Giving up over 100 yards and a touchdown to Calvin Johnson is nothing to be ashamed of, especially with pro-bowler Johnathan Joseph out, the Lions put up big passing numbers on every team they face. However, how can we explain away the 354 yards and four touchdowns allowed to Chad Henne the week before, at home, with Joseph in the lineup for most of the game? I initially thought it was just a fluke, a let down game against an awful team, but the blue print used in that game has had success against the Texans in several games this season.
The Texans are strongest on defense when they are playing in their base formation and dictating the pace and style of play to their opponent. When they get in trouble, especially after losing Brian Cushing to an ACL injury, is when teams spread them out with four or five receiver sets, force them to cover across the field, and dictate the style and tempo to them. Its similar to the strategy that teams like the Patriots and Colts used against the Steelers for years. The Steelers and Texans are best when they can get their big guys and pass rushers on the field, and they are less effective when they have to go to nickel and dime sets with five or six defensive backs on the field. Facing spread out sets with four or five receivers causes them to take one of their front seven players off the field and put in a slot corner that typically gets picked on by teams with good slot receivers. Brice McCain, who I think is a pretty good slot corner, got torched by the Lions slot receiver Ryan Broyles for six catches and 126 yards. With the trend of offenses going towards the spread, most good offensive teams have three quality receivers; a big problem for teams without three quality corners.
In three games against Pro-Bowl level quarterbacks running spread style offenses (Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford), the Texans have allowed an average of 369 passing yards per game with a total of 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. Of course it should be noted that most of Manning's numbers came with the Broncos down late in the game, but I also think he has more confidence in his arm now than he did in week three and could cause a problem for the Texans if they meet in the playoffs.
Getting back Johnathan Joseph will obviously help because Alan Ball is simply not a good corner, but the problems run deeper than just the play of the defensive backs. The quality of the pass rush and the quality of the pass coverage go hand in hand. A great pass rush can make average defensive backs look good and vice versa. Outside of J.J. Watt, the Texans pass rush has been very disappointing this year and deserves some of the blame for the problems in pass coverage. No matter how good a corner like Johnathan Joseph or even an improved Kareem Jackson is, they can't cover forever and will eventually allow a receiver to get open if the pass rush isn't getting to the quarterback.
Last season the Texans finished sixth in the league with 44 sacks, an average of 2.75 per game. Remember, that total was with Watt only accounting for 5.5 sacks; how low would their sack total be this season had Watt not taken a big step forward? Their sack pace this season isn't far off from last season (2.72 per game this year), but their pass rushers aren't having nearly the same effect. The reason for that I believe is that last year the pressure and sacks were coming from everybody instead of just one player. When the pressure is coming from just one guy, opponents can double team that player, have a tight end or running back chip him on their way out into a pattern, and limit his impact on the game. When the pressure is coming from everyone, that tactic won't work. Watt has 48.3% of the Texans sacks this season, last season's team leader in sacks Connor Barwin, had only 26.1% of the Texans sacks. With Barwin and Reed having down years, the Texans are simply easier to block. If opponents can successfully double team Watt, there simply isn't anyone else on the Texans they have to worry about getting to their quarterback.
The Texans secondary I believe is solid, especially with Joseph at 100% health. The problem they're having is with the pass rush and until that gets solved, the Texans will continue to struggle in pass coverage. With Brooks Reed out several weeks, we'll see if rookie Whitney Mercilus can provide a spark. For their defense to reach last season's level, they need all of their front seven players, outside of Watt, to step up and play at a higher level.
Follow Me On Twitter: @sackedbybmac
For More On The Texans, Check Out The Battle Red Blog!