We knew the Texans' young defense could have games like this. A second disastrous performance in five outings for the supposedly-elite Houston offense, however, is incredibly concerning.
The numbers are baffling. 195 total yards. 1.6 yards per rush with what had been the top rushing attack in the league. And 3.8 yards per play.Ten points, seven of which came when an interception set the Texans up at the New York 17-yard line.
Replace cornerback Kareem Jackson with Champ Bailey and insert Troy Polamalu at one of the safety spots, and it wouldn't have made a difference on Sunday in terms of making the game competitive. That's how bad the Houston offense was in the 34-10 loss to the Giants (3-2).
"This one hurts," tight end Owen Daniels said. "We'll be alright in a couple days, but this is a big game. This is the start of the second quarter of the season, and 4-1 is a lot different than 3-2. We just couldn't get things going."
It's particularly troubling because of how this team was constructed. With an offensive-minded head coach in Gary Kubiak and major resources used on veteran stars like Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub, the offense should carry the load.
The pass defense has been awful, but that's somewhat to be expected with first- and second-year players all over the secondary. In theory, they should improve as the season goes along, and even a remotely-competent defense should make a team with the offensive talent of the Texans a contender.
Problem is, the high-powered offense has been completely absent for 40 percent of the season. And they don't have the excuse of being young. Against the physical defensive lines of the Giants and Cowboys, the Texans' offensive line wilted and Schaub forced throws that simply weren't there. Maybe one such disaster can be chalked up to a "bad day," but twice in five games could be time to sound alarm bells.
Schaub was intercepted once and sacked three times on Sunday, after Dallas dropped him four times and picked him twice two weeks ago. At least five balls were tipped by the Giants' defensive line, which too often pushed the pocket back.
"Everything [the New York defensive line] did, we scouted against," replacement left tackle Rashad Butler said. "We knew it. We had keys to tell us when they were coming inside. We just didn't execute it."
Perhaps some of those struggles can be attributed to the suspension of starting left tackle Duane Brown. But then again, the trend pre-dates this season. Against the Jets in 2009 and Ravens and Steelers in 2008 -- all teams known for highly-physical fronts -- the Texans' offense was similarly inept, starting at the line of scrimmage. The Texans were blown out in each of those games.
The Texans have rapidly improved their zone-blocking scheme, and this year they've dominated against the smaller, speedier fronts of teams like Indianapolis. But the league's more-physical defensive units have too often abused Houston's scheme and continue to do so, leaving the Texans with no easy answers.
"When we get out of rhythm, we've got to find a way to get back into it," right tackle Eric Winston said. "[Kubiak] can't go out there and be physical for us."
None of that excuses the abysmal performance of the Houston secondary, of course. Eli Manning attacked Jackson all over the field, and Troy Nolan -- coming off two interceptions in Oakland -- was so bad in coverage in his debut as starting free safety that he was pulled for much-maligned Eugene Wilson.
But as bad as the defense looked at times, that unit at least proved capable of making adjustments. With the Texans looking to rally in the third quarter, the Giants had four possessions. One was a three-and-out, two ended in interceptions, and the other in a field goal. That's a strong performance for any defense, and gave the Houston offense chances to get back into the game.
Unfortunately, the offense scored only seven points in that timeframe -- and those were practically gift-wrapped after a Jackson interception and return set them up at the 17. Otherwise, the Texans made no offensive improvements.
"The defense gave us a spark with a turnover in the third quarter, but we weren't able to do anything with it," Johnson said.
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The offense should improve somewhat by default in coming weeks, as the health of Johnson's ailing right ankle improves and Brown and slot receiver Jacoby Jones return to the lineup. In addition, the Giants do have a better defensive line than most, as evidenced by their 10 sacks (and two KOs) to quarterbacks of the Chicago Bears last week.
But physical defenses like the Jets and Ravens are still to come on the Houston schedule. And if the Texans regroup and advance to the playoffs, the likes of the Jets, Ravens and Steelers will likely be there.
For the offensive-minded Texans to truly contend, they must prove capable of scoring points on not just the Colts but against all of the big boys, many of which pack an enormous punch on defense.
In those situations, the Texans have still yet to hit back.