Despite fielding the youngest team in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010 and just missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker against the eventual-champion Green Bay Packers. With rising young stars like Josh Freeman and Gerald McCoy dotting the roster, the Bucs believe they are poised for a long run of postseason contention.
The road won't be easy in 2011, however. The always competitive NFC South and a handful of playoff teams like the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts will be looking to keep Tampa Bay from invading the playoff field. The Buccaneers' home schedule is particularly intriguing featuring foes with high-powered offenses (a la Houston) and upcoming stars of their own (a la Detroit).
With that in mind, Buccaneers.com is running a series of articles focusing on each of the team's 2011 home opponents. We'll look at how each of those teams has fared in recent years, which of their players will be the Buccaneers' main concerns, where the matchups will favor each side, and more.
After winning at least eight or nine games in each of the previous three seasons, and thus narrowly missing out on the first postseason experience in the franchise's young history, the Texans looked as if they might have turned the corner on opening day last fall.
That's when Houston scaled its own personal Mount Everest and dispatched the Indianapolis Colts, 34-24. The Texans had entered the league as an expansion team in 2002 and been placed with the Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. And during its first eight campaigns, Houston beat Indianapolis just once and lost to them 15 times, in the meantime watching the Colts win the division six out of those eight seasons. That season-opening win in Houston seemed like a sign that the Texans were finally ready to compete on an equal footing with the Colts and make a strong run to the playoffs.
Houston would lose its next two home games, to Dallas and the New York Giants, but those results alternated with wins over Washington, Oakland and Kansas City. The Texans headed into their bye with a 4-2 record and a share of first place in the South, with the Colts waiting for them again on the other side of that week off.
Unfortunately, that's where the good times ended for the Texans, largely due to some very significant struggles on defense, particularly against the pass. The Colts would take the rematch, 30-17, beginning a nine-game skid for the Texans in which they would win just once. That one victory was a 20-0 shutout over Tennesee (with Rusty Smith at quarterback for the Titans) but otherwise Houston gave up at least 29 points in seven of the other eight games during that run.
That made for a lot of shootouts, as the Texans sported a high-powered offense led by Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. In particular, a narrow 30-27 loss to the Jets in New York and a wild 34-28 overtime defeat at home at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens damaged Houston's playoff chances. They would win their season finale, 34-17, over the Jaguars, but that only improved their record to 6-10.
Schaub, Foster and Johnson formed one of the best Big Three combinations in the NFL, helping Houston rank third overall on offense. Foster, an undrafted free agent in 2009 who only emerged late in his rookie season, easily led the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards and 2,220 combined yards from scrimmage, and also scored a league-high 18 touchdowns. Schaub finished fourth in the NFL with 4,370 passing yards and finished with a fine 92.0 passer rating. Johnson missed three games and parts of several others due to injury but still ranked sixth in the NFL with 1,216 yards (and eight touchdowns) on 86 receptions.
Houston's team offensive rankings of third in yardage and ninth in points were the best in franchise history…and yet the Texans were outscored by 37 points. At fault was a defense that gave up the fourth-most points in the league (427) and ranked dead last agaisnt the pass. The safeties were NFL journeyman Bernard Pollard and Eugene Wilson, and the corners were inexperienced, with second-year man Glover Quin on one side and rookie Kareem Jackson on the other. Quin, in particular, proved susceptible to giving up the big play.
Up front, the Texans were hurt immensely by the season-ending Achilles injury to emotional and physical leader DeMeco Ryans in Game Six, as well as the four-game suspension with which 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing began the season. The Texan defensive line features such high first-round talent as Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye, but it ranked just 26th in the NFL in sacks per pass play in 2009. Losing Williams for the last month of the season to a hernia didn't help.
- Fix the secondary. This is obviously the Texans' number-one area of concern. The offense has potent skill players, the offensive line was solid in 2010 and has plenty of youth and the defensive front seven has a handful of difference-makers if everyone returns to full health. Meanwhile, Houston gave up 267.5 yards of passing offense last year and was stung by a league-high (tied with Dallas) 33 touchdown passes. In a division that forces them to face Peyton Manning and company twice, the Texans simply can't be that porous on the back end of the defense and win consistently, no matter how productive the offense is. What must be determined is whether the team has the assets on hand to form a strong secondary. Can Jackson be trusted as he moves into his second year? Would Quin be better suited as a safety? Wilson has been released; will Pollard return? Jason Allen, who was signed during the season to add some veteran presence to the young group of cornerbacks, would have to be re-signed. Houston picks 11th in the first round of the upcoming draft, and it's possible a top corner such as Nebraska's Prince Amukamara will be available. The Texans will need to decide if their problem in the secondary represents their greatest need on draft day…or if they can possibly address the issue with a veteran addition, such as Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha.
- Make the switch to a 3-4 front work. With new Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips taking over, the Texans will move from their traditional 4-3 defensive front into Phillips' preferred 3-4 alignment. It's not quite as drastic an overhaul as it may sound, as Phillips incorporates plenty of 4-3 concepts into his scheme and has assured pass-rushing ends Mario Williams and Antonio Smith that they won't be buried inside. Still, the move does create some needs. For one thing, top defensive tackle Amobi Okoye is a strong player, but more of a three-technique pass-rusher than a nose tackle. The Texans may not have as much success with their 3-4 as they'd like if they can't locate a traditional double-team-handling gap-plugging nose tackle. As such, that could overtake cornerback or safety as the Texans' biggest need on draft day. The Texans could also be in the market for a pass-rushing 'tweener type, such as Texas A&M's Von Miller. Phillips must also decide how to arrange the linebackers he already has, and indications are that Ryans and Cushing will play inside, with Connor Barwin (perhaps the most natural fit as a pass-rushing linebacker in a 3-4) on the outside. Is Cushing better on the outside, where he was a star as a rookie in 2009, or on the inside, where he was somewhat less effective replacing Ryans? Who among the group of Zac Diles, Darryl Sharpton, Xavier Adibi and Kevin Bentley is best for the other starting spot?
- Re-sign FB Vonta Leach. There aren't many top-notch lead blocking backs in the NFL these days, but the Texans know they have one. When the New York Giants tried to sign Leach away as a restricted free agent in 2007, after he had spent just half a season, albeit a very good one, with the Texans, Houston quickly matched it. Now Leach is due to become a free agent again, and this time he's coming off a full Pro Bowl campaign. Leach provided outstanding blocking for the NFL's leading rusher in 2010 and has said he is eager to return to Houston to reprise that role. Foster is obviously talented enough to excel in any backfield, but the Texans would seem to be best served by keeping their Pro Bowl duo intact.
- Decide upon – or find – the starting complement to Andre Johnson. Obviously, given Schaub's 4,000-plus passing yards and 24 touchdown passes, Johnson wasn't the only productive pass-catcher in Houston's attack. Four players finished north of 50 catches, in fact, and six had 470 yards or more, including of course Johnson, who went to the Pro Bowl again despite his troublesome ankle. Three of the other five, however, were tight ends or running backs (Foster, Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen). Tied at 51 catches a piece were Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones, but Jones is a free agent who may have worn out his welcome and is a good bet to depart. Walter will turn 30 during training camp and with a career average of 12.3 yards per catch is best described as steady. That might be selling the former seventh-round pick a little short, as he has 229 catches and 19 touchdowns over the last four seasons, but it's likely the Texans would rather have a more dynamic player opposite Johnson. Walter, an outstanding blocker, could excel in the slot. The Texans may have options in David Anderson or Dorin Dickerson, but the draft could yield help as a well.
As mentioned, Houston has a dynamic offense and some potential stars on defense. Here are five players who may cause the home team the most trouble when the Texans visit Raymond James Stadium next fall:
WR Andre Johnson. The third overall pick in the 2003 draft, Johnson is everything a team looks for with a receiver taken in that stratosphere: He's big and strong enough to make plays underneath but also fast enough to be an outside threat. Johnson has been ridiculously consistent in his production the last four years, averaging between 93.5 and 98.4 yards per game each season in that span. The 6-3, 219-pound force is obviously a top-notch red zone weapon, able to use his big frame to create space for his quarterback to throw a low-risk, high-percentage pass.
LB DeMeco Ryans. The former Alabama 'backer made an immediate impact on the Texans' defense in 2006 after being drafted in the second round, stepping in at middle linebacker and starting all 16 games with a team-high 156 tackles plus 3.5 sacks and seven passes defensed. His absence for a majority of the season last year was equally impactful; it certainly played a big part in the defense's descent to one of the worst in the league. Ryans is such an instinctive player, and such a good leader on the field, that the Texans' defense will be considerably different when Houston visits Tampa next year.
RB Arian Foster. Had the Texans made the playoffs as many expected, Foster would have been a front-line MVP candidate. His league-leading exploits are listed above; other than the quarterbacks who dominated the MVP race, it would be hard to find a player who did more for his team. Foster not only averaged more than 100 rushing yards per game, but he also caught 66 passes for more than 600 yards and scored, on average, more than once a game. An undrafted free agent in 2009, Foster showed promise at the end of his rookie season, then stepped into the Texans' running back void last year and turned that position into a gigantic strength. He's a tall back at 6-0 and 232 pounds and he runs with an upright still reminiscent of Eric Dickerson. That's a rare approach for a back in the NFL, but Foster appears to be a rare talent, like Dickerson.
DE Mario Williams. Williams has only been in the NFL for five seasons, but he's already had a fascinating pro career. In 2006, he was the surprise first-overall pick over Reggie Bush and Vince Young, but it didn't take long for that decision to be vindicated. Bush and Young have had their ups and downs, but it's fair to say that neither has been the game-changing player that many expected them to be in '06. Meanwhile, Williams has 48 sacks through his first five seasons and has been the sort of consistent edge rusher that is difficult to find. That said, Williams has taken some heat over the past two campaigns by some who believe he has failed to live up to the promise of his first three seasons. That may be a bit harsh, as Williams had nine sacks in 2009 and another 8.5 in 2010, and the latter was in just 13 games. Suffice it to say, any team in the NFL would gladly add a pass-rusher like Williams to their front line.
DT Amobi Okoye. Okoye has just 11 sacks through his first four NFL seasons – after being drafted 10th overall in 2007 – so it's fair to wonder if he is the three-technique dynamo that the Texans expected he would be when they tabbed the 19-year-old out of Lousville. The criticism is fair, but Okoye was awfully young when he entered the league (and had 5.5 sacks as a rookie) and he reportedly has improved every season. He is a natural athlete for a 300-pound man, and he can get low and get leverage on blockers inside. The Texans' switch to a 3-4 front, even if it a modified 3-4 under Phillips, may change Okoye's role, so it will be interesting to see how the still-developing pass-rusher will evolve.
The Texans are the NFL's youngest team, having joined the ranks as an expansion team in 2002 to balance the league at 32 teams. That addition allowed for realignment into eight more geographically-consistent divisions.
Under more forgiving rules than the Buccaneers experienced as an expansion team in 1976, the Texans signed a variety of veteran players to anchor their first-year defense, including Jay Foreman, Jamie Sharper, Marcus Glenn, Aaron Glenn, Seth Payne, Gary Walker and Kailee Wong. On offense, the Texans used the first overall pick to secure the player they hoped would develop into a franchise quarterback, Fresno State's David Carr, and a year later they added Andre Johnson with the third overall pick. Carr never quite developed into that franchise role – a ridiculous amount of sacks per season didn't help – but Johnson has most definitely become a tent-pole player.
The Texans won four games that first season, then five in 2003 and seven in 2004. That seemed like an impressive upward trajectory for an expansion team, but things bottomed out in 2005 with a 2-14 record and rankings of 30th on offense and 31st on defense. That led to the end of the Dom Capers era and the arrival of Gary Kubiak as head coach. A year later, the Texans moved on from the David Carr era and traded a pair of second-round picks to the Atlanta Falcons to get Matt Schaub.
The Texans have had a bit of a revolving door at running back since Shaub's arrival, from Ron Dayne to Steve Slaton to Ryan Moats to Foster. But the offense has been impressive throughout those four seasons, thanks in large part to the connection between Schaub and Andre Johnson. The formula came closest to working in 2009, when the NFL's fourth-ranked offense was paired with a defense that included good seasons from Ryans, Williams, Brian Cushing and Bernard Pollard. Still, that produced just a 9-7 record and another outside-looking-in experience for the playoffs. The 2010 season was a step back after that invigorating Week One win over Indianapolis, but the Texans chose to retain Gary Kubiak's coaching staff and the franchise obviously believes it is still on the verge of postseason competition.
Head to Head
The Buccaneers and Texans actually have a strong tie, but most of it involves preseason play.
The Texans entered the league in 2002 and they quickly struck a deal with the Buccaneers to play a long series of preseason games. In fact, the two teams have conducted their preseason finales against each other every season the Texans have existed.
That's nine seasons of August interactions, and the Bucs are 7-2 in those outings. Tampa Bay won each of the first five preseason finales, before Houston got on board with a 16-13 decision in 2006, then a 27-20 victory in 2009. The Bucs rebounded with a 24-17 win at Reliant Stadium in Houston last summer.
Since each of those nine games was a preseason-capper, they were played primarily by young men on the bubble in regard to the roster cuts looming in the next few days. A regular-seaosn history would be more telling, but the Bucs and Texans have met only twice in Houston's nine seasons of existence.
Tampa Bay won the first of those two meetings, and probably the most signficant. The Bucs were 6-7 heading into Week 15 in 2003; the Texans were 5-8. Each team still had some playoff hopes. Greg Spires had 2.5 sacks of fill-in quarterback Dave Ragone and the Buccaneers won 16-3. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay lost its last two games of the season and missed an opportunity to defend its 2002 league title.
The Bucs had to go to Reliant Stadium for the first time in the regular season in 2007, and at the same time of year as the two teams' previous meeting. The Texans weren't in playoff contention at the time, but they effectively played the role of spoiler with a 28-14 win in Week 14. The Bucs would win the following weekend against Atlanta to clinch a playoff berth, but their postseason experience would be one-and-done.