Texans Defense Is the Worst in the NFL
Explanations for the predictable struggles are easier to identify than the solutions:
Defense is Hard-To-Fix Bad -- The Texans defense has been worst-of-the-league bad over the last four years. When Gary Kubiak took over the team in 2006, the defensive cupboard was pretty bare. Out of all the players on the defensive roster in 2005, only Dunta Robinson is left. The Texans have drafted defense high from the beginning of the franchise but missed numerous times, including with Travis Johnson (first round) and Jason Babin (first -- trading second-, third-, and fourth-round picks, and swapping fifth-round picks; yes, that really happened), followed by trading away their second- and third-round picks to the Raiders to get Phillip Buchanon.
Former GM Charley Casserly treated draft picks like Chuck E. Cheese tokens and devalued lower round picks. Missing on key high picks means that the Texans do not have many defensive players who should be entering the primes of their career.
Defense is Young Except When It is Ancient -- The Texans defense is extremely inexperienced as a unit with the exception of defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina, who is the oldest defensive player in the league. They rely on rookies at key positions, and need to start a number of young lower-drafted guys because they have no other choice.
Part of this is Casserly missing on defensive picks who should now be vets, and part of it is choosing very developmental players on defense. Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye came into the league in 2007 as the youngest player in the modern era. This year's second-round pick, defensive end Connor Barwin, is playing only his second year on defense as a converted offensive player. I'm not saying they're bad players but it is easier to accommodate younger players on a team if they don't have to depend on them right away because they are playing with many experienced vets.
Young players make mistakes. Young defenses, then, have more opportunities to make mistakes. It would be nice to have some more full-growned mens playing on this defense, but quality free agent veterans are hard to find in the modern salary cap era because teams tend to keep their best ones.
No Proven Leadership -- The best players on the Texans defense are DE Mario Williams, LB DeMeco Ryans and CB Dunta Robinson. All players drafted by the team. It's hard to lead a team when you have never had any success yourself. The Texans offense has the same situation but have had a bit of success to make them believe that they can play better. The defense has been so bad for so long it is hard to envision it being better. There are no successful veteran players for the Texans who are in the primes of their career who have played for other successful teams.
New Coaches -- The Texans have a new defensive coordinator, new defensive line coach and new secondary coach. None of those coaches have worked together on a defense before. They promised a new aggressive defense but perhaps it is more than this group of players can handle. The Texans' DC, Frank Bush, is new to being a defensive coordinator. The positive to his choice is that he already knew the players, but the negative is that calling a defensive game is new to him. He can't point to a previous defense he was in charge of and tell the players that, if they do things like that, they will be successful.
Zero Continuity -- With all the turnover on the defensive side of the ball with both players and coaches, it has been hard to develop any sort of defensive continuity. Key defensive players were out for large portions of camp, including Robinson who was the only franchised tagged player in the NFL this season to skip camp and sign his tender right before the first game.
The Texans were experimenting with different lineups during the preseason trying to figure out some combinations that would stop the bleeding. It's hard playing as a team if you can't figure out what that team is supposed to look like.
Position Holes -- Remaking a roster over completely means that there will be more holes than ways to fix those holes. Next year, you could draft at just about any defensive position for the Texans and fill a need. Of particular problem right now is that they do not have the smart safety play that allows them to do some of the aggressive stacking of the line that they've been trying to do.
Defensive tackle has been an issue, with the Texans trying out different combinations all offseason. Cornerback is also an issue, with the Texans featuring Robinson and a bunch of young players who make big mistakes. Some of those mistakes are so large it makes Texans fans want Jacques Reeves back in the lineup after missing most of camp with a broken fibula.
In addition, former Cardinal Antonio Smith really hasn't persuaded anyone yet that he is the help that Mario Williams needs on the outside.
Can This Defense Be Fixed?
The question is whether this Texans defense can be fixed in 2009, and what does fixed mean? Can they get to the point where they look like a normal competant NFL defense? Can they stop giving up +60 yard TD runs?
This might be considered an overreaction after only three games in a season, but not so much after the defense has been so bad for so long.
The Texans publicly believe that these are mental and not physical issues that they can fix. For example, the Jones-Drew TD run was one the same play that they stuffed earlier in the game.
Some of the problems I identified are ones that may work out the more the team plays together as a team, but others may be harder to fix. It's not like the Jets, Titans and Jaguars are huge offensive teams, and given that the Texans face the Cardinals in the upcoming weeks, it appears as though things might get much worse before they get better.
Though the run defense is an obvious problem, it isn't like the pass defense is much better. Teams can pick their poison against the Texans because there is no such thing as an obvious passing down when running backs can break third and long for a TD. The Texans are dead last in the league in yards allowed on third down and second to the last in third downs given up, and most of that results from their performance on third and long.
In the short term, the best way for the Texans to reduce their total defensive yards given up is for the Texans offense to keep them off the field. The Texans offense demonstrated last year what they could do with long time-chewing drives.
In some ways, it appears as though the Texans defensive problems stem from trying too hard as opposed to not trying hard enough. Like many young defenses, they overpursue and don't always play smart, and fixing that sometimes can come from just experience.
With a defense that is young and inconsistent, the Texans will be as good as their offense can play from week to week.