Texans fans are incredibly blessed. After suffering for nearly a decade through disappointment after disappointment, their team has finally put it together and ascended to the ranks of contender. A huge part of that climb to the top of the proverbial food chain has been the employment of Rick Smith. Over the last two seasons, Mr. Smith has gained recognition as one of the best general managers in the league, and as of 2012 when looking back on his high profile picks he is about as "can’t-miss" as it gets. Amobi Okoye (who failed in Houston but has found some success elsewhere), Duane Brown, Brian Cushing, Kareem Jackson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus are the last six first round selections of the Houston Texans. All of them were made by Rick Smith. For half of those selections, you can make solid arguments that they are the best player in the entire league at their respective positions. Kareem Jackson, while much maligned in his first two years, has had an absolutely bonkers season against the league's number two receivers. That’s a pretty incredible success rate for a bunch of first-rounders that, with the exception of Okoye, weren’t chosen in the top ten and generally weren’t considered "blue chip" players.
When you throw in what Smith has done in the second round and beyond on defense alone, it gets even more impressive. Connor Barwin (2nd round), Brooks Reed (2nd round), Brice McCain (6th round), Glover Quin (4th round), and Darryl Sharpton (4th round) all have become starters (or projected starters when healthy, in the case of Sharpton). That’s eight major contributors on defense that have been added through the draft. When looking at free agency, Smith has made some moves and acquired some talent that amounts to downright thievery in the grand scheme of things. Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning have turned a once-horrendous secondary into one of the league's best. Antonio Smith is one of the most savvy interior pass rushers in the game. Tim Dobbins and Bradie James have elevated the depth at inside linebacker. Chris Myers is arguably the best center in the league and the engine of the offensive line. Arian Foster can make a case for being the best running back in the NFL. When looking at everything Mr. Smith has done, you can’t help but let your jaw hit the floor. How can one team have such consistently good drafts and such consistently efficient off-seasons? Rick Smith, that’s how.
Today’s rookie review centers around two of Mr. Smith’s most recent draft choices, Whitney Mercilus and Jared Crick. As last week’s dissertation on the 3-3-5 took up so much of my time, I wasn’t able to do a separate review of Week Seven’s clash with the Baltimore Ravens, so this review will cover the last two games. First up, let’s take a look at the only 4th round pick to ever make me jump for joy in excitement during the draft - Jared Crick.
With Tim Jamison’s recent season-ending injury, Jared Crick will likely get a lot more playing time. He had limited snaps in the last two games, but that wasn’t for lack of talent or impact. Crick repeatedly stood his ground in double teams against the run and forced blocking schemes to allocate precious resources away from J.J. Watt on the other side of the line. While not looking like a dominant pass rusher from the 3-technique like Watt or Smith, Crick did flash a certain sneakiness that got him into the backfield and in position to make the quarterback uncomfortable on several occasions. With a little more girth, strength, and coaching, I could see him developing into a suitable replacement for Smith as his career winds down, or at the very least an above-average rotational player.
In this first still, we see Crick playing in the 3-technique with Barwin all the way out in the 7-technique beside him. Earl Mitchell is shaded ever so slightly to the strong side, with Watt playing the 5-technique outside the tackle and Reed lined up all the way in Colorado. James and Dobbins are roaming behind.
What happened during the blocking wasn't as important as the following still, which shows Crick instinctively leaping into the air and trying to knock the ball down. I chose this as the first play I wanted to show because this happened a lot. Other than Watt, I saw Crick taking swipes at passes in the air more than any other player. It was darn near second nature to him, and you can tell that he's been studying Watt's techniques and tendencies intently while easing into the pro game. Not bad for a Husker.
Here we see Crick rotating in for Watt and lining up directly over the left tackle. Shaun Cody is in the 1-technique on the strong side, while Smith lines up in the weak side 3-technique. Reed and Barwin are in their own respective time zones, as usual, while Dobbins and James lie in wait in the open gaps.
The ball is snapped, and it's a run play to Crick's side. Reed gets single blocking with the tight end, Crick gets singled up with the tackle, Cody with the center, and Smith with the right tackle. Both guards advance to take on the inside linebackers while Vonta Leach comes across the formation to take Barwin.
Reed and Crick hold their ground, but it looks like Ray Rice is going to have one heck of a running lane to put him one-on-one with the safety.
And then, just like that, Crick and Cody shed their blocks and snap the hole closed. I have to hand it to him, while not the most physically imposing defensive lineman on the team, he does have great technique when it comes to defending the run. He can keep opposing linemen at bay, has pretty good hand work, and great timing in terms of knowing when to disengage and go for a clean wrap up on a passing ball carrier. Very sound run stop if I do say so myself, Mr. Crick.
In this next still, Crick is back in the 3-technique in between the left guard and left tackle. Baltimore outnumbers Houston on the strong side, and the most logical play to run here is a zone stretch to the right where Rice can get an opportunity to be matched up one-on-one with a defensive back.
So naturally, Baltimore decides to run it. Cody gets doubled by the center and right guard, Smith gets singled up with the right tackle, Barwin gets singled up with the tight end, and Crick, being on the backside of the play, is supposed to be closed off from penetrating and blowing up the play from behind by the left tackle.
Crick fired off the line fast enough to outrun the coming down block before the tackle could get his chest and head across his body. With no guard to keep the interior lane secure, the left tackle is in an extremely compromising position.
Crick continues to churn his legs through the blown backside block and tries to get to Rice before the hole opens. Great motor on this play.
Still fighting through the block, Crick is able to extend his arm and bring Rice to the ground before he can hurdle his downed offensive lineman and break a huge gain. His quickness off the line was very impressive on this particular play, and the perseverance to turn this opportunity into a big play is a trait that has come to define this defense. I think he'll fit in just fine here.
In Week Nine versus Buffalo, Crick didn't get many snaps. I attribute this mostly to Houston running a whole bunch of different formations (including a shiny new 2-3-6 dime - more on that eventually) and most of the dime work on the interior line going to Watt and Smith. He did, however, make a couple great plays like this one. Crick is in the 3-technique in Houston's base 5-2 scheme. Buffalo is running an "Ace" package, meaning a tight end on both sides of the line, and are looking to run the ball.
Crick gets double-teamed on the back side of the play. Mitchell, Smith, and Barwin all get single blocking.
Mitchell blows the center up and closes off the initial lane behind the right guard, forcing C.J. Spiller to cut it back up the gut. Crick is still fighting the double team.
Dobbins and Spiller then spoil the party yet again, forcing Spiller to further cut back behind the left tackle, who is still dealing with a Jared Crick that is very intent on breaking through the double team.
Yikes, that's a lot of Bulls trying to hit one target. Somehow, someway, Crick spins out of his double team and stonewalls Spiller from getting into a slight crease behind the tackle
And did I mention he then proceeded to drive Spiller back seven yards while being held by the left tackle? Talk about getting gritty in the trenches, eh?
In our last look at Jared Crick, he's yet again lined up in the 3-technique. Buffalo motions their running back and tight end out wide to form and empty set (because those always work). Mitchell is lined up over the center in the 0-technique with Watt over the left tackle.
Crick draws another double team from the guard and right tackle, but he's had enough of this nonsense. It's time to make a play.
Right guard, meet Jared Crick's club move.
Quarterback, meet Jared Crick's mad hops.
Overall, this youngin' has a lot of potential. As the season goes on and he fully embraces the gospel of J.J. Watt, I have no doubt he will turn into a fine player. Good instincts, good technique, and a whole lot motor. Love it.
Whitney Mercilus got his fair share of playing time in Week Seven. Playing at multiple positions on both sides, he filled in periodically for Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin whenever either one needed a quick breather (I should also note he took a snap at nose tackle in the Green Bay game, because why not?). In his relatively small amount of time on the field, Mercilus made his presence felt in a big way. His first snap of the day came with a little under six minutes to play in the first quarter.
Baltimore is backed up near their own end zone, looking to run the ball and get some breathing room. Wade Phillips will have none of this, and elects to use his base 5-2 package and stack the box with an extra safety. Mercilus is lined up in the 7-technique outside the tight end.
Torrey Smith motions to the other side of the field and brings Johnathan Joseph with him.
The ball is snapped, and it looks like a run aimed directly at Mercilus. He recognizes the fullback, Vonta Leach, barreling down on him and ceases his pass rush in favor of trying to stonewall the outside running lane.
But wait, it's a fake!
Just as Joe Flacco pulls the ball back up and scans the field for targets, J.J. Watt beats his man and forces Ray Rice into choosing who to block.
Flacco has no time for his long developing seam route down the hash mark to develop while two Bulls come storming in after him. Rice elects to attempt to block Watt, as would every other sane offensive player in the world.
Mercilus is completely untouched and smells blood in the water.
His first career sack isn't just a sack, it's a sack fumble. How poetic that he was on my fantasy bench that week. Why do you hate me so, Durga? Why?
On the very next play, Mercilus is lined up outside the right tackle while Watt is just inside him directly over the right tackle. Smith is shaded directly over the center's right shoulder. Somebody has an overload blitz dialed up.
Oh wait, never mind. Smith shifts to lining up over the center's left shoulder. James and Barwin line up in the 5 and 7-techniques, respectively, on the weak side. Somebody's got an inside stunt dialed up.
Watt draws the double team from the tackle and guard while Mercilus goes for a stunt into the A-gap. Smith draws the center and left guard while the left tackle takes James. Barwin is unblocked.
The center recognizes the gap in protection and tries a last second effort to slow down Mercilus.
Nubs, however, is just too fast and explosive to be accounted for on such short notice. Meanwhile, Barwin continues on his beeline to consume Flacco's soul.
I don't think throwing an arm out there is going to work there, Birk.
Merc breaks through the gap, but "unfortunately" is beaten to the safety by Barwin. Moral of the story, however, is that Mercilus is incredibly athletic and laterally explosive. The offensive line had absolutely no time to deal with his quickness and even if Barwin had been picked up, Whitney likely would have gotten the sack/safety/fumble/soul consumption.
Mercilus got a fair amount of snaps with his hand in the dirt while playing in the dime throughout the 4th quarter. On this particular play, he is lined up outside the left tackle. One of the biggest knocks on Mercilus coming out of Illinois was his ineffectiveness against bigger blockers like offensive linemen, and he was seen more as a mismatch against against tight ends and running backs (thus being drafted as a 3-4 outside linebacker). In early parts of the season this weakness generally held true, but something clicked in Week Seven. It was like all of sudden it didn't matter if his blockers were 330 pounds, he could get around them. His technique was better, his leverage was better, his timing was better. It was, to say the least, fun as hell to watch.
The ball is snapped, and Mercilus springs into his speed rush. He gets single blocking with the left tackle. Barwin and Crick get singled up as well, while Smith is double-teamed by the guard and center. Dobbins shadows Rice out of the backfield and Quin covers the tight end.
Mercilus doesn't dip into his lane too early and waits for the initial punch from the tackle. He can't "rush" into his move too early or he will be susceptible to being tangled up in hand fighting that can slow him down. In a speed rush, every millisecond counts, so the less initial contact the better.
The tackle gets a tad desperate and punches early. What should be noted here is that the tackle punches with his "high hand," or the hand closest to the center (in this case, his right hand). This leaves his other hand free to catch and repel the edge rush in case his punch gets neutralized and countered. This also leaves him vulnerable to cut backs inside if Mercilus decided to go to his backup move, but on this particular play, because it was an early punch, the tackle leans a little too far forward and has his weight shifted to the balls of his feet. His power is severely reduced and his balance is compromised. Mercilus can see he over-extended and goes for the kill.
Now that the tackle is off balance, his feet close up and he loses his wide base. This further diminishes his power and limits him to practically only using his upper body to block a dipping speed rusher that has his legs fully pumping. As far as the laws of physics go, this isn't even a fair fight.
Mercilus gets very, very low on the dip and embarrasses the tackle. Perfect, perfect, example of how to use leverage and speed to overcome size and strength. Meanwhile, Barwin makes progress in his own battle. Flacco would end up getting the ball out before being pancaked by two Texans. It's tough to not smile at the thought of having three great pass rushers to call on at any given moment from the outside linebacker position.
Mercilus continued this upward trend into an even better game against the Buffalo Bills in Week Nine. Here we see Merc lined up at defensive end against the left tackle.Watt and Smith are in the 3-techniques inside with Reed all the way out in the 7-technique on the other side. James is lined up off screen on the running back, who was motioned out wide to create an empty set (Buffalo was a fan of those on Sunday).
The ball is snapped. Mercilus works to the outside on another speed rush while Smith attempts to stunt all the way around Watt. Reed works against the right tackle with a head of steam.
The guard blocks Watt into Smith's lane, closing off his path and leaving the front side of the pocket wide open. Reed puts pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick with a good bull rush while Mercilus attempts to break contact with the tackle's high hand, which would give him a clear avenue to make an inside move over the tackle's right hip. Sure, the guard is waiting right there for him, but he might as well try, right? Right.
Scratch that, Fitzmagic is on the move. That chop at the arm might have been useful after all. With the tackle momentarily (and conveniently) disengaged from Mercilus' body, he can plant his right foot and take off in the opposite direction after the quarterback. With his insane lateral quickness and agility, such changes in direction are right in Whitney's wheelhouse.
Smith misses his target.
Mercilus does not. Sack. Fumble. Turnover. Booyah.
In this last play, Mercilus is again lined up at defensive end against the right tackle. Watt and Smith are in their 3-techs with Barwin in the 5-tech outside the left tackle. James is shadowing the running back, with Quin on the tight end.
Merc and Watt get singled up while Barwin and Smith get caught in traffic against the center, guard, and left tackle.
Mercilus, despite his huge size disadvantage, gets low and uses his leverage to bull rush the right tackle back towards Fitzpatrick.
If there is one thing I want you to pay attention to in this entire post, it's this move. This might be one of the the nastiest swims I've ever seen. And by nasty, I mean that tackle better go google the closest burn center and get his butt in an ambulance kind of nasty. Here's the initial club move on the inside shoulder to neutralize his punching arm.
And here's the arm over. He kept his swim low enough to prevent the tackle from catching the arm and recovering, and he was fast enough to get by his inside hip before he could slide step into his lane. Seriously, this was fast. You have no idea how long it took me to get this still simply because I couldn't double click fast enough from frame to frame to get the shot. Let that sink in...in the time it takes to double click a mouse Whitney Mercilus disabled a 300+ pound man and embarrassed him on national television. Wow.
Let's play a game and try to guess how this one ends.
I was extremely impressed with Mercilus' development in the last two games. He has vastly improved against big bodied tackles and has come along against the run as well. He also has caught on to the batting passes trend and even tipped a pass for an interception by Glover Quin. I couldn't show everything he did in the last three weeks, but rest assured he passed every eye test with flying colors. He has potential to be Wade's new Shawne Merriman (well, early career Shawne Merriman), which is about as high a complement as I can possibly give.
Overall grade: A-