The 2016 Houston Texans defense was one of the best units in the league. This feat was achieved without J.J. Watt for all but 3 games last season. Any defensive unit who has the ability to be a top unit without one of the leagues premier players is even more impressive. The question Houston faces this season is, can they be just as dominant this year?
On the surface, the questions sounds ridiculous. Of course they will be better, they got Watt back. What is overlooked is the losses on defense, the declining play of Johnathan Joseph and the long term health of Watt.
Defensive backs A.J. Bouye and Quintin Demps have departed in Free Agency. Outside linebacker John Simon has also left. While there are bigger names that are a part of the defense, the players who have left are key role players. Players who are able to fill in and contribute when the star players go down with injury.
Last season the Texans allowed 20.5 points per game which ranked 11th in the NFL last season. The rushing defense chimed in at 12th in the league allowing 99.7 yards per game. Where the Texans made their mark is their pass defense. Ranking second in the NFL with 201.6 yards per game. Only the Denver Broncos allowed less yards per game through the air last season.
Houston allowed 20 touchdowns through the air last season, good for seventh in the NFL. While only intercepting 11 passes last season, a number which puts them at 21st overall. The allowed completion percentage of 61.1 is good enough for eighth in the league. Where the defense missed Watt most last season was with their sack numbers. Only sacking the opposing quarterback 31 times, which puts them at an unimpressive 24th overall.
The return of Watt will improve the sack numbers however the losses of Bouye, Demps and Simon will be felt. Joseph will have to step up and prove last season was a fluke and play at a high level. Andre Hal will have to emerge as a force on the back end of the defense. Zach Cunningham can hopefully fill in the Simon role at outside linebacker. Providing depth and eventually becoming the starter. Defensive backs Kevin Johnson, Denzel Rice and Treston Decoud are tasked with replacing the production of Bouye and Demps.
Watt recently had surgery for a herniated disc. If you are unfamiliar with the recovery procedures for this surgery, twisting and bending are not allowed for a prolonged period of time. The unfortunate aspect of this is that twisting and bending are key parts to being a defensive end in the NFL. While he will be able to contribute this season, long term contributions are in question. Watt is all but guaranteed to end up having another surgery on his back, it is not a question of if, it is a question of when. Putting the required pressure and torque on an already bad back will not have a promising ending.
When the Texans offense would drop the ball, the defense would step up and make a play. This happened way too often last season as the team leaned on the defense to win games. Eventually defenses break, and that happens when the offense is unable to stay on the field.
As long as Watt is able to perform at a high level and Joseph can return to his previous shutdown corner status, the Texans defense will be just as dominant as last season. However, if Watt goes down with another injury or Joseph continues his decline in performance, the defense will let Houston down in a big way.