NFL Analysis: Houston Aims To Get Past The Second Round

There are worse problems that the Houston Texans could be facing besides the challenge of pushing past the second round of the AFC playoffs. It was as recently as this time two years ago that we were wondering if the franchise would ever make the postseason at all.

Nonetheless, after two straight years of winning the AFC South and beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round, the Texans have to be hungry to move past the second round. They lost to Baltimore in 2011 and New England in 2012. Our NFL analysis focuses on whether 2013 will be more of the same, a step back…or if it will be that elusive next step.

Houston defensive end J.J. Watt was the Defensive Player of the Year last season, ringing up 20.5 sacks. That’s a big number in any situation, but especially as a down lineman in a 3-4 scheme, where big plays are usually funneled to the linebackers. The pass rush led by Watt had positive ripple effects throughout the defense, as the Texans were the best in the league at forcing incomplete passes.

The defense, overseen by coordinator Wade Phillips, will get a key piece back with inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who was injured in early October and missed the rest of the season. That this defense could be in the upper third of the NFL without a key leader, including in rush defense, where Cushing excels, speaks volumes to the talent and coaching on this side of the ball.

I would like to see Houston get some pressure via the more conventional 3-4 route of the outside linebackers, and in that regard, the development of 23-year-old Whitey Mercilus, who got 6 ½ sacks a year ago.

Offensively, I’ve got some concerns. You can’t argue with the number for quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw for over 4,000 yards and had a 90.7 QB rating. But Schaub consistently seems to play down to the big moment—note his performance in potential regular season showcase games against Green Bay, Chicago and New England, all in prime time. He struggled in all three. And it would be a stretch to say the Texans beat the Bengals on the playoffs because of anyone associated with the offense.

Schaub is 32-years-old and we have to assume that he is what he is. That makes the fact the running game ended up in the middle of the league in yards-per-carry all the more concerning. Arian Foster is still an excellent back, going for over 1,400 yards in 2012, but we all know the cliché about running backs hitting their expiration date quickly. Houston isn’t the kind of team that can survive with just an average, or even an above average running game.

Ultimately, you get the sense the Texans need something special in the area of intangibles to get to the AFC Championship Game and ultimately to win the Super Bowl. The front office seems to agree and they went out and signed Ed Reed, the 34-year-old free safety who was second only to Ray Lewis as the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens’ defense the past decade.

I understand the logic of this move and would not criticize it. What I would caution against is having too many expectations for what Reed can give at this point in his career. Frankly, this reminds me of another trade that a Houston franchise made. In the late 1970s, the Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) lost two straight years in the playoffs and they went and traded for veteran quarterback Ken Stabler.

As it turned out, Stabler was well past his prime and the Oilers lost in the playoffs to the Raiders, the very team that had traded Stabler. Would it shock anyone if Reed is past-prime and Houston loses to Baltimore in the postseason? That would certainly be history repeating itself.

Expectations are still reasonably high here, with Las Vegas assigning the Texans an Over/Under win prop of 10.5. I’m not ready to go that high. I can see 10-6, but wouldn’t bet higher. This looks like a team that will get eliminated in a familiar spot…around the second round of the playoffs.

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