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An Absurdly Early Look At Defensive Metrics

To say that the Houston Texans had a bad defense last year is like saying that Guinness is a pretty good beer or that Bar Refaeli is a decent looking girl.  It's an understatement of epic proportions.

If not for Rusty Smith, the team would have had one of the worst pass defenses in the history of the NFL, and the run defense looked better primarily due to the fact that opposing teams could throw the ball at will.  Credit team management, however, for addressing the problem in the off-season by bringing in free agents Danieal Manning and Johnathan Joseph, drafting defense like it was going out of style, and bringing in Wade Phillips to mold the squad into his personal crew of evil doers. 

Now, it's very clear that there are still holes in the defense -- if one can call a 301 pound man a hole -- but on first glance, it looks like the team is getting a pretty good return on the off-season investments. 

It's still far too early to draw any firm conclusions, but let's go ahead and take a quick glance at that return.  After all, what good is a blog if we don't occasionally make grandiose statements based on small sample sizes?

Looking at traditional stats, the Texans currently lead the NFL in total defense (yards allowed), passing yards allowed, and total points allowed.  Granted, the team hasn't played any true powerhouse offenses yet, though I believe the Dolphins' offense will surprise this year, but let's compare that to last year.

This year, the team has allowed 306 total yards to the Dolphins and 236 to the Colts.  Last year, those would have been the second and third best defensive performances of the season -- surpassed only by the Rusty Smith game.

From a passing perspective, the 172 yards given up to Kerry Collins and 153 given up to Chad Henne would have been the third and fourth best performances of last season -- surpassed again by Rusty Smith and also Trent Edwards.  At this point it should be noted that both Smith and Edwards were starting their first games for their respective teams.  That, and they both suck.

Even more interesting, however, is that the 2011 Texans have surrendered a total of 20 points in the first two games combined.  In 2010 there were only two individual games where they gave up fewer points.  Want to guess which two those were?

So upon first glance, the Texans off-season moves look like they are paying off.  Kerry Collins and Chad Henne probably shouldn't start working on their Hall of Fame speeches just yet, but they are better than Rusty Smith and Trent Edwards.

Now let's look a little deeper.  Football Outsiders has not yet updated their metrics to include Week 2, so let's look at Advanced NFL Stats.

In 2010, the Texans' defense ranked dead last in defensive expected points allowed, dead last in expected points allowed per play, dead last in win probability added, 23rd in defensive run expected points added, and dead last in defensive pass expected points added.

You don't really need to understand the details of those metrics to know that the team was really bad.

So far in 2011, though, they rank 3rd, 3rd, 8th, 18th, and 2nd in the same metrics respectively.

I don't have the weekly stats for 2010, but I'm pretty sure the team was never ranked in the top 3 at any point during the season in any pass defense metrics.

Again, it's waaaaay too premature to say that we now have a top ten defense, but it may be fair to say that we are seeing an improvement in defensive play -- specifically in pass defense.

This has become evident in both the metrics and in the expectations for the team. 

For example, watching the Dolphins game this past weekend, there were moments -- specifically in the third quarter -- where they were moving the ball extremely well against the Texans' defense.  If this had been last year, I would have lowered my head, expected a loss, and drank myself into oblivion.  Instead, with our newfangled defense, I watched cautiously, held out a modicum of hope, and then drank myself into oblivion. 

That may not be the sign of a dominating defense, but I for one will consider it progress.