Reporting Brien Straw
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This was supposed to be the weekend you could try to knock at least one of those New Year’s resolutions off the to-do list. Instead the “Road to New Orleans” for Super Bowl XLVII (aka 47) starts Saturday at Reliant as the Texans host the Bengals. (Coverage on SportsRadio 610 starts with the Countdown to Kickoff at 12:30pm)
A season that was seemingly paving the I-10 path to the Super Bowl in red carpet, instead may be the roughest stretch of highway to New Orleans among playoff teams. How did this happen?
The Texans started the season 11-1, but finished 1-3. The team needed to win just one of its final two to secure home field throughout the AFC playoffs, yet dropped them both in a laissez faire manner. As Bill Barnwell points out at Grantland.com, the Texans were among the best in the NFL in the first half of the season – ranking eighth overall in offense (4th passing, 11th rushing), and third overall in defense (3rd pass defense, 11th rush defense) according to Football Outsiders. However, in the second half they more resembled the 2010 Texans instead of the 2011 playoff team, falling to 22nd overall in offense (21st passing, 24th rushing) and seventh in defense (14th pass defense, up to 4th rush defense).
The credit, or more appropriately the blame goes to the following: quarterback Matt Schaub, an unresolved offensive line, lack of production beyond Andre Johnson at wide reciever, and poor play at linebacker. All criticisms are fair.
Schaub, who this season had his lowest quarterback rating since becoming a starter in 2007 will be making his playoff debut after nine seasons in the league. The Texans’ five “Prime-Time” games this year have been five of his worst six performances – the other being last Sunday’s “must win” game in Indy. With home-field and playoff momentum on the line, he managed one touchdown and three interceptions in the team’s final four games. More importantly I believe, he has lost the faith of his head coach. Faith displayed when the coach gave him a four year contract extension.
On the second play from scrimmage at home against the Colts in week 15, Gary Kubiak designed an awesome play-action pass that found Andre Johnson quickly behind the defense for an easy touchdown. Perfect play call. Perfect strategy for quickly repairing the teams’ psyche following the Monday night meltdown against the Pats. Instead, Schaub is slow to react and under throws Johnson allowing the defense to recover. On paper the result is great, a 52-yard completion. In truth, the execution must have frustrated Kubiak and costs the team four points as the drive stalls and the Texans are forced to settle for a Shane Graham 29-yard field goal.
Week 17, and the Texans must beat the Colts to secure home field. With just over four minutes left in the first half and trailing 7-6, Kubiak again calls an awesome play-action pass. This time the intended target is the forgotten fullback James Casey. Casey’s beaten his man within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Again, Schaub is as slow in reading the play as the Colts defense – slower in fact, because by the time he winds-up and floats his pass to Casey, Indy’s Vonte Davis has had time to recover and intercepts the pass. Instead of a touchdown that would propel the Texans to a 13-7 halftime lead, the Colts respond with a touchdown and lead 14-6 at the half.
I can’t speak for Kubiak, but I would be livid when successful strategy after strategy is failed by my quarterback’s inabilities and then I have to answer to endless criticism about being a conservative play-caller.
Perhaps Schaub can turn and blame the offensive line, which just hasn’t found the replacements for Eric Winston at right tackle and Mike Brisiel at right guard. While the drop-off from Winston to Derek Newton has been obvious – and a more calculated and risky decision, the loss of Brisiel has been more significant. Neither Antione Caldwell or rookie Ben Jones have been good. Now the Texans seem to be turning to a third option in rookie Brandon Brooks, whose allowed some unforgiveable sacks and missed assignments at this point in the season. That’s not his fault, the position should have been settled by now. At tackle it seemed the team was hell-bent on making Newton the starter over the more experienced Rashad Butler. When Butler was lost to injury in the preseason finale, maybe the ability to solidify the right tackle position was as well.
As the Texans enter the playoffs, short of a unforeseeable turnaround, the front office’s strategy to spend money elsewhere (like on a new contract for Matt Schaub) thinking they could do with unproven players on the line has failed in the same manner the unproven secondary failed in 2010 when the team chose not to resign Dunta Robinson. That decision seems like the right decision today, but was a disaster in ’10 when the defense finished 31st in the league (don’t believe me ask Kareem “toast” Jackson). The O-line may also be great in two years, but it doesn’t look ready for a Super Bowl run this year.
Similarly, the team knew the need for production at wide receiver needed to improve. In similar fashion, the solution looks like it has not arrived in time for the playoffs. The team rightfully let Jacoby Jones leave, and drafted Devier Posey in the third round, and Keshawn Martin in the fourth round of the draft. When you throw in undrafted free agent Lestar Jean – who spent his rookie season ’11 on injured reserve, Jacoby’s replacement[s] totaled 22 catches for 323-yards and two TD’s. Jones accounted for 31/512/2 last year (which wasn’t good enough remember?!)
At linebacker, the season ending injury to Brian Cushing in the Jets game has been brutal but cannot be blamed. The drop off by Connor Barwin, and first round pick Whitney Mercilus not being ready to contribute have certainly hurt. So too has the poor health of Daryl Sharpton, and the inability to add sufficient relief by Bradie James, Barrett Ruud and Tim Dobbins.
How do the Texans right the ship and deliver on the promise this season originally held? By returning to a level of play displayed just twice this season – in wins over Denver and Baltimore. That won’t be easy.
The Bengals team that comes to Reliant for this playoff opener is better than last years. Cincinnati is tied with the Patriots for points scored in the first quarter. The Texans defense is 21st in first quarter points allowed. The Bengals pass defense is tops in the NFL in the second half of the season, and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is the best defensive player in the league not named J.J. Watt.
The outmatched Texans offensive line must control the line of scrimmage and allow Schaub time to throw, and Arian Foster time to run. Schaub must come up big in his postseason debut and learn to find receivers besides Andre Johnson. Foster would be a good place to start as he’s off 400 receiving yards from last season. It would also be nice to see a more aggressive Arian, who will have to get more “yards after contact” than he’s shown the ability to do this year.
On defense, the “Bulls on Parade” must return. The defense hasn’t had an interception since creating three against the Titans on December 2nd. Katy native Andy Dalton may provide the cure. He gave up three in last season’s 31-10 Texans playoff victory, and the Bengals have won in spite of him down the stretch. Dalton’s quarterback ratings the past five games: 66.9 (@SD), 76.1 (DAL), 74.2 (@PHI), 58.8 (@PITT), 101.5 (BAL). Keep in mind the Ravens game came mostly against Baltimore’s back-ups.
The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Oilers in 1991. They’ve never won a playoff road game, hence their head coach Marvin Lewis is winless as a playoff coach. They also face the statistical fact that three times in NFL history the same two teams have met in back-to-back playoff seasons, and all three previous times the team that won the first game (Texans) won the rematch.
The Texans have made the path to the Super Bowl as difficult as possible, (win on Saturday and the prize is a return trip to New England and we all remember the 42-14 beat-down Patriots) but at least there’s a path.
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