Can the Texans’ linebackers save their Tampa-2 defense?

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The Houston Texans have signed a bevy of linebackers in the offseason. Many have gone as far as to say the additions have been comedic in their volume, with Christian Kirksey, Joe Thomas, Neville Hewitt, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Tae Davis joining the team in free agency. Not to mention sixth-round draft choice Garret Wallow another likely roster lock.

Coach David Culley since his arrival has preached excessively on the notion of “competition” and how the team must push each other to be competitive. No other position looks to embody this as much as how the linebacker room projects.

These additions all come in the midst of a transition to new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s 4-3, Tampa 2 defense. Since 2011, the Texans have been running the 3-4 defense, whether it was Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator or Romeo Crennel starting in 2014.

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With more defensive lineman on the field, the Texans’ linebacking corps will be tasked with more responsibilities than ever in the 2021 season. Kirskey, signed in free agency in March, spoke about the position’s responsibility in Smith’s scheme.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Kirksey told Houston reporters on a Zoom call on May 27. “Coming from Lovie’s experience and his history of football and just his knowledge of football, it’s definitely something that’s good for me to learn from a guy like him. His defense is very linebacker friendly. It gives you a chance to run around, have fun, make plays. He puts a lot on his linebackers and he wants a lot of athletic linebackers. I feel like me personally, being in his system, it’s a lot of fun because it allows you to play ball. I think that every linebacker can speak for himself as far as going out there and making plays and being in this defense.”

Houston will most certainly need this group to “play ball” in 2021. The defensive line is in a state of uncertainty with the departure of J.J. Watt and many are wondering who will provide pressure between Shaq Lawson, Jonathan Greenard, Whitney Mercilus, Jacob Martin and a group that strangely resembles the “Island of Misfit Toys.” Meanwhile, the defensive back group carries question about their ability to excel in zone coverage schemes Smith is notorious for.

As such, it will be up to the linebackers to not only help contribute towards rushing the quarterback but also potentially cover for longer periods of time. Zach Cunningham returns as the starting inside linebacker after an astonishing 164 tackle campaign in 2020. Outside of that, to borrow Culley’s words, it’ll be a lot of competition.

Kirksey and Thomas are the most tenured of the new additions. Hewitt is coming off the best individual season, having made 134 tackles as a bright spot on a lowly New York Jets’ defense. Grugier-Hill and Pierre-Louis may be the best of the bunch at pass coverage.

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For Houston to succeed in 2021, a few individuals will have to emerge from the competition as important contributors to Smith’s defense. Their diversity of experience and talent may be the difference maker of whether this defensive unit rebounds from an atrocious 2020 or remains a basement-dweller defense.