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.