To help get a better eye on the Texans before this week's game, I once again turned to Steph Stradley. Steph was voted the ultimate Texans fan in 2006 and when not practicing law in Houston writes the Texans Chick blog on the Houston Chronicle's website. You can also follow her on Twitter @StephStradley, where she says smart things about the Texans and mean things about Bud Adams. In addition to answering questions from me, she also sent me questions I answered over at Texans Chick.
In an effort to keep things fresh and interesting, I tried not to duplicate things I asked her in our first exchange, so check that out for more information on the Texans. On with the new Q&A.
Total Titans: 458 yards and 37 points against the Jaguars. 525 yards and 31 points against the Lions. What the heck is going on with the Texans defense, especially a pass defense that's allowed 791 yards the past two games, that wasn't happening earlier in the season?
Steph Stradley: I think it's a combination of things. Loss of key guys and having to re-shuffle players. Injuries on the defensive side of the ball increasing the snaps for the remaining guys. Having to play two games in less than 5 days with a defensive roster that was already stressed. Their 3rd down percentage allowed in early weeks was absurdly, perhaps unsustainably low. (Still in the 20s at 29% even after the last couple of weeks). Oh, and they shouldn't have knocked Blaine Gabbert out of the game. (A minor joke, but Wade Phillips did mention that their game plan originally assumed not too many downfield throws).
It's also worth mentioning that the 1st quarter offense of the team hasn't been as good as of late. Nobody's offense was working during the bad weather Bears game. Overall, the Texans are 8th in the league in 1st quarter scoring, but that number accounts for the last 3 games where they've been tied near the bottom of the league in 1st quarter scoring. When the Texans put up early points they are more able to play conservatively, and do their clock chewing offensive drives that keep the Texans defense off the field. When the Texans team as a whole is working well, they feed each other: offense chews clock, defense gets off the field on 3rd downs and gives the offense more chances.
I'm guessing that the Texans defense would like to get their mojo back in the game against the Titans. If they don't, the Patriots game might go for a combined 1200+ yards.
Total Titans: At the same time, the Texans won those last two games because they put up 653 yards and 43 points against the Jaguars and 501 yards and 34 points against the Lions. Are the Texans doing anything new and different offensively, or is this still Arian Foster outside zone, Arian Foster inside zone, and Matt Schaub throwing play-action passes to Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels like we're used to seeing?
Steph Stradley: This year's Texans offense looks fundamentally different to me than in years past. They have experience at the tight end position and often have been putting 3 on the field at one time in looks where you can't tell run or pass. The combo of Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and James Casey (who is more of a hybrid TE/FB/WR) are all in the top 15 of TE efficiency rankings at Football Outsiders. (I wonder if 3 TEs of the same team have ever been top 15 at the same time?)
A lot of defenses aren't used to covering that many big guys who can make wide receiver, tough, circus catches. If you watch the Texans a lot, you get very spoiled at how good their play action game is too. Matt Schaub does a great job of selling play action and out of the big formations, it can be very hard to guess pass or run, and overpursuit is punished with touchdowns.
Before the last two games, the Texans really haven't had to open up their offense much, like they had to do prior to Wade Phillips' improvement of the Texans defense. When the defense struggled the last two games, the Texans flipped the switch and went to more 3 and 4 wide sets to score faster. That puts more inexperienced WRs on the field, but that become fairly irrelevant because WR Andre Johnson has been used a ton as the Texans' Break Glass in Case of Emergency guy. If defenses don't put extra attention on Johnson like he usually gets, the last two games happen.
Total Titans: Injuries, and particularly linebacker injuries. First it was Brian Cushing the week after the first matchup between our teams, and now Brooks Reed is out. Are there any other key injuries, and how concerned are you about them and the Texans this week and going forward?
Steph Stradley: The Texans ended the game with two inside linebackers healthy: Darryl Sharpton (who just came back a few games ago after being IR'd with a serious quad injury) and Barrett Ruud (a veteran in-season pickup). Both did well given the circumstances, but that's thin.
CB Johnathan Joseph missed the last game with a hamstring. He sounds like he will be back for Sunday, but I think they will be cautious with him if there is any doubt because big picture issues.
The Texans offensive line has been very healthy until the last game. They had been doing some unusual rotations at RT, RG which isn't typical of many lines, but they were trying to make it mentally easier for inexperienced players getting used to play at NFL speed. Derek Newton at RT and Antoine Caldwell at RG may not be available this weekend, so that rotation may end.
Total Titans: The Texans are 10-1 and can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Titans. What does a successful rest of the 2012 season look like for the Texans? Is it a playoff bye, a top seed, a playoff win, or Super Bowl or bust? How disappointed will you be if you won't be cheering the Texans on when you're in New Orleans in early February?
Steph Stradley: Certainly, I'd love for the Texans to be in the Super Bowl. Almost like a too beautiful dream to think about. But I guess my expectations have a lot to do with what sort of health the team has by the end of the year at key spots. Too many games left for my liking. Last year with a rookie 3rd string quarterback, it was like playing with house money. I'd like the Texans to be able to get homefield through the playoffs because I could go. And if they get to the Super Bowl, I am certain it would feel like a home game. Texans fans will max their credit cards for tickets and can make an easy drive to New Orleans. We've waited so long. And we love our football.
I like that the Texans have a set philosophy on both sides of the ball and have experienced coaches that aren't surprised by much. I don't think their record is a mirage one, like some playoff teams of years past, because I think they are built to win in different ways. They've beat good teams and bad teams. They've won blowouts and close games. I like their chances as much as anybody's...they just need to stay healthy at key spots. Too many games, and quirky division games at that, left for my taste.
Total Titans: Name a Texans player or three who will be instrumental in Sunday's game whom Titans fans, or non-Texans fans in general, don't know enough about.
Steph Stradley: Bryan Braman. Most well-known by outsiders for being the dude whose helmet came off that tackled another dude. He's one of the few bright spots on a special teams that has been the Texans' worst in their franchise. Wade Phillips has described him as someone with great physical size and athletic gifts but raw.
With Brooks Reed being sidelined for the immediate future, first round pick Whitney Mercilus is going to be getting more playing time. And Bryan Braman will work into the OLB rotation as well. Will be interesting to see if the Titans try to exploit the inexperience at WLB with the run. Connor Barwin had been playing WLB but has been moved to SLB. In addition, with more players that typically play special teams being pressed into more time in their regular positions, is this going to stress the special teams more than it already is? I don't want to contemplate the answer to that.
Rookie wide receiver Keshawn Martin has been doing returns after the Texans released Trindon Holliday. Martin has had some iffy moments, but also has looked like he's going to break out a big return.
Thanks again to Steph for some great answers, and don't forget to check out Texans Chick for my answers and lots of great Texans-focused content, including a Q&A with Nick Lachey. Nick, if you're reading this, you should go to the tailgate, it's good.