Texans must put more pressure on QB

Sure, the Texans need to protect their own QB, but they also need to find a way to put some pressure on the opposing signal caller, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: June 22, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

For the Houston Texans, it is the second half of an ignominious sad-sack daily double. It is the one that no one talks about, but a deficiency that has contributed mightily to a paltry victory total during the franchise's first five seasons.

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Everyone knows the Texans have struggled with pass protection, surrendering a league-worst 272 sacks since entering the NFL as an expansion franchise in 2002 (38 more sacks than the next worst pass-blocking teams).

But what has largely been ignored is an equally ominous shortcoming. On defense, Houston has registered the fewest sacks (143) in the league the past five seasons. That's fewer than two sacks per game.

The loyal fans at Reliant Stadium can rely on just two things: The hometown QB can typically be identified by locating the bruised and bloodied body on the bottom of a pile in the Houston backfield. The opposition signal-caller? He's the player with the least sullied uniform on the field.

Mario Williams
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMario Williams had 4.5 sacks and 47 tackles last season as a rookie.
Houston changed defensive schemes in 2006, converting from the 3-4 front that former head coach Dom Capers preferred in his four seasons to a more conventional 4-3 alignment under Gary Kubiak, but that didn't alter the fact that the Texans still couldn't mount much of a pass rush.

"I don't know if it's been the scheme, the players or bad karma," said former Texans defensive end/linebacker Antwan Peek, who is now with Cleveland. "But I do know that we had trouble getting any kind of consistent pressure."

Even an inkling of inconsistent pressure would represent improvement for the Texans' defense, which has never had a player with more than seven sacks in a season.

In 41 of 80 outings, the Texans have managed one sack or fewer. That includes 17 contests in which Houston didn't even get one sack. The Texans have registered more than three sacks in just 10 games. Houston has managed to generate more sacks than it has surrendered in only 13 games.

Just once, in 2005, have the Texans been above the NFL average for sacks. Houston had 37 sacks in '05; the league average was 36.9. In five seasons, while Houston quarterbacks were dropped an average of once every 9.41 drop-backs, opposing quarterbacks were sacked every 18.7 trips into the pocket.

Little wonder the Texans have averaged just 22.2 takeaways and produced a total of only 64 interceptions in five seasons.

"It all starts up front," said second-year defensive end Mario Williams, the controversial top overall selection in the 2006 draft, who has drawn unfair scrutiny because of the Texans' decision to draft him ahead of running back Reggie Bush and hometown quarterback Vince Young. "I don't care what level of the game you're playing at. You have to win the battles in the line. In this league, you have to rush the quarterback, and we all know, me included, we've got to do it better."

It isn't as if the Texans haven't attempted to get better up front. They have used first-round picks in each of the past four drafts -- on end Jason Babin (2005), tackle Travis Johnson (2005), Williams (2006) and tackle Amobi Okoye (2007). Last year, they signed former Baltimore Ravens standout Anthony Weaver as an unrestricted free agent.

But the return, at least to this point, certainly hasn't been commensurate to the investment. Houston owner Bob McNair has doled out $40.54 million to his top four veteran defensive linemen. And they have totaled only 19½ sacks, or $2.8 million per sack.

Williams has banked $15.6 million so far and had but 4½ sacks as a rookie. Weaver made $13 million in bonuses and base salary last season and had one sack. Johnson has one sack total to show for the $6.85 million he has made in two seasons. Of the group, only Babin, who has cashed paychecks totaling $5.09 million in three years, has double-digit sacks for his career, with 13. But he has never posted more than five in a season. The Texans have not spent wisely on defensive linemen in the past, as manifested in the big money and pedestrian production they got from past free-agent washouts such as Gary Walker and Robaire Smith.

McNair will have to hope that the $11 million-$12 million it will cost to sign Okoye -- the 10th player chosen in this year's draft -- will be money better spent.

It all starts up front. I don't care what level of the game you're playing at. You have to win the battles in the line. In this league, you have to rush the quarterback, and we all know, me included, we've got to do it better.

Mario Williams

Of the front seven players on the current roster, just one, 10-year veteran N.D. Kalu, has had more than seven sacks in a season. But his career-best eight sacks came in 2002, with Philadelphia, and he has just 9 sacks in his past three seasons. Linebacker Shantee Orr, who isn't even assured a starting job this year, is the only player on the roster who has more than five sacks in a season in a Texans uniform. He posted seven sacks in 2005, then notched just one last season.

Okoye, who had eight sacks at the University of Louisville in 2006, could be a difference-maker because he has the penetration skills the Texans have lacked. But the youngest player chosen in the modern-era draft -- Okoye was just 20 on draft day -- will need time to mature physically and emotionally.

The key to the pass-rush improvement clearly lies with Williams, who struggled through much of his rookie campaign, in part because of a case of plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition that plagued him almost from the outset of the season. The condition prevented the former North Carolina State star from getting any kind of burst off the snap with his right foot. There were also occasions, though, when Williams appeared to take snaps off, as he did in college.

To his credit, Williams started all 16 games, usually having to submit himself to at least one pregame injection to get onto the field. Williams eschewed surgery, and his foot is significantly improved with offseason rest. He also should benefit by being moved to the weakside end spot, where he won't encounter as many double teams as he did in 2006.

"Maybe that will make it a little easier, but then, it's not supposed to come easy in this league," said Williams, who is just 22. "Easy or not, though, we've got to find a way to get more pressure this year. We have to create havoc up front."

Indeed, if the Texans are to have even a remote chance for a .500 season, the defense must garner more sacks than the 28 takedowns it had in 2006.

The Texans' first goal is to win their division. In the AFC South, that means eventually having to defeat defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis, which means putting pressure on Peyton Manning. In 10 meetings, the Texans have sacked Manning just a dozen times. That includes six contests in which the Texans had no sacks or one sack of Manning. That's a prime reason why Houston is 1-9 versus the Colts.

Some of the Texans' younger players believe the pass rush, having acclimated to the style of defensive coordinator Richard Smith and techniques stressed by defensive line coaches Bob Karmelowicz and Jethro Franklin, can't help but be better.

"Those guys have great ability and great potential," standout second-year middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, speaking about the defensive line, told the Houston Chronicle this week. "They are going to be great pass rushers. I hope to see a lot of sacks out of those guys."

If he doesn't, it won't matter if the offensive line protects Matt Schaub any better in 2007 than it protected the beleaguered David Carr for the past five seasons.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.