Last season the Houston Texans finally appeared to find a winning formula. Even with injuries to quarterback Matt Schaub, wide receiver Andre Johnson, and defensive end Mario Williams the team was able to field one of the best offenses in the NFL and the second best defense.
Then the off-season hit. Gone are a number of key players - including one side of the offensive line that has helped make Arian Foster the premier running back that he is. While the losses are not something any team would choose to endure Houston may have become even stronger in spite of them
At the end of the 2009 season the Texans had nothing to lose by giving a former practice squad player a shot at the running back job; everyone else was either hurt or had been ineffective. Fast forward past the '10 and '11 seasons and that back, Arian Foster, has become one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL.
Foster would not be half as good where it not for Houston's dominant offensive line. The group nearly helped two running backs reach the 1000 yard threshold last season (Ben Tate was 58 yards short) without giving up much in the passing game (while Matt Schaub was behind center).
With the importance that the line plays in the running game the loss of guard Mike Brisiel and tackle Eric Winston should be damaging. While the running game will likely suffer as the line works on gelling, the overall offense will not miss a beat. In fact, it will get better.
Prior to the emergence of Foster the Texans lived and died by the pass. Since Schaub joined the Texans in 2007 the team's passing game has improved every season (11th in '07; 4th in '08; 1st in '09). Even with Foster rushing for over 1600 yards in 2010 the Houston offense still had the 4th best passing game in the league.
In order to take some pressure off of the line and the running game, the Texans will likely look to return to their passing ways. With defenses having to respect the run first, the pass rush will not be as severe (teams will not want Foster to gouge them) which will open up some passing lanes for Schaub.
Even though the run has been featured in Houston in recent years, the team still has some talent at wide receiver and tight end. Andre Johnson is one of, if not the best wide receiver in the game. Kevin Walter has developed into a solid No. 2 receiver. Owen Daniels is one of the better pass catching tight ends in the league as well.
So basically, the losses on the offensive line will force the team to become a more balanced offense and an absolute terror to defend.
There really isn't much that needs to be said here. Two years ago the Texans had one of the worst defenses in the league. They looked good against the run, but that was only because everyone knew they couldn't stop the pass. Enter a new defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips last season and now the unit is one of the best in football.
You never want to lose a player like Mario Williams, but since he was lost early last season due to injury the unit has already shown it can survive without him. Cornerback Alan Ball was brought in after the loss of Jason Allen. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans had already become a part-time player so his loss is negligible.
Houston's secondary is a good one, but they are helped a lot by the front seven. With guys like J.J Watt just getting their feet wet last season as a rookie, the defense had the 6th most sacks in the league (44). Now that the group is more seasoned look for that number to be a lot higher this season.
The only thing that will stop the Texans from playing for the Lombardi Trophy will be themselves. Injuries severely wounded the team last year and they still won in the playoffs. Winning the division will not be hard so it will be interesting to see if the team gets conservative down the stretch if they lock up the division early.
If they remain healthy the Texans can easily compete with the other top teams in the AFC (Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers). Should they stay healthy Texans fans might want to start making plans to go to New Orleans in early February.