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Texans Defense: Who's To Blame?

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It’s the bye week, and the Texans are 4-2.  If you had told me that would be the case before the season started, I not only would have been ecstatic, but I would have expected the fans, bloggers and the team to be ecstatic as well.  If you gauge the general mood of all those people though, there is a general anxiety or even melancholy around the Texans blogosphere that is not representative of the team’s unprecedented success.  The reason is that Texans fans are, for the most, anchored in reality.  This reality is based on many years of disappointment.

The reality of this season is that while it’s great that the team has managed to win games it probably should have, the defense has played so poorly that the wins in Washington and against Kansas City feel more like exceptions rather than the rule.  The offense has played great, as evidenced by receiving three of the six AFC Offensive Players of the Week awards.  To rely, however, on any offense to score 30 points a game (which all of the victories have required) or to overcome double-digit fourth quarter leads to win more games than lost is a foolhardy expectation.  It is a great recipe for mediocrity...the same mediocrity that has become the Texans identity.

The Texans have never had a great or even good defense under the Gary Kubiak regime.  That’s not to say that there has been no investment on that side of the ball.  Of the eight first or second round draft picks the Texans have had since Kubiak took the reins, six of them were spent on defensive players.  So have the players selected not performed, or have the Kubiak-picked defensive coordinators failed in scheming for those players?  Join me after the jump as I explore which is to blame for the shortcomings of the 2010 Texans defense--scheme or personnel.

Before any naysayers discount this discussion by stating that anyone is irresponsible for doubting this team and should be content with what we’ve seen on the field so far, stop.  If you don’t like the topic, stop reading the article now.  But before you go, consider one alarming fact.  In a great synopsis of just how bad the defense has been against the pass, Lance Zierlein concluded that opposing quarterbacks have averaged 78 more passing yards and a full 10.2 higher completion percentage points against the Texans than they did the rest of the league.  If you assume that trend continues and add those numbers to the current averages of the remaining quarterbacks on the schedule, you are looking at the possibility of 316 yards given up at a 73.1 completion percentage rate per game.  Should we just use the ostrich approach and assume this problem won’t cause us to lose many of these games?

When you consider scheme, the buck stops at defensive coordinator Frank Bush.  Bush took over for a much and justly maligned Richard Smith, who led the defense from 2006 – 2008.  Bush’s mantra since day one has been "attacking the ball."  This philosophy has benefited the run defense, but severely hampered the ability to stop the pass.

Many educated Texans fans loathe Bush and openly call for his removal as coordinator.  Due to this open disdain, Bush often does not get credit for his improvement of the run defense.  Many point out that the addition of Bernard Pollard and the improved play of then-rookie Brian Cushing was responsible for the run defense pulling a 180, and not the coordinator.  My response to this is if you are going to blame him solely for the deficiencies of the pass defense because he is accountable as coordinator, you must also give him credit for the positives even if they are few.  That is to say, if you criticize him for not being able to produce a consistent pass rush despite the presence of good to great lineman such as Mario Williams and Antonio Smith, than you cannot simply say  the aforementioned players were the only reason that teams were no longer able to gash the Texans with the run.

It is this commitment to stop the run that has led to the sieve that is the Houston pass defense.  I would contend that the pass defense was just as bad during the last 13 games of 2009 when the defense clamped down on the run as it has been in 2010.  The statistics don’t back this up, but I think the reasons for that were lack of premiere opposing quarterbacks and statistic loopholes. 

The quarterbacks the Texans faced in this 13 game stretch were JaMarcus Russell, Kurt Warner, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith/Shaun Hill, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Peyton Manning twice, David Garrard twice, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Keith Null, Chad Henne and Tom Brady.  Of that list, the only quarterbacks who could be considered even above-average passers at this point in their career were Warner, Manning and Brady. 

As for the loopholes I spoke of, Dunta Robinson was guilty of numerous pass interference penalties when he was burnt on deep routes and simply grabbed the wide receiver to avoid giving up a touchdown.  I do not have the numbers of how many PI penalties he and the rest of the secondary were responsible for, but this just goes to prove my point.  If you judge the pass defense in this 13 game stretch purely on statistics, the numbers won’t show the significance of giving up these penalties, which moved the opposing team into the red zone.  Opponents getting to the red zone leads to giving up points, whether it was conventional passing that took them there or a penalty.  In other words, bad is bad whether or not numbers support the notion.

Why is the pass defense so bad?  That’s the million dollar question.  My contention is that this "attacking" style is coach cliché for "selling out."  As Rivers and TexansDC have pointed out before, opposing tight ends and running backs are big beneficiaries of the Battle Red Carpet defense.  This is because safeties and linebackers think run first, which leads to a huge susceptibility to play action pass or screens.  The safeties being out of place also gives poor top cover to extremely young corners if receivers get behind them.

Speaking of extremely young and inexperienced corners, this is a problem you cannot put on Bush, not entirely at least.  In the preseason, Jason Cole stated that the Texans had the worst secondary in the league.  I thought this was harsh, but how can you argue now?  Kareem Jackson is a failed experiment thus far, which falls squarely on the shoulders of GM Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak.  I wish there was some sort of perverse drinking game that made the two of them drink for every time I had to hear the adjective "pro-ready" leading up to the season.  We are now in Week 7 and I still don’t think that adjective applies to Kareem, not yet at least.  Their safety net for the gamble they took on Jackson was Antwaun Molden, Sherrick McManis and Brice McCain.  A group of defensive backs with such a lack of experience and/or talent requires a phenomenal pass rush to compensate for their deficiencies.

The inconsistency of the Texans pass rush, in my opinion, is a mixture of personnel and scheme.  In some games, like last week against the Chiefs and four weeks ago against the Cowboys, the pass rush is nonexistent.  Then there are quite a few games that the front seven supplies pressure, but not quarterback hits or sacks.  The hallmark of teams that create a lot of sacks or quarterback hits is that more than one rusher is getting to the quarterback at the same time.  Usually when you see a Texan defender in the backfield, he’s there by himself and nobody has shown the ability to finish plays like that on their own, other than Mario Williams and at times Brian Cushing. 

Connor Barwin was starting to show this ability, as evidenced by his 4.5 sacks to lead all rookie defensive linemen last year.  Barwin seemed to factor a great deal into Bush’s plans this year and losing him to injury in Week One was a huge drawback, and not being able to account for his absence and scrambling to sign defensive ends off the street shows how underprepared the Texans were depth wise.  Injuries have played a huge part in the line backing corps and to Mario Williams as well (I have to assume this is why he disappears for entire halves or even games).  Some of this is bad luck, but injuries happen in the NFL, you have to be prepared for them.  Take the Giants, for example; they have for years stockpiled talented defensive lineman.  Mathias Kiwanuka, touted as their most talented pass rusher before the season, has a lingering injury but the pass rush hasn’t skipped a beat.

There is one last factor that keeps the defense at the bottom--turnovers.  Other defenses have managed to overcome holes in their defense by becoming adept at creating takeaways.  This is often a reflection of the coordinator.  Just look at the impact that Gregg Williams had in one year on the Saints defense with mostly the same personnel as the season before.  The Texans rank 27th in the league with only six takeaways.  The offense might be good, but it would be even better with a shorter field.

I’ve beaten the "Texans defense is bad" horse to death.  The good news is that the offense is as good as it ever was because of newfound balance.  The bad news is that I don’t see a reprieve to our defensive woes.  Am I saying that all is lost and the playoffs are not a possibility?  No.  I don’t think anyone can realistically know whether the offense’s success will overcome the defense’s failures week to week.  There will be games that the offense implodes, and there will be a game or two that the defense looks better.  Given what we’ve seen though, does anyone think that this team could make a run against teams good enough to make the playoffs?

I really hope I’m wrong about the direction the defense is going.  Maybe a bye week will help the defense improve and heal.  Maybe more experience will help the young players in the secondary and Frank Bush himself.  I just don’t see it that way.  Bush’s game plan has remained remarkably similar despite disastrous results.  He has also been reluctant to try new players despite starters playing terribly, like in the case of Eugene Wilson and Troy Nolan.

This might all be the undoing of Gary Kubiak.  I have been on record as being a huge Kubiak supporter.  I think what he brings to this team offensively is a great foundation for a team in today’s pass-first NFL, and it’s easy to root for a hometown guy who is such a good person.  After the inability of Texans’ offenses prior to Kubiak, it’s understandable that he has received several votes of confidence from Bob McNair.  Kubiak’s insistence on picking "his guy" as the defensive coordinator, however, has mired this team in the mediocrity that is now expected and dreaded.  The team has been on the brink long enough for everyone to get sick of hearing about it.

You can push for Frank Bush’s firing all you want; it won’t happen.  I don't think Kubiak is the type of person to fire a friend mid-season.  Also, I get the feeling that McNair won’t let him pick another coordinator.  If he was smart, he would make Kubiak bring in someone from the outside after the season.  The other possibility is that McNair will lose patience after another season that falls short of the postseason.  It may seem incredibly pessimistic of me given the 4-2 record, but what defense have you been watching?  It’s bad enough that no one is focusing on the fifth-ranked offense. 

What’s your take on the defense?  Is it as bad as I make it out to be, or for the first time since I started writing for this blog, am I Chicken Little?  Let me know.