Houston Texans fans have heard and are going to continue to hear a lot about defensive scheme and fit during the draft.
Cries of “this corner isn’t big enough for the scheme” or “that linebacker doesn’t have the right size for his role,” are shouted from the rooftops during the draft season. This comes equally from professional analysts and the most casual fans and, as such, figuring out true signals from the noise can be extremely difficult.
Specifically in Houston, much of the draft conversation revolves around the scheme fit needed for Lovie Smith’s trademark Tampa 2 defense. It’s a personnel grouping that is somewhat dated but was once the dominant defensive set in the NFL. Last year, as the defensive coordinator, Lovie showed signs of modifying the base sets and showing some versatility to make the scheme more compatible with today’s league.
The Texans Wire wants to make this verbiage less complicated.
The goal of this article series will be twofold. First, we want Houston fans to be smarter about how they understand their own coaching staff and their own scheme. When terms like “three-technique” or “strong safety” are used, Texans fans are going to be much better off if they can picture exactly what that player is doing on defense.
The second goal is to provide a better comprehension for the draft. Understanding Smith’s defensive scheme should allow better comprehension of why Houston values certain players and certain skillsets in the draft. Should a player be selected that seemingly shocks national analysts, it may make more sense within the schematic context of the scheme the Texans want to execute.
For this series, John Crumpler will be teaming up with Jordan Pun from Sports Illustrated. Each article will be accompanied by a video of their conversation for those that prefer to listen rather than read. Below is the first edition and what correlates to this article:
Houston, let’s get smarter this week.
The basics of the Tampa 2 are pretty simple. For years Houston ran a 3-4 base defense under Wade Phillips and several other coordinators. Now, the schematics under Smith primarily fall under a 4-3. This means there are four down defensive lineman and three linebackers in every base set. On passing downs, that third linebacker may be replaced by a corner (AKA the nickel.)
Specifically, the Tampa 2 employs a zone heavy scheme that asks safeties to play two-high. The middle linebacker is responsible for a deeper zone than usual, but that’ll be broken down when the linebackers are covered. This article will focus on the four down defensive lineman. There are two unique defensive tackle position and two edge rushers, each with different responsibilities.
Stopping the run begins with the nose tackle, also known as the one-technique. This player is responsible for engaging both the center and a guard simultaneously and creating one on one opportunities for his teammates. The one-technique is an absolute necessity in preventing push in the run game and the very best are able to make life miserable for running backs that want to run up the A-gap (between the center and the guard).
In 2021, the nose tackle role was occupied by Roy Lopez. The sixth-round pick from New Mexico State had an excellent season and easily over performed draft expectations. Looking towards the draft, a name Houston fans should be aware of is Jordan Davis. Davis is an off-the-charts combine tester and debatably the hallmark player of the national champion Georgia Bulldogs defense. He’s a candidate that’s a viable pick at 13th overall and would do an excellent job of pushing runners towards Jonathan Greenard and the other edge rusher.
The other defensive tackle in the 4-3 defense is known as the three-technique tackle. This defensive tackle can be a bit slighter and is more so responsible for rushing the passer and winning a one-on-one matchup with the guard. Rather than lining up at the one-gap, like the nose tackle, where the tackle is between the center and the guard, this player lines up in the three-gap between the tackle and the guard.
The player responsible for this in Smith’s defense is Maliek Collins. Collins entered free agency in March but was a clear priority for Houston to re-sign and it makes sense. The two-year, $17-million contract was a bargain for a player that is an absolute necessity within the scheme of the Tampa 2. 2020 second-round pick Ross Blacklock can also be thought of in this role.
At their best, this player is able to isolate a guard and win consistently to wreak havoc on both the running game and the passing game. Houston currently has one of the better three-techniques in the league in Collins, but the name to watch in the first round of the draft for this position is another Georgia defensive tackle. Devonte Wyatt and Perrion Winfrey, although likely not Texans, should be thought of in this aspect.
Finally, there are the two edge positions. This is where we saw Jonathan Greenard take huge strides forward last year and where Houston sorely needs another player. The two defensive ends have similar responsibilities but can be thought of separately as the strong side and the weak side players.
The strong side is the side that is supported by the tight end in a set. Greenard thrived in that role in 2021, taking advantage of players who simply aren’t the same caliber of blockers as offensive tackles. Meanwhile, the weak side edge rusher is just asked to win against a tackle one-on-one.
Both of these players are tasked with setting the edge, or preventing the run game from bouncing plays outside, and pushing everything towards the collapsing defensive ends. On passing downs, the defensive ends are simply asked to pin their ears back and attack the opposing quarterback.
Defensive end is, understandably, an extremely popular option for Houston. Kayvon Thibodeaux from Oregon, Travon Walker from (again) Georgia, and Jermaine Johnson from Florida State would all make excellent additions in the first round to play across from Greenard.
In particular, Thibodeaux at third overall is perfectly suited to play opposite of Greenard and occupy the weak side role. His unique blend of speed and power is perfect for setting the edge and allowing the rest of Houston’s existing defense to do what they do best.
Of the four positions on the defensive line in Lovie’s Tampa 2, Houston’s new head coach should feel great about two of the spots and has a great contributor at a third. It’ll be up to Nick Caserio in the draft to find a complimentary edge rusher and to decide if he wants to upgrade the one-technique spot from Lopez.
In the next installment, we’ll go over the linebackers and what exactly differentiates the responsibilities of Christian Kirksey from another linebacker like Kamu Grugier-Hill