Texans defense comes through again
Houston coach Gary Kubiak has seen quite a turnaround from the Texans defense since hiring coordinator Wade Phillips after last season.
Houston (5-3) ranks third in total defense, fifth against the pass and ninth in sacks after smothering rookie Blaine Gabbert and Jacksonville in Sunday's 24-14 victory.
The Texans limited the Jaguars to 174 yards a week after allowing only 148 yards in a 41-7 win at Tennessee, marking the first time in franchise history they've held opponents under 200 yards in back-to-back weeks.
''I do have a ton of confidence right now in the way we're playing defensively,'' Kubiak said. ''I know there are some statistics as far as points and yards, the last two or three weeks that are off the charts. We're playing very well.''
The Texans play Cleveland (3-4) and the league's 25th-ranked offense on Sunday.
Houston's defense ranked at or near the bottom in virtually every statistical category in 2010.
This season, the defense isn't only stifling opponents, it's also making big plays. The Texans had two takeaways on Sunday and have 14 for the season after generating only 18 in 2010. Houston has 20 sacks this season, 10 shy of last season's total.
The players credit Phillips, who not only installed a 3-4 alignment, but also infused new energy.
''The biggest thing that has rubbed off on the whole defense since training camp is the confidence that he has in his defense,'' outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. ''It makes everyone out there playing feel more confident with what they're doing and the techniques we have been taught to play.''
No one is more emblematic of the transformation than linebacker Brian Cushing, who leads the team with 54 tackles and also has an interception.
Phillips envisioned Cushing returning to his 2009 form, when he was the league's top defensive rookie. So far, Cushing looks like a perfect fit at inside linebacker in Phillips' 3-4 defense.
''He's playing as good as anybody I've seen on film,'' Kubiak said. ''He's taking his knowledge of the game to a new level, and his study habits and his work habits.
''When you study hard, you know what's going on, and he's able to cheat to make plays,'' Kubiak said. ''He was all over the field (on Sunday), but that's been very consistent.''
Cushing says he's playing with more confidence after a subpar 2010. Cushing immediately bought into Phillips' plan on how to use him.
''I feel he's put his trust in me since day one,'' Cushing said after Sunday's game. ''And it's kind of one of those things that you just don't want to let him down every time you go on the field and you want to play for him.''
The same renewed enthusiasm Cushing feels has spread throughout the defense, even among the reserves thrust into starting roles.
In recent weeks, the Texans have lost outside linebacker Mario Williams (chest muscle), safety Danieal Manning (broken left leg) and linebacker Darryl Sharpton (torn quadriceps) and hardly lost a step.
Rookie Brooks Reed has played well in three starts since Williams was hurt, making 14 tackles, including two sacks. Troy Nolan made his first start in Manning's place on Sunday, and made five tackles.
Kubiak said the Texans will try to sign a linebacker this week.
''We've got our issues right now,'' Kubiak said. ''But I think the confidence of your football team can lift those guys up. When they get put in position to go play like Troy Nolan, the confidence of your team and people believing in those guys, that helps them respond to the challenges that they have.''
Kubiak said Nolan played well Sunday, and got help from the other starters in the secondary, perhaps the team's most improved area from 2010.
Free-agent acquisition Johnathan Joseph has excelled on one side and shares the team lead in interceptions (three). Veteran Jason Allen and second-year player Kareem Jackson have split time at the other cornerback spot, and Allen also has three interceptions.
''The group has been working well together,'' Kubiak said. ''We went to work (Sunday) without Danieal (Manning), so I was encouraged that we kept playing well. We kept communicating well. That's a big step forward.''
Notes: Kubiak says he's eager to see WR Andre Johnson practice this week before deciding his availability for Sunday's game. Johnson has missed four straight games to nurse a right hamstring injury. ''We will not force the issue,'' Kubiak said. ''We will put Andre back out there when he's totally ready to go.'' ... Sharpton, a backup, will have season-ending surgery this week to repair a torn tendon in his right quadriceps.