The focus for the Houston Texans this offseason was revamping the defense. More specifically, the pass defense was the focus of the improvement, and for good reason. The Texans ranked 32nd in defending the pass, which led to a ranking of 31st in total defense.
The preseason can be extremely misleading, but it is hard to say that the Texans have not improved in this area. The secondary has been more competent than in 2010 because to be honest, it would be hard not to, but the biggest improvement has been pressure on the quarterback. The Texans have tallied 11 sacks already, which is an improvement over the eight from the preseason of last year.
Texans fans are excited about the progress, and they should be. Defenses during Gary Kubiak’s tenure as head coach have been mundane and predictable. Wade Phillips defense may not be where he wants it to be yet, but it is already more effective and entertaining to watch than any other since 2006.
There is a concern brewing under the surface of waves of merriment; teams are running the ball on the Texans, right up the middle of the defense.
The numbers don’t necessarily bear this out, but preseason statistics are very misleading given that starters don’t play most of the game. The Texans have allowed a 4.11 yards per carry average between the two contests, but the starting defense has allowed 114 yards on 21 rushes for a 5.42 yards per carry average.
The Difference Between the Old and the New
As much as he is vilified, the one thing that Frank Bush’s defense did well was stop the run. One could make a very valid argument that teams didn’t have to run given that the pass defense was so bad, but the fact remains that his defenses finished 10th and 13th against the run in 2009 and 2010 with 4.3 and 4.0 YPC averages respectively.
Bush’s scheme was predicated on selling out against the run. This strategy came about in 2009 after three straight games of getting gashed on the ground; he focused all the defense’s efforts on stopping the run. The tactic worked effectively that year as the Texans finished 13th in the league in total defense.
The reason why it was effective, however, was because the Texans faced subpar quarterbacks that season. In 2010, the level of passers facing the Texans increased dramatically, so while Bush’s defense could still stop the run, they were a sieve against the pass. This and his inability to adapt led to one of the worst pass defenses in league history and Bush’s eventual firing.
So are the Texans under Wade Phillips selling out against the pass? In a way, yes.
As explained yesterday in a post about J.J. Watt’s development, Phillips asks his three down linemen to penetrate much more than your typical 3-4 scheme does. Blockers can capitalize on this by simply redirecting the linemen’s momentum into the backfield past the ball carrier, and then getting to the second level to neutralize linebackers.
Also, the two outside linebackers play near the line of scrimmage in what looks like a five man front. This creates confusion for blockers in pass protection, but it also allows them to possibly neutralize the two outside backers with the same technique that they used on the down linemen.
If the opposing offensive line is capable of employing this tactic, only two inside linebackers and the secondary remains to stop the run. This leads to the high YPC against rate such as the one that Texans have thus far in the preseason.
Solution to the Predicament
To counteract this problem, three things must happen. First of all, the five men playing up on the line of scrimmage must be able to diagnose run plays quickly. If they quickly identify run, the down linemen become more like two-gap players favored by traditional 3-4 schemes and attempt to clog the middle, and keep blocker from getting to the second level.
Keeping the linebackers clean from blockers is key, but the linebackers must capitalize on this by running downhill and disengage from blocks if necessary. The outside linebackers must be able to hold the point of attack if it is a run designed to the outside, but they have to be able to disengage and crash towards the middle if that is where the run is going.
Lastly, the secondary must be able to support the run effectively. This is mostly true for the safeties because opposing teams will often take corners out of the play easily because they will often be in man coverage. This is yet another reason why both safeties have to be interchangeable; not only must they have equal coverage skills, but they both must be able to be physical against the run.
What To Expect in the Short Term
This will be a work in progress. Two of the three linemen are new to the 3-4, and Antonio Smith must learn the responsibilities of Wade’s defense as opposed to Arizona’s system that he played in. Mario Williams is great against the run but he will be asked to rush virtually every play, and Connor Barwin needs to get better.
I personally thought that Brian Cushing would be an animal in this defense because all he has to do is chase the ball which made him so good his rookie season, but injuries continue to be a concern. Speaking of injuries, DeMeco Ryans has concerns of his own. Luckily, both safeties are physical and do not shy away from supporting the run.
Even knowing that there will be frustrating days against the run, it is a much better poison to pick than the prior scheme chose. A defense should strive to be great in all facets, and I’m sure that Phillips will do just that, but the Texans can live with this problem for now.
The offense will dictate whether this flaw will lose the Texans games. If they can be more consistent in the first half, teams will not have the luxury of running the ball as they will need to play catch up. This would allow Phillips to send blitzers regularly, making the pressure produced by this defense even greater.
The NFL is a passing league. The Texans have given up only 17 first half points despite weak play against the run because they were able to string together a few good plays to put the Jets or Saints in passing situations. Once there, the new Texans defense has been able to supply ample pressure to force punts or produce turnovers.
This will be the blueprint for the defense until the run defense is tightened up. If one had to choose a problem for the defense to have though, this one is much more desirable than those of the past.
What’s your take on the new defense? Does the inability to stop the run worry you, or is this what you would consider a manageable problem? Let me know either in the comments or on Twitter (@JakeBRB).