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A weekly look at a player whose performance must improve in 2011.
For better or worse -- well, it probably can't get much worse -- the Texans' defense is going to look a lot different in 2011. So will the role of Houston's best defensive player, Mario Williams.
It was recently revealed that Williams will move from his traditional 4-3 defensive end spot to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense. Although I expect that to be the case most of the time, I also fully expect Williams to line up in many different positions and to be used in a variety of ways.
Led by Williams, the Texans' front seven could be very difficult to prepare for. I see Antonio Smith as equal parts strongside defensive end in a 4-3 or end in the Texans' new 3-4. First round pick J.J. Watt is nearly the prototype for end in this scheme. He should be a fixture. Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are both projects at the outside linebacker spot opposite Williams, but their talent is obvious. It is conceivable that Williams, Barwin and Reed all see playing time together in different defensive sets -- sometimes in a two-point stance and sometimes with a hand on the ground.
Also, I see Brian Cushing as equal parts inside linebacker and outside linebacker in this base three-man front. Cushing could be moved around quite a bit, and although he isn't the same player he was as a rookie, he did show the ability to get after quarterbacks. But it is Williams who is the real difference-maker here and the first player that every offense will be forced to identify pre-snap. As Williams goes, so will go the Texans' defense.
Houston's cover men were poor versus the pass last season. Only the Jaguars (8.3) and Texans (8.2) were above eight yards per passing attempt allowed -- the next worst defense was Denver at 7.8. Although the Texans were aggressive in the draft, fortifying their secondary with draft picks, Houston is extremely young on the back end. Free agency remains an option to further fortify the cover men, but a strong pass rush is a must for Houston, especially considering how Peyton Manning's Colts have monopolized this division. The Texans' pass rush was not a weakness last year, but it could be exceptional in 2011. Williams remains a truly elite pass-rusher. He has 43.5 sacks over the past four seasons and accumulated 8.5 last season in 13 games, even though he was not 100 percent healthy and every offense schemed to stop him in protection.
Along with a veteran presence that Houston can count on in the secondary, I see nose tackle as a remaining need for the Texans. Amobi Okoye could be let go and doesn't appear to be a good fit in the new scheme, but then again, maybe he could slim down and play the nose the way Phillips had Jay Ratliff play it in Dallas. Okoye did fit such a mold when he left college as a first-round pick several years ago. But playing the run is where Okoye has sputtered. Overall, the run defense in 2010 wasn't good enough. Adding a big space-eating type in the middle of the defense could prove very useful on early downs, although that isn't the style Phillips employed with the Cowboys. Earl Mitchell probably still has some upside, but Shaun Cody is about as nondescript as it gets on the interior. Houston will have DeMeco Ryans, who missed much of last season.
With another move or two, this defense could be exceptional, making the Texans serious contenders. Even without those free-agent moves, I expect Houston to be improved on this side of the ball. Williams is poised for a monster season.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
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