston's defensive strength expands beyond those mentioned above to include the legendary Vince Wilfork and second-year defensive end Christian Covington. While the immense talent on this roster is overwhelming, Houston still needs their stars to come together and work as a unit. If the past few seasons are any indication, the Texans' defense has been on the brink of something special for quite a while. This could be the season that pushes them over the edge and into Super Bowl contention.
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