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Lovie Smith and Houston’s Turnover Differential

Get the ball back so (insert quarterback here) can score some points

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Chicago Bears v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Romeo Crennel and Wade Phillips both presided over some of the best defenses in Houston Texans history. Unfortunately, those days are getting further in the rear view mirror. Last season, the Texans defense was ranked in the NFL basement in almost every meaningful category, including turnover differential.

The Texans 2020 squad ended with a turnover differential of -9. For those unfamiliar with that stat, it means they gave the ball to opponents 9 times more than they took it away. Only the Philadelphia Eagles (-10), Las Vegas Raiders (-11), San Francisco 49ers (-11) and Denver Broncos (-16) did worse.

Historically, the Texans have only had one instance of back-to-back seasons with a positive turnover differential, 2014 & 2015.

In 2013, Houston led the league - the wrong way - with a -20 turnover margin.

Houston Texans turnover differential by year

2020 T/D = –9

2019 T/D = 0

2018 T/D = +13

2017 T/D = –12

2016 T/D = –7

2015 T/D = +5

2014 T/D = +12

2013 T/D = –20

2012 T/D = +12

2011 T/D = +7

2010 T/D = 0

2009 T/D = –1

2008 T/D = –10

2007 T/D = –13

2006 T/D = –3

2005 T/D = –8

2004 T/D = +5

2003 T/D = –5

2002 T/D = –8

However, at a recent press conference, incoming defensive coordinator Lovie Smith promised to focus on taking the ball away.

Lovie Smith

It starts by talking about it first of things that you have to get done. As you talk about a good defense, if you’re not taking the ball away, if you’re not good on third downs, if you’re not scoring, you’re not a good defense. It’s just not about total yards. We’ve been able to get that accomplished just about everywhere we’ve been. It’s going to start with a basic philosophy to the players and they’re going to buy into it and we’re going to be teaching it every day, just like we’re going to be teaching tackling.

Winning the turnover battle is one of the surest predictors of NFL success. And, while it’s not solely on the defense, you can’t get there with Matt Schaub playing catch with opposing defensive backs every week, the defense has to do their part.


What separates a good NFL team from a bad one? Sure, the answer could be the starting quarterback or the head coach, but it’s usually which team wins the turnover battle. Obviously, the New England Patriots were a dynasty in large part because of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but they almost always were among the Top 10 teams in the league in turnover margin. Last season, teams that had a positive turnover edge in a game were 151-46-1 straight up (76.6 percent) and 151-41-6 against the spread (78.6 percent).

One way to get a defensive edge in the turnover battle is teaching the players to strip the ball. Depending on which legend you believe, John Madden was credited as the first to teach his players to do this back in the 70s. And, this preceded his historic run as the winningest head coach in NFL history, based on his final win percentage when he retired.

Combine the art of stripping with interceptions and you create a defense that feasts on takeaways. The more the defense gets the ball back, the more (insert quarterback here) has the chance to move the offensive down the field and score. And, the more rested the defense is late in the game. It’s also a huge momentum swing for the entire team.

Not to mention, turnovers create some of the most exciting defensive plays in the game.

Can Lovie Smith really take this rag-tag bunch of players and mold them into turnover machines? He had some success doing it with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Chicago Bears.

But, can he do it here?

Only time will tell.