The 2020 Houston Texans Defence – The Looming Questions And Potential Answers

After this weekend’s roster cut down the Texans 53-man squad now prepares to face the reigning Super Bowl champs, on Thursday Night Football. The Texans will have to rise to the occasion, just as they did during the regular season slate, at Arrowhead Stadium. The game poses a chance to banish the memories of the blown 24-point lead, in that very stadium back in January, at the first chance of asking.

Credit: Charlie Riedel

That collapse was attributed to an ailing defence who appeared toothless against the Mahomes & Kelce lead attack of the Chiefs. With a new co-ordinator at the helm, can this unit improve on last years showing which left them in the bottom 6 teams in yards, points, pressures and hurries? Undoubtedly, the talent has been allowed to age & eroded whilst the focus turns to arming Watson’s offence. Though if this team is to be successful in 2020, the defence cannot not lose games as they did in New Orleans and not protect the lead with only 37-seconds left.

The Key questions that lay heavily on this 2020 defence:

Credit: Troy Taormina

Can They Stop The Run?

Last years run defence saw Houston drop from 3rd best to the 7th worst, a further decline isn’t palatable but is a distinct possibility. The loss of DJ Reader, accounted for 22 tackles and 2 run stuffs in 2019. Though his numbers didn’t necessarily warrant the market resetting deal for a nose guard, handed out by Cincinnati but his presence consumed multiple blockers and offered some rush. The loss of Reader’s posture will be determined how well Brandon Dunn can fulfil that role. Dunn was rewarded with a new contract and he will have to find a new level in holding up the A-Gaps. The Texans are set to continue their migration to preferring a four man front, as a base look under Weaver.

The biggest stand out from the rookie class is Ross Blacklock, who’s speed at 290lbs, will be an asset required to contribute early. The release of Angelo Balckston shows the faith held by coaching staff in the former TCU standout. Who will be required to translate his first-step agility into consistent play-making. His snap count will grow, if the Houston native can contribute on passing downs as 2i or 3-technique creating any form of central-pocket pressure. The Texans have seldom posed a lineman with that unique skill set and realising that that potential would create an entirely new complexion to the rush. Expectations should be tempered due to the lack of pre-season live action, that will test all rookie players.

This defensive unit, for 1st year play-caller, Anthony Weaver, doesn’t appear to have the luxury of surviving when not holding up against the run, based on the raw talent. Weaver’s system appears to have some subtle differences in gap-responsibilities and how the linemen are asked to attack. A wildcard addition could be PJ Hall, the former second round pick and Sam Houston State grad, has a chance to re-build his career in Texas, once more.

Consistently Creating a Pass Rush?

The obvious answer lies in J.J. Watt’s health and if he can remain on the field, at this stage of his career. His use as a situational rusher on passing-downs, as per the play offs may have to become a necessity. As the previous reluctancy to remove him from the field, contributed to his raft of injuries. Watt has spoken about his level of health being akin to the 2015 version, another year removed from a serious injury, which should see his influence rise. His 2019 week-one performance against Ryan Ramzcyk was notably quiet, so a fresher, impactful version of the former x3 defensive MVP is beyond imperative.

Over the extended off-season, Jacob Martin has added 20lbs of muscle mass in order to quell doubts as a run defender. But Martin’s speed and athleticism is clear, his contribution in terms of pressure off the edge, will be a crucial from Outside Linebacker. Acquired as part of the Clowney trade to Seattle, only days before the season, further acclimation to the playbook will serve him well. As Martin grew into his role in 2019, despite only playing 20% of snaps, he racked up 3.5 sacks over a 3 game span. His ability to bend around tackles, is rare at his speed, weekly contributions is now the benchmark for the former Temple product.

Charles Omenihu felt wronged after slipping to the 5th round in the 2019 draft. Despite being the former Big 12 defensive player of the year, his inconsistencies showed in the trenches. At times there were flashes of an accomplished veteran and in others he looked like a rookie finding his way. Charles’ arm length and agility are prototypical metics of the defensive lineman and the signs of piecing it together may well be there after O’Brien described him as “a different player in year 2”. If the UT alumni can continuously use his size to leverage as an inside rusher – the front seven has a chance of being serviceable.

If the unit is to improve from the 4th least in QB pressures, then they will need to be reliant on players beyond Whintey Mercilus and Watt’s latter years. The addition of a pass rush as a reliable factor could be just enough to help out the secondary, in coverage.

Can the Pass Coverage Improve?

The perenial issues of pass coverage is one that the Texans will look at with considerable uncertainty. The carry over of personnel will be a benefit to communication but talent levels are still a doubt. As the unit began the 2019 season with 8 new faces, which based on their opponents success in point & air yardage was telling. Poor communication led to the Texans yielding 32 touchdown passes, which tied for the fifth-most league-wide. This group also allowed the eighth-most EPA per pass play and the league’s 10th-highest passer rating (PFF.com).

Bradley Roby, inked a new 3 year, $31.5m contract to be the Texans number one corner. Roby was playing into perhaps an even bigger deal prior to missing time post a hamstring injury in wk6. More performances of the New England primetime level will be required to fulfil that role. Roby can play on the parameter and in the slot, where he lines up week-to-week may vary but his impact on stalling opposition receivers will need to be unwavering. His admirable record against Tyreek Hill will be put to the test on Thursday Night Football.

The Texans first choice cornerbacks, in nickel formation, will be Roby, paired alongside Gareon Conley and Lonnie Johnson. The concept of acquiring former first round picks in the secondary will need to pay-off in 2020. Mid-season when the unit was injury stricken, the Texans traded a third round pick for Conley, who flashed particularly in the Buffalo, Wild Card Round. The former Ohio State man is dealing with off-season ankle surgery, which has halted his training camp preparations thus his likely impact early this year.

Therefore Lonnie Johnson may have a baptism of fire in year-two with Kansas City & Baltimore in as many weeks. The former one-year Kentucky corner has been working to hone his technique to support his 6-2, 219lbs frame. So there is some clear upside to the 2nd round pick form 2019, after a turbulent rookie campaign. Lonnie poses the ability to play as a sub-backer/safety role, should the match up required it but necessity may move him to predominately on the outside.

The Texans inability to cover Tight End’s and the over the middle, in the passing game continues to be an unaddressed achilles heel. The health of linebacker Dylan Cole is an essential factor, coupled with the investment in 4th Round Pick John Reid who was described by Weaver as a “5-Year-Vet.” Reid will likely take snaps away from 1st round re-tread Vernon Hargreaves, who was also a mid-season pick-up after being released from Tampa.

Safety In Numbers?

The theme of uncertainly and questionable optimism is a constant one, personified by the most notable unknown in this team – the safety position. The decisions to move on from Kareem Jackson and Tyran Mathieu looms with an ever-present air. Justin Reid, if fully healthy, has the potential of achieving a Pro-Bowl nod but beyond him, is where the concern lies.

The surprise contract of the off-season was unequivocally the 3-year $18million deal given to Eric Murray, who figures to be the starter alongside Justin Reid. Consider the role of a full-time starter is something missing from his record. Going into year 5 as a pro, post three seasons with the Kansas City and a single year with Cleveland. There are limited flashes from his film but the exact role carved out for Murray is watching brief for many.

With the only other listed player being long-time special teams ace Michael Thomas, that now signifies the emergence of A.J. Moore as the tertiary safety. The former Ole Miss product who was released by New England in 2018, has been a training camp stand out. He was giving some blitzing roles later in the year after over coming concussion issues which stemmed his year two progress. Many are high on Moore but once more the team are relying on an inexperienced player to play a significant role.

What Are Realistic Expectations for this Defence?

The Texans after extending Zach Cunningham to a 4-year, $14.5m deal this will inevitably be the last season Zach and Mckinney get to pair up at inside linebacker. Considering that notion, further weakening of talent is perhaps just around the corner. However, this 2020 vintage of the defence will need to stay healthy, understanding their assignments and hope a number of players play their best ball to date.

This unit will need to show previously unrivalled dependability in their assignments and technique fundamentals if they are to improve on last years, below par standings. If that all happens, then theres a slender chance this defence will not be the hinderance, that many expect it to be.

There have been a plethora of quotes have emitted on the varying ways Weaver’s scheme will attempt to unhinge offence’s timings. Just how creative he will be, could be the saving grace of a unit, who has limited choice but to improve if they Texans are to get closer to their goals.

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