On Tuesday I wrote an article regarding Adam Schein’s theory that the Houston Texans’ defensive line will be better in 2009 than the unit belonging to the Tennessee Titans. I laid out my case of why Adam might be right on this account, specifically because of the loss of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. My contention was that it wasn’t the loss of Fat Albert alone that would cause the Titans defensive line to struggle; rather, the absence of such a dynamic player would expose the rest of the defensive lineman’s weaknesses.
Paul Kuharsky of ESPN was kind enough to link that article as he had previously linked Adam Schein’s column that spurred this debate. Paul runs a great site specifically dedicated to the AFC South. Not only does he have great information pertaining to all four teams in the division, but he does a great job of trying to interact with fans by conducting live chats like the one he will hold on Friday at 2:00 P.M. EST. I’m sorry to say that the Texans are a little underrepresented on his site, which is something I think we should try to fix.
Paul made a point when linking the article that was justified:
"Two words that have not been factored into this enough: Travis Johnson."
Not only was Kuharsky justified in that statement, but if he or anyone else who had read the article had taken a step further and identified my one-sided criticism toward the Titans defensive line that would have been justified as well. I assumed that any naysayers of Schein’s original argument would automatically focus on how good the Titans’ line was rather than how bad the Texans’ was, so I centered the article on disproving the former line of thought rather than the latter. In hindsight this line of thinking left my point of why I agree with Schein half stated. Allow me to finish what I started.
All of the defensive units for the Texans have been substandard for a long time now, including the line. Since I examined the performance of the Titans line over the last two years because of Haynesworth playing for a new contract in both seasons, I will use the same timeframe for any historical analysis of the Texans’ line as well.
You can’t have a discussion about Houston’s defense, much less the line, without starting with Mario Williams. After being hampered by a foot injury in his rookie year, Williams has accumulated 26 sacks in the last two seasons, becoming one of the most dominant pass rushers in the league. An average of 56 tackles over those two years also shows that Williams is stingy against the run as well and is not just a one-dimensional pass rusher. Even more impressive, Williams has spent the majority of the last two years getting double-teamed by offensive lineman.
The reason why Williams was facing two blockers on almost every play was because of the lack of talent among the rest of the defensive ends. Anthony Weaver showed early and often that he could simply not produce in a 4-3 scheme after leaving Baltimore’s 3-4. Tim Bulman showed brief flashes last year in 14 games but garnered a mere 4 sacks and 18 tackles. Even commonly facing one blocker because of the respect given to Williams, the two of them still couldn’t produce regularly.
This lack of production was the catalyst for signing Antonio Smith at the onset of free agency. Smith comes from the recently successful Arizona Cardinals, who benefited from Smith’s great play in the 2008 playoffs. Smith won’t wow you as a pass rusher as exemplified by just 9 sacks in the last two seasons, but it was his jack-of-all-trades role that enticed the Texans into targeting him early. Smith can not only play stout against the run, but he can slide inside and rush from the defensive tackle position on obvious passing situations like third downs. Just like I said about Jovan Haye, no one knows how Smith will perform in the Texans' system, but Smith has a better track record than Haye had in Tampa Bay.
Connor Barwin was also added to the defensive end rotation via the draft to address the lack of production at the position opposite Mario Williams. Barwin burst onto the scene after an all around amazing performance at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine. Barwin has the ability to be a great pass rusher in the NFL, but he is still very green, having only one defensive season under his belt in college, albeit a very productive one. Barwin will see the field in passing situations and special teams, but the true determining factor for full-time play will be his ability to improve against the run.
As to Kuharsky’s original point, Travis Johnson has been terrible since being draft in the first round of the 2005 draft. I have no doubt that Johnson had incredible upside when coming into the league, but obviously lack of work ethic and caring got the better of him. He should be motivated by playing in the last year of his contract, but if the way he showed up to OTAs is any indication, even a new contract is not enough to overcome his sloth. Frank Okam has been the common answer to who will replace Johnson, but he has yet to see significant playing time. DelJuan Robinson, while playing well in the Tennessee victory at the end of the season last year, probably doesn’t have the talent to be a permanent starter.
The real wild card on the Texans' line is Amobi Okoye. After a breakout rookie season in 2007 in which the penetrating under-tackle tallied 5.5 sacks, Okoye significantly regressed last year. Amobi was hampered in the beginning of the year with a high ankle sprain and an apparent lack of offseason conditioning, but came on strong in the end of the year. Okoye is the same age as most rookies drafted this year, but he has two years of NFL experience under his belt. His regression is probably the biggest reason why Mario Williams experienced a slight dip in his production, even though it was very slight (14 to 12 sacks).
Even with my biased spin, the Texans look lacking in comparison with the recent success of the Titans' defensive line. As stated above, there are many reasons to expect great things from this unit in 2009 but past experience is not at the top of that list. One thing that both defensive lines had in common in the last two years was the presence of dynamic players. The title of dynamic is assigned because of a level of talent that creates opportunities for players around them.
It’s this difference that tips the scales in the Texans' favor in my opinion. Both Mario Williams and Albert Haynesworth are such rare talents that, when they are lost, it is hard to replace them. The Texans don’t have to address that problem this year whereas the Titans do. Furthermore, the only player that the Texans lost was an unproductive defensive end, and they added two players in his stead. Neither is certain to be great, but that’s two opportunities to get better at that position, which shouldn’t be that hard given the utter lack of past production.
The other reality is that the Titans not only expect more from their defensive line, they need more. The success of their team has been based off of a dominant pressure defense which allows a ball control offense. The Texans have had an offense, especially last year, that was good enough to win with marginal success from the defense at large. If the Titans' defense regresses at all, it will require an offensive change in philosophy that they may not be able to achieve with Kerry Collins and Vince Young. The Texans, on the other hand, are entering their first year with a healthy Matt Schaub and a second-year offensive coordinator. If their defense manages to improve past 22nd in the league, they very well may obtain their first winning season. In summation, the Texans’ defensive line has a decent chance to be better than the Titans, but even if they’re not, the team still has a chance to benefit more.