Throw the football against the Houston Texans. That should be the title of the 2018 Houston Texans NFL Films Highlight video. It won’t be it, but it should be it. Instead it will be something along the lines of Houston We Have A Quarterback or On A Mission or something equally unoffensive, lame, and tight collared.
The 2018 version of this franchise had an offense that could score 31 points when the offensive coordinator allowed it, which was required against teams with an actual quarterback and actual passing offense. These teams scrambled the Houston Texans. If J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney weren’t breathing fire and scrunching up quarterbacks the secondary was exposed, naked and afraid and alone, allowing wide receivers to snag passes unhindered.
The two biggest needs entering this offseason were cornerback and offensive line. The difference between the two needs is the offensive line has actual talent and suffered from mismanagement in 2018. The cornerback group as composed was Johnathan Joseph, unicorn blood is a finite resource, Kareem Jackson, a safety stuck playing cornerback because of injury issues and is now in Denver, Shareece Wright, who by the time you finish reading the sentence was beat by a double move, Aaron Colvin, an ankle the size of a grapefruit screwed with his season but he struggled even when he was healthy, and players with names like Deante Burton and Mike Tyson, soon to be forgotten, just like all of us eventually.
To improve the secondary Brian Gaine made three decisions. He stuck by his number of $9.5 million per year, stoic and strong, and watched Tyrann Mathieu leave for Kansas City for, lol, it will never not be funny, $14 million per year. To replace him, he signed former Jacksonville Jaguar, and regurgitated chunk to make space to devour Nick Foles’s ridiculous salary, Tashaun Gipson. In Jacksonville he played a lot of deep middle third, and should play free safety or Houston this year with Andre Hal subbing in when Houston opts for three safeties, and Justin Reid sticking at strong safety. And at cornerback, the most important position, the Texans signed Bradley Roby, a former first round pick from Denver, to a one-year $10 million contract, and former Cleveland slot corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
With around $44 million in cap space the Texans currently have a refurbished cornerback room containing Joseph, Roby, Colvin, Boddy-Calhoun. Of the four, Roby is the best of the bunch, but he’s a temporary fix, a wash cloth pressed against a lawn mower blade gash on the way to the NFL Draft, or 2020 free agency. Even then, for this season, this won’t be enough talent to make up for the pass rush when J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney don't be turn the pocket into a massacre.
Roby has had one great year. In 2017 he allowed 5 yards per pass (3rd out of 81 qualified defensive backs), had a success rate of 62% (9th), and allowed 1 yard after the catch (3rd) per Football Outsiders Charting Data. He also had 17 pass break ups and 1 interception. That was on a pass defense with Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. The following season Talib was traded to the Rams to join that batch of quick fix defensive mercenaries. Roby was tossed into a larger role after his forced relocation.
With additional responsibility Roby’s play dropped off considerably. In 2018 he was targeted 78 times, allowed 10.3 yards per pass (82nd out of 85 qualified defensive backs) had a success rate of 46% (67th), and allowed 3.7 yards after the catch (81st). This is the performance Denver received after trading Talib for a fifth round pick they traded back to the Rams for two sixth round picks.
Roby is a competent cornerback. Signing him for a one-year deal at $10 million was a great deal from the Texans’ perspective. He’s an immediate improvement over Houston’s cornerbacks. Here lies the problem though. Roby isn’t a number one cornerback. He’s a player who once had resounding success in a great secondary, but has too many problems to be a cornerback who can consistently cover a team’s number one receiver. You want Roby to be your third best cornerback, not your best one.
Trouble finds him when he’s playing back and reading and reacting. In off-man coverage Roby takes additional steps, reads the route late, and takes too round of an angle when he plays the ball. In Denver’s silly win over the Steelers, Pittsburgh was able to convert easy first rounds by running sideline breaking routes v. Roby when he was in off-man.
Vance Joseph Denver didn’t disguise what they did. What you see is what you get. The Broncos are in cover one with the safety shaded toward Antonio Brown. Roby is seven yards off the ball and covering JuJu Smith-Schuster. On this play Roby backpedals himself all the way to the 40 yard line. Once Smith-Schuster turns his hips and shoulders to the sideline, Roby should be breaking to the ball. Instead he takes seven additional steps, and continues to shuffle backwards. It ends with him scooping Smith-Schuster and carrying him out of bounds like a transient rescuing a child ejected from the back of a van.
Here’s a similar situation where Roby is covering the out against tight end Vance McDonald. Roby takes two additional steps backwards after McDonald makes his break to the sideline. The reading, reacting, and quick break on the ball isn’t there.
Against the Chargers he’s covering Tyrell Williams. It’s cover one. Roby is seven yards off the ball again, and the safety is rolled towards Keenan Allen. On first and ten he’s concerned with a deep pass after play action. Instead of catching Williams at the top of his route, he opens his hips in preparation to turn and run the seam. Williams breaks his route off inside and gets crunched by the safety who arrives too late to affect the throw.
Or here where he backpedals to the endzone, bites on the corner, and allows the touchdown on the post to Travis Kelce.
I like Roby the most when he’s in more of a pure coverage role. Whether he’s playing press man, man, or zone where he has his eyes on the quarterback, it’s a better situation for him to be in than sitting back, reading the route, and breaking on the play.
This is a rare occasion where Roby is covering Antonio Brown. He’s pressing Brown at the line of scrimmage and has comfort knowing he has a safety deep to sever anything that could run past him. In press, Roby is great at shuffling until the receiver commits. From there, especially on slants and drags, he can break across the receiver and play the ball. Against this route he shuffles left until Brown breaks inside. From there he gets across the receiver, and an overthrown hazy pass gets intercepted behind him.
Quick passing games are generally designed around predisposition. The quarterback has a presnap idea he can’t shake out of his head. Breathing in deeply, taking in what the defense shows, and letting it all out. Phillip Rivers sees man before the snap. He wants Mike Williams v. Roby, especially with Williams cutting his slant under the sideline fade, and the slot running the seam against the deep safety.
Roby is a park bench. Williams is a loon shuffling in place. The defensive back ignores the puffery, runs under the fade, and comes along Williams inside shoulder to play the ball. His left hand comes up and under Williams’s basket to knock his books out of his hands.
He would be perfect in New England. He plays the ball like the Patriots’ defensive backs do. He consistently does a great job jamming his fingers into the receiver’s mouth to make a mess out of an easy catch.
When I say Roby is an adept press coverage cornerback, I mean he’s adept at press coverage when he’s not jamming the receiver at the line of scrimmage. He usually misses and gives up easy completions after he puts on his armor to joust the receiver.
Covering Tyreek Hill can drive a defensive back into psychosis. Roby is playing press man against Hill with bodies inside. He stabs with this left arm and turns toward the sideline to drive Hill wide. Even as the world’s strongest and fastest fifth grader, Hill is able to lift his arm off his shoulder, oh unrequited love, and break across Roby’s face for a first down.
At least he was able to get a hand on Hill there. Against Sammy Watkins he wasn’t as fortunate. Roby doesn’t have inside help here. The safety crashes inside to cover the flat after the run fake pulls the linebacker to the running back. There’s no sitting and shuffling. It’s just a limp swat. It’s one of those eerie floppy handshakes. With the safety crashing down, and the other safety playing deep, Watkins is free to run forever. Watkins is the cowboy. He’s the wildhorse.
There’s a lack of violence when he punches receivers at the line. He’s unable to direct the receiver’s route off track, or force him where he wants him to go. His punches don’t tussle or rustle anyone. It’s strange considering how well he plays press whenever he isn’t jamming, and the violence he brings when he tackles.
When the Texans lost Jackson this offseason, they lost one of their best tacklers. Roby isn’t quite the tackler Jackson is, but he can make the same type of plays. Whenever Roby has a free path he can run downhill and slice the ball carrier in half.
In cover 3 Roby reads the swing pass to Melvin Gordon. Roby runs under a half hearted blocking attempt and finds Gordon’s legs at full speed.
The ability to open field tackle on a Texans’ run defense is integral. Rush attempts against this front seven constrict the rushing lanes and make the eyeballs pop in the ball carrier’s skull. Most run attempts are head first slams into an air bag for two yards, or aimless ambitionless twenty-something wandering outside the line of scrimmage. When the latter happens defensive backs have to be able to rush in and clean up. Roby does exactly this to Gordon.
Like most defensive backs he’s pretty easy to block. Roby struggles tackling off the block, and allows ball carriers to run past him for big gains. This is the difference between him and Jackson. This isn’t one of those times. Here he leaps off the block like a bullet shredding the organs of a lunging jungle cat. He forces the fumble. The Broncos recover. Turning a 25 yard screen pass into a side of foot punt.
Despite the loss of Jackson, the Texans should be fine making open field tackles with Roby here, and how the rest of the secondary is constructed.
In man coverage he can mirror receivers well, and does a fine job using his hands to guide him. Sometimes he uses his hands too much and gets pelted by yellow, but overall, he understands how to use them to stick on a route within the boundaries the game allows. Roby is never the best athlete on the field, but there isn’t any concerns with his athleticism. He can stick with, chase, and run with just about anyone.
Here he’s in the slot. Roby is able to back pedal, turn, and chase the fade without a problem. He also use his hands to stay in control of the route.
It’s not always perfect though. The same footwork problems he has in off-man coverage can affect him in man coverage. Roby is covering Smith-Schuster on his own with one safety playing deep. Pittsburgh is at their own three yard line. Smith-Schuster gets a free release off the line of scrimmage. When Roby backpedals he angles his drop slightly to the sideline because he has a safety deep. The safety is more concerned with Brown though. His last step is too angular, he opens up, and gives Smith-Schuster a free path inside. Typically he can turn and run well, but he doesn’t have the absurd athleticism to get beat, then run with someone like Smith-Schuster. He scores from 97.
Usually Roby has a better understanding of where his safety is. In coverage, he dictates and plays the route in an intelligent manner. Here the Broncos are in cover 3. Roby has the left third, and has a safety covering the deep middle. Regardless, Roby is pretty much in man coverage with inside help against hellion Travis Benjamin. The defensive back keeps outside leverage. When he turns and runs to the sideline he looks back to track Benjamin. He sees him break back inside, looks back for him, and then turns back around to play the ball traveling to the corner of the endzone.
When covering Hill on a deep corner-post route, Roby let’s Hill run to the safety. When Hill fakes the corner he loses the safety, but Roby has recovered and is running under the post.
Overall, it’s all pretty good. The ability to play the ball, play press-man, tackle the open field, and play solid man coverage is better than anything the Texans have. However, the Texans are far away from feeling good about their cornerback group. This position must be upgraded in the draft. This is a position without a long term solution. It’s a position that will once again rely on its pass rush to mask the problems happening behind it, and with games against Indianapolis, Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams and the Raiders; Atlanta, Carolina, New England, Kansas City, New Orleans, and Los Angeles (C) in 2019, they won’t be ignored like they were last season against a schedule composed mainly by teams that couldn’t throw the football. Roby was a perfect signing for Houston, especially considering the free agency options available, but this is just a starting point.