Mike Vrabel was named the Texans defensive coordinator after coaching the linebackers group for the previous three seasons (2014-16). Assistant head coach Romeo Crennel, who formerly served as the defensive coordinator (2014-16), will now assist both the offense and defense in his new role.
At age 41, Vrabel's quick rise to defensive coordinator does not surprise those who played for him or coached him throughout his career.
"I grew up, my dad was a basketball coach," Vrabel said in an interview with Texans Radio. "He was an assistant football coach in high school, so I was always around practice. Went to Ohio State. I've always played for really good coaches. I was lucky to be recruited by good coaches and then Pittsburgh with Bill Cowher, New England with Romeo (Crennel), Bill Belichick, Dean Pees, Rob Ryan. I mean, we had a lot of great coaches and then going to Kansas City, being with Gary Gibbs, Emmitt Thomas. Those guys, defensively, have been around the league for a long time. I've been lucky, so I've tried just to take a lot of their information that I've learned from them and just kind of blended in my own style."
Even during his playing days, Vrabel wanted to absorb as much football knowledge as he could. He wasn't afraid to ask questions. Vrabel often approached New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to understand the strategy behind the play-calling.
"I think it was just something that came about because we had a veteran team," Vrabel said. "We had a couple guys that had been there for a while and it was like, 'well, what if we tried it this way?' or 'what if we approach it this way?'
"He said someday you're doing to be a coach and you're going to be able to make those decisions," Vrabel said. "You have to realize when you need to listen to the players or when you need to make a decision."
During his tenure as linebackers coach, Vrabel drew major contributions from veterans as well as rookies. Brian Cushing led the linebackers in 2015 and topped 100 tackles for the third time in his career. Last year, second-year linebacker Benardrick McKinney finished with career highs in tackles (129) and sacks (5.0) while starting all 16 games. In the playoffs, Mercilus recorded five sacks over the span of two postseason games, tying the most by any defensive player since the NFL began recording quarterback takedowns for individual players in 1982.
"I think Mike has done a great job coaching linebackers the last three years," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's been in that room with Romeo (Crennel) and he has learned a lot having played for Romeo and now having coached for Romeo. Mike has his own style. Mike's done a great job with Whitney Mercilus. He did a great job with John Simon, (Jadeveon) Clowney, Brian Cushing, Benardrick McKinney. Mike knows our defense inside and out."
Expectations are sky-high after the Texans wrapped up their 2016 campaign with the NFL's top-ranked defense for the first time in franchise history. Houston gave up a league-low 301.3 total net yards per contest, fewest first downs (17.0) and second fewest net passing yards per game (201.6).
With over 35 years of NFL coaching experience, Crennel will now assist both O'Brien and Vrabel in his new role as assistant head coach. Crennel and Vrabel hope to combine forces to take Houston's defense to the next level.
"I think that we need to continue to play great defense, be good on third down, to force three-and-outs and get the ball back for our offense," Vrabel said. "I think we can do a better job at creating turnovers. We've tried to make that an emphasis. We call it ball disruption. So, we are trying to do great at ball disruption into OTAs. We could do a better job down at the red zone. Our scoring defense has to be better. We weren't where we needed to be. I think we were outside the top 10, so if we can improve on our scoring defense, do what we did at the end of the season in the run game, continue to affect the quarterback, turn the ball over and hopefully, we can help our team win."