For a team switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, the Texans have a surprising amount of continuity on their defensive line.
It's the only position group on defense at which they don't have a new coach. Assistant head coach/defensive line Bill Kollar, one of the lone holdovers from last year's defensive staff, returns for his third season with the team.
The only new player in the D-line rotation is first-round draft pick J.J. Watt. The rest of the linemen will have similar roles to last year. Even the ones switching to outside linebacker will be de facto defensive ends in nickel and dime situations.
Watt is penciled in as the Texans' starting left end, a five-technique between the right tackle and tight end. Kollar said the Texans are "expecting to get big things" right away from the 11th overall pick.
"Probably the biggest thing for him this year will be playing the run," Kollar said. "Playing the five-technique in this defense, you've got to be a good run defender, so we'll be really working with that. And when it gets to third-down situations, we'll put him inside and he'll be an inside pass rusher for us."
Kollar sees the 3-4 as a perfect fit for Antonio Smith, who's slated to start at right end. Smith played in a 3-4 in Arizona before joining the Texans as a free agent in 2009. He'll be a three-technique, between the left guard and left tackle, which will allow him to utilize his strength against the run. He'll still move inside to tackle in passing situations like he did in a 4-3 for the last two seasons.
"For him, he probably will like this better than he did the scheme we played the last two years here, really," Kollar said. "We were trying to figure out a position for him when we signed him from Arizona here. We said, 'Well, he's really not a defensive end.' He played more inside than he did outside and stuff. I'm sure he'll fit right at home getting back into this type of defense."
Watt and Smith will be interchangeable in base packages. If an offense motions the tight end to Smith's side, he'll slide out and become a five-technique. Watt will slide in and become a three-technique. For both players – and Amobi Okoye, who'll be in the mix at right and left end – the main objective will be stopping the run.
"We're not going to have eight (defenders) in the box often, so they'll have to do an excellent job of stopping the run," Kollar said. "A five-technique in a 3-4 scheme is almost like a defensive tackle in a 4-3. These guys have to be good run-down players. They've got to do an excellent job on first and second down against the run, and then they really turn out to be your inside rushers when you go to third down. They turn out to be defensive tackles."
When the Texans use a three-man defensive line in base packages, they're confident that Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell can get the job done at nose tackle. Kollar sees "absolutely no problem at all" with their perceived lack of ideal size for the position.
"What happens, the nose man's really playing the same type technique that he played last year with us, so it really doesn't turn out to be a big difference," he said. "When everybody talks about the big nose man and stuff, those are the teams that play two-gap where they play the nose man head-up on the center and you just want to take two or three blockers on all the time, try to keep everybody off of the linebackers and stuff. We don't end up playing that scheme, so we don't need a guy that's 350 pounds and can't move."
Mitchell, a third-round pick from Arizona in 2010, could be one to watch on the heels of a promising rookie season.
"He plays with good leverage," Kollar said. "He gives good effort for the most part. He ended up playing a bunch (last season). Hopefully, he can stay healthy this year. He had that high-ankle sprain that really affected his play toward the end of the season, but we expect good things from Earl this year."