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What To Expect From Lovie Smith

The Texans’ new defensive coordinator has some work to do.

Redbox Bowl - California v Illinois Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After the hire of the General Manager and Head Coach, perhaps the most significant hire for the Texans was going to be the Defensive Coordinator. The 2020 Texans defense, charitably, was really, really, really not good. Name a defensive category and you will find that the team was among the worst in the league (Texans Rank/Number of NFL Teams):

  • Points Allowed: 27/32
  • Yards Allowed: 30/32
  • Turnovers Forced (9): 32/32
  • Interceptions (3): 32/32
  • Rushing Yards Allowed: 32/32
  • Passing Yards Allowed: 24/32
  • Third Down Conversion Percentage Allowed (47.5%): 29/32
  • Sacks (34): 17/32

While the sack numbers are only mediocre, just about everything else on the list is horrid. Especially the turnovers forced. Nine TOTAL turnovers for the entire year. Only the 2018 San Francisco 49ers, who logged seven forced turnovers, can claim a worse number in the history of the NFL. The Texans’ three interceptions rank only above those same 2018 49ers, who could muster two picks. The putrid run defense and only slightly less repugnant pass defense need not be recapped here. Quantitatively and qualitatively, the Texans’ defense, even with a fully healthy J.J. Watt, sucked. Almost at an NFL-historic bad level [insert joke about how the Texans sucked so much, they couldn’t be the worst defense of all time].

Not surprisingly, Houston’s defensive coordinator, Anthony Weaver, is no longer in that position. While not immediately canned after the season ended, it seemed very unlikely that the first-time defensive coordinator would be retained. Weaver jumped ship to take a position coach/run game coordinating position with Baltimore in a sort of de-facto trade; he went to the Ravens and the Ravens allowed their passing game coordinator to come take the head coach mantle in Houston. This left the Texans with a significant vacancy to fill.

Enter one Mr. Lovie Smith. Recently fired after a five year stint as the head coach of the University of Illinois football team, Smith makes his return to the professional ranks. Media reports indicate that Smith will helm the Texans’ defense for the 2021 season.

What are we getting with Mr. Smith? He returns to a coordinator position for the first time at the pro level since he oversaw the St. Louis Rams defense from 2001-2003. The 2001 Rams led the league in yards and points allowed under his stewardship. He parlayed that success into a head coaching position with the Chicago Bears, capped by leading the team to Super Bowl XLI. After his time in Chicago ended, Smith had another head coaching job in Tampa Bay for two years, where his tenure proved not as successful.

Smith brings a lot of head coaching experience, but what should we expect from him calling a defense in the NFL for the first time in nearly two decades? Before he took over the Rams’ defensive coordinator slot, Smith made his NFL bones as the linebackers’ coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Under the guidance of Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, he helped mold the Tampa Bay defense into one of the best in league history. He is regarded as one of the fathers of the Tampa 2 scheme. The “Tampa 2” defense calls for its linebackers and defensive backs to play a Cover 2 scheme (whereby both safeties play back in zone coverage, dividing the field into two areas, and the linebackers and corners play a zone coverage scheme). The “Tampa” aspect calls for the middle linebacker to have more coverage responsibilities.

At its best, the Tampa 2 scheme will significantly limit big plays, forcing teams to methodically move down the field by conceding small positive gains. Provided you have the required speed and physicality in the secondary and linebacker positions, plus a defensive line that can pressure the passer sans blitzing, it can be particularly devastating. However, the evolution of the modern offense in the NFL, the increased rules enhancing the passing game, and the improved skills of tight ends that can take advantage of the inherent gaps in the Tampa 2 scheme limit its overall effectiveness.

While the head coach in Tampa, Smith did not dual-hat as defensive coordinator (that job was Leslie Frazier’s). However, those defenses when Smith was the head coach of the Bucs generally employed a Tampa 2 scheme. The results:

Scoring Defense (League Ranking)

  • 2014: 25.6 pts allowed (25th)
  • 2015: 26.1 pts allowed (26th)

Yards Allowed (League Ranking):

2014:

  • Rushing: 19th
  • Passing: 28th
  • Total: 25th

2015:

  • Rushing: 11th
  • Passing: 16th
  • Total: 10th

While Smith was not the defensive coordinator in Tampa, a defensive-minded head coach could be expected to offer a team decent defensive prowess. While the numbers seem to indicate an improvement in Season Two from a yardage perspective, the Bucs helmed by Lovie Smith barely resembled the fearsome defenders of the late 1990s.

From that two-year stint in Tampa Bay, Smith was not long for the unemployment line, as the University of Illinois decided to give Smith a call. While at Illinois, Smith also served as the school’s defensive coordinator. Even at the collegiate level, the team still employed his beloved Tampa 2 scheme. The results:

Scoring Defense (School Rank/Total Number of FBS Schools):

  • 2016: 31.9 pts allowed (94/128)
  • 2017: 31.5 pts allowed (91/130)
  • 2018: 39.4 pts allowed (124/130)
  • 2019: 26.2 pts allowed (54/130)
  • 2020: 34.9 pts allowed (97/127)

Yards Allowed Ranking (Rushing/Passing/Total):

  • 2016: 105th/17th/61st
  • 2017: 117th/34th/86th
  • 2018: 121th/114th/124th
  • 2019: 104th/45th/80th
  • 2020: 118th/68th/116th

What to make of those numbers? On the surface, it might appear that Smith is beholden to an outdated scheme, one that is not able to adapt to the modern game. Talent also has a lot to do with the success. Illinois has not been a recruiting hotbed, and they do not churn out many successful defensive prospects for the NFL. It could also be argued that all the issues with 2020 could skew many stats and records.

However, taking all of this into account and factoring that the Texans are not exactly returning a defense that put the fear of God in opposing offensive coordinators and that the Texans lack the current draft capital or cap space to add significant talent, Texans fans should temper any expectations of significant defensive improvement. One could argue that the team could only improve from the dismal performance from last year, but you could have said that about the 2019 defense. Granted, Smith brings a lot of experience and that he was recently from the collegiate ranks might indicate an inclination toward player development and teaching. However, the numbers do not necessarily bear out hope for immediate player development and bringing Houston’s defense up from really horrible to somewhat mediocre.

It is possible that the upcoming offseason will see a purging of the dead weight on the defense, and that Lovie Smith and his new staff find a way to coach up a team of little-regarded prospects and NFL veteran castoffs who have nowhere else to go to create a functional defense. That might be the most optimistic hope. Until we can see results on the field that show some sort of improvement, consider this writer skeptical that the 2021 Texans defense will significantly improve much from the 2020 version.

[Author’s note: I won’t cry if I am proven wrong here].