With Andre Johnson likely out till at least Week 12, the Texans turn to the besttight ends in football
NFL coaches are notorious for breaking down the regular season into four different four-game blocks. It's a way to cut up a long year into segments — and create mini goals along the way. Somehow, four sets of four games doesn't seem as daunting as 16.
This common exercise carries extra meaning for the 2011 Houston Texans though — because of one achy right leg.
The Texans went 3-1 in their first block with all-everything wide receiver Andre Johnson in the lineup. Gary Kubiak's team went 2-2 without Johnson in the second block. And now the Texans enter block three with no sign that Johnson will return anytime soon. He's out for this Sunday afternoon's home game against the 3-4 Cleveland Browns for sure.
And your last name has to be Kubiak if you think he's going to return before Week 12 now. The Texans play at Tampa Bay next week and then have their bye week, meaning Johnson could get two more weeks of recovery time while only missing one additional game. The Nov. 27 Thanksgiving weekend game at Jacksonville looks more and more like the real target return date.
Johnson sounds more uncertain than ever about his return, having shifted to talking about trying to "stay positive."
"Owen Daniels is the clutchest player I've ever been around," Joel Dreessen says.
That means life without Andre continues — which makes life with the best tight ends in football even more important.
Oh, individually, the Texans tight ends cannot compare to players like New Orleans rookie Jimmy Graham — a third round pick who is Sports Illustrated influencer Peter King's tight end pick for his midseason all-pro team — or the Dallas Cowboys Jason Witten on the stat sheet. But together, Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen are helping to carry the Texans' passing game sans Johnson. They're arguably the best duo of tight ends in league (as much as the New England Patriots might take umbrage).
Daniels is as dangerous as any tight end in the league, an athletic 6-foot-3 target with go-get-it hands. With Johnson out, smart defensive teams have taken to often doubling Daniels, recognizing he's now Houston's biggest threat in the passing game.
Yet, Daniels has still managed to make maybe the two biggest catches of the Texans season — on third-and-6 late in the fourth quarter in a win over the now 6-2 Pittsburgh Steelers, on third-and-5 late in last week's win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Both of those catches came on low throws from quarterback Matt Schaub, on balls near Daniels' shoelaces.
The one against Jacksonville included the added element of difficulty of a referee almost completely blocking Daniels' view of the football until the last possible moment.
"Owen Daniels is the clutchest player I've ever been around," Dreessen says. "He makes plays that win games."
Wearing his typical off-the-field blue jeans and a flannel shirt after the Jaguars game, Daniels explains it terms of responsibility rather than some mysterious, ice-veined skill set.
Andre Johnson sounds more uncertain than ever about his return, having shifted to talking about trying to "stay positive."
"I think everyone wants the chance to make those type of plays for the team," Daniels says. "When the game's tight and you need to make a play, you want the ball to come your way.
"That's how I've always been. You want to be the guy to step up and help the team."
Dreessen's stepping up in the red zone, scoring two touchdowns inside the 20 — a sometime trouble zone for these Texans — in the last two weeks. He only caught four balls all together in those two games, but one of those was a Dwight Clark-worthy number where he sky-ed high to pluck the ball away from a Jaguars defensive back in the end zone. Dreessen is an even slighter taller (6-foot-4) target than Daniels and he's making the most of his reach in the scoring zone when the field can feel compacted for even the best of offenses.
"You have to go get the football," says Dreessen, a sixth-round draft pick who's lasted six seasons in the NFL (and counting). "If you have a chance in this offense, you'd better go get it and make sure you make that catch. If you don't the ball's going to be headed somewhere else because we've got a lot of weapons."
It's a testament to Daniels' talent, Dreessen's determination and Kubiak's creativity that the Texans' tight end duo has become such a reliable two-headed weapon with Johnson out. Who knows when Johnson will return?
For now, the Texans can only sit tight as they move into another block.