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The Houston Texans defense is what we thought it was

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For the first half of the season, the Houston Texans defense was a mess. But something changed.

So apparently getting completely blown out by the Dolphins is a good wake up call.

Back on October 25th, the Texans got rolled by Miami to the tune of 44-26 after yielding 503 yards, falling to 2-5 and fading into what looked to be an awful season. The Hard Knocks hype was gone. There was drama surrounding the quarterback position. Just as worrisome was the fact that the highly lauded Houston defense was a mess.

Four weeks later, with a tip of the cap to the rest of the AFC South for continued mediocrity, the Texans have turned their season around and are on the cusp of an unlikely playoffs berth. During the month of November, Houston ran the table and beat the Titans, Bengals, Jets, and Saints, and they did so on the shoulders of some incredible defense.

They're led, obviously, by the inimitable J.J. Watt, who might be the league's most dominant and unstoppable defender since the days of Reggie White. Watt made the NFL's decision to name him the NFL Defensive Player of the Month for November an easy one as he recorded an NFL-best 7.5 sacks, 26 quarterback hits and nine tackles for loss, along with one forced fumble and 20 total tackles (16 solo).

In that time, the Texans went from middling to downright bad in most traditional stats to one of the league's best. If you like efficiency stats like Football Outsiders DVOA, consider this: After 7 weeks, Houston's defense was ranked 30th by DVOA. After 12 weeks, their defense is now ranked 9th in DVOA (6th against the pass, 20th against the run).

It's been a remarkable turnaround, bordering on insane. Here's the difference in opponent scoring from Weeks 1-7 and since Week 8:

Here's how it breaks down in terms of yardage over those two spans:

And here are the full numbers.

TEXANS RECORD OPP PPG OPP YARDS PER GAME OPP COMP % OPP YARDS PER PLAY OPP YARDS PER PASS OPP PASS YARDS PER GAME OPP PASS TD INT OPP YARDS PER RUSH OPP RUSH YARDS PER GAME OPP RUSH TD OPP 1ST DOWNS SACKS TAKE AWAYS
WEEKS 1-7 2 - 5 28.4 370.9 60.9 5.71 7.2 242 16 5 4.38 128.9 7 149 13 7
WEEKS 8-12 4 - 0 8.75 250.2 57.9 4.79 4.75 180.5 1 5 3.94 70 1 61 16 8

During Houston's first seven weeks, in which they started out 2-5, the supposed identity and heart and soul of the team -- the defense -- was surrendering 28.4 points per game, 370.9 yards, had given up 16 touchdown passes and only intercepted the ball five times. The defensive line featuring J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney had registered just 13 sacks and the defense had forced just seven turnovers.

Over the past four games, the stats show just how dominant the Texans have been. They're giving up an incredible 8.75 points per game (and in three of their last four, haven't surrendered a touchdown). They're holding opposing teams to 180.5 passing yards per game, have only given up ONE passing touchdown, and have picked off the ball five times and registered eight takeaways.

The raw numbers can always be hard to sort out without some context, so let's consider the rankings for all teams over their last four games.

TEXANS RECORD OPP PPG OPP YARDS PER GAME OPP COMP % OPP YARDS PER PLAY OPP PASS YARDS PER GAME OPP PASS TD INT OPP YARDS PER RUSH OPP RUSH YARDS PER GAME OPP RUSH TD OPP 1ST DOWNS SACKS TAKE AWAYS
WEEKS 1-7 2 - 5 28th 21st 24th 21st 13th 30th 19th 24th 29th 25th 23rd 20th 30th
WEEKS 8-12 4 - 0 1st 1st 10th 1st 1st 1st T-7th 18th 2nd T-2nd 2nd 1st T-5th

In the last month (or last four games for every team), Houston leads the NFL in opponent points per game, opponent yards per game, opponent yards per play, opponent pass yards per game, opponent touchdowns, and have the most sacks. They're tied for second best in opponent rushing touchdowns and rushing yards per game.

The splits, as you can see above, in terms of rankings over their first seven games versus their last four games shows you the kind of Jekyll and Hyde change they've gone through.

Strength of schedule is obviously a component of this but consider their last four opponents are currently ranked 29th (Titans), 1st (Bengals), 15th (Jets) and 11th (Saints) per DVOA. That's not the defense taking advantage of a cushy schedule save for doing what they should've done in shutting down Tennessee.

It all starts with J.J. Watt. The All-Pro has slapped the Houston defense out of its slumber and has them firing on all cylinders. But he hasn't done it alone, obviously. He's getting help from defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who has 4.5 sacks during their win streak. Jadeveon Clowney is back on the field, providing a boost, and behind those three, Brian Cushing is having an outstanding season. Cushing has 84 tackles and his intensity has been a catalyst for improvement in the middle of the field for Houston, and as a team, tackling has improved significantly. It's crazy how something so simple can have a profound impact on the health of a defense, but if you watched that first half of the Dolphins blowout, the Houston tackling was atrocious.

Importantly, on the back end, with the help of some excellent pressure from Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus, among others, the secondary has capitalized with five picks in four games, matching the total they produced in the season's first seven games. They're creating turnovers and it's winning them games.

There's a long way to go, and they do have a couple of big tests over the next two weeks. They'll have the chance to prove that their defense is the real deal on Sunday by shutting down the ninth ranked (by DVOA) offense in Buffalo then they can turn around and host the second-ranked Patriots offense at home the week after. Houston is currently tied for the lead in the AFC South, and with the way that side of the ball has been playing, they may only need to get a game-manager role out of Brian Hoyer to win the division and host a playoff game come January.