Shutdown Countdown: Texans add to air attack, hope a deep playoff run is the result

With all the talk about today’s NFL being a game in which quarterbacks rule the day and everything else runs one step behind, the Houston Texans have built a consistently winning team with a decidedly old-school archetype. Their best player in 2012 was a defensive lineman (J.J. Watt), their primary receiver is an under-the-radar superstar, their quarterback stands a bit above average, and the real fulcrum of the team lies in a power-based, zone running game. They had the NFL’s fewest shotgun plays in 2012, and ran more than most teams when they were behind, even late in games,when they were behind – 34 percent of all such plays in the second half, to be specific.

In 2012, the Texans finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, the best record in franchise history. They finished in the top 10 in offensive and defensive points and yards, the first time they’d done so in franchise history. And yet, the Texans are seen by some as a disappointment, because they haven’t been able to advance meaningfully in the postseason. They’ve beaten the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card rounds of the last two AFC playoffs, and they’ve lost to the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, respectively, in the next round.

Something is going to have to pop for the Texans to take the next step, and most think that the pressure is most on quarterback Matt Schaub. Schaub’s problem is not that he’s a bad quarterback; rather, the issue seems to be his inability to rise to that nebulous “elite” level, and he’s going to hear a lot about that this season. Matter of fact, he’s already heard a lot about it.

"He understands that. He knows that. And he does have to play better in those situations for us to take our team to the next level," general manager Rick Smith recently told the NFL Network, when asked about Schaub’s performances in big games.

The Texans seem to be set for another AFC South title. But how far will they go this season when the lights get bright? Schaub is 32 years old. Andre Johnson has been one of the league’s best receivers for a very long time, but he’s 32 as well. There’s talent old and young along the team’s entire roster, but there’s also a sense that the window might be closing. And if the Texans don’t advance further in the postseason this year, one wonders if more major changes will be made.

Is the roster better, worse, or about the same? Better with one addition on offense, and one on defense. We’ll get to first-round receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a second, but let’s discuss the potential effect safety Ed Reed could have on this defense if he’s healthy and in there. Reed is one of the smartest players in the league, he’s a universal figure of respect, and he has enough left in the tank to make a real difference … again, if he’s healthy. Reed is currently recovering from a hip injury.

Best offseason acquisition: Hopkins, by a wide margin. The Texans have long needed a complementary target for Andre Johnson, and Hopkins proved at Clemson that he has everything it takes to succeed in the NFL. At his best (his 13-catch, 19-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl vs. LSU), Hopkins brings Roddy White and Julio Jones to mind with his downfield speed, route awareness, toughness after the catch, and ability to get open in small spaces. Expect Hopkins to get a lot of targets, and expect him to shine.

Biggest hole on the roster: Right tackle. Derek Newton really struggled last season, his first year as a starter. If he doesn’t pick it up this season – and he’s been slowed in that process as he’s recovering from patellar tendon surgery – he could be fighting for his starting spot with rookie Brennan Williams. The Texans prefer a right-handed running game, and Schaub rolls to the right in boot-action as much as any quarterback in the league.

Position in flux: Linebacker, and it really showed last season when Brian Cushing was lost for the rest of the season in Houston’s 23-17 Week 5 win over the New York Jets. DeMeco Ryans was in Philly, so the Texans had to spackle an inside linebacker combo with Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, Daryl Sharpton, and Bar­rett Ruud. In Wade Philliips’ one-gap 5-2 fronts, it’s imperative that the inside linebackers flow to the ball, tackle with authority, and provide intermediate coverage help. Cushing is a special player who can do all of these things, and if he gets hurt again, there really isn’t an acceptable substitute.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: Cornerback Kareem Jackson. In 2012, the third-year man picked off a career-high four passes, and was very solid overall opposite Johnathan Joseph. He ranked 12th overall among all qualifying cornerbacks in Football Outsiders’ Success Rate metric against the pass, defended 19 additional passes, and allowed a 68.2 quarterback rating on passes in which he was targeted, good for eighth in the NFL.

Stat fact: We’ll throw a few totally ridiculous J.J. Watt stats out there for you, Texans fans – these are all per Football Outsiders. In 2012, Watt batted down 18 passes, more than twice as many as the second-best lineman, San Diego’s Corey Liuget. His 20.5 sacks is the most for a 3-4 defensive end in the 31 years the NFL has been tracking sacks – and he got some of those sacks as a defensive tackle, which is even more rodiculous. He was a factor in 9.2 percent of pass plays against the Texans. No other de­fensive lineman in the league was involved in more than 5.5 percent. He was a factor in 15.7 percent of all runs against the Texans, a figure exceeded only by Justin Smith’s 16.0 percent among all defensive linemen. His 98.0 Stop Rate against the run? Well, that’s a bit like pitching a series of no-hitters throughout a season, and giving up a couple of one-hitters on your “worst” days. It’s fairly ways to argue that Watt’s 2012 season was the single greatest, in terms of statistical effect, in the long history of the National Football League at his position.

The team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Schaub hits that mystical next level, Cushing stays healthy, Watt becomes the next Bruce Smith on a long-term basis, and DeAndre Hopkins lives up to the hype. If half these things happen, the Texans could very well be on the way to their first Super Bowl.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Schaub doesn’t develop, which leads to an implosion in the offensive structure. Ed Reed’s expiration date comes up, and the Texans really miss Quin, especially in their dime packages. The division becomes Indy’s to take, and the Texans are not the last men standing. That would most certainly provide for an interesting offseason, because owner Bob McNair has a right to expect more than that particular scenario.

The player who couldswing this team’s season one way or another: In case you didn’t pick it up yet, it’s unquestionably Schaub. He will make $7.25 million in guaranteed base salary in 2013 as part of the five-year, $66.15 million contract extension he signed last September, and he’s due over $10 million in base salary and roster bonuses in 2014. That’s the first year, however, in which those numbers aren’t guaranteed. Schaub has everything any quarterback should need to light it up – now, the onus is on him.

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32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
13. Chicago Bears
12. New York Giants
11. Carolina Panthers
10. Washington Redskins
9. Cincinnati Bengals
8. Atlanta Falcons

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