Hey folks - Steph Stradley has been kind enough to allow the Comrades at WDR to invade her Texans blog for Q&A ahead of the matchups in recent years vs Houston. Our most recent preview, for Saturday's playoff game just went live moments ago. We're returning the favor now (actually for a 2nd time, read her previous Q&A here). So read on to find out all you ever wanted to know about the Texans from a very passionate and insightful fan. In case you doubt her credentials, allow me to produce her blogging CV:
Steph Stradley (@StephStradley) is a Houston-based attorney who writes a Texans blog for the Houston Chronicle online and her personal/professional blog here. In 2006, she was voted Ultimate Texan fan, and the Texans sent her to the Super Bowl.
Impressive. Let's begin.
What in this Texans season is surprising to you?
I thought before the year, even with Peyton Manning healthy, that the Texans were favored to win the AFC South if they stayed healthy. Football Outsiders predicted they would win the division, and they were just predicting an average defense for the Texans.
Though I knew that the Texans defense would improve with competent coaching and key free agent signings, I had no idea that the Texans switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 would result in this much improvement.
People in Houston love Wade Phillips. The Phillips family has a special place in Houstonian's hearts due to our love of his father Bum. Going from hating watching our defense to loving it in one year, it feels weird but good weird. It was hard hearing that Phillips was getting surgery--you worry for a guy in his 60s. Wade Phillips in his last presser was pretty emphatic about not being satisfied with just getting to the playoffs and wanting to win the whole thing. Going through major surgery will get you thinking about your mortality and how many chances you have left.
Before Matt Schaub's injury, the Texans were playing the sort of balanced football that Gary Kubiak has always wanted to play but hasn't been able to because his defenses for many years were so terrible. Philosophically, the Texans offense is not designed to overpower teams but rather to keep them off balance. It recognizes that more often than not, the defensive players will be more athletic, so to counter that, the offense is designed to look the same whether a play is run or pass. Ideally, the Texans prefer to keep down and distance sane, see what the defense does, and then exploit mismatches to get big plays. They want to get a lead, and then wear defenses down with their running game in the second half, and with their mobile, athletic offensive line.
In previous years, the Texans have passed more than they would like to because the defense was incapable of holding leads or preventing the other team from putting up a lot of points.
What is devastating is now that the Texans have the defense we have always coveted, the offense got decapitated with the fluke injury to Matt Schaub. Other than Andre Johnson, the Texans offense isn't designed to out run teams. It's a complicated playbook, but when everyone is running their plays precisely, it is very difficult to stop. The reason why the Texans stuck with TJ Yates instead of getting an experienced QB to fill in is that he is the last guy remaining who knows the playbook. Easier to coach him up than it is to get the rest of the offense to adjust to someone who doesn't know it.
Kubiak has a lot of faith in his offensive system and has a number of assistant coaches who have had success running it. A lot of Super Bowl rings from 49ers/Broncos. They need to get good execution from the system, which was much easier with Schaub who knows it well now.
Post-Schaub injury, the Texans have evolved from the most balanced team in the league--top rankings in offense, defense and special teams, to a team that needs the defense to make plays and the offense to be semi-functional while avoiding mistakes. It's hard to watch after being accustomed to the Texans being able to put tons of points up.
What are key injuries with the Texans?
It seemed like with every win this season, the Texans lost another important player either temporarily or for the season. The X-factor for the Texans is how well Andre Johnson feels after his multiple hamstring injuries and how the Bengals will cover him. Usually teams run exotic defenses to try to take him out of his game, and that opens up all the possession stuff underneath plus the running game. Makes it hard to stack the box.
Andre Johnson is insanely athletic and physical, but what makes him truly great is his focus on being a precise route runner and technique. Often, athletic receivers don't work on those things because when they are young, they can rely on that athleticism. He has this capability of changing direction on a dime in a way that you don't expect someone of his size to be able to do.
The Texans have managed to go through most of the season without OLB Mario Williams. I think it is this time of year where they miss him the most. Both Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed have had a ton of snaps by this time of year, and I would have liked to have seen that rotation.
Guard Mike Briesel played most of the last Bengals game with a broken leg. If you re-watch the game, you can see when it happened (editor's note: holy s***). When he told some teammates on the plane ride home, they though he was joking at first. He had surgery, has been rehabbing it, and is expected to play split snaps on Saturday. How effective he will be is unknown. The Texans offensive line relies a lot on cooperative blocking. Briesel has an insane pain tolerance, and I think he will play well.
The least obvious impact injury is the one to rookie punter Brett Hartmann. The Texans needed to re-sign punter Matt Turk, which means that Neil Rackers went back to doing kickoffs. The kickoff average for the Texans has gone down. Turk is pretty good at pinning teams within the 20, but can be an adventure if he must punt from deep in Texans territory.
All fan bases worry some about problems with their teams. What worries hardcore Texans fans?
What doesn't? The Texans have had to coach themselves through very difficult injuries. The end of this season has been like watching old school MacGyver. I pretty much gave up analyzing what they were doing from an X and O perspective because what they are doing is very rigged up right now. It's all about managing risk and not putting too much pressure on backup backup quarterback TJ Yates unless they are forced to. The good news is that on both sides of the ball, the coaching staff is very experienced and have a very specific ideas on how to exploit mismatches.
This game is the gravy game of the playoffs. The Bengals were part of the pre-season faves for Suck for Luck. THIS was supposed to be the Texans season until all the "Next Man Up" weird injuries. If the Texans can with playoff games with TJ Yates as their QB, we are watching history making. At this point, I feel like I should just enjoy whatever ride we're on.
Ultimately, I worry about the line play and field position. Yates can't get into long down and distance. The Texans will want to run the ball, which may be an adventure given that everybody knows that's what they want to do. The Bengals will likely want to take big shots early to get the crowd out of it. Reliant Stadium can be the loudest stadium in the league when things are going well. We've never experienced playoff football so I have no idea how crazy it is going to be, but it is likely going to be extremely loud. It's Texas. We live football (editor's note: Texans fans are in similar position to Bengals in 2005, so yeah, it will be LOUD)
What Texans players might Bengal fans not know about but could have a big impact on the game?
Safety Danieal Manning is going to go back to his spot returning kicks. He effectively did that earlier in the season before he broke his leg (and then came back). Already mentioned guard Briesel--his health and performance could be a difference maker. Tight end Joel Dreessen has an insane receptions to TD ratio: 28 catches, 6 TDs. Yates worked a ton with Dreessen in the off-season. Fullback/TE/WR/athlete option James "Thor" Casey had a nice game last week with Owen Daniels sitting. Prior to his early season pectoral injury, he had some nice receiving games because he makes for a difficult matchup.
Any game predictions?
Nope. This is going to be a game of breaks, penalties, field position, composure. The referee for the game is not one that Texans fans appreciate much. Clete Blakeman's crew called the Texans-Steelers game--worst called game for the Texans this season other than the Texans-Colts game.
The city is losing its collective mind. The last Houston playoff game was January 1994. In case you are geographically impaired, and don't know where the Houston Texans play, our local rappers want to remind you. Ha!
Even without Schaub and fully healthy Andre Johnson, this Texans team is very solid. Couple that with a fanbase waiting to explode a la Cincinnati in 2005 and the Bengals are in for a tough matchup. Hopefully they are up to the task.
Enjoy the game Saturday, everyone. Who Dey.