The majority of Texans’ draft chatter has been centered around Deshaun Watson’s selection and the potential impact the new QB will have on the team. There’s also a subtle indication of a potential change that might be occurring on the Texans’ defense going forward. I’m talking about the selection of Zach Cunningham in the second round, and Carlos Watkins in the fourth round.
Let’s address what the Texans lost this offseason. They (likely) lost Vince Wilfork, who garnered a large chunk of the defensive line snaps and rotated at nose tackle with rookie D.J. Reader. They lost John Simon, who was the starting Wweakside OLB. Add Christian Covington’s midseason form, the rest of the non-Jadeveon Clowney defensive linemen being less than excellent, and you have a few issues that needed to be addressed.
So what exactly did the Texans do last season on the defensive front? Typically it looked a lot like this:
It’s a three-man front with J.J. Watt, Wilfork and Clowney occupying the interior roles. Watt at the five tech, Wilfork at nose tackle, and Clowney at the three tech. The idea here is that Clowney and Watt shoot the gaps between the tackles and guards while Vince Wilfork does Vince Wilfork things and consumes blocks. The special thing about this formation is you can throw any combination or permutation of packages at an offense.
You could have Benardrick McKinney come in on a delayed blitz in order to generate a mismatch on either side of the line, or you could have Wilfork play as a one tech and have him shoot the gap between the guard and center while Watt or Clowney run stunts through the A or B gaps. These are all pretty common concepts, but when placed within the context of the Texans’ defense, they become horrifying. Take this example from Week 3 against the Patriots.
In terms of where everyone is lining up, it’s schematically similar to the example above. One man at the zero tech. Two more lining up at the three tech. Two edge players lining up as five and seven tech, respectively.
On this play, John Simon bails out and the right guard has no one to block. Watt and Clowney are going one-on-one with the two Patriots’ tackles. The real fun here is what Mercilus and McKinney are doing on the interior. Mercilus is going to shoot the gap, beat the center, and plunge straight through the A-gap while McKinney moves quickly to stack the right guard. McKinney then uses Mercilus as a screen, swims over, and blitzes from the other side of the center.
As you can see, Mercilus is garnering the attention of both the left guard and center while the right guard has shifted over to block McKinney. Clowney’s first punch against the right tackle knocks him off balance. This forces him to flip his hips in an attempt to shove Clowney past the quarterback, or at least allow Jacoby Brissett to step up in the pocket.
On the other hand, J.J. Watt is going through what Clowney will be going through in a few seconds. The left tackle is essentially trying to use all of his body weight to stop Watt’s momentum. Both edge players force Brissett to step up into the pocket, where Whitney Mecilus is waiting. Mercilus, however, can’t quite finish as Brissett steps up again. This time McKinney’s stunt pays off. He pushes the outside shoulder of the center before wrapping up Brissett for the sack.
What this play represents more than anything else is the Texans’ defense’s versatility and athleticism at each spot. They can put inside linebackers and outside linebackers over the center and still generate consistent pressure. It’s interesting because when Romeo Crennel was first hired as defensive cordinator, the scheme he ran revolved more around having defensive linemen eating blocks rather than act as the key penetrators. Crennel never had this kind of freakish talent at defensive line in his prior stops. This has allowed him to go crazy with his scheme.
Things are changing entering the 2017 season. Crennel has been moved to Assistant Head Coach, and former linebacker coach Mike Vrabel is taking over Crennel’s old role as defensive coordinator. Vrabel comes from the same line as Romeo Crennel—he played under him when Crennel was the defensive coordinator in New England and Kansas City. Regardless of the lineage, this change opens up the possibilities for a potential change in the Texans’ base defensive alignment going forward.
Newly drafted defensive linemen Carlos Watkins is an encapsulation of this. At Clemson, Watkins lined up predominately as a three technique between the guard and tackle and sometimes as the zero in certain sets. Watkins isn’t a super twitchy defensive tackle who’s going to win with a quick first step and hands. Watkins is better suited towards anchoring down against double teams from the guard and center and generating interior pressure with his bull rush.
On this play, we see Watkins (marked by the arrow) lined up as a three tech. Virginia Tech is running a read option. Quarterback Jerod Evans is the end man next to Watkins. The guard and center attempt to double team Watkins. The goal is to move him enough so the guard can get to the second level.
Evans makes a terrible read. The defensive lineman is crashing down hard on the RB, and Evans should have kept it. Meanwhile, Carlos Watkins is standing pat against the double team. He shoots the gap in between the guard and center, getting his pads underneath both of them. He also plants his feet and drives into the two blockers. This forces the double team to have to deal with the force of Watkins’s push, and his weight, while trying to move him.
This is Watkins’ greatest strength. Once he anchors down and gets low, he ain’t moving. Even if the defensive end doesn’t make a play, there’s still the linebacker at the second level with a free run at the back because the guard can’t get off of Watkins’ block. If the guard lets up, Watkins will burst through the offensive line like the Kool-Aid man.
Let’s take a look at what happens when Watkins does get a chance to attack the quarterback.
Here Watkins is lined up in the exact same slot as before. He’s a three technique on the side nearest to us. On this play, Watkins is going to run a stunt with his fellow three tech defensive tackle on the other side. Watkins is just going to drive straight through the A-gap, right between the right guard and center.
Watkins smashes straight into Pat Elflein, jarring him off balance. His right guard can’t help because he’s seen the other three tech trying to loop around the side. He attempts to pass off Watkins to Elflein. The two never really get hip-to-hip to stop Watkins’ bull rush. Watkins Hulk-Smashes his way through Elflein. The only thing left to do is finish.
Those two examples highlight what makes Watkins a really intriguing prospect. He can anchor against double teams despite being smaller than your typical nose tackle, and he’s disruptive enough to push the pocket with his strength and first punch on pass attempts.
As mentioned above, the downside is he’s not really twitchy or explosive. He’s kind of lethargic off the line. This can often lead to offensive linemen getting to him first and stopping him from generating any momentum with a good punch.
But Carlos Watkins is difficult to stop once he generates momentum. If you have ever seen the X-Men movies or read the comics, you’ll know who Juggernaut is. The Juggernaut is a mutant whose power is the inability to be stopped once he starts moving. He is perpetual motion. Carlos Watkins isn’t that prolific, but once he’s going, he’s nearly impossible to contain. It’s because first punch is so damn violent. It jars or stuns almost every offensive lineman who isn’t ready for it. The problem is most linemen are ready for it because they don’t have to prepare for anything else. Watkins lives or dies by the bull rush right now. When he’s on, he ruins days with it.
Moving forward, Watkins’ two strengths, his anchor and his bull rush, are traits seen from Crennel’s old fashioned defensive linemen from the past. Players who can eat blocks so the linebackers can flow to the ball unhindered, and players who can push the pocket on passing downs. It’s one of the reasons why this could become the Texans’ base formation going forward:
I know Andre Hal is a safety, but imagine that Hal is Zach Cunningham playing the weakside linebacker role in this 4-3. It’s still got a lot of the same schematic look as the formations above, but the personnel has changed a bit. There are still two edge players lining up everywhere from the five, seven or nine techniques who will rush outside and force the quarterback into the jaws of the defense. The three linebackers are between the numbers tackling machines. Watt, Reader and Clowney push the pocket to make it impossible for the quarterback to escape. It makes sense for Watson, a player with a similar skill set, to be drafted by Houston.
The current 3-4 could stay if Clowney is moved out of the trenches and back into the other outside linebacker spot. I do think this would be a misuse of talent. Sure, Clowney’s good just about everywhere, but it’s when he’s lined up as a three tech that we get to see him slice straight through an offensive line because he’s faster than any guard playing in the league.
So the choices are:
- Kick Clowney to outside linebacker and start some combination of Joel Heath/Christian Covington/Carlos Watkins at the other DE spot and sit Cunningham.
- Keep Clowney at DE, start Brennan Scarlett or whomever else there is at the other outside linebacker spot, and sit Cunningham.
- Shift to the 4-3 front with Clowney and Mercilus at defensive end, Watt playing as a three tech and occasionally kicking outside, D.J. Reader playing the other defensive tackle position, and Cunningham starting at weakside linebacker alongside Cushing and McKinney.
- Shift to a 4-2-5. Keep the same defensive line front as the 4-3 scheme but sit Cunningham in favor of another safety to help cover running backs and tight ends.
Personally, I think the shift to the 4-3 makes the most sense. It allows you to keep your premium defensive line talent all on the field while at the same time allowing you to keep your three best linebackers out there too.
That last part is important in regards to Cunningham. Having him out there and playing now is far better than having him sit behind Brian Cushing for a year. Cushing is on the decline; e’s in his early 30s with the mileage of a ACL and MCL tear. He’s lost quite a bit of the explosiveness that he once had and his snap numbers from this year prove he’s second in the pecking order behind Benardrick McKinney at the ILB spot. This combined with the fact that Cushing will be making around $5.5 million next season makes me think that Cushing might have one more season with the Texans before Cunningham steps in. In this case, it makes more sense to get Cunningham as much playing time as possible now to get him some experience; if the Texans do release Cushing and do go back to a 3-4 in the future, Cunningham won’t have as steep a learning curve. In essence, the move to the 4-3 would give Cunningham playing time immediately, which allows them to set themselves up for Brian Cushing’s potential departure.
As Brett discussed before, Cunningham’s strengths are between the numbers. He doesn’t excel when asked to be a sideline-to-sideline backer; he’s just not that quick. Watkins excels at eating blocks much like D.J. Reader and and Vince Wilfork do. With two LBs whose speed is somewhat of a concern, having players like Watkins up front makes this less of an issue; the linebackers can now focus on picking the best angle to the ball carrier and cut down on the amount of chasing that they might have to do. The 4-3 serves as the best way to get all of the Texans’ best talent onto the field at the same time while also allowing for the development of a future starter.
What sat you? Do you think the Texans will switch to a 4-3 base formation? What are your expectations for Cunningham and Watkins going forward?