If there is one thing I've learned in my two seasons of studying the Wade Phillips defense, it's that players have a remarkable ability to play better football when they don't have to think. Philosophically, the Texans' scheme operates on the concept that if players are too busy thinking about what they need to be doing, then they can't get busy doing what they need to be doing. To mitigate that problem, Wade Phillips makes his players think as little as possible. Read your guy, cover him if he runs a route, blow him up if he tries to run block, and do whatever you need to do to stay in your gap. See ball, get ball.
Phillips' scheme is pretty much just a few simple gap concepts and basic key reads (more on those later) with man coverage on the back end that is entirely tailored from top to bottom to fit the players he has to work with. Season to season, game to game, snap to snap, every single play call is completely dependent on who is on the field, what those players are good at, and what they aren't so good at. If a player like J.J. Watt is good enough to beat any guard in the league, Phillips would never be caught dead having him two-gap on that guard like most other 3-4 ends. He would rather make an outside linebacker two-gap, almost unheard of in the modern 3-4, than waste his best player on what is essentially a containment assignment. That kind of thinking is incredibly rare, and that is why this defense works.
When the Texans lost two defensive starters (Glover Quin and Connor Barwin, if you had blocked it out) and added one in Ed Reed in the last two weeks, I knew that such a dramatic shift in personnel, at least in terms of skill sets, would have an equally dramatic impact on the 2013 Wade Phillips defense. For a coordinator that builds his units completely around the men he has to work with, adding a future Hall of Famer like Ed Reed might as well have thrown his game plan into a wood chipper (and an extremely talented wood chipper at that). What kind of impact will this have, you ask? I took the last week to watch tape and put on my theoretical footballogy cap to find out.
2011 was Houston's first year in the Wade Phillips model, and it brought about a change from the 4-3 to the 5-2 (yes, technically it is a 3-4, but we all know it's really a 5-2). Because Phillips' top three outside linebackers were all hulking ex-defensive end behemoths, he decided to use an "Over" front and have Mario Williams play Will linebacker over the left tackle. An "Over" front, to put it simply, is when the strength (four or more players within the front seven) of the defensive front is on the "strong side" of the offensive formation (the strong side is the side that has the tight end; in formations with tight ends on both sides, it is the right side of the formation). Why did he use an Over front? Quite frankly...because he could. Wade Phillips loves creating favorable matchups. He did with Shawne Merriman always drawing running backs in pass protection, with Bruce Smith always getting single blocking in Buffalo, and now with Connor Barwin at Sam linebacker always drawing a tight end in single blocking. A 270 pound defensive end that gets to rush the passer on every snap against a tight end? Yes, please. Phillips of course could get away with this because Mario Williams was at Will linebacker and was big and talented enough to not only beat left tackles in passing situations, but also to hold up against the run on edge. This defense would not work in an Over front without a massive human being on the weak side of the formation that could be depended on to contain the edge, and that's exactly what Mario Williams was asked to do.
Wade Phillips' 5-2 also varies from a lot of other linebacker-heavy defenses in that his defensive line plays a "one gap" style rather than a "two gap" style. In a two gap style, defensive linemen will line up directly over their blockers (usually both tackles and the center) and play the gaps on both sides of their blocker, thus covering two gaps. With the line theoretically being big and strong enough to handle two gaps with single blocking, this allows them to play the run at the line of scrimmage while the linebackers fly all over the place and make plays in the backfield. In a "one gap" system, the defensive line shifts into the gaps themselves and tries to penetrate into the backfield on every single snap. Rather than being the decoys, the defensive ends and nose tackle in the Texans' defense are more often than not the main tools of destruction.
So what did this one gap 5-2 Over front look like in 2011? Something like what you see below the next paragraph.
As you can see with my handy red arrows, every single player in the front seven had a single gap responsibility. Williams took the weak C, Antonio Smith had the weak B, DeMeco Ryans had the weak side A, Shaun Cody had the strong side A, Brian Cushing had the strong B, Watt the strong C, and Barwin had the strong D. Nobody had to read two gaps, nobody had to stack and shed, and nobody had to think too much. All everyone had to do was just read your gaps and go. Meanwhile in the secondary, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson/Jason Allen (remember him?) played man coverage on the outside for the vast majority of the game. With the linebackers and defensive line being so heavily invested in and around the line of scrimmage, the defensive backs are often on their own on every single snap. If Wade Phillips has the cornerbacks to get away with constantly playing press-man coverage, you better believe he will be manning up across the board for the entire game. Just like the front seven, the secondary operates on one principal - just read your man and play.
After the ball is snapped, every single player in the front seven immediately penetrates and fills his gap to stop the run. With Shaun Cody drawing the double team on the inside, Brian Cushing moves to engage the fullback and fill his strong side B gap. Ryans waits patiently in the weak A and reads how the play is developing. While not shown in still images that well, Jason Campbell does a rather poor play-action fake and triggers Cushing to go from run-stopping mode to blitz-the-hell-out-of-the-quarterback mode. See ball, get ball.
Cushing engages the fullback in the strong B while Cody gets pushed into the weak side A. Ryans reacts by immediately moving to fill the now vacant strong side A gap. Just to make the shifting gaps easier to read, I marked them with blue lines and labels. As plays develop, gaps can blur together very quickly, which muddies up assignments and makes undisciplined defenses break down. The ability to read these shifting gaps as they open and close is what separates the first round linebacker from the undrafted linebacker.
Cushing and Smith both beat their blockers and are about to close in for the kill, but Campbell gets rid of the ball quickly on a short hitch route. Williams recognizes the quick pass and tries to get his hands up for the deflection, but misses. The result is a completion for 5 yards.
On the very next play, the Raiders line up in an offset "I" formation. Everyone again has their own gap to fill; however Ryans now has two responsibilities depending on his read of the fullback. Based on the direction of the fullback off the snap, DeMeco will either move to plug the weakside A on the dive play or run to the flat and try to stop the outside pitch. If the fullback breaks out into a route, Ryans will cover him. Three possibilities off of a single read. All Ryans has to do is just react and play football. Simple, fast, football.
The ball is snapped, and based off of initial movement, it looks like a zone run to the strong side. The left tackle and left guard double-team Smith, which leaves Mario Williams on the fullback. Ryans now has to fill the weak side A as his pre-snap assignment indicated. Meanwhile Cody tries to plug the strong A gap, Cushing waits to see if he needs to engage the right guard and play his strong side B gap, Watt tries to shoot the strong C, and Barwin works on the strong D to contain the edge and force a cut back.
Cushing reads that Cody is about to collapse the strong side A and B gaps into essentially the same pile of bodies, and he sees that Darren McFadden reads this too. The weakside A is now a gaping hole, so Cushing sidesteps the guard and floats to fill the cut back lane. Ryans sees that the weak side C is also too big for Mario Williams to handle by himself, so he adjusts his angle to scrape over the back of the left tackle and contain that angle. When scouts and pundits talk about linebackers having good "instincts", this is what they are referring to. A linebacker's ability to recognize what his defensive linemen are doing, predict the offense's reaction to the defensive line, and then stop that reaction in just a few split seconds is what makes it such a hard position to play. Wade Phillips' "read and go" one gap scheme, however, takes just enough of the edge off to allow Brian Cushing to play like the instinctual animal that he is.
"Oh look, an open gap just for me!"
See ball, get ball.
Against heavy packages, Wade Phillips never wavered from his one gap philosophy. If anyone was going to be playing a containment assignment, it was going to be the one guy that Phillips knew had a favorable matchup - his 270 pound outside linebacker. Everyone plays their single gap as normal while Connor Barwin stacks and two-gaps on the tight end. The poor guy never had a chance.
The Raiders are running a counter play right into Connor Barwin's territory. A counter play is essentially when the entire offensive line down blocks in one direction while a tackle, guard, or center "pulls" to the other direction in a "counter" movement and kicks out whichever defender is assigned to the cut back lane. Williams takes his weak side C as usual, Smith penetrates the weak side B, Cody gets washed up in what is now a combined A gap, Watt tries to penetrate the newly created strong side B gap, and both Ryans and Cushing both flow to the strong side C and D, respectively, upon reading the pulling guard. Barwin stacks and two gaps the strong side D and E gaps to contain the edge.
Under normal circumstances, this play would have a decent chance of succeeding. The down-blocks did a good job of creating an initial wall, and the Raiders got the matchups they wanted with Cushing on a guard and Barwin on the edge. However, they failed to account for the fact that both of these players are very, very good at their jobs.
Connor Barwin stacks and contains his gaps while Cushing stones the guard, forcing a cut back right into the waiting arms of Shaun Cody and DeMeco Ryans. Counter play destroyed. Aren't mixed gap concepts just the bee's knees?
Here we are in 2012. Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans have moved on to greener (or whiter, depending on the month in Buffalo) pastures, prompting the ascension of Brooks Reed to the starting Sam spot and Bradie James to Mike linebacker. Cushing moves to the "Mo" linebacker spot on the weak side while Connor Barwin shifts to the Will linebacker spot. Phillips decides to stick with the Over front in 2012 because, again, he has a gigantic human at Will linebacker who can be relied upon to contain the run on left tackles.
The main difference between 2011 and 2012 however, is that Wade Phillips had an epiphany: J.J. Watt is pretty darn good at playing football, and that he would be smart to just let Mr. Watt do whatever he wanted to do on the field. Now instead of reacting to whatever the offense does, the inside linebackers are going to be reacting to whatever J.J. Watt doesn't do. If Watt hits the A gap, they hit the B. If Watt hits the B gap, they hit the A. Watt will be judge, jury, and executioner on every single snap, and everyone else has to play around him. Honestly, I can't blame Phillips for the scheme change. It obviously worked. Watt is the most technically proficient, physically gifted, instinctually cognizant player I have ever seen. Just sit back and let him play.
In the still below, Barwin is now containing the weak side C, Smith on the weak side B, Cody on the strong A, Watt on the strong side whatever-gap-he-wants, and Reed is two-gapping on the full back, who has been motioned out. Circled in yellow is Watt. The orange arrows on Cushing and James denote their assignments should Watt take his orange arrow, while the red arrows on Cushing and James denote their assignments should Watt take his red arrow. They go as he goes.
Right here is why Bradie James should not have been a starter last season. Everyone on the defense is taking their appropriate gaps except James. Watt decided to go into the strong B, which then should have automatically triggered James to fill the strong C (orange arrow). Instead, however, James also tried to fill the strong B that Watt was already moving towards, leaving a giant hole over the right tackle. This absolutely cannot happen in a one gap system. As soon as someone misses their hole, the running back is in the secondary. There is zero margin for error, especially when the system is designed to be easy enough for linebackers to not miss their assignments.
Cushing, seeing James' mistake, floats back against the grain to fill the vacancy. The secondary also sees the void and begins to pounce.
Cushing is well on his way to filling the gap and making a tackle for no gain until James inexplicably stops moving. He literally stops. The guard is able to take advantage of James' sudden realization at his mistake by crossing his face and sealing him out of the lane that he just created.
Like I said, instincts make all the difference. One linebacker is in position, the other is not.
Thank Durga Glover Quin was a Texan in 2012, because this came shockingly close to being a touchdown. All because of one guy not doing what he was supposed to do.
Later on in the game, we see a more basic set in the Phillips 2012 defense. The strong side is now on the left side with the tight end. Reed is outside of the tight end in the 7-tech, Watt over the left tackle in the 5-tech, Cody in the weak side A gap, Smith in the strong B, and Barwin in the strong C. Let's try looking at this without the arrows just so you guys and gals can see what this all looks like "naturally".
Reed goes to engage and two gap on the tight end while Watt gets double-teamed by the left guard and left tackle. The center takes Cody in single blocking and crosses his face almost immediately. Smith and Barwin work on the right guard and right tackle respectively. James watches both A gaps develop while Cushing reads the fullback and reacts to his motion.
Reed has position to contain the strong C, Watt gets double-teamed out of the play, the center maintains his block on Cody, and the fullback starts to converge on the now massive weak side A gap. James and Cushing start moving to plug the hole.
Cody seems to be breaking through across the back side of Watt's double team to close off the now open C gap. James floats back towards the C gap and leaves Cushing to handle the A gap. Smith beats his man and starts pursuing from the back side.
Okay, this is starting to get muddy, so let's bring the arrows back to move this along, shall we? All of a sudden, Cody stops pushing through his block. Apparently Reggie Bush has mind control powers where every twitch of his feet makes people freeze in the middle of the field.
The orange arrow is what Cody tries to do. The red arrow is what he supposed to do. Instead of letting his linebackers do their job and handle the cut back lanes, Cody tries to do it himself and leaves his gap wide open. Watt gets turned out of the play, a receiver comes across the field and seals out James, and Cody is no longer in position to make a play because he tried to be a hero. "Do your job" is a common football phrase for a reason. Do your job, Shaun Cody. Collapse that hole and let Cushing do everything else.
All it takes is one mess up from one guy and the whole house of cards comes down. Such is football, I suppose.
So what does this all mean for the 2013 Texans defense? The last two seasons have laid the foundation for the unit as Phillips has experimented with his personnel in different gap concepts. It's safe to assume that Reed two-gapping outside of Watt will be making its return regardless of where Watt lines up on the field. I would also bet money that Cushing will be taking up position as the inside linebacker over Watt, where Phillips knows he will have a reliable defensive force that won't make the mental mistakes that James, Tim Dobbins, and Darryl Sharpton often made. Whitney Mercilus as the new weak side linebacker, however, changes things. The man they call "Nubs" is not the gigantic run-stopping force that Mario Williams and Connor Barwin were, and he just plain does not have the size or bulk to contend with big left tackles on the edge. He's an Aldon Smith style edge rusher that doesn't do so hot against linemen, but when matched up on tight ends and running backs, he is absolutely God-like.
To clear Mercilus from the franchise left tackles that bogged him down last season, the Texans will have to switch from a 5-2 Over front to a 5-2 Under front. This new look will now have the strength of the defense on the weak side of the formation. With enough bodies occupying enough space on the weak side, Mercilus will be free to wreak havoc in the backfield, either matched up with a running back or, on some occasions, completely unblocked entirely. To make it work, Antonio Smith will have to switch from the 3-tech to the 5-tech on the weak side. There is a slight chance that J.J. Watt will switch from the strong side to the weak side, considering he is a natural 5-tech defensive end, but considering that the Brooks Reed gap concept on the edge practically guarantees Watt a one-on-one matchup with a guard rather than a left tackle, it is highly likely that Watt will be kept at the 3-tech on the strong side where he will face traditionally inferior pass blockers. With the running back in pass protection forced to pick up an unblocked Mercilus and the right tackle blocking Reed on the edge, Watt might actually face less double teams in this new defense than he did in the 2012 version. Even if the tackle and guard do double-team Watt and leave Reed singled up against the tight end, Brian Cushing or Danieal Manning are now left unblocked through the A gap while Mercilus is screaming off the edge on the other side. It's literally an impossible choice for the running back to make.
In the secondary, Joseph and Jackson will still be manned up on their receivers on pretty much every play, but the key difference here is the base deep coverage. The Texans played a mix of Cover 2 (both safeties playing a deep zone on their half of the field) and Cover 1 or 3 (one or three deep zones, respectively) looks last season, depending on the blitz packages. Most of the Texans' Cover 2 action came from dime packages where Glover Quin dropped down to man up against tight ends while Danieal Manning and Quintin Demps each played their deep half of the field. Cover 6s and other fancy things were thrown in here and there, but generally the pre-snap read was a base Cover 2. With Ed Reed now on the team, the Texans defense will more than likely be all single high, all the time. Joseph and Jackson are arguably the best corner tandem in the NFL, so Reed will often be free to do literally whatever he wants deep downfield because his two corners can be relied upon to cover for his gambles. Manning, now that the strong side is undermanned, will more than likely take over primary coverage duties on tight ends, which further necessitates the switch to a base Cover 1. It makes a lot of sense why Rick Smith pressed so hard to get the best centerfielding safety in the history of the sport now, doesn't it?
For visualization's sake, here is the base defensive package in 2012 versus an "I" formation.
And here is the projected 2013 look. Brooks Reed is over the tight end, where he can play man coverage, two-gap on a tackle or tight end against the run, and rush the passer through the C gap. Watt is in the 3-tech (where coincidentally he got most of his sacks in 2012), Earl Mitchell is now on the weak side and has to penetrate the A gap, Smith is in the 5-tech drawing the tackle, and Mercilus is in the 7-tech off the edge. Cushing is covering Watt while Sharpton, who is projected right now to be the starting Mike linebacker, will be primarily responsible for stacking and shedding the left guard against the run or stuffing the fullback in the B gap. Joseph and Jackson are manned up on the outside with Manning over the tight end and Ed Reed back deep.
So how exactly does this defense function? Before we get into that, first let's look at how the 2012 unit would typically play an "I" formation.
In 2012, Brooks Reed, then in the 7-tech, would typically be "keying" on the tight end on every snap. A "key", to put it simply, is an "if this, then that" read that every defensive player makes on every snap. For Reed, if his tight end tries to run block him, then he will two-gap on the edge (yellow arrows) and let Watt do his thing. If the tight end drops to pass block, then Reed will rush off the edge and try to get to the quarterback. If the tight end goes into a route, then either Quin or James would typically pick him up in man coverage (orange lines) downfield while Reed rushes the passer (unless Reed is specifically supposed to play the tight end in coverage, which typically only happens if James is blitzing). If Reed is pass rushing based on his key on the tight end, he then goes to a second key, which is on both the fullback and halfback. If either of those two players break off into a route into the flat on Reed's side, he is responsible for playing the "peel" technique and breaking off his trajectory to pick them up in man coverage. Part of the reason why Reed is such a perfect fit for Sam linebacker in this defense is that he not only has the strength to two-gap on a tight end or tackle, but he has such great short area quickness that he can play the peel technique all day long and lock down any trickery in the flats. These series of keys might seem confusing, but compared to most pro-style defensive schemes this is incredibly simple. If this, do that. Read, react, play.
Watt's responsibility on this play is to essentially do whatever he has to do to get in the backfield. Reed is two-gapping on the edge on run plays to cover him while James is (supposed to be) taking whatever gaps Watt leaves open in his wake. Cody is plugging the A gap and ideally drawing the guard on a double team to stop the interior pressure. On the weak side of the formation, Smith is shooting the B gap on pretty much every snap while Barwin contains the C gap and rushes the passer against the left tackle. Cushing is primarily responsible for plugging the A gap against the run, blitzing up the middle, and generally covering for everyone else's mistakes. His primary keys are the center, left guard, fullback, and running back. With all of them right in front of him in a line, he can generally discern the play just by watching them all move together. If the fullback is charging into his A gap off the snap, Cushing knows his key is to immediately plug that gap and free up Manning and James to make the tackle on the running back. If the fullback or running back go out on a route into the flat on his side, Cushing is responsible for them in coverage (orange lines). With both Reed and Cushing reading the backfield on every snap to break off into man coverage, it's extremely hard to run successful screens on the Texans' defense despite it being such a blitz heavy scheme. It's a creative, and yet very simple, way for Wade Phillips to cover all his bases.
On the back end, Joseph and Jackson are manned up while Manning brackets whatever receiver comes his way and Quin reads the tight end. If the tight end breaks off into a route, Quin is generally responsible for driving on the route and breaking up the pass (orange line) unless he is assigned to bracket Joseph's receiver (blue arrow). Bradie James does pick up the tight end sometimes, but more often than not, he is either blitzing or taking a running back in coverage based on his keys in the backfield and whether or not Reed is assigned to peel on routes to his flat. It's easy to see why communication is so important to the Texans' defense. If Quin picks up the tight end when he is supposed to be bracketing, or Reed rushes the passer when he is supposed to be peeling, or James blitzes when he is supposed to covering the tight end, everything falls apart. Every player has to be aware of everyone else's job at all times so that they themselves can play their part, however small it might be, in the defense.
So now with what we know about the Texans' possible defensive formation in 2013, how will that defense likely handle this exact same formation? Let's take a look.
Ooooh, fancy! Just like he did in 2012, Brooks Reed will probably be two-gapping over the right tackle (or tight end, depending on the play call) to clear Watt to freelance on the inside. Mitchell is now on the weak side, penetrating up the middle. Smith now attacks the inside shoulder of the tackle to collapse the B gap and force anything off the left guard back into Mercilus, who is left unblocked. If the left guard and left tackle down-block on Smith and Mericlus, Sharpton is responsible for shooting the weak side A gap and making the tackle before the running back can hit the hole. If the guard and tackle straight up power block and part the seas in the B gap, Sharpton is responsible for reading the fullback and plugging the hole, freeing up Cushing to make the tackle. If the play is a dive on the strong side A, Sharpton is responsible for making the tackle while Cushing takes on the fullback. Sharpton, whose primary keys are the left guard, fullback, and running back, is also responsible for taking either of the backs in coverage if they break off into a route or blitzing if they stay in to protect.
Mercilus is playing outside contain if he is engaged by the fullback or making the tackle in the backfield if left unblocked. A forced fumble here or there would be nice, too. Cushing, whose primary keys are J.J. Watt, the fullback, and the running back, is primarily responsible for filling whatever hole J.J. Watt doesn't fill against the run, picking up either back in coverage if they go to his side, or automatically blitzing if his man stays in to pass protect. He will then blitz through whatever gap J.J. Watt doesn't take. Cushing will also key on tight ends from time to time while Manning blitzes, drops, or plays "robber" coverage underneath the cornerback in Cover-3 looks.
Manning, when he isn't being used a poor man's Glover Quin, will primarily be reading the tight end on every snap. If the tight end advances to the second level to block Cushing on a strong side stretch run, Manning is responsible for driving on the edge and containing the play. If the tight end blocks Brooks Reed, Manning is generally filling any open void between Reed, Watt and Cushing in run support. If the tight end goes into a route, Manning will take him in coverage. This particular matchup might end up being the weakest link in this defense if Manning can't cover tight ends as well as Quin did, which may or may not prompt Cushing to have to drop into coverage more often. We shall see.
Joseph and Jackson are again manned up outside while Ed Reed plays center field and does whatever it is that Ed Reed does. It's interesting how different concepts that Phillips has toyed with over the last two years have combined into something entirely different with a whole bunch of new, fun concepts mixed in. Watt freelancing as a 3-tech, Cushing playing as essentially a cleanup crew, Mercilus being turned into the new Shawne Merriman, and Ed Freaking Reed getting to do his thing with two of the best corners in the NFL in front of him. As long as everyone does their job, it's hard to imagine anyone having much success running the ball against this look. What about two tight end formations? How would the 2013 Texans play against that style of offense?
I would imagine it will look something like this.
Brooks Reed is two-gapping. Watt is freelancing. Mitchell is penetrating. Smith is hitting the weak side C. Mercilus is containing the weak side D. Cushing is keying in on Watt, the tight end, running back, and will either drop into coverage if his key runs a route, blitz if his key stays in to pass protect, or plug a hole depending on whatever gap J.J. Watt takes. Sharpton is responsible for reading "the triangle," which is a combination of the line, the back, and the ball to either drop into coverage with the tight end on pass plays, plug the B gap on run plays, or blitz if his key stays in to protect. Whoever is taking both tight ends and the running back as their primary key will vary between Manning, Cushing, Sharpton, and Mercilus, depending on the defensive call, but it is likely that Mercilus will not take anyone in coverage outside of the running back in a peel technique if he breaks off into the flat on his side. Cushing will probably be primarily responsible for the running back going into a route up the middle or to the strong side of the formation, and if the running back does anything other than that on a pass play, Cushing blitzes. Manning will probably still be responsible for the tight end in man coverage in most situations, but I wouldn't be shocked if he and Cushing swap duties against big, physical bodies like Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham.
This particular look will be designed around Whitney Mercilus rushing the passer. If the second tight end goes into a route, the running back has to block him or Mercilus gets a free shot at the quarterback. If the running back blocks Mercilus, either Cushing or Manning automatically blitz through whatever vacant gap Watt creates and also get a free shot at the quarterback. You just can't win. Watt has a favorable matchup, Cushing has a favorable matchup, and Mercilus has a very favorable matchup. Outside of running three yard stick routes on every single play and the tight ends getting 30 jump ball receptions in the first half alone, there really isn't much an offense can do against this. I love it.
What about against three wide sets? The Texans' defense in 2012 was very susceptible to spread offenses, mainly because of terrible safety play from Quintin Demps and Shiloh Keo in dime packages. If I was a betting man, and I am, I would say that Wade Phillips will use a lot less dime in 2013 and throw in some more nickel looks. There simply isn't the safety talent on the roster anymore to justify running a dime package when Phillips can just as easily put in a more pressure-oriented nickel package like the one below.
Reed, Watt, Smith, Mercilus. That's one helluva front four. All three corners will likely be manned up on every snap. Manning will still be covering the tight end. Ed Reed will still be doing his thing on the back end. Sharpton will likely key on the running back and take him in man coverage when he breaks into a route, allowing Cushing to focus exclusively on blitzing through whatever gap Watt leaves vacant. As usual, Cushing and Manning will probably swap duties if Manning has trouble with the bigger bodied tight ends. There really isn't a lot not to like here. It can't be run on as easily as a dime package when Quin was playing linebacker, it can bring fierce interior pressure based on the keys from the running back and tight end, and the Texans have the stable of corners to reliably put everyone on an island and let the front six go get the quarterback. See ball, get ball.
The 2013 Texans defense will obviously not be quite as simple as this come September. Stunts, combo coverages, rolled safeties, robbers, dogs, fires, and all manner of confusion-inducing looks will be thrown in throughout every game, but the base concepts are all I really wanted to focus on here. I can guarantee three things about the Wade Phillips scheme next season:
1. Whitney Mercilus will be constantly fed big play opportunities until the opposing offense game-plans around him instead of J.J. Watt.
2. When the offense finally does game-plan around Mercilus, everyone else will feast.
3. Short of keeping seven guys in to protect on every snap, opposing quarterbacks are pretty much screwed.
I know some of our loyal readers are less than enthused about Whitney Mercilus' performance in 2012, but here's how I look at the soon to be sophomore: This guy, with very little playing time in a scheme that didn't suit his skill set, still put up more sacks than both starting outside linebackers combined. Can you imagine what he could do with favorable blocking and a full time starting job? I can, and it's glorious. Between Mercilus coming off the edge, Watt terrorizing the interior, and Cushing reminding everyone why he is considered one of the best pass rushing inside linebackers in the game, I truly believe this defense is one good draft away from being something historic. If the 2013 Texans class is anything like Rick Smith's last five hauls, opposing offenses will be hard pressed to score many points next season.