To a man, all the Texans said the Indianapolis Colts would present the same kind of challenge with or without quarterback Peyton Manning in the lineup for Sunday’s season opener.
Certainly they knew better.
It was obvious Kerry Collins was no Peyton Manning and the Colts up-tempo offense wasn’t the same without him. But the dominating performance the Texans defense put forth during Sunday’s 34-7 season opener wasn’t at all lessened by the absence of one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks.
The Texans showed the improvement they needed to in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, pressuring the quarterback, sacking him and even forcing him into fumble. Sure there was no Manning running the no huddle, calling plays and making checks at the line of scrimmage. Instead they faced a graying quarterback who only a few weeks was writing country songs and enjoying retirement. None of it made any difference to the Texans, whose quest to unseat the Colts as the AFC South champs are off to a 1-0 start.
“It was just another quarterback,” said defensive end Antonio Smith. “Kerry, not too long ago, was a winning quarterback. He’s won games, he knows how to win games.
“He’s not a has been or even a bum player. He’s a good player, as a matter of fact, a great player.”
While that point can definitely be debated, what seemed clear Sunday is the Texans and head coach Gary Kubiak are well on their way to making the vast defensive improvement they sought this offseason when they brought Phillips aboard.
The front-seven found ways to consistently put pressure on the quarterback, All-Pro defensive end-turned-outside-linebacker Mario Williams finally looked comfortable in his new role and second-year cornerback Kareem Jackson seems improved.
It all amounted to a feel-good fest during the season opener.
“He’s done a hell of a job,” Kubiak said of Phillips. “We played good defense in a very short period of time.”
How about the opening defensive series, for instance? It took Williams four snaps to record his first snap as a two-point stance quarterback rushing linebacker. The next two times the Texans defense hit the field in the first quarter, they forced Collins into turnovers on consecutive snaps that were converted into two quick touchdowns to give the Texans a 17-0 lead.
First, Smith smashed Collins for a fumble-jarring sack that was recovered by nose tackle Shaun Cody at the Indianapolis 12. Then on Collins very next snap, he fumbled away the exchange from center Jeff Saturday.
The Texans defense couldn’t have scripted a better start.
“We were excited to play this defense,” Smith said. “We were excited to get out there and have fun. When you go out there and make plays early it makes it that much easier to be excited about.”
The excitement was certainly contagious as the Texans received heady play from nearly every position on the field. Rookie defensive end J.J. Watt made some plays in his debut as a starter, as did linebackers Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans and top free agent acquisition cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
But the biggest break through may have been provided by Williams, who has been under great scrutiny since making the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker. Phillips’ vision of him being similar to the Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware became a little clearer Sunday.
The 6-foot-6, 283-pound Williams was a matchup nightmare for the Colts when lined up on tight end Dallas Clark. Williams got by with relative ease and was a constant nusance to Collins as the Texans sack leader the last five seasons ended the day with two quarterback sacks, two hurries and a forced fumble.
“I predicted Mario was going to have a good game,” Smith said. “I wasn’t worried about none that him feeling uncomfortable or anything like that. At the end of the day when it’s time to go and I see Mario’s eyes. It didn’t hurt one bit today they decided `We are going to block Mario with Dallas Clark.’”
Williams attributed his success and the success of defense in general to what Phillips has brought to the Texans defense.
“Our whole mentality is different,” he said. “Coach Phillips has installed and instilled something in each and every one of us from the beginning to the very end so we are just going to keep going with it.”
About the only downside to Sunday’s game is that the Texans just missed the opportunity to shut out their chief rivals when the Colts scored with 9:17 to play in the fourth quarter on a six-yard pass from Collins to Reggie Wayne. The Colts lone score was set up when Texans running back Ben Tate fumbled away the football at the Houston 13.
Two plays later the Colts capitalized to avoid a total humiliation.
“It burned a lot because we wanted the goose egg,” Smith said. “We wanted to put an exclamation point on the defensive day we had today but it’s something we are going to have figure out how to fix. If you don’t fix little problems they turn into big problems.”