(Eds: Updates with details, quotes. With AP Photos.)
By CHRIS DUNCAN
AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) - The Houston defense was a major hit, literally, in its first year under Wade Phillips, finishing the 2011 season with a franchise-record 44 sacks.
Statistically, this year's defense stacks up well with last year's unit, and defensive end J.J. Watt has emerged as one of the NFL's top pass rushers, now second in the league with 14 1/2. But the pass rush has tapered off as a whole in recent weeks, and the defense has yielded big passing numbers as an indirect result.
Watt had a career-high three sacks in Houston's 34-31 overtime win over Detroit on Thanksgiving. Take him away, and the rest of the Texans have only 15 1/2 sacks all season and now outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who has 2 1/2, is out indefinitely with a groin injury.
The Texans (10-1) have still kept right on winning and can clinch a playoff berth with win at Tennessee (4-7) on Sunday. But the defense can't ignore the fact that it's given up an average of 395.5 yards passing and six touchdown catches in the last two games.
"I'm proud of my boys, because each week, got to find a way to win, and we keep winning," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "But you can't just sit and act like the yardage didn't happen, the touchdowns didn't happen. A lot of the things we have not let happen this year, we let happen in the last two weeks.
"The defense that we are, we take pride in being one of the best," Smith said. "We definitely want to get that fixed, get a stop."
Smith has four sacks and Reed's injury creates an opportunity for first-round pick Whitney Mercilus, who has three sacks in the last four games. Mercilus led the nation in sacks last season at Illinois (16), and Phillips is hoping he blossoms like Reed did last season after Mario Williams was hurt.
"This is his time and he's got to come through for us," Phillips said of Mercilus.
Connor Barwin, who led the Texans with 11 1/2 sacks last season, will move to the strong side with Reed out. Linebacker Bradie James, who worked with Phillips in Dallas and coordinates the defense on the field, is also questionable for Sunday with a hamstring injury. Darryl Sharpton has been filling James' play-calling role in just his third game back after a torn right quadriceps that sidelined him for a year.
After some maneuvering, the Texans know what positions they'll play on Sunday. Now they just have to figure out how to get back to pressuring the quarterback again.
"We've been close," Sharpton said. "It's just a matter of time and I think this could probably be the week that we convert some of that pressure into sacks."
With quarterbacks Chad Henne and Matthew Stafford getting an important extra second or two in the last two games, Houston has also allowed some big games by receivers, too. Jacksonville's Justin Blackmon had 263 yards receiving on seven catches in a 43-37 loss to the Texans on Nov. 18. Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Ryan Broyles both topped 100 yards receiving in the Thanksgiving game.
Phillips downplayed concerns about the last two performances.
"It's a team game, we've won 10," Phillips said. "It's about winning, it's not about the stats overall, it's about being able to win. Our team has learned how to win. We'd like to win by 21 points every time, but that's not always going to happen. We've learned to fight and win in tremendously tough situations, that's the key."
Not only is Reed out, but lead cornerback Johnathan Joseph is questionable after injuring a hamstring in the Jacksonville game and sitting out in Detroit. Joseph, who has two interceptions and eight pass break-ups this season, worked individually with trainers on Wednesday and sat out on Thursday to rest.
Like the pass rushers, Houston's secondary feels like the last two games were anomalies and there are only minor glitches to fix.
"You don't want to look too much into that," safety Danieal Manning said. "Now, we've got to a chance to look back at all that, get off our feet, relax and play ball like we have been."
Notes: Coach Gary Kubiak said RB Ben Tate practiced on Thursday and will be ready to play on Sunday. Tate has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury. ... RT Derek Newton (right knee) and RG Antoine Caldwell (hamstring) sat out Thursday's practice and Kubiak says he'll re-evaluate their status on Friday.
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