Led by an inability to set the edge, the Texans defense has finally collapsed

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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In 2018, it was accurate to say that the Texans were a defense-first team. They finished fifth in defensive DVOA and were not only a great run defense, but one of the best run defenses in NFL history by that metric. They feasted a bit on an easy quarterback schedule, which made the pass defense look better than it was, but they also had a tenacious pass rush between J.J. Watt’s only fully-healthy year in recent memory and Jadeveon Clowney being used as a stand-up rusher over the middle.

Of the 13 players that played the most defensive snaps for the Texans in 2018, only five of them are still on the team. Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson got huge free-agent deals that offseason. Clowney was traded to the Seahawks. D.J. Reader signed with the Bengals last offseason. Johnathan Joseph and Shareece Wright were already old and had limited utility to the Texans. Of the players that the Texans have kept around, only two of them are younger than 28 as of January 1, 2021: Justin Reid and Zach Cunningham.

That talent drain began to show in 2019. While the Texans brought in Bradley Roby in free agency and eventually signed him to a relatively big contract, the rest of the replacements have either been short-term or have not cracked the lineup in a meaningful way. It’s pushed depth players like Brandon Dunn and Phillip Gaines — reasonable role players but not guys you want on the spot every play — up the depth chart and into meaningful snaps this season.

The Texans finished 2019 22nd in defensive DVOA. The vast majority of that dropoff came from falling from league-best to 19th against the run. They became extremely blitz-heavy at the end of the season after J.J. Watt was hurt, and while that improved the unit overall on short stuff, it made it very difficult for them to hold up on third down, especially third-and-long where they struggled to rush the passer:

This offseason, with Reader departed for Cincinnati, management decided to take stock of what they have and bring in absolutely nothing beyond Eric Murray, a journeyman hybrid defensive back. That’s it. They responded to the unit falling apart in 2019 by adding one safety and drafting defense heavy with the few picks they retained from the Laremy Tunsil and DeAndre Hopkins picks. Those rookies have barely made it onto the field:

This year, every one of the four players remaining from 2018’s top-ranked run defense outside of Reid has collapsed in the first four weeks of the season. J.J. Watt is well off his seasonal norms statistically (two sacks — three if you count BOB’s job, and a pressure rate of 8.2% that would be his lowest in four seasons.) And as Matt Weston pointed out, he’s not exactly playing the same way he used to either:

Both Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham have struggled to help deal with edge defense that is almost non-existent. Dalvin Cook called them out on this after last week’s game when he said they have two of the biggest linebackers in the NFL and (paraphrasing) they can’t really reach the edge that easily. Cunningham’s PFF pass coverage grade is 29.0 — lower than any non-rookie middle linebacker who has played four games. McKinney has missed six tackles in four games — he missed five in 14 last year. At 28 in November, heading into his age 29 season, at a position where players tend to get old pretty quickly, McKinney is not a lock to be with the team in 2021.

Then there’s Whitney Mercilus, “one of our outside linebackers” who got blocked by a wide receiver last week on a Kirk Cousins’ fourth-down sweep:

The Texans edge play has been cataclysmically bad so far this year. On runs marked to “right edge” or “left edge” in the NFL PBP — basically just runs as far as outside as can be — they’re doing this:

Mercilus is carrying the worst PFF run-stop grade of any edge defender. By a significant amount. He finally saw a snap cut last week — he was on for under 70% of the snaps for the first time since Week 16 of 2018 — and has recorded pressure on just 5.6% of his pass rush snaps per SIS. That’s the second-worst rate of any linebacker with more than 70 pass rush snaps. As much as I like Mercilus the person, this four-year, $54 million deal he signed at the end of 2019 entering his age-30 season is already a disaster. They can’t even gain cap space by cutting him until the 2022 league year!

The Texans DVOA allowed on runs to left or right end since Week 2 is 34.7%. To put into perspective how bad that is, the worst run defense in the NFL in 2019 was the Carolina Panthers at 15.9%. And Carolina was one of only two teams below 1.9% DVOA allowed on runs! They are more than twice as bad on defending those runs as an already huge outlier as the worst run defense in the NFL was last year!

It was always clear that this wasn’t going to be an easy fix for Anthony Weaver as a first-time coordinator, and he’s done a good job of making the Texans solid on the back end when play-action doesn’t draw them away — they’ve still only allowed two passes of a depth longer than 20 yards to be completed. But the lack of talent on this defense as things stand right now is harrowing for this team’s prospects.

They have buffered their highly-drafted young players with JAGs. It’s time to throw those shackles off and let the youth succeed or fail. No more blocking Jon Greenard with Brennan Scarlett. Ross Blacklock needs a regular role. Jacob Martin needs a regular role. Lonnie Johnson needs an honest chance to fail at outside corner or safety, whichever position the team thinks he’s best at.

But right now, with most of the 2018 impact talent growing long in the tooth and none of the youth stepping up, this unit is an unequivocal disaster. It’s been masked a lot by people focusing on the offensive struggles and saying “they get put on the field too much!” — but this is a bigger problem than that rhetoric lets on. This is absolutely worse than the offense is as far as talent.

The Texans enter Week 5 27th in defensive DVOA. 29th in run stop DVOA. The only guys I have any hope for based on what we’ve seen on the field in 2020 are Cunningham and Watt. Cunningham because I think he’s overthinking things on the field. Watt because he’s been a special player for so long I’m not willing to kick him out of the circle of trust on four games.

They haven’t turned the ball over in a single game this season, and coming into the week are threatening an NFL post-merger (since 1972) record that the 2018 49ers hold: no turnovers in six straight regular season games. The 2019-2020 Texans are the only defense in post-merger history to not get a turnover or hold an opponent under 350 total yards in five straight games:

With no high draft picks, an uncertain future as far as the direction of the unit’s coaching, aging players, and little money to play with in free agency, it’s going to be a struggle to get this side of the ball battle-ready until 2022. They’ll be better than they’ve been so far this year — I don’t know if I could take it if they got worse, and the schedule is somewhat of a factor — but the Texans are in for a lot of shootouts unless the youth on this roster comes around in a major way with more playing time. That’s a lot of faith to place on a section of the roster that hasn’t delivered much yet.

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One Reply to “Led by an inability to set the edge, the Texans defense has finally collapsed”

  1. #readthepiece Play the rookies! Find out what you have. Search practice squads for a couple rookies who may be hidden gems. Play Scottie Phillips. Every position on defense needs upgrade. We need guards on offense. We need to find young playmakers, the rest of this season should have one purpose, find some future pieces for the rebuild.

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