Grading the Texans' Season: The Good, the Bad and the Seriously Ugly
When the offense bogged down late in the year, so did the defense, going from a stingy bunch to a sieve that gave up huge plays far too often. It also did not rush the passer nearly as effectively as in 2011 outside of JJ Watt. They were routinely torched for big plays, some inexcusable, and could not generate any kind of pass rush whatsoever. The secondary showed improvement, but the linebacking core was a shambles after Brian Cushing was lost to injury. They were often vulnerable up the middle on both passes and runs and were too slow to react to quickly-paced offenses.
Defensive Line: B+
Clearly the strength of the defense, it is mostly thanks to Watt, who turned in one of the greatest seasons in NFL history from a defensive lineman, and that is not an overstatement. He batted down passes like a defensive back, rushed the passer like few others ever have and was equally adept at stuffing the run. It was a remarkable year for Watt. Without him, this defense would have been in trouble, though Antonio Smith turned in a workmanlike year and managed to drop his ninja assassin routine on opposing quarterbacks his seven times.
With two of the team's core players lost for most if not all of the season -- Brian Cushing and Daryl Sharpton -- a rotating cast of characters from Tim Dobbins to Bradie James to Brian Braman were brought in to shore up a core that was already lacking. But, the Cushing loss was the most devastating. Cushing was without question the team's best up-the-middle defender and the heart of the defense. Perhaps more surprising, however, was the dramatic drop-off of Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed. In Reed's case, there were injury issues, but Barwin, who led the team in sacks last year, was quite often a non-factor on the field. After 11.5 sacks last year, he managed only three in 2012 with free agency looming. Rookie Whitney Mercilus had moments, but like many rookies, was up and down all season.
Defensive Backs: B-
The starting four on this squad were solid. Kareem Jackson legitimately became one of the tougher cover corners in the AFC and Jonathan Joseph, hampered by injuries for part of the year, was as good as ever when healthy. Glover Quin solidified himself as a serious Pro Bowl contender and Danieal Manning was steady. Unfortunately, once the Texans moved into nickel and dime coverages, things got dicey. By the end of the year, special teams standout Shilo Keo was getting playing time. That is not good. Brandon Harris and Bryce McCain struggled before McCain ended his season with a broken foot.
Special Teams: F
If special teams coach Joe Marciano keeps his job after this year, it will be a miracle for the Marciano family. Let's start with the positives, of which there weren't many. Brian Braman was a beast and will go to the Pro Bowl. Punter Donnie Jones, despite a few untimely shanks, was a bright spot. Kicker Shayne "Ginger Foot" Graham was money inside the 40. That's it. Coverage was horrid. After letting returner Trindon Holiday go only to watch him return a punt and a kick for a TD in a single playoff game, Keshawn Martin did his best, but was not good. Graham was a nightmare beyond 50 yards and could barely get the ball into the end zone on kickoffs. It was a disaster all year.
Is the coaching staff the one that ran roughshod over the league the first 10-plus games of the season or the one that got its collective asses handed to them in the last six? It's hard to tell. But there are good reasons to nearly fail them. Gary Kubiak and company are still a miserable mess when it comes to clock management and they virtually never win a challenge. Additionally, there are two damning stats I heard this week. First, they ran the ball 62 percent of the time on the opponent's side of the 50 yard line meaning when they got in the "scoring zone," they got conservative, something fans speculated every week. The other and more incredible stat is that on first downs inside the 10, they ran EVERY SINGLE TIME. That's an unbelievable stat and a perfect example of the team's unwillingness to take chances, and a likely reason why they tended to fail if they did.
Front Office: C-
The signing of Bradie James was not good for the team. Of the draft picks taken, only Mercilus had even a nominal impact, though Ben Jones did FINALLY earn the starting job at right guard and Martin returned punts and kicks. The team let Trindon Holiday go and saw him become a special teams star so they could save a roster spot -- which may be more on the special teams coaching than the front office -- and Jacoby Jones, though I don't blame them there. On the plus side, they allowed Mario Williams to walk -- clearly the right decision -- and managed to bring in guys like Barrett Ruud to fill in during the season. Still, when your team folds late, you share plenty of the blame, particularly when rookies expected to contribute don't impact games even late in the season.
Player of the Year: JJ Watt
There's no other choice here. He was clearly head and shoulders better than any player on the team and should be the defensive player of the year in the NFL.
Defensive Player of the Year (not named JJ Watt): Kareem Jackson
Who would have thought last year that Jackson would make the kind of leap necessary to garner these honors, but it's deserving. He probably should have made the Pro Bowl instead of Joseph. Glover Quin also deserves a mention here, but Jackson's improvement has been astonishing.
Offensive Player of the Year: Andre Johnson
Old Man River didn't look that old after his recovery from off-season surgery was complete. The second half of the season for 'Dre was nothing short of brilliant.
Special Teams Player of the Year: Brian Braman
Braman is one of the lone bright spots on a dismally wretched special teams squad. If he could figure out how to harness some of that crazy, his motor would be welcome on defense as well.