What will Houston’s defense be without J.J. Watt?

You would probably have to go back to Romeo Crennel’s time with the Cleveland Browns to find a Crennel unit as unable to rush the passer as what Houston is left with after J.J. Watt’s injury this season.

In 2007, the Browns went 10-6. They did this despite not having a single player with more than five sacks. The ancient Willie McGinest started 11 games at Age 36. An 11-sack rookie year for Kamerion Wimbley quickly proved to be something he couldn’t live up to again. Robaire Smith was around. (Of course he was.) The team finished 30th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and was below-average in essentially every area on defense.

We don’t have a ton of advanced game charting stats from that time period, but the ones we do have back up the idea that this unit wasn’t driving quarterbacks off the field with hurries. Wimbley led the team with 17 hurries per Pro Football Prospectus 2008, and second was Antwan Peek, who would never play another NFL down.

That team gave up 350 or more yards in every single game it played until Week 12, when it held a second-year Gary Kubiak offense under Matt Schaub to 314. The Browns followed up with two highly questionable games against a couple of opponents that were under 300 yards: the Trent Edwards Bills and the Chris Weinke 49ers. In the offseason, they would heavily revamp the defensive line by bringing in an in-his-prime Shaun Rogers.

This is a history lesson, but it’s also a warning sign not to get your hopes up after the Gareon Conley trade. Crennel has always had a good pass rusher in Houston, even when that rusher was just a 23-year-old Jadeveon Clowney in 2016, the last season Watt missed most of where Crennel was the defensive coordinator.

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What the Houston defense has going for it right now is that they have an excellent run-stuffing unit. You’d think Watt would change that a bit. His absence will open up teams to run more directions, as Texans opponents have run at right tackle and right end a grand total of 16% of their runs all season as compared to the NFL average of 23%.

However, Watt was not necessarily racking up tackles for loss — he’s currently fourth on the team behind Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, and D.J. Reader. A lot of Houston’s negative plays come from shooting the gap, and I believe there’s still reason to think they can do that. Reader can still control his gap in a way that can win a play.

This won’t work against every team — many teams are built to throw. But the Texans do have one settled trump card that is better than most teams have, even without Watt.

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If you want to think of a way to contextualize superstar pass rushers, think of them this way: They are capable of erasing about five plays from a defense’s ledger. They aren’t going to win every down. They can be double-teamed. They mean a ton in the aggregate, but on a down-to-down basis they matter a lot less.

Many NFL teams — smart ones — have moved away from impact defensive linemen and instead invested in coverage players. PFF released a study noting that coverage grades have more reliability in predicting wins than defensive line play. The Patriots traded away Chandler Jones, one of the best defensive EDGEs of his era, on purpose. They let Trey Flowers walk for $90 million from Detroit. Someone named “Adam Butler” has 4.5 sacks for them this year. Jamie Collins, who was cut by the Browns, has six.

The problem with Houston’s pass defense, and something that we have seen exploited week after week without Jadeveon Clowney, is that teams can throw crossing routes over the middle of it with impunity. Teams targeting the middle of the field against Houston have an 89.4% DVOA on the season. Let me unpack that in non-statistical terms: Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL with a 38.8% passing DVOA. Throwing the ball to the short middle against the Texans is like employing someone twice as good as Patrick Mahomes on every snap.

Crennel was already trying to blitz to mask a lack of non-Watt pass rush. But — and I think this is something worth giving Crennel some credit on because this is very new to him — I don’t think his blitzes have been all that creative on a down-to-down basis. When you dabble in the world of film study enough to see rushes where players fake and take a lineman, then drop in to coverage, and compare that to what the Texans have … it feels quite remedial. They run stunts, and they run straight ahead into gaps — sometimes they get gaps that are wide open.

I hate comparing the Texans to the Patriots because a) as much as they want to become Patriots south, I don’t think they’ve really earned the comparison, b) nobody looks good compared to the Patriots and c) it feels like such a Dunning-Kruger syndrome thing to just say aloud “Why isn’t every NFL team copying the smart team?” But I’m doing it here because the Texans are heading into the realm of a team that needs to play a different game plan. They’re going to need to change whatever the hell this is:

Ultimately, the Texans are blitzing about as much as the Patriots are. The Texans don’t have Stephon Gilmore, but they have put significant investments into the cornerback position and do just fine for themselves when throws head deep and the completion percentage ground isn’t easy.

Listen, nobody thinks the Texans can cover on an individual level the same way that the Patriots can. Nobody is going to be upset if Zach Cunningham or Bernardrick McKinney get played in man coverage — that’s something we’ve seen tens of times by now. But the Texans need the wins they are going to get out of that aggressive coverage right now. They need to play some coverage that is going to be feast-or-famine, because right now, it’s all feast.

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Crennel has had to change a lot of his game plan from last year already, and I feel for him because this isn’t what he signed up for. I think a lot of what the Texans are doing now plays against the way he would prefer to call defense.

At the same time, this is now a completely desperate situation in pass coverage. It’s not going to be enough to keep doing the same things. Telling Jacob Martin to go be Watt isn’t going to work. How quickly Crennel figures that out — and how quickly he can figure out something that works — is going to be a big question. Given what Watt means to the organization in the face of getting rid of Clowney, and with Mercilus an impending free agent, this may be a transition point for the entire franchise.

Watt doesn’t have to be the deathblow to this season. It does make every play a lot less fun to watch. Deshaun Watson can erase a lot. But the Texans absolutely must figure out how to limit easy yards over the middle. The bye week could not be coming at a better time.

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