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2012 NFL Season Preview

CBSSports.com Staff
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By Ryan Wilson | NFL Blogger

Offense

The Texans made the playoffs for the first time in team history and managed to do it without their franchise quarterback Matt Schaub, who didn't play after Week 10 because of a foot injury. To that point, Houston was 7-3, atop the AFC South, and playing like one of the league's best teams.

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They finished the regular season 3-3 with an improbable comeback victory over the Bengals and an inexplicable loss to the Colts, but these are the growing pains that accompany a rookie fifth-rounder thrust into the starting lineup because, well, there's no one else.

In Week 12, Matt Leinart briefly replaced Schaub before suffering his own season-ending injury, which meant that the Texans had no choice but to go with T.J. Yates, the rookie out of North Carolina. Yates exceeded everyone's expectations, but Schaub will be ready to go in training camp and he's necessary to this offense's long-term success. But not sufficient.

That includes playmakers Andre Johnson and Arian Foster. The former is a top-3 receiver; and the latter, a former undrafted free agent, signed five-year, $43.5 million deal in March to keep him in Houston. While the Big Three are all well established, the Texans do have depth concerns, namely at the other wide receiver positions. Despite the need, Houston went defense in the first round of April's draft, the fourth consecutive time they've done so. Consequently, the philosophy has been a boon for the defense but left the offense scrambling to find warm bodies.

For now, the plan appears pretty straightforward: feature Schaub, Johnson and Foster behind one of the league's best-kept secrets: the offensive line. Tight end Owen Daniels, an underrated middle-of-the-field threat, returns for his seventh season. The biggest issues for this unit: depth, injuries and age. Schaub and Johnson are both in their 30s and Daniels will hit the big 3-0 in November.

Luckily, there's the other side of the ball...

Defense

The Texans' defense went from liability to asset with the arrival of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips prior to the 2011 season. With an early-round draft focus on bolstering a unit that had become a punchline, Houston's D had the sixth-best turnaround from one season to the next since 1991, according to Football Outsiders. A big part of that: free-agent acquisition Johnathan Joseph, who Houston wisely pursued last offseason while other cornerback-hungry teams were fixated on Nnamdi Asomugha.

Kareem Jackson, the 2010 first-round pick out of Alabama, manned the other corner position. After a forgettable rookie season, Phillips regularly provided Jackson with safety help, which led to more confidence and better results. So while the results were almost immediate, salary-cap concerns meant that the organization had to make some tough choices this spring. Gone are Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Jason Allen, which means Brooks Reed, Darryl Sharpton, and a cast of young corners will have to step up.

Phillips might have a mixed record as a head coach but there's no questioning his chops as a defensive coordinator. He last worked his magic in San Diego under Marty Schottenheimer and that group was tenacious (they're the exact opposite now). He's brought that same mentality to Houston, and it's exactly what the Texans will need to win those games that they were previously losing.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: QB John Beck, RB Justin Forsett, ILB Bradie James, CB Alan Ball, P Donnie Jones

Roster Departures: QB Matt Leinart, FB Lawrence Vickers, WR/KR Jacoby Jones, TE Joel Dreessen, OT Eric Winston, G Mike Brisiel, G Kasey Studdard, DE Mario Williams, ILB DeMeco Ryans, CB Jason Allen, K Neil Rackers

Staff: Karl Dorrell replaces quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, who left to become the Raiders' offensive coordinator.

The Texans sat out most of free agency because of salary-cap limitations but the core pieces remain in place for another division title and playoff run. The team extended Foster and re-signed center Chris Myers but decided to part ways with tackle Eric Winston. This means that the right side of the line will be short on experience but 2008 first-round pick Duane Brown -- who didn't allow a sack last season -- anchors the left tackle position.

Journeyman quarterback John Beck adds depth behind Schaub and Yates, and James will do the same for Sharpton now that Ryans is gone.

Kubiak entered last season on the hot seat and finally got the postseason gorilla off his back. Owner Bob McNair was impressed enough to give Kubiak a three-year extension and he now runs the offense he learned under Mike Shanahan in Denver better than Shanahan does now in Washington. Couple that stability with Phillips' wizardry on the other side of the ball and the Texans are again the favorites to win a decidedly weak AFC South.

X-Factor: Matt Schaub

As goes Schaub, so go the Texans. T.J. Yates made for a fantastic late-season story, but the reality is this: had Schaub been on the field, not only would Houston have made their first playoff appearance, they very well may have been in the Super Bowl. Now Schaub's preparing for 2012 after a Lisfranc injury sidelined him last November. He's also in the last year of his contract, which means that a lot is riding on next season. He's made it clear that he wants to remain in Houston, but it won't come cheap. When healthy, Schaub's in the top-10-QBs conversation, but he's also 31.

If he runs Kubiak's offense like he did in 2010 and 2011 (he completed roughly 62 percent of his passes for nearly 7,000 yards), the Texans would be foolish to let him walk. But if Schaub can't stay on the field, he may make Houston's decision an easy one. That said, the NFL is a passing league woefully short on legit franchise passers. Andre Johnson is only as dangerous as the QB who can consistently get him the ball. And while Foster is a workhorse, here's something to consider: in his annual list of top 100 players, CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco has nine running backs and 11 quarterbacks. The Super Bowl rings breakdown by position: RBs: 0, QBs: 10.

Foster's productivity

With the proliferation of the passing game, running backs have been marginalized, at least in terms of what they're making compared to players at other positions. Now that Foster's gotten his big contract, will he suffer the same fate that befell Tennessee's Chris Johnson a year ago? Johnson missed part of training camp angling for a new deal. The Titans finally caved, paid him handsomely, and Johnson went on to have the worst season of his four-year career.

Foster's unlikely to endure a similarly precipitous fall. For starters, Johnson admitted that he wasn't in great shape when he finally reported to work last September; there will be no such issues with Foster. Also: Johnson was the Titans' offense. Opponents knew it and game-planned accordingly. The results were predictable. As long as Schaub is healthy and meticulously runs Kubiak's version of the West Coast offense, the Texans will have the pass-run balance that defenses detest.

Andre Johnson and then who?

For an idea of how little depth there is at wide receiver, consider this: Kevin Walter is No. 2 opposite Johnson and after that there's ... well, it's not clear. The depth chart lists Lestar Jean, and 2012 mid-round selections DeVier Poser and Keshawn Martin as options. The rookies struggled during spring workouts though Jean, an undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, has shown impressive athleticism to go along with his size (6-3, 215). Kubiak admitted that he's yet to settle on the Texans' No. 3 WR and that decision likely won't come until the preseason.

Will the sacks continue?

Phillips was able to take the team's biggest weakness and make it a strength, and because of the lockout he did it without the luxury of an offseason. Now the players have a full season in his system. Even with the loss of players like Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, the Texans return Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed who combined for 17.5 sacks as rush linebackers, and rookie defensive lineman J.J. Watt (5.5 sacks). Phillips' scheme is predicated on pressure and the Texans appear all set there. The other part of that equation has to do with the secondary's ability to cover. If 2012 is anything like 2011, Houston will be in great shape.

Insider's Take

AFC scout on Houston: "Will be a popular Super Bowl pick for some. Can see why. Offense stays healthy -- as good as any team in football. Problem is, it never stays healthy. Do you really have faith that Matt Schaub won't get hurt? I don't. He's incredibly talented but he's also fragile ... What can you say about Arian Foster? He's Tony Dorsett.

"The real plus for Houston is [defensive coordinator] Wade Phillips. We all know he was a terrible head coach but as a coordinator, few are better. They're putting some good pieces together down there, but to me, they still lack firepower on that side of the ball.

"Ultimately what matters most to the Texans is the fact they are in the worst division in football. Absolutely awful. When your biggest competition is Tennessee, you're set. The fact they'll destroy that division helps them greatly."

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

As soon as Peyton Manning couldn't play in 2011, the Houston Texans became the team to beat and they lived up to the expectations. Their offense was so sound that they were able to go 10-6 with three different quarterbacks.

Texans' Rivals: AFC South

2012 Preview • Schedule
Colts @ Texans: 12/16 (1 p.m. ET)
Texans @ Colts: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Jaguars @ Texans: 11/18 (1 p.m. ET)
Texans @ Jaguars: 9/16 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Titans @ Texans: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Texans @ Titans: 12/1 (1 p.m. ET)

The Texans' offense is balanced and they will wear opponents out with their zone run scheme. Last year they were the second best team in the NFL when it came to first-half scoring differential. They scored 100 more points in the first half of games then their opponents did, which meant they could come out in the second half and wear teams down with their run game.

The problem they face is replacing the right side of their offensive line. RT Eric Winston and RG Mike Brisiel are gone and they can say they feel good about replacements Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Butler, but they had seven games active and three starts between them last year.

The Texans' running game to the right side was the most productive aspect of the Houston offense in 2011. Coach Kubiak called 235 runs to the right behind Winston and Brisiel for 1,216 yards at 5.2 per run. As for the passing attack, call it a west coast offense, but it really is about getting the ball to Andre Johnson. When Johnson was sidelined with injury, the team went 5-4 and Arian Foster only cracked the 100-yard mark in five of those nine games.

Houston likes multiple personnel groups, motions and shifts to disguise the few things they do on offense. Matt Schaub has been cleared to play after missing the last six games of 2011. In 2010 in a 16-game season, Schaub called 604 pass plays (38 a game) and I expect the team to go right back to that formula this season. Keep an eye on the screen game to Foster and Ben Tate to help the new offensive linemen.

The Houston defense lines up in a 3-4 look, but at the snap of the ball, they do a lot of one-gap penetrating and bring an outside linebacker. In the post-snap, it looks a lot more like a 4-3 defense.

The Texans are excellent against the run (No. 4 in the NFL) and they can get after the passer (44 sacks). Drew Brees and Joe Flacco were the only QBs to throw for over 300 yards on them last year in 18 games. The one change to keep an eye on with this defense is the loss of ILB DeMeco Ryans. The Texan players told me he was their leader, but apparently the coaches and management didn't see him as a fit in their scheme. His replacement, Darryl Sharpton, didn't start a game last year and had a grand total of nine tackles.

Wade Phillips likes to play more zone coverages than man coverages, but he's not afraid to put Johnathan Joseph on the top receivers they face.

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

Despite the Texans' success on the defensive side of the ball in 2011, the team couldn't pass up the opportunity to select another incredibly productive pass rusher in the first round, nabbing Illinois' Whitney Mercilus at No. 26 overall.

Texans Draft Analysis

Mercilus, who entered his junior season with just two starts and two sacks over his career, exploded for 57 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles, winning the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end as a junior.

At 6-4, 261 pounds, he has the size to make the transition to outside linebacker in coordinator Wade Phillips' scheme. At least some of his staggering numbers at Illinois were a function of a highly aggressive scheme, so there are some one-year wonder concerns.

Former Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick will also be asked to switch positions. At 6-4, 279 pounds and possessing good strength, instincts and hustle, Crick is actually a better fit as a 3-4 defensive end. He has the strength to set the edge against the run, as well as excellent hustle to pursue laterally and downfield. He's also a better pass rusher than most 3-4 defensive ends, giving the team extra value.

The rest of the Texans' picks:

1st Round - No. 26 overall - Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Illinois
3rd Round - No. 68 overall - DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State
3rd Round - No. 76 overall - Brandon Brooks, OG, Miami (Ohio)
4th Round - No. 99 overall - Ben Jones, C, Georgia
4th Round - No. 121 overall - Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
4th Round - No. 126 overall - Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska
5th Round - No. 137 overall - Randy Bullock, K, Texas A&M
6th Round - No. 188 overall - Nick Mondek, OT, Purdue

 
 
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