HOUSTON — Suddenly the Houston Texans are broken. Not as a franchise, and not their season. Not metaphorically broken. Actually broken. Like with injuries.
Out for Sunday’s game against Tennessee are cornerback Johnathan Joseph, linebacker Bradie James, linebacker Brooks Reed, right offensive tackle Derek Newton and guard Antoine Caldwell. But that’s only the surface of the story. Houston is already missing linebacker Brian Cushing and offensive tackle Rashad Butler, who are both out for the year.
Of course, the Texans are still 10-1. They’ve survived.
“They’ve always got a list of guys that we can hopefully pull from and the depth that we had to replace on this football team starting the year,” coach Gary Kubiak said Thursday. “When you go back and look at the depth that we lost starting this year and the challenges we had, they’ve done a hell of a job and I think the coaches have done a tremendous job of catching some guys up real, real fast.”
Compared to last season, when Andre Johnson was in and out of the lineup and the Texans finished the year with a rookie third-string quarterback (T.J. Yates) under center, the injuries are not devastating, but Houston is now vulnerable, especially against the pass. Although defensive end J.J. Watt is the team’s best defensive player, many consider Joseph its least dispensable. He did not play last week against Detroit, which meant the Texans had to cover Lions receiver Calvin Johnson with Kareem Jackson, a quickly improving but vulnerable third-year guy, and the other side of the field with Alan Ball, a former seventh-round pick. Johnson caught eight passes for 141 yards and a touchdown and the Lions threw for 441 yards, but Houston won in overtime.
In fairness, Detroit is the No. 1 passing team in the NFL and dropped back 61 times against the Texans. Further, Tennessee does not have anybody quite like Johnson on its roster. But in rookie Kendall Wright the Titans do have a receiver capable of exploiting Jackson’s weakness, which is defending the deep ball. Oh, and by the way, Ball has a foot injury and will be a game-time decision. If he can’t go, the Texans’ most experienced reserve is Brice McCain, a four-year veteran with one start this season.
So the injuries are one thing, and another is that Houston doesn’t know what to expect from Tennessee’s offense. The Titans have a new offensive coordinator this week. His name is Dowell Loggains, and Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips doesn’t know him.
“I don’t know that much about Loggains,” Phillips said. “I know his momma don’t dance and his daddy don’t rock n roll.”
The impact of the other injuries is less easily analyzed. Theoretically, losing two starting linebackers (plus Cushing) should be a crushing blow. But linebacker is one of Houston’s deepest positions, and the injured linebackers in question have not been particularly impactful this season. James, an inside linebacker, is the team’s fourth-leading tackler, and Reed, who was a breakout pass rusher as a rookie last year, has just 2.5 sacks. His loss is perhaps Houston’s most manageable, as his replacement is Whitney Mercilus, the Texans’ first-round pick in 2012.
“He’s picked it up,” Phillips said. “I think mentally, I’m talking about he’s picked it up. He’s always practiced hard. We told him this is his time and he’s got to come through for us. A lot like we did with Brooks Reed last year, said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go out and play and you’ve got to play like you have been playing.’”
Ryan Harris, a five-year veteran, will start at right tackle. Though he has played in all 11 games for Houston this year, Sunday will mark his first start.