Ever since this season started, OLB Whitney Mercilus has not actively contributed in the pass rush game or the run defense . Over the first six games, Mercilus played 81% of the snaps but barely made an impact when on the field.
Zero sacks. 13 total tackles. Four solo tackles. One tackle for loss.
Even in the five-ish games he played last season before tearing his pectoral muscle, Mercilus recorded twice as many solo tackles as compared to the first six games this season and added only one sack to his 2017 resume. Coming off of that season-ending pectoral muscle injury last year, Mercilus had yet to impact a game at the level we are accustomed to. It has been a slow start to the Texans’ defense in general, but not having that additional dominant outside presence in Mercilus has been a massive detriment to the defense.
That all changed this week against the Jaguars as Mercilus put on his best performance of the season.
One sack. Four tackles. Four solo tackles. One tackle for loss. Two forced fumbles. One QB hit.
When Mercilus is on his game, he effectively shuts down all zone running plays to his side of the field. By far the best edge-setter in franchise history against the run, Mercilus is a key cog in the defensive scheme. When he on the line of scrimmage yesterday, the Jaguars only ran at Mercilus once in the first half, and T.J. Yeldon gained a mere two yards. Mercilus does a great job of limiting the run options directed his way.
It’s not that Mercilus became a liability on the field, but rather that he stepped down from the role of a game-changer and into a complementary asset. No one expected Mercilus to return to his 12 sack-season form directly after the serious injury he suffered, but the Texans need him to produce more for this average defense than he currently was. His contributions may not have been represented on the stat sheet before this week, but there is an explanation behind him being MIA through the first six games of the season, as detailed by Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel:
“No. He doesn’t get as many opportunities as he used to get because we’ve got him in a rotation. I think sometimes that hurts a player, but Whitney understands what I’m trying to get done and why he’s not in there quite as much. He goes in and he performs when he’s in there. There’s some value in that as well. I know everybody says, he should have 12 sacks and all that good stuff, but if he does his job and helps the team win, then we’ll all be satisfied.”
With the Jags down a starting tackle in Cam Robinson, the Texans were able to get pressure off the edge for the entire game, which disrupted the offensive play of Jacksonville.
A rotation is not a bad idea for a player in his seventh season coming off of the worst injury of his career However, Mercilus is still playing four out of every five snaps the team takes, making him one of the most utilized Texans on the roster. The quantity of snaps he’s gotten have not correlated to the level of production we expect or desire. It says here the Texans should look towards increasing the rotational split between Mercilus and rookies Duke “The Edge” Ejiofor and Peter Kalambayi.
Arguably, the Texans need more role players to balance out the freelance style of play by J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Even then, if embracing this role is a part of the Romeo Crennel game plan, Mercilus would have assumed the title of the ‘clean-up man’ for the havoc wreaked by the other more dynamic players. This just has not been happening this season. Teams do not have to game plan and account for Mercilus as much, as there is nothing Whitney is doing consistently—until yesterday—that demands attention.
Enough of that. Let’s div into what Mercilus did well after witnessing the first glimpses of dominance from him this season in Jacksonville yesterday.
The Texans dropped Whitney back in zone coverage on multiple occasions yesterday in complex zone blitz packages. Quite often, Mercilus would line up on the line of scrimmage and then on the snap drop back into a seam/curl zone or spy the QB. Whitney is relatively suspect in man coverage on a running back, but he does possess enough speed to cover a short zone.
Mercilus’ one QB hit was a turning point in the game. Jacksonville was beginning to execute a two-minute drill when on third and short Mercilus pulled out the spin move and de-cleated Blake Bortles. Bortles proceeded to loft a lame duck pass that floundered to the ground and forced a fourth down punt.
The Texans play a below average Dolphins offensive line on Thursday. Will Mercilus be able to build off of yesterday’s game or will he go missing yet again?