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The Film Room: Justin Reid

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Houston’s young safety should be a cornerstone of their defense for years to come.

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The safety position is a position of multitudes. Safeties have to play in every level of the defense and carry out an expansive assortment of tasks: crawl down into the box to defend the run, read and attack the run from the safety position, act as the last line of defense to end open field gallops, blitz, play man coverage, defend the screen game, bracket receivers, disrupt the passing game from the robber position, and affect a wide variety of throws from the deep middle part of the field. Already, Justin Reid is almost one of the rare omnific safeties who can complete every assignment asked of the position.

In the run game, Reid understands his run fits. In the box he reads the flow of the play well, allowing to get him away from blockers and put himself in an unblocked position to make tackles. Last season Reid had 18 solo run tackles.

New England’s power run game is underrated, even if it took a hit without James Devlin last season. The Patriots are running guard-tight end counter to the weakside of the formation. Reid walks down into the box against the heavy formation.

Immediately he made two reads. First, he recognized the split between the left tackle and tight end. Hypothetically this could create a cutback lane for Sony Michel. Second, he saw tight end Eric Tomilson’s (#83) pull. Reid used the wide split to his advantage. He rushed through it to follow the tight end and chase down the run from the backside of the play. Quick reads like this ensures the offense won’t have enough blockers to pick up every defender in the box.

Intelligent run fits like this were on display in the Wildcard Round against the Buffalo Bills when the walls of reality melted around us. Against Buffalo’s power run game, Houston used Benardrick McKinney (#55) and Zach Cunningham (#41) to bludgeon the puller and spill the run, so players like Reid could flow over the top of the offense to make tackles.

The Bills ran counter right, and created down blocks going to the left. The tight end from a flex wing position (#88), pulled through the hole into McKinney (#55). With a bat prickled with nails, McKinney took him on, forcing the running back to cut outside of him, and directly into Cunningham and Reid.

This one was especially impressive. Brian Daboll and Buffalo had Houston right where they wanted them in overtime. They called guard-center quarterback power. The play side tight end pops Whitney Mercilus (#59) before climbing to Cunningham (#41)—the play side linebacker yanked by Devin Singletary’s (#26) motion. Buffalo gets Quinton Spain (#67) on Mercilus, center Mitch Morse (#60) on Reid. Mike Adams (#27) is all that remains as the last line of defense.

The run is supposed to hit the ‘B’ gap, but Mercilus spilled the run and forced Josh Allen (#17) to awkwardly cut outside. Reid ignored the approaching Morse and played the ball carrier instead of the blocker. This allowed him to get wide around Mercilus and wrap his tentacles around Allen’s legs.

No matter how many vital rule changes are made to make football a safer game, toughness and physicality is the foundation the game is played upon. Reid is one of the toughest players in the league, and meets the tenacity requirements necessary to mosh in the box.

In week two against Jacksonville he was crunched on a power run play. 313 pounds of bone, gelatin, and red meat squished him. A three tight end set filled with down blocks and A.J. Cann (#60) pulling is something only Doug Marrone can conjure up. The play side tight ends are supposed to take Whitney Mercilus (#59) into Reid.

Instead Reid was able to scurry around the tight end and take on Cann. It doesn’t go well. Reid spun along the block, but ended up squished like an interstate pancake with his shoulder sustaining the full force of it.

From this play on Reid dealt with a floppy shoulder. Despite this, and dealing with a torn labrum for the majority of the 2019 season, Reid would continue to hold up along the line of scrimmage. Including this game, with one working arm, he was able to hold up Leonard Fournette (#27) after he bounced off three Texans’ defenders at the goal line to seal a win and stave off an 0-2 start.

From the safety position Reid’s run defense was composed of opposites. When he squared ball carriers he consistently made tackles. Take this play for example. Oakland ran a quick pitch to the boundary side of the field. Left tackle Kolton Miller pulled to the alley after the tight end made his down block. Everyone else blocked outside zone left.

Both Gareon Conley (#22) and Zach Cunningham (#41) did a great job fighting through their blocks. This created a congested alley for Reid and Josh Jacobs (#28) to meet. Reid’s pursuit angle was perfect. He switched from sharp to horizontal to attack Jacobs face to face. From there he splattered him and released Jacob’s soul from the confines of his carapace.

Run stops from the safety position like this were seen throughout last season. Los Angeles ran outside zone left. Reid traveled from deep middle to the box to clean out Austin Ekeler (#30).

And here he tied up Dion Lewis to save a touchdown in the redzone.

Reid consistently made these janitorial tackles. Mop and bucket. A jangling uroboros made from keys. He isn’t perfect though. There is room to improve. He ran into trouble last season when making tackles at an angle.

These same issues also crept up against the passing game.

He can improve seeing what he hits, but these misses were probably because, again, he played with one arm for the majority of the 2019 season, and tackles at angles like these are usually made with the outside shoulder aimed at the outside hip. Now that he’s healthy again, the brutal head on deliverances should translate to completed angular tackles in 2020.

In the box the one thing missing was the ability to be an effective blitzer. He was taken out by running backs when trying to scream after the quarterback. Nearly all of his blitzes didn’t amount to much. According to Pro Football Reference’s outsourced advanced statistics, Reid blitzed 19 times and mustered 0 pressures and 1 knockdown. Blitzing Reid wasn’t worth the risk for this meager reward with the cornerback talent Houston had.

In man coverage, Reid typically covered tight ends. Last season he found himself covering some of the best ones in the league including Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, Eric Ebron, and Mark Andrews.

Reid has the strength to press tight ends. In general he’s great at using his hands to follow their route. Against Eric Ebron, who has 3 inches and 50 pounds on him, Reid caught him in the chest after Ebron took a wide release. Ebron tried swimming over the top. He clamped on and stayed underneath the route the entire time with safety help over the top.

The Titans are going to TITAN UP. On first and ten with 22 personnel, the Titans utilized play action to attack Houston’s nine man box.

Before the snap, Reid walked down to the line of scrimmage to line up head up with tight end Jonnu Smith (#81). The Titans have two routes. A deep out to Smith, and a go route up the seam with A.J. Brown (#11). Reid covered Smith on his own, and Bradley Roby (#21) trailed Brown with Tashaun Gipson (#39) helping out over the top.

Smith is supposed to be the safe checkdown, but Reid made this attempt impossible. He pressed his inside shoulder, displaced him closer to the sideline, and limited the amount of space he had once he cut to the sideline. At the break point Reid placed his hands on him again and ran under his route. At two different points, Reid used his hands to dictate and control the route, leaving Ryan Tannehill praying and heaving it downfield into double coverage.

The brain moves faster than the body. Reid is an intelligent player who has a great feel for the game. He puts himself in a better position to win his reps before the snap. On 3rd and 4 he covered Darren Waller (#83). The tight end is lined up in the slot to the field side. The ball is on the opposite hash. It’s a typical alignment for an out route. Reid has outside leverage before the snap. With one safety on the opposite hash Derek Carr loves this matchup.

Waller used an inside release to get him further away from the sideline before his break. Reid mirrored his route the entire way, and at the catch point, he drove on the inside shoulder and played the ball. The outside alignment was crucial. The Raiders were unable to convert even after attacking a matchup that was a focal point of their offense in 2019.

This is the same play, same route, similar set of circumstances, but this time Reid covered Anthony Firkser (#86). Against tight ends, Reid has easy speed to chase and get under routes after the break point.

Reid provides commendable man coverage against tight ends, even against the best ones in the league, allowing Houston to consistently roll and disguise their safeties, and load the box in run situations without fearing the play action pass.

He does need more time to get a better feel for double moves and more complicated routes. When additional layers are added to the route Reid can get lost after the first action. Kelce (#87) was able to get him on an angle route, and O.J. Howard was able to beat him on a stop and go.

Man coverage can be a fluid endeavor. Houston would occasionally pass receivers against quick crossing routes used to create a rub against man coverage. Reid occasionally find himself chasing wide receivers even though he typically covered tight ends.

On third down, against the Colts, the Texans make a ‘banjo’ or ‘zebra’ call, which means their defenders switched assignments once the receivers crossed. Reid is lined up across from Jack Doyle (#84) and is orientated to defend him on his own. At the snap, T.Y. Hilton (#13) breaks on the drag. Rather than force Phillip Gaines to chase across the formation at a disadvantage, Reid and Gaines switch, allowing Reid to run down the drag with an inside advantage.

Jacoby Brissett (#7) reads from right to left. If his first reads aren’t open, Hilton should, in theory, be breaking open across his eyes as he looks back across the field. Both Hilton and Doyle are covered. Brissett was stuck tossing this one away.

Switches require great communication. The mental side of the game is one of Reid’s biggest strengths. Rarely, if ever, does he make an incorrect read or place himself in an unfortunate position. Consistent plays like this one against Indianapolis, leads to occasional spats of greatness, like this all-time great play against Tennessee.

In the second quarter of Houston’s pivotal AFC South win over Tennessee, the Titans found themselves at Houston’s five yard line with the game tied 0-0. It was first down at the five yard line. Tennessee decided to spread things out with 01 personnel and a trips left wide receiver formation. Houston countered by playing cover one with a linebacker in the hole, and aligned their defenders based on matchups in front of them. Reid is the left outside cornerback lined up across from Firkser (#86).

With Zach Cunningham (#41) covering the second receiver, tight end MyCole Pruitt (#85), Houston opted against switching this typical slant-flat route combination. Reid checked Pruitt to read the rub to ensure he didn’t run into traffic when Firsker broke inside. He came over the top of Cunningham, and has the speed against a slower tight end to still defend this play, even at a disadvantage. Not only that, he managed to get his head across Firsker’s body and on the ball, knocking it into the air. Mercilus jammed Jonnu Smith’s slant before leaping back as a hook defender. He proved, once again, that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and capitalized on the play Reid made.

Against screens his game looked similar to his deep middle run stopping. The best way Houston deployed him against these plays was placing him at cornerback against bunch formations. Against teams like the Colts, who loved to throw quick screens in these formations, they would put Reid across the tight end and have him work. On this rep, tight end Jack Doyle is weak wristed, and failed to stay in front of Reid to give his teammate an alley to take off through.

Reid played a variety of roles as a deep middle defender. Occasionally Reid would help Bradley Roby by bracketing an opponent’s best receiver. Roby is a really good cornerback, but he’s never been a true lockdown corner who can take away a team’s best receiver all on his own. Against Kansas City and New England, Reid bracketed Tyreek Hill and Julian Edelman to take away the opponent’s best receiver.

In each Kansas City match up Reid bracketed Hill along with Roby. Hill had 5 catches on 10 targets for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns in their first match up. 46 of these yards and 1 of these touchdowns came on a jackpot touchdown catch over Reid. In their second playoff match up Hill had 3 catches on 4 targets for 41 yards.

Kansas City tried to take a deep shot off a fake screen in their first contest. Roby is matched against Hill on the left side of the formation, and Gaines is matched against Demarcus Robinson on the right side of the formation. Reid is sitting deep middle.

Hill faked the corner before cutting back across the field on the post, and Robinson ran a deep dig. Roby played a trail technique against Hill. Since he has deep middle help, he gave Hill the inside release, and tried to play under the route. Hill is blazing though. He was able to lose Roby after breaking on the post. Reid is great here. He switched roles with Roby once he fell off the route. Reid flipped his hips and changed from playing over to under the route, creating a difficult throw for Patrick Mahomes to make with pressure in his face.

In their second match up, Reid made the last great defensive play before the rout began. He bracketed Hill along with Roby once again on 3rd and 10. Hill was the number three receiver in a trips left formation running a quick post.

Roby tried to aggressively press Hill and failed, giving Hill an inside release. It doesn’t matter. He’s able to because Reid has help over the top. Roby then sprints to get back under the route. During this chaos, Reid shuffled to stay directly above Hill until Mahomes tried to put the ball between them. Reid sprang into a sprint as soon as Mahomes began his throwing motion, and punished Hill with a detonation to the ribs at the catch point.

This was another great bracket by Reid, except this time, Roby yanked and held on to Hill’s undershirt like sunscreen marketing, giving up an unneeded defensive pass interference penalty, which eventually turned into another Kansas City touchdown.

Against New England, they employed this same strategy in a slightly different way to limit New England’s middle of field passing to Julian Edelman. In this game Edelman finished with 6 catches on 11 targets for 106 yards and 1 touchdown, with most of this production coming after Houston accrued a 19 point lead.

These brackets were slightly different. Rather than have Reid play deep middle and stay over the top of the route while the corner chased underneath, Reid would start from the robber position, read and wait for Edelman, and then run under the route, taking away those slants and posts the Patriots love to run.

With Brady’s deteriorating arm strength, and without any true outside receiver talent, New England’s deep passing game was directed to the center of the field. Edelman (#11) was in the slot and ran a deep post. Houston had two safeties deep, but each were oriented to the center of the field. Vernon Hargreaves III (#28) is lined up over Edelman.

Immediately before the snap, Hargreaves III widens out, to prepare to turn and run and stay above Edelman. Reid allowed Edelman’s free release. With Edelman’s head down he turned to race him. Throughout the route Reid is able to stay under Edelman and in the vicinity of him. By doing so, he removed the underneath throwing lane. Brady can only go over the top of him. Hargreaves III is there to drop a difficult, but feasible interception.

Throughout this game Houston used Reid in a robber position to take away the throwing lane on the deeper interior routes Edelman would run.

Reid has a great feel for the game. He’s never entirely stuck on one assignment. He’s constantly searching and seeking the ball. Against Jacksonville he’s supposed to be the under man trailing the receiver on a bracket technique. D.J. Chark (#17) released inside, and Reid recognized Conley (#22) would be able to stay on the route on his own. As a result, he peeled off his assignment and crushed Gardner Minshew’s lazy floater into the flat.

Reid excels at the robber position and as a deep middle safety. As a robber he’s free to patrol the center of the field, read the quarterback’s eyes, and make plays on the ball.

Against Tampa Bay, Reid’s pick six that was pushed backwards due to a Charles Omenihu penalty on the return. Houston started off in a two deep shell. Then, before the snap, Reid rolled to a robber position, something Jameis lost sight of once the ball was in his hands. Houston’s corners are playing man coverage.

The dig was open. Conley (#22) opens his hips to turn and run when the inside break is made. Jameis sees the world in his own special way. He doesn’t see, or looks right through Reid, and turns the ball over to Houston.

Of all the duties a lad playing safety has, playing deep middle is what Reid is best at. The key to deep middle safety play is to be able to affect nine routes along the sideline from the deep middle position. This lifts the entire defense up. It allows cornerbacks to use the sideline and funnel receivers to the center of the field since they know are assured they have assistance, and defensive coordinators can play single high on run downs without worrying about getting torched deep.

The Chiefs were in an empty backfield formation with five wide receivers and Houston played cover one with a linebacker in the hole. The Chiefs had trips right. The #1 receiver, Tyreek Hill (#10) is running a wheel route. The #2 receiver is running a go route. And the #3 receiver is running a quick post. The backside cornerback is playing man without help. Reid, the deep middle safety, prepared to scurry and cover this trips alignment.

Quickly he categorized the threats in front of him. Bradley Roby (#21) has a difficult run through traffic, and up against Hill’s speed, it’s impossible to stay in front of him. Reid ignored the other two deep routes and focused entirely on this one. Despite the difficulty level, Roby was able to chase back and give Mahomes one option to complete this pass—over the top—and by doing so, Reid came from the middle of the field to the sideline to nearly intercept this high flying pass.

Deep middle is all about recognizing threats, and having the athleticism to close space and affect throws tossed to the deep parts of the field. Against Carolina, Reid played deep middle once again in Houston’s cover one defense. On this throw, Reid runs to defend the go route down the left sideline once he saw Lonnie Johnson Jr. chasing. Out of the corner of his eye, Reid observed Kyle Allen staring straight ahead and winding up. In an instant, Reid flipped back to the center of the field, ran back across to the opposite hash, and dive bombed to take away a potential touchdown pass.

Houston played plenty of cover four, cover seven, and off-man last year—this has more to say about the cornerback talent than anything else—but they also predominantly played with one safety deep. Even with this defensive set up the Texans had one of the best deep pass defenses in the league. Houston allowed a completion percentage of only 35%, 9.5 yards an attempt (4th), 5 touchdowns (5th), and had a deep pass DVOA of -7% (4th). Reid was a key contributor to this.

Reid isn’t without his limitations. Aside from playing deep middle, Reid isn’t spectacular or ‘elite’ at any one skill, but he is commendable at everything. This is remarkable for a player who has two years of service time playing a position that usually takes players two years to even be adequate at. This season, Reid should continue to improve on his expansive skill set and diamonds of great individual components of his game should emerge. Finally healthy, with his shoulder reattached to his torso, entering Year Three, the jump from good to great is now for Justin Reid.