What can Rex Ryan’s defenses teach us about what might change for the Texans under Anthony Weaver?

New Texans defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver made no bones about it all offseason: creativity is a key. He has a strong foundation in Rex Ryan’s theory as Ryan was one of the first head coaches he worked under in Buffalo and was an instrumental part of Weaver’s career as a player. What the Ryans are most popular for are amoeba looks. Amoeba looks, if you’re trying to visualize, are just plays where a big crowd of players head near the line together. Some rush, some drop. They try to ask the quarterback to identify the rushers and droppers, and are hoping to confuse the quarterback at the line of scrimmage.

I don’t have a lot of particular thoughts about this as a worldview. I think it’s obviously a good thing to surprise quarterbacks, but amoeba looks are only as versatile as the players you use them with. The Texans don’t really have a ton of players that qualify in this vein and barely have enough players that are good at rushing the passer to begin with. The best-case scenario is that you simulate a pressure to the point the offensive line is directed to block somewhere you aren’t coming from. This “sim pressure” look is something that — wait for it — Romeo Crennel did really well last year. Here’s an example of how it looks courtesy of Coty Alexander.

The idea of making it impossible to understand where pressure is coming from is one of the most-utilized ways of creating cheap pressure at the college level, where most of the testing happens that matters schematically in football. LSU DC and now Baylor HC Dave Aranda used it a ton last season en route to a national title.

“That’s the thing these simulated pressures do,” Aranda told X&O Lab. “You’re not overloading a protection, you’re stressing it. You’re getting the right one-on-one’s … You get the pressure with the guy that you want for the guy you want it against.”

This is something that Rex Ryan did plenty of with the Jets, and thus, something that I think the Texans really need to cling to as they try to rebuild their defense. Romeo Crennel did this last year, and it was wildly successful when he did it, but he didn’t do it very often. I think there is mounting evidence that the Texans will be implementing more of these. There is plenty of talk from the players themselves about the versatility they will employ:

And then, when I ran a big table of how the Houston defense compared to the Jets/Bills units Ryan ran, one of my big takeaways was the DB Blitz rate:

(Click through to expand.)

Whenever the Jets and Bills were having issues with pass pressure, you reliably saw that DB Blitz rate spike. The Texans were running it 9% of the time each of the last two years. Ryan ran it 15% of the time in 2015, and 22% of the time in 2012, years where the Bills and Jets couldn’t buy pressure off the edge.

Given the likelihood that the Texans will not have high-quality one-on-one play from anybody but J.J. Watt — assuming he survives the season — I think a lot of the third-down turnaround is going to revolve around Weaver creating successful sim pressures. This team simply does not have enough talent to lay back on third-and-10, which they proved by allowing a 110.5% DVOA on third-and-long last year. On talent, while they have some youth that will be served and likely get better, pretty much the entire hopes of the unit revolves around players who have not performed yet doing so. They lost Tashaun Gipson and replaced him with Eric Murray, a move I think is a clear downgrade.

Watching back some of the Texans last game against Rex Ryan, in 2015 in Buffalo, Brian Hoyer actually did a good job in that game of quick-setting the defense. Here’s what it looks like when the defense plans to make life complex for you and then you just go so fast that you don’t give them time to make threats:

I don’t know that I’m particularly encouraged by the numbers. Even if you want to throw out the 2014 Jets as a true tank job, the Ryan discipline as a whole didn’t work very well from 2012 on. His philosophy quickly destroyed a Bills defense that had been excellent under current Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

But I also think the lack of established talent that the Texans have means that there’s really not a lot bad to shake up. My ultimate read on this is that I don’t think much of what Weaver is promising is necessarily different — it just is probably a little more dialed up than how Romeo Crennel liked to play. Both Crennel and Ryan had high numbers of three-man rushes, but Ryan has tended to prefer the big blitz when he comes.

I have a bit of faith that Weaver can transform a few elements of this defense. I believe he’ll be less passive than Romeo was on third downs and play less zone during them. (This was a big problem the Texans had against better quarterbacks in my eyes.) I believe that he’ll work the sim pressure angle in a way to get J.J. Watt more one-on-ones when Watt is on the field. Finally, I think we’ll see more defensive back blitzes and more DBs standing up near the line of scrimmage.

But ultimately I don’t think in reviewing what I have about Ryan that Weaver has a ton of schematic gotchas. I think he’ll play mostly under control. I think the Texans are very much reliant on a lot of the young members of this defense growing up real fast to improve. That means big steps forward from Lonnie Johnson, Charles Omenihu, Gareon Conley, and the rookies. A lot is going to have to grow up in a hurry if the Texans are going to do more than regression bounce to the 25th-best DVOA defense or so.


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