Of all the challenges facing Wade Phillips as the Texans' new defensive coordinator, perhaps none is more daunting than improving the secondary.
The Texans allowed 267.5 passing yards per game in 2010, seventh-most in NFL history in a 16-game season. Only one player in their secondary, six-year cornerback Jason Allen, has more than three seasons of NFL experience.
Phillips knows that he and defensive backs coach Vance Joseph have their work cut out for them.
"Hopefully, we'll have a better rush in the 3-4," Phillips said. "It's a lot of fundamentals with those guys, and that's why we got Vance. He's familiar with a lot of the teaching techniques that we utilize. Even though we have young players, we think we can improve them quickly. A lot of technique work, and we don't want to give up big plays. That's always been our philosophy."
Joseph spent the last six seasons in San Francisco under Greg Manusky and Mike Nolan, two former protégés of Phillips. He has watched tape of every Texans game and practice from last season and said that his focus with the Texans' young secondary will be on "every-day defensive back fundamentals," from footwork to eye placement to tackling to catching the football.
"It's going to be being technique-sound, being a good tackler and knowing where to put your eyes," Joseph said. "Defensive back play, 85 percent of it is knowing where to put your eyes. And that's discipline and that's technique. If your eyes are not seeing it correctly, you can be a 4.4 guy and play 4.7, or you can be a 4.6 guy and play 4.4 if you see it quick enough. Eyes are everything for a defensive back."
The offseason obviously would be an ideal time to work on those fundamentals with players. That's not happening because of the lockout, but Joseph feels confident there'll be enough time for it because of the simplicity of Phillips' system.
"We're going to spend time on fundamentals, and that's going to be the key," Joseph said. "That's the beauty about being with Wade. His system is not a complicated system, but it's based on being a good football player. And when you have guys who are good football players in a system that's player-friendly, that's when you play fast and you don't make mistakes. Teams who make the least mistakes, they win the games for the most part. When it comes down to it, it's the teams that are fundamentally sound and smart teams."
The Texans also are hoping for a boost from three rookie draft picks – cornerbacks Brandon Harris (second round, Miami) and Roc Carmichael (fourth round, Virginia Tech) and safety Shiloh Keo (fifth round, Idaho).
"I think all three of them will be active on gameday," Phillips said. "That's the first step. If you can get that, then you're replacing guys that you had last year, but I think you're upgrading. And that's what we're looking for from those guys, to either help on special teams or help on specialized sub defenses, or play. (There) could be a possibility they'll be playing."
Free agency could bring new veteran players to the mix, but the Texans are still waiting to see when that begins and which players are available. For now, all they can go by is what they have on the roster, which includes seven cornerbacks who were drafted in the last four years.
"I think we have a nucleus of guys that are capable of doing the things that we want to do," Phillips said. "We have quite a few guys, (and) then we have some guys we drafted that we think will help also. We lost some guys in the secondary; both safeties are gone, so there's some opportunities there. But I think there were some young players that showed up pretty well last year at a lot of positions, so that's a reason for optimism."
The Texans would like for cornerback Glover Quin to fill the void at free safety, and Phillips said that safety Troy Nolan showed flashes last year as a backup. Whether or not they move Quin probably depends on what happens in free agency.
"We think that's his best position," Phillips said. "We think he did a good job at corner last year, but we think that he could be even better at safety. So if at all possible, we'll try to work him there."
Regardless of the personnel in the secondary, Phillips expects the front seven to make a difference in pass defense. Not only through a better pass rush, but through run defense that allows the Texans to have at least four defensive backs in coverage at all times.
"I think if you can stop the run with the front seven, that even helps your pass defense more because your safeties don't have to get involved," he said. "A lot of people talk about an eight-man front. If you stop it with a seven man front, then your secondary can play pass first, and that helps you play better pass defense."
Whether through fundamentals, new personnel or old personnel in new places, that's the goal all around.