What was arguably a position of total weakness last season is slowly turning into one of, well, not absolute weakness. In PFF’s final assessment of the 2020 season, the Texans’ defensive backs landed at 27th place despite giving up 4,104 yards, 30 passing touchdowns, and only generating 3 - yes, THREE - interceptions.
27. HOUSTON TEXANS
Houston kept Bradley Roby on the outside this season, and he was their best defensive back. Roby has always been a lot better on the outside as opposed to the slot. In his nine games of considerable action this season, he finished 20th in outside coverage grade. Vernon Hargreaves III — who manned one of the Texans’ starting outside spots — didn’t have nearly as much success. In fact, he ranked seventh-to-last among outside corners in coverage grade. Hargreaves gave up a whopping 837 yards and six touchdowns in coverage on the year.
Odds are that ranking would have been much worse, but teams took a lead through the air early and then ran the ball the rest of the game (Houston’s run D gave up 2,564 ground yards last season, dead last in the league).
Now, after the offseason, Lovie Smith’s unit has climbed a few spots to 24th overall.
24. HOUSTON TEXANS
The cupboard isn’t completely bare for defensive coordinator Lovie Smith as he looks to implement his Tampa 2 defense in Houston next season. Justin Reid ranks in the 79th percentile of all safeties in coverage grade since he was drafted in 2018. Bradley Roby (71.5 PFF grade in 2020) and Desmond King II (67.0 PFF grade in 2020) have both provided solid play over the past few seasons at cornerback, as well.
The second outside cornerback spot will likely be an issue for Houston. Vernon Hargreaves III, who started there last season, has earned PFF grades below 50.0 in each of the past two seasons. He’ll likely compete with Terrance Mitchell for that job once Roby returns from suspension in Week 2.
Why in the world Vernon Hargreaves III is still on the roster is anyone’s guess. Sure, he had a pick-six in practice the other day, but it was against rookie QB Davis “Deer in the Headlights” Mills on what was the worst day so far of his short NFL career.
Davis Mills tried to force football into traffic over the middle and Vernon Hargreaves intercepts, returns for touchdown.— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) August 3, 2021
That’s much more an indictment of Mills than an accolade for Hargreaves.
Thankfully, returning corner Bradley Roby will take the field after serving the final week of his PED suspension from last year. If, somehow, Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio could pull off a trade for Xavien Howard, Houston’s secondary would suddenly see a major transformation. Unfortunately, the only way that realistically happens comes as part of a Deshaun Watson trade, and we know that’s less than likely to occur.
Predicting the Houston Texans Starting Secondary for 2021
Titan Matt Weston laid out a 2021 final roster prediction the other day. Here’s what he had to say about Houston’s secondary:
CB: , Bradley Roby, Terrance Mitchell, Desmond King II (SCB), Vernon Hargreaves III, Keion Crossen, Jon Reid
With Roby out for week one, the Texans need another outside cornerback. Get ready for some hot Vernon Hargreaves III action once again. With Roby back, it will be him and Mitchell on the outside, with King playing in the slot. As long as King is playing zone coverage he’ll be great in this role. Crossen and Reid are the scraps of youth Houston has at this position.
Hopefully Mitchell can rise up and stand shoulder to shoulder with Roby so Hargreaves stays on the bench. Time will tell. Here’s what Weston predicted for Houston’s safety group:
S: Justin Reid (FS), Lonnie Johnson Jr. (SS), Eric Murray, A.J. Moore
Lonnie Johnson Jr. is a right field safety. He did become a better tackler last season. He doesn’t affect plays at free safety though, so Reid will play this spot where he led a great deep passing defense in 2019.
When it comes to safety, the Texans are set with Justin Reid until his rookie contract ends and he heads off for greener pastures to a team that’s not a textbook study of dysfunction. Until then, we get to watch Reid anchor the last line of defense. Lonnie Johnson Jr., the ill-advised second round cornerback selection under the Bill O’Brien regime, returned to training camp as a strong safety, where he’s expected to stay all season. How that translates to gameday remains to be seen. Eric Murray was handed a wheelbarrow full of money by Bill O’Brien last offseason, so hopefully he earns his paycheck.
The Houston Texans had three players activated from the non-football injury list, including safety Lonnie Johnson. https://t.co/TJ7RkPqkE1— The Texans Wire (@TheTexansWire) August 4, 2021
With Lovie Smith’s modified (and hopefully modernized) Tampa-2 scheme, Houston’s defensive backs will have new roles and responsibilities this season. Gone is the ineffectual Romeo Crennel bend-but-don’t-break-but-go-ahead-and-break prevent philosophy. Replacing one defensive mastermind of yesteryear with another might not jibe with the NFL’s current coaching trends, but neither did hiring Wade Phillips a decade ago. That worked out, so perhaps the Texans can get lucky again.