To help get a better eye on the Texans before this week's game, I turned to Steph Stradley. Steph was voted the ultimate Texans fan in 2006 and when not practicing law in Houston writes the Texans Chick blog on the Houston Chronicle's website. You can also follow her on Twitter @StephStradley, where she says smart things about the Texans and mean things about Bud Adams. In addition to answering questions from me, she also sent me questions I answered over at Texans Chick.
Total Titans: I thought the Texans running game might take a step back with the departures of right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston, but based on the FO numbers and the general offensive success they've had the first three games it doesn't seem like it. Tell us a little bit about their replacements and how they've performed thus far.
Steph Stradley: I think the Texans O-line coaching staff is about the best group in the NFL, so I didn't predict a significant fall off in their running game. Offensive line coach John Benton is well regarded, and TE coach Brian Pariani has been with the Shanahan Sr system since 49er days. The Texans offensive coordinator, Rick Dennison was head coach Gary Kubiak's first choice for offensive coordinator but wasn't acquired until his contract became available. He was the O-line coach for many years with Denver when they had their consistently productive running games in the same system. They have a lot of coaches very familiar with the nuances of their ZBS to teach it and refine it.
So with Kubiak being pass-focused, and Dennison being run-focused, you have among the two best coaches at teaching the philosophy of the Texans offense.
The Texans offensive line contains no one who was ever Mel Kiper love letter guys. Left tackle Duane Brown was picked at the bottom of the first round, and the analysis at the time was the Texans reached. Since then, he's out-performed many of the tackles chosen in the same draft class. The Texans coaching staff believes that they know what they want in a O-line player, and that if they coach their system, a variety of athletic guys can be successful in it.
This belief is tested with the Texans replacing both right tackle and right guard. Both of these positions are still works in progress, with right tackle and guard being done in a rotation, not unlike Duane Brown's rookie year rotating with vet tackle Ephraim Salaam. RT Derek Newton and RG Antoine Caldwell are starters. Rookie center Ben Jones started rotating with Caldwell two weeks ago, despite not playing guard since high school. He had been working some at guard during camp. Last week, late free agent acquisition, Ryan Harris has been rotating in for Derek Newton. Harris, who was familiar with the Texans system in Denver, took the place of Rashad Butler who was hurt right before the season started.
The Texans believe that their group, their system makes each guy better than the sum of their parts. With the pass rushers they face this season, this transition is a test. Though quarterback Matt Schaub has only been sacked two times, he is consistently getting hit hard after the throw, even in games where he isn't throwing much. Kubiak has mentioned this as a concern after the last two games. The Texans have been fortunate that Schaub has only lost part of his ear. And if he keeps getting abused after the throw, he is not going to survive the season.
Total Titans: This feels like about the eighth straight season the Texans have started Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter at wide receiver and Owen Daniels at tight end. With Jacoby Jones now in Baltimore and Joel Dreessen now in Denver, who are the other wide receivers and tight ends Matt Schaub might target on Sunday?
Steph Stradley: The Texans offense is designed to be very selfless. The Texans look at defensive tendencies, and the ball goes where it should to exploit those tendencies. Sounds like football 101, until you see teams try to force it to their #1 WR no matter what the coverage. So if teams use exotic coverages to take out Andre Johnson, then the rest of the players see targets. TE Garrett Graham took over the Dreessen role, and hybrid player FB/TE/WR/athlete James Casey is a wildcard. He lines up in so many different places that defenses don't know if he's blocking, blocking and then sneaking out for a pass, or just going straight downfield.
Despite speculation to the contrary, I never had the sense that the Texans wanted to draft WR high in the draft unless they could acquire a special one. Wide receiver in the Texans offense is hard to learn and so the inexperienced players get a set of plays they do. Second year player, Lestar Jean will be out against the Texans after having surgery on his meniscus which is expected to keep him out for a couple of weeks. This means that rookie Devier Posey will have his first game where he's activated. Keshawn Martin is slowly getting more involved in the offense too.
Kubiak doesn't like to depend on inexperienced guys, so Johnson and Walter will continue to be the bread and butter because they know the playbook, and it allows Kubiak to be creative with his playcalling. The running back in this offense has to be able to catch the ball too, so they get their targets as well.
Total Titans: By FO numbers, the Texans have the league's best defense. Part of that comes from playing two mostly punchless Florida teams, but so far they seem like they might be really good again. If you had to attack them, how would you do it?
Steph Stradley: Wade Phillips' defense isn't very flashy, but is much more football sound than anything the Texans had run in the past. (faintest of praise). And he is very good at adjusting to what offenses do. Just a fundamental football thing, opponents must: 1. Maintain good field position (this is very doable); 2. Don't let the Texans get an early lead; 3. Keep down and distance sane; 4. Don't give up on the run too early. The hallmark of the 2011 and now the 2012 Texans team has been getting early leads, and forcing opponents to get one dimensional and then destroying the quarterback and forcing errors.
So far, the Texans haven't faced terribly accurate passers, and maybe that doesn't change facing Jake Locker. The Texans led the league last year in batting down passes, and are on pace this year to do the same. I think that gets in the heads, reads, and mechanics of quarterbacks some. Peyton Manning was hit or miss with his accuracy, and even when he was on target his receivers dropped too many catchable balls.
The Ravens approach of keep chucking up long throws and hoping for a big play or defensive pass interference has worked some against the Texans defense. It means fewer plays to make mistakes. In the last game, Manning targeted Brice McCain with some success in the 4th quarter. Texans defense will get their licks in, so some thespian skills to draw flags probably isn't a bad idea. Some Jack Del Rio, Jags-style ugly, trick play football may need to be in the mix too.
The Saints last year, before the Texans had their entire defense installed, had some success with four wides and targeting Kareem Jackson. I think the Texans defense is beyond where it was last year, but it hasn't been tested much that way yet.
The shorter answer to your question is that I'm not sure, and just nit picking with ideas that have been small issues. When Wade Phillips has been in charge of this Texans defense, with these players, they've looked pretty good. And when they haven't looked good, Phillips makes in-game adjustments and fixes things. It's a revolutionary thing for a Texans fan to see.
Total Titans: Three games into the current season, how similar are the 2012 Texans to the 2011 version and where are the differences from last year?
Steph Stradley: I'd say mostly the same. The Texans have been able to do their best case scenario game: First half, use mix of run and pass to get a big lead. Second half, use the run to break the opponent's will, and have the Texans defense close out a team that becomes one dimensional trying to get back into the game.
This team needs Matt Schaub to be healthy because he knows the scheme, can distribute the ball to many targets, and when the scheme is executed, it can crush fools because you can't focus your defense at any one thing.
> Right side of the line. They are still in a process of trusting it, and increasing play risk a bit each week. I think some of the bunch formations they are running this year are designed some to protect them.
> Health. Knock on wood, this is a healthier team than it was last year at the same time.
> Defense understanding. It wasn't until the end of last year that they had installed all of Wade Phillips' defense. Think the players know it much better now. JJ Watt was a special player last year, and now is a special player who understands the defense.
> Special teams adventures. Special teams coverage for the Texans has not been very good. The Texans have been using world-class speed, very small guy Trindon Holliday for returns, and he has made a lot of mental errors without the benefit of big plays like he did in the preseason. The Texans defense has been forcing a lot of punts, and Texans fans pretty much universally cringe when Holliday is in to return them. If this continues, this will lose them games.
Total Titans: At this point, I would normally say if you want to make a score prediction for this week, feel free. I know you generally dislike score predictions as much as I do, though, so feel free to use it as an opportunity to say whatever you want, anything or nothing, funny or not, about this weekend's game.
Steph Stradley: I usually dread Texans-Titans matchups because bizarre things too often happen that I have never seen in football before. Mostly things that were not good for the Texans. Will be interesting to see if with the return of the real refs, and the absence of professional jerk Cortland Finnegan, if there is going to be the testiness of recent games.
Guessing the game will be extremely loud. Division game, Texans 3-0 for first time ever, first home game since the opener, roof certain to be closed. Reliant Stadium can be one of the loudest venues in the NFL because the seats from bottom to top are very vertical and close to the field due to the retractable roof.
Thanks again to Steph for some great answers and don't forget to check out Texans Chick for my answers to her questions and more preview nuggets on this week's game