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The Super Bowl blueprint for the Texans stood firmly on the visitor's sidelines Saturday at Reliant Stadium. For one night, the Texans proved to be astute observers.
When the Saints won the Super Bowl two years ago, they did so with a defense ranked 25th overall in yards per game and 26th against the pass. Combined with a league-best offense, it was enough to deliver the franchise's first championship.
The difference for New Orleans came in the turnovers. The 2009 Saints were third in the league with 26 interceptions, and tied for fifth with 13 recovered fumbles. The combined 39 takeaways were a single-season best for the Saints and ranked second in the NFL.
If the Texans take the next step in 2011 and win the AFC South, it likely won't be because Wade Phillips transforms a defense that ranked second-to-last in 2010 into a juggernaut. Even when Johnathan Joseph returns at cornerback, he'll still have Jason Allen or Kareem Jackson opposite him. Both Number Two candidates were victimized on several occasions in Saturday's first half, when the Saints racked up more than 250 yards of offense.
The odds are that at least on a yardage basis, the Texans will still be a below-average defensive unit. But if the group can force turnovers as they did Saturday (three times), the offense and overall team suddenly become lethal.
On the first drive of the game, Drew Brees sliced through the revamped Houston defense with ease, setting up a first-and-goal. But a strip sack from Antonio Smith jarred the ball loose, and Mario Williams recovered.
Only a few plays later, Arian Foster scored the first of his two touchdowns, and the rout was on.
"The thing I'm excited about is I think we have more playmakers than we've probably ever had around here," said head coach Gary Kubiak.
"Like I said, we are getting our hands on the football with the emphasis of turnovers and stripping the ball," he added. "You can see that showing up on the field."
The Texans offense was superb, but with a returning core of Foster, Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels and an elite offensive line, that's to be expected.
But instead of keeping pace with the Saints, the turnover helped the Texans rush out to a 14-0 lead.
With one strip from Smith, a game that seemed destined to be 7-0 New Orleans became 7-0 in favor of the Texans, all within a couple minutes. The Texans were then able to use their dynamic ground game to hold onto the lead.
By the half, the Texans used that momentum to rack up an astounding 323 yards and 24 points, a figure that would have been 27 had Neil Rackers converted on a short field goal to end the half.
Perhaps more impressively, the Texans -- a team known historically for their lack of a killer instinct -- forced even more turnovers in the second half, even while playing from ahead. Rookie Brooks Reed replaced Connor Barwin at outside linebacker and stripped New Orleans quarterback Chase Daniel twice, one of which was recovered, setting up a field goal from Rackers.
On the next drive, pressure forced Daniel to rush his throw, and Bryce McCain corralled it for essentially a game-clinching interception.
"It's just guys getting to the quarterback," Reed said of the defense. "A lot of guys on this team take that pretty passionately."
The Texans were then able to bleed almost six minutes off the clock, led by a rushing attack that was silenced too often in 2010 due to the team playing from behind.
When time ran out Saturday, the Texans knew they had effectively dominated the same team they lost to in the 2010 preseason, 38-10.
"That's what you want to do," said J.J. Watt, the team's rookie defensive end from Wisconsin. "Obviously the Saints are a good team. You want to create a winning atmosphere."
The stakes will be much higher on September 25, when the Texans travel to New Orleans in an anticipated third-week rematch.
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Gregg Williams -- the veteran defensive coordinator who engineered the 2009 turnaround in New Orleans -- will certainly have the Saints more aggressive.
Then again, so will Phillips and the Texans, who admittedly called very few blitzes in Saturday's romp.
If they can turn even a couple of those aggressive plays into turnovers, the offense is dominant enough to win again, even on the road against one of the league's best teams.
It's much easier said than done, of course. But at least for one game, the Texans followed that blueprint to perfection, all against a team that knows it quite well.