For all the assistant coaches who impressed in 2011, I wanted to draw attention to the turnaround Wade Phillips is bringing about on the defensive side of the ball in Houston. Team defenses tend to be measured against one another primarily in terms of yards allowed. Houston ranked second in this category league-wide, with 285.7 per game. Another gradient with which people often rank defenses is points allowed. Houston ranked fourth in this category, with 17.4 per game – comfortably ahead of the next best team’s 19.2 points allowed per game.
In comparison, Houston ranked No. 30 out of 32 teams in 2010 with 376.9 yards allowed per game, to go with its No. 29 ranking in points allowed. Both represent phenomenal improvement for a team that since 2007 experienced only one losing season (Gary Kubiak’s second year as a head coach, Matt Schaub’s first as a starting quarterback), yet failed to punch any tickets into the postseason on account of good offensive production but a consistently lousy defense.
Houston ranked No. 13 in rushing yards allowed two seasons ago – slightly above average, actually – but ranked No. 26 in rushing touchdowns allowed. This past season? Allowing 96 rushing yards per game was good enough for a ranking of fourth, while the Texans tied a couple other teams with a ranking of third in rushing touchdowns allowed. Let us consider a few other angles, shall we?
Houston sacked opposing quarterbacks 44 times (a ranking of sixth), allowed 189.7 passing yards per game and 6.2 per attempt (rankings of third and second, respectively), and held opposing teams to a passer rating of 69 (a ranking of second). Featuring a different lineup and different play-calling, the year before last, the Texans ranked last or next-to-last in most of these indicators of pass defense. Playing at a high enough level on defense last season to overcome significant injuries to Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams, this team parlayed its success running the football into the first playoff appearance in franchise history.
Most of the credit is due to the newly hired defensive coordinator. In fairness, the Texans had some holdover talent on that side of the ball, namely Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing. All three were moved to at least slightly different positions, however, and Houston’s draft haul was highlighted by J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed, archetypal players for the 3-4 scheme Phillips prefers. Cushing took to his role as an inside linebacker and has steadily grown into the responsibilities asked of him, while Watt and Reed have showcased their skills in run defense and in pass rushing.
Other players stepping up, not so much household names prior to last season but certainly contributors at present, are outside linebacker Connor Barwin, safety Glover Quinn and defensive linemen Antonio Smith and Shaun Cody. Arguably the best player Houston added to its defense is cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who followed the guaranteed money out of Cincinnati for a change of scenery. Not many among the front seven Phillips has been defending the run and blitzing with have received much Pro Bowl consideration, yet between their cohesive play and Joseph’s cover skills, the Texans have found the answer.