Cowboys 27, Texans 13: Defensive Help Wanted, Preferably With A Pulse
Tony Romo and the Cowboys (1-2) exposed the previously unbeaten Texans' dirty little secret on Sunday, throwing for 284 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the NFL's worst pass defense. It led to a stinging 27-13 loss at sold-out Reliant Stadium, one which spoiled a great opportunity for the Texans (2-1) to cement their status as one of the league's elite.
"We can't give up 27 points," safety Bernard Pollard said. "We can't do that. I think we have to find some way, somehow to man up and stop this passing attack. It's been ridiculous, it really has."
The 27 points from Dallas and Romo came after Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb each threw for more than 400 yards against the Texans. It also came in the absence of any semblance of a pass rush.
Could Aaron Schobel be listening? More importantly, are the Texans angry enough to pay up?
The Cowboys outplayed a listless Texans team in every phase of the game, but the star-studded Houston offense will come around. The four-game suspension of left tackle Duane Brown proved crucial, as Dallas' Demarcus Ware toyed with replacement Rashad Butler in collecting three sacks and forcing a crucial penalty.
Brown's next three absences will come against the Raiders, Giants and Chiefs -- teams the Texans should defeat regardless of their left tackle. Brown should return by the time the Texans have their rematch with Indianapolis and play the meat of their schedule in November.
The true concerns arise on the defensive side of the ball, where Romo posted a QB rating of 127.6 against the hapless Houston secondary and a pass rush that rarely made him leave the pocket. Since defensive end Connor Barwin broke his leg early in the second quarter against Indianapolis, the Texans' pass rush -- and accordingly, overall pass defense -- has been pathetic.
On Sunday, Romo was not sacked and rarely even hit, while Schaub faced constant pressure and went down four times.
Jesse Nading says the right things and appears to be a hard worker, but his play opposite Mario Williams has been abysmal. (On passing downs, Antonio Smith usually moves to defensive tackle, making room for Nading at end.)
The solution could be Schobel, the former Buffalo Bill who posted double-digit sack seasons with regularity, including in 2009. He retired from the Bills in July before flirting with a comeback in Houston during training camp. Schobel's family is from Columbus, and he played his college ball at TCU in Fort Worth.
Unfortunately, McNair -- according to reports -- wasn't willing to make a financial offer in the neighborhood of what Schobel wanted. Even if the Texans feel they're overpaying, a deal needs to be done -- particularly since the NFL lacks a salary cap this season. The Texans have too much elite talent on offense to waste at the hands of a defense without a pulse.
Perhaps recently signed end Adewale Ogunleye can also be the answer, but the veteran needs to be given on-field snaps and tested soon. The former Bear signed after Barwin went down in week one, but was still inactive on Sunday while working on his conditioning and learning the Texans' schemes.
Likewise, the Texans need to look elsewhere at the free safety spot, where Eugene Wilson's play has been nearly as awful as that of Nading. Wilson has long been derided in statistical circles as one of the worst defenders in the NFL, but the Texans have defended him based on intangibles, claiming that alternatives were either too expensive or did not fit their scheme.
Newsflash: things can't get any worse.
Growing pains from young cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Glover Quin are to be expected. A veteran free safety routinely being seconds late on his rotations is not acceptable.
Moreover, Wilson dropped a point-blank interception that might have been returned for a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter. It was the second consecutive week that a crucial second-half pass hit Wilson directly in the hands, and the second consecutive week he dropped it.
"To be a great defense you have to get turnovers," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "That's something we're not doing."
"We didn't get turnovers and they did," Williams added. "If we don't win the turnover game then it'll be hard for us to win."
The Texans found their strong safety, Pollard, by scanning the waiver wire in late September 2009. Who's to say lightning can't strike again at the free safety slot? There's also young backup Troy Nolan, who showed a nose for the ball in the preseason and collected multiple turnovers.
The defense will certainly be upgraded by the return of star linebacker Brian Cushing in two weeks. And if the Texans take care of business in Oakland next Sunday, most fans would be happy with a 3-1 mark (including a victory over the Colts) without their best defensive player.
But over the long run, the Texans can't contend for a Super Bowl with two important roles on defense filled with bottom-tier players. And on a team with so many stars elsewhere, it would be a shame to watch it fall apart due to the likes of Nading and Wilson.
Alternatives are out there, particularly at defensive end, where a star in Schobel may be available. It's up to McNair and head coach Gary Kubiak to use Sunday's disappointment as a catalyst for change.
It didn't work that way in 2009, when kicker Kris Brown and running back Chris Brown were given too many chances. The Texans didn't take action on their early-season troubles, and the pair ended up dealing Houston late-season heartbreak.
The coming weeks will tell if the Texans learned from their mistakes.