Houston's defense could be very special if each player maximizes their potential.
By Taylor JonesFoxSports
The 2013 NFL regular season is right around the corner. With that being said, it's time to launch our team previews. FOXSports.com contributor Taylor Jones will answer important questions for every franchise.
2012 Record: 12-4. Lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to New England.
Which player is poised for a breakout season?
Second-year player Whitney Mercilus is playing a position that has been very good to former Texans in the past. In 2011, this same outside linebacker position was held by Mario Williams for five games in which he totaled five sacks before suffering a season-ending injury. Brooks Reed stepped in and finished with six sacks while starting the final 11 games as a rookie. Last year, Connor Barwin and Mercilus split time at the position accounting for a combined nine sacks. Now with Barwin in Philadelphia, it will be Mercilus’ starting job for the entire season.
Mercilus is a pass rusher that has a knack for the big play. During his senior season at Illinois, he broke the Big 10 record for forced fumbles in a season — a trend that has continued in the NFL. In just four career starts, he has forced two fumbles. The Texans defense was ninth in the NFL in takeaways in 2011, an already respectable ranking, but that is sure to improve with Mercilus rushing off the edge for a full 16 games.
What must the team accomplish to consider the season a success? (Make the playoffs? Reach the Super Bowl?)
When Peyton Manning and the Colts decided to part ways, everyone naturally in the Texans organization had to smile. The Texans had never won a game in Indianapolis and had a career record of 4-18 against the Colts with Manning as the quarterback. With him gone, it is supposed to be the Texans time to shine, but Andrew Luck isn’t making that any easier. The Texans edged out the Colts by a game last season to win the division but were still unable to beat them in Lucas Oil Stadium. The window for the Texans is closing fast in the AFC South, so they need to take advantage of it while they can. For this year to be a success, the Texans must repeat as AFC South champions as well as finally get a win on the road against Indianapolis.
What is the team's biggest asset?
J.J. Watt was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 and he could have easily been the league’s Most Valuable Player if not for a freakishly strong season by Adrian Peterson. A defensive player hasn’t won the NFL MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. During that season, Taylor finished with 20.5 sacks, the same total that Watt turned in along with 16 passes deflected and four forced fumbles. Additionally, Watt was credited with 44.5 quarterback knockdowns, significantly more than Cameron Wake, who finished with the second most knockdowns.
Watt is the most disruptive force in the NFL right now and what’s even more impressive is that his position as a 5-technique in Wade Phillips' defense is really designed to assume blocks so that the outside linebacker can have a better chance of getting to the quarterback. Watt is redefining the position.
Which rookie stands the best chance to succeed?
Someone needs to play well opposite Andre Johnson, who has had the fifth most receiving yards in NFL history over his first 10 seasons. In those 10 seasons, Johnson has failed to reach the 1,000-yard receiving mark just three times — once as a rookie and the two other seasons he missed a combined 10 games due to injury. Last year, Johnson’s 1,598 receiving yards were a career best, but the bad news for the Texans is that no other receiver on the roster was within 1,000 yards of that total. Kevin Walter was the closest with just 518 yards. That leaves a lot of room for a rookie to come in and have an immediate impact and that appears to be exactly what Deandre Hopkins is doing. In his first game in a Texans uniform, Hopkins had four catches for 52 yards, including a circus catch in which he leaped over a defender to score a 34-yard touchdown.
In a 2013 rookie class loaded with talent at the wide receiver position, Hopkins was the second receiver selected, behind Tavon Austin and before Cordarrelle Patterson. Hopkins was arguably the most consistent of the bunch and has similar upside to Roddy White in Atlanta. With Johnson still commanding a ton of attention, look for Hopkins to close the wide gap in production between the Houston receivers.
What is the team's biggest addition/loss from the previous season?
If healthy, Ed Reed will be a solid signing for a team that finished 16th in passing defense. Yes, Reed will make eye-popping plays, but it is actually Brian Cushing’s return that will be the most important. The 2009 Rookie of the Year missed all but five games last season after tearing his ACL. The Texans were undefeated in those five games and only gave up an impressive 14.6 points per game during that span. In the final 13 games, including the two playoff games, the Texans gave up more than 24 points per game without Cushing.
Cushing has led the team in tackles in two of his four seasons, while he missed significant time in the two seasons he wasn’t the leading tackler. In 2011, his last full healthy season, his 114 tackles were 37 more than the next best tackler on the team. That is a lot of productivity to be sitting on the sideline nursing a knee injury. The Texans defense was good without him, but they are dominant with him.