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Texans must solve defensive dilemma to take next step

Watching the playoffs must not be fun for the Houston Texans. This season was supposed to be the Texans' breakout year, after a 2009 campaign that saw the NFL's youngest franchise post its first winning season. Uh … what … had … happened?

For starters, they couldn't close games out. But that's just one of several issues that confronted Houston in its ill-fated 6-10 campaign. Here are the five most pressing questions surrounding the Texans.

1. Reliant on wrong man?

Is Gary Kubiak the man for the job? In five seasons, he's 37-43. But after two 8-8 seasons followed by last year's 9-7 record, owner Bob McNair was expecting a lot better than 6-10. Guaranteed. Some league observers were surprised at the decision to retain Kubiak. Part of the team's fan base was none too pleased. So were the seven or so guys who attended the "Fire Gary Kubiak Rally."

The NFL landscape today is not conducive toward coaches keeping their jobs for more than five seasons, especially if they've never even made the playoffs. Granted, the team Kubiak inherited needed a lot of work. That said, he's failed to put a product on the field that could consistently compete with the Colts, and only once has he had a defense that's finished higher than 20th. That won't get it done.

2. Can Phillips rescue defense?

The Texans' first significant move of the offseason was to remedy that suspect defense. The hiring of Wade Phillips means one thing for sure, another thing likely to come, and one big fat maybe:

» For Certain: Texans will move to a 3-4.

» Likely: A better pass rush.

» Big hope: Compile a playoff-caliber defense.

Phillips has the résumé as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, there's no question about that. But, he spearheaded a Cowboys defense that got roasted for 29 points per game before he was fired.

Before you freak out Texans fandom, Phillips had a lot on his plate as head coach and defensive coordinator. The Texans should be better, unless the game has truly passed Phillips by. But considering the Cowboys gave up the second-fewest points in the league under Phillips in 2009, that's doubtful.

3. Secondary a primary concern?

Phillips' first order of business: Improve the pass defense. Can he do that with the same back four Houston fielded this season? Doubtful. Very doubtful. Maybe no way.

The pass defense was ranked at the bottom of the league all season. Everyone in the secondary struggled at times … Glover Quinn, Bernard Pollard, Eugene Wilson and Kareem Jackson all had their problems. The latter was burned repeatedly, giving up 920 yards (third most in the league.) Those weren't dinks and dunks, either: Opposing receivers averaged 18.4 yards per catch on Jackson.

Meanwhile, Quinn allowed 59 balls to be caught on him. Even when he did what he was taught to do, like swatting away a Hail Mary, disaster happened. But it's not just the corners.

The safeties could certainly stand to play better. Here's the under-the-radar stat that shows the problems go deeper than the much-maligned Jackson and Quinn: In the first nine games, tight ends caught 57 balls on the Texans -- that's on the safeties and linebackers.

Phillips' plan will be to improve a pass rush that produced only 30 sacks (tied for 23rd), an area where he has one of the best track records in the history of the game. More pressure should equal better coverage. But there needs to be some new personnel injected here.

4. Where to go in draft?

Any time a club goes 6-10, there are a few holes to fill. But make no mistake, this team clearly needs more help on defense than offense. Most great pass rushers have come through the draft rather than as free agents off the street. So if Phillips wants to convert to the 3-4, and generate a rush, general manager Rick Smith is tasked with helping Phillips get the right pieces.

Despite Jackson being picked high last year, another corner should be obtained, whether he comes through the draft or free agency. The linebacking crew would've been better if it wasn't ravaged by injury and suspensions. But, a big outside backer should be drafted; preferably someone who can get to the quarterback. That's even more important if Cushing is moved to the strong-side spot next to DeMeco Ryans. And then there's safety and nose tackle. Although with the latter, Phillips could choose to rotate Earl Mitchell and Shaun Cody.

Offensively, the Texans might draft the best player available. Tight end Owen Daniels is a free agent. Arian Foster is an exclusive-rights free agent. Assuming both are retained, wideout and some offensive line insurance will likely be considerations.

Still, the 2011 draft should be all about the defense.

5. Ready to close?

"We have absolutely the best coaching staff we've ever had," McNair said after the Phillips hiring. "It would've made a difference for us last year. It will make a difference for us this year, and I'm looking forward to it."

That might be true, but it means nothing if this team can't finish games. Whether it was the high-powered offense stalling, or the defense completely imploding, Houston -- perhaps more than any other team -- had a maddening propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

In a brutal five-week stretch following a loss in Indianapolis, Houston blew leads against the Chargers, Jaguars, Jets, and Eagles. McNair's club went from 4-3 and contending in the division to 5-7, and pretty much saying "peace out" to the playoffs.

The defense allowed opposing quarterbacks a 126.6 fourth-quarter passer rating in their 10 losses. That hurt. In the heartbreaking losses, like the Chargers, Jets, and Broncos' games, the ground attack was nowhere to be found in the fourth quarter … irrespective of how good Foster was overall.

Both sides of the coaching staff have to teach these guys how to close the deal. Do that, and this could be a playoff team next season.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) rushes during an NFL football game between the between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

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