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Coming out of the two-minute warning, the New York Jets had zero timeouts and were down 24-17 to the Houston Texans. After a false start penalty, it was 1st and 15 with the ball at the New York 29. On the left side of the formation, Houston was in man-to-man coverage with Quintin Demps helping over the top. At the other end, Brian Cushing faked a blitz before running out into the flat, Johnathan Joseph showed man coverage before sitting back in an intermediate zone, and Andre Hal stepped down to play in the middle of the field.
Ryan Fitzpatrick sees Joseph drop back and assumes he's playing off Brandon Marshall to prevent getting beat down field. Marshall cuts inside on a dig route. Fitzpatrick throws. Hal dissipates from the safety position and re-materializes in front of the football. He dives and intercepts the pass. Houston kneels the ball. Texans win.
This play doesn't happen five weeks ago. Five weeks ago, Rahim Moore was the starting safety. Moore doesn't have the speed, reaction, or aggression to make this play. He would have sat in the middle of the field, hoping Joseph or Cushing makes the tackle. Five weeks ago, Houston is playing an insipid scheme, having their defensive backs play seven yards off the ball in man coverage and playing not to lose. Five weeks ago, the Houston Texans were an entirely different team.
Since losing to Miami 44-26, Houston has won four games in a row against the toughest part of their schedule. They've turned into a 6-5 playoff contender because of their defense.
|Defensive DVOA||7% (23rd)||-4.9% (9th)|
|Run Defense DVOA||-6.5% (21st)||-9.6% (20th)|
|Pass Defense DVOA||17.3% (23rd)||-1.6% (6th)|
|Turnovers Forced||5 (T-27th)||9 (T-16th)|
|Team||Points Allowed||Offensive DVOA|
They have morphed from a 41-point allowing waste of time into the top ten unit everyone expected to see back in August. Houston has done this by making personnel changes that have put their best players on the field, and they have tweaked the scheme to play a more aggressive style of defense that puts players in a better position to make plays.
This transformation started in the secondary. The unit that allowed 27 points to the Chiefs is much different than the one that held the Saints' 9th best passing offense (according to DVOA) to just six points.
DB Snap Counts v. KC:
DB Snap Counts v. NO:
Andre Hal is the starting free safety, Kevin Johnson took over as the second corner against Tennessee, Kareem Jackson has been moved to the slot since returning from injury, Eddie Pleasant is still used in dime packages, and Charles James II is now the team's fourth corner. Gone are the days of Rahim Moore playing every snap and A.J. Bouye playing limited snaps. Speaking of limited snaps, gone are the days of Kevin Johnson getting those as well.
Of the changes made, benching Moore for Hal is the most monumental. Andre Hal is the metaphorical pebble that has turned placid water into a bubbling cauldron. With him at free safety, Houston has a turbo centerfielder. He has quickness and straight line speed. He can actually roam from the center of the field to the sideline and make plays on the ball.
With him back there, Romeo Crenell has more confidence in his cornerbacks. He doesn't have to be so timorous. Houston no longer has their cornerbacks line up eight yards off the ball on every play. The Texans' defensive backs are now playing on the line of scrimmage and are aggressive.
On 1st and 10, Cincinnati is in 1x1x3 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) and is trying to take a shot down field. Playing Cover One in their base 3-4 defense, Houston brings Quintin Demps down to cover the slot receiver. Joseph is the left cornerback playing press coverage, and Johnson is playing at average depth on the right side. Hal is the free safety. Even in their base defense, Houston is playing tight coverage.
Nobody is open. The defensive backs are hyperkinetic and swarming all over the field. Dalton takes advantage of everyone playing deep by scrambling up the middle. The biggest thing that has stuck out to me when watching this defense is how well they cover. Quarterbacks are having to sit back and wait, and wait, and wait for someone to get open; usually, the call goes unanswered. The secondary is now the best part of this defense.
In addition to playing tight at the line of scrimmage, the Texans' secondary has improved because their best players are playing more often. Kareem Jackson started the year as the second defensive back. Kevin Johnson moved into this spot after Jackson sustained an ankle injury against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Johnson has gone from playing half of the snaps to 100% of them since Houston's win over the Titans.
Johnson is a rookie. He still makes mistakes. Too often he grabs jersey when receivers break on their route, and he doesn't look for the ball as often as he needs to. But what he does bring is quickness. Like Hal, Johnson is a flash across the field when he breaks on the football.
On this play, Cincinnati is down 10-6 in the fourth quarter with 0:54 remaining. They are facing 3rd and 6. The Bengals are having all four of the receivers run short curl and comeback routes (curls break outside, comebacks break inside) in an attempt to pick up the first down and get out of bounds. Houston has three defenders playing deep in a version of Cover 3 while everyone else plays zone underneath.
With Johnson playing eight yards off A.J. Green, he assumes he has an easy completion. Johnson backpedals. At the same instant that Green breaks his route outside, Johnson plants. He then unleashes himself across Green and deflects the pass.
Johnson has been a revelation. Rookie defensive backs aren't supposed to play this well. Hell, even second year defensive backs aren't supposed to play this well. He's found his natural spot outside instead of being weaned in the slot. It took an injured Kareem Jackson for this happen. In a weird, sadistic way, this team is better because of it.
Of course, Kareem Jackson is now back on the field. In his return against New Orleans, he spent nearly the entire game in the slot. This spot better suits him. He has a greater impact in the run game. He can play tighter coverage and press receivers. Houston is now playing their six best defensive backs at the positions that maximize their talent.
By playing close up, Houston is creating turnovers. They forced 8 in Weeks 8-12 compared to just 6 in Weeks 1-6. They are also now stopping the screen and quick passes that ate them up in the beginning of the year. They are limiting yards after the catch. Even when quarterbacks are able to complete a slant or quick out, the defender is right on his back, ready to make a tackle.
The Texans have allowed 1,274 yards after the catch and are now 12th in the NFL. In games 1-7, opposing quarterbacks threw 217 passes that traveled less than 15 yards in the air (24th). On these throws, Houston allowed 6.85 yards per attempt (24th). Since Ryan Tannehill shrugged like Michael Jordan, the Texans have allowed 5.18 (2nd) yards per attempt, and teams have attempted just 92 (3rd) short passes.
The Texans have also used Brian Cushing to stop screen passes outside. Yes, the same Cushing who hopped along the first half of the season. As the season has progressed, so has Cushing's play. He's no longer a lumbering corpse. He's a tackling maniac.
Houston doesn't blitz often. The only thing they do is bring the slot corner occasionally. Here, Houston is combining this simple blitz with cover three. Charles James II is coming off the edge. Cushing shows B-gap pressure. Right before the snap, he scurries to replace James and takes over his zone. This is only one of many examples of how Houston masks their actual coverage from what the quarterback sees pre-snap.
Cincinnati is running a bubble screen (wide receiver goes away from the quarterback) on 3rd and 17 to Marvin Jones. The idea is that each receiver blocks the first immediate threat and then the ball carrier makes the unblocked man down field miss. Most receivers in the league are ghastly blockers and couldn't crack down on Cushing, let alone take him on as a moving target.
Cushing gets out to his zone, recognizes the play, and slips inside of the receiver's block. From there, he stops and chops his feet. It's third and 16. He doesn't need to chase after the receiver. He can sit and wait for the ball carrier to come to him.
The main reason why Houston had problems tackling and stopping short passes was the large cushions on the outside. They were forcing their players to tackle someone running at full speed. But with this scheme change, they can break on the ball before this occurs.
The other reason why skill players were juking their way through the defense was the Texans' inside linebacker play. Justin Tuggle and Akeem Dent received playing time and joined the illustrious Texans' ILB Hall of Shame with Barrett Ruud, Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, and many others. Benardrick McKinney started against Atlanta and Indianapolis, but a concussion knocked him out of the Jacksonville, Miami, and Tennessee games. Since recovering, McKinney is back starting at inside linebacker.
The problem wasn't that they didn't start him in the base 3-4. The issue was Houston couldn't play him in nickel packages. Instead, Eddie Pleasant played nickel linebacker. The results were disastrous and the Texans were gashed up the middle in this package. But as time has gone on, McKinney has a better understanding of the playbook -- there haven't been any more miscommunication issues -- and as a result, he can play in the nickel, and Houston can stop the run against three wide receiver sets.
Yes, Houston still uses Eddie Pleasant. He's played 51% of the snaps these last three games. In dime packages, he sits next to Cushing and covers tight ends and running backs. But instead of trotting onto the field every time a team spreads things out a little bit, Pleasant is only used on third downs and long distance situations.
In the base defense, McKinney has been tremendous stopping the run. He's a bruiser born to play in between the tackles.
The Jets are running a lead play from a full house backfield. The offensive line is blocking the man in front of them. Each fullback is heading up to the linebacker on their side of the formation.
Both Cushing and McKinney's first steps are downhill. They are reading the run all the way.
Each of them fills in the center of the defense as it spreads apart.
When McKinney makes contact with the fullback, he's able to get his head inside the block. This is the key to this play. His body is across the fullback's. With the force he attacks with, he will zip right past this block. Compare this with Cushing. He's straight up into the offensive player. If McKinney looked like this, Chris Ivory would have sprung into the second level.
McKinney is taking on a running back known for punishing defenders and pillaging in between the tackles. McKinney is coming off the block low, almost falling into it. He's still able to wrap up and deliver a blow. He brings down a running back who usually glances off contact like this.
This play is a testament to McKinney's strength, recognition, and his fit as a 3-4 inside linebacker. I don't think he will ever have the speed to be great in coverage, but all he needs to be is adequate so he can play every down.
The personnel changes and subtle scheme corrections have turned this defense from abysmal to commendable. But they wouldn't be a top ten unit if it wasn't for J.J. Watt. Over the last four games, Watt has accumulated 30 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 4 stuffs (tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage). The best player in the league has elevated his game from All-Pro to All-Madden.
Watt is one of the few defenders in the league who can turn a promising drive into carrion-infested ruins of abomination. The Jets are facing a 2nd and 2 and are looking to cross midfield. They are trying to run a zone play to the right. Because of how the defense is spread out across the line of scrimmage in a 5-1-5 look, the Jets are forced to block man-on-man across the board. J.J. Watt is too good to run at if there's only one person blocking him.
The right tackle, Breno Giacomini, takes a zone step right. He wants to hit Watt's chest.
Watt sizes him up. He sees the second step outside. The tackle is on his outside shoulder. The inside gap is wide open. He plants with his left foot and attacks it.
Watt punches the tackle's inside shoulder.
Then Watt destroys him by swimming over the top. By the time Stevan Ridley gets the ball, Watt's off the block and in the backfield.
This is a play Watt and maybe only a couple of other players can make. Usually, the back can run past the defensive end and bounce this run outside. The problem is Watt is an unusual creature.
Ridley realizes he made a terrible mistake. He wishes he just took the two yards up the middle and walked away. Right when Watt beats the tackle, he plants on his right foot. He sees the back trying to go outside and reacts immediately.
He brings the running back down for a 4 yard loss.
The Jets now face a more difficult 3rd and 6 against the best third down defense in the league.
J.J. spent the first half of the year as a 4i (inside shoulder of the offensive tackle) in the Texans' base 3-4 on rushing downs and as a 5 (outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) or 9 (outside shoulder of the tight end) on passing downs. In the beginning of the season, Watt knocked the door off the hinges, but he didn't ransack the entire house. During the defense's resurgence, Watt has moved all over the line of scrimmage.
Crennel likes to start him against the worst offensive lineman on the other team and let him obliterate that poor soul. Then once offenses adjust their protections to double him, Crennel will move Watt to get him back in one-on-one situations. As we saw from the numbers earlier, this has worked.
Here he's working as a 5 against Giacomini again. Giacomini is big and strong, but he's not quick. Watt is all of these things.
Pay special attention to the tackle's pass set in the GIF. He takes one slide step and then an immediate drop step to try and get depth. After his first step, he knows he can't get to Watt, so he hurries his feet and takes that next step backwards. He's stumbling all over himself.
This subtle inside fake from Watt is what makes this play. By giving a shoulder fake inside, it makes the tackle pause briefly. He hesitates and takes a slight step inside. This is all Watt needs to get an advantage around the edge. For anyone to block Watt by themselves, they have to be perfect.
J.J. shows his hands and fakes his punch. This brings Giacomini's hands out. Watt then takes his right arm and rips underneath the lineman's right. This streamlines his pass rush. He doesn't have to punch the shoulder, come into the tackle, and then rip under his punch. By forcing the tackle to punch early, Watt can get around the edge in one smooth motion.
Additionally, Giacomini's punch is going to be weak. The tackle never has a strong base here because of his feet. He doesn't get to the point of contact under control. When he engages with Watt he's leaning forward and overextending. He can't deliver enough force to move Watt past the quarterback.
Now Watt is around the edge. He plants on his left foot and comes right after the quarterback.
He pushes off the tackle with his right arm and propels himself at Fitzpatrick.
Later in the game, the Jets start sliding their protection over to double and sometimes triple Watt. Crennel then moves Watt to the weak side of the formation, away from the running back, where he picks up his second sack against De'Brickshaw Ferguson. Watt has taken his game to another level, and he's brought the entire defense along with him.
Although the defense is now a top ten unit , here are still holes here. The first is that Quintin Demps is a liability back there. Shocker, right? He's a fine tackler and is alright in man coverage. The problem is he's slow. That's an issue for a player whose main job is to cover half the field.
Smart teams are going to run specific route combinations at him and are going to isolate him in coverage. This was almost an issue against the Jets, but deep passes slipped off their fingers. Houston plays Tyrod Taylor this week, Tom Brady next week, Blake Bortles (no, that isn't a joke) in two weeks, and likely Andrew Luck the week after. Each of these quarterbacks can throw the ball downfield and will look to attack Demps.
Another issue is that Vince Wilfork hasn't performed any better. Despite the play of Cushing and McKinney, the Texans are still having problems stopping the inside run. The last four games have seen Houston allow 4.77 yards a carry (29th) on runs classified as middle or over the guard. Like how they switched the scheme in the secondary, Houston has tried to do the same thing along the defensive line. Wilfork has been terrible against double teams, so Crennel has allowed him to occasionally attack the gap. The results have been grim.
The problem isn't the scheme. Changing the defensive line up here and there can take a lineman off guard and lead to a tackle in the backfield. The hardest thing for a lineman to do in the run game is deal with a hard slant inside or outside that he's not ready for. It takes perfect feet and discipline to pick this up.
Houston is trying to do this with Wilfork by having him immediately attack the A-gap (gap between the center and guard) as a 0 technique (head up with the center). Right off the snap, Wilfork gets his head across the guard. He has a path into the backfield.
He fights forward. The problem is he should be cutting back down the line of scrimmage to the ball carrier now. Wilfork is slow. His game is built on size, not speed. He can't make a tackle on the ball carrier by coming far up the field.
By having Wilfork attack the gap like this, it spreads the entire line apart. Wilfork's job most of the time is to anchor the center of the defense, take on two blockers, and prevent this from happening. Here he opens up the line of scrimmage all on his own. He does the offensive line's job for them.
Now he tries to cut back inside, but it's too late. The back has an open hole and he's too far up field to make an impact.
The back picks up nine yards as a result. This is a nice play call to mess with a lineman. It's just not a nice call with Wilfork running it.
Houston doesn't know what to do with Wilfork. They have tried things like this and have put him directly in the A-gap to try and get him going. The results aren't there. Too often these adjustments ends up in large gains like the one above.
Wilfork doesn't have the quickness to get to the ball carrier and doesn't have the strength to take on double teams anymore. Consequently, the Texans are going to have problems stopping runs up the middle no matter how well McKinney and Cushing play.
Finally, the last problem is the Texans haven't been able to generate much of a pass rush besides what they get from Watt. Whitney Mercilus had an enormous game against the Titans, but he's cooled off since then. John Simon is still a replacement level player. Jared Crick has been awesome at taking on double teams in the run game, but hasn't been good rushing the passer. Brian Cushing used to be an incredible blitzer, but the lower leg injuries have zapped him of some quickness; he just isn't the same pass rusher anymore.
To try and squeeze a pass rush from a mortal, Crennel has done two things. Rushers attack the quarterback from multiple different positions to confuse offensive lines, and the Texans run a ton of E-T (end crashes inside and the tackle loops) and T-E (tackle crashes inside and the end loops around) stunts. This has delivered decent results so far. Yet there's a possibility it gets better because of the wild card the Texans have. That wild card's name? Jadeveon Clowney.
Right now Clowney is just a ball of sinew and electrified fast twitch muscle fibers. He's an athlete that has yet to refine his skill. This was expected after he missed his rookie year and has spent this season dealing with nagging injuries, forced to play catch-up. But the athleticism, oh man, the athleticism is there.
The stunts are perfect for Clowney to run because he just needs to run as hard and as fast as he can into offensive linemen to have an impact. He doesn't need to counter inside when a lineman begins to overstep or worry about any other intricacies of the game (you know, everything that went into Watt's sack). He just needs to be fast and strong.
Here's a perfect example of the Texans' strategy in passing situations. Watt and Clowney are lined up as a 9 on the outside shoulder of the tight end. Mercilus and Simon are standing up in the B-gap. Cushing and Pleasant are walking into the box. In passing situations, Houston camouflages their coverage by showing one thing and having their players spring to different positions before the snap. They disguise their blitzes by having their players stand up in different gaps, making everyone look like a potential rusher. The quarterback and line don't know exactly who's coming until the play begins.
On the left side of the line, Mercilus and Clowney are running an E-T stunt. Mercilus is going to come off the ball weakly and engage with the guard. He will wait for Clowney to throw himself into the B-gap, and then he'll loop around. Mercilus changes direction really well and understands angles. He's a great player to run stunts with.
Clowney takes one step outside, plants, and then slants back inside.
Clowney is just a blur. Mercilus punches and sits.
Terron Armstead (#72) punches and slides right. Clowney's goal is to get Armstead to turn his shoulders inside and grab the left guard so Mercilus can wrap back around and rush freely.
Clowney's head is across Armstead. He has the inside gap. This will force the guard to come off his block and help inside against Clowney. If not, Jadeveon can explode into this inside gap and spin back outside while Mercilus comes free off the edge. Armstead is beginning to turn his shoulders inside as Clowney gets farther up the field.
The problem for the Saints is the gap between their guard and tackle. There's an enormous hole between them for Clowney to break out of. The guard's head is too far inside. He isn't covering Clowney up.
Mercilus comes over the top. Armstead is in sound position now. It just depends on how square he is when he blocks Mercilus.
Clowney's left arm is on the guard and his right is on the tackle. He's ripping these two apart to open the path to the quarterback. Armstead stops his feet and is just leaning on Clowney as he waits for Mercilus.
Clowney throws the guard off him. When Armstead leaves to block Mercilus, the path to Brees is free. The quarterback releases the ball before Clowney gets there, though.
There's not much skill here on Clowney's part. He just screams into the gap and fights forward like a disobedient dog pulling his owner that makes you think about who's walking who. The thing is there doesn't need to be much skill. Stunts take advantage of Clowney's raw athletic ability, which he's yet to refine.
There is a drawback when running stunts. It takes extra time to create pressure. Watt can get to the quarterback in three seconds when he beats one man off the edge. Until Clowney can get free, he has to bombard into two defenders and wait for the tackle to leave for Whitney Mercilus. When running stunts, Clowney has to take on multiple defenders and wait for the loop to free him or wait for someone else to do the grunt work. This takes more time. As a result the sacks aren't there for Clowney. Yet.
Talent usually wins out. By making personnel changes and various little scheme tweaks, this defense has turned from a passive glop of talent into a ferocious unit playing up to its expectations. Houston has allowed only 35 points total and won its last 4 games after starting 2-5. They have now set themselves up for a possible playoff run. Like the old adage goes, how you play in December is what matters most. The Houston Texans have set themselves up for a memorable one, and it's because of their defense.
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