Houston’s 2018 defense re-appeared in Week 3

Through the first two games of the season, the Texans dabbled in impactful defense, but didn’t erase many plays.

Houston barely even harassed Drew Brees, leaving that game with three quarterback hits and one sack. They went all out on Gardner Minshew, sacking him four times and creating three fumbles, but doing it mainly via the blitz. The Jaguars had a run-focused game plan, so the fact that the Texans came at Minshew 15 times meant that it was a very high percentage of Minshew’s dropbacks.

Against Los Angeles, the Texans blitzed 12 times, but with Rivers dropping back 51 times. Rivers actually shredded Houston’s blitz schemes. By my count, he went 8-of-11 for 116 yards, a touchdown, six first downs, and one sack when Houston blitzed. A lot of his actual completions against the blitz look like witchcraft on tape:

But where the Texans won this game was their ability to go four-on-five with the Chargers’ offensive line and get pressure on Rivers from it. Rivers was constantly harassed by J.J. Watt (you expect this), Whitney Mercilus (you’re growing to expect this), as well as two relatively new sources of pressure: D.J. Reader and Charles Omenihu.

Reader, in particular, has taken his game to the next level this season. He’s always been an excellent nose tackle, but he’s been the one constant in getting pressure for the Texans in every game. He created a couple of Mercilus sacks by pushing the pocket back, he’s at 1.5 sacks of his own in three games, which means he’s a half-sack from reaching his career high after three (3) games.

If we look at Reader’s first three years, we get a very consistent rate of pressure. He finished 2016 with 11 Sports Info Solutions’ pass pressures. 2017: 12. 2018: 13. This year he is on pace for 26!

I don’t find what Reader is doing particularly unsustainable. He’s done it every game this season. He’s done it against tough interior lines and bad interior lines. His play passes the smell test and it’s clear that he’s winning often with handplay rather than just pure size and speed. That is actually a big step for the Texans, because they have not had to miss Jadeveon Clowney as much as perhaps they should.

(Quick aside: the idea of lining Mercilus, Reader, Watt, Clowney up as your defensive line every down this season and just letting them destroy offensive lines makes me real sad until I remember that their defensive coordinator would never put this on the field as more than a sub package to begin with. Moving on!)

I hemmed and hawed about Charles Omenihu’s PFF grade last week, but I thought he showed a lot more being lined up inside more this week:

One thing I think we were all treated to in Week 3 was the power of a position change. Omenihu has sub-optimal speed around the edge but good power and good pass rush moves. It always made sense that he would be better as an interior disruptor, but after a whole preseason of asking him to win on the edge, I needed to see the Texans use him like this to believe it.

So … what do we make of this going forward? Is Houston’s defensive front that we saw get dominated against the Saints fixed? One thing that football has taught me very clearly over the years is to not get too worked up by small samples of anything. At the same time, this is a ceiling I wasn’t sure the Texans would have as a defense this season, so it is extremely encouraging for their playoff chances to see their defensive line come in and dominate a game like they did on Sunday.

I still think there’s a lot of matchup issues baked in to what happened on Sunday. I don’t think Los Angeles’ offensive line is at all good, and I think Omenihu is going to have rougher games than he has over his last two at some point this season. A lot of early-season NFL analysis comes down to “hurry up and wait for more data.”

Still, it was good to see this gear out of the Texans. The Chargers are not the last team on their schedule with a bad offensive line. It will be downright imperative for the line to play this well for them to win their tougher matchups of the season. Now we know that it can happen.

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