Is It Time for the Detroit Lions to Bench Chris Houston?

Jeff Risdon@@JeffRisdonContributor INovember 26, 2013

GREEN BAY, WI - OCTOBER 6:  James Jones #89 of the Green Bay Packers out runs Chris Houston #23 of the Detroit Lions for a touchdown at Lambeau Field on October 6, 2013 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo Tom Lynn /Getty Images)
Tom Lynn/Getty Images

To borrow the famous saying, "Houston, we have a problem."

That would be Chris Houston, whose unreliability in coverage has created quite the quandary for the Detroit Lions.

The veteran cornerback had his latest rough outing against Tampa Bay. Mike Glennon exploited Houston's soft coverage on Tiquan Underwood for a downfield completion, which Houston exacerbated with a weak tackling effort that made it appear as if he thought he was playing intramural flag football on some college green. 

Let's look at that play in more depth. 

This is a standard formation, with Houston aligned in off-man coverage on Underwood with a 10-yard cushion. Safety Louis Delmas is shaded to that side, offering the potential to help on the play.

NFL Game Rewind

Off the snap, Underwood runs a vertical route without a lot of deception; he takes off as fast as he can for the first 15 yards of his route. It's not a particularly good pattern as the receiver is gradually veering inside. He makes a soft break to the post at about the 30-yard line.

The problem is that Houston puts himself in position to fail from the get-go. Instead of facing either the receiver or the quarterback, his first move is to drop his head, turn his hips outside and cariocas (for a description of this movement check out this video on YouTube) down the field. 

He cannot sense Underwood progressively floating inside. He has no clue if Glennon is looking his way. This screen shot from NFL Game Rewind shows Houston perfectly square to the Tampa Bay sideline. It's one step before Underwood somewhat lazily turns this into a post pattern.

NFL Game Rewind

Houston is a dead duck at this point. Even though he quickly flips his hips and goes into chase mode, the extra time and motion of having to spin himself back into proper position costs him any chance of thwarting a good throw. 

NFL Game Rewind

Delmas was focused on Glennon and anticipates the throw to the tight end breaking outside. It's a poor read on his part, which leaves Houston all alone. Delmas was the paddle for his life raft, and now, Houston is up the proverbial stinky creek. 

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 24: Tiquan Underwood #11 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers catches a touchdown pass in front of Chris Houston #23 of the Detroit Lions in the fourth quarter at Ford Field on November 24, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Then comes the unacceptably weak tackling effort. Houston is faster than Underwood and catches up to him rather handily. However, instead of trying to clip his legs or, God forbid, wrap him up, he meekly tries to push the receiver down. Underwood's well-timed arm bar easily blunts it, and it's off to the end zone. 

Giving up big plays like this is a chronic issue for Chris Houston. One week earlier, he was easily beaten by Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown for a touchdown, giving up too much cushion and, then, badly missing a tackle. 

According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Houston has surrendered four touchdowns in coverage this season. That number isn't terrible, but a deeper look reveals the heart of the problem. 

Houston ranks No. 104 out of 110 eligible corners in yards per completion, giving up an appalling 17.7 yards on average. In overall pass coverage rankings, he currently sits No. 87 at negative-6.6. 

His propensity to give up back-breaking big plays is incredibly frustrating. At times, Houston can be quite sticky in coverage, and his run support is generally solid. He has demonstrated he can be physical with receivers in press coverage. 

That is part of the quandary with Houston. You never know what you're going to get from his box of chocolates. He can be sweet caramel and nougat for 60 plays in a game, but the other three snaps he winds up being the tree nut you're allergic to and brings you to the edge of death. 

He's never had good ball-awareness skills, and at this point in his career, he is not likely to progress. Lions fans weekly lament his inability to locate the ball in the air until it's too late. 

So, is that worthy of benching? 

This is where the context of the team complicates matters. Benching Houston would indicate that the team believes someone else currently on the roster can do a better job. 

The potential replacements are second-round rookie Darius Slay and second-year greenhorn Jonte Green. Thus far, neither has shown they are any more reliable than Houston. 

In fact, Slay has been even worse than Houston so far. His coverage score from Pro Football Focus is negative-7.4, and he's racked that up in a little over one-third the snaps of the starter has played. The rookie plays tentatively and quickly lost his starting role to Rashean Mathis for valid reason. 

Green might be a more appealing option. He played reasonably well in emergency relief-duty last year, starting a handful of games on the spinning carousel at corner in the dreadful 2012 season. Pro Football Focus graded him with a flat zero for his rookie campaign. 

Nov 19, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) is tackled by Detroit Lions cornerback Jonte Green (36) in the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The progress Green showed throughout that season was promising. He was learning on the fly, but he proved a quick study. Plays that beat him in Week 10 didn't beat him in Week 14. His grade fell off at the end because he, too, was playing hurt. 

Green has been active just once this season, and he played well against the Bears in Chicago in Week 4. He is fresh and healthy. Meanwhile, Houston is not at full strength, as noted by Lions insider Tim Twentyman:

S Louis Delmas (knee), CB Chris Houston (foot), DE Israel Idonije (knee), WR Calvin Johnson (knee) and S Glover Quin (ankle) didn't practice

— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) Nov. 25, 2013

I would advocate, at minimum, activating Jonte Green for the Packers game this week. If Houston winds up being able to play, then insert Green into the lineup over Slay and have the quick hook ready to yank the veteran. 

It's hard to say that Green deserves to start over Houston because we just haven't seen enough of the youngster. I strongly support giving him a chance to prove his mettle, but the team has powerful incentive to stick with Houston.

Before the season, Detroit signed him to a new contract worth $25 million over five years with $9.5 million guaranteed, according to Spotrac. That indicates long-term confidence and commitment to Houston, for better or worse. 

So, it looks as if Lions fans will have to live with Chris Houston for the foreseeable future. Coach Jim Schwartz's commitment to his veteran players is well-known, and it's extremely unlikely that Schwartz will bench Houston in favor of an unproven youngster.