With Matt Schaub at quarterback, rather than rookie T.J. Yates, the Texans could have driven through Baltimore and New England on the way to the Super Bowl. That's why it's not a surprise that they're one of three undefeated teams left in 2012.
The Texans are built on the best running game in the NFL, an underrated defense and a quarterback who can manage it all.
The defense centers around second-year player J.J. Watt. Without him, they wouldn't tick. Watt is one of the rare players in the league who is equally as good against the run and pass. The 5 1/2 sacks he has through three games is unheard of for a player at his position — a five-technique defensive end in the Texans' 3-4 defensive front. In most 3-4 defenses, it's an outside linebacker who would be the team's leading pass rusher. That was the case last year for the Texans, when Connor Barwin lead the team with 11 1/2 sacks. This year Watt is just getting there faster. He's also, amazingly, the Texans' leader in tackles.
To run a 3-4 defense properly, a player like Watt needs to make it all work. Without a strong pass-rushing defensive end, both outside linebackers have to be sent to rush the passer, which leaves holes open in coverage. The problem is, it's difficult to find a 300-pound player who can anchor against the run just as well as he can charge after the passer. Last year's 11th overall pick is that perfect player.
There's a reason the Texans could still survive when Mario Williams went down last year, and why they're doing so well without him this year. It all rides on Watt's shoulders. Watt is the player the Texans knew Williams couldn't be. When defensive coordinator Wade Phillips came in last year with his 3-4 front seven, Williams was in no man's land. He had been a defensive end prior in the Texans' 4-3, but wasn't stout enough to play the same position in the new scheme. He was also too big to stand up and play outside linebacker, but that's what he was forced to do, and he got hurt.
The Texans have defenders who can get after the passer all over their defense, not just in Watt and Barwin. Antonio Smith had 6 1/2 sacks in 2011 across from Watt, Brooks Reed had six sacks at outside linebacker and Brian Cushing was able to bring pressure from inside linebacker with four sacks.
For years, pass coverage was the reason the Texans couldn't get over the hump and into the playoffs. Houston's secondary has improved with the inclusions of Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, but given the Texans' pass rush, wide receivers simply have less time to get away from those defensive backs.
Of course it doesn't hurt the Texans offense to have one of the best starters in the league and the best backup at running back. Arian Foster, Ben Tate and the Texans' zone-blocking scheme is invaluable to the Texans' success. Foster went from undrafted free agent to premium player not only because of his talent but also because of the same running offense that produced so many great Broncos running backs in the 1990s and 2000s. Head coach Gary Kubiak was the offensive coordinator on those Broncos teams, while offensive coordinator Rick Dennison was coaching the offensive line.
That running game is what allows the Texans to get away with having Andre Johnson as an outside target for Schaub, and little else. Gone are the days that Schaub is expected to throw for well over 4,000 yards for Houston to move the football. Schaub isn't an elite quarterback, and he's much better when he's allowed to manage the offense around running plays, dumpoffs to the running backs and occasional intermediate and deep passes to Johnson.
The AFC got lucky in 2011 when Schaub went down with injury. Yates wasn't able to give the offense the same consistency as Schaub, which is why the Texans lost their last three games and in the divisional round to the Ravens. This season, not only is Houston back at full strength, but they also have a cupcake schedule in front of them, playing five more games against the weak AFC North.
The Texans are the team to beat.