See pics of the Texans' win on Military Appreciation Day at Reliant Stadium.
If the Texans had a trap game on their 2012 schedule, this appeared to be it. One week after a bye. Two weeks removed from an emotional matchup with long-time nemesis Baltimore. Seven days before an NBC primetime showdown in Chicago.
Indeed, the Texans didn't muster the same intensity Sunday that they did 14 days earlier in a beatdown of the Ravens. At times, it was downright ugly.
But in the end, the Texans had enough to push past former teammate Mario Williams and the Bills and move to 7-1, extending their stay in a beautiful perch atop the AFC.
"You've gotta survive in this league, find a way to win," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "We found a way to get it done."
Here's a rundown of what contributed most to Sunday's result.
5.) Middle linebackers struggle in coverage
Though he never found the end zone, Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had a fair amount of success between the 20s. A large chunk came on seam routes to tight end Scott Chandler (5 catches, 51 yards) and swing passes to running back C.J. Spiller (5 catches, 63 yards). While those 10 catches didn't lead to a ton of points, they kept the Bills in the game by allowing the Buffalo offense to go on time-consuming drives, thereby keeping the Houston offense off the field.
"We knew it was going to be tough," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "We knew they were going to spread out. The first half we had to make some adjustments."
On most of those early plays, the guilty party for the Texans was either Tim Dobbins or Bradie James. Both lacked the speed to stay with Chandler downfield and the lateral movement to push Spiller toward the sideline. It was said once Brian Cushing went down that he might be most missed against the pass, and he certainly was Sunday.
That said, the Texans have a wrinkle that could help matters as the season goes forward. Two weeks ago against Baltimore, Phillips experimented with moving Brooks Reed inside on a handful of plays while letting speed-rushers Connor Barwin and rookie Whitney Mercilus handle the outside. That could again be an option going forward, because... 4.) Mercilus shines
Mercilus made the most of his limited time Sunday, securing the game in the fourth quarter with a forced fumble and a sack on consecutive possessions. That follows a performance against Baltimore in which Mercilus notched his first career sack and tipped a pass for an interception.
"He's one of those guys, when he gets on the field, everything moves up a notch," head coach Gary Kubiak said, speaking of Mercilus. "He's going to have to be huge in the second half [of the season]."
In a small handful of series over these two games, Mercilus has two sacks and two forced turnovers. He seems to be forcing his way into additional playing time, which could also help the pass coverage issues by moving Reed inside for certain situations.
"At the beginning of the year I was thinking too much, but now I see how far I've progressed and I can only get better from here," said Mercilus. "It feels great. I feel like a part of the team more. The coaches look at me and can depend on me to make plays on the field."
3.) Derek Newton holds up against Mario
Yes, Houston's second-year right tackle was beaten badly by Williams on a second-quarter sack. But other than that play, Newton largely held his own. The Texans weren't afraid to run Arian Foster (24 carries, 111 yards, TD) in Mario's direction, and they rarely doubled him in passing downs.
"He's going to make some plays," said Kubiak, speaking of his pregame talk to Newton regarding Williams. "He's a great player, he's going to make some, but just keep battling."
"I think Derek did that throughout the course of the day," Kubiak said after the game.
Williams finished with five tackles, but as was the case in Houston, many came late in the fourth quarter with the game already decided. When the stakes were highest, Buffalo's $100 million man wasn't much of a factor. The development of Newton was one reason why.
"Most of the day, I had to man up against him without really any help," said Newton. "Luckily I had the chance of going against Mario last year in practice while he was on the team, but I mainly studied film of him and tried to get an idea of what he would do in certain situations."
2.) Special teams progress
The Texans' woes on special teams have been well chronicled, but they may have taken a step forward against Buffalo. Using short kickoffs to neutralize the dynamic Buffalo return game, the farthest the Bills advanced the ball was the 31-yard line. On the whole, they had four kickoff returns for 52 yards. On punts, the Texans held speedy Leodis McKelvin to an average of under 10 yards per return.
"For the most part we did cover better," said Kubiak. "We tried to execute our plan with [kicker Shayne] Graham and keeping the ball out of the returner's hands. I told you all week that we felt like those guys could beat you by themselves, so we were really conscious of not letting them beat us."
On the other side, Keshawn Martin showed flashes as a returner, bringing back three kickoffs for 62 yards (long of 28) and two punt returns for 34 yards (long of 26). The 26-yard punt return was the club's longest this season.
"We played better from that standpoint," Kubiak said.
It wasn't a spectacular outing for special teams coach Joe Marciano, considering his unit had a field goal blocked and committed multiple penalties. But on the whole, they avoided awful mistakes and delivered a competent performance. That represents enormous progress from the season's first seven games. 1.) Andre rounds into form Eight catches for 118 yards. In his last three games, 27 catches for 279 yards. The explosive downfield touchdowns aren't there, but after a slow start, Andre Johnson is making plays over the middle and helping the Texans extend drives.
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"I'm feeling better every week," said Johnson, who missed large chunks of the past two seasons with injuries. "It just seems like everything is falling into place."
The Texans weren't at their best Sunday. But against a team like Buffalo, they don't have to be. Quite simply, the Texans weren't going to lose unless they beat themselves. With Johnson reprising his familiar role as quarterback Matt Schaub's security blanket, Schaub never came close to turning the ball over, and Houston's AFC-best seventh win was never in serious doubt.
"We're not going to try to force anything because we can make up for it the next down," said Schaub. "If the worst case scenario is we got to punt, then we got to punt and our defense will go and stop them."
"We didn't turn the ball over," added Kubiak. "That's why we continue to have a good opportunity to win."