Senior NFL Columnist

Texans camp report: Even without Mario Williams, defense could be better


Are the Texans better on defense this season? Connor Barwin believes they will be. (US Presswire)  
Are the Texans better on defense this season? Connor Barwin believes they will be. (US Presswire)  

HOUSTON -- Take a look at the 2011 defensive numbers for the Houston Texans and you will see loads of good things, including finishing second in the league in total defense and fourth in scoring defense.

Then you hear this: "We're much better now than we were a year ago," outside linebacker Connor Barwin said.

Who needs Mario Williams?

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That has to be scary for opposing offenses to hear. But Barwin has a point. The Texans were in their first year under coordinator Wade Phillips last season, transitioning from a 4-3 team to a 3-4 front, doing so without the luxury of an offseason to implement the plan. Yet they still were the reason Houston made it to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

So even as they let Williams walk in free agency, in large part because the team had so much success in 2011 when he missed 11 games because of a torn pectoral muscle, Houston's fierce pass rush might be even nastier now. The Texans were fifth in sacks per pass play, even though many of the players on the defense were playing a new position.

It's always risky allowing premier pass rushers to leave your building, especially in their prime, but the success of the defense without Williams made that decision a lot easier to digest -- even if it's a risky proposition.

Williams signed with the Bills, inking a six-year $100 million deal, but the missed time made the decision general manager Rick Smith made easier to sell.

Seeing the Texans play in two preseason games and again in practice work, it might be one that works out.

"We've come a long ways since last year," Barwin said.

"We did a lot of good things last season, but we weren't as sharp as we could have been," Pro Bowl corner Johnathan Joseph said. "A full offseason will allow us to jell. Guys will know where they need to be in their drops and in their coverage on every snap. We didn't always have that last year."

Barwin is the key. He was scheduled to start at end in 2010, but broke his leg in the first game. At 255 pounds, he was light for the position and seems much more comfortable as a 270-pound outside linebacker. Barwin led the Texans with 11.5 sacks to tie him for ninth in the league.

His relentless style is why they are expecting bigger things for Barwin. This is a big year for him since he's in the final year of his contract, which means he could be cashing in come 2012.

"We knew he was a talented kid, but I didn't know he was as hard a worker as he is," Phillips said of Barwin.

Barwin is joined in the front seven by several talented players. Among them are ends J.J. Watt -- who has missed most of camp because of an elbow injury -- and Antonio Smith, linebacker Brian Cushing and fellow outside rushers Brooks Reed. The Texans also drafted outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus in the first round and he is moving from college end to outside linebacker.

"We have a lot of guys to run at the quarterback," Joseph said. "It makes our job a lot easier in the back end."

It's interesting that the Texans are replacing the 2006 No. 1 overall pick in Williams with a player who was a tight end most of his college career, and they have no reservations about it.

Come January, we will know if they made the right move. If they did, Barwin is about to become a very rich man.

Team Objectives

 Figure out what to do with Matt Schaub. He is in the final year of his contract and has proved to be a capable starter. But is he elite? And can he stay on the field after suffering a Lisfranc foot injury last season? The Texans seem willing to wait and see if Schaub can stay on the field before giving him a new contract. That means he's playing for his money. That's a lot of pressure. If the two sides can't agree on a new deal, the Texans could always put the franchise tag on him. Schaub has put up big numbers, but he is by no means in the top-tier of the quarterbacks in the league. The problem could be that he's looking for that kind of money.

 Find two good players on the right side of the offensive line. The Houston line has been a strong point the past couple of seasons. But they made the decision to let right tackle Eric Winston go and Mike Brisiel signed with Oakland as a free agent. That means two new starters. It is believed Antoine Caldwell would be the guard and Rashad Butler the tackle. But the staff loves rookie guard Brandon Brooks, although he struggled against the 49ers. Second-year player Derek Newton is pushing Butler, and started against the 49ers last week. Brooks is 340 and can move, which is a must in the Texans' scheme, and Newton is 6-6, 320 pounds. Left tackle Duane Brown, who signed a long-term extension last week, is one of the NFL's best.

 Find a third option at receiver. With Andre Johnson in as one of the best in the league, the Texans need to get him some help. He sees a lot of coverage rolled his way. Kevin Walter is a solid No. 2, but he doesn't scare anyone down the field. That's where a bunch of young players come into play. Rookies DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin are battling with Lestar Jean and others for the spot. Martin has really impressed in camp, but Posey is coming on. Whoever gets in there has to be able to help ease some of the coverage that is rolled Johnson's way.

Camp Battles

 The right tackle spot is an interesting one. Letting Winston go was a risk. It puts a lot of pressure on Butler. Newton did a nice job against the 49ers, but it's a big move to go from not playing to a starting job.

Projected winner: Butler. But if he struggles early, Newton could be the guy.

 Third receiver. It appears that Martin is locked into the job for now. He has really impressed in the preseason. But Jean is coming off a heck of a game against the 49ers and might make it tougher for the coaches to go with the rookie. Jean has a lot of raw speed. Martin plays faster than he looked in college.

Projected winner: Martin. But it's close.

Somebody to Watch

When the Texans drafted corner Kareem Jackson in the first round in 2010, they thought they were getting a premier cover corner. But Jackson struggled for much of his first two seasons. That's why the Texans went out and signed Joseph. Jackson is having a great camp, according to Texans sources. The word is he's learned how to practice and do the work. Jackson seemingly tried to get by on his talent the first two seasons. "He's a much better player," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "To be a good corner in this league, you have to know how to cheat. You have know how to cheat plays, cheat splits, cheat the people you're playing against. He's learning all that stuff."

Injury Roundup

 Watt. He is back doing some work and is expected to play in the opener against Miami.

 DT Shaun Cody. Suffered a back injury in the preseason opener that forced him out last week. His return is uncertain.

The Last Word

This is a talented, deep team that got a taste of the playoffs last year and now is pushing for more.

"Guys know what it takes to get back," Joseph said. "We're not just trying to get there, but get there and do a lot more."

They have Schaub back under center and Andre Johnson is back healthy again. That means they are better now than they were at the end of last season.

The Texans are the class of the AFC South, but they face a brutal non-division schedule that will make it tough to get a first-round bye. Even so, they will be a major player come playoff time.

They can run it. They can throw it. They can play good defense.

That's a combination for success -- maybe even Super success.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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