The Houston Texans operated under Romeo Crennel's great defensive mind for the past three seasons. But with Crennel shifting to a new position -- officially, assistant head coach/defense -- first-time DC Mike Vrabel gets his hand at being in charge of play calling. If I know one thing from my years playing under Crennel and alongside Vrabel in New England over a decade ago, it's that this unit is in great hands.
The Texans fielded a top-10 defense under Wade Phillips before the Bill O'Brien-Crennel era began in 2014. But the unit has become more dynamic and productive since then -- ranking in the top three in total defense in each of the past two seasons -- in part because of Crennel's experience combined with his coaching philosophies. Of course, this is a talented group, but don't sell the coaching short here. I got the privilege to learn from Crennel for seven seasons in New England (1994-'96 and 2001-'04) and three in Cleveland (2006-08). He's a very thorough coach and one of the best communicators I've ever worked with. Crennel has a knack for assessing talent and, most importantly, puts his players in position to succeed based on their strengths or weaknesses. He is one of the few coaches who truly devises schemes and game plans according to his players' skill sets, as opposed to wedging guys into systematic roles. Jadeveon Clowney is a perfect example of this.
Yes, injuries have hindered Clowney in his young career. But even so, when Clowney's been at his best, his hand is in the dirt, eliminating pass coverage duties. He is, however, very capable of playing outside linebacker (his official listed position on the Texans' 2017 depth chart). We saw Clowney excel as a DE last season as a force to be wreckoned with, applying pressure to the quarterback and being disruptive with hurries. Personally, I think Clowney's talent and skill set characterize him as a true defensive end, a position where he can take his game to another level, which we saw in 2016 with the absense of J.J. Watt.
Vrabel's playing career played out in a similar manner, sliding from linebacker to his hand in the dirt, being effective at both positions. An athletic and effective guy, Vrabel played in Crennel's defensive system with the Patriots in the early 2000s, and the familiarity with Crennel led him to Houston as a linebackers coach in 2014. Vrabel, one of the smartest people I've ever played with, has been able to tap into Crennel's wealth of knowledge (34-plus years coaching in the NFL), and that's a big reason Vrabel's in the position he's in. He knows, like others who ascend through the coaching ranks, that no matter how long you're involved with the game, you can always learn more. Vrabel has a knack for understanding situational football and knows how to adjust when offenses attempt to exploit his defense through formations and personnel packages. With his understanding, Vrabel's defense will be unpredictable and dictate what offenses are doing more often than not.
A lot of what the Texans' defense does is consistent schematically to what Vrabel actually played in with the Patriots. I'm not going to give plays away here but when a play is called out, it tells players the type of coverage -- zone or man -- each person's responsibility and what adjustments should be carried out during the play. Given the fact that he actually did it and is still in great shape, the coach has the ability to physically run players through a drill or play. It's one thing to write a play on the board or hand over a piece of paper; it's another to give players a visual.
There are a lot of moving parts to Houston's defensive scheme -- first implemented by Crennel -- and if players don't communicate, the unit is dead in the water. The defense has improved steadily over the last three seasons because of the amount of time spent preparing and practicing situational football -- something we did in New England. We were put into certain situations and coaches weren't allowed to chime in. We had to figure it out. Once you go through that chaotic situation, where guys are stressing out, trying to figure out calls and make adjustments on the fly, units begin understanding and communicating, making the game easier along the way.
Certain players struggled to understand and pick up Crennel's philosophies, which was a more sophisticated style than they were used to, in his first year, but the Texans have digested them and their play has shown the improvement. Under Crennel, the defense has given up on average fewer than 20 points per game over a three-year span. The possibilities for this defense are endless at this stage with big-time playmakers in Clowney, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Johnathan Joseph and Benardrick McKinney, among others. The amount of talent Vrabel has to work with allows him to create mismatches against a ton of offenses.
When we started our championship run in New England during the early 2000s, our defense -- led by Crennel -- was the foundation. The Tom Brady-led offense has certainly elevated play since then, but right now, I see similarities between this Houston team and those early Patriots squads. The Texans have built a defense that's ready to win and it can under the direction of Crennel and Vrabel. Now, it's about finding the offensive performance to match.