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Red Zone Play: Down & Distance

Taking the pulse of the Houston Texans’ defense.

NFL: Houston Texans-Training Camp Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we checked out the Houston Texans’ offense, examining each position group and getting an overall feel for the health of the scoring side of the team.

Now it’s time to turn the lens to the defensive side of the ball, which as we’ve all come to expect over the last few seasons, might just be what keeps this team rolling. If the ball bounces the Texans’ way a few times, this unit might put up some points themselves.

DEFENSE:

The biggest, best news of the off season as far as the Houston defense is concerned came when Romeo Crennel was reinstated as defensive coordinator. Don’t get me wrong, I like Mike Vrabel, but he was a far better developer of players than a strategist. Under Vrabel, the Texans’ defense often seemed confused and incapable of creating mismatches. While it’s easy to say Vrabel had to work without J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus most of the season, a high-quality coordinator isn’t going to get completely derailed by a few injuries. Thankfully for Houston fans #RACisBACK

Defensive Line

With the obvious question mark surrounding J.J. Watt’s health, a lot is going to ride on D.J. Reader, Christian Covington and Carlos Watkins. While all three players have great upside, they each need to continue reaching their potential this year. The more blocks these three can eat up, the more opportunities will arise for guys like Watt, Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, Benardrick McKinney, and so forth. As the old saying goes, games are won and lost in the trenches.

Linebackers

It’s hard to look at this group and not get excited. With Clowney, quite possibly the most talented defender in the NFL, McKinney, an old school thumper who reminds me of a young Terrell Suggs, Zach Cunningham, who has been hitting the plates and bulking up both mind and body in the off-season, and the X-Factor, Dylan Cole, this is a serious group of playmakers. If the defensive line can do their part, the linebackers should be feasting on tackles and sacks all season long.

I was on a plane to Florida with Vince Wilfork last week, and he certainly wasn’t injured. So maybe if someone else can’t go, Big Vince could pull a Brett Favre and make a comeback. Or at least show up with some smoked meat to lift everyone’s spirits.

Cornerbacks

As much as the linebacker room excites me, the cornerbacks sort of do the opposite. Johnathan Joseph is arguably the best corner in franchise history, but Father Time has never lost against an NFL player. Kevin Johnson really needs to step up and prove last year was a fluke if he doesn’t want the word “bust” hung around his neck like an albatross. Aaron Colvin might be the best of this group for 2018, but he’s got a learning curve ahead because: new guy. After those three, depth seems to be a mirage; granted, new safety Kareem Jackson can always play corner again in a pinch.

Safety

Adding Tyrann Mathieu seems to be a home run for the Texans in free agency, but losing rising star Andre Hal to lymphoma was a serious strikeout. For years Houston has toyed with the notion of moving Kareem Jackson to safety; they have finally pulled that trigger, but how well it works out remains to be seen. If Justin Reid can plug and play quickly, he just might be the savior this group needs. The rest of the safety room (Corey Moore, Treston Decoud, Kurtis Drummond, and Ibraheim Campbell) certainly don’t inspire fans to run right out and buy their jerseys. For the time being, I’m going to continue to beat the “Trade for Earl Thomas” drum, although the chances of that actually happening appear to be pretty slim, particularly with all the rumors he’s about to head to Dallas.

There we have it. The true goldmine on this side of the ball is the linebacker corps. We could easily mount an argument that this unit is only a player or two away from the greatest of all time, but the question marks surrounding the health of Watt, Clowney and Mercilus, along with performance questions regarding linemen, corners and safeties, make it easy to see this swinging the wrong way if that ball bounces all kinds of bad.

If anyone can get the most out of this defense, it’s Romeo Crennel. So for the foreseeable future, we’re just going to hang our red zone hopes on #RACisBACK and let the ball bounce where it may.