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Why Connor Barwin Gets My Vote

Recently I asked who your favorite offseason signing was for the Houston Texans.  Second round draft pick Connor Barwin received the majority of your votes with 33%.  I would tend to agree that third of you, but not just for the possibility of sacks, although that thought does excite me.  The thing that tips the scales in Connor’s favor for me is the buzzword that became close to cliché shortly after the Texans' draft; versatility.

Versatile is not an adjective that is usually assigned to defensive ends.  Good defensive ends can usually shed blocks to combat against the run or beat blockers to sack the quarterback.  Elite defensive ends (like this guy) can do both.  While sometimes defensive ends like Dwight Freeney get pretty creative with pass rushing moves, there’s not a whole lot of versatility involved.  So outside of a speed rush, why is it so great to get a defensive end that is as athletic and has such varied experience as Connor Barwin?

First year defensive coordinator Frank Bush has been pretty vocal about his defensive philosophy "attacking the ball", but he has very rarely given examples of specific schemes he intends on utilizing.  Interviews with players and defensive assistant coaches yield only the repeated mantra of getting up the field and attacking.  While this is music to the ears of a fan base that saw very little play that could be construed as anything close to attacking under former defensive coordinator Richard Smith, the desire to understand exactly what Bush has in store for the 22nd ranked defense in 2008 is substantial.

What we know about Bush is that he is a linebacker at heart.  He played the position for the Houston Oilers for two seasons before a spinal injury forced him into early retirement at which point he began a career in coaching after a short stint as a college scout.  Over the last seventeen years of coaching in the NFL, Bush has spent ten of those seasons coaching specifically linebackers.  So it is only fitting that the first defensive selection that Bush made as a coordinator would be on a linebacker. 

Whether you believe in Brian Cushing or not, it’s hard to argue that the linebacker corps has ever been deeper for the young franchise in the Bayou City.  As noted before, one of the biggest questions of training camp will be to determine who the starting weak side linebacker will be between Xavier Adibi and Zach Diles.  The kind of depth to inspire position battles is not a usual occurrence for the Texans; their problems have been historically much worse at this time of year.

Connor Barwin is so athletic that many had projected him to play linebacker in the NFL for a team that utilizes the 3-4 scheme.  His small stature for a traditional 4-3 NFL defensive end aided the notion that Barwin was destined to play standing up at the next level.  The fact that Barwin was a career tight end prior to his senior year at defensive end made the idea even more logical because his experience would enable him to cover in space more effectively.  It was a surprise to many that Barwin not only fell to midway through the second round but also that he was eventually taken by the Texans.

Many, including Matt, were worried that selecting Barwin right after Cushing was a sign that Houston could be switching back to a 3-4.  I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind as well, but this was more of an exercise of rationalization.  Gary Kubiak and Frank Bush quickly let it be known, however, that the team would stay with its current scheme and that Barwin would be playing as a traditional 4-3 defensive end. 

So how does a coach like Bush best exploit such a unique set of skills like those of Barwin without transitioning him into a linebacker?  In an interview given on May 6th, Frank Bush stated that Barwin’s presence specifically allowed the Texans to implement a zone-dog blitz scheme.  This is (to my knowledge) the only mentioning of specific schemes that Bush has made.

The zone-dog blitz in a 4-3 scheme drops one of the defensive ends into coverage while either one or a combination of two linebackers blitz.  Any of the three linebackers, the Sam (strong side) the Will (weak side) or the Mike (middle), can be brought on the blitz.  The four defensive backs fall into a zone coverage along the sidelines and deep, while the non-rushing defensive end and the remaining linebacker(s) cover any underneath routes.

The basic purpose of the scheme is to confuse the offensive line so that they will not be able to properly execute their blocking assignments.  Think of Pittsburgh’s defense last year; they very rarely brought more than five rushers and often only brought four, but they were so unpredictable that they gave offenses fits.  The three remaining defensive lineman commonly stunt during the blitz to further this confusion and open up lanes for the blitzing linebackers

The zone-dog makes perfect sense for a team with an athletic, talented linebacker corps.  It allows the defense to take advantage of speed, something the Texans’ linebackers have in spades.  The zone coverage also helps the secondary as they don’t have to turn their heads (cough*Jacques Reeves*cough) so they can break on the ball when it is thrown.  This allows for easier handling of crossing routes and screen passes too.

This scheme can’t be done though without a defensive end like Barwin.  When dropping into coverage, he would be required to cover a TE or make an open field tackle after a check down pass to the running back.  That’s when 4.6 speed coupled with experience in open space comes in handy.  Bush made mention that Antonio Smith is capable dropping into coverage like this as well, but you have to assume that Barwin would be much better suited for this role given his freakish athletic ability and his reputation for having a nonstop motor.

To say how often the zone-dog blitz will be used or how effective it will be would be nothing more than conjecture at this point.  The mere possibility of its implementation, however, is something to get excited about.  Since switching to a 4-3 in 2006, the Texans simply haven’t had any significant talent at defensive end besides Mario Williams who should never do anything but rush the passer.  This coupled with lack of blitzing creativity that left the linebackers underutilized made our defense flat and predictable which translated into no pressure on the quarterback. 

The presence of Barwin could go a long way to reversing this trend thus making the entire front seven better.  Oh, he did lead the Big East last year with 12 sacks, so he might also help in the boring, non-versatile way of getting to the quarterback himself.  I guess I’d be ok with that too.