The entire defense greatly improved from 2010 to 2011, but perhaps no other group made a bigger leap last season than the defensive backs. The Texans allowed 267.5 passing yards per game in 2010 (worst in the league), 33 passing touchdowns (tied 31st), and intercepted just 13 passes (23rd). In 2011 the Texans allowed 189.7 passing yards per game (3rd in the league), 18 passing touchdowns (tied 6th), and intercepted 17 passes (tied for 13th). Night and day difference. The reason for the improvement is pretty obvious: better coaching and better players; what a genius strategy. After adding Johnathan Joseph, Danieal Manning, and moving Glover Quin to safety; the Texans had a new starter at 3 of the 4 defensive back spots. Despite a new scheme, new players, and a lock-out shortened off-season; the defensive backs gelled quickly and became play-makers.
Kareem Jackson - The biggest question going into the season is the 4th starter of this group at the 2nd cornerback spot. The Texans didn't address this need during the draft or free-agency, so it looks like everyone's favorite whipping boy Kareem Jackson will get another shot to prove his worth. The 2010 1st round pick did make some improvement, but still has a long way to go to merit his draft spot. During his rookie season, Jackson was just awful, often getting burned so bad he wasn't even in the picture on TV when the camera panned over to the opposing wide receiver trotting into the endzone. Last season, he did a much better job of staying near his man, but seemed to suffer from Jacques Reeves disease and rarely made a play on the ball in the air. To take the next step, he's got to be able to turn his head, find the ball, and make a play on it.
Johnathan Joseph - He was always on the fringe of making the pro-bowl team while a member of the Bengals, but Joseph took his game up a notch last season. Next to Darrelle Revis, I believe Joseph is the 2nd best corner in the AFC and maybe the entire league. Joseph got an interception off of Cam Newton in the Pro-Bowl and was named the 73rd best player in the NFL by his peers on the NFL Networks annual list. I thought that was too low and so did Pro Football Focus who ranked Joseph as the 30th best player in the league.
Danieal Manning - Very quickly Manning has become the best safety in Texans history. Manning is good, but that's more of a knock on former Texans safeties. Manning was the 2nd leading tackler among defensive backs and 4th overall with 52. Manning's most incredible feat last season had to be returning to the starting lineup just 4 weeks after breaking his leg in late October. If he hadn't missed 4 games, he would have finished 2nd on the team to Brian Cushing.
Glover Quin - The transition to a new position looked seamless last season. Quin's ability to cover as a former corner gave Manning the freedom to roam and make plays. He also proved to be a pretty good tackler, especially from a former corner, with 61 tackles (2nd on the team). With a full off-season to learn the system and his position, I expect Quin to get even better and have a chance to make the Pro-Bowl. If he does play at the level I expect him to, this will probably be his last season in Houston. Quin will be a free-agent after the season is over and the Texans have other guys to re-sign like Duane Brown and Connor Barwin.
Brice McCain - After a pretty bad 2010 season, I didn't expect much of McCain coming into this season. However, Wade Philips decision to play McCain in the slot instead of being an outside corner seemed to change everything for 2009 6th round pick. Pro Football Focus has a system of grading defensive backs (I won't pretend to understand how it works), but they graded McCain as the 2nd best slot corner in the league. Being called a good slot corner used to be considered a bit of an insult, but with receivers like Wes Welker and Victor Cruz playing the slot now; it's very important. He played better than Jackson this year, but I think he's perfect for the role as their nickelback; I wouldn't change a thing.
Troy Nolan - Not good enough in coverage to be a full-time starter, but is great as a reserve and on special teams. Nolan is a great athlete, plays well in the box against the run, and has a nose for the ball, finding his way into more turnovers than you would expect.
Brandon Harris - The 2nd round pick barely saw any time on the field last season. Harris was active for just 7 games and registered just 2 tackles. I was excited when the Texans traded back into the 2nd round last year to grab Harris because I thought he was good enough to push Kareem Jackson for his starting spot right away and at worst would be their nickelback. However, not only was he not able to push for a starters job, he wasn't even active for most games. For a 2nd round pick, it was a very disappointing season. Hopefully with a full off-season of workouts, we'll see Harris reach the potential most of us thought he had.
This team has 3 very good starters and several solid reserves in the secondary; if Jackson ever reaches the potential they thought he had, this will be a great secondary group. Either way, with the skill of this group and the pressure the Texans pass rush gives; the Texans will again be a top 5 pass defense.