Has anyone taken inventory of exactly how well Texans safety Troy Nolan has performed since he replaced Danieal Manning in the lineup?
You remember Nolan, don't you? The supposed 'next man up' when Manning suffered a broken leg against the Titans on Oct. 23 in Nashville? When Manning, a crucial addition to the secondary via free agency, was felled the attention shifted to Nolan and how he'd fill the void. Texans coach Gary Kubiak was peppered with questions regarding his belief in Nolan and whether the defense would suffer sans Manning.
Kubiak made a point then that continues to resonate in light of the loss of quarterback Matt Schaub. The viability of the Texans' defense didn't rest solely with Nolan but rather with how the remainder of the secondary picked up Nolan, who has 13 tackles over three games. Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Jason Allen have stepped up. So too have safeties Glover Quin and Quintin Demps, who was signed off the street last month and has paid immediate dividends.
It is far too easy to dump on backup Matt Leinart the responsibility of maintaining the Texans' efficient offense now that Schaub has succumbed to the injury bug that has ravaged this roster. Leinart is the next man up, but one with ample supporting personnel in place to excel.
"However long Matt (Schaub) is going to be out, we're all just going to have to step our game up even that much more," Texans tailback Ben Tate said. "We're just going to continue to do what we're doing, but at a higher level to help Matt (Leinart) out. I think he'll be fine at the end of the day and I think our offense will be running normal."
What the Texans have done best during their four-game winning streak is run the football. Over that span they are averaging 206 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. Their prolific tandem of Arian Foster, who ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing (171 carries for 740 yards and six touchdowns) and Ben Tate, who is 10th (122 carries for 686 yards and three touchdowns), has been dynamic over the past four games.
Foster averaged 108.8 yards per game with five touchdowns. Tate averaged 81 yards per game on a whopping 7.2 yards per carry. The Texans have done this without the presence of Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, who has missed six games with a hamstring injury. In theory opponents should have stacked the box and forced the Texans to pass the ball with Johnson unavailable as a deep threat. The Texans' ground attack has thrived instead of persevered. That approach should remain, and Leinart feels emboldened knowing the situation he's stepping into.
"Yeah, obviously the great thing is how efficient we've been and how many guys have stepped up in his place that he's missed the last few weeks," Leinart said of Johnson, who is slated to return at Jacksonville on Nov. 27. "Everyone has made plays, every single body on this offense. The offensive line is blocking for the pass and run game, all the receivers, tight ends, all the backs. It's a great offense to be a part of and now we get the best receiver in the NFL back, which is awesome to have, especially how we've been playing the last three or four weeks. That's going to be great."
The return of Johnson eases the transition for Leinart. That the Texans have exploited every aspect of their passing game without Johnson confirms their potential now that Johnson is poised to rejoin the offense.
Foster has bolstered his burgeoning reputation as the best all-round tailback in the league with 31 receptions, 445 receiving yards and two memorable touchdowns. Tight end Owen Daniels has emerged as one of the top receiving threats at his position. Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter have filled in admirably with Johnson sidelined. Utility back James Casey has been slowed by a pectoral injury, but he should be fully healthy coming out of the open week. He flashed his potential in the passing game at New Orleans and enhances a suddenly deep receiving corps.
It won't require superhuman performances from Leinart to keep the Texans on track for an AFC South title and first-ever postseason berth. He won't slip under the radar like Nolan did when he replaced Manning, but like Nolan, Leinart will have plenty of help in managing the burden.
The Texans rallied around rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed when he stepped in for Mario Williams, and they did the same when the time came for Nolan to make the leap from reserve to starter. Next man up doesn't quite encompass the mantra of this team. It's been a collective effort thus far, and the Texans are resolved that it will continue to be so.
"I think that's what has made this season so special already, and I think if we close it out the right way and close it out the way I think we will, I think it will make it even that much more special," Texans right tackle Eric Winston said. "(There are) a lot of resilient players here, and a lot of guys working hard to make sure that happens."
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