November 2, 2004
by Ric Sweeney
After playing the thankless role of opening band for the Astros the past six weeks, the Texans took center stage Sunday and promptly served notice they’re ready to headline by kicking Jacksonville square in Jack Del Rio’s perfectly coifed hair. The final score — 20-6, a blowout by any measure — failed to accurately capture the depth of the ass-kicking Houston broke out on Sunday. They were a Jabar Gaffney gaffe away from busting through the “tattooing” plateau.
And so after seven games, the Texans are a franchise-best 4-3 and smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt in the AFC. And the reason for their current standing can be traced to the team’s most important cornerstone finally stepping up big time the past several weeks and proving once and for all why the organization held him in such high regard.
Uh, not so fast, David Carr. I’m talking about defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
While Carr has certainly been impressive — beyond impressive, really; he’s proving he’s got the moxie and I know that because you don’t just randomly throw “moxie” on the table haphazardly, like you would, say, “talented” or “potential-laden” or “stab to the right temple sexy.” If you’re pulling “moxie” from the back pocket in otherwise daily conversation, then you’re talking about someone pretty darn special — it’s the defense that’s been the catalyst for Houston’s five game stretch in which they’ve won four. And sure, ultimately, this team will go as far as Carr’s golden right arm will take them. But don’t for a second think he can do it alone. Before all is said and done, the 2004 season will be decided by the play of Fangio’s unit.
Fangio came to Houston fresh from a parade in Indianapolis in which Colt fans celebrated his departure. A proponent of the same zone blitz Dom Capers perfected in his many years as a defensive coordinator, Fangio oversaw a unit that, in his last season, fell to last in the league, giving Peyton Manning a convenient excuse for his rash of playoff failures. Things were a mess in Indy – the players and system never seemed to mesh, and Fangio was shown the door. Capers brought him to the Texans and the two immediately made Indianapolis appear to be a gigantic aberration.
Overseeing a veteran unit built through the expansion draft in 2002, Fangio fashioned a unit that played well enough to keep the Texans in several games they had no business being in and several more where his players flat-out won games, most notably in Pittsburgh. But despite its success carrying the anemic offense on its hip, the D of 2002 showed a propensity for giving up the big play and at times, didn’t show up at all. It gave up 24 or more points seven times, and yes, some of that was a function of an offense that treated forward progress like a four-letter disease of the smaller intestine. Still, we entered 2003 thinking the defense was a strength, but not entirely sure. And then a rash of injuries exposed the talent pool’s lack of depth in 2003, not to mention its lack of playmakers. The Texans lacked youth, they lacked speed, and as a result, they couldn’t pressure the opposing quarterback and turnovers were rare treats, sprinkled about periodically. Again, the offense struggled, but it was the defense that gave up last-minute scores to Tennessee and Indianapolis. Don’t forget that.
But after two uninspired performances to open the season, very quietly, under cover of the offense’s impressive, leaps-and-bounds development, the defense has come up big to help fuel Houston’s charge to the top of the division. In winning four of five (we’re discounting Minnesota’s 34-28 win, which kind of, sort of is a bit of a copout, but come on! What defense has found a way to stop the Vikings this year?), the D has yielded an average of 13.5 points a game in those wins, forcing 12 turnovers and scoring three touchdowns.
Overall, the Texans have forced 13 turnovers in seven games, including a league-leading 11 interceptions. Last year, they forced 22 all season. And the number could continue to grow – they currently lead the NFL in passes defensed. A defense that’s constantly around the ball that much is going to generate opportunities for itself. Turnovers are one thing; the Texans are making a habit of forcing them at opportune times. In fact, when we look back on 2004, hopefully sometime in January, Marcus Coleman’s 102-yard return against the Chiefs may very well be the turning point.
They’re also pressuring the quarterback with greater frequency this year. They’ve recorded just 12 sacks, ranking near the bottom in the NFL, but are on pace to bag 27 for the year, a jump of 8 over last year’s total of 19. And as the offense continues to grow and, more importantly, score, the chance to tee off on the opposing signal callers forced to keep up with Carr and company is going to grow. And while the number doesn’t leap out at you, they are getting to the QB this year, flushing them from the pocket and having more of an impact.
And the Texans’ defensive fortunes could not have turned around at better, more favorable time. Houston’s about to embark on a brutal three game stretch against three top 5 offenses: Indianapolis, Denver and Green Bay. If they have any delusions about being a prominent figure in the “If the playoffs started today…” season-ending scenarios, they’re going to have to continue to make game-turning plays on the defensive side of the ball.
Changing Gears (Because I Had Two Things I Wanted to Write About This Week): We’ll always have Tennessee. Always. But in terms of to the bone, blood-letting, let’s get wet and roll around in the mud before we kick the snot out of each other rivalries, the Texans and Jaguars have seem to have started something really special.
The two teams have a genuine dislike for one another (rule 1 of all great rivalries) and they both look to be on the same trajectory, which means this thing is only going to get better, more heated, more contentious as the teams claw their way to the top of the division. You know a rivalry has teeth when players start calling each other out for dirty tactics, as the Jags did this weekend. This is the same team, by the way, that tried to part JJ Moses last year and yesterday, viciously, and I think purposefully, sunk their teeth into Carr’s ailing ankle.
Coolio. If Carr and Byron Leftwich can stay healthy, they’re both looking more and more like star-level quarterbacks, which means we could have a decade of these two teams at each other’s throats. Couple the team’s history together -– Capers was their defensive coordinator before coming to H’Town; the Jags stuck Tony Boselli’s bum wing on our cap for several years; they’ll host Super Bowls back-to-back… — and this could be a our first, genuinely-earned, intensely personal cock fight.
Ric Sweeney has special powers. What powers you ask? I dunno… how ’bout the power of flight? That do anything for ya? That’s levitation, holmes. How ’bout the power to kill a yak from 200 yards away… with mind bullets! That’s telekinesis, brutha! How ’bout the power to move you?
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