â"For the first time in the franchise's short history, the Houston Texans enter a season as the favorite to win the AFC South.
There's mainly one reason for that distinction: a menacing defense.Despite having to learn coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme on the fly a year ago, the Texans finished second in the NFL in total defense and fourth in points allowed, helping the team to its first-ever playoff berth. With a full offseason and training camp to fully absorb Phillips' system this year, the sky's the limit for the upcoming 2012 campaign.
The Texans busted out with 10 wins en route to an AFC South title last year and defeated Cincinnati in their playoff debut. The run came to an abrupt end, however, when Houston gave up 17 points off four turnovers against Baltimore in an AFC Divisional Playoff.
"We had a lot of chances but we hurt ourselves with turnovers," then-rookie quarterback T.J. Yates said afterward. "Our defense did a great job all game long. We have to protect the ball."
The defense is just one of the building blocks Houston will use to make a possible postseason run last even longer in 2012. Yates was filling in for injured starter Matt Schaub, who appeared in just 10 games and led the Texans to a 7-3 start until a Lisfranc injury ended his season. Yates immediately fit in when both Schaub and now former backup Matt Leinart both went down, doing a fantastic job in keeping the Texans remain focused on their goals, and gives the team a reliable fill-in in case Schaub can't stay healthy.
A healthy Schaub for 16 games would give this team an even better chance of topping the accomplishments of 2011. He has the potential to be an elite quarterback and has the weapons around him to do it. However, All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson was limited to seven games because of hamstring problems last season and missed time this preseason with a groin injury, though he's expected to be ready for the regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 9.
Johnson is arguably the most complete receiver in the game and makes the Texans even better when he's on the field.
Houston did lose some players in the offseason, including defensive stalwarts Mario Williams (to Buffalo) and DeMeco Ryans (to Philadelphia). The Texans may not be too concerned with the losses, however, because Williams played in just five games due to injury in 2011 and Ryans was recovering from an Achilles' tear.
With those two departing, linebacker Brian Cushing is the next man up as far as being a leader both on and off the field.
"I think they all look to Cush as a leader," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "Is Brian being asked to be more of a leader since DeMeco is not here? I think that's obvious, yeah."
Cushing led the defense with 114 tackles as Houston finished third against the pass and fourth against the run. The Texans also set a franchise record with 44 sacks, 11 1/2 coming from outside linebacker Connor Barwin.
Nose tackle Earl Mitchell said the team draws inspiration from Cushing's relentless style.
"When you watch him play, you feed off his energy," Mitchell said. "When the play is over with, he's always in the vicinity of the ball. You basically want to mirror that type of play, and you envision yourself doing what he's doing. The coaches are always pointing him out on film."
Since Cushing and the Texans played so well last season, they will have tougher schedule for 2012, with interesting matchups against Denver, the New York Jets, Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit and New England highlighting the slate.
The Texans, who won seven in a row from Oct. 23-Dec. 11 en route to the first double-digit season of victories in team annals, have been tested before, however, and should be ready for whatever challenge lies ahead.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Texans, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 10-6 (1st, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to Baltimore in AFC Divisional Playoff