Houston defense makes impressive turnaround

HOUSTON (AP) - A year ago, the Houston Texans had the NFL's worst pass defense and were near the bottom of the league in total defense.

They remodeled by bringing in defensive whiz Wade Phillips and signing cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

Now in the playoffs for the first time, Houston hopes its highly rated defense can lead the team to a victory Saturday against the Bengals, the team Joseph played for before joining the Texans.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Joseph said about helping Houston to its first postseason game against his former team.

He has communicated with 20 to 25 of his former teammates this week and is proud of what the Bengals have done this season. But he certainly won't feel torn Saturday.

"I'm a Texan now," he said.

Phillips has had a difficult few weeks after having kidney and gall bladder surgery Dec. 15. He missed two games, but rejoined the team last week and coached from the press box Sunday.

He isn't feeling great - he has a chair to sit in for parts of practice - but knew it was important to be with the team during this critical time.

"It's taken a lot out of me but I'm working my back, doing what the doctors say, ready to keep building up," Phillips, who wasn't available to the media Wednesday, said recently.

Coach Gary Kubiak insisted the defense wasn't any different with Phillips away, but acknowledged Wednesday that his return has given the unit a boost.

"I know from a confidence standpoint for everybody it's nice to have him back in the locker room last weekend and have his presence throughout the course of the week, so that's been a good thing," Kubiak said. "We've got to make sure Wade gets good and healthy and everything goes OK."

Linebacker Brian Cushing, who leads the team with 114 tackles, said Phillips' importance to the team can't be overstated.

"He's been huge," Cushing said. "For what he's done in turning this defense around has been unbelievable. So much credit goes to him, from scheme, to coaches he's brought to just the personality of the team."

Joseph has helped Houston's secondary go from allowing a league-worst 267.5 yards to just 189.7 this season - the third fewest in the NFL.

"To come in and be embraced by the guys and make such an impact to be counted and looked upon as a leader here has been a tremendous experience for me altogether," Joseph said.

Houston has thrived in Phillips' 3-4 defense even without 2006 top overall pick Mario Williams. The former defensive end was expected to star at outside linebacker in the new scheme, but had a season-ending injury during the fifth game.

That left the Texans shuffling people around. They moved the other starting outside linebacker Connor Barwin to Williams' spot and rookie Brooks Reed took Barwin's slot.

Reed filled the position ably and Barwin flourished this season, piling up a team-leading 11 1/2 sacks.

Barwin, another converted defensive end, said Phillips is quiet and stoic, but has a unique way of motivating players.

"Wade comes in with some gems," Barwin said. "They might be short and quick but he's wise."

Phillips, who has more postseason coaching experience than any member of the staff with 26 games, encouraged the team to focus this week in practice with one of his "gems" of which Barwin is so fond.

"He walks out and says real mellow like he does: Every single play is the playoffs now," Barwin said of Phillips. "So we knew every single play we do in practice is so important just because we're in the playoffs now."

DeMeco Ryans also credits Phillips for what has happened this year. Of course, the linebacker has helped out in the change this season, starting each game in 2011 after missing 10 games last year with an Achilles injury.

"The biggest key is that from the first day all the guys just bought into Wade's system and how we were going to do things," Ryans said. "Everyone in our room just wanted to excel and everyone wanted to be great in our defensive room."

Ryans knew around the midway point of the season that this group could be special. Kubiak saw it a few weeks sooner, when the defense stopped Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger four times in the fourth quarter of a 17-10 win.

"That was special against a great quarterback in Ben," Kubiak said. "So you could see the confidence starting to grow right there and they've been very consistent all year long. As a matter of fact they've been darn good and hopefully they will continue to be, because we will need to play great defense to continue to move on."

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