Last week, after the Detroit Lions carved up the Houston Texans defense, the second consecutive game in which the Houston defense struggled with the pass, I asked corner Johnathan Joseph, who missed that game with an injury, if it was starting to become a major concern.
"We'll get it right," Joseph said. "We play a lot of man in the secondary. We're going to give up plays now and then."
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It would be easy to blame the back end of the Texans defense for their problems. And some of it, quite frankly, has been players getting whipped in man coverage and busted assignments.
But after studying the past two games, and closely watching most of their other games on tape, the biggest problem with the Texans defense is a lack of pressure from their outside rushers. The Texans are 17th in pass defense. Two weeks ago, they were third. The past two weeks, they have allowed 68 points and 795 passing yards.
Wade Phillips' scheme is designed to have the 3-4 outside linebackers getting after the quarterback, and the Texans are severely lacking in that department. As a team, Houston has 30 sacks. But 14 ½ of those have come from defensive end J.J. Watt, who just might be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The three outside rushers -- Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and rookie Whitney Mercilus -- have combined for 7½ sacks. That's a season after Barwin and Reed combined to get 17½ last season, with Barwin getting 11½. This season, Reed has 2½ sacks and Barwin has two.
Reed went out early in last week's game against the Lions, and is expected to be out for 3-6 weeks with a groin injury. Barwin and Mercilus didn't get a lot of pressure either. Barwin, a former defensive end, has played more this season with his hand on the ground, and even that's not helping.
Barwin was lined up on rookie left tackle Riley Reiff against the Lions, a player making his first start. You would think he'd be able to get home. But aside from a few times where he pushed the pocket, Reiff did a nice job.
Here's one pass play that shows both Barwin (red circle) and Reed (blue circle) getting handled. Notice the room Matt Stafford has to throw.
As for the busts in coverage, here was one. The Lions ran three receivers to the left, leaving two-by-two on the other side, but the problem was safety Quintin Demps was too deep to come up and make a play on Ryan Broyles after safety Glover Quin blitzed. You can see by the picture below that the Texans had four on the right side of the defenses (yellow Xs) and corner Kareem Jackson and Demps (red Xs) on the other side. Jackson was lined up opposite Mike Thomas, which meant Demps had to come up on Broyles. He was 18 yards away, and there was no way he could make that play. It got worse when he took a poor pursuit angle, turning a short pass into a 37-yard gain. It appeared after the play that Demps was mad, and motioned to Watt, who dropped into coverage. Watt went to his right to cover tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but it was clear he should have gone to his left. That's how a short pass turns into a big gain.
The Texans played some of last week's game with Quin as pseudo linebacker. They had six defensive backs on the field, with one inside linebacker. The Lions ran it inside against that defense for a couple of big plays, including a 23-yard touchdown run by Joique Bell.
Here's a look at that play. You can see Quin (yellow circle) lined up as a linebacker. The Lions were in the shotgun and Stafford handed off inside to Bell. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus got a down block on Watt, which allowed guard Stephen Peterman to get a block on Quin. Center Dominic Raiola got a block on linebacker Bradie James. When Demps vacated the middle in coverage, it left a huge alley for Bell to run in for the score. This was the play that led to Watt and defensive line coach Bill Kollar getting into a screaming match on the sideline, and Watt admitted after the game that he played it wrong. He should have come down harder to fill that gap.
So, as you can see, there are a variety of reasons why the Texans have given up 68 points the past two weeks and are plummeting down the passing ratings. They have to do a better job of getting home from the outside.
That means Barwin. That means Mercilus. And it means tighter coverage on the back end.
Tom Brady might be licking his chops thinking about playing this group in two weeks.
1. How does a team pick up a fourth-and-29 on a dump off to a running back? Bad play by several defensive players. Blame the Chargers' scheme all you want for allowing the Ravens' Ray Rice to pick up 30 yards on fourth-and-29 late in last week's game, but I will put this one on the players. Three players in particular are truly to blame. They are linebacker Takeo Spikes, cornerback Marcus Gilchrist and safety Corey Lynch. All took horrible pursuit angles on the play, which allowed Rice to cut back to his left and pick up the first down. If one of them takes the proper angle, Rice doesn't come close to picking up the first down. There were a few other things that stood out from watching the play over and over again. One was linebacker Shaun Phillips appeared to let up as he trailed the play, seemingly thinking the Chargers had Rice boxed in to tackle him. And safety Eric Weddle would have tackled Rice short of the line, but Anquan Boldin came back and blasted him with a block that might have been illegal. For what's it worth, the play should have never gained more than 10 yards. San Diego blew it in a big way. Yes, it was a great effort by Rice, but simply taking the proper pursuit angles would have prevented it.
Here are two pictures that show what happened. The first picture shows Rice (yellow circle) shortly after he caught the football. As you can see, the Chargers dropped deep into zone coverage, the idea being to prevent plays from going over their heads. It was the perfect design to stop this short pass. Spikes (blue circle), Gilchrist (red circle) and Lynch (black circle) are the players who should have come up and boxed Rice in, keeping him from getting outside to his left. The second picture shows just how poorly they played the play. Their angles were horrible, especially Gilchrist and Lynch. They both had to come more up the field to stop Rice from cutting across. What should have been a 15-yard gain at most turned into a play that might have ended the Chargers' playoff hopes.
2. By now, you know that Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is special. But I like evaluating quarterbacks when the game is on the line. That happened last week against the Cowboys for Griffin III. Dallas cut the Redskins lead to 35-28, and Griffin III faced a second-and-11 at his own 19. The momentum had clearly shifted, and RG3 needed to make a play. He did that with the calm of a veteran. He hit Santana Moss with a 23-yard strike to help lead the Redskins to a game-clinching field goal. Here's a look at that play.
The Cowboys were in man coverage with Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr (red circles) on the outside. That left nickel corner Mike Jenkins (blue circle) in the slot playing off of Moss (black circle). At the snap, RG3 turned his back to fake the handoff to Alfred Morris. He then turned back around and fired a shot to Moss in the middle of the field. Jenkins was too concerned with tight end Logan Paulsen, who had slipped out of the backfield, and allowed Moss to get into the middle of the field. Safety Charlie Peprah was too deep, and the linebackers didn't get deep enough because of the play-action. RG3 dropped the ball over their heads and into Moss's arms for a big play to gain the momentum back.
3. After studying the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick's play against the Saints, I came away thinking he left plays on the field. Kaepernick, who was named the team's starter Wednesday by coach Jim Harbaugh, did a lot of good things, but for much of the game he passed on some opportunities down the field for safer, shorter throws. That's what young quarterbacks often do. There was a play early in the game where Kaepernick took a short throw instead of a what could have been a touchdown to Kyle Williams, who had cleared the corner.
Interestingly, his only interception came on a play where he got too greedy. On the play, he had Williams lined up in the slot with Michel Crabtree outside of him. At the snap, Williams ran a corner route and Crabtree ran a little curl. Kaepernick read man coverage, but corner Patrick Robinson bailed and was easily able to step in front of his pass to Williams and pick it off. With time, Kaepernick will learn to read that better and will be able to throw to Crabtree underneath the bailing corner. Crabtree was wide open. Kaepernick did make some impressive throws, including a shot to tight end Delanie Walker in the middle of the field in the fourth quarter. It was a great catch, but a good read and a bullet throw. All in all, he was solid. Nothing great. He was helped by a lot of yards after the catch, so the numbers were a bit deceiving. He needs to be more aggressive down the field if he's to be a quality starter.
4. Here's a trivia question few could answer: Of the top 35 receivers in yards, who has the highest per-catch average? It is not Vincent Jackson or any of the other high-priced players. It is Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts. He is averaging 20.8 yards per catch on his 36 catches. Shorts has six touchdown receptions and has emerged as a big-play receiver. After a disappointing rookie season, in which he had just two catches, the Jaguars staff was convinced he would have a breakout season in 2012. Coming from tiny Mount Union College -- the same school that produced Pierre Garcon -- Shorts had a lot to learn. Receivers coach Jerry Sullivan has done a great job improving his route running and he is stronger. He had a nice 56-yard touchdown catch last week against the Titans on a seam route in traffic. Chad Henne made a nice throw inside to him and Shorts caught it in stride and ran untouched into the end zone. It's amazing to see the big improvement in this kid from last season to this one. Receivers sometimes take a year or two, but the Jaguars have to be thrilled with his development. He runs crisp routes and he has great speed. As he understands the passing-game concepts even more, watch out. He and rookie Justin Blackmon might be one of the better young duos in a year or so.
5. Buffalo has to draft a quarterback. It's obvious that Ryan Fitzpatrick is just a guy. He had a rough go of it against the Colts. The pass rush had something to do with it, but even when he had time he missed throws. He seemed to hurry a lot of his passes. On what could have been a long pass play to a wide-open T.J. Graham, Fitzpatrick had his pass tipped at the line. Even that was a horrible throw because it was thrown inside where an outside throw gives Graham a chance to catch it and score. He could have lofted it more if he threw it to the outside. In fairness to Fitzpatrick, he did have a couple of drops and there was a lot of pressure. One more thing about the Bills offense: Why do they refuse to give the ball more to C.J. Spiller?
6. Even the great ones make horrible reads throwing the football. That was truly illustrated when Ahmad Brooks picked off Drew Brees for a touchdown. On the play, Brees appeared to think he had man coverage on tight end Jimmy Graham with linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Graham ran an out-and-up on Bowman, who bit on the out. But Brees never saw Brooks, who dropped off from his spot inside over the left guard. He jumped in front of the pass, picked it off, and easily returned it for a score. The Saints had great field position up 14-7 and had a chance to at least get a field goal to maybe make it 17-7 at the half. But Brooks' great play changed that. Brees never saw him, which is a shock for a player who reads the field as well as he does.
7. To get a long punt return for a score, it takes some good blocking, a missed tackle or two and some breaks, like a block in the back that isn't called. The Colts got all of that when T.Y. Hilton ripped his 75-yard return for a touchdown last week against the Bills. There were several impressive blocks, but the play was made when Hilton made deep snapper Garrison Sanborn whiff on what should have been a sure tackle. Sanborn put his head down, and Hilton ran right by him. The Colts got a break because Delone Carter blocked Corey McIntyre in the back, which prevented him from a chance to make the tackle. Once Hilton cleared that block, he cut to his right and he was gone.
8. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has done a nice job drafting young players in his first season. But something he has to do in his next draft: Find a center. Current center Samson Satele isn't very good. He doesn't get much push in the run game, especially when there is a big player shaded on his nose. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams ate him up last week. On one third-quarter play, Dareus was shaded on Satele and whipped him with a quick move, shed him and Satele held him as he went by, although Dareus was still able to dump Andrew Luck for a sack.
9. I love the way the Giants used safety Antrel Rolle against the Packers. Green Bay loves to spread teams out, and loves to line up tight Jermichael Finley wide. So the Giants countered by playing Kenny Phillips and Stevie Brown at safety and dropping Rolle down as a slot corner. He was matched against receivers and against Finley and did a nice job. Rolle is a former corner, so he has the cover skills. Brown has been a pleasant surprise for the Giants after taking over for Phillips -- although he had a rough go of it against the Bengals a few weeks ago. With Phillips back, look for more of this from the Giants. Phillips did ding his knee last week, but he is expected to play against the Redskins.
10. I said a few weeks back that teams should attack the Patriots secondary then because it was an improving group. It sure is. The addition of corner Aqib Talib gives the Patriots a top-level cover corner. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard is also coming on, which is why the Patriots can leave Devin McCourty at free safety. That gives New England a lot of range in the back end. In today's game, range is far more important than the ability to come up and play the run. The Patriots will be fine in the secondary moving forward.
1. Pats QB Tom Brady: The guy is playing better than ever. It's incredible to watch.
2. Texans WR Andre Johnson: He is on a tear the past two weeks. That's what we expect to see from him.
3. Bengals QB Andy Dalton: He has been great over the past three games, throwing 10 touchdown passes.
4. Rams CB Janoris Jenkins: Two pick-sixes in one game is impressive. He will be a star corner -- if he stays out of trouble.
5. 49ers DT Ray McDonald: He was my pick as the league's most-underrated player last summer and he showed why against the Saints.
1. Vikings QB Christian Ponder: He just won't take the shots down the field. Plus, he turned it over twice against the Bears.
2. Packers LT Marshall Newhouse: He was a spinning top against the Giants. He has to play better.
3. Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew: At the game, his play was bad. On tape, it was even worse. Catch the ball.
5. Steelers QB Charlie Batch: Can't say I am surprised he is here. But, man, he was bad against the Browns.
Three and OutsThree major disappointments this season
1. Texans OLB Connor Barwin: He is a free agent playing for a big contract, but he can't get sacks. What is wrong?
2. DE Jason Babin: He was such a disappointment that the Eagles cut him. Ouch. Now he's the Jaguars' high-priced pass rusher.
3. Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams: That's a lot of money to be paying a guy who can't even get four yards a carry.
Three most underrated players
2. Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson: He is one of the few bright spots on a bad team having a bad year.
3. Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts: Most fans have no idea who he is as a player.