Phillips has Texans finally dialing up the defense

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Wade Phillips brought the 3-4 and a new outlook to the Texans defense. (AP)  
Wade Phillips brought the 3-4 and a new outlook to the Texans defense. (AP)  

If seeing is believing, then take a look at this week's NFL statistics. Scroll to team defense and tell me who has the highest-ranked unit. Here's a hint: It's the same team that has the league's best pass defense and the same team that allowed the fewest points.

Yep, it's the Houston Texans, and you gotta believe.

A year ago, nobody was worse against the pass than Houston, and only Denver (32) and Washington (31) were worse in overall defense. The Texans were so bad that 14 of their 16 opponents each put up 24 or more points, including eight that produced 30 or more. Worse, during one nine-game stretch, seven of Houston's opponents each hit 30.

The Texans weren't just bad; they flat-out stunk.

So they decided to do something about it, hiring Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, installing a 3-4 scheme, signing significant free agents like defensive backs Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning and spending their first five draft picks on defensive players.

Result: The NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.

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"It makes you feel pretty good," coach Gary Kubiak said.

It should. The Texans tried playing without a defense last season, and you see how that worked out. So they changed, and look where it has them.

Granted, they are there with a little help from their friends. Their first opponent, Indianapolis, played without Peyton Manning, out indefinitely with a neck injury. Their second, Miami, they drew in Miami where the Dolphins have lost 11 of their last 12.

But all of that is beyond the Texans' control. What isn't ... or wasn't ... is a defense that crippled them a year ago and that suddenly is making stops where it could not in 2010.

That's when Houston won its first two games, just as it has this season, but the circumstances were far different. Then, they had to outscore opponents -- putting up 34 on Indianapolis the first weekend and 30 on Washington the second. But piling up yards and points can only last so long, and the Texans found out the hard way -- dropping eight of their last 10 as they went from 4-2 to a tie for last in their division.

Critics questioned whether Kubiak would be retained, and he was ... but with an unwritten proviso: Get this team moving forward, or else. That's when Kubiak hired Phillips, Phillips switched to a 3-4 defense and the Texans started stocking the shelves. The rest is what you've witnessed the past two weeks -- a club that can win with something more than Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson.

In the opener vs. the Colts, Houston produced three sacks, forced two fumbles, stuffed the Colts on eight of nine third downs and blanked them on their first 10 series. One week later, it recovered a fumble, had an interception and held Miami without a touchdown on its first six possessions. I know it's early, but what you see are the signs of a defense that is starting to work.

The Texans not only lead the league in team defense, they're second in third-down efficiency, stiffing opponents on all but five of 21 chances; they're tied for fourth in defense inside opponents' 20-yard lines; and they're tied for second in points-per-game differential.

Bottom line: Houston no longer is one-dimensional. The Texans said they would improve their defense, and they have.

"I think we're surprised at how quickly the process has taken place, with no offseason and, really, Wade just having those guys for seven or eight weeks," Kubiak said Monday. "When you watch the work that's taking place every day ... the energy that we're playing with, how hard we're playing ... you know why you're getting much better results."

Of course, the curve gets steeper this weekend with mighty New Orleans next in line. The Saints have scored 30 or more points in their last three games, dating back to last year's playoffs, and in Drew Brees they have one of the most accurate and productive quarterbacks anywhere. Not only does he rank third among this week's quarterbacks -- tying for the league lead in touchdown passes with seven -- he heads the NFL's fifth-ranked offense, too.

So we're about to find out just how tight this Houston defense is. All I know is that it is better, much better, than it was a year ago, and it's that element that makes Houston a legitimate playoff threat.

But that's not exactly a surprise. I saw what Phillips did in his first year as defensive coordinator in San Diego when he took the league's 31st-ranked defense and transformed it into the 11th-ranked unit in one year. And I saw the impact it had on the Chargers. They went from last in the division one year to first the following season.

That could happen in Houston, and if it does you know where to start looking first for explanations.

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