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Houston Texans 2011 Season Preview

Though Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak went into last record nine wins in 2009 to only six a season later.

Come this time in 2012, it's highly unlikely the Texans' season preview has the same intro theme.

The Texans were the chic emerging powerhouse pick of the AFC South last August and subsequently opened September in appropriate style, defeating incumbent divisional kingpin Indianapolis by 10 points at home and traveling for a dramatic overtime win at Washington a week later.

They were 4-2 and feeling good heading into a bye week at the end of October, but the early-season momentum never returned. Instead, Kubiak and Co. lost eight of nine games during a miserable November/December stretch and plummeted to also-ran status en route to an ugly 6-10 finish.

Near unanimous blame for Houston's backward step was pointed at a defense which allowed averages of 26.7 points, 267.5 passing yards and 376.9 total yards per week across 16 games. The unit surrendered 30 or more points in eight games, had five games of 300 or more passing yards allowed and gave up 400 or more total yards eight times.

In fact, the prodigious letdown on that side of the ball was enough to overshadow prodigious exploits on the other, in this case an offense that featured 4,000-yard passer Matt Schaub, 1,600-yard rusher Arian Foster and 1,200-yard receiver Andre Johnson.

Veteran ball-stopping guru Wade Phillips was installed to remedy things as the Texans' defensive coordinator for 2011, following a three-plus year head coaching run in Dallas that ended when he was fired midway through last season in the wake of a 45-7 loss to Green Bay.

Phillips is no stranger to Houston, having attended the University of Houston and serving as a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater in 1969, then later coaching the linebackers and defensive line for the now-defunct Houston Oilers under his father, head coach Bum Phillips, from 1976-1980.

"I've studied tape of 15 [Texans] games [from 2010]," Phillips said. "I like their talent. I'm excited to work with them. They played hard for Gary, and that was impressive. They wanted me and I wanted to be [here]. Gary's a good coach and I think we can win. If I didn't, I wouldn't be [here]."

Though the Texans missed out on big-name defensive free agents like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in the truncated post-lockout offseason, they did manage to bring in talent to the defensive backfield that they feel will be a good complement to Phillips' attacking 3-4 scheme.

Cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning arrived from Cincinnati and Chicago, respectively, and will join third-year man Glover Quin, who's making the switch from cornerback to safety. Kareem Jackson is the lone holdover of the secondary as he enters his second year at corner.

Elsewhere in Phillips' blueprint, former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams will make the not-so-subtle transition from defensive end to outside linebacker, though he'll still be asked to make rushing the quarterback his primary objective after a season in which he had 8 1/2 sacks among 28 tackles.

Williams struggled with the position switch during the early portion of the preseason, but remained confident.

"Little things seem kind of difficult but it's something we'll get used to," Williams said. "The biggest thing is technique and not having any wasted motions at this point, so it can be a pretty simple formula."

Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Houston Texans, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2010 RECORD: 6-10 (tied 3rd, AFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: None

COACH (RECORD): Gary Kubiak (37-43 in five seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rick Dennison (second season with Texans)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wade Phillips (first season with Texans)

OFFENSIVE STAR: Arian Foster, RB (1616 rushing yards, 66 receptions, 18 total TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Mario Williams, OLB (28 tackles, 8.5 sacks)

2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 3rd overall (7th rushing, 4th passing), 9th scoring (24.4 ppg)

2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 30th overall (13th rushing, 32nd passing), 29th scoring (26.7 ppg)

KEY ADDITIONS: DE J.J. Watt (1st Round, Wisconsin), CB Johnathan Joseph (from Bengals), FS Danieal Manning (from Bears), P Brad Maynard (from Bears), FB Lawrence Vickers (from Browns), ILB Tim Dobbins (from Dolphins)

KEY DEPARTURES: DT Amobi Okoye (to Bears), OLB Zac Diles (to Rams), SS Bernard Pollard (to Ravens), FS Eugene Wilson (released), P Matt Turk (to Jaguars), QB Dan Orlovsky (to Colts), FB Vonta Leach (to Ravens), WR David Anderson (to Broncos), WR Andre Davis (released), DE Mark Anderson (to Patriots), MLB Kevin Bentley (not tendered)

QB: Schaub (24 TD, 12 INT in 2010) threw each and every one of the Texans' 574 passes last season, one year after he'd led the league in both attempts (583) and completions (365) en route to the first Pro Bowl selection of his career. His follow-up numbers were nearly as elite, putting him third in completions (365), fourth in passing yardage (4,370), fifth in passing yards per game (273.1) and ninth in quarterback rating (92.0) for 2010. His interception total dropped from 15 to 12 as well, while his completion rate surpassed 60 percent (63.6) for the fourth consecutive year since assuming the reins of the Houston offense from former No. 1 pick David Carr. Schaub's backup for 2011 is another former first-rounder, ex-Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, who was inactive as the Texans' No. 3 QB for all 16 games in 2010 after spending four seasons in Arizona. Third on the depth chart is rookie T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina in April's draft.

RB: The 24-year-old Foster went from obscurity to the Pro Bowl last season, busting loose for 1,616 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns after compiling just 257 yards in six games as a rookie in 2010. His opening-week total of 231 yards against the Colts was a single-game franchise record and the second-highest Week 1 individual rushing output in league history, trailing only O. J. Simpson's 250 in 1973. Foster went on to gain 100 or more yards in seven other games and finished the season first in the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns (18), yards from scrimmage (2,220) and touches (393). Among the backups are veteran Derrick Ward (315 rushing yards, 4 TD), former starter Steve Slaton (93 rushing yards) and youngster Ben Tate, a second-round pick in 2010 who missed his entire rookie season with a severe ankle injury, with James Casey (8 receptions) and former Brown Lawrence Vickers competing to replace All-Pro Vonta Leach at fullback. Ward sustained a concussion in the preseason opener against the Jets while Slaton, a 1,200-yard rusher in 2008, has missed time in camp due to hamstring problems.

WR/TE: It's hard to imagine an 86-reception, 1,216-yard season as a step down, but that's what it was -- at least statistically -- for Johnson, the former No. 3 overall pick who'd caught 100 or more balls and surpassed the 1,500-yard mark in each of the previous two years. Still, the ex-Miami Hurricane made his fifth Pro Bowl, led the league with an average of 93.5 receiving per game and was near the top in catches (sixth) and receiving yards (also sixth). His career average of 79.7 receiving yards per game is also the best mark in NFL history . Sidekick Kevin Walter (51 receptions, 5 TD) has been an able complement to Johnson for the last four seasons, catching at least 50 balls for at least 600 yards in each of those years. The Eastern Michigan alum scored five touchdowns in 2010 and has 19 scores over that four-year span. Also in the mix is Jacoby Jones (51 receptions, 3 TD), who was re-signed after recording career highs in catches and receiving yards (562) last year. At tight end, Owen Daniels (38 receptions, 2 TD) hopes to bounce back fully from a knee injury that's limited him to 19 games over the last two seasons after a career-best 70 catches in 2008. His backup is Joel Dreessen (36 receptions, 4 TD), whose production has rose from 20 catches in his initial three seasons to 62 as Daniels' fill-in in 2009 and 2010. He scored four touchdowns and averaged 14.4 yards per catch last season.

OL: All five starters return across the front for the Texans, whose rushing attack was seventh-best in the league in terms of yardage and first overall in touchdowns (20). Schaub was sacked 32 times last year, however, after being taken down 16, 23 and 25 times in his first three seasons as the team's starter. Seventh-year man Chris Myers has made 59 straight starts at center, including 48 in a row for Houston following a trade with the Denver Broncos prior to the 2008 season. He's flanked by nine-year pro Wade Smith at left guard and Mike Brisiel on the right side, while 2008 first-round pick Duane Brown and Eric Winston are back at left and right tackle, respectively. Myers and Winston were also teammates at the University of Miami. Sixth-year pro Rashad Butler and fifth-year man Kasey Studdard are the most experienced of the backup line crew, though Studdard could miss the upcoming campaign after injuring his ankle in the Texans' first preseason game.

DL: The Texans went for a front-line upgrade in the first round of the 2011 draft with their selection of 6-foot-5, 290-pound end J.J. Watt, who left Wisconsin after his junior season. Watt recorded 106 overall tackles, 36 1/2 tackles for loss and 11 1/2 sacks in addition to recovering four fumbles in two years with the Badgers, and won the prestigious Lott Trophy honoring on-field performance and personal character among college defenders in 2010. He's been installed as an immediate starter opposite 6-4, 295-pounder Antonio Smith, who started 16 games, made 38 tackles and recorded four sacks for Houston in 2010. Smith, a seven-year vet, played for the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLII before signing with the Texans in 2009. Playing at the nose in the new scheme will be seventh-year pro Shaun Cody, a 6-4, 310-pounder who started 16 games and made a career-best 38 tackles last season. The most experienced of the backups is 6-2, 301-pound end Damione Lewis, now in his 11th season in the NFL. He played 10 games and made 17 tackles in 2010.

LB: The best news on the Houston defense -- and perhaps the entire team -- is the healthy return this summer of inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, whose Achilles injury in Week 6 of last season coincided with the Texans' nosedive from contender to disappointment. Ryans, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006 and a 2008 Pro Bowl starter, had made 30 tackles and a sack before the season-ending injury. He'll line up alongside third-year man Brian Cushing, who made 12 starts after returning from a season-opening four-game suspension last year and finished with 76 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble. Cushing did have offseason knee surgery and has been used sparingly in the preseason, though he's expected to be ready to go for Week 1. On the outside in the new 3-4 look is the aforementioned Williams, now in his sixth NFL season and a 2010 Pro Bowl starter as a down lineman. He had 28 tackles and 8 1/2 sacks in a season cut short by a sports hernia in December. Also outside is the returning Connor Barwin, who played 16 games as a rookie in 2009 but hurt his ankle in last season's opener and went on IR three days later.

DB: As mentioned previously, three of four secondary slots feature new faces in 2011. Primary among the newcomers is Joseph, who spent five seasons with Cincinnati and intercepted 14 passes in 67 games, while taking three of those picks back for touchdowns. He made 53 tackles for the Bengals in 2010 and was second on the team in both passes defended (11) and interceptions (3). At the other corner is Jackson, who started all 16 games as a rookie and made 71 tackles while intercepting two passes. Third-year man Quin makes the transition from corner to strong safety after racking up 85 tackles, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2010, while Manning arrives after five seasons with the Bears in which he had seven interceptions and 346 tackles. The Abilene Christian product made 72 tackles for Chicago last season, along with one sack and an interception.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Veteran Neil Rackers had a successful first season with the Texans in 2010, tying the franchise's single-year record with 124 points while making 27-of-30 field goals and all 43 PAT tries. His 57-yarder in Week 16 against Denver was a career long and took place two weeks after he became the 14th active player to score 1,000 points. Rookie punter Brett Hartmann signed as an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan and is battling 15-year veteran and ex-Bear Brad Maynard, who came in as a free agent in early August and leads the NFL in punts placed inside the 20-yard line since 1997. LSU product Trindon Holliday was drafted in the sixth round in 2010 and expected to augment the return game on both punts and kickoffs, but missed his entire rookie year after a thumb injury in preseason. Houston was 13th in the AFC in kick-return average and last in the league in average field position after kickoffs this past season.

PROGNOSIS: Kubiak should have a tangible feel for what he's in for by the end of the season's first four weeks, which feature a home opener against Indianapolis, trips to Miami and New Orleans and a visit from defending conference champion Pittsburgh. If the Texans come out 2-2 or better, that long-awaited playoff berth might seem more realistic. A Week 6 visit to Baltimore is the toughest test of the season's second quarter, while a November trip to Tampa Bay and early-December home meeting with Atlanta figure to be challenges as well. Down the stretch, it's Cincinnati, Carolina, Indianapolis and Tennessee for a Houston team that has the talent to record its first double-digit win total in franchise history and make a serious challenge for the postseason, either as division champ or a wild card.