November 12, 2003
by Keith Weiland
Hasn’t Hollywood taught us anything? If you’re a football team lining up against an unheralded player named Rudi, don’t expect top billing when the credits are ready to roll.
So of course Bengals running back Rudi Johnson stole the show on Sunday and blistered the bruised Texan defense for 182 rushing yards. It was right there in the script! Cincinnati found Johnson’s name on the call sheet a team record 43 times.
It’s easy to forgive the defense. Minus defensive linemen Seth Payne and Gary Walker, the Texans have gone four straight weeks giving up more than 120 yards on the ground. Pro Bowl cornerback Aaron Glenn has been slowed by a groin injury since Week Four, and free agent linebacker Charlie Clemons has been limited due to a severely sprained left ankle.
Because of those losses, the defense is going into each Sunday showdown without all its bullets, but it’s difficult to really tell how much better they would be if those key players were all still healthy. It is because of those losses though that the Texans painfully realize the need to restock the pond during the next offseason with an influx of new defensive talent.
Having only drafted two players for the defense from the first three rounds in the past two years, the obvious direction for the Texans to pursue would be to make a committment next April to draft college players from that side of the ball. Seems only fair, doesn’t it? Poor Vic Fangio must be pretty jealous of Chris Palmer, what with his franchise quarterback, a pair of receivers, and a handful of offensive linemen to nuture.
And of Fangio’s two first day picks? Both were third round selections, and one, nose tackle Charles Hill, is no longer with the team. What gives?
Well, first let me clear one thing up. The 2002 defense wasn’t as good as you once thought it might have been. Whether you thought that unit was largely untested given the ineptness of the Texan offense or just plain overachieving, that expansion squad gave most of us the notion that the franchise was ahead of schedule on the defensive half of the field when, in reality, it still had some pretty big holes.
The core group of talented veterans stayed healthy all last year, as vets like Walker, Glenn, and Jamie Sharper kept the opposition honest. The Texan offense, however, never mounted much of a threat, and because it didn’t, opponents never needed to expose the pass rush and secondary like they continue to do this fall.
The second reason why Fangio’s clan has largely been ignored up to this point is twofold: (1) The 3-4 scheme is not for the uninitiated, as Fangio and Dom Capers prefer to reload their units with veterans who are able to learn it quickly, and (2) the defense, relative to the offense, is arguably easier to get fresh talent up to speed and executing more quickly.
Those two points might sound a tad contrary, but they’re not. From the college ranks, quarterbacks, receivers, and offensive linemen seem to need more ramp-up time to become NFL-ready starters. While new pass rushers and tacklers will also need time to acclimate themselves to the speed and technique at the pro level, the matriculation curve doesn’t seem to be quite as steep.
As such, it leaves some doubt as to how exactly the Texan warroom will attack the 2004 offseason. While the first round pick seems almost certain to land a defensive player, it is far more cloudy as to whether more than half of the team’s first day selections will be for Fangio’s side of the ball.
Instead, the Texans may look more closely at the free agent talent available next March to shore up the holes on defense. With ample cap room to maneuver, the Texans could have pick of the litter to address not one, but two key positions. The trick, of course, is that signing players is a two-way street, but isn’t that why the owner, Bob McNair, has assembled a first class work environment with top notch people?
Depending still on how the league’s other 31 teams address their upcoming offseason chores, this next free agent pool figures to be considerably deeper than the previous two in which the Texans swam, particularly at defensive back. With premier possibilities like Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson, the Texans could shut down both halves of the field when someone of that caliber is paired with Glenn.
Toss in some possible cap casualties, like the aging but talented outside linebacker Jason Gildon, and suddenly the pass rush doesn’t seem so lame. Then use some draft picks to “saturate” draft the defensive line to develop some depth behind Payne and Walker.
Do all of these things, and the Texans’ defense is sure to keep Rudi-like Hollywood endings from finding their way out of a cast of extras.
Tune in, drop out… Thursday night alert! Since Maryland doesn’t figure to be on Houston TV’s much for the rest of the season, make plans now to watch this one very intriguing Terrapin prospect before it’s too late.
Virginia @ Maryland, 6:45pm CT, ESPN – Lotsa talk about Vince Wilfork and Tommie Harris being the answer at the D-line for the Texans if they declare, but the Terps’ Randy Starks (6’4″ 312), another junior, might be the best of the bunch on draft day. A little underrated, moreso even after Maryland’s 0-2 start this season, Starks has a big, strong, and athletic body that will make an offense gameplan around him. He will be the focus of Virginia’s double teams for the whole game, and yet, he’ll still find a way into the backfield to collect his stats.
Keith Weiland thinks Woody Allen is weird.