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Houston Texans 2013 Season Preview
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Perhaps the best thing about the Houston Texans' forecast for 2013 is that it's similar to what might have been said 12 months ago.
The now 12-year-old franchise has high-profile names at several positions, a veteran coaching staff and has successfully turned the corner -- thanks to consecutive AFC South Division championships -- from perennial expansion doormat to legitimate conference powerhouse.
Of course, where some see a blessing, others may imply something less.
With two straight playoff appearances and a roster largely in the prime of its collective life, expectations tend to change quickly. And in the case of the Texans, those expectations are nearing a point where another 12-4 finish with one playoff win will be judged a failure rather than a success.
If you ask Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, though, that's a good thing.
"Expectations are extremely high and that's the way they should be," he said. "You should, every single day, attack it like the highest of the high expectation and you should expect to be great. If you're coming out here just hoping for a decent season, you're coming out here for the wrong reasons. You don't want to go to the dance and sit on the sideline. You want to get out there and move a little bit."
Watt, who surpassed 20 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season, is aiming for a triple-crown of 20 or more sacks, tackles for loss and pass defections this year. He also made noise in training camp about wanting to flip to the other side of the ball -- to join fellow former Wisconsin Badger tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham.
Coach Gary Kubiak has been lukewarm at best when it comes to that proposition, saying "it's not going to be anytime soon." But while he's not particularly intrigued with the idea of putting his star defensive player in the sights of opposing defenders who might want to do him harm, the eighth-year coach has few qualms about admitting that his preseason goal is, and remains, a world championship.
That said, a large part of his task is keeping the team focused on short-term gains that make the long-term objectives possible.
"I never showed up for any camp not wanting to (win a title), so this year's not any different," Kubiak said. "I'm the guy that's got to keep everybody focused on the work. A lot of people talk about those things this time of year -- everybody wants to play in that game and get to that game. But unless you work your tail off and understand that there's going to be a lot of highs and lows throughout the course of a season. I've got to keep everybody grounded and be ready to play opening day against San Diego."
2012 RECORD: 12-4 (1st, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to New England Patriots in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Gary Kubiak (59-53 in seven seasons with Texans)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rick Dennison (second season with Texans, second as
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wade Phillips (third season with Texans, third as DC)
KEY ADDITIONS: S Ed Reed (from Ravens), FB Greg Jones (from Jaguars), P Shane Lechler (from Raiders), S D.J. Swearinger (second round, South Carolina), LB Sam Montgomery (third round, LSU), WR DeAndre Hopkins (first round, Clemson), RT Brennan Williams (third round, North Carolina), RB Dennis Johnson (undrafted, Arkansas), TE Ryan Griffin (sixth round, Connecticut)
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: TE/FB James Casey (to Eagles), S Glover Quin (to Lions), DE/OLB Connor Barwin (to Eagles), RB Justin Forsett (to Jaguars), CB Alan Ball (to Jaguars), P Donnie Jones (to Eagles), WR Kevin Walter (to Titans)
QB: Entrenched starter Matt Schaub enters his 10th season in the NFL with a firm grasp on the reins in Houston. He bounced back from an injury curtailed 2011 season -- in which he missed six games -- to play in all 16 contests and eclipse the 4,000-yard mark for the third time in 2012. His TD throws were down slightly (24 to 22) from his last healthy season in 2010, but his INTs stayed level at 12 and his completion rate skipped up a tick from 63.6 to 64.3. His long-term health is vital to Houston's success, considering second- stringer T.J. Yates has still thrown just 144 NFL passes.
RB: Fifth-year pro Arien Foster is again the man in the Houston backfield, coming off a 1,424-yard season in which he scored 15 times and lost just two fumbles over a career-high 351 carries. Still, the University of Tennessee alum is aiming for big things -- including improvement on a per-carry average that dipped from 4.9 in 2010 to 4.1 in 2012. "I just want to bounce back. I didn't feel like I had the best season last year," he said.
Spelling Foster at tailback will be holdover Ben Tate, while fullback Greg Jones is new to the backfield after arriving from Jacksonville.
WR: It's pretty tough to deride any receiving corps that includes perennial standout Andre Johnson, who enters his 11th NFL season coming off of a year in which he caught 112 balls -- three shy of his career-best from 2008 -- and compiled 1,598 yards, which was a personal high watermark. His TDs have been scarce the last few years, though, dipping from nine in 2009 to eight in 2010 to two in an injury plagued 2011 and just four in 16 games last season.
Depth could be an issue as Keyshawn Martin, a fourth-round pick last year, caught 10 balls last season and steps up in the absence of Kevin Walter. Expect rookie DeAndre Hopkins, a first-rounder from Clemson, to get significant attention from Schaub.
TE: Veteran tight end Daniels, who caught 62 passes in the regular season and 18 more in two playoff games, often serves as a security blanket for Schaub. Graham needs to step and fill the h-back, movement role of James Casey, who moved on to Philadelphia in free agency.
OL: The unit as a whole is solid, but concern is evident at the right tackle spot, where 14-game starter David Newton underwent offseason knee surgery. Third-round draft pick Brennan Williams also injured a knee in minicamp, which means veteran Ryan Harris and rookie David Quessenberry could be called upon.
Elsewhere up front, Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Myers and Brandon Brooks are expected to start from left tackle to right guard. Both Brown and former starter Ben Jones had health issues in training camp, but neither appeared significant. Smith, on the other hand, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on August 13. Kubiak said everything "went good," but wouldn't give a timetable for the 32-year-old veteran's return.
"We made a decision to have Wade's knee scoped, so we took an aggressive approach to clean it up," said Kubiak. "So now we start the process of coming back. It's going to be a day-to-day deal right now, but he's got some work to do to get back."
Jones and Quessenberry, a sixth-round pick out of San Diego State, have been battling at left guard in Smith's absence.
DL: The Texans appear set across the front with the same personnel that performed well last season, particularly in superstar J.J. Watt, who made headlines with his intention to go 20-20-20 this season in sacks, batted passes and tackles for loss. He had 20.5, 16 and 23 in those categories last season, just his second in the league after his first-round selection out of Wisconsin in 2011.
Alongside Watt are four-year veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell and ninth-year right end Antonio Smith, both of whom played 16 games last season.
LB: Houston gets a positive jolt with the roster return of left inside linebacker Brian Cushing, whose 2012 season was snuffed out after five games following an ACL tear. He'd played in all 16 games a year earlier and combined on 114 tackles, which compares favorably to the 134 stops he was in on during his rookie season of 2009.
Gone via free agency is right outside man Connor Barwin, which puts the slot opposite Brooks Reed in the hands of former first-round pick Whitney Mercilus. Depth on the outside comes in the form of Bryan Braman and rookies Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams.
The right inside spot was the early domain of veteran Darryl Sharpton, who's made 74 tackles in 27 career games, though Tim Dobbins is available as a fill- in. The recently signed Joe Mays, however, is likely to win the job outright.
DB: A big name arrived from Baltimore in the form of veteran playmaking free safety Ed Reed, who fills a gap left by the departure to Detroit by free agent Glover Quin. Fellow veteran Danieal Manning is alongside Reed in his incumbent spot at strong safety, while the corners are played Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph, who combined for six interceptions in 2012.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Lechler, a native Texan, arrives in Houston for his 14th NFL season after punting 81 times for a 47.2-yard average with the Raiders in 2012. He averaged 50.8 yards per punt in 2011 and was at 51.1 as recently as 2009.
Place-kicking duties are handled by Randy Bullock, a second-year man from Texas A & M, who missed all of last season after a groin injury landed him on injured reserve. Shayne Graham was 31 of 38 in field-goal duties in Bullock's absence last season.
Keyshawn Martin is penciled in to handle kick and punt returns after averaging 23.8 and 12.1 yards in those categories in 2012.
COACHING: Kubiak was given time in Houston and he has rewarded upper management by building the Texans into the class of the AFC South. A former quarterback, Kubiak developed Schaub well and brought the zone blocking scheme he learned in Denver to South Texas which has turned Foster into a star. Wade Phillips handles the defensive side and brings an aggressive approach which will lean heavily on his two best players, Watt and Cushing.
THE SKINNY: The last two seasons have proven the Texans are commodity to deal with when it comes to the bigger AFC picture. They've won a division title, hosted and won a playoff game in each of those two years, before falling to the team that went on to lose the AFC title game.
In 2013, they'll have a renewed push for the top of the South from a rejuvenated Indianapolis franchise, along with the same familiar contemporaries in New England, Baltimore and elsewhere come playoff time.
A more consistent run of high-level play from Schaub, a dearth of key injuries and the extra locker room juice added by ex-Raven Reed might be enough to clinch at least one more step toward the winter's final game.
08/16 14:48:02 ET