Monday, July 23, 2012

Power Ranking the Houston Texans Strengths on Defense - Bleacher Report

The defense of the 2011 Houston Texans experienced a statistical turnaround unmatched by any team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.  Improve from 29th to 4th in points allowed and from 30th to 2nd in yards allowed, and everyone involved gets to share the acclaim. 

Those rankings measure results across the league. If the same approach is applied to the Houston defense itself, which position is top dog?  And which ones make up the best of the rest? 

In the final analysis, how they function as a unit is the most important measurement.  For the moment, let’s try figuring out which position is leader of the pack and who follows behind.

6. Nose Tackles

Shaun Cody
Shaun Cody
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Shaun Cody, Earl Mitchell

Nose tackle is virtually a part-time role with Wade Phillips. Cody and Mitchell had less than 700 snaps combined, while DE  J.J. Watt had over 800 on his own. 

Harassing the quarterback is the principal focus on the defense in today’s NFL. The defensive philosophy of Houston does not expect that from their interior lineman. Therefore, on passing downs the NT is pulled for the nickel back or an additional pass rusher. 

Neither Cody nor Mitchell fit the physical prototype established by Ted Washington and exemplified nowadays by Vince Wilfork. A Texans nose tackle is simply trying to create a gap in the offensive line so the DE’s and OLB’s can find a path to the quarterback. 

In this sense, they adequately perform their task. Mitchell added some weight in the offseason to better withstand the pounding. Cody is a free agent after this season, and free agent Hebron Fangupo (6-1, 324 lbs) was added to be certain no one gets lazy. 

The lowest ranked position could experience some turnover come 2013. This should compel them to make a greater impact in 2012.

5. Safeties

Danieal Manning
Danieal Manning
Crystal LoGiudice-US PRESSWIRE

Danieal Manning, Glover Quin, Troy Nolan, Quintin Demps 

The only highly ranked defensive back on the entire team is Johnathan Joseph. Yet the Texans ranked 2nd in  defensive passer rating, one the best measures of defensive excellence. No one who is familiar with the team believes this is all due to the addition of one very good cornerback. 

The improvement in the pass rush, of course, deserves much of the credit. But the safeties are an underrated factor. Their individual statistics do not stand out, but their effect on the opposition is clear.  

There is not a coach worth his whistle that thinks he is “predictable.” His strategies and schemes are designed to keep the other team off balance at all times. 

In the world of Wade Phillips, he tries to keep the other team guessing just which safety has what responsibility. Is Manning covering deep and letting Quin shadow the TE? Or is it the other way around? This is how an expert coach offsets the limited coverage skills of his final line of defense.

4. Cornerbacks

Johnathan Joseph
Johnathan Joseph
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, Brice McCain, Brandon Harris, Sherrick McManis, Roc Carmichael.

Every winning defense needs a shutdown corner or something close to one. Joseph may not be Darrelle Revis or even Champ Bailey in his prime. But having a second team All-Pro on the other team’s best receiver is the next best thing. 

Beyond Brice McCain and the stellar job he did at nickelback in 2011, the balance of this crew is both short on experience and competence. 

Jackson did reduce his burn rate over his abysmal 2010 performance. When the pass rush improved so did his play. But those Crimson Tide CB’s would rather play the man than the ball. If you are unable to learn both skills at this level, you remain a liability. 

Collectively, Harris, McManis, and Carmichael do not possess enough field time to even make an informed opinion. That alone makes this position an area of concern should injuries strike the starters.

3. Outside Linebackers

Connor Barwin
Connor Barwin
Thomas Campbell-US PRESSWIRE

Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed, Whitney Mercilus, Bryan Braman, Jesse Nading

From 2004 through 2011, an outside linebacker has been the sack leader for every defense coached by Wade Phillips. His version of the 3-4 is specifically designed for this position to bring the heat on the opposing signal caller. 

Barwin continued the streak with 11.5 takedowns for the Texans. The OLB who lined up with Barwin totaled 10.5 sacks between Reed’s 6.0 and the departed Mario Williams notching 5 in five games. 

The pass rush productivity of Reed may provide an opening for Mercilus in must-throw situations. If Whitney can handle the added duties of defending the run and covering the occasional receiver, Reed may be relegated to backup status. 

Braman’s wild-man personality will give him the nod over Nading when the final roster cuts are announced on Sept. 5th. His presence will make an already young group even more so. 

Their ongoing development will be key in maintaining the Texans’ dominance on defense.

2. Inside Linebackers

Brian Cushing
Brian Cushing
Thomas Campbell-US PRESSWIRE

Brian Cushing, Bradie James, Darryl Sharpton, Tim Dobbins

If DeMeco Ryans was still a Texan, the ILB’s might rank first. James appears to be his replacement, and he will be paired with the best overall 3-4 linebacker in the NFL. 

Cushing does everything so well it boggles the mind. This includes rushing the passer more times than any other inside linebacker in the NFL and recording more QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, than any other player at his position.

James was one of Wade Phillips’ stalwarts in Dallas, and will be his defensive signal caller in Houston. His experience trumps the potential of Sharpton, who showed promise in limited action until his quadriceps tendon was torn. 

Once Sharpton recovers, will he or Dobbins be first off the bench in relief? Free agent Shawn Loiseau looked like the kind of hitter during OTA’s that would thrive on special teams. The backup situation will sort itself out during the preseason

1. Defensive Ends

J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt

Antonio Smith, J.J. Watt, Tim Jamison.

In trying to decide between the defensive ends and inside linebackers, “What have you done for me lately?” influenced my choice. 

The superlative performance of Watt in the playoffs had him looking like the next Justin Smith. He provided constant pressure, 3.5 sacks, and topped it off with an interception return for a TD that must haunt Andy Dalton’s dreams. 

Smith, the Ninja Assassin, was ranked second among 3-4 DE’s by Pro Football Focus for pass rush efficiency. He has played through a bum shoulder for two seasons at a very high level. 

Jamison gets more snaps than you might think. He allows the starters to take a beak without Wade Phillips worrying about any significant drop-off. 

A capable and accomplished trio that leads the way for a defensive unit that can foil almost any game plan. 

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