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The Blame Game: Texans Defense

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The preseason is upon us.   Texans training camp has begun, and with it the media coverage that follows every NFL team.  It doesn’t take long after skimming articles published by national level sports writers to detect a theme revolving around Houston:  Offense = good/Defense = bad.

This idea isn’t new, nor should it be.  In the last three years, the Texans have ranked in the top half of the league offensively and in the bottom half of the league in points allowed.  That phenomenon will lead to the reputation of inequality between the two squads.  Just last year, the Texans featured the best statistical passing offense in the league.  The defense’s inability to hold leads was the number one reason why this team failed to crack the double-digit win barrier. 

With this in mind, it’s not hard to figure out why defensive coordinators don’t get a lot of love in the Bayou City.  If it wasn’t for their incompetence, we would have a playoff team!  It seems like every Texans-centered writer can tell you that Richard Smith was an idiot and Frank Bush isn’t much better.  Lack of complicated blitzes and poor zone coverage packages are keeping this team from stopping even the most ineffective passing attacks late in games when teams will often pass to surmount leads.

If you ask those national level writers what’s lacking in this team from being a playoff contender, however, the number one reason is the secondary.  They’re not talking about Xs and Os either; they're talking about personnel.  What lies there is the undercurrent of a topic rarely discussed by Texans fans:  General Manager Rick Smith isn’t doing all aspects of his job well.

Smith’s reputation amongst Houston fans borders on saintly.  He inherited a roster so devoid of talent that it has taken a cleansing that spared only a handful of players from the old regime to even be mistaken for a winning franchise.  The only reason that Gary Kubiak has been able to implement his offense so effectively is because Smith has gotten the players necessary to run his scheme.  That took not only an eye for drafting offensive players, but sticking his neck on the line for a starting quarterback when most people thought he wasn’t worth the price.

What little accolades are given for the defense are handed to him as well.  Why did the defense improve to 13th overall last year?  Popular opinion is that it wasn’t due to the presence of rookie D coordinator Frank Bush, but rather despite him, because of the injection of talent by Rick Smith.  In 2009 he did draft his second Defensive Rookie of the Year (Brian Cushing), improved the left defensive end position, which had been one of the greatest weaknesses prior (Antonio Smith & Connor Barwin), and found a vocal leader that another team had inexplicably cast off (Bernard Pollard). 

Here’s the problem though...those national level writers are right.  While it’s a little inaccurate to say that the Texans feature the worst secondary in the league, it is the most glaring weakness on a team that has been trying to get over the hump for three years now.  There is a combined two years of experience amongst the three top cornerbacks, and behind a brittle, better-than-average free safety, there is the same lack of talent that made the back end so tantalizing to opposing quarterbacks last year.  Even Pollard, who injected fire into the defense and immensely helped stop the run last year, is definitely not a ball-hawk in coverage.

While no one will argue that letting Dunta Robinson leave via free agency was undoubtedly the right decision, no contingency was made for that possibility before 2009 when the franchise tag was applied.  The result of that decision is that while first round pick Kareem Jackson has been receiving rave reviews for his work in shorts and a helmet, no one will know his true coverage ability until he starts against Peyton Manning in Week One.  Also, if Eugene Wilson fails to play 16 games this season (as he has both of his prior seasons with the Texans), the team will be forced to start Dominique Barber, Troy Nolan or a player to be named later.

Good general managers have an eye for talent in all aspects of player acquisition, whether it be trading, drafting or signing veterans.  Great general managers not only do those things well, but they also foresee possible gaps of the future and try to mitigate them in the present.  That’s why really good teams might have occasional off-years, because they are impossible to avoid in the era of free agency, but they evade the complete rebuilding phases that seem to plague the rest of the league. 

All this isn’t to say that Rick Smith has done a poor job.  I truly think he is one of the most under-recognized executives in the league.  Let’s not forget though that this is his first gig as a GM and he’s only been doing it for three and a half years now.  Incorporating a contingency strategy is probably something that has to be learned through experience over time.  Given the proficiency he has shown, especially drafting, I’m sure he is already learning.

To say that all of the defensive woes are scheme-related entirely, though, is a little misleading.  Is Frank Bush responsible for vanilla blitz schemes that produced only 30 sacks?  Yes.  Is it his fault that he had to figure out how to stop Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Kurt Warner with John Busing, Dunta Robinson and Dominique Barber?  No. 

One way or another, the secondary is mostly set.  While there is surely talent there, thanks to Smith, there is also uncertainty and inexperience, also due to Smith.  Hopefully an improved pass rush will allow the secondary to gel and learn to play together on the job.  If not, let’s hope the national media is as right about the offense as they are about the defense.