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Statistically Breaking Down The Houston Pass Defense

I would love to see more of this, Kareem. I'll name my first born after you if you could do this more.
I would love to see more of this, Kareem. I'll name my first born after you if you could do this more.

No one would argue that defending the pass is the biggest problem for the Houston defense. The Texans are giving up 329.6 net passing yards per game1- 32nd in the NFL. Two other teams (Buffalo and Jacksonville) have allowed higher quarterback ratings2 than Houston, but those two are 11th and 29th in terms of yards, respectively. In other words, it's pretty bad no matter how you look at it, despite the fact that the numbers from the last three games (275 YPG with four interceptions) are much lower than the first two games (411 YPG with no interceptions).

The debates begin when it turns to "The Blame Game." Is it the rookie's fault? Is it a lack of safeties? Bad play? Is it schematic failure? Was there a lack of foresight on the part of management to prepare for this season?

Well, let's breakdown the pass defense in terms of positional success. Luckily, there's a graph below to help out. After the graph, I break down some of the statistics and give reasons as to how certain positions are faring. There are some positives, too, so it's not all gloom-and-doom. I'll give you a shocker: Kareem Jackson isn't the biggest problem.



If you'd like to see the chart in a larger/clearer form, then click here.

Memo to Frank Bush: You may want to cover the tight ends because allowing nearly 100 yards a game to a TE is beyond bad - especially since no other team is allowing more than 82 YPG to the TE. The 79%(!!!!!!!!!!) increase in yardage from 2009 to 2010 is, by far, the biggest difference in pass defense. The increase is especially bad when you realize that the 2009 Texans allowed the 10th-highest yards to a TE last year and had the 3rd worst DVOA versus the TE3.  In 2010, receptions, yards, and touchdowns to the tight ends have accounted for ~28% of the totals given up by Houston. Another bad stat? The DVOA against the TE is an awful 44.8%, third-worst in the NFL. In the Cover-2 Zone defense, the tight end is usually a backbreaking problem, so the scheme gets full fault here. Frank, perhaps it is time for you to man up a linebacker or safety on the tight end.

The next biggest setback has been defending the second wide receiver - a 58% yard increase from the previous season. While the Texans don't stick to match-ups, the second receiver has usually fallen to rookie Kareem Jackson. The increase is just a bump that comes with starting a rookie cornerback4. Comparing his DVOA to the other two first round starting rookies, since Kyle Wilson is the dime cornerback in New York, Jackson rates out comparably (Jackson's at 23.5% to Haden's 56.5% and McCourty's 16.6%). Kareem has only played five games, so calm down, people. What did you expect? Teams are going to pick on a rookie. You can only hope for progress or allowing Kareem to press more as he did in the second half of the Giants game.

A 38% yard increase has also occurred in defending running backs. The over-pursuit and failure to recognize a screen pass are definitely to blame for this. Also to blame are the missed tackles by Xavier Adibi and Eugene Wilson among others. If you judge by DVOA, this is the worst category for the Texans, as their 32.7% DVOA ranks second-to-last, which is a staggering 69% DVOA drop-off from last year's league-leading -36.3%. The only cure is Brian Cushing's return, an increase of tackling drills at practice, and teaching the defense how to recognize a screen pass.

Losing Jacques Reeves has hurt, as Brice McCain and Sherrick McManis have been bumped up the depth chart to see more playing time. Whereas the Texans were among the league's best in 2009 versus non-starting receivers, they've suffered a 22% increase defending those same receivers this season, which puts their fifth-worst DVOA at 30.1% - this ranks behind running backs and tight ends as the biggest problem. While youth has given up these bumps, maybe Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak should have kept Reeves, considering how McCain has been pushed around. I know he's a rookie, but, maybe, McManis (because Antwaun Molden's a unicorn) should get a turn in the slot. There needs to be some sort of adjustment here.

It's not all bad though. Glover Quin has done a pretty decent job against No. 1 receivers. The 53.4 yards per game by #1 receivers rates among the top half of the NFL. Heck, Glover is putting mega-millionaire Dunta Robinson to shame - Quin's allowed 53.4 YPG (1.3% DVOA) to Dunta's 78.8 YPG (38.7% DVOA) . Kudos to Glover, who is a cost-effective champ...or he's getting the benefit of playing alongside a rookie, who also happens to beat Dunta's numbers. Whatever the case, Glover's a brief bright spot here.

Before I wrap up this article, I'll leave you with one more bright spot. Teams can overcome bad pass defense to be a playoff team. Last year, New Orleans and Arizona were among the league's worst pass defenses. In 2008, San Diego was near dead last, but they made the playoffs. Perhaps the best example is the 2005 New England Patriots.

As's Jerome Solomon points out:

The Texans are a lot more like the Patriots, with one of the worst secondaries on a good team in recent memory. New England finished 31st in passing yards allowed and pass plays of more than 20 yards given up in '05.

I saw every pass thrown against them. It was brutal.

The '05 Patriots actually started 4-4 behind a starting secondary that included a young veteran cornerback, a rookie cornerback, strong safeties signed off the street, and Eugene Wilson. During the 4-4 start, the Patriots won by an average of five points and lost by an average of 15 points, including two mega-curbstomps at home. Does that sound familiar?  Eventually, those 2005 New England Patriots finished 10-6 and made the playoffs. There is past precedent that a bad pass defense doesn't condemn your team to a terrible season, so you can save the talk of draft picks and 2011. We can hope youth gets better over the course of the season, as it did for the Patriots, but until then Frank needs to fix the problems within his control.

On the whole, there are many different reasons to blame for the gaudy passing numbers put up on the Houston defense. The biggest problem, without question, has been defending the tight end. This week, Frank Bush really needs to address that issue since Kansas City's #1 target is rookie TE Tony Moeaki. If no changes aren't made, no one should be surprised if Moeaki puts up a career day5.


1 Net passing yards includes yards lost due to a sack versus total passing yards, which doesn't.
2 QB Rating is derived from completion percentage, yards per pass, touchdowns, and interceptions.
DVOA is a Football Outsiders statistic. Simple explanation, in terms of defense, is it rates against the average of your opponent faced. If your defense has a 50% DVOA against tight ends then tight ends produce 50% better than their average against your defense. The higher the percentage, the worse things are.
4 At this point, I'm sure someone thinks: "Dunta was GREAT as a rookie!!!!! ROOKIE DUNTA FTW!!!!!!" Let's take a trip back to 2004, shall we?

For point of reference, Dunta started alongside Aaron Glenn, Marcus Coleman, and Glenn Earl. Through 5 games, the '04 Texans had one more INT than the '10 Texans (5 to 4), allowed two more TD passes (13 to 11), and allowed a near identical QB Rating against (102.9 to 104).

Furthermore, Dunta's stats through five games were: 22 tackles, 2 INTS, and 7 PD. Kareem? 25 tackles, 1 INT, and 5 PD. Dunta's stats, and the pass defense's, began to improve after game 7. Show some patience, people. He's performing similarly to that "rookie stud" through five weeks.
5 Moeaki's stats to date are 16 receptions, 173 yards, and 2 touchdowns. Yes, those numbers lead all Kansas City receiving stats. No, I'm not joking.