We’ve seen the impressive numbers and we’ve even seen the stretches of dominance.
Yet, we’ve wondered at times how much of the Texans No.1 ranked defense is marked improvement in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips 3-4 scheme? And how much of it has been due to the onslaught of unimpressive and one-dimensional offenses that have come up on the schedule one after the other?
We should have a much clearer picture Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons bring to Reliant Stadium the most star-studded and explosive offense the Texans have seen since traveling to New Orleans to take on the Saints. We all know how that went.
But 10 games later the Texans defense has improved beyond anyone’s expectations, but you don’t quite know you’re the best until lineup against one of the best. That’s opportunity the Falcons present.
“It’s a challenge that we want,” said inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who has been maybe one of the most improved players in the NFL from last year to this year. “This is going to be a home game, it’s going to be exciting and it’s going to be a test. There’s no question about it, but that’s what we want. It’s going to be competitive for us.”
But most important it should be stressful in every way. With a strong offensive front and All-Pro running back Michael Turner, the Falcons can gash defenses on the ground.
And they are even more explosive through the air where quarterback Matt Ryan has his pick of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, veteran receiver Roddy White or the explosive rookie Julio Jones to throw to.
“It’s a matter of pick your poison,” observed cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Either way it can be ugly for opposing defenses trying to keep it all under control. The only thing that has prevented the Falcons from being one of the top or three offenses has been injuries. Jones, the No.6 overall pick in last spring’s draft, has been bothered all season with hamstring injuries.
In fact both Jones (hamstring) and Turner (groin) enter Sunday’s game questionable.
But there is no question in the minds of anyone on the Texans sideline just how explosive these Falcons can be when they are at full or even partial strength.
“It’s exceptional,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said when asked about his thoughts on the Falcons offensive unit. “It’s got to be as powerful probably as there is in the league when you look at the weapons across the board. It’ll be the biggest challenge for our team in awhile and we’ll have to play excellent across the board and defense, like you said, that’s probably the top offense they’ve seen since New Orleans.”
The key for the Texans (8-3) will be the play of front seven, which has been phenomenal the past month or so without All-Pro Mario Williams nowhere in sight. Led by weakside outside linebacker Connor Barwin and Cushing, the Texans’ front has been relentless in its pursuit of the quarterback.
That was probably never more obvious than during last week’s game when the Texans sacked Jacksonville’s quarterbacks seven times during their 20-13 win. Barwin was personally responsible for four of them to bring his sack total to a team-best 8.5 on the season.
Largely because of the front-seven play, the Texans have put together five straight performances where they have held opponents to 14 points or less. They’ve also limiting teams to just 268.4 yards per game.
It’s critical that the defense keeps up the trend against the Falcons because the offense will be starting a third different quarterback in as many games with rookie T.J. Yates assuming the controls with starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart out for the season.
There is no way the Texans offense can keep pace with the Falcons in a shootout.
“I just think we have to play good and we have to play smart, play tough,” Cushing said when addressing the pressure that comes with the injuries on the offensive side of the football. “Every game, we want to play better than the next, whether we had someone go down or whatnot. We just want to continue improving our defense.”
The Texans also quietly want to find out just how legit that No.1 ranking is, too. And it’s for certain they will know once the Falcons leave town.
“It’s a good test for us because they are a team that can throw the ball and run the ball,” said rookie defensive end J.J. Watt. “They can do a lot of things both on the ground and in the air. It’s going to be a good test for us. We’re excited about the challenge, we’re excited to go out there and prove how good of a defense we are and we are just going to execute our assignments.”