Don’t sleep on the Texans special teams.
Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt all had banner years in 2018, and were instrumental in the Texans flipping the script from four wins the year prior, to 11 and an AFC South crown last year.
But special teams coordinator Brad Seely, his assistant Tracy Smith, and a mix of veterans and rookies helped turn what had been a struggling unit into one of the NFL’s best.
Houston was atop the League in opponent’s starting field position, as the defense saw other team’s offenses begin on average at the 25.5 yard line. That was a massive difference, as they were 26th in the NFL the year prior. Meanwhile, the Texans offense began their drives, on average, at their own 31.3 yard line, which was second-best in the NFL. They were worst in the League the year before.
A main reason for that better starting field position: excelling in kickoff and punt coverage.
That improvement in coverage was a big point of emphasis, from the very top of the organization, through Bill O'Brien and the coaching staff, and down to the players.
"The head coach was outstanding about stressing the importance of being good on special teams," Seely said. "I think our guys really had an attitude that they thought they were a really vital part of the football team, and I think that's huge when you out there to play and they think they can help us have some success."
That attitude was exemplified in the inspired play of the coverage units.
“We competed with each other in the game,” running back Buddy Howell said. “Like ‘Who’s going down and going to get this tackle?’ That’s how we kept each other up. We wanted to be the one to make the tackle.”
And Howell made tackles. He tied corner Johnson Bademosi for second on the team with nine special teams tackles, trailing only safety and fellow 2018 rookie A.J. Moore, who led the squad with 11. Rookie linebacker Peter Kalambayi was right behind Howell and Bademosi with eight, and he explained the mindset of the Texans special-teamers.
“We all got a little screw loose,” Kalambayi said. “But it’s fun out there. It’s really effort, hustle and a bunch of freak athletes. That rush you get when you make a play on special teams, is kind of unparalleled.”
Aiding in that coverage effort was punter Trevor Daniel. A rookie last year, he was fourth in the NFL with 36 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, and had just five touchbacks the entire year.
“He’s a very talented guy, really strong leg, another great guy and he’s really worked hard to improve,” head coach Bill O’Brien said. “But he’s done a good job for the most part of helping us play field-position football by placing those punts inside the ten.”
For Daniel, who averaged 43.7 yards per punt, the goal last year was simple: help the defense.
“They don’t have to be huge balls, but just be effective,” Daniel said. “Setting up the defense as best I can. That’s a successful day for me.”
He also was a big fan of the Moore, Howell, Bademosi, Kalambayi and the rest of the coverage guys who helped pin the opposing teams deep.
“I love it, because I look at them as another specialist,” Daniel said. “They really take pride in it. They love what they do. You’ve gotta love guys like that.”
Tack on Ka’imi Fairbairn’s season, and the Texans special teams were outstanding. The kicker hit game-winning field goals in overtime two weeks in a row, led the NFL in scoring with 150, and set the franchise mark for points scored in a season as well. He also blasted a franchise record 58 touchbacks on kickoffs.
“He’s one of our best players,” O’Brien said. “He can make all the kicks. He’s come up big for us in the field goal, obviously, part of it, but also in the kickoffs. When we’ve asked him to direct kickoffs and do things like that, he’s done a great job.”
That success, though, hasn’t caused any complacency for the Texans. They’re aiming for better things in 2019.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Moore said. “So I go back, I watch my worst plays, and I try to find a way to eliminate those plays. By doing that, that will automatically make me better.”
“Just try to beat what you did last year,” Howell said. “You continue to compete with your teammates. You can’t just stay the same.”
The Texans will look to improve even more on a unit that made leaps and bounds last season.
At the seventh annual NFL PLAY 60 Character Camp hosted by the Houston Texans, players Ka’imi Fairbairn, Chris Landrum, Greg Mancz, and Vyncint Smith taught football skills, emphasized exercise, and reinforced the importance of character in athletics and life