We're all aware of the challenges this defense faced heading into the off-season. Kubiak's Texans, yet again, failed to put a respectable defensive effort on the field and it result in his worst season since he was first hired back in 2006. Granted, the Texans have never truly had a season in which they fielded a balanced team, but after 2009, I don't believe I'm alone in recalling the fact that 2010 really felt like it was going to be our year.
Despite having no ground game and the worst start to a season of any defense, ever, Houston posted its first winning season in a strong sprint to the finish with a devastating passing attack and a defense that came around quickly under the leadership of street free agent Bernard Pollard. And then... 2010 happened. Our star rookie linebacker was busted for steroid use, our first round corner was an unmitigated disaster, and our safety tandem which had at least shown signs of competency in 2009 looked worse than the horrible days in which we fielded Glenn Earl, Jason Simmons, and C.C. Brown.
The rhythm of Texans games became laughably predictable: come out sluggish, spot the other team between 17 and 24 points, then come roaring back in the middle of the game only to give it all away on an unbelievable, heart-wrenching blunder that left every member of Texans Nation in a puddle of their own bleach-vomit.
The off-season came, playoffs were, once again, out of the question, but the solutions seemed fairly straight forward: fire everyone, cut the secondary, and then hire a defensive-minded coach willing to keep the offense intact, sign some veteran defensive backs, and spend the entire draft on defense. Instead, we had a lockout-inspired hire of failed head coach Wade Phillips and a promised conversion to the
3-4, 5-3 cover 1, 4-3 heavy, really a 5-2, 3-4, and a lot of questions.
Most of the questions seemed to be answered, at least in part, by the strong draft and the post-draft comments from the defensive coaches: Mario Williams would move to outside linebacker despite comments early on that he would play defensive end, J.J. Watt would play defensive end, Earl Mitchell would play nose tackle, and the rest of the draft appeared to be a strong effort to bolster depth.
The front-7 appeared to be coming together, with a starting linebacking corps of Mario Williams, Brian Cushing, and Connor Barwin, and a defensive line of J.J. Watt, Earl Mitchell, and Antonio Smith. But other circumstance might just inhibit what looks like it could be a fairly stellar front seven...
There are some serious concerns that aren't being aired about what will happen, at least early on with the team's front-7. What we all have settled into as what we expect to see on opening day might not be something the team is able to realize until late, if at all, in the season. Why, you ask?
1) The injuries to Connor Barwin and especially DeMeco Ryans will probably force them to start the season on the PUP list.
I don't believe I am alone in saying that the player on the Texans' defense I was most excited to watch going into last season was Connor Barwin. In his rookie season marked by limited playing time, he managed to post the second-most sacks on the team. He had a large degree of hype entering the draft among 3-4 teams due to his ranginess and athleticism, but he still looked at home rushing the passer with his hand on the ground. But all at once, early in a rousing victory against the Colts, his ankle was badly broken.
Then, half-way through the season, DeMeco Ryans ruptured his achilles tendon. Ryans has been a mainstay of the defense, and his emotional presence in the middle is probably of great importance to the transition of the defense as a whole. Achilles injuries can permanently derail professional athletic careers; its use and function is of such vital importance to the football player that an injury as severe as this one will impact all aspects of his game.
We would be naive, at best, to simply assume that both or either of these guys will be back right off the bat. Their recovery times are not affected by the lockout, because they likely would not have participated in any real off-season activities even up to this point, but their injuries were severe and to areas of the body that require full function in order to allow the player to play at a high level.
2) There might only be one player on the defense with the new playbook, and his name is J.J. Watt.
In the bedlam of the lockout-then-no-lockout-then-lockout-but-oh-wait-the-draft, not many players were actually allowed contact with the coaches during the brief window afforded by the end of the lockout, but while facility staff were told to turn players away, good news did come out in the form of confirmation that J.J. Watt, the newest first round Texan, had in fact managed to make contact with the coaching staff and pick up a playbook. But then, no one else did. Brooks Reed doesn't have one, and neither does Mario Williams, Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, or any other veteran member of the defense.
It's one thing to ask young veteran players to change schemes. It's expected to be a little rough at first, but they're professionals and with proper coaching and a little willingness to learn, I don't think anyone would be overly concerned about this transition if it were a normal off-season. However, the lock out is on, and you're asking young guys to get acquainted with a new system with new jargon and new positions in an extremely short amount of time.
While we know Mario Williams won't be dropping back into coverage, we've seen how Brian Cushing worked in the middle last season, and while it's not the same, the point is that the language would've been familiar, the staff would've been familiar, and he'd had an example standing right next to him for the entirety of his career up until that point. A smooth transition is almost out of the question for at least some of these players.
Earl Mitchell hardly played last season and is being asked to step into a starting position he's never had or been familiar with, and is not built for in the traditional sense. This also might further affect the development and bringing-along of Barwin, who's played sparingly and will have to come right off of major-injury recovery to playing extensively in coverage and rushing the passer from an entirely different stance. We've seen in the past that this staff likes to use the PUP and especially IR to stash players in lieu of a roster position, so it's not out of the question to think this makes Barwin's early place on the PUP a likelihood.
Even then, despite his possession of a playbook, Watt and the other rookies are being asked to learn a lot in a nearly impossible amount of time. There will be little acclimation to the speed of the game, little ability to corporately explore the playbook with veteran players and the coaches, and little time to put things into practice. Again, a tall order to ask of anyone on this defense, but I'm very skeptical as to how quickly these rookies could be brought up to speed. The only player who is slated to start with any experience in a 3-4 is Antonio Smith, and that leaves a lot of catching up to do for the rest of this defense.
3) So what might we be looking at?
I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if our opening-day lineup in the front seven is sharply different than what we've all discussed so far during this long and tortuous period between football seasons. What we thought would be a nice representation of our best and most promising young players that had the potential to develop into something very scary, very quickly, could legitimately come out looking like this:
So if this looks suspiciously familiar to anyone else, just imagine what the Nickel package might be (take out Mark Anderson and you ought to have a pretty good idea). All of this is to say that our defense next year might not look very different, schematically speaking, from what we've seen in the past. Phillips' insistence that this is less of a defense of four all-purpose linebackers and more one that involves five down pass-rushers seems to me to suggest that while the defense very well ought to improve next season, the biggest improvement will be at the top, in the coaching, and not in what place our players line up. So, to quote Ray Arnold in Jurassic Park, "Hold on to your butts," Texans fans. Our new defense might initially look like more of the same. More fallout from the lockout, unfortunately.