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 ½ 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.
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