For the first time in the franchise's short history, the Houston Texans enter a season as the favorite to win the AFC South.
There's mainly one reason for that distinction: a menacing defense.
Despite having to learn coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme on the fly a year ago, the Texans finished second in the NFL in total defense and fourth in points allowed, helping the team to its first-ever playoff berth. With a full offseason and training camp to fully absorb Phillips' system this year, the sky's the limit for the upcoming 2012 campaign.
The Texans busted out with 10 wins en route to an AFC South title last year and defeated Cincinnati in their playoff debut. The run came to an abrupt end, however, when Houston gave up 17 points off four turnovers against Baltimore in an AFC Divisional Playoff.
"We had a lot of chances but we hurt ourselves with turnovers," then-rookie quarterback T.J. Yates said afterward. "Our defense did a great job all game long. We have to protect the ball."
The defense is just one of the building blocks Houston will use to make a possible postseason run last even longer in 2012. Yates was filling in for injured starter Matt Schaub, who appeared in just 10 games and led the Texans to a 7-3 start until a Lisfranc injury ended his season. Yates immediately fit in when both Schaub and now former backup Matt Leinart both went down, doing a fantastic job in keeping the Texans remain focused on their goals, and gives the team a reliable fill-in in case Schaub can't stay healthy.
A healthy Schaub for 16 games would give this team an even better chance of topping the accomplishments of 2011. He has the potential to be an elite quarterback and has the weapons around him to do it. However, All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson was limited to seven games because of hamstring problems last season and missed time this preseason with a groin injury, though he's expected to be ready for the regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 9.
Johnson is arguably the most complete receiver in the game and makes the Texans even better when he's on the field.
Houston did lose some players in the offseason, including defensive stalwarts Mario Williams (to Buffalo) and DeMeco Ryans (to Philadelphia). The Texans may not be too concerned with the losses, however, because Williams played in just five games due to injury in 2011 and Ryans was recovering from an Achilles' tear.
With those two departing, linebacker Brian Cushing is the next man up as far as being a leader both on and off the field.
"I think they all look to Cush as a leader," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "Is Brian being asked to be more of a leader since DeMeco is not here? I think that's obvious, yeah."
Cushing led the defense with 114 tackles as Houston finished third against the pass and fourth against the run. The Texans also set a franchise record with 44 sacks, 11 1/2 coming from outside linebacker Connor Barwin.
Nose tackle Earl Mitchell said the team draws inspiration from Cushing's relentless style.
"When you watch him play, you feed off his energy," Mitchell said. "When the play is over with, he's always in the vicinity of the ball. You basically want to mirror that type of play, and you envision yourself doing what he's doing. The coaches are always pointing him out on film."
Since Cushing and the Texans played so well last season, they will have tougher schedule for 2012, with interesting matchups against Denver, the New York Jets, Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit and New England highlighting the slate.
The Texans, who won seven in a row from Oct. 23-Dec. 11 en route to the first double-digit season of victories in team annals, have been tested before, however, and should be ready for whatever challenge lies ahead.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Texans, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 10-6 (1st, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to Baltimore in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Gary Kubiak (47-49 in six seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rick Dennison (third season with Texans)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wade Phillips (second season with Texans)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Arian Foster, RB (1224 rushing yards, 53 receptions, 12 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Brian Cushing, ILB (114 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 13th overall (2nd rushing, 18th passing), tied 10th scoring (23.8 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 2nd overall (4th rushing, 3rd passing), 4th scoring (17.4 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: ILB Bradie James (from Cowboys), K Randy Bullock (5th Round, Texas A&M), P Donnie Jones (from Rams), QB John Beck (from Redskins), RB Justin Forsett (from Seahawks), FB Moran Norris (from 49ers), WR Keshawn Martin (4th Round, Michigan State), WR DeVier Posey (3rd Round, Ohio State), ILB Omar Gaither (from Panthers), OLB Whitney Mercilus (1st Round, Illinois), CB Alan Ball (from Cowboys)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Joel Dreessen (to Broncos), RG Mike Brisiel (to Raiders), RT Eric Winston (to Chiefs), ILB DeMeco Ryans (to Eagles), OLB Mario Williams (to Bills), K Neil Rackers (to Redskins), QB Matt Leinart (to Raiders), QB Jake Delhomme (free agent), RB Derrick Ward (retired), FB Lawrence Vickers (to Cowboys), WR Jacoby Jones (to Ravens), DE Tim Bulman (to Patriots), CB Jason Allen (to Bengals), S Dominique Barber (free agent), P Matt Turk (free agent)
QB: Schaub (2479 passing yards, 15 TD, 6 INT in 2010) ended last season on injured reserve with a foot injury suffered against Tampa Bay in November, but is back at full strength ready to lead Houston's dynamic offense. The former Virginia standout is heading into a contract year and would enjoy nothing more than to stay healthy for a full slate and lead the team into the postseason for a second consecutive year. The Texans rallied around Yates (949 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) while Schaub was on the sidelines, and the youngster should have no issues stepping again if needed. The coaches believe in Yates, and that was cemented after his touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds to play in a late-season win at Cincinnati that clinched the team's first division title and playoff berth. Schaub, who led the league in passing in 2009 with 4,770 yards, will have a chance to grab back the spotlight, but still must prove he can play a full 16-game schedule again like he did the two previous seasons. John Beck (858 passing yards, 2 TD, 4 INT), who flopped in a a brief starting stint with Washington last year, was signed in the offseason as insurance.
RB: The Texans finished behind only Denver in rushing yards a year ago, mainly because of running back Arian Foster (1224 rushing yards, 10 TD). The Pro Bowl selection may have been able to match or exceed his career-high total of 1,616 yards set in 2010, but missed three games last season because of a hamstring issue. The talented back, who also caught 53 passes for a career-best 617 yards in 2011, was rewarded with a contract extension reportedly worth $43.5 million with $20.75 million in guarantees over five years. Foster made his second consecutive Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro as well after leading the NFL with an average of 141.6 yards from scrimmage per game, a number which will be hard to duplicate. Over the last two seasons, he leads the league with 4,061 yards from scrimmage, 30 total touchdowns and 26 rushing scores. Ben Tate (942 rushing yards, 4 TD) is an admirable backup who will spell Foster at times. He could probably start on most teams around the league and ran for 100-plus yards four times in 2011. The Texans added running back Justin Forsett (145 rushing yards with Seattle) in the offseason to round out the corps.
WR: Johnson (33 receptions, 2 TD) hasn't been the most durable player lately, as he has missed 12 regular-season games the past two seasons, but can stretch the field with his speed and has a big body to boot, making it awfully difficult for defensive backs to match up. Possessing a calm demeanor away from the game, Johnson is a monster on the field when healthy, which the Texans hope could be the case in 2012. He only caught 33 passes in 2011 after an 86-reception campaign over 13 games the year before. Johnson led the NFL in receiving yards in 2008 and 2009 and has three 100-yard catch seasons in his career, but his health is a concern at age 31. After Johnson, the Texans pretty much have nothing to brag about at the wide receiver spot. Tight end Owen Daniels led the team with 54 catches for 677 yards and Foster was second with 53 receptions for 617 yards. Jacoby Jones is now with Baltimore and Walter (39 receptions, 3 TD) still has yet to really break out when given the opportunity. DeVier Posey (3rd Round, Ohio State) and Keshawn Martin (4th Round, Michigan State) were drafted back in April and could make an impact.
TE: Joel Dreessen led the Texans with six receiving touchdowns a year ago, though that probably wouldn't have been the case had Johnson been able to stay healthy, but signed with Denver as a free agent, which means Daniels (54 receptions, 3 TD) may be asked to take an even greater role this season. He and Dreessen often lined up together, often to serve as blockers for Houston's rabid ground attack. Garrett Graham is expected to fill the void Dreessen left as Daniels' backup. Daniels was sixth among AFC tight ends in receiving yards and catches, and second in the conference with 75.9 percent of his catches going for first downs. James Casey will also see action at the position in addition to serving as Houston's main fullback, while undrafted rookie tight ends Phillip Supernaw and Logan Brock are long shots to make the roster.
OL: The Texans lost two starting offensive linemen in right tackle Eric Winston and right guard Mike Brisiel, leaving training camp and preseason games as competition for the open spots. Houston rode its offensive line to the best rushing performance in team history last year, but that could change if some new faces fail to keep the bar high. The top candidates to replace those spots are Rashad Butler (right tackle) and Antoine Caldwell (right guard). Rookie Brandon Brooks (3rd Round, Miami-Ohio) and Derek Newton also are expected to compete for playing time along the front line. While opening holes for Foster is important, protecting Schaub and helping maintain time of possession are keys as well. Schaub has a history of injuries and is one good lick from being on the sidelines again. Center Chris Myers, left guard Wade Smith and left tackle Duane Brown are returning starters, with Myers becoming the first offensive lineman in team history to be selected to the Pro Bowl. He was the leader of a unit that helped the Texans set a club record with 2,448 rushing yards in the regular season and has started 64 consecutive regular-season games since joining the Texans in a trade with Denver in 2008.
DL: The Texans had the No. 4 rushing defense in the league last season, allowing 96.4 yards per game on the ground, and excelled despite having to deal with two of the top backs in the league in Jacksonville's Maurice Jones- Drew and Tennessee's Chris Johnson twice a year. The 3-4 system can seem difficult to execute effectively against the run, but Houston has proven otherwise. End J.J. Watt (56 tackles, 5.5 sacks) had an interception return for a score in a playoff win over Cincinnati and is poised for another productive season following strong rookie debut. He did sustain a dislocated left elbow in training camp, but indications are that he will be ready to go for Week 1 of the season. Fellow end Antonio Smith (25 tackles, 6.5 sacks) got to the quarterback the most among the defensive lineman, setting a career-best in sacks, and is also a captain valued for his leadership. Nose tackle Shaun Cody (23 tackles, 1 sack), a pure run stuffer who started every game in 2011, completes the top group. Jared Crick was selected out of Nebraska in the fourth round of April's draft to help out at defensive end, while Mitchell (27 tackles, sack) and end Tim Jamison (19 tackles, 2 sacks) should have key roles in the rotation up front.
LB: The linebacker position is the biggest strength of the Texans, led by Cushing (114 tackles, 4 sacks) and Barwin (47 tackles, 11.5 sacks). The latter finished with a team high in sacks, while Cushing was the Texans' MVP on defense for his high motor and quickness to the ball. He will be looked on as the leader of the defense with Ryans now in Philadelphia. Named a team captain at midseason and second-team All-Pro at year's end, Cushing is expected to move to the weak side this season, which could further boost his numbers and give him more chances to rattle the quarterback. After Williams went down with an injury, Barwin tied for the NFL lead with 9 1/2 sacks from Week 9 through the end of the season. He also topped the Texans with 27 quarterback hits and had seven passes defensed. Brooks Reed (45 tackles, 6 sacks) will start opposite of Barwin at left outside linebacker and is coming off a solid rookie year, while ex-Cowboy Bradie James (44 tackles) was signed to start next to Cushing on the inside. Houston brought in another pass rusher with the first- round selection of Illinois outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, while returnees Darryl Sharpton, Bryan Braman, Jesse Nading and Tim Dobbins will all be fighting to get on the field in Phillips' defense.
DB: The Texans lost a good defensive back in Jason Allen, who finished tied for the team lead in interceptions with four, after he signed with Cincinnati in the offseason. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph (44 tackles, 4 INT) came from the Bengals prior to the 2011 campaign and played well in his first season with Houston, appearing in 15 games and making the Pro Bowl. Kareem Jackson (42 tackles, 1 INT) will have to step up for the loss of Allen on the opposite side of Joseph, and was a first-round pick in 2010. His coverage ability has come into question, but it didn't seem to have a negative effect a year ago, when Houston was third overall in pass defense. Brian McCain (28 tackles, 2 INT) and free-agent pickup Alan Ball (37 tackles, 1 INT) will be ready to step in when needed in nickel packages. Ball spent his first five seasons with Dallas and is familiar with Phillips' system. Strong safety Glover Quin (77 tackles) was second behind Cushing in stops and free safety Danieal Manning (59 tackles, 2 INT) is entering his second season with the Texans. Houston has plenty of depth in the secondary, which brings great competition.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Matt Turk is gone. leaving Donnie Jones (44.3 avg.) as the top candidate to replace him. Jones is a veteran who signed with the team in March after previously playing in St. Louis, and will be pushed by Brett Hartmann, though he is suspended for the first three games of the year because of a failed drug test and is coming off a torn ACL from the end of last season. Hartmann played in 12 games and made 58 punts, averaging 44.4 yards. Rookie Randy Bullock (5th Round, Texas A&M) and Shayne Graham will be competing for the kicking job with Neil Rackers now in Washington. Jacoby Jones was the primary punt returner, and now that job could go to reserve safety Quintin Demps. Manning is a candidate to return kicks and averaged 27.4 yards on 13 runbacks a season ago, but could get bumped from those duties because of his importance on defense. The rookie Martin returned both kicks and punts at Michigan State and will compete for both jobs, while Jon Weeks is expected to remain as the club's long snapper.
PROGNOSIS: Can the defense match the effort from 2011? Will Johnson and Schaub stay healthy enough to compete for a full season? Those are just a few of the questions for the Texans heading into the new campaign. Houston was able to persevere through hard times last year, when a few vital pieces went down, but it's uncertain if they could pull it off a second year in a row if faced with the same amount of adversity. Winning the AFC South with a 10-6 mark set the bar to alpine heights for 2012, but it was more than enough to give Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith contract extensions. Foster got his new deal, too, and will once again be the centerpiece to the Houston offense. How he goes will dictate how far the Texans go. Even though the team lost a few key players in the offseason, look for Houston to dominate the weaker AFC South for another 10-plus wins and possibly make an even deeper run in the postseason.