HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston defense was a major hit, literally, in its first year under Wade Phillips, finishing the 2011 season with a franchise-record 44 sacks.
Statistically, this year's defense stacks up well with last year's unit, and defensive end J.J. Watt has emerged as one of the NFL's top pass rushers, now second in the league with 14 1/2. But the pass rush has tapered off as a whole in recent weeks, and the defense has yielded big passing numbers as an indirect result.
Watt had a career-high three sacks in Houston's 34-31 overtime win over Detroit on Thanksgiving. Take him away, and the rest of the Texans have only 15½ sacks all season and now outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who has 2½, is out indefinitely with a groin injury.
The Texans (10-1) have still kept right on winning and can clinch a playoff berth with win at Tennessee (4-7) on Sunday. But the defense can't ignore the fact that it's given up an average of 395.5 yards passing and six touchdown catches in the last two games.
"I'm proud of my boys, because each week, got to find a way to win, and we keep winning," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "But you can't just sit and act like the yardage didn't happen, the touchdowns didn't happen. A lot of the things we have not let happen this year, we let happen in the last two weeks.
"The defense that we are, we take pride in being one of the best," Smith said. "We definitely want to get that fixed, get a stop."
Smith has four sacks and Reed's injury creates an opportunity for first-round pick Whitney Mercilus, who has three sacks in the last four games. Mercilus led the nation in sacks last season at Illinois (16), and Phillips is hoping he blossoms like Reed did last season after Mario Williams was hurt.
"This is his time and he's got to come through for us," Phillips said of Mercilus.
Connor Barwin, who led the Texans with 11½ sacks last season, will move to the strong side with Reed out. Linebacker Bradie James, who worked with Phillips in Dallas and coordinates the defense on the field, is also questionable for Sunday with a hamstring injury. Darryl Sharpton has been filling James' play-calling role in just his third game back after a torn right quadriceps that sidelined him for a year.