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2011 Houston Texans preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Mario Williams, at the behest of new D-coordinator Wade Phillips, is making the switch to OLB. (Getty Images)  
Mario Williams, at the behest of new D-coordinator Wade Phillips, is making the switch to OLB. (Getty Images)  

2010 RECORD: 6-10 (third, AFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: None

COACH (RECORD): Gary Kubiak (37-43 in five seasons with Texans)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rick Dennison

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wade Phillips

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 7th rushing, 4th passing, 9th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 13th rushing, 32nd passing, 29th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: CB Johnathan Joseph (free agent), S/KRDanieal Manning (free agent), DE J.J. Watt (first round, Wisconsin), OLB Brooks Reed (second round, Arizona), P Brad Maynard (free agent), FB Lawrence Vickers (free agent), CB Brandon Harris (second round, Miami)

KEY LOSSES: FB Vonta Leach (to Ravens), S Bernard Pollard (to Ravens), DT Amobi Okoye (to Bears), QB Dan Orlovsky (to Colts), WR David Anderson (to Broncos), LB Zac Diles (to Rams), S Eugene Wilson (free agent)

ADDING 'D' TO THE DEFENSE: Wade Phillips has resurrected defenses throughout his career, but the Texans' new coordinator faces his most daunting task in shaping a unit that allowed 24 or more points 14 times last season. Phillips' 3-4 scheme includes the bold move of Mario Williams (8.5 sacks) to OLB; Phillips turned DeMarcus Ware into an All-Pro sack machine with the Cowboys and envisions the same for the 6-foot-6, 285-pound former DE. One near-guarantee is that the Texans won't have the league's worst pass defense again, as newcomers Joseph and Manning give the secondary a needed jolt of talent and experience. CB Kareem Jackson was thrown into the fire last season, but the harsh lessons he learned will translate into a more seasoned defender in his second season, while the team has high hopes for S Glover Quin, who moves from corner. The return of injured LBs Brian Cushing (knee) and DeMeco Ryans (Achilles) and DE Conner Barwin (ankle), combined with the aggression of rookies Reed and Watt, will help make this the most athletic defense in the franchise's 10-year history while also exceeding last season's total of 30 sacks.

NOT-SO-SPECIAL TEAMS: The Texans struggled to establish good field position, as anemic averages in both punt (6.7 yards) and kickoff returns (19.8) failed the offense time and again. While upgrading the defense was priority one during the (brief) offseason, special teams coach Joe Marciano, who escaped the palace purge, got a needed weapon in Manning, who led the NFL in kickoff returns in 2008 and has a career average of 26.8. After averaging 11.4 yards per punt return in 2008-09, Jacoby Jones fell to 7.0 last season; he has vowed to post bigger numbers. The club said goodbye to longtime P Matt Turk and brought in Brad Maynard, who has 14 seasons and two Super Bowls under his belt while also being one of the best in dropping punts inside the 20. The team does have two constants: K Neil Rackers connected on 27 of 30 field goal attempts while reliable long snapper Jon Weeks looks to build upon an impressive rookie season.

CATCHING GOOD HEALTH: WR Andre Johnson caught 86 passes despite playing with a high ankle sprain sustained in the second week, while TE Owen Daniels pulled in 38 receptions after coming off major knee surgery. If healthy, the duo could combine for 170-180 catches, which would be welcome news for QB Matt Schaub (4,370 yards, 24 touchdowns). Johnson dislocated his left index finger the first week of camp, but it won't stop the nine- year veteran, who has established himself as the game's premier pass catcher and an unholy terror to opposing defenses. Daniels is healthy, and the synergy of Daniels, Johnson and underrated WR Kevin Walter (51 catches, 562 yards, five touchdowns) with Schaub gives the Texans lethal quick-strike ability. Jones (51 catches, five touchdowns) may thrive at the third receiver spot, where his size (6-2, 210) and speed makes him dangerous in the slot. While TE James Casey is spending time at FB, he does provide Kubiak with a versatile pawn to exploit matchups.

CANCELING PEYTON PLACE: The Texans opened last season with a dominating win over the rival Colts, when RB Arian Foster became a household name (and fantasy waiver wire baron) after he mauled Indianapolis for 231 yards and three touchdowns en route to leading the league with 1,616 yards and 16 TDs. In the rematch six weeks later, the Colts overwhelmed the error-prone Texans in a 30-17 Monday night victory that helped trigger Houston's 2-8 collapse after a 4-2 start and dropped their record to 2-16 against their tormentors from the Midwest. The two teams open the season on September 11, and if the Texans want to prove to themselves and the rest of the league that they are no longer an easy notch on the gun belt of Peyton Manning, they must take out a Colts team that did little to improve themselves and are as vulnerable as they have been since the Texans arrived in 2002.

FINAL WORD: The talent is here. The desire is here. Now is the time for the Texans to translate both into consistent wins and wrest control of the AFC South. There is little dispute that this is the most important season in franchise history. The door is wide open for the Texans to reach the playoffs for the first time; few teams can match their offensive firepower and if the defense grasps Phillips' scheme, Reliant Stadium could be rocking a 70,000-plus sea of red throughout January. The opening four weeks provide a season-defining gauntlet, as the club faces the Colts, Dolphins, Saints and defending AFC champion Steelers. A strong start would provide a confidence boost, but if the team fails to make the postseason, owner Bob McNair may be tempted to pull the plug on the seven-year Kubiak era.

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