Dec 23, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) is introduced before a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Other Eleven: Week One Opponent-Houston Texans: The Defense

Last week we broke down how the Chargers will be challenged by The Houston Texans Offense. Continuing with the weekly breakdown of our regular season opponents, it’s time to analyze the Houston defense.

In 2012, The Texans garnered one of the top defenses in the NFL. They were able to complete a whopping 44 sacks… that is just five shy of the total amount that Phillip Rivers received from defensive opponents last season. One man contributed to almost half of those sacks last year. When playing the Texans, every offense has to account for J.J. Watt. Watt was voted the NFL defensive player of the year, leading the league with 20.5 sacks and 16 passes deflected. To say that Watt is an animal might just be considered an understatement. Not only is he an elite pass rusher, but he is outstanding against the run. Unfortunately for the Chargers, Watt is not the only defensive playmaker that the Texans have at their disposal. Antonio Smith, who plays opposite of Watt, is a great run defender and had a career-high 7 sacks in 2012. The rotation will also be bolstered by veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell, returning defensive end Tim Jamison and second-year end Jared Crick. When healthy and playing on point, this line will spend all day disrupting plays in the back field.

Last year, the linebacker position under went season long change for the Houston Texans. Because of injuries, The Texans were forced to start five different inside linebackers, who actually played well enough to help the defense rank seventh in the league. Brian Cushing suffered a season ending knee injury early last season, but is now back healthy at 100%. The Texans were considerably less physical without Cushing’s presence last year and the team plans on taking a slow and safe approach on his return. Darryl Sharpton, the other starter opposite Cushing, joined his teammate on IR last season as well. The Texans just signed ILB Joe Mays and may need to turn to him sooner than later due to a set back in Sharpton’s recovery. The Texans need to get more of a pass rush from their outside linebackers. Connor Barwin packed his bags and went off to Philadelphia, which leaves the responsibilities on the shoulders of Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed. Both linebackers combined for 9.5 sacks last season.

The wild card in all of this in my opinion is Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips. He knows Phillip Rivers tendencies pretty well. Last year against a Denver Bronco offense led by Coach Mike McCoy, Phillips’ defense held Peyton Manning to 2 touchdowns, 3 sacks and only 51 yards rushing by a running back. There will be some familiarity with the coaches on the opposing sidelines, the question will be: who outsmarts who?

Why this is important: The Chargers produced one of the worst offensive lines in the league last year, surrendering 49 sacks to opponents. In the offseason, The Chargers cut (Big Lazy) Jared Gaither, allowed free agent Tyrone Green to walk via free agency and lost one their best O-lineman Louis Vasquez to the division rival Denver Broncos. The Chargers offensive line is an evolving puzzle and has undergone a serious overhaul. They brought in free agents King Dunlap and Max Starks to hold down the left tackle position and signed former Buffalo Bills guard Chad Reinhart. Jeremy Clary was moved from right tackle to right guard in order to make way for rookie first round pick D.J. Fluker. The offensive line will have the responsibility of keeping Rivers off of his back and opening up holes for a running game that finished 27th in the league in rushing. A tough test lies ahead for the Chargers O-Line and they will all need to work together quickly if the Chargers want to leave week one with a W.

Finally we arrive at the weakest link of Houston’s defense, the secondary. The Texans allowed starter Glover Quin to walk in free agency and replaced him with Ed Reed. However early reports are that Reed’s hip recovery is not coming along fast enough and he may not be ready for the week one opener. This will force rookie second round pick D.J. Swearinger into the lineup very early. Because of the question marks surrounding Reed’s health, Safety Danieal Manning will have to continue to play deep in order to navigate the defensive backs. Cornerback Kareem Jackson is coming off his best season in the NFL. Jackson, who graded out as the one of the top 20 corners in the league, has become a ball hawk and is good against the run. Cornerback Jonathan Joseph made the Pro Bowl despite being injured for most of the year. Returning from double sports-hernia surgery in the offseason, Joseph is a shutdown corner and his health will be vital for the Texans secondary to succeed.

Why this is important: Phillip Rivers needs to show significant improvement this year. He needs to return to 2008 through 2010 form, not the quarterback who ranked fourth in interceptions (35) over the last two years. Rivers needs to make better decisions and not try to do much. It’s no question that a lot of the blame may also fall under the fact that he has been standing behind one the worst offensive lines in the league. With the arrival of head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, they will be responsible for helping Rivers to Pro-Bowl caliber. In a new offensive scheme, Rivers will have the responsibility of getting his receivers the ball and picking apart to defenses. Wide receivers Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd will need to stretch the field against Houston’s corners while Vincent Brown, Eddie Royal and rookie Keenan Allen will have to exploit the middle of the field. Oh yea, I think there is some guy named Gates that will have a hand in all of this too… With Ed Reed looking more and more likely to miss the home opener, Rivers and his new toys will have to reduce their mistakes and take advantage of the openings that the Texans secondary will be giving them.

The last time these two teams played was in 2010. Back then, The Chargers had one of the best offenses in the league and The Texans owned the worst pass defense in the NFL. Obviously for both teams, things have changed…

I’ll admit when the schedule was first released, I was already considering our first game of the season as a loss. However, with questions of key players on Houston’s roster being injured and uncertain to play in week 1. I believe that this game will be much closer than it may appear on paper. The change in culture that I have observed from players and coaches at Chargers training camp is exciting and uplifting.

These are not A.J. Smith’s Chargers…

These are not Norv Turner’s Chargers…

These Chargers have a different look, a different feel and a different attitude.

By Jake Hefner

#OneCharge

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