Romeo Crennel was formally introduced as the defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans on Feb. 5. It was one of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL given that Alex Marvez of Fox Sports had tweeted on Jan. 4 that Crennel would get the post:
Although Crennel and Texans head coach Bill O’Brien had both worked under Bill Belichick, they had never been on the same staff. When O’Brien joined the New England Patriots in 2007, Crennel had long since moved on and was in his third season as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
After the Patriots failed to close out their undefeated regular season with a Super Bowl win, then lost the Super Bowl again to the New York Giants four years later, O’Brien must have recognized this crucial fact.
Belichick had never won the Vince Lombardi Trophy without Crennel by his side, together capturing the hardware in 2001, 2003 and 2004. For that matter, neither had Bill Parcells, who had him coaching the New York Giants’ special teams in 1986 and their defensive line in 1990.
Some would label this as mere coincidence. Rac, as Crennel is known around the league, has never excelled in a head coaching role, compiling a lowly 28-55 record. His defenses have followed suit, failing to rank in the top 10 in any major category since leaving New England.
The Texans had previously hired another former head coach to turn their defense around. Wade Phillips achieved immediate results for several reasons. The signings of free agents Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning solidified the secondary, J.J. Watt played like “rookie” was a dirty word and Brian Cushing thrived after being moved to inside linebacker.
Most of all, Phillips kept things simple in his version of the 3-4 defense. His one-gap alignments for the defensive linemen were perfect for Watt and Antonio Smith, who were encouraged to penetrate and let Cushing and DeMeco Ryans clean up after them.
Crennel runs an old-school version of the 3-4, where a lineman attacks the man in front of him instead of shooting the gap in between. The goal is to draw one or more double-teams so that the linebackers don’t have to tangle with offensive linemen in order to make plays.
This is the essence of the two-gap approach, and it requires the D-linemen to hold the block, read the play and then react. It also places a premium on plus-sized players in the trenches who can demand that kind of attention.
The prototypes were former Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour (6’5”, 310 lbs) and nose tackle Ted Washington (6’5”, 375 lbs). No one appreciated the benefits of having these goliaths up front more than fellow Patriot and inside linebacker Ted Johnson, the evening host on Sports Radio 610 in Houston.
In a conversation with Johnson, he said this preference even extends to the second level. “Crennel likes an ‘old school’ 3-4: big middle linebackers and big outside linebackers who can jam receivers and drop into pass coverage.”
Johnson, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, now the Texans linebackers coach, all were in the 250-pound range. The only current player on the Houston roster that fits the bill is Cushing.
A big concern about two-gapping is whether it will negate the playmaking ability of J.J. Watt. Seth Payne, co-host of MaD Radio on Sports Radio 610 and a 10-year NFL veteran at nose tackle, spoke with me about why these details matter: “People care too much about the alignment when talking about the 3-4 vs. the 4-3. But in this case you should. This is an old school 3-4 where you shouldn’t expect a lot of production out of your nose tackle and defensive ends.”
The abundance of “old school” references implies that Rac has not learned any tricks of the trade during his three decades in the game. When his Kansas City Chiefs were facing the New Orleans Saints and their high-octane passing attack in 2012, he threw out the playbook in the first half and went with a “psycho front.”
Employing only two down linemen and three linebackers, he went with a dime package on almost every down. Here’s what the front looked like on a sack of Drew Brees by Derrick Johnson in the second quarter:
Although the Chiefs could not get into the end zone, they went into halftime trailing just 10-6. Crennel returned to their base 3-4 defense and quickly fell behind 24-6 in the third quarter. It took 273 yards rushing, a safety on Brees and a field goal in overtime to pull it out. If they had gone “psycho” in the second half, they might have won in regulation.
While Crennel has been closely associated with the 3-4, he has not been wedded to it his entire career. Pro Football Reference lists the 2001 Patriots as running a 4-3 defense. Richard Seymour was their largest lineman, and the defensive tackles, Anthony Pleasant and Brandon Mitchell, were both under 300 pounds.
The wild card was Willie McGinest, listed as an off-the-rack defensive end but who actually played a hybrid position called “Elephant.” Chris Brown of Grantland.com defines it as “‘tweener ends/linebackers who are as likely to rush the passer as they are to drop into coverage.” This lengthy video will demonstrate how McGinest was capable of having 86 sacks, five interceptions and four returns for scores over a very productive career.
Would using a 4-3 front better utilize the players Houston already has under contract? Ted Johnson believes that is the case: "The (current) personnel on the Texans doesn’t come close to fitting what Crennel likes to do. I’d put Brooks Reed at middle linebacker and shift him to the strong side. Then put your best cover guy, Brian Cushing, on the open side of the field. Place Whitney Mercilus over the tight end, then sign free agents or draft the players needed to fill in the D-line.”
Reed is too stiff to be a pass-rusher by trade but is athletic enough to be a two-down linebacker. Cushing started out as a 4-3 outside linebacker and earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors at that spot.
Mercilus has the same initials as McGinest, if not his versatility. Many of his sacks were of the cleanup variety and did not come from beating a path to the quarterback. This sack on Chad Henne of the Jacksonville Jaguars was possible because offensive tackle Cameron Bradfield slid too far upfield and overextended the pocket.
Mercilus was able to use his hands and successfully disengage from Bradfield, and Henne helped out by holding the ball for too long. But the takedown came from the only gadget in Mercilus' toolbox: the outside speed rush.
This is Vrabel’s first shot at coaching in the pros. He may be able to teach them how to get the most out of their talent, particularly Mercilus. However, Johnson warned: "Can Mike Vrabel teach these guys to be better outside linebackers? To me, they are what they are. Mike was a great football player, but I don’t know that he’s going to turn them into these great pass-rushers."
Payne is certain that if the Texans do not get the most out of their best defensive asset, there is only one place else to turn: "If you want a defensive end to anchor in and read and react, you can find players to do it a lot cheaper than what J.J. Watt will get in his next contract. And if you are not used to getting a lot of production of defensive linemen, you have to get it out of your outside linebackers."
While much of the worry has been whether Watt will get what’s coming to him in the form of big plays, the real issues are more systemic. The Texans may have been ranked seventh in yards allowed and 10th in third-down conversion percentage, but they were cellar dwellers in both red-zone scoring percentage and turnover margin.
Owner Bob McNair feels that a tweak here and there will put his team right back in the hunt for a championship. The last time the Texans went 2-14 it took them four seasons to break .500, then another two to win their first division title. It is unlikely O’Brien and Crennel will be given half as much time to show the kind of results that will satisfy McNair.