The Houston Texans have climbed to the top of the AFC South behind a stellar defense that's beginning to look like the dominant unit everyone envisioned when defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel took over in 2014. With a four-game winning streak keyed by the surging unit, I thought it was a great time to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film and try to figure out how the group has bounced back from a dismal start to re-emerge as one of the most feared units in the NFL.
1) Romeo Crennel's adjustments have keyed defensive dominance.
The wily defensive architect is rarely mentioned as one of the top tacticians in the NFL, but his brilliance is undeniable after watching his work with the Texans this season. Crennel has transformed a unit that ranked near the bottom of the charts in nearly every defensive category after Week 7 into one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL.
From Week 8 on, the Texans have held opponents to 8.8 points per game and 250.5 yards total offense, the best in the NFL during that span. Considering the Texans are also averaging 4.0 sacks and two takeaways per game during their four-game winning streak, it's clear Crennel's defense is beginning to live up to expectations.
The Texans' defense has long been viewed as one of the league's elite based on superior personnel. Houston's lineup features eight former first-round picks: J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, Jadeveon Clowney, Brian Cushing, Whitney Mercilus, Kareem Jackson, Kevin Johnson and Johnathan Joseph. But it took awhile for Crennel to craft a scheme that accentuated their talents and put his top playmakers in the best position to attack the ball at every level.
From a philosophical standpoint, Crennel builds opponent-specific game plans that are designed to neutralize the opposition's top weapons while also forcing the opposing play caller out of his comfort zone. He wants to keep the ball in front of the defense and force opponents to drive the length of the field using a "dink and dunk" approach. Crennel focuses his efforts on winning red-zone and third-down situations, while also producing takeaways at a high rate.
Last season, the Texans led the NFL in takeaways, finished third in third-down defense (33.9 percent conversion rate) and tied for sixth in red-zone defense. Given the unit's success in Crennel's first season on the job, the Texans' early season woes this year were quite alarming. After the Texans' embarrassing loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 7, the defense ranked near the bottom of the charts in big plays surrendered (having allowed 16 pass plays of 20-plus yards and four pass plays of 40-plus yards) and points allowed (28.4 per game).
The All-22 Coaches Film of the Texans' performances during the first seven games of the season revealed that the defense surrendered too many deep balls to quarterbacks willing to take shots downfield. In addition, the defense failed to contain running plays, due to shoddy tackling, poor angles and questionable effort getting to the ball. Given that the Texans' problems seemed to be driven by the play of their personnel rather than their scheme, I'm not surprised Crennel seemed to focus his efforts on finding the right combination of players.
Studying the lineups and coaching tape, I noticed the Texans' young players have logged more snaps in recent weeks. Brandon Dunn and Christian Covington have spelled Vince Wilfork on the interior, and Benardrick McKinney has replaced Akeem Dent at linebacker. At free safety, Rahim Moore has been supplanted by Andre Hal and Quintin Demps. Overall, the influx of speed and athleticism has allowed the Texans to eliminate some of the flaws that led them to give up big plays on the perimeter.
Crennel has also deployed Clowney, Watt and Mercilus at different spots to create mismatches along the line. The Watt-Clowney tandem in particular creates problems for opponents attempting to double-team the edge rusher.
In the play below, from Houston's win over the New York Jetsin Week 11, Crennel aligns Watt and Clowney on the defensive right, allowing his dynamic duo to go to work off the edge. Clowney is positioned at defensive tackle and instructed to attack the A-gap, while Watt has a two-way go off the edge. With Clowney taking the Jets' right guard away, Watt bull-rushes D'Brickashaw Ferguson and slips inside for a sack (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In addition, the Texans have tweaked and reshuffled their nickel package to find the best matchups for their cover corners. Kareem Jackson, Kevin Johnson and Johnathan Joseph have switched sides and roles in sub-packages to "lock up" designated receivers on the perimeter. While this takes superb communication and requires some technique diversity, the ability to "match" in the back end puts each player in an optimal situations, particularly in man coverage.
In terms of the Texans' scheme, I noticed minor adjustments in coverage. The defensive backs have spent most of their time in "off" coverage, executing "quarter-quarter-half", three-deep or hybrid man concepts (two-man and Cover-1 Robber). The shift from press to "off" has enabled the Texans to keep the ball in front of the defense by eliminating fade and go-routes that quarterbacks target when spotting tight coverage on the outside.
With Crennel willing to tweak and adjust his personnel and scheme to put his best players in position to make plays on the ball, the Texans' defense is finally looking like the stellar unit most expected it to be heading into the season.
2) J.J Watt is a one-man wrecking ball at the line.
Watt earned his second Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014, suggesting the 6-foot-5, 289-pounder was the top defender in the NFL. In fact, Watt was so dominant last season that he was a serious contender for the Most Valuable Player award, based on his single-handed destruction of opposing offenses.
In 2015, Watt has not only picked up where he left off, but he is showing a diversified game based on his remarkable physical traits and high football IQ. Watt is terrorizing opponents with an assortment of power-based maneuvers at the line, while also displaying the athleticism and quickness to shoot through gaps on slants, stunts and angles.
Although this combination of speed, strength and power has always been a hallmark of his game, Watt's skills have been enhanced by Crennel's willingness to allow the Pro Bowler to freelance at the line. During my tape study, I discovered one two-play sequence that showcased his disruptive potential as a freelance playmaker.
In the video clip below, Watt's ability to shoot the gap results in a tackle for loss. Notice how he aligns at LDE opposite Jets RT Breno Giacomini and shoots the gap immediately after the snap. Watt consistently jumps into gaps when he senses a running play, making the veteran nearly impossible to block at some points of the game.
In the next play, which you can see in the video clip below, Watt registers a sack utilizing his exceptional first-step quickness, balance and body control off the edge. His "dip-and-rip" maneuver is pulled straight from a textbook.
The fifth-year pro has the option of aligning anywhere along the defensive front based on a hunch or favorable matchup. You'll see him aligned anywhere from the one-technique (shaded nose tackle) to the nine-technique (wide alignment on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) on any given down. With the rest of the defensive line capable of adjusting to Watt's whereabouts through verbal and non-verbal communication, the offense is unable to consistently direct pass protection to the disruptive playmaker. Given Watt's dominant skills as a one-on-one pass rusher, the freedom to attack from anywhere on the field gives him more chances to make impact plays for the Texans.
I came away from the All-22 Coaches Film most impressed with Watt's ability to identify the weak link on the offensive line (known as "Waldo" in NFL circles) and exploit him with an assortment of power-based maneuvers.
In the Texans' Week 8 win over the Tennessee Titans, Watt quickly identified right guard Chance Warmack and center Joe Looney as the weak links along the line, then proceeded to spend the bulk of his time aligned in the A-gap on their side. On the play depicted below, Watt aligns as a stand-up nose tackle and rushes through the A-gap on his right. Looney is unable to combat his quickness, allowing Watt to shoot through the crease. With Looney forced to abandon his interior position, Mercilus is able to loop around and through the gap for an easy sack (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With Watt -- who has amassed 70.5 sacks through 75 career games thus far -- accounting for 46.6 percent of the Texans' team sacks in 2015, Crennel is wise to use his top defender as the queen of the chessboard. While opponents will attempt to minimize his impact via creative blocking schemes, the unpredictability of his deployment creates headaches for offensive coordinators around the NFL.
3) The Texans' defensive backs are "playing on a string" in the back end.
When I was a young defensive back in the NFL, I had a well-respected defensive coordinator (Gunther Cunningham) tell me that trust and communication were the essential building blocks to constructing a premier defense in today's game. With more offenses opting for a pass-happy approach to deliver big plays on the perimeter, every defender needs to have a clear understanding of his specified role within a defensive scheme -- and he must be able to relay information to his partners, to ensure continuity on each play.
The All-22 Coaches Film of the Texans' last four games reveals a defensive backfield that is playing as one, relying on exceptional trust and communication between teammates. Whether they're communicating verbally between each snap or exchanging hand signals during the pre-snap phase, the relaying of information between defensive backs stands out. While this is a frequently overlooked aspect of playing good defense, the Texans' first seven games featured a number of blown assignments in the back end, leading to receivers running free through zones without defenders in close proximity.
In addition to improved communication between defenders, I see evidence of growing trust within the unit. Defenders are not only playing with proper leverage in each coverage, but it appears that each defensive back knows exactly where he fits in the scheme; the Texans are disciplined enough to execute their responsibilities in critical moments.
As you can see below, the Jets are aligned in a trips formation, with Brandon Marshall isolated against Joseph on the right. The Texans are showing a "quarter-quarter-half" coverage prior to the snap, but the unit will switch to a Cover-3 Buzz concept after the snap. Notice how Joseph is playing off and slightly outside of the receiver, because he knows Hal and Cushing are underneath droppers to the inside. Hal drops into the hook zone, reads the eyes of the quarterback and makes an aggressive break to the ball. With Joseph responsible for the deep route and double move, the safety is free to attack the ball without hesitation. This play results in an interception for the Texans(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Texans' defense has only surrounded one touchdown pass in the past four games, while the unit has come up with eight takeaways and continued to excel on third down (the Texans' 26.2 percent conversion rate allowed on third down leads the NFL) behind the effective play of secondary. With Hal, Demps, Johnson, Jackson and Joseph playing on a string, it will be tough for any aerial attack to move the ball consistently against Houston.