Nationals

Houston aims to be NFL's top defense

201211112137778479841-p2.jpeg

Houston aims to be NFL's top defense

HOUSTON (AP) Just before the season, Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was asked what he wanted from his defense in 2012 after the unit made a remarkable turnaround to finish second in the NFL in yards allowed last season.

Phillips didn't say a word. He simply raised one index finger.

The Texans haven't reached that mark yet, and they remain No. 2. That, they say, gives them something to work toward.

``We're working extremely hard to make that happen,'' defensive end J.J. Watt said. ``We attack every day with that intensity and that mentality.''

That was clear in Sunday night's 13-6 win over Chicago when Houston forced four turnovers.

The Texans are allowing 281.6 yards a game, behind only Pittsburgh. They are also among the top teams in several other defensive categories. Houston is third in scoring (15.9), tied for fourth in interceptions (11) and have allowed the third fewest touchdowns (15).

Houston has rebounded from its only loss - a 42-24 defeat by Green Bay - with three straight dominant defensive outings. They've allowed just one touchdown since the loss.

``It's important that we play well every week,'' nose tackle Shaun Cody said. ``We know we want to put our offense in a good position to get the ball a lot, and it's going to lead to some good things.''

Watt has emerged as one of the top defenders in the league. He leads the NFL in sacks with 10 1/2 and has knocked down 10 passes. The constant attention he receives has given other Texans chances to make plays. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin has come on lately, piling up 13 tackles and two sacks in the last three games.

The Texans have come a long, long way from the days when there were concerns about Phillips changing the alignment, and then in the offseason, Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans left for other teams. More questions came when star linebacker Brian Cushing was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 5 and the loss to the Packers came the next week.

The defense has been great since then, and Barwin said they are driven by the thought of becoming the best in the league.

``That's something that we've all thought about all year long,'' Barwin said. ``We pay attention to where we're at. At the end of the year is what matters. So hopefully at the end of the year we'll be No. 1.''

Houston's secondary has been helped by the solid play up front. Phillips inherited a pass defense that allowed an NFL-worst 267.5 yards passing per game in 2010. Last year, the group gave up the third fewest at just 189.7 yards a game.

They're currently in third again by allowing 196 yards passing a game.

Cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who along with Phillips sparked the transformation of the secondary last season, is focused on being the best defense. But he noted that the statistics aren't the top priority.

``We always want to be known as the best defense and the best team,'' he said. ``But in our minds it's all about helping the team win games by playing dominate defense and being the top defense. What's most important is winning ball games.''

The Texans have done a lot of that this season. They're off to the best start in franchise history and tied for the NFL's best record at 8-1. Joseph has been impressed that they've been able to remain one of the top defenses for a second straight season.

``Going out and doing it every week (is) probably the hardest part about having a great defense,'' he said. ``You see teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore that did it for five, 10 years-plus. To go out and do it this last year and this year and keep up the same style of defense is something that you can build on and look toward the future.''

Houston plays Jacksonville on Sunday in a rematch of a Week 2 win by the Texans. Houston's defense starred in that 27-7 victory by allowing Jacksonville to gain just nine first downs and 117 yards.

The Texans are guarding against a letdown this week against the Jaguars (1-8).

``There's always room for improvement, but right now it's just about going out and being better than we were the week before,'' Joseph said.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

John Gant homers, pitches Cardinals to 6-4 win over Nationals

usatsi_11081531.png
USA TODAY Sports

John Gant homers, pitches Cardinals to 6-4 win over Nationals

ST. LOUIS -- Even John Gant cracked a smile.

Gant homered for his first major league hit and pitched one-run ball into the sixth inning, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Washington Nationals 6-4 on Tuesday night for their season-high seventh consecutive victory.

Kolten Wong had three hits and three RBIs as St. Louis (65-55) pulled within four games of the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs and moved within one game of the Philadelphia Phillies for the second NL wild card. The Cardinals also improved to 18-9 since Mike Shildt was named interim manager on July 13, the most wins for a manager through his first 27 games in franchise history.

"Things are starting to click for us," Wong said. "We're playing confident. We're out there playing aggressive and I think it's the kind of baseball Cardinals fans have been waiting for."

The Nationals (60-60) have dropped six of eight to fall eight games behind Atlanta in the NL East.

"We've just got to keep pulling the same rope, keep grinding it out, keep trying to win ballgames," Nationals slugger Bryce Harper said.

Gant (5-4) permitted four hits and struck out six in 5 1/3 innings. He has given up just two earned runs over 11 1/3 innings in his last two starts, both wins.

The 26-year-old Gant was 0 for 30 for his career when he drove a 1-1 pitch from Gio Gonzalez (7-9) over the wall in left in the second. The two-run shot gave Washington a 3-0 lead.

"I was jogging kind of my hands in the air," said Wong, who scored on Gant's homer. "I already knew it was going out. Looking back I think he almost caught me."

Added Gant, "I thought it was going to hit the wall maybe but when I finally looked up and (Wong) was looking back at me, that's when I knew it was going over the wall."

Gant, who has a reputation for being a stoic player, admitted to smiling "once or twice" once he got back to the dugout.

Wong's solo homer made it 6-1 in the sixth, but Washington responded with three in the eighth. Harper hit a two-run shot, and Daniel Murphy singled in Anthony Rendon.

Matt Adams then struck out looking against Dakota Hudson, ending the inning, and Jordan Hicks worked the ninth for his fourth save in eight chances.

Paul DeJong also doubled and scored for St. Louis one night after he connected for a game-ending homer in a 7-6 victory. Matt Carpenter walked in the sixth to extend his on-base streak to 32 games.

"We have a 25-man roster and we have confidence in all of them," Shildt said. "They're here for a reason and guys are looking to contribute every night and in different ways."

Gonzalez was charged with five runs and five hits in four innings. The veteran left-hander is just 1-4 in his last six starts.

"I wasn't hitting my spots," Gonzalez said. "Just not being as consistent in the strike zone as I should be. It's just one of those games you can't explain."

MORE NATS NEWS:

Quick Links

Need to Know: Redskins have faith in their young cornerbacks but will keep their options open

Need to Know: Redskins have faith in their young cornerbacks but will keep their options open

RICHMOND—Here is what you need to know on Wednesday, August 15, one day before the Washington Redskins host the Jets in their second preseason game. 

Talking points

The Redskins paid Orlando Scandrick $1 million and he didn’t play so much as a preseason snap for them. The money is gone, and the Redskins are left with what is mostly a youthful group at cornerback

The senior citizen is Josh Norman, who is 30 and entering his seventh NFL season. Quinton Dunbar is next on the age scale at 26. Those two will be the starters at cornerback on the outside. After them, youth rules the day. 

Fabian Moreau, 22, will take the slot corner position that Scandrick was going to fill. He is in his second NFL season having played just 59 snaps as a rookie. 

That’s 59 more NFL snaps than the next three players on the depth chart have combined. Rookies Greg Stroman, a seventh-round pick this year, Adonis Alexander, a supplemental sixth-round pick, and undrafted free agent Danny Johnson, all 22 years old, are the next men up if any of the top three on the depth chart falter or get injured. 

“I’m very impressed with them all,” said Jay Gruden. “You know, obviously Adonis not as much because he just got here, and he’s been hurt but he’s got the skill set that we’ve noticed, as far as your sixth corner, I think he’d be a very good guy to have in your building to develop. Watching Stroman and watching Danny Johnson compete and play, I’ve been impressed. Watching Fabian move inside, I’ve been very impressed.”

That all sounds good. However, Gruden made sure that everyone knows that the cornerback depth chart is not set in stone.

“We still have time if it doesn’t work out or if somebody gets injured, we still have time to make moves also ourselves,” he said.

The Redskins have about nine practices and three preseason games before they have to set their roster. If it proves that their confidence in the young corners is not well founded, they could look to pick up an alternative on the waiver wire, in the free agent market (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is still available), or via a trade.

The best-case is that the kids work out. But if not, there are alternatives. 

Bureau of statistics

The 2017 Redskins were sixth in the league in pass defense according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. 

Trending on social

The agenda

Today: No media availability

Upcoming: Preseason Jets @ Redskins (Aug. 16) 1 day; Final cut (Sept. 1) 17 days; Season opener @ Cardinals (Sept. 9) 25 days

In case you missed it

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page,Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler