How the Houston Texans Can Get the Most out of Ed Reed
Former Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed secured his place in the NFL Hall of Fame after his 11 seasons with the franchise that drafted the former University of Miami prospect. However, just like Joe Montana, Brett Favre and many more of the all-time greats, Reed won't finish his career where he established himself.
At this late stage of his career, the Texans aren't adding a Hall of Fame-caliber safety. Reed isn't the same physically as he was when he became the 24th pick of the 2002 NFL draft. His 61 interceptions, 504 tackles, 11 forced fumbles and 13 total touchdowns during those 159 starts for the Ravens are all behind him now.
Now he is an old man in a position that is supposed to be dominated by the younger, more athletic players in the league.
Reed's physical decline can be traced back to the 2010 season. Offseason hip surgery forced him to sit out the first six games of the season on the physically unable to perform list.
Reed returned to his dominant self that season, however. He set the tone for his season by forcing a fumble and intercepting two Ryan Fitzpatrick passes during his first game back before going on to lead the league in interceptions with eight in 10 starts.
Since the end of that season, he hasn't missed a single start. However, he has had to deal with multiple injury issues and his play on the field has been affected. An ailing neck issue made him contemplate retirement ahead of the 2012 season, although that may have been a contract negotiation ploy, while a torn labrum in his shoulder dramatically affected his tackling ability.
While playing through those injuries, Reed managed just seven interceptions in 32 regular-season starts. That is one fewer than he had during just 10 starts from the 2010 season. Interceptions aren't an accurate portrayal of a player's whole performance, but for Reed they have always been the edge that sharpens his reputation.
So even though he is still the active leader in interceptions, Reed shouldn't be expected to be a major difference-maker in Houston.
Furthermore, he hasn't been able to practice with his new teammates this offseason because of a hip injury that could keep him out of the season opener. Instead of being an intimidating defensive back with a unique skill set that terrifies quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs alike, Reed appears to be a broken veteran who can no longer handle the rigours that come with playing football.
But betting against Reed has rarely been a smart move.
Reed built his career off smarts and his ability to make quarterbacks think they could get the better of him. Therefore, it's no surprise that he immediately made the smartest of moves when it came time to finding a new home outside of Baltimore.
As soon as the 2012 season ended, the first-time Super Bowl champion sent a message to Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson that said, "Get me to Houston." Maybe it's Reed's relationship with Johnson or the general optimism surrounding the franchise that brought him to Houston, but it appears to be for much more precise reasons than either of those options.
A case can be made that there is no better place in the league to play free safety than in Houston.
More importantly, a case can be made that there is no better place in the league for Reed to play than in Houston.
Reed doesn't have the same range he once had. Those interceptions when he baited the quarterback by disguising his intentions with his agility or reading the play and arriving just at the right time are now tougher to make. He can't play the Earl Thomas role at all and struggled to even play his role in Baltimore over the last two years at times.
With the Texans, he should have a very different role to fill, though.
In Houston, Reed will get to play with one of the very best cover cornerbacks in the NFL, Johnathan Joseph. It must be noted that Reed played with one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Lardarius Webb, for much of the last two seasons also, but there are very important differences between the two.
Joseph is a pure cover cornerback who can excel in man or zone coverage lined up outside against any style of receiver. Webb is a physical, intimidating playmaker who did much of his best work in the slot in nickel packages. Both are very valuable commodities in today's NFL, but as a teammate, Joseph should do a lot more to help Reed than Webb did.
For any safety who specialises in playing deep coverage, how much room they have to cover is vital. Those who play with poor or average cornerbacks are often more susceptible to manipulation from the quarterback because they can't cheat to either side of the field.
Those who play with one very good cornerback and one average cornerback are more likely to try and force the quarterback to throw to their stronger side of the field.
The distinctions between those safeties are very subtle, but when you compare either safety to someone playing with a shutdown cornerback, that distinction can become much clearer.
Joseph can be a shutdown cornerback. During the 2012 season he had a successful coverage percentage of 74.8, according to Pre-Snap Reads. That number isn't on the same level as a Richard Sherman, Stephon Gilmore, Leon Hall or Brandon Flowers, but it doesn't take into account the injury issues he battled through.
Without even considering the injury issues he dealt with, Joseph was a very good cornerback last season. When you look at his track record and how he played without those injury issues, he was as much of a shutdown cornerback as any defense could ask for.
Although he didn't face a large portion of the top receivers in the league last season, the ones he did face he did a very good job against. Joseph obviously has the talent to contain the best receivers in the league. And he routinely shuts down lesser talents at the position.
Most importantly for Reed, he is able to cover the better receivers in the league without requiring safety help.
On this play, Joseph is lined up across from Demaryius Thomas. Thomas is a blindingly fast receiver in space, so Joseph has dropped off the line of scrimmage to give himself a cushion.
Joseph's acceleration in tight spaces is phenomenal, so even from this position he can make plays on shallower routes. Furthermore, his open-field tackling is excellent, so he is not susceptible to a big play from a quick pass into the flat.
As the play develops, it becomes clear that Joseph has no safety help. The deep safety to the center of the field has stayed inside the hash marks and is more concerned with the receiver running up the seam. This leaves Joseph in space against a receiver with two ways to go.
Thomas initially sets up to run inside, which draws Joseph forward. However, Joseph's feet are so quick and precise that he doesn't overcommit to the in route to leave himself vulnerable to the double move.
Instead, Joseph is already shifting his weight backwards as Thomas comes out of his break.
Ultimately, the throw has no chance of being completed and is more likely to be intercepted because of Joseph's outstanding coverage.
A double move in space against one of the fastest receivers in the league is one of the most difficult assignments a cornerback can face. Joseph handled this one with relative ease.
Even if you look at a receiver who is a more polished route runner, only the very best would have Thomas' speed combination to actually gain separation from Joseph down the sideline.
Presuming Joseph is healthy this season, Reed will be put into the position of the safety in the above diagram more often than he was in Baltimore. That safety is still playing the middle of the field, but he has no intention of drifting to Joseph's side with the other receivers occupying him.
Over the past two seasons, five of Reed's seven interceptions came from situations where he was either cheating to one side of the field from the snap or when the offense naturally closed off one side of the field.
For a player who is declining physically but still has all of his intelligence and ball skills, that is the ideal situation.
Being overextended in coverage was an issue for Reed last season. He was playing on a defense that was littered with injury issues and didn't play to the level of previous seasons. Of course, none of that mattered because they were still able to perform and win the Super Bowl, but it is important to note when evaluating Reed's potential impact in 2013.
Houston isn't just the perfect spot for Reed because of Johnathan Joseph. There are other teams with shutdown cornerbacks.
Playing for the Texans is perfect for him because the defensive personnel around him will allow him to focus on what he does best: read the quarterback and look to make a play on the football.
Reed missed an astonishing 21 tackles last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Part of that is due to his tendency to try and force a fumble instead of wrapping up ball-carriers, while another part must be attributed to his shoulder issue. Regardless of what was to blame, the simple fact is that Reed is much better in coverage than he is as an in-the-box safety these days.
Much like Bernard Pollard did for him in Batlimore, the Texans have Danieal Manning to be Reed's ideal strong safety complement.
Manning is so similar to Pollard that he actually replaced Pollard in Houston when he left for Baltimore.
Not only is Manning there to allow Reed to spend more time deeper in the secondary, the Texans also have one of the strongest front sevens in the NFL at stopping the run. And they have an All-Pro-caliber linebacker, Brian Cushing, who can cover tight ends in man coverage if fully healthy. That takes the pressure off of Reed to cover tight ends at all, while he should be less involved in run support.
Not to mention, having the most disruptive player in the league, J.J. Watt, chasing down the quarterback and tipping passes on a consistent basis is an added benefit that wasn't there in Baltimore.
Of course, all of this is irrelevant if Reed doesn't find his way onto the field.
Even in that sense it's a positive that he landed in Houston opposed to anywhere else. In the AFC South, the Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be fully focused on building for the long-term, the Tennessee Titans are building for the short-term but have a major question mark at the quarterback position, while the Indianapolis Colts are very reliant on Andrew Luck.
The Colts could snatch the title away from the Texans, but even if Reed misses half the season, the Texans have an overwhelming talent advantage in the softer conference. They should waltz into the playoffs.
If Reed does play the full season, he will get the opportunity to play six games against three quarterbacks who have very little experience. Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne will start in Jacksonville. Either player would be very susceptible to Reed's ability to bait young quarterbacks. Jake Locker could suffer a similar fate, but his accuracy alone will make Reed optimistic of coming away with a turnover.
The only outlier in the division is Luck. A supposed heir to Peyton Manning's throne who arguably eclipsed what Manning did during his rookie season as a starter, Luck was simply phenomenal during his rookie season.
The one knock on him was that he was prone to turnovers.
With better production on the offensive line and more experience, that should be less of an issue, but even greats such as Manning and Tom Brady have always had to be wary of Reed in the past. Luck is unlikely to be any different, especially since the Colts look to allow him to play through his mistakes instead of sheltering him from them.
Even though the Houston Texans aren't really acquiring a Hall of Fame safety this offseason, that doesn't mean he won't still be a productive and valued member of a winning team. Many of the talents Reed has shown throughout his career shouldn't go away with age. He has never been overly reliant on his physical attributes, so he shouldn't be overly affected by the loss of them.
It's the responsibility of the rest of the Texans' defense to put him in the best possible position to make plays. As old as Reed is, he is probably still the player most would want in position to make a game-changing defensive play.
A lot needs to go right, but it's not unrealistic to speculate that Reed could return to his All-Pro level of production this season.
You can follow Cian Fahey on Twitter @Cianaf
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