The Texans have won 9 games in a row, largely on the strength of their defense. They currently rank in the top 10 in points allowed, sacks, and takeaways. Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel throws a lot at an offense. He has a bunch of talented pieces to play with, and he does a great job of putting them in advantageous 1-on-1 matchups.
Jadeveon Clowney is one of the pieces Crennel likes to use in various creative ways. Below, you can see him aligned inside, standing over the guard.
Notice the defensive tackle aligned over the center and Whitney Mercilus (#59) aligned over the left tackle.
The defensive tackle here rushed away from Clowney, taking the center with him. Mercilus occupied the left tackle. This ensured Clowney would be isolated on the left guard.
Putting a 6’5” 270-pound uber-athletic and explosive outside linebacker/defensive end on a guard is a disaster waiting to happen for the offense, as you can see below.
But Crennel doesn’t just align Clowney inside on the line of scrimmage. He’ll let him start a few yards back, in a traditional inside linebacker position too.
Here, Crennel again got Clowney matched up on a guard, just in a slightly different way this time. The defensive tackle aligned between the left guard and center and rushed the A-Gap, taking the center with him. The defensive end in front of Clowney occupied the right tackle.
That left Clowney, coming from depth this time, on the right guard. Another mismatch.
Good luck defending that.
Crennel does also allow Clowney to attack the quarterback in more traditional ways off the edge. And he does a great job of making it difficult for the offense to pay both Clowney and J.J. Watt extra attention.
On the play below, you can see Watt and Clowney aligned as the two edge rushers.
Look at the three potential pass rushers inside. The man in the middle occupies the center. The two other potential rushers are aligned on the outside shoulders of both guards.
This ensured that both tackles were left alone to handle Clowney and Watt. The running back could help out on one (which he did) but not both. The result was another sack.
One way to counter the Texans’ multiple great pass rushers can be to keep seven men in to protect the quarterback. There are a few problems with that approach, though.
First, fewer receivers end up going out into routes. Even with the pressures the Texans bring, they often don’t rush more than 4 defenders. That leaves 7 men in coverage, making it more difficult for the quarterback to find open receivers.
Second, that pass rush can still break down a 7-man protection. In fact, the Texans did just that on the below play. Again, look at Watt and Clowney aligned as the edge rushers.
The three inside pass rushers again occupied the center and the guards.
The Dolphins decided to slide to J.J. Watt’s side and kept their running back and tight end in on the other side to double-team Clowney.
Because of the initial alignment of the 3 inside potential pass rushers, though, Watt still had a 1-on-1 and ended up with a quick sack.
That’s a sack on a 4-man rush against a 7-man protection.
Even with all of those blockers, the Dolphins were unable to double both Watt and Clowney. This is a problem that offenses face against the Texans, and it is largely due to the fact that Crennel often likes to cover the center and guards with defenders. Even if they don’t end up rushing, the offense has to account for those potential rushers above all else because they represent immediate threats up the middle.
Crennel doesn’t just rely on his pure pass rushers to get to the quarterback, though. He also likes to bring the timely Tyrann Mathieu blitz.
Keep an eye on Mathieu below.
Now look at that alignment up front. Does the positioning of those three potential inside rushers over the center and outside shoulders of the guards look familiar?
That alignment occupied the center and guards. Jadeveon Clowney, aligned on the left side of the screen, brought an outside rush to occupy the left tackle.
This left Mathieu on a running back.
Watch how Mathieu sets up the running back to create a rushing lane like a ball carrier would set up pursuing tacklers to create a running alley. His first move is outside the left tackle, and the running back follows initially.
That was enough for Mathieu. A perfectly timed blitz. The Texans attacked the quarterback with speed on this play. Again, notice that the Redskins had the numbers to pick up the pressure. The Texans had the talent and approach to win, though.
This is where scheme and talent mesh. “Coaches coach and players play,” according to the great Mike Ditka. This statement rings true when you look at Crennel’s approach with his defense. Scheme alone doesn’t get the job done. Players have to execute. Crennel does a great job of using scheme to put his most talented players in advantageous matchups or situations.
The pressure the Texans generate goes hand in hand with the pre-snap movement and disguise they like to frequently show in the secondary. Responding to pass-rush pressure is one thing for a quarterback. Trying to do so when you aren’t sure what you’re looking at in coverage is a whole other ballgame altogether. Through their coverage disguises and pressure looks, the Texans are able to consistently get to the quarterback without sacrificing coverage, which is the name of the game in today’s NFL.
With all due respect to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots are still the team to beat in the AFC. Based on remaining schedules, it’s highly likely that New England will not only get another first-round bye, but also, home-field advantage. It takes a total team effort to beat the Patriots. But of all the AFC contenders, the Texans just might have that complete team with the best ability to win in Foxborough.