With Mario Williams out for the season, outside linebackers Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin are moving to the forefront of the Texans' pass-rushing plans.
Reed, a rookie second-round pick from Arizona, is taking Williams' place in the starting lineup on the weakside. Barwin, a second-round pick from Cincinnati in 2009, will continue to play on the strongside.
"There were certain things that we would run that Mario was going to rush no matter what," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said after practice on Friday. "Now, we have some versatility that they don't who's going to rush and who isn't. That helps a little bit.
"That's why we drafted Brooks Reed. We feel like he can come in and play this year, which he's done. Connor, we feel like a lot of people didn't know if he was going to be an outside 'backer or not, but I think he's played pretty well, too. It's good that we have both those guys."
After the Texans drafted Reed in April, linebackers coach Reggie Herring said he had the fastest feet in the draft. He raved about Reed's 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash (1.54 seconds), a key measurable for edge rushers.
Herring has seen those traits carry over to the field. Reed had two sacks and two forced fumbles in the preseason. He had four tackles and two quarterback hits against the Raiders last Sunday after Williams left the game with a season-ending pectoral injury in the first quarter.
"The game has slowed down for him," Herring said. "We obviously feel comfortable with him. He played the whole game last week. After nine plays, Mario was hurt, so he came in and played 56 straight snaps. We thought he did a pretty nice job. He has a high motor, play strength, he's a young guy, got a nice body, fast-twitch, is competitive and has a lot of spirit. So, we'll see how it goes. We expect to get good production from him now."
Barwin already has been productive this season, with 2.0 sacks, seven quarterback hits and two pass deflections. His production will be even more critical with Williams out of the lineup.
"Well, there's no more expectation than there was before," Herring said. "I mean, the guy is a human being. He doesn't have a cape on his back. But at the end of the day, he's done a great job for us. We're going to leave him at Sam because he's a tremendous dropper, has a great feel for the position, better than what we anticipated."
Intentional or not, Herring's analogy is fitting. Williams, often referred to as "Super Mario," has a Superman tattoo on his right arm.
Fortunately for the Texans, they might have a Jedi on their hands in Barwin.
"I'm proud of my young understudy," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "He's my young Padawan. I've been training him for many moons.
"He's making everybody proud this year. He's a lot stronger than he's ever been; guys can't push him around no more. He's playing the best football I've seen him play. He's getting to the quarterback. I think it's been a few times out there on the field where quarterbacks have just got the ball off (or else) Connor could easily have four or five sacks right now.
"I think that he's at the top of his game, and he's only getting better. Every week, he's the hardest worker in practice. He's trying to find ways to win, and it's going to open up for him. It's just a matter of time."
Barwin was a three-year tight end and a walk-on basketball player in college. He had a 4.66 40-yard dash and 40.5-inch vertical jump at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine. So it's not all that surprising his transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker has been smooth.
"It's just been a progression since training camp," Barwin said. "I'm really comfortable with the formations now, which in training camp, my head was turning, looking all over it. But with time and playing that position now and not moving around, I've really gotten comfortable with it."
Because of Barwin's versatility, there was a possibility the Texans would move him to Williams' position on the weakside. Instead, the Texans kept Barwin at 'Sam' and put Reed at the 'Will.'
"At the end of the day, they're both interchangeable; they know both positions," Herring said. "That's the flexibility of this system, but that's how we're going to start out and see how it goes. We feel like we've got two pretty good hands at both positions. The rest is on us to make sure they're productive and we win some games."
The Texans have 15 sacks through five games this season. One third of those came from Williams, who has 48.5 of the Texans' 131 sacks (37.02 percent) since 2007. No player in the league has accounted for a higher share of his team's sacks.
"As far as more pressure, I think there's pressure on everybody to go win a game," Herring said. "And at the end of the day, the production level has to stay the same whether we get more from one person or another. They all have to step up; it's not just one guy."
Behind Reed and Barwin, Bryan Braman is now the Texans' third linebacker. Herring said the undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M, who led the team in preseason sacks, will rotate in the Texans' sub packages. The Texans also signed Jesse Nading from the practice squad this week to back up Barwin and contribute on special teams.
All of them will play a part in helping the Texans try to replace an irreplaceable player in Williams.
"It was horrible to lose a great player like that who is a great person, and he's good for the locker room 'cuz he's such a good person," Herring said. "His presence will be missed on and off the field, but he knows the deal: He's got to go get well and help himself, and then we've got to strap our boots and move on."