- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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DETROIT -- They dragged their drained bodies around the visitor’s locker room at Ford Field, the cumulative effect of nearly 10 quarters of NFL football in five days showing itself.
Fortunately, they’re a nice group of guys.
Because they could have easily listened to some questions about their defensive struggles and gotten severely ticked off: “We just got to 10-1, we’re exhausted and you’re asking about struggles?!?”
They know, however, that while a championship-caliber team finds ways to win when it doesn’t play its best, it also can’t yield 458 yards like it did against Jacksonville or 525 yards like it did in Detroit and get where it’s planning to go.
“There are always going to be things to clean up,” said defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who sacked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford three times and knocked down two of his passes. “Obviously we haven’t played our best football these last two games. But like a great team, you find a way to win no matter the circumstances.”
Said cornerback Kareem Jackson: “Everybody on this team is relentless. We finish by any means necessary.”
The Texans’ pass defense has allowed the Jaguars’ Chad Henne 354 passing yards and four touchdowns and Stafford 441 yards and two touchdowns. Against 96 combined pass attempts, Houston recorded five sacks.
Halfway through the season, the Texans had one sack for every 11.4 pass attempts.
In their last three games, the Texans have one sack for every 28.5 pass attempts.
Watt boosted his season total to 14.5 sacks, but he said not to leave him off the list of guys who need to do more. That’s a new franchise record for quarterback takedowns.
“Hopefully I’ll keep breaking it and breaking it and breaking and breaking it,” he said. “Hopefully I’m not done.”
“We need to get to the quarterback more often,” said outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who left the game in the first half with a groin injury that his coach rated as a big concern and that will require an MRI on Friday. “Make the quarterback feel more pressure and it’ll help him throw bad balls, help out our secondary that way. That’s the best cure for pass defense, I think.
“The stats show it. We haven’t been getting to the quarterback enough.”
Making things worse against the Lions and their No. 1 pass offense was the hamstring injury to Johnathan Joseph.
The cornerback who would have followed receiver Calvin Johnson around didn’t play, and his replacement, Alan Ball, should never have drawn the job. After Johnson pulled in five catches for 103 yards and a touchdown against Ball, the Texans switched to Jackson as the primary defender for Johnson after intermission.
Jackson fared better, limiting Johnson to three receptions for 37 yards in the second half plus a long overtime.
“We knew we were going to give up some plays,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “Hopefully we don’t give up the real, real big plays. ... Everybody got a chance to figure out a way to help us win.”
Injuries beyond Joseph’s have contributed to the Texans' issues.
That’s five starters missing by the end of the game, not counting linebacker Brian Cushing, who was lost for the season Oct. 8.
“Getting Shaun back [at Tennessee on Dec. 2], that should help us,” Kubiak said, referring to low numbers on the defensive line. “Now we’ve got a couple other issues we’ve got to work through. But we’ve got to keep plugging. Obviously we’ve got a lot of things to fix. But it’s nice to find a way to win.”
The other concern I can see with the Texans is their play against top-flight quarterbacks.
They beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos at Denver in Week 3 and they got creamed by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 6. Stafford is not in that class, but he's the third-best signal-caller they’ve faced.
Against that trio, Houston’s defense has allowed 10 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 100.1 while not managing a single interception.
Against the 11 other quarterbacks the Texans have faced in their eight other games, they’ve allowed nine touchdown passes and a passer rating of 42.5 while grabbing 11 interceptions.
Most teams are going to fare worse against the league’s better quarterbacks. But that much worse?
Unless things fall in a really fortuitous way for them, they’re bound to cross paths with Manning or Tom Brady -- or both -- in the AFC playoffs.
They’ll need to be better than they've been the past two weeks or against those top QBs.
“We understand we can always get better,” said left tackle Duane Brown, whose side of the ball has been picking up the slack. “But it’s not easy to get a win in this league. We’ve got 10 of them right now. We’ve very proud of that. We still have a lot of football to play, a lot of progress to make.”