The Texans have been so close to being a playoff-worthy team for so long, that it's not that surprising to see them finally cross the threshold. It IS surprising, however, to see them do it without Mario Williams, Matt Schaub, or Andre Johnson, the three franchise cornerstones. Now they face a brave new world with an uncertain cast. How will this Cinderella team fare in the big dance?
We talked to Patrick D. Star of State Of The Texans, and co-host of the Luv Ya Steel Blue podcast to get the inside perspective on his team's playoff debut.
TGS: First of all, congratulations on finally making the playoffs. When did you start thinking that this was the year?
To be honest I really think the turning point for me as a fan had to be during the off season and training camp. With Wade Phillips, Danieal Manning and Jonathan Jospeh now in Houston, the vibe for the team was a total 180 than we have grown accustomed to. Training camp was intense and it looked like the defense was already different when they stepped on the field.
We all know the biggest issue with the Texans was the defense and had been for awhile. When the Texans concentrated on drafting defense (J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed) and signing Manning and Joseph the Texans immediately upgraded their defense. We all know the Texans offense can move the football and if the Texans could ever get their defense together they would have a shot.
Wade Phillips has been the biggest factor for this team, when he was signed to be the defensive coordinator the front office gave him anything he wanted to fix the situation. So without a doubt the offseason face-lift the Texans received during the off season was the start of something big.
TGS: With Matt Schaub and Mario Williams long gone, and Andre Johnson less than 100%, who have become the primary play-makers for this team?
The offense has been something to watch with the shuffling of quarterbacks, but Arian Foster who missed 3 1/2 games has been better than ever. His ability to run and catch the ball keeps defenses honest because he is so versatile. Also on the offensive side of the ball, 2nd year running back Ben Tate has been a great spot runner -- so good he ran for 942 yards and 4 touchdowns, while Foster racked up 1224 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.
Also, the tight ends have been quietly putting together solid season. Owen Daniels has been quiet compared to previous seasons, but with injuries in his past he leads the team in receptions (54) and yards (677) and backup tight end Joel Dreessen lead the team in touchdown receptions (6). It really has been a team effort for the Texans offensively, but it has been a different weapon every game, two that come to mind in the playoffs will be Fullback/Tight End James Casey and Wide Receiver Kevin Walter.
As for the defense, they have been what has kept the Texans close in every game this season. When Mario Williams went out with his pectoral injury against the Raiders, he had 6 sacks in 6 games, and was slowly getting his feet under him in this new defense. The biggest concern for the defense would be where the pass rush would come from, and 3rd year player Connor Barwin has been a force off the edge. With 11.5 sacks on the season Barwin joined Williams as the only two Texans to have double digit sacks in a season.
Also, the play of inside linebacker Brian Cushing has been a sight to see this season, and with all of the controversy that has surrounded him during the 2010 season, he has been a man on a missions. Cushing leads the team in tackles (114), had 4 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles from the inside of the Texans defense. He is so well respected among his teammates he was named a defensive captain in the middle of the season and name the Texans MVP for the 2011 season. His play may go unnoticed on the national scene, but his teammates talk about how he as player and a person.
Also don't sleep on corner back Johnathan Joseph who has been the difference maker for the Texans secondary, and going up against his old team in the playoffs could prove big for the Texans. Joseph had a below average game the first time these two met during the regular season, dropped a pick 6 and had trouble with Bengals receiver A.J. Green. Joseph has shown he can play the football in the air or lay a big hit on someone when needed, and his play-making ability will be needed this Saturday and stop the Bengals number one threat.
TGS: Obviously, there is enormous pressure on TJ Yates. What has Gary Kubiak done to help the rookie command the offense?
This has been a constant discussion on our podcast. Popular belief is people are thinking he has become the check-down king after two impressive performances against the Falcons and Bengals. In two games Yates went 38-69 for 488 yards and he had 3 touchdowns and 1 interception, also he had two wins, very important ones.
With that said, the offense after those two big victories has gone vanilla so to speak, and we don't know if Kubiak has closed half the playbook to hide his hand for the playoffs, or he has lost faith in the ability of Yates. Since I am answering, I think Kubiak has closed the playbook to hide his hand and to protect Yates from further punishment. Yates took a high amount of sacks (15) in 5 games, and he has to correct that for the playoffs.
Kubiak will run the ball to set up easy throws for Yates, like he has done in the previous games. Yates has made some big throws in his short time, but he has trouble playing against zone defenses and has not trusted his reads. In order for the Texans to have any success in the playoffs Yates has to make plays and not be a game manager.
TGS: Who are the unsung heroes that will have to step up?
Without a doubt T.J. Yates has to step up his play, because the Texans are only going to go as far as his play will let them.
Also, the offensive line (Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Myers and Eric Winston) will need to dominate the line of scrimmage and open up some running lanes, and with the return of right guard Mike Brisiel to the line, that will play a huge part in the Texans success. The last time Brisiel played was against the Bengals, and he played majority of the game on a fractured leg! He is back after a month of not playing and has already been named the starter for Saturday.
Defensively, it rests on how well the defensive line of Antonio Smith, Shuan Cody and J.J. Watt can control the space-eating lineman of the Bengals. Last time they faced each other the Bengals ran it all over the Texans in the 1st half of football. If those three can control the running game and have Smith and Watt get to Andy Dalton and put him on the ground, that could prove huge. The Texans need to create issues and move Dalton off his spot and make him move, he had too much time in their previous meeting to scan the field. If the defensive line can create pressure, expect outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed to have some big days.
TGS: What is your gameplan against the Cincinnati Bengals?
Stop Cedric Benson and make Andy Dalton beat you with his arm. Also it is a necessity that Joseph can play Green one on one, so the Texans can help either Kareem Jackson or Jason Allen in coverage.
Against the Bengals defense, get Andre Johnson involved early and make the Bengals respect him, and start running the ball. The Texans game plan is to control the time of possession, and this starts on the run first mentality that the Texans have.
TGS: Do you have a prediction for the game?
The two biggest factors in this game is that Andre Johnson and James Casey will be near full strength during the game. Johnson was injured for their last game vs Cincinnati, and Casey was a non-factor also. Both cause matchup issues for defenses and both will be on the field at the same time. Johnson causes team to double team him and Casey is athletic enough to give linebackers, safeties and corner backs all they want when he motions out of the backfield.
With that said the Texans gain two weapons and the Bengals are down who I thought was the difference maker the first time they met: right guard Robbie Williams, who broke his ankle in that game.
The advantage goes to the Texans 27-13.
Many thanks to Pat for his responses. You can read more of his Texans coverage at StateOfTheTexans.com, and tune in to the Luv Ya Steel Blue podcasts. You can also find Pat live-tweeting during the game at @PHABMK6.
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