Remember January 14, 2017? Sub-freezing temperatures at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts welcomed the stifling passing defense of the Houston Texans; a unit that ranked second in the NFL that season. The Texans would lose this game, but they executed and added to a blueprint that has since been used to topple the New England Patriots. Pressure the quarterback.
The Texans’ 2016 pass rush was one of the most disruptive we’ve seen in the modern NFL, rivaling that of the Denver Broncos of 2015 and last years Jacksonville Jaguars. The Texans’ 2017 defense saw a heavy regression, in large part due to an inefficient offense and a slew of injuries to critical defenders JJ Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Brian Cushing. This year, the Texans look to bounce back with a defense resembling much more of what they created when they were able to keep Tom Brady off balance in a January game in Foxboro.
The most obvious, and most critical piece returning to the Texans defense is of course Watt. Per Pro Football Focus, from 2011-2015 JJ Watt led all defensive players in the NFL with an astounding 415 quarterback pressures. Von Miller was next closest in the span with 337. Since then, however, it’s been a different song. Watt has only lined up for 374 snaps in the last two seasons, due to an unfortunate pair of season-ending injuries; but the story out of this year’s training camp is optimistic, as Watt has been an active participant in team drills and “crushed” his conditioning test.
The return of Mercilus to the Texans’ disruptive group of linebackers is also difficult to understate. In 2016, Mercilus recorded 7.5 sacks to go with 52 pressures. In a 3-4 base defense that will deploy arguably the most dominant edge rusher in history with Watt, consistent pressure from Mercilus, and a Jadeveon Clowney who has improved in sacks and tackles each of his four seasons, this unit stands more than just a chance to return to their dominance from two years ago.
The return of a devastating pass rush will only bolster an already above average secondary, as they won’t be asked to guard downfield nearly as long as they were last year. Both corner Jonathan Joseph and safety Andre Hal return to the Texans secondary that will add former Jaguars’ corner Aaron Colvin. The most interesting addition to the Texans secondary, and perhaps the entire defense, is 2015 first-team All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu.
The Honey Badger hasn’t matched his phenomenal 2015 campaign where he racked up an insane 17 pass defenses, but he has remained, despite injury, a consistent tackler with a ball-hawking mentality. It’s almost unfair to limit him simply to his position and call him a safety. Mathieu possesses one of the most versatile skillsets of any defender in the NFL, with his above-average to elite speed, man and deep-coverage ability, and his run-stopping. Mathieu simply bolsters a defense that’s already loaded with talent in every positional group.
Turning to the other side of the football, it’s surprising how quiet talk about the Texans’ offense has been. DeAndre Hopkins has been a force of nature, going for at least 1,200 yards receiving in three of his last four seasons. He’s also only had a legitimate NFL quarterback for seven of the games in those four seasons (more on that shortly). The rest of his time has been spent receiving passes from the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, TJ Yates, Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage, and Brandon Weeden. It’s irrefutable to say that Hopkins does more for his passer than the passer does for Hopkins.
Lamar Miller returns to anchor the ground game, and while he struggled in a one-dimensional offense last season, averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per carry, the return of dual-threat phenom Deshaun Watson at quarterback will surely aid Miller’s rushing. Watson was, simply, incredible before suffering an ACL tear in week eight. In Watson’s six starts, the Texans went 3-3 and averaged an astronomical 34.6 points per game. The nine games after Watson’s injury were much less spectacular, as the Texans went just 1-8 and averaged only 13.6 points in those contests.
Watson didn’t shy away from putting up huge numbers in individual statistics either, with 1700 yards to go with 19 touchdowns in the air, on top of 269 yards rushing with a pair of touchdowns on the ground. Watson also possesses the second highest passer rating for a rookie in NFL history with a minimum of 200 pass attempts. While Dak Prescott had the highest rookie passer rating, he threw only four more touchdowns than Watson in 10 more starts.
The AFC South favorites will, of course, be the Jaguars, who just last season made a trip to the AFC Championship game. I have reservations about the Jags going into this season, however, as it can be reasonably argued that they have the worst quarterback in the division in Blake Bortles; and despite last seasons run, they did have a tie with the Tennessee Titans for the easiest schedule in the NFL. If the Texans defense can stay healthy, and Watson continues to set the world on fire, they will wear the crown as AFC South Champions in 2018.
They might even get another shot in New England on a frigid night in January.