I was pleased to be joined by Tim McHale of Battle Red Blog this week to help preview Sunday's game against the Houston Texans. The Texans have a 5-5 record and aren't being taken as serious as the Browns are right now, but Andre Johnson has proven to jumpstart this team to another level.
Chris Pokorny: Most people should know it by now: the Houston Texans are 3-0 this season when Andre Johnson has played. Despite not having a solid ground attack week in and week out, how is it that teams aren't able to contain him better?
Tim McHale: I think that question may be one of the great mysteries of the universe. You know the ball is going to Andre. I know the ball is going to Andre. Presumably, every defensive coordinator knows the ball is going to Andre. So why can't they stop him? Let's take a step back first. Last season, the passing game consisted of (1) 'Dre; (2) the checkdown/safety valve at RB; and very occasionally (3) Owen Daniels. That was all Zoolander (a/k/a "David Carr") could do. Despite that, Andre Johnson still led the league with 103 receptions last season. To me, that conclusively demonstrates one reason why teams can't contain him: He's just that freaking good.
This year, however, I think the offense has become much more multifaceted, which also keeps teams from focusing strictly on Andre Johnson. While the running game is inconsistent at best and makes me question the existence of a benevolent Creator at worst, there are far more options in the passing game. Not that the Texans have acquired that much new talent at WR, mind you; just that Matt Schaub does an infinitely better job spreading the ball around. Exhibit "A"--Kevin Walter. As strange as it sounds, I think the offense actually benefited from 'Dre missing seven (7) games; it forced The Schaub to build a rapport with other WRs.
Chris Pokorny: Staying on the subject with Johnson, do you feel he indirectly impacts the defense in a way? In the Texans' three wins when he's played, the Texans have given up an average of 11.33 points per game. In all of the other games, the Texans have given up an average of 28.85 points per game. Seems like too large of a range to be a coincidence.
Tim McHale: I definitely think Andre Johnson's presence and play impacts the Houston defense. First and foremost, he keeps them off the field. Secondly, I don't think you can underestimate how a big offensive play can impact that team's defense. And if we've seen one thing this season, it's that Andre Johnson makes big plays. A 73 yard TD catch is going to fire up everyone on the sideline, including the defense. It's also going to reduce the "we-have-to-be-perfect" pressure that a defense feels when its offense hasn't put any points on the board, which in turn could allow the defense to get bolder with its play-calling ( note: Unfortunately, that doesn't happen with the Texans; our defensive coordinator calls a blitz at approximately the same rate that Halley's Comet is visible from Earth). So I don't think there's any doubt that 'Dre, or any big-time offensive player, impacts the defense.
Chris Pokorny: The Texans seem to know what they are doing defensively over the past two seasons, drafting the likes of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans last year and then Amobi Okoye this year. Looking back now though, would it have been wiser to take one of the talented running backs from last year's class (Reggie Bush, Maurice-Jones Drew, Joseph Addai) instead of Williams? Basically, are you happy with the defensive draftings, or should other issues have been addressed first?
Tim McHale: I will never, ever, EVER believe that drafting Reggie Bush No. 1 overall would have been a good decision. He's the second coming of Eric Metcalf, which is to say that he's a talented athlete who can certainly be utilized as a weapon in both the offense and return game, but he'll never be an every-down NFL running back. With regard to Addai and/or Jones-Drew , the Houston Chronicle ran a story last week that theorized that those guys would go first and second overall, respectively, if the 2006 Draft was redone today. While it's easy to say that they've statistically been the most impressive members of that 2006 draft class, I would still want Super Mario over either of them every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Running back is the most fungible position in the NFL. Look at who's starting, and succeeding, at RB across the league right now. How many of those guys were drafted No. 1 overall? In the top ten? Even in the first round? It's far, far more difficult to find a difference-maker at DE than RB. Plus, I firmly believe that Mario Williams is about to consistently become one of the best DEs in the league. We've seen flashes (most recently against New Orleans last week) of what he can do; it's just a matter of him putting the total package together. When he does (and he will), watch out.
With regard to the other selections on defense the Texans have made over the past few years, I'm thrilled (on balance). Dunta Robinson was playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering a season-ending injury at Oakland. DeMeco Ryans is quite simply one of the best defensive players in the NFL, and he's only halfway through his second year. Amobi Okoye has contributed as a starter since he arrived in Houston, and he's going to be a great one; the rare DT who can rush the passer AND stop the run. Really, the only defensive draftee that hasn't lived up to his billing recently is Travis Johnson, and even he's been worlds better this season. Here's one more guy to keep an eye on: CB Fred Bennett, who has shown that he may be the long-term answer opposite Dunta next season. The kid is a gamer, and he's looking like he was a steal in the fourth round of last year's draft.
Chris Pokorny: Because Johnson was out for awhile, several receivers -- Kevin Walter, Andre Davis, Owen Daniels, and Jacoby Jones -- were able to see some increased playing time. Davis is a former Browns' receiver, so what is your assessment of him and will his playing time decrease with Johnson back? Who is the Texans' best receiving threat after Johnson?
Tim McHale: Andre' Davis was HUGE in Andre Johnson's absence, and became the team's primary deep threat. I don't think anyone expected much from him, but he and Kevin Walter absolutely carried the Houston passing game for nearly two (2) months. With Andre Johnson's return, Davis becomes the third WR, which necessarily means less playing time. Still, he remains a deep threat and a very nice option in the passing game.
After Andre Johnson, I'd have to say that Kevin Walter (as noted above) and Owen Daniels are the team's top receiving threats. Walter has established himself as a wholly legitimate No. 2 WR, and he's simply fearless going across the middle. Daniels has unbelievable hands, especially for a TE; he's quickly becoming good for an automatic 5-6 catches and 40-60 yards per game. Both guys should figure large in Sunday's game, though Walter didn't get nearly as many targets last week as I thought he should.
Chris Pokorny: The final score of Sunday's game will be Houston ____, Cleveland ____.
Tim McHale: I think this one is going to be a shootout. Of course, I thought the same thing last week, and I couldn't have been more wrong. I think Derek Anderson will have a big game, and the Cleveland offense will move the ball against the Texans' patchwork secondary. I believe ( read: need to believe), however, that Matt Schaub will do a bit better against Cleveland's secondary, and...wait for it...Ron Dayne will come up large again. While I'm typically reluctant to call a road win against a playoff contender, I'm going to do just that: Houston 34, Cleveland 31.