When training camp ended, the Texans biggest strength was their defensive front seven. The combination of J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing, and Jadeveon Clowney appeared terrifying to opposing offenses. Five weeks into the season, the situation could not be more different. Watt and Mercilus are out the rest of the season with injuries and Cushing is in the middle of a 10-game suspension.
After the injuries the strength of the Texans defense now resides in the linebacking core. Bernardrick McKinney, Jadeveon Clowney, and rookie Zach Cunningham should become the focal points of the defense. With the correct scheme they should be able to continue their dominance against the run. The biggest issue moving forward will be generating a consistent pass rush.
Without Watt and Mercilus, the defensive front will struggle to get penetration against the run. D.J. Reader can be expected to play more snaps moving forward. The former Clemson Tiger has been much improved in his second season. He has been effective eating up two blockers on most running plays keeping his linebackers clean. While Reader is not Vince Wilfork is his prime, however he can give this defense the same impact the older player did in 2016 and possibly better. Consistent play by Reader will give McKinney and Cunningham the room to make plays against the run.
Jadeveon Clowney will be counted on to lead the pass rush. Clowney had six sacks last season, but this defense needs continued improvement from the former number one overall pick. Defenses have keyed on Watt in 2017 allowing others to make plays. Focus will shift to Clowney since he has the potential to be very disruptive up front. Through five games Houston has eleven sacks tying them for 19th in the league.
Clowney leads the way with three sacks and besides McKinney no one else has more than one. Mike Vrabel and Romeo Crennel will need to be creative to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Texans have used a variety of zone blitzes and this should increase given the available personnel.
Rookie linebacker’s Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole will be called into service. Cunningham was known as a big, athletic linebacker coming out of Vanderbilt with his weakness being tackling. Through five games he has been impressive getting downhill and making plays in the box. It would not be surprising to see him lining up in Mercilus’ role on passing downs. This would allow Cunningham to get after the passer or drop back in zone coverage or man coverage against the tight end. Cole has been a surprise this season, but is not as versatile as Cunningham. The undrafted free agent is more of wild card, but his size and strength give him a chance. It will be interesting to see how Cole is used in the absence of key players on the defense.
Luckily the depleted defense’s first test is the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have not won a game and look like the early leader for the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. If DeShaun Watson and company can get out to an early lead, you can expect some experimentation by Vrabel and Crennel. This will allow them to put players in new situations and see how they react. You could say this a trap game, but it is exactly what the Texans need. An opportunity to sort out the defense leading into their bye week.
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