HOUSTON Of the lasting images from the Texans' masterful defensive effort against the Falcons last Sunday, perhaps the most memorable was that of nose tackle Earl Mitchell sprinting to and then hurdling a pile of bodies to assist on a tackle of Atlanta running back Michael Turner.
The defender at the bottom of the scrum, the first on the scene wrapped around the robust legs of Turner: Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson. That Jackson tackle preceded his jarring hit later in the afternoon, one so vicious that a collective groan emanated from the Reliant Stadium crowd before an official reflexively tossed a flag out of the belief that Jackson's strike was flagrant. The penalty was waved off and play continued, but the collision reinforced what has long been apparent.
The Texans (9-3), aligned in a 3-4 scheme supposedly susceptible to the run, rank fourth in the league against the run in part because of the physical play of Jackson and his cohort, Johnathan Joseph. To watch both in action is to observe a tackling clinic and witness examples of fearlessness when it comes to sacrificing one's body to deliver a blow.
"I think it helps the defense in the aspect it gives us an identity," Texans defensive end Antonio Smith said. "That's just what our defense is and those guys are a part of it. Instead of you having a physical defense with soft corners, we've got a physical defense with physical corners.
"When (defensive coordinator) Wade (Phillips) came here he wanted a physical mentality on the defense, and I think he expects that from each and every player on the defense."
There are no surprises when the likes of Smith and linebacker Brian Cushing fulfill those expectations of physicality. As bigger, bruising players, rough play is a given. It is enjoyable when cornerbacks are unafraid to mix it up, to slam a shoulder into the gut of a prone receiver or to wrangle a running back to the ground at the point of impact.
The Texans have been stout up the middle defensively, with Cushing (82 tackles), strong safety Glover Quin (58) and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans (41) pacing the team in tackles. However, the Texans have been equally reliable on the perimeter, where Jackson and Joseph reside and have shown no hesitancy taking on oncoming rushers in run support.
"Well, they have to be able to tackle," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of his cornerbacks. "We're a big man-coverage team. We play a lot of quarters where they've got to come up and support the run and do some things. It's very important, but we ask everybody to be physical on our football team and those two guys have done a good job as well. That's important across the board, not just at corner."
Such tenacity isn't always a given at corner, where plenty of the league's best are as renowned for their ability in pass coverage as eschewing contact. Joseph has put his abundant balls skills on display while leading the team (along with cornerback Jason Allen) in interceptions with four.
And Joseph has supplied devastating hits, including a lick on Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow that dislodged the football and resulted in a Cushing interception. For a man his size (5-foot-11 and 191 pounds), that toughness resonates on the opposing bench and in his locker room. And it helps explain how the Texans are surrendering only 90.7 rushing yards per game when many predicted they'd be gashed on the ground.
"I don't know if corners set the tone for physical play; it usually starts up front," Kubiak said. "But these guys have a job to do (when) that ball comes to the edge and it's important if they don't do it, then you got big runs. We've been pretty dang good against the run all year long, so you got to give them credit. They've done their job. They turned the ball in and stepped up in there when they had to."
It requires a certain mentality for players like Joseph and Jackson (5-foot-10, 188 pounds) to compensate for their relative lack of size with toughness. As corner skills are refined through the years it's easy to shy away from contact better suited for safeties. But Joseph (35 tackles) and Jackson (30) seem to relish in the collisions that both excite and inspire.
"It's something I've embraced," said Jackson, whose inconsistencies in pass coverage have in no manner diminished his impressive tackling skills. "I was physical at Alabama. Even back to high school that's just something that I've always done and I wanted to continue to do as a ballplayer. Anytime you make big guys feel that they're going to get hit after they make the catch, it might stop them from making a couple of catches.
"That's something that's instilled in you from playing in little league. For me that's one of my biggest assets. I think I tackle well and I want to continue to do that. It helps a whole lot when you have a secondary that can tackle and prevent guys from making the run after the catch."
Fundamentals are what catch the eye of coaches, and Jackson and Joseph have consistently delivered. Punishing blows get fans on their feet and illicit responses from teammates accustomed to the rough stuff. The Texans' corners have made their presence felt in that regard, too.
"You have to (tip your hat)," Smith said. "Everybody expects big guys to make big hits and (make the) aggressive type play. Everybody loves it when they see a little guy go in there and knock a tight end out or a guy who's bigger than them laying the hit on them. Everybody loves that."
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