Monday, September 10, 2012

Cowlishaw: High-flying Texans need just seven minutes to unravel Ryan ... - Dallas Morning News

HOUSTON â€" Picked by some to use last year’s playoff win as a springboard to the coming Super Bowl (one hand raised here), the Houston Texans did not excel in their season opener Sunday. They didn’t even play a good quarter.

But they played a great half quarter. That was all it took to make the final score Houston 30, Miami 10 â€" a result the Texans apologized for as they vowed to play better in the future.

“I thought we played a little shaky on both sides of the ball,” head coach Gary Kubiak said. “Just not real clean.”

“It wasn’t pretty,” quarterback Matt Schaub said. “There’s a lot we can get better at.”

But what the Texans did demonstrate for the Reliant Stadium crowd of 71,566 is that they are the anti-Dolphins. Miami is an awful team, a fact of life revealed over several hours last month on HBO’s Hard Knocks.

The Texans are an explosive team, one that can attack on both sides of the ball and make game-changing plays. And that’s exactly what happened in the last seven minutes of the first half, when Houston created turnovers on four straight Miami possessions to produce a devastating 24 points.

As Texas A&M fans will tell you, coach Mike Sherman and quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn’t usually self-destruct until after halftime in 2011. In their first game together in Miami (Sherman is the offensive coordinator), they fell apart just before that.

Tannehill was intercepted three times â€" two of them on passes batted into the air by superb defensive end J. J. Watt â€" and Daniel Thomas fumbled. All four turnovers came in a stretch of nine Miami snaps of the ball.

The Texans offense needed to travel just 122 yards to turn those Dolphins mistakes into 24 points.

The two interceptions that began with Watt deflections set up Houston’s first two touchdowns. If you go back to last year’s playoffs, Watt’s on an incredible roll as he tries to show the world that 3-4 defensive ends can be just as big in the playmaking category as the 4-3 variety.

In two playoff games, he had 31/2 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown against Cincinnati. On Sunday, he had 11/2 sacks and used his reach to turn two Tannehill passes into interceptions.

“He’s just an excellent football player who’s turning into a great player very quickly,” Kubiak said.

It’s the play of Watt, of linebackers Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin â€" heck, you can even throw the four tackles from Bradie James into the mix â€" that makes this team undisturbed by the loss of pass rusher Mario Williams to Buffalo for $50 million guaranteed.

“You don’t understand how much fun it is to play in this defense,” Watt said. “Everybody here makes plays.”

Cowboys fans know that the architect of this defense is Wade Phillips, but then it’s not a huge surprise that he was able to initiate a dramatic turnaround here. As a head coach, Phillips has been fairly average. In the coordinator’s role, he has been at his best.

Since Williams was hurt for the postseason, James is regarded as the team’s only new starter.

“I don’t have to be the guy here,” James said. “As a savvy vet, you understand that you can just go out and play. And once this defense gets going, we’ve got guys who make big plays.”

They also made big stops when necessary. Miami’s only touchdown came on Marcus Thigpen’s 72-yard punt return.

That allowed Houston to coast to a rather routine 20-point win despite the fact that Arian Foster did not rush for 100 yards and Schaub did not throw for 300. The offense hit its stride when it had to in the second quarter, and against a Dolphins team of ill-fitting parts, that 24-point outburst was far more that Houston needed.

Maybe the best way to explain the Texans’ variety of weapons is like this:

For a long time, this franchise was defined (and mostly blasted) for its decision to draft Williams over running back Reggie Bush or quarterback Vince Young at the top of the 2006 draft.

Williams is now in Buffalo. Young is out the league. Bush was here Sunday in a Dolphins uniform, and while he ran hard, he was irrelevant to the game’s outcome.

The Texans have nothing to show for the top pick in 2006, and they possess enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to be a contender for AFC supremacy, anyway.

Follow Tim Cowlishaw on Twitter at @TimCowlishaw

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