If someone had said that the Texans would be tops in the AFC South and on their way to a top seed in the AFC playoff field, but they would be accomplishing this feat without arguable their best offensive and defensive players, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams, respectively, they’d be called crazy. Welcome to the crazy 2011 NFL season where Houston is amongst the league’s elite. And who would have really believed this possible? A lockout did away with offseason training sessions, eliminating valuable practice time in Wade Phillips new 3-4 defense, which included a plethora of position changes for existing personnel and the incorporation of new starters at all levels of the defense. Arian Foster, 2010′s rushing champ, entered the season injured. Head coach Gary Kubiak was already on the hot seat, only having survived the chopping block due to labor uncertainty and a looming lockout. And the aforementioned Andre Johnson and Mario Williams are injured in the season’s fourth and fifth weeks, respectively. Despite all of this potential turmoil, the Texans didn’t pack it in like they might have in past seasons. Instead, they are thriving.
The offense continues to click along. Matt Schaub is having a quietly solid season, minus the costly mistakes at crunch time that have plagued him in previous campaigns. But unlike past years, every week isn’t a shootout and the running game is a consistent presence throughout games. After dealing with injuries the past few seasons, tight end Owen Daniels is back to his play-making self, a la 2007 and 2008. He currently is leading Houston in catches with 37 and receiving yard with 478. An underrated offensive line, led by tackles Duane Brown and Eric Winston and center Chris Myers, has helped pave the way for the league’s third-ranked rushing attack, while allowing a mere 16 sacks on the year.
And Arian Foster is following up his amazing 2010 campaign with another fantastic season, despite missing two games and the better part of a third due to injury. It appeared that Foster might get “Wally Pipped” by last year’s second-rounder Ben Tate, who put up strong numbers in the first three weeks of the season. Foster, though, had other plans as he rumbled for 155 yards on 30 carries against the vaunted Steelers run defense, in his return to the lineup in week 4. He has not looked back since, posting 740 rushing (eighth best in the league) and 445 receiving yards with 8 total touchdowns. Ben Tate hasn’t disappeared, despite being supplanted as the starter. He leads the team with a 5.6 yards-per-carry average and is the NFL’s tenth-ranked rusher with 686 yards. Together Foster and Tate have spearheaded the Texans offense, bludgeoning opposing defenses and laying the foundation for a play-action passing game that has Matt Schaub registering a career-high in yards per attempt at 8.49.
The real story in Houston, though, is a defense allowing the second fewest points per game in the NFL. Bringing in Wade Phillips and installing a 3-4 base defense has been a masterstroke that, to this point, is saving the jobs of Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith. Brian Cushing is thriving at inside linebacker, registering a team high in tackles, along with 3 sacks, and 2 interceptions. Rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed is tied for the team lead in sacks with 5 (Mario Williams also posted 5 sacks before being lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle). Fellow outside ‘backer Connor Barwin and defensive end Antonio Smith are also applying consistent pressure on passers with 4.5 sacks each on the season. Rookie J.J. Watt has garnered some defensive rookie of the year buzz for his all-around play at defensive end. The secondary has improved dramatically since last season. The additions of corner Jonathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning in free agency, along with the exponentially-improved play of corner Kareem Jackson and the switch of Glover Quin to safety from corner, have brought the pass defense from dead last in the league in 2010 to an unbelievable second-place ranking to date.
To be sure, the AFC South is having a down year. The Manning-less Colts are absolutely dreadful and well on their way to an 0-16 season. Jacksonville, while boasting a solid defense, has the worst passing offense in the NFL, led by rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and a host of nondescript pass catchers. The Titans are maddeningly inconsistent, looking like contenders in the division one game and cellar dwellers the next. Against this not-so-fearsome triumvirate, the Texans have taken care of business, as well as dominating other hard-luck cases like the Dolphins and Browns. In past years, Houston would have found ways to lose to the bad teams. They have only defeated one playoff contender, Pittsburgh, while losing three to the Saints, Raiders, and Ravens, so we don’t know yet if they’ll stack up well against the AFC’s elite in the postseason. The remainder of the schedule sets up well for the Texans to possibly secure a bye in the playoffs, perhaps even paving the road to the AFC title through Reliant Stadium, with only Cincinnati and Atlanta shaping up to be challenges.
Andre Johnson is likely to return to the lineup, following the bye, for the stretch run. The Texans are coming off a dominant win over the Tampa Bay Bucs. They’re on a bye this week. The Jags are next on the slate and the stars seem to be finally aligning in Houston. Hey, why not the Texans in 2011?