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Wild-card thoughts: Texans' offseason decisions pay off big

by | CBS Sports
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1. Houston Texans -- Congratulations on their first playoff victory. They followed their script of taking the ball out of T.J. Yates hands and running the ball 35 times for 188 yards. J.J. Watt had the play of the game with his interception return for a touchdown. Going into the draft, Gary Kubiak targeted Watt as a guy he wanted; he loved his hustle and effort. The Texans needed a cornerback in the worst way but felt they could get one in free agency instead of taking Prince Amukamara in the first round. Brilliant maneuver by the Texans. Yates was also a player the Texans targeted because they wanted to develop a young QB behind Matt Schaub. They didn't want to spend a pick before the fourth round on him, but when he was there in Round 5, they made their move. The Texans rested Arian Foster (24 carries, 153 yards) the week before and they told me he really looked fresh in practice, and it showed in the game. The Texans will play the Ravens next. The Texans lost 29-14 when they played earlier this season, but trailed only 16-14 going into the fourth quarter. They played without Andre Johnson, and their defense is better now. They have a chance to win this game.

2. Cincinnati Bengals -- A disappointing loss after a surprising season. Andy Dalton had a terrific season as a rookie. First round pick A.J. Green will be one of the dominant players in the NFL. The Bengals have the Raiders' first-round pick this year in addition to their own. They should pick up two solid players. Their biggest needs on offense are a young running back (Cedric Benson will be a free agent), re-signing Jerome Simpson, and bolstering the interior O-line. On defense, they need a cornerback, defensive tackle and a pass-rushing linebacker. The Bengals' biggest problem right now is they play in the same division as Baltimore and Pittsburgh. They are better than any team in the West, and only Houston is better in the South and New England in the East.

3. Detroit Lions -- The Lions continued to make progress and have established a clear identity. That is as an explosive offense with a talented front four. They remind me of Indianapolis when they were rolling -- a team that can get the lead, make the opponent play from behind, and then let its pass rush take over the game. It was a smart plan by GM Martin Mayhew. In fact, that offense should only get better with the return of Mikel LeShoure and Jahvid Best. Calvin Johnson had a monster year. He was not a better player this year than any other year. The difference this year was having a QB who could throw to him. The secondary needs work; that is the one area Mayhew has not worked on yet. He spent the past three years fixing the other areas. I would expect him to concentrate on the secondary in this offseason. Other key areas to work on are lining up replacements for left tackle Jeff Backus -- who is a free agent they will want back -- and veteran center Dominic Raiola. They also have some key free agents to re-sign in CB Eric Wright, DE Cliff Avril (who is their best pass rusher) and Stephen Tulloch, who is an essential component to their defense.

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4. New Orleans Saints -- Talk about peaking for the playoffs. This team is a great example of that. Nobody, including Green Bay and New England is playing better on offense. The key to beating Detroit was negating its four-man rush. They helped their tackles on the outside by having their tight ends or backs chip on the Detroit's defensive ends. The TEs also help by aligning next to the OT, which forces the DE to go wider on his rush, giving the OT time to adjust his angle to block him. What is contradictory about this is that left tackle Michael Bushrod made the Pro Bowl, but the Saints coaching staff is saying by its strategy that Bushrod is not good enough to block a good DE. That in itself should eliminate him from Pro Bowl consideration. What is even a bigger indictment of their OTs is Brees gets rid of the ball quickly, so they don't have to protect for very long. The real key to stopping Brees is to get a push up the middle. Detroit's Suh and Williams couldn't do this because of the play of guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans. New Orleans against San Francisco will be interesting to watch because all of its losses have been on the road. In San Francisco, they will be playing on a slow field against the best front seven in the NFL. The 49ers can run the ball on the Saints and control the clock. Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been known to come up with some great game plans, too. But the underlying storyline in this game was their preseason game, during which the Saints blitzed constantly, as if to teach the new guys on the block a lesson. The 49ers won't forget that. When I was a GM, I always thought if we lost a preseason game to a team, we had a psychological advantage the next time we played them.

5. New York Giants -- The Giants felt if they could stop the Falcons running attack and make the game one-dimensional, their pass rush would be too much for the Falcons offensive line. Their assessment was right on the money. Their defensive line outplayed the Falcons offensive line by holding them to 64 yards rushing, making it a one-dimensional game. That run defense stopped the Falcons on two fourth-and-one plays. The Giants were then able to harass Matt Ryan, sacking him twice, hurrying him several times and forcing him to move to throw the ball under pressure or throw it away. The Giants also controlled the other side of the ball, running 31 times for 172 yards. Next up are the Packers in Green Bay. The Giants gave the Packers all they could handle when they lost to them 38-35 in the regular season. I think the Giants are playing better now than they were then, and the Packers at the end of the season were not playing as well as they were against the Giants on Dec. 4. In that game, the Packers were without A.J. Hawk, Chad Clifton, Josh Sitton and Desmond Bishop. The Giants played without Osi Umenyiora, Mario Mannigham and David Baas. Despite the fact the Packers scored 38 points, I thought Giants had a good plan on defense in mixing coverages to confuse Rodgers, which they did many times. Rodgers played at such a high level, he succeeded in spite of that. One thing the Giants had success with was jamming the Packers receivers and playing some man coverage. I thought they should have done more of it. I look for them to do more of it next Sunday.

6. Atlanta Falcons -- Their goal was to stop the Giants running attack and make them one-dimensional. They believed their pass rush could beat the Giants O-line. Ironically, this was the same plan as the Giants'. The difference in the game was the Giants were able to control the line of scrimmage. The Falcons, who will be without a No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, will need to work on becoming bigger and more physical in their offensive and defensive lines, as well as improve their coverage ability at the safety position. Two key free agents they need to re-sign are John Abraham (DE) and Brent Grimes (CB). I think Grimes will get much more action at the beginning of free agency because he is a young player at a need position in the NFL. I think Abraham will set his price too high in free agency for a player his age (even though he can still rush the passer) and won't get much action. The Falcons, on the other hand, do need him back, because without him, their defense takes a major step back. I also think the Falcons need to become more diversified in their coverages and in disguising their coverages.

7. Denver Broncos -- Give the Broncos credit for an excellent plan against Pittsburgh. They emphasized the run and went after their cornerbacks. The Steelers had to commit to stopping the run with their safeties because of the option that left their corners in man coverage, and the Broncos receivers won enough of the matchups to make the difference in the game. Tebow's weakness of reading defenses was not really challenged in this game because the Broncos concentrated on throwing simple read routes versus man coverage, which are easy to read. Give Tebow credit for making enough accurate throws on these plays to make a difference in the game. Pittsburgh's formula to win on defense is to stop the run and pressure the QB to cover up for their cornerbacks with their pressure. Give the Broncos's offensive line credit for giving Tebow time to throw. Also Tebow is a hard guy to sack because of his strength and running ability. Against New England the Broncos will have to be ready for a totally different game plan then when they played against them last time. That is the way Bill Belicheck does things. The Broncos should still be able to run the ball on the Patriots especially to the outside.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers -- A disappointing loss to Denver. I still don't know why they played Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey against the Cleveland Browns when they were not healthy. It cost them the game today. And losing Rashard Mendenhall against Cleveland hurt them today, but not playing him last week would be hindsight on my part. All along, I was not in favor of playing Roethlisberger and Pouncey. When Roethlisberger can't move around in the pocket, the Steelers offense is not nearly as good. An area that hurt the Steelers was their defensive line, where age might have contributed to injuries to Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton. Their losses gave the Broncos a chance to run the ball. Opponents always aim to expose Pittsburgh's cornerbacks, and Denver succeeded. On a separate subject, one play by James Harrison that caught my eye was his hit on a receiver at knee level. Harrison certainly made an adjustment in his game on that play to not hit high and risk a penalty and a fine. But in my opinion, he went for the knees, which can potentially hurt the player. I know some teams coach this technique. I don't know if the Steelers do, though.

9. Coaching search -- Two names that have not been mentioned at all this year as coaches who are getting interviews for head coaching vacancies are Brian Billick and Jim Fassell. Both of these coaches deserve to be interviewed. I think they're more qualified to be head coaches than a number of the people who are getting interviewed. In Fassell's case, he has been a successful coach in the United Football League the past few years. At the very least, he should be an offensive coordinator in the NFL. What owners and GMs miss about people who are out of the NFL but still involved in the game, Billick (TV) and Fassell (head coach and GM in the UFL) is they still grow as coaches because they get a chance to see things from a different perspective.

10. Hall Of Fame -- Just a couple of comments. I think Bill Parcells should be in. He won two Super Bowls with the Giants, rebuilt the Patriots and took them to the Super Bowl, rebuilt the Jets and took them to an AFC championship game and took the Cowboys (as coach) and Dolphins (as head of football operations) to the playoffs. These accomplishments are better than some of the other recent coaching additions to the Hall of Fame. One person who keeps getting overlooked is former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. I think the voters are way off on this one. I know he wasn't exactly media friendly but that should mean nothing in the voting. In fact, I had more disagreements with him than any member of the media. Much of the success of today's NFL is because of him. The labor agreement today is still based on the one he was the major player in when it was instituted in 1993. He led the NFL into the stadium construction era that stopped the moving of franchises. He continually negotiated record TV deals. He instituted the Rooney Rule. He expanded the NFL brand worldwide. This one is a no-brainer to me. He is more deserving than anybody on this year's list.

More Thoughts on Wild Card Weekend:

1. More Coaching Search -- One of the things teams will do is interview coaches they have no intention of hiring to gather information from them. Some of that information is lists of coaches they are interested in hiring, information on that team's players, especially free agents and information on other team's players they play against. All of these areas are part of the standard interview process because evaluating players and selecting coaches are crucial to the success of any coach. Both Al Davis and George Allen often interviewed coaches they had no intention of hiring to pick their brain for information. There is definitely some of that going on this year.

Hiring someone who has already been a head coach can make a lot of sense, but only if he still has that burning desire to show he has something to prove. New York Giants owner John Mara told me years ago when he hired Tom Coughlin his question was did he still have something to prove after he was let go by Jacksonville, and Mara felt he did. Good call by Mara. If you sense the coach is more interested in the money in the interview process, stay away from him.

Do you hire a coach to fill a need or hire a leader? In Jacksonville's case, it clearly wants to develop Blaine Gabbert, but it would be a mistake to hire a coach because he was a good offensive coordinator. A head coach must be a leader first and have the ability to hire good coaches around him. There have been some very successful head coaches who called the plays -- like Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren -- but in each case when they won the Super Bowl, they had a great defensive coordinator. Some brilliant offensive coordinators failed as head coaches because they did a poor job of hiring assistant coaches. Hiring a leader -- a person who can command the respect of the players and knows how to hire good coaches -- is the way to go.

2. Peyton Manning -- If the Colts ask Manning to move his date (March 8) that he is due his $28 million to a date after the start of free agency, I can't believe he would do it. It would make no sense. He can always re-sign with the Colts later, but at least then, he would be allowed to look at other teams. The reason I believe Arizona makes sense is that it has a great receiver in Larry Fitzgerald who will match Manning's work ethic and is the type of disciplined route runner Manning wants. Fitzgerald will also be the leader of the receivers who will get the other receivers in line with what Manning wants on work ethic and discipline. The offensive line is average but Manning will make it better. The Cardinals also have a 1,000-yard rusher in Beanie Wells. Their defense has improved. Also, Ken Whisenhunt has coached a veteran quarterback before in Kurt Warner, so he knows how to handle the situation. Finally, Manning will play eight home games in a perfect passing environment.

You can follow Charley Casserly on Twitter at CasserlyCBS

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