Every week, I hope to bring you a quick Q&A with someone who covers the Ravens’ opponent that week. On Sunday, the Ravens will take on the Houston Texans in Houston. Stephanie Stradley blogs about the Texans for The Houston Chronicle, and she was kind enough to answer a few of questions heading into the game.
MV: Were you surprised by how the Texans played in Sunday night's loss to the Green Bay Packers? Is there reason for concern, particularly with the defense, or was it just a case of running into Aaron Rodgers while he was ticked off?
SS: I think most everyone was surprised.
There were some things that were issues in previous games that the Texans were able to get away with without losing: Poor field position. Untimely special teams penalties. Inconsistent offensive line play. Run defense that too often gives up easy yards, but maybe hasn't been challenged much playing with big leads. All those things finally caught up to them against the Packers.
Prior to that game, the Texans had been very solid on third down offense and defense, crushing opponents with time of possession, and that went away on Sunday.
Aaron Rodgers needs to be given a lot of credit. He escaped what looked to be almost certain sacks and made some throws that would have been impossible to defend. Even so, it is hard to know what this defense is going to look like without inside linebacker Brian Cushing. There are no more training wheels with DeMeco Ryans being traded to the Eagles. Cushing could dominate play in both passing and running downs, and was particularly crucial in playing balanced offenses.
Excellent cornerback Johnathan Joseph has not looked like himself the last few games, struggling with a groin injury. Head coach Gary Kubiak is giving him some rest during the week and will evaluate him closer to game day. So with no Cushing, and a somewhat limited Joseph, it is hard to tell what the defense will look like because we are in uncharted territory.
MV: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt had 2.5 sacks against the Ravens in the AFC divisional round and he appears to be even better this season. He has 9.5 sacks in six games and has been virtually unblockable. What is it that makes him such a special player, and where do you see the most improvement from him since last season?
SS: J.J. Watt is one of those special players who has the combination of freakish size, strength and athletic ability combined with a desire to work hard and follow coaching. It's hard not to like driven players who don't just rely on their athleticism. He's in a system with Wade Phillips that allows him to use his strength against the run, but still get after the passer.
In an interview I did with him last February, he thought his game against the Ravens in the playoffs was his best one of last year.
I think the biggest difference between him this year and last is him having more confidence and understanding in what he was doing. With the lockout last year, this season is his first full camp. He has been very special to watch.
MV: Injuries were again an issue for Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson last season. He didn't play when these two teams met in the regular season, but he had eight catches for 111 yards in the playoff game. I haven't seen him play a ton this season, but he looked to be back in form on Sunday. Is that true, or were my eyes deceiving me?
SS: Andre Johnson looks like Andre Johnson to me, and the reports of him dropping off are wildly exaggerated. His production this year has decreased for two basic reasons: 1. The Texans have had a lot of early leads in games, which has meant they've been able to focus on the run in the second half, and haven't been forced to take much risk in their offense; 2. The Texans are trying to reduce his number of total snaps during a game to help preserve him for the entire season, slowly get extra work for their rookie WRs, and hopefully by the playoffs have a healthy Andre Johnson and rookies that better know what they are doing.
The game against Denver was probably Johnson's most flashy of the regular season.
MV: Jacoby Jones has been a great fit -- so far -- here in Baltimore. He always has a smile on his face and he has produced big plays in the return game and in limited snaps offensively. Why do you think it didn't work out for Jacoby in Houston, and what kind of reception should he expect from the fans at Reliant Stadium on Sunday?
SS: I think Jacoby Jones' story is the one that a lot of NFL players have who needed a change of scenery. Most of us don't have our first real jobs in front of millions of people, where our learning mistakes are amplified to the world. Jones was a developmental player coming out of a small college, who showed flashes of promise with his speed, but had some frustrating, untimely drops and special team errors. He was in and out of Gary Kubiak's doghouse for immaturity issues.
His special teams failures against Baltimore in the playoff game, ones that a player with years of experience should have known not to do, was the last straw for a lot of fans. Many fans weren't happy when he was re-signed prior to last year, but I believe that happened because the lockout made it difficult to learn up new receivers. They also used that draft to help their defense. So with draft picks available for new wide receivers to develop this year, Jones became expendable.
As for his reception, I'm not sure it will be much of anything unless Jones does one of his more flamboyant celebrations. If Baltimore fans have a chance to meet Jones, he's a very funny, engaging guy. Just needs fans to root for him that don't remember his many mistakes.
MV: The Texans have never beaten the Ravens, and it always stings when a team knocks you out of the playoffs. Do you get the sense that there is extra motivation there to finally beat the Ravens and maybe get a bit of revenge? Or was the loss to the Packers jarring enough to make sure their focus was on solving their problems? The latter seemed to be the case for the Ravens a few weeks ago heading into their game with the rival New England Patriots.
SS: With this particular group of Texans, I'm never worried about their effort or motivation. I tend to be more concerned about different players pressing too much, trying to do things that they can't do. I'm certain they don't want to lose to the Ravens again, or go into the bye week after two bitter losses in a row after such a good start of the season. They very much want the playoffs, and they want home field in the playoffs, and they know that beating the Ravens is one part of that.
The bigger concern to me are not these motivational intangibles but more basic football tangibles: What will the Texans defense look like without Brian Cushing? Can the right side of the offensive line perform in a consistent manner? Will the Texans continue to struggle with special teams penalties and coverage, and continue to put the Texans offense in bad field position situations?
Despite the best record they've had as a franchise, I do not think the Texans have played their best ball yet. I think they are still learning who they are. Last year, they had all their offensive starters returning except for Vonta Leach. This year is the biggest transition for the Texans offense in a while, and often with change, it can look encouraging and discouraging in the same game. And with the exit of Cushing, the defense is working through their own transition.