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Houston Texans Defensive Starters and Their Fit in Wade Phillips' Scheme

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Houston Texans Defensive Starters and Their Fit in Wade Phillips' Scheme
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In an effort to learn more about what Wade Phillips’ defense might look like, I re-watched the Cowboys vs. Texans game from last season.  You can find my observations of his scheme in an article I wrote earlier this week.

What I found excited me in regards to having a legitimate defensive coordinator in Houston, but it also made me think about what the Texans' personnel would look like in that scheme.  Over the past few days, I’ve watched at least one game for each of the Texans starters (minus the rookies) with an eye towards how they might fit into Phillips’ defense.

Below are my individual observations as well as an overall assessment as a conclusion.

 

Weak Outside Linebacker

Mario Williams:  The million dollar question of the offseason: can Mario Williams play the weak outside linebacker position as effectively as DeMarcus Ware?  In my opinion the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be effective enough to make the defense successful.

My belief has nothing with the common doubt associated with Williams at OLB which is that he can’t drop in coverage. Watching Ware for an entire game, I saw him drop three times into the shallow flat. Mario can handle that responsibility, and otherwise he will be rushing the passer 95% of the time, just as Reggie Herring said.

 

My opinion is based on Williams’ skill set. For those that have seen the videos on the Texans' main site, Mario has slimmed down for his new position and is excited about it. He is a gifted athlete, but in a different sort of way than Ware.

Ware has great speed and the ability to bend which allows him to split out wide.  He tries to avoid contact as long as possible with blockers and shoot around the edge of the line. Mario uses surprising quickness for his size to get blockers off balance but then powers through them. You almost never see Williams go untouched and sack a quarterback.

The problem with this is that he’ll have less leverage and burst from the standing, two-point stance than he had in the three-point stance. I’m not saying he’ll never get another sack again, but projecting him for 15 plus sacks because Ware was able to in the same position is a mistake.

Sorry to start off with some negativity, but there is a silver lining. I believe Mario will still be enough of a threat to draw the attention of opposing offensive lines and their blocking schemes. That will allow the other pass rushers at Wade’s disposal, who I believe are MUCH better than the supporting cast he had in Dallas, easier routes to the quarterback.

 

Strong Outside Linebacker

Connor Barwin:  Football fans are so fickle.  Barwin had more sacks (4.5) than any other 4-3 rookie defensive end in 2009, and he was so supposed to be a key part of supplying pressure in 2010 until he dislocated an ankle.  Now he apparently has a reputation of being injury prone because one time his foot was pointed in the wrong direction by 90 degrees.

I understand trepidation over whether his ankle will have lingering pain, but as long as he is healthy he will thrive in this defense. Barwin does possess the quick twitch athleticism necessary to run the arc to the quarterback. The true test will be whether he can play in space, as he will have to drop in coverage more so on the strong side than on the weak side.

Brooks Reed:  I wasn’t huge on the Reed pick at draft time, and I still have some doubts. I understand that he has amazing quickness and straight line speed, but a lot of what I read from draft analysts I trust was that that speed didn’t translate to getting around the edge of the line due to stiff hips. 

The early reports from camp are that not only has he seemed more fluid than the scouting reports that I’m speaking of, but that he has also looked great in space.  Even if those reports prove to be overly optimistic, Wade can use his speed creatively with things like A-gap blitzes.

Overall, I think that between Barwin and Reed, Phillips will have more to work with on the strong side than he did with in Dallas with Anthony Spencer and his sack average of just below 4 a year for his career.  Also, if Reed is competent it will give Wade the luxury of switching Barwin back and forth between either side on a rotational basis.

 

Mike Linebacker

Brian Cushing:  While I was watching the Cowboys defense against the Texans, there were two positions that I began to become giddy about. One was the Mike, or strong side linebacker, which will be played by Cushing.  Herring spoke about the potential impact Cushing can make from this position, and I completely agree.

After watching the game, I can tell you it is borderline embarrassing that Keith Brooking had such a lack of production given the positions for success that Phillips regularly put him in. I was so enamored with the possibilities of Cushing in this position, that I re-watched the defense with a focus on Brooking.

Wade gives almost all of his players the chance to blitz, but he sent the Mike more than anyone outside of the front three and outside backers.  Other than rushing the quarterback, the Mike was given limited coverage responsibilities but mostly attacking the ball carrier.  The one thing that Brooking did well that Cushing could learn from is disguising his blitz.

If Cushing can stay healthy, he will return to his form from 2009.  For anyone that thinks that his whole season last year was a drop off, his play was inspired against the Giants and Chiefs before he was moved to MLB after Ryans’ injury.  Herring and Phillips will turn Cushing loose much in the way that he was in his rookie year.

 

Mo Linebacker

DeMeco Ryans:  This position is tailor-made for Ryans.  He will be expected to fulfill the same responsibilities that made him a Pro Bowl linebacker in the 4-3; play the run and cover over the middle of the field. The Mo was used to blitz the quarterback, but very infrequently which is good because DeMeco isn’t that great of a blitzer.

The problem is that Ryans has around a 50/50 chance of returning to his level of play after he ruptured his Achilles tendon last season. If he’s healthy, I have no doubt that DeMeco can play this position extremely well. If not, there’s not a ton of depth behind him.  It sounds as if Darryl Sharpton is the alternative.

 

Defensive End

JJ Watt/Antonio Smith:  Smith has experience in the 3-4 at Arizona while Watt is new to not only his position but the NFL at large. Watt has apparently looked great in camp so far, but I try not to get too excited about linemen until they put pads on.

Phillips likes to supply more pressure with his five-techniques than a typical 3-4 scheme asks of its defensive ends. I feel pretty confident that Watt and Smith will be able to produce more than the 1.5 accumulative sacks that Phillips’ defensive ends Igor Olshansky and Stephen Bowen had in 2010.

 

Nose Tackle

Earl Mitchell:  I refuse to believe that Shaun Cody is the starting nose tackle.  I think that Wade was high enough on Mitchell that the Texans decided to re-sign Cody as insurance so they could focus their efforts (and cap room) on more pressing needs such as corner back and safety.

Phillips has made a lighter nose tackle work in the past, but Jay Ratliff is a rare player who can hold the point of attack decently despite his near 300 pound frame.  Mitchell apparently talked to Ratliff this offseason, but I will reserve my judgment on Mitchell’s ability to duplicate that role until I see him in it.

 

Corner Back

Johnathan Joseph:  I watched several 2010 Bengals games in the last week to get a good feel for what Bob McNair is going to spend roughly $10 million a year for over the next five years.  Even though last season was disappointing as compared to his phenomenal 2009 campaign, I still really liked what I saw.

You can tell that Joseph is a student of the game by the way that he plays.  The Bengals used him primarily in man during the games I watched, with him more often starting off than in press coverage.  Joseph was very good at reading routes and jumping them, and I never saw him bite on a double move.

 

The downside that I can see is that Joseph isn’t the most physical corner in the league. He is not exactly zealous about supporting the run although he doesn’t shy away either. Also, more physical receivers can sometime out-muscle him as Tampa’s Mike Williams did in the end zone on a jump ball when Joseph was in great position.

Lingering injuries hurt his game last year, but atrocious safety play was a bigger factor. Additionally, Leon Hall had a really rough year on the other side which required more safety help. In their game against Buffalo for instance, Joseph had two interceptions with one returned for a touchdown, while Hall was torched by Steve Johnson for three touchdowns.

I really like the way that Joseph fits in Wade’s defense. I feel completely confident to lock him in on a receiver in man coverage and I’ll take the trade-off of not having a great run supporting corner. The greatest part of the Joseph deal is that it is remarkably similar to the one that Dunta Robinson signed in Atlanta last season.

Jason Allen:  I’m not thrilled about the prospect of having Allen as the number two guy, but after watching Kareem Jackson in man coverage last season, I’ll take it.  As much as I like secondary coach Vance Joseph, I don’t think there’s any way he can fix Jackson’s technique in a month.

Allen played a lot of zone last year because Frank Bush was his coordinator, but I re-watched the Philadelphia game because I remember Bush playing a decent amount of man for half the game.  I also watched the Minnesota game when he played with the Dolphins.

 

Allen’s man coverage isn’t lock-down, but it’s not terrible either.  He seemed to be very susceptible to receivers coming back for the ball, but I’d rather see that than an overaggressive streak that led to getting burnt deep.  Not ideal, but likely the best option the Texans have opposite Joseph.

Brandon Harris:  I am a big Harris fan, and have been since before the draft.  I don’t know whether Harris will ever be an elite starting caliber corner, but I think he could start before the end of the year in the slot.  As I stated before, the nickel corner is more important than ever in the NFL because of how many three receiver sets teams play now.

For Harris to prove me right and get significant playing time in the slot he has to develop quickly.  He also must learn how to blitz, which Wade likes his slot corners to do every once in a while.  The other thing that would have to happen is for Kareem Jackson to be as bad in Phillips’ defense as I think he might be.

 

Safety

Danieal Manning:  I said that Cushing playing the Mike LB spot was on spot I was stoked about, and Manning playing safety is the other.  In the Cowboys game against the Texans, Schaub regularly abused Gerald Sensabaugh when he lined up in man coverage.  Sensabaugh was also not an effective blitzer, even though Phillips tried.

 

I watched a couple of Chicago games in order to see Manning and loved what I saw.  I also saw why the Bears didn’t make a better effort to re-sign him because his best talents were less valuable in the Tampa 2 zone coverage that they predominantly run.

Manning flew around the field and was a very willing supporter against the run.  He also laid out and made an interception against the Redskins that was such an athletic catch it would have been impressive by a wide out.  Additionally, he made a sack for a safety on Aaron Rogers with no other blitzers help to corral the deceptively agile quarterback.

I’m really looking forward to see what Phillips can do with Manning.  He’s played as a corner so he can cover in the slot which is necessary for the interchangeable safety concept that Wade employs.  If Joseph can live without safety help a decent amount of the time, Phillips could get very creative with Manning.

Glover Quin:  Quin is a great example of the direction that the safety position is headed in the NFL.  Quin may not be the punishing safety that Bernard Pollard was, but he can certainly cover a lot better.  It doesn’t matter that he probably won’t stop an average running back cold; it only matters if he tackle him which Quin can.

Quin was the best corner on the Texans last year, but even then he preferred to play in the slot where his talents shown the most.  Now Phillips has a safety he knows can cover in the slot just as good as a corner, so he won’t have to bring more corners on the field if he doesn’t want to.

 

Overall

I am really excited about this defense, which feels very awkward and unfamiliar to say as a Texans fan.  The case could very realistically be made that even though they have to learn a new scheme, the players that Wade has in Houston are better fits for his particular defense.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise given the contrasting situations he faced in Dallas and now Houston.  This year he was essentially able to give a laundry list to general manager Rick Smith for not only the draft but also free agency.  In Dallas, he and his coaches could make recommendations but in the end it was Jerry Jones’ decision.

There will be some growing pains, I’m sure.  The beauty of taking over such a horrible defense, however, is that growing pains could still look like an improvement.  All I know is that this is first year I have actually looked forward to see what the Texans defense could do.

Have comments or questions based on these assessments?  Let me know either in the comments or on Twitter (@JakeBRB).

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