CAMP COUNTDOWN

Texans training camp preview: Linebackers

Bernardrick McKinney anchors the middle of the Texans defense. Bob Levey/Getty Images

If I had to pick one position group as my favorite it would be this one. These players represent all of the right pieces to control the game near the line of scrimmage and keep a lot of what happens in front of them. They have pass rushers with double digit sack potential, they have thumpers in the middle who can clog the rush lanes, and they have guys with coverage ability on tight ends and running backs. With this group on the field the defense can really help every part of the team.

Yes, 2017 was a down year for the Texans pass rush. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus went down with season ending injuries and took about 15-20 sacks away from the defense. That left the team exposed and the bulk of the work to Jadeveon Clowney. He played every spot in the front seven last year as a creative way to get him in position to make plays. Not knowing where he would line up kept the opposing offenses off guard on the protection calls. That will continue this year where he will probably play a lot more snaps standing up at an outside linebacker.

Mercilus is back and he will apply the pressure that helps Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel use his personnel with maximum effectiveness. Having him and Clowney on the field at the same time is going to make it hard for offenses to set the edge. But Clowney won’t always be standing up on the outside with Whitney so it’s good that the Texans still have Brennan Scarlett to hold down a back-up role. He is entering his third season and has developed well for an undrafted free agent.

Also returning to the team this year is Ufomba Kamalu, the NFL’s largest outside linebacker at 6’6” 295 lbs. He’s a former defensive end who got some starting experience due to injury last year. He did well in his nine games overall and can continue to learn the position while serving as a pass rush specialist when called upon. He will be back on the field with LaTroy Lewis, another young player who saw game action last season and seemed to make the most of it.

The Texans are also bringing in a few rookies to add some competition for depth. They drafted Duke Ejiofor from Wake Forest in the sixth round this year. Later in the same round they selected Peter Kalambayi from Stanford. Late round picks don’t always work out but taking two of them in the draft is another example of Brian Gaine sending a clear message that there is room for the young guys to fight for a position. That includes undrafted rookie Davin Bellamy, who played his college ball at Georgia.

If the outside linebackers have the talent and depth to do their jobs well then the inside linebackers should be free to terrorize the middle of the field. That starts with the proud holder of a new contract, Benardrick McKinney. His ability on the inside has been a constant for the defense in his time. He will continue to get better and boost the play of those around him.

Second year man Zach Cunningham will benefit the most from playing alongside McKinney and vice versa. Cunningham was a stand-out rookie with 90 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 6 passes defensed. He’s versatile in this defense and is key to making the starting linebackers the best position group on the team.

Returning to fill out the inside position are Brian Peters and Dylan Cole; two able-bodied players who did well last year. But when you have starters like McKinney and Cunningham it gives you leverage to bring in plenty competition in training camp. That’s why the Texans have Ben Heeney, Josh Keyes, and Kennan Gilchrist on the team. The back-up role will be important for the long season ahead and if they have it right the defense can reclaim its spot near the top of the rankings.

Getting the most out of the linebackers is essential to Romeo Crennel’s defensive scheme. But the new NFL is requiring a lot more out of the position. The versatility of Jadeveon Clowney as an outside linebacker and Zach Cunningham on the inside are in line with the new way. Benardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus represent the old way of playing the position, and they do it at a high level. The linebackers will be all over the field and be a big part of the reason the team wins the close games they lost in 2017.


 

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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