Philadelphia, PA – With the spotlight of ESPN's first Monday lockout era shining squarely on the New market appeal quotable head coach Rex Ryan, it may have been easy to forget there was another team also competing in the game.
And a pretty good one, by the way.
For three years now, the Houston Texans have been hailed as an up-and-comer, a team seemingly on the cusp of escaping out of the wallows of mediocrity that it's been engulfed in throughout nine seasons of existence. The refrain has been a familiar one for the NFL's youngest franchise: just when the Texans seem poised to break down the door and achieve success, they stub their toe and have it slammed shut in their face (and no, that reference wasn't meant to be a subtle dig at Ryan's now well-known personal turn-ons).
After closing out the 2008 campaign with a 5-1 flourish, Houston was believed to be primed to give the powerhouse Indianapolis Colts a serious run for their money in the AFC South the following year. The Texans were in contention at midseason, before ultimately being done in by a four-game losing streak from November into early December.
Houston entered last season with similar buildup, but instead took a major step backward in a 6-10 disaster that nearly cost head coach Gary Kubiak his job. This time the Texans couldn't overcome their own deficiencies, as a pushover defense that made Steve Urkel appear imposing in comparison was the primary culprit in the team's demise.
That defensive debacle brought about sweeping changes on that side of the ball for 2011, with the Texans switching to a 3-4 scheme that's now under the direction of veteran coordinator Wade Phillips. Free agents Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning were added to help patch up a secondary that was an absolute sieve last season, while Wisconsin end J.J. Watt headlined a draft class that was noticeably skewed towards young and athletic defenders.
Though it's never wise to read too much into preseason results -- and all Monday's 20-16 win over the two-time AFC Championship Game participants really says is the Texans have better third and fourth-stringers than the Jets -- it was still hard not to come away impressed with the debut performance of Phillips' new-look unit. A pass rush that was sporadic during last year's meltdown was consistently threatening all throughout the evening. There was an evident and contagious energy that was too often lacking from the 2010 model. The coverage was better.
Sure, the Jets were without two starters on the offensive line and had rookie Greg McElroy under center for three quarters of Monday's game, but the seven sacks and 16 quarterback pressures the Texans were credited with were clearly positive signs that a turnaround could indeed be coming.
"That's the thing with this defense, you know," outside linebacker Connor Barwin said afterward. "We're going to blitz, and we're going to try to get after the quarterback as much as we can. And we're not going to do it from one angle - we'll do it from the middle, the left, the right, both inside and outside."
So with a new attitude and an encouraging showing now on record, the question once again will be raised. Could this be the Texans' year?
Well, there's certainly a lot to like about this Houston squad. The offense, which features two elite playmakers in All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson and 2010 rushing champion Arian Foster and a quality quarterback in Matt Schaub, was already playoff-caliber. There's continuity thanks to owner Bob McNair's smart decision to retain Kubiak and not start from scratch in an offseason that was significantly wiped away by the lockout. Say what you will about Phillips' credentials as a head coach after his famous flop in Dallas, but there's no denying the man knows how to run a defense.
It's not as if the cupboard was bare on the defensive end to begin with, either. Three of the four linebackers (Mario Williams, Brian Cushing, DeMeco Ryans) in the new 3-4 arrangement have been to Pro Bowls. And by all accounts, Watt has been the real deal as a prototype two-gap end.
As long as Peyton Manning's still around, the Colts have to be considered the favorites in the AFC South. But they're a vulnerable one, with Manning coming off his second neck surgery in 15 months and the team handcuffed somewhat by depth and salary cap issues. And considering that five of Houston's 10 losses in 2010 came by a touchdown or less -- three of which were decided in either overtime or the final seconds of regulation -- the gap may not be as wide as one might think.
Then again, perception hasn't always turned into reality when it comes to the Texans.
Some other observations from the preseason's first week:
- Again, first-week preseason results need to be taken with a grain of salt, but the New England Patriots' machine-like efficiency on offense in their 47-12 rout of Jacksonville was still something to behold. The Pats piled up 476 total yards on the disheveled Jaguars with Tom Brady and most of his starting mates watching from the sidelines, while third-round selection Ryan Mallett thoroughly outplayed Jags' No. 10 overall pick Blaine Gabbert in a matchup of rookie quarterbacks. Mallett was the seventh signal-caller chosen in April's draft but easily had the best debut of the bunch, displaying remarkable poise, command and precision in completing 12-of-19 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown.
- Of the six quarterbacks taken before Mallett, only Tennessee's Jake Locker (7-of-10, 89 yards, 1 TD) turned in a solid overall showing in his initial pro action. The rest of the lot (Carolina's Cam Newton, Gabbert, Minnesota's Christian Ponder, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick) combined for zero touchdowns, three interceptions and a lackluster 54.8 percent completion rate, and only Dalton did his apprenticeship against primarily a first-team defense. None appear close to ready for prime time, though Newton showed glimpses of his considerable promise by making a couple of big plays in a highly-anticipated intro.
- Chad Henne's clearly under a lot of pressure in Miami, and it showed in the embattled quarterback's season-opening performance. The fourth-year pro was intercepted on two of his first three drives against Atlanta and generated little offense when facing the Falcons' starters. The Dolphins may have a top- rate defense, but there's little chance of them hanging with the Patriots and Jets in the AFC East without more consistent play under center.
- Excellent get by Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome in trading for wide receiver Lee Evans, who'll bring a field-stretching element to a Baltimore offense that's been sorely lacking in that department in recent years. Though the 30-year-old is coming off a down year in Buffalo, he's still averaged better than 15 yards per catch in all but one of his seven NFL seasons and is a clear upgrade right now over raw rookie Torrey Smith, who looked lost at times in last week's setback to Philadelphia.
- As for the Eagles, their surprise signing of wide receiver Steve Smith is a clear indicator that the team has serious concerns about Jeremy Maclin's mysterious health issues, no matter Andy Reid may say publicly. Interesting that Philadelphia just shelled out a guaranteed $2 million for Smith, who's still recovering from microfracture knee surgery and could miss at least the first month of the regular season, with the underpaid DeSean Jackson clamoring for a raise from his current $600,000 salary.
- Shawne Merriman's two-sack effort against the Bears on Saturday was definitely a good sight for the Buffalo Bills, who are going to need the injury-plagued former All-Pro to produce in order to have any chance to contend this year. On the other hand, facing a deplorable Chicago offensive line that yielded nine sacks in all to the Bills and nearly got Jay Cutler killed in his only series may not have been much of a litmus test.
- While on the subject of bad offensive line play, San Francisco's starting front wall surrendered five sacks in under a half's worth of time in Friday's 24-3 loss at New Orleans and may have further wrecked the confidence of already-fragile quarterback Alex Smith, who took a beating at the hands of the aggressive Saints. Don't expect Jim Harbaugh to work miracles in his first year as head coach, and the fact that the Niners are kicking the tires on a washed- up Dante Culpepper is an obvious sign of desperation.
- The supplemental draft is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, but don't count on former Ohio State quarterback Terelle Pryor being part of the process. Since the expected Heisman Trophy candidate voluntary left the scandal-ridden Buckeyes program to avoid a five-game suspension, the NFL hasn't ruled him eligible to be selected, and probably isn't going to at this point.