The Houston Texans accomplished one of the most spectacular defensive turnarounds in NFL history this past season. The Texans had arguably the worst pass defense in NFL history and turned it around to have the 3rd best pass defense last season holding teams to just 189.7 yards per game. The Texans run defense wasn't too much better in 2010 and turned it around to the 4th best in the league allowing only 96 rushing yards per game. This resulted in the Texans having the 4th best scoring defense at 17.4 points per game and the 2nd best overall defense.
Being a Panther fan, two questions arise from this remarkable defensive turnaround. The first being how exactly were the Texans able to have their defense pull a complete 180? And the second being can the Panthers glean any lessons from this and make a similar turn around of their own? This article will attempt to answer both of these questions after the jump.
First and foremost, the hiring of Wade Phillips has to be discussed when analyzing how this defense went from one of the worst in the league to a top 3 defense. This wasn't the most popular hire when it happened because it involved moving the team's best player in Mario Williams from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside rush linebacker. Most questioned whether or not Williams was suited to play linebacker due to the fact that he was 285 to 290 pounds. Instead, the organization and Wade had faith that Williams could make the transition and their faith was rewarded. In retrospect, this was one of the more brilliant hires in the NFL of the past few years. The things that I hear players and National pundits talk about is how simple Wade made the defense for the players. This allowed all of the players to know their assignments which consequently allows the players to play much faster. Also, with these better coaches in place the tackling and fundamentals were very sound from the Texans this year as they allowed very few yards after the catch.
Moving Glover Quin to safety instead of corner helped out the secondary and there is no doubt that Wade had something to do with this decision. Also, the switch to the 3-4 helped out players like Antonio Smith who is more suited at this point in his career to be a 3-4 defensive end rather than a 4-3 end. Connor Barwin is another guy who benefited from the switch to the 3-4 because he is much more suited to be the 3-4 outside linebacker which showed in his 11.5 sack season. Wade was able to quickly identify his personnel and adapt to their strengths.
The second most important thing (in my mind) in turning the Texans defense around was the free agent acquisitions. Jon Joseph is one of the premier cover corners in the league which greatly helped out a desperate area of need for you guys. Daniel Manning at free safety was a really underrated free agent addition as well. Getting players like Demeco Ryans and Connor Barwin back from injury was huge as well because that added leadership and 11.5 sacks to the defense. Even though Ryans did not perform like his normal self this past year, his mere presence and leadership can not be underestimated. Fortunately for the Texans, Brian Cushing returned to his rookie form and then some. He was even described by Wade Phillips as a "holy phenom."
The draft was one of the biggest factors in the turnaround. The Texans were on the clock sitting at pick 11 in the first round, the consensus was that with Prince Amukamara still on the board, he would be in a Texans uniform in 2011 because of the drastic need there. Instead, the Texans stuck to their draft board and took who they viewed as the best player available which was DE JJ Watt. This paid huge dividends as Watt was a force on the inside against the run as well as the pass. His presence on the inside allowed the linebackers to make plays all over. Instead of reaching for another secondary guy In the 2nd round, the Texans picked OLB Brooks Reed. JJ Watt's presence on the inside allowed Reed to have a nice rookie campaign rushing the passer along with other OLBs like Connor Barwin. The Texans made their objectives very clear in the first two rounds of the draft. They were going to build their defense from the front first, then worry about the secondary later. This is because a great front 7 can stop the run as well as rush the passer which hides the lack of talent in the secondary.
In short, The Houston Texans were able to turn their defense around by bring in a simplified defensive philosophy which allowed players to play fast, getting key players back from injury, acquiring key free agents, and sticking to their draft board. This ultimately built up their defensive line to stop the run and increase the pass rush even without their best player in Mario Williams.
Now we turn to the Panthers. What can we do in order to have a similarly effective defensive turnaround? I believe that we have the defensive staff in place right now in order to have a great defense. Unfortunately, due to the shortened off season and stress to fix the worst offense in the league, the defense seemingly was overlooked. The defense was behind in the eight ball in trying to understand the more complex defensive scheme which did not allow them to play fast. With this full off season coming up, this problem should be fixed as everyone will have ample time to fully understand the defensive playbook.
Fundamentals were not sound with our defense which was evident in all the missed tackles and penalties committed. This is something that I believe Coach Rivera will quickly address this off season because he stated in his introductory press conference how he wants a no nonsense, good tackling, and fundamentally sound team. I suspect that much of the OTAs will involve drills to improve in both of these areas which should result in improvements from our defense next year.
Do to our cap limitations, the Panthers won't be able to provide much help for the defense through free agency. However, we could free up enough cap space to provide ourselves with a solid contributor like a Manny Lawson who could rush the passer, play the WLB, and help out on special teams. Fortunately for the Panthers, we have key contributors and team leaders set to return on defense. The return of LB Jon Beason will provide key leadership and communication skills as well as production. The same can be said if Thomas Davis makes history and returns to the defense. Having a veteran presence in the middle of the defensive line with Ron Edwards returning should also help greatly in improving the run defense.
The draft could end up being one of the most important areas in turning the Panthers defense around. The Panthers should learn from the Texans and stick to what their board says the best player available. Although the Panthers have the opportunity to go offense in the first couple of rounds, the defensive picks should not be reaches just to help out certain perceived positions of need. Also similarly to the Texans last year, the Panthers should build up the front seven and in particular the front four. Unless a superior talent falls (ie Morris Clayborne), the Panthers should not draft a secondary player in the first round provided that we stay at 8 or 9. Our defensive picks should focus on getting after the quarterback and stopping the run to diminish the effectiveness of play action pass.
To wrap up, the Texans have provided a blueprint to drastically improving a team's defense and the Panthers should follow suit. The Panthers would be wise to improve the fundamentals of the defense as well as adding talent to the front four in the draft process by sticking to their draft board. Ultimately, I believe the Panthers will do this with the return of key players and leaders, we will see our defense drastically improve next season making the future bright for this great organization.