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A Sliver of Hope for the 2021 Texans Defense

Oh, now you want to talk about regression once it finally fits your worldview.

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The 2020 Houston Texans spent all offseason talking about how fast and aggressive they were going to be, and the measures they would go to to reign hell on opposing quarterbacks. It turns out, talent is more important than empty words, and the dam finally broke. Bill O’Brien turned one of the best defenses in the league, mainly against the run, into a bottom dweller. Houston fell to 30th in DVOA.

One of their ills was they were unable to create turnovers. As you know, turnovers are largely a lucky stat that fluctuates year to year. That can’t be created on one’s own merit. It requires the other team to make a mistake as well. As hard as you punch that ball out, the ball carrier still has control of it, and has to spit it up.

Last season the Texans picked off three passes, and recovered six fumbles. As abysmal as their secondary, their pass rush, and their linebacker play was, nine measly turnovers is on the bottom of the bell curve.

Bill Barnwell recently wrote about regression trends to keep your eyes out for. He wrote specifically about the Texans, and their terrible turnover luck. He had the following to say:

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 2020 Texans were about as hapless as it gets. By any measure you can find, they were a disaster on defense. Anthony Weaver’s unit ranked 27th in points allowed, 30th in points allowed per drive and 30th in DVOA. A composite of the quarterbacks who played the 4-12 Texans last season would have posted a better passer rating than Patrick Mahomes in 2020, and that came in a year in which Houston faced starters such as Brandon Allen, Jake Luton and Mitchell Trubisky. Opposing quarterbacks completed 69.7% of their passes against the Texans while averaging 8.0 yards per attempt and throwing 30 touchdowns against just three picks.

That last number is where I want to start. Three interceptions for an entire defense isn’t an NFL record, but it’s close; you might remember that the 2018 49ers intercepted just two passes all season, something highlighted in this space before the 2019 campaign. Add in six fumble recoveries and the Texans finished with just nine takeaways, the second-lowest mark in NFL history. Again, they’re just behind the 2018 49ers, who had seven. The 2019 Niners picked off Jameis Winston three times in Week 1, finished the year with 12 interceptions and ended up making it all the way to the Super Bowl.

I don’t want to spoil the 2021 season for you, but let me throw this one out there: The Texans aren’t making it to the Super Bowl. It’s about as unlikely as their chances of finishing with three interceptions again. Even bad teams get too many chances at possible interceptions to finish with just three picks in back-to-back seasons. Houston has quarterbacks such as Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and Zach Wilson on the schedule, and that’s before even considering the likelihood of facing a backup quarterback or two by the end of the year.

It’s fair to note that the Texans lost their most notable defender this offseason when they cut J.J. Watt, but general manager Nick Caserio unquestionably added much-needed depth to the roster this offseason. Houston signed more than a dozen veterans to play on the defensive side of the ball, including recent starters Jordan Jenkins, Terrance Mitchell and Christian Kirksey. It traded for Shaq Lawson and already had a pair of useful contributors in Justin Reid and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans are not going to be a great defense by any means, but at the very least, Lovie Smith’s unit is going to force more takeaways this season.

Houston doesn’t have the talent to expect them to make a dramatic improvement this season. The depth signings Caserio made were mainly for NPCs, JAGs, roster filler at the bottom of the roster. Lawson doesn’t have a go to pass rush move, and most of his production was the result of the high blitz defense he played in. You want Lawson to be your third best pass rusher, not your best one, like he will be in Houston. Desmond King Jr. should be great as long as he isn’t asked to play man coverage in the slot. And Houston has multiple players who may just need a new coaching staff, and opportunities to get to actual playing time to see the leap. Even if we accept modicum improvement, the ceiling here is Houston maybe being the 25th (?), 20th (?) best defense this season.

At least they’ll force more turnovers.