Houston Texans: Midseason Report Cards for Each Positional Unit
The Houston Texans came charging into the regular season, ready for the redemption that they felt they were going to take. The Texans stumbled at the end of last, falling from one of the top teams in the league to one of the most doubted.
This season was meant to lead to a reclamation of greatness.
Instead, the Texans have failed to shake the bad habits that doomed them last season. They continue to experience failure at key positions; the coaching has been just as bad.
The Texans, who were viewed as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, are now placed amongst the lowly teams of the league, and many of their fans are already preparing for the NFL draft, which is nearly half a year away.
What has caused the Texans to fall off course so dramatically? Which position groups are liabilities?
Here is the midseason report card for all of the Texans' positional units.
You know things aren't going well when fans are calling for the third-string quarterback to take control of the offense.
But that is exactly the situation plaguing the Texans, and it is absolutely indicative of why the team has fallen to a miserable 2-5 record.
Matt Schaub, who throughout his career has ranged from being a gunslinger to an effective game manager, has put on terrible performance after terrible performance.
He has been unwilling to throw deep; he has not been able to escape pressure. These two negatives have made it more than easy for defensive coordinators to shut Schaub and the Texans' offense down.
Blitz heavy up the middle and have your defensive backs sit on the short routes. Normally, this is the recipe to get burned deep, but due to both Gary Kubiak's play-calling and Schaub's hesitancy, the Texans have become vulnerable to this dangerous defensive strategy.
Instead of taking advantage of the defense's play-calling, Schaub has done just the opposite. He has thrown a bevy of interceptions, including pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He has folded under pressure time and time again, and the Texans' offense has been rendered useless.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Case Keenum started against the Kansas City Chiefs in place of the injured Schaub, and he had a very impressive NFL debut. He showed off his mobility and playmaking ability. He gave the Texans' offense a spark that it had been lacking.
Gary Kubiak would be foolish to start Schaub again; Keenum deserves a chance to prove he can lead the franchise.
Overall, though, disregarding Keenum's performance, the Texans' quarterback performance has been downright terrible this season.
At the start of this season, many questioned the Texans' running back unit that had formally been regarded as elite. The critics focused mainly on Arian Foster, who they believed to be washed out after his carry-heavy 2012 season.
But Foster has proven to be anything but washed out after shaking off the initial rust that came from missing all of training camp and preseason. He has looked like his former glorious self, displaying his terrific vision and one-cut ability, explosiveness, strength and heart.
And Ben Tate and Greg Jones have been fabulous additions to the excellent Foster.
Tate has shown just why he doesn't deserve to remain a backup running back; he has made big plays whenever given the opportunity.
Greg Jones, also, has been a tremendous addition to the Texans' offense. He has proven just why having a great lead-blocker is important to a running game, and both Foster and Tate have benefited from him paving the way for them.
Overall, the running back position has been a strength of the Texans and one of the few that is keeping the team afloat.
For years upon years and season upon season, Andre Johnson has been the lone figurehead in an empty Texans' receiving core. Second receivers have come and left, unable to leave any type of noticeable impact on the Texans' offense.
But this season everything has changed. Enter DeAndre Hopkins, a stud first-round pick out of Clemson, ready to revolutionize the Texans' receiving core.
And that is exactly what he has done. Hopkins has displayed all of the skills that had Texans' fans so excited after the draft, and he as been a major addition to the Texans' offense.
Hopkins has an incredible ability to go up and snag the ball out of the air, which compensates for his lack of pure speed on deep routes. His route-running ability is also polished beyond his years, and he has the potential to be an excellent possession receiver.
With both Hopkins and Johnson, the Texans have the best receiving core in franchise history. If they had a quarterback who hadn't been playing at less than a competent level, however, we'd be seeing the results of such a dangerous group of receivers.
The performance of the Texans' tight end unit can be divided into two categories: pre- and post-Owen Daniels injury.
Before Daniels went down in Week 6 with a fibula injury, the Texans' tight end unit was terrific. Daniels was his usual reliable self, consistently getting open for the struggling Matt Schaub. He made important catches, picked up first downs and hauled in touchdowns.
He also opened the way for Garrett Graham to display his skill set. Graham, who benefited from the lack of attention, became a touchdown machine for the Texans, catching three of them in the five weeks that Daniels was healthy.
Then, after Daniels got injured, everything went downhill. Graham, now the primary tight end target, has been routinely shut down. And Ryan Griffin, a sixth-round pick out of Connecticut, has been virtually non-existent in the passing game, which is unsurprising for a player as inexperienced as he.
Daniels' injury has shown just how dependent the tight end unit is on him, and the Texans need him back on the field healthy as soon as possible.
Last season, the Texans' offensive line was responsible for the major collapse the team experienced at the end of the season. Unable to open up holes for Arian Foster and protect Matt Schaub, the offense had no choice but to struggle.
This season, however, the offensive line has noticeably improved but only in one area.
They have been excellent in the running game, creating lanes for Foster and Tate that were not there last season. The Texans have been able to consistently pound the ball, and that is just as much the result of the offensive line as it has been Foster's and Tate's play.
In protecting the quarterback, though, the line has been as bad as it was last season. Their inability to prevent pass-rushers from easily getting by them has highlighted Schaub's lack of scrambling ability, and it has led to a stagnation of the Texans offense.
With time to throw in the pocket, Schaub can be a very good quarterback. But when the line forces him to deal with a collapsing pocket on a frequent basis, his flaws are easily exposed.
The line has been both great and horrible for the Texans, and the pass protections desperately needs to be improved.
Any defensive line that has J.J. Watt on it has the ability to be incredible. Watt is so effective at so many different aspects of the game that it benefits all who line up next to him.
Watt has continued his hot streak from last season; he has become a regular presence in the defensive backfield. Although his sack numbers have waned, which was expected, his knack for blowing by offensive linemen and either picking up the sack or the tackle for loss has not been diminished.
As a result, offenses have focused on slowing down Watt, as shutting him down is nearly impossible, which has given rise to many opportunities for the other Texans' defensive linemen.
Earl Mitchell has taken advantage, and Antonio Smith has not.
Mitchell has impacted games in ways that no Texans' nose tackle has done in recent memory. His quick feet and athletic ability allow him to blow past slower offensive linemen, and he has consistently pressured the quarterback in several games.
Smith, meanwhile, looks like a shell of his former self. Smith, in the recent past, has consistently been one of the Texans' main pass rushers, racking up a multitude of sacks.
This season, however, Smith has struggled to constantly perform at the same level, and he is applying no where near the same amount of pressure that he has in recent seasons.
The Texans' defensive line has the potential to be one of the league, but Smith's lack of playmaking has forced it to become much too dependent on Watt.
Brian Cushing, who missed nearly all of the 2012 season with a torn ACL, was an early source of motivation for the Texans' defense, especially after his pick-six opening week versus the San Diego Chargers.
And Cushing rejuvenated the Texans' linebacker core that had struggled mightily without him. The flaws of both Joe Mays and Darryl Sharpton were masked by the dominance of Cushing, and their label as liabilities were hardly noticed.
Then Cushing got injured for the first time, suffering what ended up to be a minor concussion. He only missed the second half of the Seahawks game, but the Texans defense collapsed without him. They allowed the Seahawks to come charging back from a 20-3 deficit; they could not stop Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch from running all over them.
Thankfully, Cushing returned healthy the next week. But against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7, the unthinkable happened: Cushing once again suffered a severe injury. On a routine pass protection block, Jamaal Charles managed to both break Cushing's leg and tear his LCL.
Now the Texans defense will have to find its way without Cushing, which is a task that may be impossible. The great linebacking core that was present for most of the first half of the season will be diminished to the awful form that it took last season after Cushing's injury.
However, the Texans' linebackers played very well over the first half of the season and deserve a solid grade.
Last season gave rise to an ironic twist concerning the Texans' cornerbacks: Johnathan Joseph, the shutdown cornerback from 2011, struggled and Kareem Jackson, the former bane of the defense, excelled.
Joseph, though, struggled with multiple injuries throughout the season, and his health was a major reason for his poor play. Jackson, meanwhile, seemed to ditch the bad habits that had plagued him in his first two seasons.
Due to this, expectations were high for the Texans' cornerbacks this season, as a healthy Joseph and a new-and-improved Jackson appeared to be an extremely talented tandem.
And so far, those expectations have not been far off base. Joseph has looked much better and Jackson has improved yet again, forcing opposing quarterbacks to look away from their top two wide receivers to gain yardage.
Joseph and Jackson, asides for a few plays, have been great and should not be held responsible for any of the Texans' defensive struggles.
Brice McCain, however, has killed the Texans' secondary. Slot receivers and their quarterbacks routinely pick on him, and he has given up big play after big play.
He has lowered the play of the entire unit from great to inconsistent. He either needs to improve quickly or be placed in an open competition with backup Brandon Harris.
Many fans are quick to point to the Texans' safety unit, and Ed Reed in particular, as the main reason for the secondary's struggles.
These beliefs, however, are not as accurate as they seem, and Reed is certainly not hurting the Texans in coverage. In fact, he's hardly thrown at, as opposing quarterbacks are unwilling to throw his way, especially when they already have a big lead.
Reed, though, has struggled heavily against the run, and he has missed several key tackles.
Danieal Manning made up for Reed, however, when he was healthy, as he was performing at a high level in both coverage and against the run. Manning, though, suffered a severe leg injury against the Rams and was placed on the season-ending IR list.
And whenever Shiloh Keo and D.J. Swearinger have had to play, they have been inconsistent in coverage. So unfortunately, the Texans will be forced to deal with a safety who can't tackle and two safeties who are susceptible to giving up big plays for the rest of the season.
Here's a quick outline of how the Texans' special teams have performed so far this season: Randy Bullock has been wildly inconsistent and disappointing, Shane Lechler has been unbelievably impressive, returning has been awful and both punt and kick coverage has continued to struggle.
Randy Bullock has displayed that he has a big leg, but he seems to let the team down in key moments and cannot be depended upon.
Shane Lechler has proven to be everything he was supposed to be, and he has consistently pinned opponents back deep in their own territory.
And Joe Marciano's managing of both the return and coverage units has continued to be terrible, and it is a major surprise that he has not yet been fired.