Houston Texans Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Analysis
The "Bulls on Parade" defense was still solid, but their performance and the appeal of the nickname lost its edge last season.
The Houston Texans defense still ranked inside the top five for passing yards allowed but finished dead last in interceptions, 23rd in rushing yards allowed, 24th in points allowed and tied for 29th in sacks.
You could say that they have work to do coming into this season.
The addition of Wade Phillips helped the defense make a gigantic jump in the right direction in 2011, but as you saw by last year's numbers, they've been unable to sustain that early success. In 2011, it took the addition of a new coordinator, several free agents and rookies to turn the defense around.
It will take a similar commitment to fix their issues this time around.
The good news is they've already taken a great first step in that direction with the additions of Jadeveon Clowney and Louis Nix III. Those two players both fit huge needs on this defense, and their addition alone will make an impact.
It won't only be the rookies that the coaching staff will expect and need to perform quickly, though. They'll also need some familiar faces to fill bigger roles than in previous seasons.
A few players—like Jared Crick and Brandon Harris, who were used infrequently by the previous coaching staff—could get more playing time this year and be asked to fill bigger shoes. Both players should be capable of doing more than they have so far in their career, but how much more is a big question that needs to be answered before we know how good this defense can be.
Over the following slides, I'll break down where those two players fit at their position and who you should expect to see starting at every other position as well.
No mystery here: J.J. Watt will hold down one spot at defensive end for the Texans.
One thing many people—including myself—were initially concerned about was potential change in defensive philosophy under new coordinator Romeo Crennel. Under the previous system with Wade Phillips, Watt was allowed to play as a one-gap player and use his skill as a pass-rusher to get up the field.
While the Texans will still be playing in a 3-4 defense, Crennel's scheme is a more traditional version of the 3-4 than what the Texans played under Phillips. In Crennel's system, the defensive ends are typically asked to be a two-gap lineman and tasked with being a hole-plugger and run-stuffer more than a player who penetrates the line, which would limit the impact of Watt.
From Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, new head coach Bill O'Brien has put those fears to bed.
We have talked about a lot of different things. Our defense will be multiple. People always try to maybe put your defense in a box and label it. ‘We’re going to be a 3-4 defense.’ The majority of the games played in the NFL are now played in nickel defense or dime defense. Our defense will be very multiple.
A sign of a great coach or coordinator is not trying to force his system on his players but rather fit his system around the talent and skill set of his roster. No one is going to achieve anything trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Crennel's willingness to be flexible is crucial to the success and production they get out of J.J. Watt. If he decided to ask Watt to be strictly a run-stuffing, two-gap defensive end, I have no doubt that he would do it well, but they'd be missing out on what else he can offer.
Crennel isn't dumb, and I don't get the impression that he's stubborn either, so they'll let Watt do what Watt does best. Really, why wouldn't they? The team benefits from Watt playing well, so they should give him every opportunity to do so by playing a style that fits him well.
With the addition of new talent joining Watt in the front seven, he could be in for a monster year.
Behind Watt at defensive end will be the rookie Jeoffrey Pagan (who still hasn't practiced), free-agent addition Ricardo Mathews and sixth-year Texan Tim Jamison.
The Texans want Louis Nix III to win this job. That is more my guess because of where he was selected in comparison to the other players in the competition than it is based off of anything the Texans coaches have said.
Part of what has prevented Nix III from nailing down the job has been the time he's missed. Nix III missed part of rookie minicamp to attend his graduation ceremony and later had an injury cause him to miss part of OTAs.
According to Patrick Starr of State of the Texans, once on the field, Nix III showed great potential, but he also has question marks to answer during training camp, when the team finally puts on the pads.
Nix III is a mix of a nose tackle that can hold up against the run and has enough juice inside the trenches to push the pocket in the interior. When the pads are strapped on during training camp, there will be a better feeling for what Nix III can be for the Texans, but there is no rush for the rookie with veteran Jerrell Powe in front of him.
The success of Nix III will not only impact his position, but it could give a boost to his other teammates as well.
If Nix III is able to get a push up the middle and move his blocker into the backfield, then the quarterback won't be able to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush. If that option is taken away from the opposing quarterbacks this season, then J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus could all be in for a big season.
Think Vince Wilfork or Haloti Ngata; that's the type of player Nix III is capable of becoming and the type of impact he's capable of making.
Having a massive lineman like Nix III up in the quarterback's face could also help out the secondary. Obviously if he's getting pressure then they won't have to cover for as long, but his size could also bother the quarterbacks with their ability to step into their throws or possibly lead to batted passes, which could turn into interceptions.
Behind Nix III at nose tackle are former Kansas City Chief Jerrell Powe and free-agent addition Ricardo Mathews, who will likely rotate in during obvious passing situations.
The starting defensive end spot opposite of J.J. Watt has been a huge question mark ever since longtime Texan Antonio Smith decided to leave as a free agent to join the Oakland Raiders.
The player most likely to take his spot is the Texans' 2012 fourth-round draft pick, Jared Crick.
Crick was an impressive player in college at Nebraska during his sophomore and junior seasons before an injury slowed him down during his senior year and likely caused his draft stock to drop. Over his sophomore and junior year, Crick racked up 9.5 sacks each season—an impressive total for an interior lineman.
As a college prospect, Crick profiled well as a potential 3-4 end, according to this evaluation from NFL.com, but he has been blocked and kept off the field by J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith.
Crick possesses the size and athletic ability to play in various positions across the defensive line. He flashed the ability to defeat blocks and get to the ball-carrier in the backfield. He is active in the run game and shows great instincts. He can also run down quarterbacks with pure hustle. Off the snap, he uses his size and hands to get off blocks.
While Crick is a talented player, the attention and focus of the opponents will be on several other players besides him. With opposing offensive coordinators scheming ways to slow down J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and even Louis Nix III or Whitney Mercilus; Crick should see a one-on-one block on most snaps.
Like he did in college when he was lined up next to Ndamukong Suh, Crick has the ability to exploit those opportunities.
Those opportunities could also go back the other way. If Crick starts making plays because he's being blocked by a single player, more attention will go his way, which would open up opportunities for his other teammates.
What intrigues me about Crick is that he has both the size and strength to anchor and shed in run defense but has also shown ability in the past as a pass-rusher. If he's able to penetrate and get up the field, the Texans could have an unusually scary trio of down-linemen in their 3-4 scheme.
Typically, linemen in a 3-4 aren't considered pass-rushers, but J.J. Watt, Louis Nix III and Jared Crick could change that image and give opposing coaches and quarterbacks nightmares this season.
Behind Crick at defensive end at the moment are Ricardo Mathews and sixth-round selection Jeoffrey Pagan from Alabama.
The job of being the Texans' primary edge pass-rusher at outside linebacker belongs to first-overall selection Jadeveon Clowney.
As everyone saw during his sophomore year at South Carolina and then at the NFL Scouting Combine and his pro day during the evaluation phase before the draft, Clowney has rare physical tools and ability that give him a chance of becoming a once-in-a-generation-level pass-rusher.
From State of the Texans, whether or not Clowney hits that potential relies on several factors, including his work ethic, which so far during Texans offseason practices has not been an issue, according to head coach Bill O'Brien.
He’s really worked hard. That position has worked extremely hard just like all the positions. I think he’s a guy that’s come in here and really put in extra time so far. He needs to keep doing it. He’s put in extra time in the training room to work on his flexibility. He’s put in extra time on the practice field.
If Clowney is working hard and is 100 percent healthy from the sports hernia surgery he had last month, then I don't think anything will prevent him having a great season and making a gigantic impact on the Texans defense this season.
You see prospects come out every year that have a piece or two of the puzzle, but Clowney is the rare, freak athlete who might actually possess nearly every piece already. His first step is off the charts, his change-of-direction ability is insane, his speed is fantastic, his ability to pursue from behind is great and he even has a few reliable pass-rush moves. He's the complete, total package.
Two guys on the Texans' roster who should be ecstatic about Clowney's arrival are J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus.
Special attention will have to be paid to Clowney on the edge, so if you line him up on the opposite side of Watt and take away the opponent's ability to slide the line protection, one of the two other players will get more one-on-one blocks than he would otherwise.
With both Watt and Clowney garnering most of the attention, Whitney Mercilus could see a one-on-one block for the majority of his snaps. If Mercilus is even close to the player the front office thought he was when he was selected, then he will have a breakout season in 2014.
And we can't forget the impact Clowney's arrival will have on their secondary. The Texans' top two corners are more than just solid, but even the best corner in the league can't cover forever—eventually the receiver will get open. With Clowney on the roster, the amount of time that the secondary has to cover should start shrinking dramatically.
Behind Clowney as the Texans' rush linebacker is Whitney Mercilus, in my opinion. If Clowney moves from the spot because of a change in the formation, injury or poor play, Mercilus will move to that spot with Brooks Reed moving back to the outside and Akeem Dent filling Reed's role on the inside.
Assuming he's healthy, Brian Cushing will be one of the Texans' starting inside linebackers. Who the player next to him would be has been a question mark ever since the team traded DeMeco Ryans to the Philadelphia Eagles several years ago.
Over the last couple of seasons, they've filled that role with veteran stopgaps, but the option they turn to this year could have more staying power. Former second-round pick Brooks Reed will likely be the other starter—a move fans have been requesting.
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans also thinks the move of Reed from outside to the inside would be beneficial for both the player and the team.
He has been non-existent as a pass rusher and for a defense that needed a real edge presence, Reed was not the player the Texans hoped he would be.
Reed has done spot duty as an inside linebacker in short yardage situations, and he has the size and speed to play that position in a 3-4 defense. Reed has a good skill set but outside linebacker is not the answer for him at the moment, and getting him to the inside could help with depth and possible starter for the upcoming season.
As Patrick Starr mentioned, Reed just hasn't shown enough as a pass-rusher to stay on the outside. After a good rookie season in which he had six sacks over 11 starts—not including 2.5 sacks in the Texans' loss to the Ravens in the divisional round—Reed only has 5.5 sacks combined over the last two seasons.
Reed just seems glued to his blocker when he's trying to get to the quarterback as an edge-rusher. He does excel or at least performs solidly in most of the other duties at linebacker, which is why a move to the inside would be beneficial.
As mentioned earlier, Brian Cushing will be lined up next to him.
When healthy, few other inside linebackers are better than Cushing, but his health is a big concern after his season was ended early last season due to a knee injury for the second year in a row.
To gauge the impact Cushing has on this roster, you need look no further than the Texans' loss to the Seattle Seahawks early last season. Naturally, most of the attention on that game has gone to the pick-six that Matt Schaub gift-wrapped for Richard Sherman, but Cushing's injury was also a huge factor in the come-from-ahead loss for the Texans.
In just three quarters of play, Cushing led the Texans that game in tackles with nine and forced a fumble. When Cushing left the game near the start of the fourth quarter, the Texans led the Seahawks 20-6. On the very next drive, the Seahawks went 98 yards, including 53 yards rushing from quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson wouldn't have made those same plays with Cushing in the game. Many players on the Texans defense are important, but few more so than Brian Cushing.
Behind Cushing and Reed at inside linebacker will be the recently acquired Akeem Dent, Justin Tuggle, Jeff Tarpinian and the undrafted rookie Max Bullough.
The job of the Texans' other outside linebacker is definitely Whitney Mercilus' to win or lose.
The 2012 first-round pick has shown flashes of solid play over his two years in the NFL but hasn't been the game-changer the team was hoping for. Mercilus has 13 sacks over two seasons but is capable of playing at a higher level.
NFL.com labeled Mercilus a "situational pass-rusher" when they evaluated him as a prospect. So far, that's exactly what Mercilus has looked like while on the field.
Mercilus is a fast, athletic defensive end who is quick off the snap and has a good burst to close on the quarterback. He is a situational rusher who excels against the run and brings the versatility to run to the flats at his size. Whitney is able to quickly get off the snap and engage into his man's frame. He excels in pursuit down the line of scrimmage and is a high motor player. He can win at the next level with his speed rush.
The improvement he shows as a run defender and in coverage will go a long way in determining his future success and his spot on the Texans roster.
Too often he wasn't able to get off his blocks, so you saw teams run right at him, which can cause a pass-rusher to become tentative if he's worried about his run assignments.
Similarly, Mercilus also struggled with quickly reading and reacting to screen passes that came his way. I'm not sure if those issues ever got into his head, but if a defender is worried about playing the screen, he likely won't be as quick to get up the field while rushing the passer.
Mercilus has Pro Bowl-caliber talent but has been slow to work through the typical issues with young players.
Everything is connected. In order to be the best pass-rusher he can be, he'll have to improve his performance in the other areas of the game. If a player has to think his way through assignments and what his responsibilities are on the field, then he'll always be a step or two behind. Once the learning catches up and he's able to just react, his speed and playmaking ability will also start to show on the field.
Rounding out the depth chart at outside linebacker behind Mercilus are Ricky Sapp, Justin Tuggle and Trevardo Williams.
Another veteran that the Texans will have to hope stays healthy is Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Bill O'Brien didn't give a time table 4 the return of Brian Cushing & Johnathan Joseph. Both didn't participate during day 1 of #Texans OTAs— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) May 27, 2014
Like Cushing, the veteran corner missed all of OTAs but should return to the field during training camp. Exactly when is hard to pinpoint.
Joseph made the Pro Bowl roster in his first season with the Texans in 2011, but I hear fans call into talk-radio shows or rant on social media that his performance has dropped off over the last two years. Maybe it has just a bit, but it's been highly exaggerated.
From Pro Football Focus (subscription not required), Joseph had a great season last year as a shadow-corner being asked to check the opponent's top target.
The two figures that jump off the page considering the way Joseph is used are his percentage of catches allowed – just 49.3 percent (3rd best), and the 0.60 yards per snap allowed (17th best). For comparison purposes Cowboys CB Brandon Carr played six games as a shadow corner and covered WR1s on 47 percent of his snaps. He recorded figures of 60.2 percent and 0.82 yards per snap.
Joseph’s shadow responsibilities on the season were Larry Fitzgerald, Demaryius Thomas, Malcolm Floyd, Torrey Smith, Kenny Britt, Chris Givens, Ty Hilton, Cecil Shorts (twice) and Donnie Avery. Other than allowing 105 yards and two touchdowns to Hilton in Week 9, Joseph had a Pro Bowl caliber season. He kept his coverage assignments below 25 yards on eight occasions, and had a run of six games without allowing a score against him.
Fans who claim Joseph has slipped seem to neglect the fact of him being asked to follow around the other team's best receiver more than other corners or factor in the impact of the declining pass rush from the Texans front seven the last two seasons.
With Jadeveon Clowney and Louis Nix III on the scene to help improve the pass rush, expect the quality of play from the secondary to improve as well.
Next up on the depth chart behind Joseph are Brandon Harris, A.J. Bouye, Elbert Mack and the rookie Andre Hal.
If you're a frequent listener to talk radio or ever visit sites with a message board, you're probably aware that Kareem Jackson is a popular target for fans of the Houston Texans to go after and blame for the failures of the team.
Early on in his career, Jackson deserved every bit of that. Jackson was awful during his rookie season and too often looked clueless on the field, making many wonder if the first-round pick was already a bust.
However, season by season, Jackson has steadily improved, and at this point he's not a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but definitely a solid starter, and he's not one of the main reasons for the team's awful record last season.
During the early days, Jackson often got turned around on any double-move and didn't possess the speed to close on the receiver after he was beat. Jackson still doesn't have great speed but is able to stay in position a much larger percentage of the time.
The days of getting embarrassed by Roy Williams are over.
Where Jackson could still improve is with his recognition and ability to make a play while the ball is in the air. Whenever you see a replay of Jackson getting beat by a receiver now, he's often right there with good coverage but never turns his head around to locate the ball and make a play.
He doesn't need to intercept all of them, but he seems to give up a reception or two a game that could have been prevented if he had turned his head, found the ball and put out a hand to deflect it or knock it down.
That deficiency is a large part of why the Texans ranked dead last in interceptions during the 2013 season.
Behind Jackson at cornerback are Brandon Harris, A.J. Bouye, Elbert Mack and 2014 seventh-round pick Andre Hal from Vanderbilt.
If the Texans are true to what they've said this offseason about 70 percent of the game on defense being played in the nickel package, they're slot cornerback will have an important role.
The player most likely to fill that position is former second-round pick Brandon Harris.
The former Miami Hurricane was largely inactive over his first couple seasons with just 15 played games. Despite being active for all 16 games last season, Harris still doesn't have a career NFL start—disappointing for a player selected that high.
Harris certainly deserves some of the blame, because he could have played his way into more snaps by impressing the coaches during practice, but he hasn't received much of an opportunity so far during his career.
Harris will have that opportunity this season.
With Brice McCain released and the team's decision to not make the position a priority—didn't select a single corner during the 2013 draft and didn't take one until the seventh round this year—during the draft over the last two seasons, Harris will get a chance to get snaps as their slot cornerback.
With little to go on from his limited playing time in the NFL, it's hard to assess his strengths and weaknesses. From NFL.com, going back to the evaluation of him as a prospect before he was drafted, Harris seems to possess the skills necessary to play the slot corner position.
He excels in man coverage, as he is explosive with an elite closing burst and he has very fluid hips to maintain speed in transition. He also shows very good instincts when lined up one-on-one, but he seems confused at times in zone coverage and can get caught out of position.
Harris won't be the only player to compete for playing time in the slot, however.
While Kareem Jackson will likely spend the majority of his time on the outside, he has practiced some in the slot this offseason as yet another sign of how versatile Bill O'Brien and Romeo Crennel want to make this team.
Due to his lack of experience and average-at-best performance, Harris by no means has a lock on the position. In fact, of all the players listed in this article as leading their position, Harris might be on the shakiest ground at the moment.
Expect the coaching staff to let the primary slot corner role play out during training camp, with a final decision coming during the preseason. Along with Harris, Elbert Mack, Andre Hal and A.J. Bouye will compete for the gig.
The job of the Texans' strong safety belongs to D.J. Swearinger.
The second-year player out of South Carolina had an up-and-down season last year but looks poised to take a big jump.
Swearinger was too often out of position last season, which caused him to get beat and look confused at times. Some say that the biggest jump a professional player will make comes between year one and year two, so perhaps the flip has been switched, because those issues look like they are a thing of the past.
From Patrick Starr of State of the Texans, Swearinger looks improved in several areas in comparison to last season.
Safety D.J. Swearinger is looking much better in man coverage compared to his rookie season. There is a concerted effort on playing tight coverage but playing under control and Swearinger broke up two passes against a slot receiver and a bigger tight end.
Swearinger looks much more focused on the game compared to his rookie season and this has been evident with his habits he is showing during OTAs. There has been less talk and more work displayed by Swearinger and that is a reflection of what Head Coach Bill O’Brien is preaching.
If Swearinger continues to improve at this pace, that would be a huge boost for the Texans.
Continuing the offseason theme of versatility, the success or failure of Swearinger will go a long way in determining how versatile they're able to become.
Swearinger's strength at the moment comes when he's lined up in the box and is able to contribute both as a run defender and occasional pass-rusher. What Swearinger can or can't do in pass coverage this year will impact how crazy the Texans can get with their looks and concepts on defense.
If Swearinger proves to be reliable in man coverage, then the Texans will be able to move him around like a chess piece and keep their opponents guessing as to what his assignment will be from play to play. If Swearinger struggles in coverage again, then he becomes one-dimensional, and that makes the Texans strategy easier to decipher for opponents.
Depending on how well he improves, the Texans could line up Swearinger deep in a zone or in coverage of a tight end. They could also move him up to where he looks like he's there for run support but could drop back and cover a slot receiver or come after the quarterback on a blitz.
His progress as a cover-safety could help sink or swim the Texans defense this season.
Behind him at strong safety are Chris Clemons and Eddie Pleasant.
Free-agent addition Kendrick Lewis will be relied on heavily this season for a couple of reasons.
First: to assist in the implementation of the new defense under new coordinator Romeo Crennel. Lewis played under Crennel in Kansas City, so his experience could be an asset if he steps up as a leader during the early practices while everyone is still learning.
So far during offseason practices, Lewis appears to be taking well to that role.
The other way Lewis will be able to help this team is obvious: with his play on the field.
As Patrick Starr of State of the Texans pointed out in a film breakdown of Lewis after he signed with the team, he had his best years as a Chief while Crennel was on the staff.
Lewis could also help in the slot if needed, where he showed some promise there. He could be a good piece to help install Crennel’s defense, and having Lewis around could be a decent filler for the 2014 season.
Lewis has shown success in the cover two scheme, but he has been used as a true center fielder for the Chiefs the past four seasons. His starting experience is something to take note, for as much criticism he took for his poor play, he was still starting for the Chiefs.
If Lewis is able to hold down the role of being the deep safety—or center fielder, if you will—then that will free up D.J. Swearinger to play closer to the line of scrimmage, which fits his strength as a safety.
The Texans need Lewis to be a poor man's Ed Reed. Lewis obviously isn't anywhere close to Reed in overall talent, but they need him to perform well in a similar role.
What I mean by that is the Texans need him to be reliable as their deep-center safety and be someone they can trust to never let anyone behind him. If the corners and D.J. Swearinger can play aggressive and know if they get beat that Lewis is there to cover up their mistakes that will grow the potential of this defense very quickly.
Again a poor man's version, but think about what Earl Thomas does for the Seahawks. Richard Sherman and their other corners are able to get super aggressive with their press coverage, which is a high-risk tactic, because they know Thomas will take care of any receiver that slips past that first line of defense.
If they were to also get some of the playmaking ability of Thomas or Reed in the process, that would be helpful as well.
Behind Lewis at free safety are Chris Clemons, Eddie Pleasant, Shiloh Keo and the last pick of the draft, Lonnie Ballentine.