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It would be easy to look at the Texans—in particular their defense, which in 2010 allowed the most passing yards in the league (267.5 per game) and the fourth-most points (26.7)—and see a team teetering on the brink of disaster. But Danieal Manning sees a team on the brink of something else. "Since '08 I've been keeping my eye on them and thinking they're close," says the safety, who spent the first five seasons of his career with the Bears. "They're on the verge of winning something really big."
Manning needs to practice his pronoun usage: In July he left Chicago as an unrestricted free agent and signed a four-year, $20 million contract with Houston. Eight months ago Manning was a touchdown away from playing in his second Super Bowl. Now he'll try to help the Texans reach the playoffs for the first time. It was a smart signing by Houston, which had little trouble on offense last year—thanks to the emergence of NFL rushing leader Arian Foster—but watched its defense lag. "We failed as a football team in the last 10 weeks," says coach Gary Kubiak of the Texans' 2--8 season-ending stretch. "We had to find a way to get better."
Step one: Kubiak hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. Phillips, who was fired as Cowboys coach following Week 9 last season after going 34--22 in 3½ years, is back where he started his NFL career 35 years ago—he was linebackers coach for the Houston Oilers under his father, Bum. At his last seven coaching stops Phillips raised his defenses' overall ranking by an average of six spots in his first year. He started his latest turnaround project by replacing Houston's 4--3 base unit with a more aggressive 3--4. He also rearranged his personnel, going with a thicker tackle at the point of attack, 6'4", 304-pound Shaun Cody, instead of Amobi Okoye (who was cut in July and signed with the Bears). Phillips moved dynamic linebacker Brian Cushing, the '09 Defensive Rookie of the Year, from outside to inside, next to two-time Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans. And he shifted the team's best pass rusher, Mario Williams, from defensive end to outside linebacker in hopes of goosing a pass rush that tied for 23rd in sacks last year with 30. "The outside 'backers have led the league in sacks in a lot of places that I've been," Phillips says. "It's the premier position as far as this scheme is concerned. But you need a guy who can do it."
The transition has forced a slew of fundamental changes in Williams's game, the most significant being his stance. Williams's height—he is nearly 6'7", tall even for a defensive end—means that concentrating on the most basic technical nuances (like keeping his knees bent) will be crucial. The sixth-year pro spent the off-season breaking down tape of the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, another power-forward-sized sackmeister (he led the NFL with 60½ over the last four seasons) whom Phillips used as a 3--4 outside 'backer to great effect.
Williams believes Phillips's scheme will be just as good for his game. Being farther back from the line of scrimmage gives him a more complete view of the field and eliminates a lot of the guesswork he used to do before the snap. "In a 4--3 there's more of an urgency to fill up holes along the line because you have more of them," Williams says. "But in the 3--4, there's really only one predominant hole. Everything will be digested as you're reading on the run."
Any improvement in the Texans' pass rush will be a boon to the secondary, which has been dramatically overhauled. Along with the playmaking Manning, the Texans add a lockdown left corner in sixth-year vet Johnathan Joseph (formerly of the Bengals) and will rotate last year's starter at left corner, third-year vet Glover Quin, to safety. Quin, who finished second on the team in tackles (85) and tied for first in interceptions (three), has the skills to excel at the position but lacks experience calling coverages and reading the quarterback. "I can't go off looks anymore," he says.
Even if many members of the unit are on a steep learning curve, the Texans should finally have a defense that can create quarterback pressure, force turnovers and get off the field after third down. While it's not yet a match for the offense, the unit appears stout enough to hold its own late in games. (Five of the Texans' 10 losses in 2010 came by seven or fewer points.) "We want to be a top five defense," says Quin. "From top to bottom we may be the most talented team in the NFL."
To hear Manning tell it, that confidence might have been the missing piece all along. "That's the thing that I want to bring to this locker room," he says. "If we're playing for the Super Bowl, let's say Super Bowl. Eventually you get guys running to the ball, stripping the ball. If you get that going, it's going to be tough to beat us."
WITH 2010 STATS