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Ever since free agency began on March 17, Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio has been busy finding players to fit the new defensive scheme. Signing a record-number of free agents in the first 48 hours and executing four trades, the Texans made massive changes to their roster.
With new associate head coach and defensive coordinator in Lovie Smith, the Texans needed a defensive overhaul to make the transition to an effective 4-3 defense.
"Nick has done an excellent job," Smith said. "As you know, we were based out of a 3-4 front for quite a few years here, so there is a transition. The first thing, Coach (David) Culley, of course, Nick, we all got together to do was to start overhauling the roster to get our personnel to fit it. I feel like we're close to that right now. I love all of the free agency moves that we've made because some of the positions we're going to play with a little bit different guy."
Smith's defenses have been prolific at forcing takeaways in the past and he hopes to institute a new defensive philosophy in 2021.
"Explaining, defining, our defensive philosophy, there are some thing we want to get accomplished defensively. It all kind of starts with how you win football games – scoring points. I'd like for us to have a defense that realizes that, that the number one goal is to score. The second goal we have would be to take the ball away. We need to be good on third downs. In order to accomplish that, though, we want a smart defense that's fundamentally sound, that plays hard each down."
*Making Takeaways Priority No. 1
*In 2020, the Texans forced just nine takeaways (three interceptions, six fumbles). Forcing turnovers is a cornerstone of a Lovie Smith defense and his meetings and practices reflected it this offseason.
"The first thing that Coach Smith came in and said, and he put up on the big presentation during an OTA meeting, was we're going to get the ball," defensive back Justin Reid said. "That's been an emphasis in every meeting that they've talked about. We have target goals on how many times we even want to punch the ball. This is the first time I've seen it to where we're tracking just strips attempts, punch attempts – tracking all of that. Really trying to put an emphasis on guys to go after the ball and create turnovers because those are game-changing situations."
*A New-Look Secondary
*The Houston Texans revamped their secondary this offseason with new players, a new scheme and a new mindset.
"That's what we try to instill in our players is that we're not going to make anything difficult for you," safeties coach Greg Jackson said. "We're going to try to make it as simple as possible and we're going to allow you play football."
A number of new defensive backs will compete for a roster spot in training camp, but experience will be a premium.
"This is a new scheme for everyone, so the new players that are here, it isn't much of a greater challenge than it would be for anyone," Cornerbacks Coach Dino Vasso said. "It's a new scheme and a learning curve for everyone involved. Then Terrance Mitchell and Vernon Hargreaves (III) are guys that have played over 1,000 snaps last season. Excited about the experience at the top and then we have a bunch of young players that are athletic and have played some football in their careers as well."
Transitioning to the Defensive Line
Since 2011, the Texans have played in a 3-4 base defense. With the transition, several linebackers will be moving to defensive linemen, including veterans Whitney Mercilus and Jacob Martin, along with Jonathan Greenard now in his second season. According to defensive line coach Bobby King, that just means they will have their hand in the dirt "a little bit more," something the players did previously in nickel packages in the past when they lined up at defensive end.
The players won't be alone. King made the transition as well, after coaching the linebacker group since 2017.
"First off, don't tell anybody but I've always kind of been a d-lineman at heart," King said. "That's what I played and early in my coaching career, that's what I coached. To be honest with you, the last couple years are the only years I haven't worked with the front. When I was an outside (line)backers coach, I was working with the d-line all the time on third down and all that stuff. It hasn't been that huge of a transition. Working with Coach Smith has been unbelievable. The system has been great to learn. It's helping me and I'm learning every day from him. It's been outstanding."
Linebackers Love Lovie
Smith is also known for assembling defenses that are physical. In his 19 years of coaching in the NFL, including 11 as head coach, he has also helped numerous linebackers have some of their best seasons under him, including All-Pro linebackers in Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Derrick Brooks.
"Nowadays, linebackers have to do more than just tackle," Smith said. "They need to be able to play in space, they need to be able to pay man coverage. It seems like the tight end position is getting better and better. That matchup can be a tough one. We blitz. Our linebackers need to be able to play excellent zone coverage, man coverage and of course make a lot of tackles. It takes a certain type of athlete to do that. We talk as a whole, just what we're looking for, we want to have a fast defense. We don't want to be playing with big guys that can't run at any positions. We want our linebackers to have athletic ability where we feel comfortable with them guarding a running back on the outside."
Prior to Smith's arrival in Houston, players were excited to make the transition to the new 4-3 base scheme.
After his coaching this offseason, the Texans linebackers love him.
"I'm already in love with his scheme, already in love with the way he coaches and his philosophy," Kamu Grugier-Hill said. "Me personally, I think I fit perfectly into it. He likes speed guys. I can run and play the pass and do all that kind of stuff. I'm very excited for the future."
"His defense is very linebacker friendly," Christian Kirksey said. "It gives you a chance to run around, have fun, make plays. He puts a lot on his linebackers and he wants a lot of athletic linebackers. I feel like me personally, being in his system, it's a lot of fun because it allows you to play ball. I think that every linebacker can speak for himself as far as going out there and making plays and being in this defense."
That being said, Smith takes the compliment from his linebackers, but also has high expectations of the rest of his defense.
"Well, I hope safeties say that, 'man, this is a safety-friendly defense' and those defensive linemen, 'man, Lovie we like that four-man rush,'" Smith said, smiling. "Hopefully they're going to say it, too. But no, it is a linebacker-friendly system and what we're looking for is skilled athletes."