HOUSTON — The Texans were hoping for a turnaround artiste when they brought in Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator before last season, and they haven’t been disappointed. The unit that ranked 30th in the league in 2010 was second last year and still is sixth this year despite losing several key players.
“Wade’s just tremendous at calling a game,” observed head coach Gary Kubiak. “He knows how to bust protections. He knows how to go get a quarterback and is very aggressive from that standpoint. It’s been that way forever in his career.”
Phillips, who came here after the Cowboys dismissed him as their top guy midway through the 2010 campaign, has a knack for making immediate upgrades. The Broncos went from 22d to third in his initial year on the job, the Bills from 17th to 13th, the Falcons from 30th to 19th, and the Chargers from 27th to 18th. More significantly, all of them, including the Texans, made the playoffs after missing them the previous year.
Phillips’s gift is finding ways to shorten his players’ workdays — Houston’s defense leads the NFL in opponent time of possession (25 minutes, 53 seconds).
Getting the Patriots off the field will be a significant challenge given the pace at which they operate, which has allowed them a league-leading 883 offensive plays.
“They’re going to get their snaps,” conceded Kubiak. “They find a way. They push the snap limit in the NFL probably as much as anybody right now. That’s due to him [Tom Brady]. He gets so many things done so quickly.”
To prepare for New England’s fast-forward style, backup quarterback T.J. Yates has been mimicking it in practice.
“We basically work that all the time,” said Phillips. “When we start training camp, I always purposefully call the signals late so the guys have to think fast when the other team is already ready. Our teaching process involves that because I want them to have to think right now, quick, and know what to do and get it done.”
The big time
Is Monday night’s showdown with the Patriots “the biggest game in the history of this franchise,” as receiver Andre Johnson declared? Bigger than last year’s playoff game with the Ravens for a spot in the AFC Championship game?
While most of his teammates won’t go quite that far, running back Arian Foster will defer to the club’s elder statesman. “I’d say it’s a really big game,” said Foster, “and if Andre says it’s the biggest game in team history, then that’s exactly what it is.”
Weather or not
The Texans, who play their home games under Reliant Stadium’s retractable roof, are unruffled at the prospect of performing on a raw and rainy night in Foxborough.
“I don’t think anything makes us panic,” said Kubiak. “If we show up and that’s the type of night we’ve got to play in, we’ve got to get it done.”
Houston did just that in wretched conditions at Chicago last month, prevailing, 13-6, in the rain and snow at Soldier Field. And they didn’t bother practicing on artificial turf this week to simulate Gillette’s playing surface.
“We have such nice grass here, such nice fields,” said Kubiak. “So we’re going to be outside.”
Long on preparation
J.J. Watt, Houston’s towering defensive end, is impressed by the Patriots using racquetball paddles in practice to simulate his ability to swat away passes. “They’re smart up there,” said Watt. “That’s a good tactic, and if it helps them then it’s good for them. I know one thing — if you put tennis rackets in your hand, then it’s hard to rush the passer.” Mused Phillips: “I’d use a broom more than I’d use a racket. It’s a lot longer.” . . . All but three of the Texans practiced Friday — linebacker Brooks Reed (groin), cornerback Alan Ball (foot) and tackle Derek Newton (knee). More significantly, two key pieces of the defense — cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring) and linebacker Bradie James (hamstring), are likely to play Monday . . . It’s not just the Texans who’ve been road warriors this season. Foster, their undrafted workhorse who leads the conference in rushing (1,102 yards), has run for more than 100 yards in five of his team’s six away games, including 152 against the Jets. Only the Titans stopped him, limiting him to 38 yards on 14 carries last weekend. Foster doesn’t mind the spotlight, either. In his nine appearances on national TV this year, he has rushed for 100 or more yards eight times and averaged 120.