On the Defense
Defensively, there are several candidates, as the Texans do not get much media play outside of Houston, but have outstanding defensive talent. Besides young stars like JJ Watt and Brian Cushing, Wade Phillips' defense is loaded with capable, but relatively unknown players. Danieal Manning, the Texans Strong Safety, is my choice for defensive "most important guy you've never heard of" (MIGYNHO).
Why He Is Important
Since being signed as a free agent from the Chicago Bears in 2011, Manning has started 29 of 32 regular season games for the Texans. The former 2nd round pick out of Abilene Christian University (the highest pick ever from that Division II program) has finished 4th (2011) and 3rd (2012) on his team in tackles in those two years.
Last season, he had to become the team’s enforcer in the running game after Brian Cushing’s early injury. He finished 2nd on the team for forced fumbles with 3 (JJ Watt had 4) to go along with 59 solo tackles. Manning was an All-Pro in 2008, while he was still with the Bears. 2013 is the 3rd year of a $20 Million ($9 Million Guaranteed) contract he signed with the Texans in 2011.
His importance in this game will not only be run support, but coverage in the middle of the field. In the offseason, the Texans acquired Ed Reed to play Free Safety for them; however, he may be on the shelf for this game. That would leave Manning paired up at safety with Shiloh Keo, a 5th round choice in 2011 or DJ Swearinger, a rookie out of South Carolina taken in the 2nd round. Reed will not start, but may play, being called a "game time decision" by Coach Kubiak.
Without Reed and paired with either a rookie or a "tweener" safety (undersized for safety, not enough speed for corner) Manning will be asked to do a lot. Man-to-man coverage on Gates, zone coverage in the middle, and corralling backs getting loose behind linebackers sounds like a full nights work for anyone. I’m certain that Whisenhunt plans to find out, early and often, just how good Swearinger is or look to exploit size mismatches against Keo. The Texans will rely on Manning at the back end of their defense Monday night.
Whitney Mercilus – OLB in his second year. The 2012 first round pick out of Illinois (he was briefly a teammate of Corey Liuget) was selected 8 spots after Melvin Ingram as the 26th overall pick. Mercilus, in addition to having perhaps the best linebacker name ever finished third on the Texans in sacks last year with 6, despite starting only 3 games.
After coming through the off-season unscathed, Mercilus will start at OLB this season. What should concern Bolts fans the most is how Wade Phillips used Mercilus at times last season.
Despite being officially listed as the ROLB (lining up over an offense’s Left Tackle), Phillips threw a wrinkle at opposing offenses in obvious passing situations at times last year by having Mercilus line up at Left OLB, behind JJ Watt. I am hoping this wrinkle got factored in by Whisenhunt, because the thought of Watt and Mercilus on pass rush against Fluker and Clary is not a pleasant one.
On the Offense
My pick for the offensive MIGYNHO for the Texans, is DeAndre Hopkins, a rookie wide receiver out of Clemson, drafted in the first round. The Texans have a three headed monster of skill players in their offense; Arian Foster, Owen Daniels, and Andre Johnson. Despite the lack of media attention to the Texans outside of South Texas, you have heard of all three of those guys. Hopkins is still an unknown.
Why He Is Important
Andre Johnson’s stat line for 2012 was 112 receptions for 1,598 yards, and 4 TD’s. The COMBINED stat line for all other Texans receivers (excluding TE’s and RB’s) last year was 63 receptions, 841 yards, and 4 TD’s. While a couple of other teams (Detroit for example) had lopsided production from only one wide receiver, the Texans were one of the extremes in the NFL.
In fact, in the 10 seasons that Johnson has been a Texan, he has led the team in receiving statistics for 9 of those years. In 2011, without Johnson for most of the season, the Texans offense dropped from 3rd in the league in 2010 to 13th. In 2012 with Johnson back and healthy, they were ranked 7th overall.
Getting back to Hopkins, a major goal of the Houston front office and coaching staff in the Kubiak era has been finding a decent threat at the other wide receiver position. This has not gone well for Houston. Kevin Walters and Jacoby Jones (who may have been given up on too quickly) were not exactly players that made NFL Defensive Coordinators worry.
This has become even more of a concern since Johnson's injury in 2011 and as the clock keeps ticking (Johnson turned 32 in July). Enter Hopkins, the 6’1" 215 pound 1st round pick out of Clemson. Compared to Roddy White by draft guru Mike Mayock, it remains to be seen how much of an impact Hopkins has for Houston.
The Texans hope it is enough of an impact to provide a reliable option to the always double covered Johnson. With the Texans having one of the best RB, WR, and TE trios in the league, having a receiver that draws at least a little attention away from Johnson and Daniels may be the bump needed for the Texans to have a top 5 offense in the league.
For the Texans, the goal for 2013 is a deeper run in the playoffs and a shot at the title. They hope that Hopkins will be a key to that goal, much as the emergence of Cruz propelled the Giants to a Super Bowl win in February of 2012.
Chris Myers - Center. (Did you really think I would post an article without some love for a lineman?) It’s no secret that the Texans make heavy use of Zone Blocking in their running game. Zone blocking demands athletic and SMART offensive linemen to make it work properly. Meyers is almost a perfect body type for a zone blocking center. The 6’4", 285 pound interior lineman was passed over by many other teams in the 2005 draft, but was picked by Denver in the 6th round.
Gary Kubiak saw what Denver had in the 2005 season prior to taking the Texans Head Coach gig in 2006. Myers was acquired by the Texans in 2008. Since then, Myers has started in two Pro-Bowls (2011 and 2012) and is regarded as being one of the best centers in the NFL (Texans insiders say he is the best). The Texans players voted him Team Captain of the offense last year.
After the 2011 season, the Texans signed Myers to a four year, $25 Million contract with $14 Million guaranteed. Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith said that resigning Myers after the 2011 season was a priority for the team because of Myers' importance to the offense. Smith said that "Chris really is the beginning of everything that we do up front" and said that it was important to bring Myers back because he played an important role in Foster's success at running back.
On Monday night, it will be Myers job to set the blocking assignments before Foster and/or Tate get the ball or Schaub drops back to pass. He will also need to give some extra help to 2nd year right guard Brandon Brooks. Mr. Brooks will be playing in his 7th NFL game after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft and being inactive for the first 10 games last season. Being able to pair up on some double teams with a pro-bowler will certainly help.
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