The Houston Texans feel like Super Bowl contenders. In fact, in our predictions, I had them going to the AFC Championship Game, and could have just as easily picked them for the Super Bowl. Still, one thing concerned me about this team. Yes, the defense was huge last year, but they went from a bottom of the league defense to one of the best. Should we expect regression this year?
I went back and tried to look at the other defenses that met the following criteria: Top 6 in the league in both yards and points allowed, and had an improvement of at least 20 spots in the rankings based on combined points/yards ranking. Only 5 other teams since 1978 showed the kind of leap like the Texans to becoming a Top 6 defense.
- 2004 Redskins: Went to 5th in points and 3rd in yards, and held at 9th in both categories the next year as they reached the playoffs. Key Factor: Coaching change from Steve Spurrier to Joe Gibbs, drafted Sean Taylor.
- 1981 Giants: Jumped to third in both points and yards allowed. Finished top 8 in both categories a year later. Key Factor: Some guy named Lawrence Taylor was added in the draft that year.
- 1984 Seahawks: Went from bottom 5 in league to 5th in points and 6th in yards. The Seahawks were 8th and 11th a year later. Key Factor: Interestingly, no major personnel changes, though the Seahawks had a young defense with several stars like Kenny Easley, Jacob Green, and Joe Nash entering their primes.
- 1981 49ers: San Francisco was bottom 3 in the league the year before, but surged to 2nd in both points and yards on the way to the Super Bowl title. Dropped back to 21st in yards the next year, though it should be noted it was a strike-shortened season. For the rest of the decade, the 49ers had a top ten defense. Key Factor: Adding Ronnie Lott was a pretty big deal.
- 2002 Panthers: In John Fox’s first year, the Panthers improved to 5th in points and 2nd in yards. The next year, they went to the Super Bowl, though the biggest improvement there was on offense. The defense still finished Top 10 in both categories. Key Factor: Head coaching change to John Fox, drafting Julius Peppers, and Kris Jenkins entering year two and becoming an all-pro.
Well, that makes me feel a little better about the Texans. Most of those teams held their value on defense pretty well even if they slid slightly. The only exception was in a strike-shortened year, and that defense was good in several other years after. The leaps seem to be personnel related. I think J.J. Watt is a stud, and the team also added Johnathan Joseph to address a glaring need at cornerback, while Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and Brian Cushing were all under age 26. Then there was the addition of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Will the Texans finish top 5 in both categories? That probably depends on factors like injuries and how the schedule shakes out (let’s face it, last year was not a murderer’s row in the AFC South). They should be a top 10 defense again.
Then it falls on the offense. Last year, with Matt Schaub the team was a Super Bowl contender and without him merely a slightly above average team. While T.J. Yates drew praise for stepping in, it was a big fall, particularly once we account for Yates’ sack rate. Schaub averaged 7.7 net yards a pass compared to 5.9 for Yates. Andre Johnson also missed time again, and if Schaub and Johnson are healthy, this could be the most balanced top team in the league.
The main area of concern on offense is the right side of the offensive line, as Houston had one of the best units on the line, but will be replacing Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel. If Arian Foster can still find running room, we’ve seen that he is an all-around stud who can turn positive plays into big gains.
With the offense aging, and a young defense emerging, it’s probably Super Bowl or bust in 2012. You never know how many more chances you will get.
[photo via US Presswire]