- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

HOUSTON (AP) - Texans coach Gary Kubiak has insisted his defense was improving, even as opponents continued to pile up big plays and points.

Houston finally backed him up Sunday, beating Tennessee 20-0 for the franchise’s first shutout since 2004.

There’s no time to relax, though. The Texans (5-6) have a quick turnaround before facing Michael Vick and high-powered Philadelphia (7-4) on Thursday night.

Vick leads the NFL with a 106.0 passer rating, and Philadelphia ranks second in total offense (399.3 yards per game) and points per game (28.2).

That would seem to be another mismatch for a Houston defense giving up 386.4 yards and 286 yards passing per game.

Lately, though, a few changes have produced a subtle turnaround and Kubiak is encouraged.

Kevin Bentley has moved into the middle linebacker position, allowing Brian Cushing to go back to his more familiar spot on the outside.

Kubiak has reduced the work load for rookie cornerback Kareem Jackson, who’s allowed long passes in Houston’s losses. And defensive coordinator Frank Bush has moved from the press box to the sideline, improving communication with his players.

“We’ve done some things differently,” Kubiak said. “All those things together have got it balanced out a little bit. And really, for the first time in a while, we’ve had the same guys on the field for about three weeks. That sure helps.”

Houston’s defense was struggling even before All-Pro middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon on Oct. 17.

Cushing, who was suspended for the first four games, played middle linebacker for the next two games, both Houston losses.

Bentley, who was Ryans’ backup, has played middle linebacker for the past three games. He intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble in Houston’s 30-27 loss to the New York Jets two weeks ago.

The switch has also spurred Cushing closer to the form that earned him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2009. Cushing led Houston with seven tackles on Sunday, including four for losses.

“Everyone is where they need to be, and the calls have been simplified a little bit,” Cushing said. “We’re really comfortable, finally. It took a little bit of time, but I think we are where we need to be.”

The Texans held the Titans to 162 yards on Sunday, easily Houston’s best defensive performance of the season. Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson finished with a career-low 5 yards rushing, and rookie quarterback Rusty Smith threw three interceptions to Glover Quin.

Houston has four interceptions in the past two games after getting only five through the first nine. Bush says the Texans are not only making more plays lately, but also reducing mental miscues.

“A lot of mistakes have been cut down, guys are playing faster, playing harder, they’re more conscious of what’s going on,” Bush said. “Really, they’ve just taken ownership of everything we’re doing. They’re starting to believing that it’s their defense, and not just me making calls.”

But the Texans say that having Bush on the sideline for the past two games may be the biggest factor of all in the recent progress.

“We’re a lot more interactive with him,” Cushing said. “We can talk over our problems right there, instead of through the phone on every other series.”

Safety Bernard Pollard said Bush has also brought some much-needed energy to the field.

“Having Frank on the sideline, that’s a blast,” Pollard said. “He brings a lot of excitement to the sideline. He’s been snatching up players the last couple of weeks, having fun, and getting aggression out of that excitement.”

The Texans said they still have a long way to go, and they’ll get an idea of just how far against Vick and the Eagles.

Pollard is eager to see if Houston’s defense is up to the challenge.

“Good things come to people who keep working hard, and that’s the only thing we can do,” Pollard said. “All we can do is grind right now, continue to grind, and let the chips fall where they may.” Notes: The Texans waived DT Malcolm Sheppard and activated TE Anthony Hill from the physically unable to perform list. … Kubiak said TE Owen Daniels is “50-50” to playing on Thursday night after missing the past four games with a hamstring injury.

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