Thrust Into Duty, Backups Step Up in a Big Way
After two consecutive sub-par games, the Houston Texans defense was back in a big way in the 24-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. The win improved the Texans to 11-1, setting a single season franchise record for victories and clinching a playoff berth in the process. The ‘Bulls on Parade’ were back in full effect, forcing six turnovers and battering Titans QB Jake Locker for the second time this season. Locker is happy that he doesn’t have to see Houston’s defense again until next year after they sacked him six times, hit him numerous others, and picked him off three times.
Despite missing four starters on that side of the ball, the Texans defense played well thanks to several backups who took advantage of the opportunity to start and increased playing time. Going into Tennessee, the defense was banged up after two overtime games in a five day period spanning weeks 11 and 12. Already without LB Brian Cushing for the rest of the season, the Texans were down 2 other starting linebackers Sunday, Bradie James and Brooks Reed. Linebacker wasn’t the only position thin, as the secondary was missing cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Alan Ball.
Brice McCain, who started for Joseph, ended up leaving the game with a fractured foot injury that landed him on IR. Channeling their ‘Next Man Up’ mantra that they relied on last season, the Texans defense didn’t miss a beat. Linebackers Whitney Mercilus, Tim Dobbins, Darryl Sharpton and Barrett Ruud, along with cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael all had increased duty and responded with excellent play for Wade Phillip’s defense. They all contributed in the defensive effort where Houston forced a franchise record six turnovers.
After McCain went down, the Texans had only three healthy corners active. In by far the most extensive playing time of their young NFL careers, second year corners Harris and Carmichael had nice games. Harris tied for the team lead with 6 tackles and also had 2 passes defensed. Carmichael had 5 stops and 1 pass defensed. Their play provided a much needed pick me up for a secondary without three corners. They were tested often, as Locker put the ball in the air 45 times, and they held up well.
Linebacker, particularly inside linebacker, has been the hardest hit spot for injuries for Houston this season. The trio of Dobbins, Sharpton, and Ruud all made impact plays reminiscent of the men they replaced, Cushing and James. Dobbins, who returned to the lineup after missing a week, played with a bad shoulder and showed no ill effects. He was very Cushing like, filling up the stat sheet with 5 tackles, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery, 1 passed defensed, and plenty of thunderous hits on Locker, Chris Johnson and several other Titans. It was a good homecoming for Dobbins, who is a Nashville native.
Sharpton, who was playing in only his third game this season after missing an entire calendar year with injuries, had his third consecutive fine game. He finished with 4 tackles, 1 passed defensed and a diving interception off of a tipped pass that snuffed out the Titans last drive. Ruud was also playing in just his third game this season after signing with Houston following the injury to Cushing. He finished with 5 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss and one of the Texans six sacks.
Perhaps the performance that Phillips and the coaches were most happy about was that of Mercilus. In his first career start, Mercilus recorded 2 sacks, 2 additional quarterback hits and 2 tackles for loss. The Texans rookie first round pick now has 5 sacks on the season. Houston will need their ‘Next Men Up’ to come through for them again this week, as they have the task of slowing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.