This could be Texans' year
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They play in a brutally tough division, they're never made the playoffs in the short history of the franchise, and in fact, last year's 9-7 record was seen by many as some sort of breakthrough. But the Houston Texans could very well be on the verge of a solid playoff run under the right circumstances. There are five things they need to do in order to get over the hump and become the team they want to be.
1. Beat the Colts.
At this point, an exorcism may be in order. The Texans are 1-15 against the Indianapolis Colts since the franchise's beginning in 2002, and nothing will move in the right direction until that changes. Last season, the Texans lost their two games against the Colts by a total of 11 points. In the Week 9 game at Indy, Kris Brown missed a field goal as time expired to take the 20-17 game into overtime. The Texans are close, and the Colts can feel the footsteps. But that only makes for good copy.
2. End the red zone issues.
Over the last two seasons, the Texans have finished third and fourth in the league in total yards, and 17th and 10th in points. The problem is that the team can't seem to get things going in the red zone, especially in the run game. When I spoke with Houston right tackle Eric Winston a few weeks ago, he acknowledged that the team won't take the next step until these problems are solved. "I think our red-zone problems are getting better," he said. "It was a huge problem in 2008. I think we were a better offense in 2008 than in 2009, even though the stats don't show it, because we were more balanced. [New offensive coordinator] Rick Dennison will be a big factor; I think that will be his stamp on the team. If you look at the two years [2008-2009] that Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator, we had some huge passing numbers, and Matt Schaub has developed into an elite quarterback. But a few of the wrinkles that Dennison has put in could be a big difference in the red zone, and let's face it, that's the difference between winning and losing -- are you going to kick field goals, or are you going to score touchdowns? Great teams score touchdowns."
3. Find a way to replace Brian Cushing.
Even in the short term, finding a way to fill the hole left by Cushing's substance abuse suspension will be tough on the defense. The USC rookie had one of the greatest inaugural seasons enjoyed by any linebacker, And while the source of his dynamism is now under suspicion, veterans Danny Clark and Xavier Adibi face tall orders in replacing him on the strong side. Cushing was great at everything last year, defending the run and pass equally well, and dealing with 143 plays sent in his direction, the fourth-highest figure for any defender in 2009. The larger question is how good Cushing will be when he returns, but one thing at a time.
4. Improve the secondary play.
If the Texans are going to score more points in 2010 (and that's quite possible), their secondary will have to contend with teams passing more when they're playing catch-up. Right now, that's not a comforting thought. Houston lost cornerback Dunta Robinson to the Atlanta Falcons, but there are those who believe it's not too much of a loss. The real issue is that there's nobody else on the team to take the reins and become that elite defender. That's why they drafted Alabama cornerback Kareem Jackson in the first round, though Jackson's development will take time. In the interim, guys like Glover Quin, Fred Bennett, and Jacques Reeves will have to provide at least a league-average coverage team.
5. Keep Matt Schaub healthy.
One reason that Schaub put up career highs in most meaningful categories, leading the NFL in attempts, completions, and passing yards was that he stayed healthy enough to start all 16 games for the first time in his career. If Schaub loses any time in 2010, the offensive balance could get skewed in a hurry because so much is dependent on his presence on the field.
It's a lot to ask of any team, though any deep playoff contender needs things to go their way. But under the right circumstances, I like the Texans to jump up, challenge the Colts for the AFC South title, and at the very least, make an impact as a wild-card team.
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