Playoffs sure to follow with Phillips leading Texans' D

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has been on the job just over four months, but already he says that being around the Texans feels a lot like being around the San Diego Chargers in 2004 -- and consider that a warning, Peyton Manning.

Because in Phillips' first season in San Diego, the Bolts went from a sorry franchise in search of a direction ... and a defense ... to a division champion that would win the AFC West five of six seasons.

"I'd like to see this turn out the same way," said Phillips.

First-round pick J.J. Watt leads a draft haul that Wade Phillips calls a group of 'real good athletes.' (US Presswire)  
First-round pick J.J. Watt leads a draft haul that Wade Phillips calls a group of 'real good athletes.' (US Presswire)  
So would a lot of people in Houston. Their pro football team hasn't reached the playoffs once, and the natives are restless. Only this season they might just get their wish.

Granted, the Texans must climb over Indianapolis in the AFC South, and they're 2-16 against the Colts. But they knocked them off in the season opener last year and started to look like a legit playoff threat before the defense self-destructed ... taking the season with it.

Losing leading tackler DeMeco Ryans didn't help. The Texans were 4-2 with him; 2-8 without. Losing defensive end Connor Barwin in the season opener didn't help, either. Nor did the loss of Brian Cushing, the NFL's 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year, for the first four games.

All I know is that the Texans failed miserably, and don't blame Matt Schaub. Blame a defense that hemorrhaged 24 or more points in all but two games. No, blame a pass defense that ranked dead last in the NFL -- allowing opposing quarterbacks to produce an average passer rating of 105.5.

To appreciate that figure, consider this: Only one quarterback in the league (Tom Brady) had a rating that was higher last season.

The Texans weren't just weak on defense; they flat-out stunk -- allowing an NFL-high 33 touchdown passes, ranking 26th in sacks per pass play, 29th in points allowed and 30th overall. I think you get the idea. Something needed to be done, and something was.

Wade Phillips was hired.

"It's a great spot for me," he said, "besides family being down here (his father, Bum, coached the Houston Oilers and lives in Texas). When I came in as a defensive coordinator at San Diego and Denver and Atlanta, they all had losing [or non-winning] records the year before, went to the playoffs in my first year and, basically, turned their defenses around in a year. It's what I think I can do well, and there's a great opportunity to do that here, that's for sure."

I'll second that. Phillips is a difference maker, taking what had been the league's 31st-ranked defense in San Diego and pushing it to 11th in his first season there. But it's not just the addition of Phillips that makes a difference; it's the commitment the Texans are making to address their biggest needs.

First of all, they went heavily for defense in last month's draft, choosing defenders with their first five picks and six of eight overall. And look who they acquired with their first three choices: defensive end J.J. Watt, outside linebacker Brooks Reed and cornerback Brandon Harris. All three could wind up as starters.

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But even if they don't, they add talent and depth to a roster that includes standouts like Mario Williams, Cushing, Ryans and Barwin. More important, they give Phillips and the Texans flexibility at critical defensive positions.

"Those guys [the top three picks] have been pretty consistent in their play in college," said Phillips, "so I think you know what you're going to get out of them. They're all real instinctive players, which I like, as well as real good athletes.

"It's no secret we needed some help personnel-wise. You can always say the coaches didn't do this or that scheme-wise, but you still have to have talent. And we added a lot to our talent on defense."

That's why I think the Texans become a playoff factor for the first time in their existence.

But there's another reason, and it's a hot potato among Texans die-hards -- namely, the move of Williams from defensive end to outside linebacker. With the Texans switching to a 3-4 defense, the 6-foot-6 Williams shifts from a position where he built a reputation as an elite pass rusher to one where he has no experience.

Yes there's risk, but it's minimal, and here's why: Williams doesn't have to worry about turning to run in pass coverage. He has one assignment, and it's to find the quarterback.

Period.

That's why I think it works. Tell me, what does Williams do best? Rush the passer. What will he do as the weak-side linebacker? Rush the passer, and you're going to have to trust Phillips on this one. He's the guy who put DeMarcus Ware, Shaun Phillips, Shawne Merriman and Bryce Paup in the same positions, and they wound up at or near the top of the league in sacks.

"He's our best pass rusher," Phillips said of Williams, "so let's put him in a position where he can rush the passer the most and be most successful. And that's what we're going to do.

"It's the same thing DeMarcus Ware did. He was a defensive end in college, and Brooks Reed was a defensive end. You get a feel for whether they can play outside backer, and this guy is as athletic as anybody. I don't have any reason to believe he can't rush the passer almost every down from the open side all the time.

"And that's the key thing. He's going to be the open-ended side all the time. That gives him a chance on pass plays to come bearing down on them. There was a reason he was a No. 1 pick [in 2006], and it's athletic ability. The guy is big, fast, strong and athletic. And except when he's been hurt, he's been pretty productive rushing the passer. He was our best pass rusher, and we knew that going in. So let's put him the spot where he can be the most successful."

I think the Texans have done that already ... and I'm not talking about Mario Williams. I'm talking about Wade Phillips. Already, he has had an impact on the Texans' draft. He should have a voice in their free-agent activity, too ... whenever that happens. Then, once the NFL lockout is lifted, we get to see if Wade Phillips can do for Houston what he did for San Diego ... or Denver ... or Atlanta in his first seasons as defensive coordinator.

I believe he can. I believe he will. Let's just say I believe in Wade Phillips, which means I believe in the Houston Texans.

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