HOUSTON -- The saying goes, "Offense wins games, defense wins championship." Maybe winning a few games with a revamped defense might be considered a championship-level victory for the Houston Texans in 2021?
While the team is rebuilding, Houston's defense has made noise since the start of training camp. New coordinator Lovie Smith has implemented his 4-3 approach, and there's already a clear difference from last season.
One thing, obviously, is the new look. Houston ran a 3-4 base for almost a decade under a multitude of different coordinators. The other thing standing out? Motivation and a new sense of intensity from the the players.
"You want competition as much as anything at training camp to get a chance to see who the players are," Smith said after practice Wednesday.
Smith, fresh off his four-year stint as head coach at Illinois, has an opportunity to improve one of the league's worst units from a year ago. Last season under Anthony Weaver, the Texans finished 30th in total defense, 31st against the run and 24th in pass coverage.
A simple scheme overhaul could help any defense hide weaknesses during a 17-game season. Picture this: Charles Omenihu played from a three-point stance during his entire career at Texas. He was working from a standing outside linebacker spot last fall.
Ross Blacklock, the team's second-round pick in 2020, played a one-gap system at TCU. Last year, he was working a hybrid role as a defensive end/two-gap three technique. Back to playing to their strengths in Smith's new defense, both look like potential starters Week 1 against Jacksonville.
Smith said that while several players have stood out, the biggest positive is overall improvement.
"You can point to some of the guys, Justin Reid, Bradley Roby made some," Smith said. "We like some of the depth, Eric Murray back in the secondary have stood out.
The biggest change has been at the linebacker spot. Houston added eight new defenders at the position this offseason, including Kevin Pierre-Louis, Christian Kirksey and Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Zach Cunningham likely seals up one spot, but the other two positions are wide open. Smith has been pleased with the amount of turnovers that unit alone has made in the last seven days.
"You know, this is a linebacker friendly system, and Zach Cunningham is an excellent football player," Smith said. "I'm not telling you anything you don't know. Getting Christian Kirksey here, to have our quarterback on the defensive side, has been big."
Cunningham led the NFL with 164 stops in 2020. Twice since coming out of Iowa, Kirksey has tallied over the triple-digit marker in stops. Could this be a race to 100 stops by midseason?
It'd be a blessing for the Texans — primarily coming in stops on third down.
Smith's adjustments are evident early in camp. The defense is moving faster, and looks smoother in the new alignment. The biggest turnaround is turnovers in general. Every practice, the Texans' defense has caused at least three turnovers.
Imagine if that's a sign for what could happen on Sundays in the regular season? With a full offseason and time to learn, Smith expects it moving forward.
Said Smith: "The things that happened last year, as a team, that wasn't us. We get a chance to start it over again and we've seen signs of improvement."
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Collins The Real Deal At Defensive Tackle
Fans of football in the state of Texas likely remember Maliek Collins from his time with the Dallas Cowboys. One season after a down year on Las Vegas' defensive line, the former Cowboys star looks promising once more for Houston's new front.
Every practice, Collins makes a play or two that stands out. Once again during one-on-one reps against the offensive line, he bulldozed his way up the middle and towards the "A gap" for a stop.
On Tuesday, Texans head coach David Culley said that Collins is a perfect example of how defensive tackles are supposed to play the game. Smith went into more detail.
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"He can rush the passer, he's an athlete, which we're looking for, he's been in the system quite a while," Smith said. "I'm pleased with what he's done so far."
Smith mentioned that Blacklock also has been improving up the middle in his new spot. Maybe he lines up next to Collins in the starting lineup? Perhaps its fellow newcomer DeMarcus Walker, who recently was added to the active roster.
Culley has not released a depth chart yet, but if he did, Collins would be penciled in at one defensive tackle spot. Barring an injury, that's not changing.
Mills Makes Adjustments In Red Zone
Rookie QB Davis Mills had his chance to make an impact on Saturday with Tyrod Taylor taking a personal day away from the complex. But more reps only led to more turnovers. When the final whistle blew that afternoon, the team's third-round pick threw a whopping five interceptions in the red zone.
On Wednesday, he threw a pair of red zone touchdowns instead. One was on a vertical route to second-year wide receiver Isaiah Coulter. The second was on a swing pass to running back Mark Ingram II.
Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said Mills needs time to grow. From the first practice to now, he's already seen a vast improvement.
"The big thing with him is just going to be continuing to get better every single day he's on the field," Kelly said. "He's doing that. He's working at it. It's a lot. We put a lot on that position and he's responded."
Mills' continues to show growth as a deep ball passer. He also has grown in the red zone, no longer forcing balls in closing windows and electing to extend plays outside the pocket.
Taylor still is the front-runner to start, but Mills looked better Wednesday. That's all Houston can hope for as of now.
Defensively, Smith is not settling for players to line up in one specific spot. Names like Omenihu and Jordan Jenkins have interchanged across the defensive line. Multiple times, the third-year defensive end has worked inside as a three tech against the pass rush.
Jenkins, a former outside linebacker for the Jets, also has played as a standing defensive end-type spot. Smith said this is something that has been discussed and could be designed into the system based on the down or type of play ran by the offense.
"We have a few guys with position flexibility that will help on game days," Smith said. "We'll let them go."
Is this the right way to go? Only game reps will tell. At least Smith is trying something different to add as much pressure as possible every snap.
Watson Out, But Not Away
Deshaun Watson did not practice for the second straight day after missing Tuesday with foot injury. On Monday, he was seen being attended to by the training staff before returning to the field.
As Watson awaits a trade, he still is in the building and attending meetings. As mentioned before, for every practice Watson misses, or every day he's away from the complex, the league is subject to fine him $50,000.
Kelly said that Watson has not been a distraction for the offense, but rather a positive resource for all three other QBs when in individuals or meetings.
With all his trade requests and civil lawsuits, it's easy to forget Watson threw 33 touchdowns to only seven interceptions and led the NFL in 2020 with more than 4,800 passing yards.
"He's been a great asset for us in the room with some of the stuff how he sees it, how he sees the intent of the plays," Kelly said. "It's been great. He's been very helpful to those players. Again, we're doing a good job of keeping him engaged and going through some different stuff with him. He's been good for those players."
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