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The Film Room: A.J. Bouye Made The Leap

The 2016 Houston Texans’ season review continues. This stop breaks down A.J. Bouye’s leap to stardom—and pending free agency—in 2016.

Wild Card Round - Oakland Raiders v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Despite losing the NFL’s best player in J.J. Watt for nearly the entire season, the Houston Texans’ defense in 2016 nearly matched their 2015 version.

Houston’s D 2015-2016

Category 2015 2016
Category 2015 2016
DVOA -9.3% (8th) -6.9% (7th)
Points Allowed 313 (7th) 328 (11th)
Run D DVOA -13.5% (13th) -8.6% (17th)
Pass D DVOA -6.5% (7th) -5.6% (5th)
Adjusted Sack Rate 7.5% (6th--45 sacks) 5.7% (13th--31 sacks)

Without the NFL’s best player, Houston’s defensive DVOA dropped by just 1.4%, their run defense by 4.9%, their pass defense by 0.9%, and their sack rate by 1.8%. The Texans had 14 fewer sacks yet allowed only 15 more points. With Romeo Crennel donning a hat covered in stars and crescents, leading a fluid and multiple defense with parts coming in and out, the Texans were able to survive and thrive without Watt wrecking opposing offenses.

Crennel was masterful at scheming the personnel available to him. He moved Jadeveon Clowney to defensive end, constantly shuffled a secondary that lost Kevin Johnson for the year and Kareem Jackson for a spat of time, manufactured interior pressure with blitz schemes, and played a variety of different coverages to flummox quarterbacks.

It all worked out because of the talent Crennel had. Others had to improve and pull harder than they had to with Watt in the lineup. The reason why Houston was able to still field one of the best defenses in the league was because of the growth of the people wearing the helmets. Primarily, Jadeveon Clowney, Benardrick McKinney, and A.J. Bouye.

Jadeveon Clowney followed a best case scenario career progression. A little less than year after having microfracture knee surgery, he showed flashes of that extraterrestrial athleticism in 2015 that made him the number one overall pick in 2014. Then, with a full offseason, the skill caught up with the talent. Clowney learned how to dip away from pullers, read offensive linemen, take on 12 of the blocker, and what angles to take to actually make plays that transferred to the box score. His progression and move back to defensive end to replace Watt made Watt’s absence a bummer, an ache in the heart on a Sunday afternoon, instead of a calamity.

Brian Cushing was wrong: Benardrick McKinney is the Texans’ best inside linebacker. McKinney’s rookie year was plagued with mental mistakes, like covering the wrong player, which allowed running backs and tight ends to run free down field. Like attacking the wrong hole in the run game, which opened up running lanes that shouldn’t have existed. In his second year, these mistakes were absent. McKinney stuffed ball carriers into a concise shape like futurology origami when he made his tackles. On passing downs, McKinney used his closing speed to rumble through empty holes and into quarterbacks. He did this all while drenched in macabre face paint and a leather arm brace that made him the best Gothic football player of all time.

A former number one overall pick and a former second round pick becoming better football players isn’t incredible stuff. It was expected from Clowney and McKinney. But the third player most responsible for the Texans’ defense playing so well in 2016 without J.J. Watt, and the player who had the best season of the three, A.J. Bouye, was a glitch in the simulation we call reality. The former undrafted free agent from Central Florida came out of nowhere. He had a success rate of 66% (22nd), broke up 11 passes, and allowed 5.4 yards per pass (when the average pass traveled 11.1 yards through the air). If you <3 Pro Football Focus’s grades, Bouye had a coverage rating of 92.7 (T-1st), and an overall grade of 92.5 (2nd). He was a revelation. He wasn’t just the Texans’ best defensive player. He was one of the best defensive backs in the NFL.

Bouye first broke onto the scene in Week Two against Kansas City. After playing just 48% of Houston’s defensive snaps in Week One (27 total), he played 47 total and 73% against the Chiefs. He played in the box as a second linebacker in nickel formations in the role that Eddie Pleasant wasn’t suited for. More importantly, Bouye followed and locked down Travis Kelce. The 6’5” 255 pound Kelce had 5 catches on 7 targets for just 34 yards while being primarily covered by the 6’0”, 191 pound Bouye.

Because of his quickness and ability to read routes, Bouye was able to stay in front of Kelce the entire game and break down hill quick enough to either impact the pass or pull out the bottom Jenga piece to immediately bring Kelce down.

In the clip below, it’s third and two in the first quarter. The Texans are in Cover One with their linebackers who aren’t in man coverage sitting in an underneath zone. The Chiefs motion Kelce across the formation to put him wide right. Bouye is like shade on the ground that follows him. He’s in man coverage, about four yards off of Kelce. Like Calvinism, the ball is predestined to find its way in Kelce’s direction.

Kelce takes a slow release and fakes the out route. Bouye doesn’t buy it. He sits still directly in front of Kelce’s stuttering gait. When Kelce makes his cut, so does Bouye. He takes a few steps inside and then runs at an acute angle once Alex Smith moves his arm back to throw.

Bouye leaps over the tight end’s outside shoulder and swats the pass down, preventing a completion and stopping the drive.

If you want one play that perfectly encapsulates Bouye, this is it. He’s doing whatever it is that the coaching staff asked of him. Playing man coverage without using his hands by mirroring the defender like a primordial comedy trope. Reading and reacting to the route perfectly and instantly. Leaping to play the ball.

This game wasn’t always perfect for Bouye. He was in over his head at times when playing in the box. At his size, it was incredible that he was able to cover Kansas City’s monstrous tight end. Frankly, it was a coaching mistake by the Chiefs to not have Kelce running more fades and posts and high air down field routes. Bouye’s stature didn’t hurt him in the passing game. In the run game, however, he was shredded into rodent bedding. Kelce would take his anger over his inability to get open out on Bouye by driving Bouye twelve yards down the field and rubbing his face in the neon turf.

Consequently, Bouye was relegated to playing in small chunks here and there the next two weeks. Against the Patriots and Titans, Bouye played only 27% and 38% of the snaps against run-heavy offensive game plans. Then Kareem Jackson was injured. As the next man up, Bouye got the start in the slot. Once Kevin Johnson was sent to IR because of a foot injury, Bouye moved to the outside corner position, primarily playing as the right cornerback.

This is what made Bouye so special last season. He played multiple positions and covered every type of receiver in any type of coverage. He succeeded at doing whatever he was asked to do. Bouye is not an off-man corner, a man corner, a press man corner, a zone corner, a slot corner, or an outside corner. He’s all of these things. He’s everything.

In the Texans’ second matchup against the Colts, Bouye spent most of the game covering Donte Moncrief as the Colts tried to pick on Kareem Jackson with T.Y. Hilton in the slot. Here, Houston is running Cover One. Bouye is lined up ten yards off Moncrief, who is running a deep dig route.

Off the snap, Moncrief is running straight ahead with his head down. This keys Bouye in on a possible fade route. Bouye backpedals and slightly rotates to turn and run sideways when Moncrief raises his head, signaling a turn for the ball. Moncrief cuts inside rather than continue down the sideline. Bouye bounces off his outside foot and comes back to the center of the field. This hiccup should lead to a completion. It doesn’t because Bouye chases at a perfect angle that brings him in front of Moncrief. Like the previous play, Bouye leaps over the outside shoulder and gets in front of the ball exactly when it arrives.

What saves Bouye here is his ability to break on the ball. This skill, and how quickly he recognizes routes, allows him to play this far off a receiver and still make plays, even when he gets slightly beat.

This was seen against the Patriots multiple times in the Texans’ playoff loss. New England is doing their New England thing and running rub route combinations. Chris Hogan is running an out and Malcom Floyd is running a slant. By crossing, they can pick the defender and create separation for each other. Having one defender play off-man coverage is a great way to counteract this. It removes the ability for the receiver to get in the way and eliminates the possibility of both defenders running into each other.

Bouye has Floyd in off-man coverage, and Houston is again playing Cover One. Bouye is seven yards off Floyd.

Floyd lumbers out of his stance. There’s no subtlety to his route. He runs four yards and cuts inside. For this to be even a four yard completion, Tom Brady needs to release the ball before Floyd makes his break. Bouye takes a couple of small rapid steps backwards and breaks once Floyd takes a single step inside.

He’s inside and in front of Floyd. The ball hits him in the belly and ends up wiggling around on the ground. This is an interception. Bouye flat out drops it.

Like Johnathan Joseph, Bouye excels at playing off his man, reading the route, and breaking when he recognizes what the receiver is doing. He reads body movement well, explodes, and soothsays his way in front of the football.

In man coverage, Bouye is great too. He is a good backwards runner. Even on an island, he’s in control of the route. He fluidly transforms from a backpedal, to a shuffle, to a sprint to the football.

Against Green Bay, the Packers are running a play-action pass with only two routes. Jordy Nelson running a deep in and Davante Adams is on the go. Aaron Rodgers is reading Quintin Demps. If Demps sits in the center, Rodgers will sling it to the sideline. If he chases the fade, Rodgers will throw the dig. With Demps’ lack of speed and inability to affect downfield routes, Rodgers has the fade in single coverage no matter what Demps does.

Running backwards, Bouye matches Adams step for step. When Adams slightly cuts inside and commits to the downfield route, Bouye turns at that same instant. Out of the break, Adams is able to get a slight lead on him. Bouye commits to his outside shoulder and wears him down. Once Adams starts running with his head to the sky, he loses his speed. Bouye overtakes him and impedes him even more by running in front of his outside arm.

Bouye is again in front of the receiver. When the ball lands, it falls feet from his outstretched left arm. Adams ends up becoming the defensive back on this play.

Rodgers spent the majority of the game looking away from Bouye. Instead, he attacked slot corners and players in over their head like Charles James. This play was one of the rare times Bouye was tested in that snowy affair. This time, Bouye swallowed up the fade route in man coverage with faux safety help.

In the previous examples, Bouye won the route with recognition, burst, and fluidity. Underneath it all is the way he mirrors route runners. He matches them step for step and stays in front of them. This isn’t seen as clearly in those coverages, but in press-man, it’s crucial for Bouye. As a smaller player, Bouye can’t toss receivers off the line of scrimmage and win routes with strength. When he lines up directly in front of the receiver to start the route, he has to be a cobra, perfectly swaying in matching movement.

Here, Emmanuel Sanders takes a slight step outside before cutting in for the slant. Bouye reenacts his steps exactly. Then he uses his right arm to pull Sanders into him, making it easier for him to get around the receiver to the ball. It’s a hold, but it’s so sneaky and quickly done that the ref isn’t able to pick it up in real time.

In coverage against Golden Tate here, we see something similar. Tate is covered by Bouye. The Texans’ cornerback is all over him and his back. The only thing different is the result. Tate is running a comeback route so he can use his body to shield the corner, unlike the slant that leaves the receiver exposed. Bouye can’t get around this boulder. Detroit picks up a difficult seven yards. But again, you see Bouye mirroring the receiver and sticking all over him.

In that same game, Marvin Jones tried to take Bouye for a ride down field. At the snap, he is able to get an outside release and create space right away. Again, Bouye doesn’t have the size to use his hands at the line. He has to resort to expert mimicry to play press-man. This allows Jones to get a free release and create space at the beginning of the route.

But what Bouye does well is turn and chase. With Bouye on Jones’s back, Jones tries to shove him off with an extended arm. Bouye slaps and laughs away at this attempt. After he removes his arm, he looks into Jones’s eyes. Awww. When Jones looks to the sideline, Bouye reaches his arm out and slaps the ball away without looking.

In addition to playing great coverage, Bouye is great at attacking the ball. Once it’s in the air, he knows how to read the receiver’s eyes and where to attack the football. He incessantly high points the football, turning receptions into incompletions by using his arms to make catches complicated, or simply batting passes to the ground like Manu Ginobli.

These stills sometimes lead to tipped passes fluttering through the air for Quintin Demps to cash into AFC Defensive Player of the Month Awards. In this instance, Bouye turns quarter coverage and a break on the ball into a flip that lands in Demps’ mitt.

Here, the Texans are running Cover Six. The wide side is playing quarters coverage, or Cover Four, and the short side is playing Cover Two. It’s a great way to run coverages that better match that side of the field and can trick the quarterback into assuming the same coverage on both sides, leading to mistakes and interceptions. Bouye is on the wide side of the field covering a deep quarter of it. Pre-snap, it looks just like he’s playing off-man coverage against Tyrell Williams, who is running a deep dig, right to Demps’ corner.

Bouye backpedals and stays in front of the receiver. H is in control of the route. He bounces off his outside foot when Williams cuts inside and takes the same sharp angle to the receiver. When the ball arrives, he swats at it with his right arm, popping it back to Demps, who mistakenly overruns the route. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and in Demps’s case, that was the majority of his season.

In every type of man coverage, Bouye is awesome. In zone coverage, Bouye is as well. He’s fluid. He scans the field well and finds things to do even when routes aren’t in his area. When there are multiple routes around him, he knows which one to give priority to so he can continue to be a nuisance to the opposing passing game.

In Cover Two here, Bouye has the flat. Two routes are run into his sector. The first is an out route by the receiver. The second is the running back shooting into the flat.

Bouye expands to the sideline by playing the out. He has his hands on the receiver and is watching the quarterback’s eyes—essentially covering two players at once. Trevor Siemian goes through his progressions. He comes to the left and dumps it to the back. Without hesitating, Bouye scampers to the ball and pounces into the back’s legs, stopping him for an inconsequential gain.

Because of plays like this, and all the plays before, the Texans were able to play a variety of different coverages last year. No matter what they asked Bouye to do, he was able to do it. On a similar play, with the same technique, Bouye breaks down in man coverage and torpedoes into Demaryius Thomas on a quick throw.

Bouye is a great tackler even though he’s less than 200 pounds. In 2016, he missed only four tackles while making 49 solo tackles. He hits low, wraps up, and hangs on well. For him to knock runners backwards, he needs to be moving at full speed. But even when he is dodging around blocks or having to be a passive shuffler in the open field, he still usually brings down the ball carrier. He accepts his fate as a smaller player, takes the bashing, and pulls the player over the top of him to the ground.

Bouye was almost perfect in 2016. Almost. He had issues on post routes when he was in off-man coverage. On these routes, it was difficult for him to get across the receiver’s body and make plays on throws with higher catch points.

I still don’t know that I would entirely trust him against the physical freaks around the league like Julio Jones, A.J. Green, or Odell Beckham Jr. Bouye has great body control, skill, burst, and understands the game, but he isn’t a freak talent. He didn’t take too many snaps against these players, and in limited snaps against Amari Cooper, he was beaten up a little bit. He may be fine against these players. There’s just not any evidence pointing to that.

The real problem Bouye has is against fakes and double moves. Because of his ability to read, react, and break on the ball, coupled with his aggression, he can overcommit to routes. Not always does he comeback as smoothly as he did against Moncrief. He can, and was, toasted against these routes at times last year.

Here Crabtree gets Bouye on a stop and go.

Here Thomas fakes the out and gets open on the dig.

Here Kelce leaves him splaying, but it doesn’t matter because Alex Smith.

These are chips, dings, and scratches in a great 2016 season. A.J. Bouye was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL last year. Now he’s about to hit the open market and will be the belle of many teams’ balls. Houston or some other team is going to get to see this finger wag on Sundays.

All praise aside, I wouldn’t sign A.J. Bouye to a long term contract. Nope. Not at all. Not yet. This was one great year. A sample size of one. You don’t want to overpay and be stuck with a worthless glob, or a fat sunk cost on your roster. There is no way to know if this was a record year, or whether there ismore of the same to come in the future. Despite Bouye being incredible in 2016, it’s uncertain if 2017 is going to be the same.

The other problem with signing Bouye to a long-term deal is that with him as an unrestricted free agent, you are competing with everyone else on the market. At 25, and being an undrafted sea turtle that made the perilous voyage across the ocean, I’m sure there will be no warm and fuzzy discount. It’s likely Bouye is going to want to maximize what he makes when he signs this contract to make up for lost dollars.

Cleveland ($106.5 million), Jacksonville ($74.9 million), Tennessee ($62.3 million), Washington ($58.8 million), Indianapolis ($54.2 million), Chicago ($51.4 million), Carolina ($47.4 million), Miami ($42.4 million), Green Bay ($40.9 million), and New Orleans ($29.5 million) are all teams with money to spend and have a “HELP WANTED” sign hanging up in their secondary. Bouye is a scheme neutral player. It doesn’t matter what type of defense a prospective teams runs. He has already shown he can run it. He would be an upgrade for any of these teams. For Houston, why would you want to get in a bidding war with teams that can outspend you for a player who had one great year? You don’t.

Moving forward, I would pay the $14 million and put Bouye on the franchise tag. The Texans have indicated they probably won’t do that, but that’s what I would do. Houston wouldn’t be stuck with Bouye if he is a one-hit wonder, and the tag would remove him from unrestricted free agency and the competition of the open market. If Bouye is just as good all over again, Brock Osweiler’s malodorous corpse becomes cremains next year, and Houston will have the cap space to sign him without having to cajole the books.

Bouye was the best player on Houston’s defense last year. He was a vital cog in their successful amphibious defensive scheme. He played every type of coverage and did nearly everything well. With him, Kevin Johnson, and J.J. Watt back, it’s possible for the Texans to field an all-time great defense in 2017. They could have the type of defense a team can contend with no matter what the offense does, no matter who is at quarterback. If we have learned anything these last two years, that is exactly what Houston needs to get over the Divisional Round hump.