Texans Season Preview Part 2: The D
Phillips will turn struggling defense around
By Barrett Walton, 1:28PM, Sat. Sep. 10, 2011
In my last installment, I talked about the Texans prolific offense and how Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster are set to lead the best offense in all of football. In part two of our season preview, we'll take a look at the defensive side of the ball.
Productive offensive football is nothing new if you've been following the Texans under Gary Kubiak's tutelage. Atrocious defense is also something you've probably become quite accustomed to. Kubiak has always been a bit too loyal to “his guys” when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. It's his biggest fault as a head coach. Over his first five seasons, Kubiak has had three defensive coordinators. None of them had any previous experience at the position and the results were as you might expect. The Texans have drafted for defense every year with four of the five first-round picks under Kubiak going to that side of the ball. Every year more talent is plugged in and the results were always the same. Lousy.
The issue has always been the scheme. The tidal wave of bad defense finally sunk the Texans in 2010, registering statistically one of the worst defenses of all time. The Texans were last or next to last in almost every defensive category including points allowed and yards allowed. (Not a recipe for success.)
Everything changed in February when the Texans hired Wade Phillips to become the defensive coordinator. Phillips, a much-maligned head coach, is considered to be one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL. He runs a defensive scheme named after him, the “Phillips 3-4." We'll go into detail about how this 3-4 differs from some of the other schemes that utilize three down linemen in a bit. Phillips has taken a defense from one of the worst in the league to one playing in the playoffs five different times in his career. The Texans are counting on one last defensive turnaround. They're also hoping it will be his last opportunity to do so. After a disappointing 0-6 start in Dallas, Phillips was fired as the Cowboys head coach. Phillips has a history in Houston. His father, Bum Phillips, was the head coach of the Houston Oilers during the “Love Ya Blue” era. Wade got his first defensive coordinator job under his father.
Phillips is at a critical point in his career where the Texans may have lucked out in snagging him at just the right time. Phillips could be with the Texans for many years to come. When asked if he thought he would ever be a head coach again in the NFL, Wade responded that he didn't think he would be. Too bad for Wade, but good for the Texans. Phillips is known as a flexible teacher, a mastermind who designs his defenses around what his players do well rather than forcing them to learn what he does well.
This concept is one reason that his defenses have always shown dramatic improvement over a short period of time. Playing defense requires players to react quickly and instinctively. The less a player has to think, the faster he can react. Phillips also works heavily on technique and fundamentals, another way that players are able to improve quickly over a short period of time.
The Texans aren't short on talent on the defensive side of the ball, but they have never had someone coaching them with a proven system that has been proven to work. The word around the locker room in Houston is that if you just buy in to what Phillips is asking you to do, you will be successful. Those must be refreshing things to hear from guys like DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams who have suffered through repeated failing schemes that didn't make the most of their natural abilities. Much adieu has been made about Mario Williams “switch” to the outside linebacker position in the Phillips 3-4. Let me tell you, it's a nonissue. The Phillips 3-4 is not a 3-4 at all, but what is called a 5-2. Deploying five players on the line of scrimmage for the majority of first- and second-down plays. Williams will line up as an outside linebacker on the weak side where he'll be asked to rush the quarterback on nearly every play, just like he has done from a three-point stance as a defensive end for his entire career.
In “passing downs” on third and long, the outside linebackers will drop to the defensive end position and the defense will line up with four down linemen in a more traditional 4-3 nickle look. You won't typically see three linebackers in those situations though. In a passing situation, Houston will most likely line up in a nickle or dime formation with more defensive backs on the field to play the likely event of a pass coming on third and long.
After three preseason games (in the fourth game no starters played) the Texans had one of the top-ranked defenses in the league in yards allowed, points allowed, sacks, and takeaways. (A good recipe for success!) It's only the preseason, but already the defense is showing returns on its investment.
The Texans drafted defensive end J.J Watt in the first round this year and outside linebacker Brooks Reed in the second. Both Watt and Reed have looked better than anyone expected. (And they were expected to look very good!) It's clear that they are both primed to be big-time contributors in 2011.
The defensive line will be anchored by Watt who has an uncanny knack for batting down balls at the line of scrimmage. Second year nose tackle Earl Mitchell and veteran Shaun Cody will share reps but expect Mitchell to solidify the starting spot early in the season. Antonio Smith moves back in to his natural position as a 3-4 end. Smith is a violent, ferocious pass rusher who our staff at Texans Bull Blog has been amazed by since he came to the Texans in 20--.
The Texans secondary was one of the worst I've ever seen last year. but how quickly things change. Houston was considered a front-runner for star free agent corner Nnamdi Asomugha. The Texans ended up getting the second-best corner available in cornerback, Jonathan Joseph. Joseph is a better free agent pickup in my opinion. He's younger than Asomugha, and was obtained for a reasonable price. Danieal Manning, a safety who was allowed to walk in Chicago, will help to solidify a secondary that will return only one starter. The Texans best cornerback last season was Glover Quin. Quin is a smart, physical player with excellent instincts. He has been moved to safety where most believe he's a more natural fit. He has already shown flashes in the preseason that he's going be exceptional at his new position. The entire linbacking corps is coming off of injury but all are expected to be 100% on opening day. Strong side linebacker Connor Barwin was set to have a breakout year in 2010 when he suffered a separated ankle on opening day against the Colts. DeMeco Ryans is coming off of Achilles' surgery. Brian Cushing is coming off of patella surgery and has been slow to return to form although he has looked progressively more explosive from week to week. Mario Williams was placed on injured reserve for the final few weeks of the season last year due to a sports hernia. I suppose we should address the Mario Williams topic. Let me go ahead and put this in writing. The Texans Bull Blog staff are not huge fans of Williams. We think he is incredibly gifted. We also think he doesn't always give maximum effort on every play. He is one of the best run defenders in the league but as a pass rusher he can completely destroy a double-team on one play and get manhandled by a tight end on another. If he plays with the kind of relentless effort that rookies Watt and Reed play with, he wculd be the best pass rusher in the NFL. The national media made front-page news of the decision by Wade Phillips to move Mario to outside linebacker. Initially, Phillips had planned to line him up as a 5 technique defensive end. (Watt's current position.) It is my belief that prior to the draft the Texans weighed their options and it was decided that if they could not trade up to get Von Miller out of Texas A&M that they would move Mario to outside linebacker and draft J.J. Watt. While I don't believe that this decision was based around Williams “elite” status like many do, I do believe that it was a safe decision due to Watt's value as compared to any 3-4 rushing linebackers in the draft.
Mario will be effective in Wade's scheme I assure you. But the Texans will have a big decision to make after this season. Williams is in the final year of his contract. I feel the Texans are in a “wait and see” mode with Mario. If he's able to put up production similar to DeMarcus Ware in Dallas, then they will pay him elite money. If he doesn't take to the position and becomes more of a role player, which is how I see this playing out, I believe the Texans general manager, Rick Smith, will exercise his option to let Mario walk and Brooks Reed will take his place.
It's going to be fun to watch this defense regardless of how well Williams plays. The Texans showed about half of their scheme in the preseason and were able to provide constant pressure on the quarterback. The run defense is a weakness by design. In a traditional 3-4 defense you typically have a large, space-eating nose tackle whose job is to take on double teams and allow the linebackers to make plays. In the Phillips 3-4 nose tackles play off the center and are asked to penetrate the gaps between the center and guard in order to collapse the pocket and force the quarterback into the path of the rushing outside linebackers coming off the edge. When a team has big physical offensive linemen they will be able to move the line forward and the run-stopping duties will fall on the middle linebackers and safeties. So you can expect to see some teams run on the Texans this year but don't be too concerned. The NFL is a passing league and with the Texans offense on the other side of the ball, no team is going to beat Houston by grinding it out for four quarters.
A decade of irrelevance has left the national media with a term for Houston, “The Same Ol' Texans." Loaded with talent, but eternally disappointing, national “experts” have largely chosen to pick other teams to do well after they've been burned by thinking the Texans had finally put it together. Brace yourselves Austin, this is not the same ol' Texans. The offense is primed to be the top offense in the league. The defense is being run by one of the best defensive minds in the game today and he has superior talent at multiple positions. Both sides of the ball are loaded with talent.
This is our year.
[Barrett Walton is the managing editor of Texans Bull Blog. Visit www.texansbullblog.com for news, analysis and commentary about the Houston Texans.]