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The Texans’ Coverage Schemes Won’t Change

We investigate whether or not the Texans’ additions at cornerback will lead to any schematic changes in the secondary.

Kentucky v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There’s this sketch stuck in my head from A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, an old British comedy show.

I could never grasp if there was any deeper meaning to it than Stephen Fry saying odd things in weird intonations, but the line that always stuck in my head, and made me giggle, is the opening one of ‘‘Who told you, you were naked’’? I’ve been thinking also about the Texans’ selection of Lonnie Johnson in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and another question began springing to the front of my mind while reading some of the analysis and reaction to the pick.

‘‘Who told you the Texans were going to play man coverage’’?

This doesn’t begin and end with the Johnson selection, but rather the collective strategy and reasoning presented by the Texans’ front office, the personnel the Texans now have on their roster, and the coverage schemes Romeo Crennel typically employs.

Rather than construct a clunky metaphor for how Bill O’Brien’s job isn’t to talk to a bunch of people about how good or bad his job is going, I’m just going to state that Bill O’Brien looks visibly upset that he is being subjected to prolonged questioning by the media. All he has ever wanted to do is coach football. Not talk to people about football coaching football.

In my mind, if I’m Bill O’Brien I literally say anything to get out of a room filled with reporters as quickly as I can. Does this look like the face of someone who wants to answer one more question about his ‘‘process’’?

BOB watched Bill Belichick drone on from the pulpit of the Patriots’ media room about whatever sports cliché he had decided to use for that day. This is what makes me think that whatever he has said this offseason should be taken with a strong pinch of salt. O’Brien’s man coverage statements are probably meaningless.

He had the following to say once they signed of Bradley Roby:

So, we felt really good about our study of Bradley Roby, being able to come in and do some of the things he did in Denver, play man to man coverage, play outside corner, play inside corner some if we need him there, and had a lot of good reports on him and we were able to sign him to a one year deal.

Excuse me while I chuckle about the slight irony of ‘‘had a lot of good reports on him’’ and then signing him to a one year deal.

Now for Brian Gaine’s take on Bradley Roby:

“We did a one-year deal with Bradley, he offers some of the size and speed dimensions that you often heard me talk about in terms of our prototypical standards in what we are looking for at that specific position — 5-11, 190 pounds; 4.3, 4.4 coming out and can play man coverage.”

I would like to draw your attention here to ‘‘can play man coverage’’. Much like Bill O’Brien above, Gaine brings up the possibility of him playing man coverage and alignment versatility within a defensive scheme. I would like to also highlight the measureables Gaine is talking about. That’s a trend that appears a bit in Gaine’s description of Lonnie Johnson from the press conference at the end of the Texans’ Day 2 selections in the 2019 Draft:

“Outside cornerback with excellent height, weight, speed. Six-foot-one and change, 210 pounds, 4.40 (40-yard dash), played very well in the Senior Bowl and matched up versus some very good competition. Played very well in the Bowl game. Very aggressive in run support. He can play perimeter press coverage, can play man coverage. We’re excited to have him.”

Gaine mentions once more the physical measurables and the potential for Johnson to play man coverage. It’s possible to get swept away by this new man coverage principle because there are certain new elements within the Texans’ secondary, and the new additions are quite different from previous members of it. Houston MIGHT VERY WELL BE moving to a more man dominant scheme, however there are certain issues regarding this assumption. What’s important here is the focus on versatility and athleticism. This concept also popped up last year when Houston signed Aaron Colvin.

As Bill O’Brien stated at the time:

“I think primarily he’s going to play inside, but then there are going to be certain packages – I mean, we do so many things on defense – there’s going to be certain packages where he’ll play on the outside,” O’Brien explained. “He has the ability to do both. Mostly, in Jacksonville, he played on the inside of the coverage, inside of the formation, but here he’ll do a little bit of everything.”

The whole versatility card is getting quite a bit of play here and it makes sense. What general manager or head coach is going to talk about a new signing and be like, ‘‘Yeah he’s only actually good at ONE thing and ONE thing only, if you ask him to do anything else the dude becomes about as effective as a bin bag tied to a stick’’.

Naturally, Brian Gaine and Bill O’Brien are not going to come out and actively say, ‘‘Hey we love THESE kinds of players because we’re going to play THIS kind of way’’ but what they have said here focuses on physical traits and the ability to play a variety of positions and coverages. This is more important than any potential change in defensive philosophy.

Another key element, which I feel has been kind of glossed over, is that Romeo Crennel, the sole commander of the defense, has not been quoted this offseason in saying there will be any dramatic shift in defensive alignment within the Texans’ scheme. If Crennel was bringing up man coverage, and the ability to play it, then there maybe something to this narrative. But he hasn’t. Gaine and O’Brien’s words are probably more noise than signal.

More important than press conferences, are the players the Texans have added to their secondary. The new additions aren’t going to be dominant man coverage cornerbacks. Houston still doesn’t have this on their roster, the vital component required to make the switch and primarily play man coverage.

There’s been a lot of words used to describe the playing styles of Lonnie Johnson and Bradley Roby this off-season. I’m not going to offer any new words on those two because others have done a better job than me at describing their playing styles. I wrote about Aaron Colvin last year when the Texans signed him, and I concluded that while he showed potential working closer to the line of scrimmage as a press corner in the slot, he had struggled when asked to work outside, and his best work was when he was the nickel corner covering the intermediate zones in a Cover 3 or Cover 4 schemes. This was last year, before injuries and the healthy games he wasn’t active for. But even when he found the field, he was just another cog in the capitulating coverage schemes of Crennel and Co. Even placing expectations on Colvin being a starter this year is perhaps too much.

A key element of the Cover 4 scheme which Romeo Crennel runs is how its corners line up and engage receivers at the line of scrimmage. We’ve bemoaned the corners lining up 3-5 yards off the line of scrimmage and focusing on the protection of the deep sections of the field, often leaving shorter routes wide open for opposing defenses to run endless outs and comebacks for 5-8 yard gains. My lofty position atop this endless mound of discard crisp packets and empty beer cans has granted me the ability to say this was done because of the lack of athleticism Houston had at the cornerback position. Let’s not forget the Texans once trotted out Johnthan Banks as the perimeter corner. Due to this, the Texans used these off man alignments to try and prevent corners from getting burned by faster players at the line of scrimmage.

This has not worked well. The zombified entities littering the Texans cornerback depth chart have struggled executing this. Partially due to age, and partially due to a lack of skill. If you know nothing else about Bradley Roby and Lonnie Johnson, know they are athletic. Johnson is a hulking mass of a corner. His height, weight, wingspan & arm length are all 80th percentile and above for all corners measured at the NFL combine. In addition, he sports a vertical and broad jump which both rank above the 75th percentile among corners. His size should compensate for his lack of elite 40 yard dash time at the line of scrimmage. That would be the idea considering how teams like Seattle used large corners to do similar things with their Cover 3/Cover 1 schemes. The problem with Johnson, as Matt quite nicely summed up, is:

Size is natural. Physicality is earned.

As Rivers highlighted in his piece on Lonnie Johnson, he was used mostly in an off-man read and react scheme and would watch the route then crash down upon it. Gaine’s quote from earlier about Johnson centered on his physicality and the potential to perform in various coverage schemes. Johnson and Roby’s additions are this. The Texans are attempting to change the personnel because the personnel has been horrendous, and the Texans, in all likelihood, believe that is due to the lack of athletic ability on the part of these corners.

The creaking and groaning of Johnathan Joseph’s bones have served as a reminder of what the Texans have needed for the past few years—youth and athleticism. Roby accomplishes much of the same in terms of being athletic player who can play off and press alignments in the Cover 4. The Texans are still prioritizing read and react concepts (Roby’s are done via watching the QB, Johnson’s via watching his zones). They’ve just switched out the bodies that are reading and reacting, and that’s the point. I believe the talk of the Texans pre-draft being interested in Greedy Williams wasn’t because he was potentially a shut down man coverage corner, but because he gave them an athletic profile they didn’t have on the roster.

Just because Lonnie Johnson and Bradley Roby are on the Texans roster does not mean that the Texans are going to start playing like the Seahawks or man coverage heavy teams like the Denver Broncos. The drapes are to stop people from peering into my living room, and these corners are for the Texans’ same old Cover 4 system.

Might they run more man coverage? It’s possible. But why would they? The key here is Roby and Johnson’s skill sets are not centered around the exceptionally unforgiving nature of man coverage. Putting them in such a position, especially Johnson, would be as reckless as trotting the same old secondary out there to try and stop T.Y Hilton again. Man coverage is a island and not all corners are survivalists. In time they might be, but that’s not changing while Romeo Crennel is still in charge of the Texans defense, or while the talent level at the position is average. The Texans are going to play some man coverage, but it’s going to be negligible in comparison to the same dominant zone coverage scheme.

This off-season has shown that for the Texans, and the corner position, the plan wasn’t to change. It was to stay the same. The only thing to wonder now is whether or not the results will still be.