Houston Texans 3rd Down and Long Defensive Analysis

I, and I'm sure many, have been frustrated with the Texans 3rd down and long defense. After watching every single Texans' 2019-2020 3rd down and long, I came away with some very interesting conclusions. To summarize; stop rushing only 3 defenders, and start rush 5+ defenders way more often. Our success rate in getting off the field on 3rd and long went way up, the more and more we rushed additional defenders. *Note: I classified "3rd and long" as 3rd and 8 or greater* In this article I will break down how our defense fared depending on how many defenders we rushed. And at the end, I look at RAC's "Prevent" defense on 3rd and long, and really see if it was effective or not. Enjoy the read!

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7 Man Rush

Let's start with the 7 man rush, and work in a decreasing fashion. The first play I want to show y'all is the ONE AND ONLY time we sent 7 defenders on a rush. Yes, we only did this once, and guess what? IT WORKED. We got off the field! 100% success rate BABY. Needless, to say, we should experiment with these 7 man rushes much more next season.

Watch this play against the Colts, as we send 7 guys, Brissett doesn't have the time to read the field, and has to throw up a prayer. Omenihu wins inside and gets right into Brissett's face, forcing an overthrow. Again, rushing more defenders speeds up the QB's process and forces them into mistakes. The coverage doesn't have to cover for as long, and can take more risks. I WANT MORE.

6 Man Rush

So, sending 7 man rushes was successful, but 1 play isn't a great sample size. Unfortunately we don't get a huge sample size in sending 6 man rushes either, but it's better. We only sent 6 defenders 5 times this past year, but we got off the field 4 of those times. Leading to a success rate of 80%! For reference, according to ESPN, the average NFL defense got off the field on 60.5% of 3rd downs (not accounting for "3rd and long", which would have a higher percentage). Hopefully Weaver changes this small sample size, and sends 6 defenders much more often, because we looked GOOD doing it.

This play design is beautiful, and it should be heavily used as it gets JJ Watt on the inside, and allows us to play our best players on the defensive line. With Mercilus and Martin on the edge, Watt and Omenihu up the middle, and B Mack and Addae in the A gap, we look scary. Furthermore, B Mack and Watt run a stunt, which gets Watt on a RB, and right into Brissett's face. This forces an underthrow, which Jonathan Joseph gets a hand on. T.Y. Hilton somehow brings this ball down, and is one of the flukiest plays I've seen. This was actually the one and only play ALL YEAR that got completed on us, when we rushed 6 defenders. That's crazy!

Another play here where sending 6 forces the QB into an errant throw, this time we get off the field. Same six guys lined up on the LOS, but with Dylan Cole instead of Jahleel Addae. Again watch JJ Watt and B Mack work this. B Mack takes on Quenton Nelson, leaving JJ Watt free to instil pain on the RB. JJ get's into Brissett's face and so does the GOAT Jacob Martin, who chops down on the RT's hands and gets the pressure. This forces Brissett to run backwards from the pocket, throw off his back foot, and miss an open T.Y. Hilton. The lesson to learn here is that good pressure can make up for bad coverage. The more we can bring these 6 man blitzes, the better we will be. The film and the stats prove it.

One more play here of us rushing 6 defenders, and this time we don't even physically affect the QB. However, all game long we had been beating up on Gardner Minshew, and we must've gotten into his head. Therefore, when he saw 6 Texans coming at him, he got worried, sped up his mechanics, and threw an errant ball which led to an INT. Unfortunately, only 6% of our 3rd and longs resulted in sending 6 defenders. I really hope we see this number jump up next season.

5 Man Rush

Now let's look at what happened when the Texans rushed 5 defenders on 3rd and long. The Texans did so 13 times in total, and they got off the field 8 times. Leading to a success rate of 62%! Sending 5 still had a positive effect, albeit not as great as sending 6, but we have a solid sample size here. For further perspective, we sent 5 defenders on 16% of our 3rd and longs. I would love for this number to increase even more next season.

Watch this play where the Texans end up bringing 4 guys off the right side, and 1 off the left. I love this overload blitz with AJ Moore, Jahleel Addae, Whitney Mercilus and Barkevious Mingo to the right side of the field. This movement at the line and exotic package confuses the left tackle, and AJ Moore is able to get a good rush towards Jameis Winston, forcing him out of the pocket. Whitney does well to act somewhat as a spy here. He gets over the right guard, just waits for Winston to scramble, and chases him down for the sack.

Another example here of how these exotic blitzes can make QB's uncomfortable in the pocket. The Texans line up 6 guys on the line of scrimmage. Four of them rush, while Jacob Martin drops in coverage (why??) and it seems like Benardrick McKinney does too. But B Mack doesn't drop in coverage, he only fakes it, trying to get the offensive linemen to forget about him. Then he rushes up the middle and Dylan Cole backs off, acting as a QB spy. The design there was cool, but it's Charles Omenihu who causes the pressure. He gets his hands into the LG's chest, pulls on his jersey, and hits Lamar in the back. Shoutout Whitney Mercilus too for getting around the edge and forcing Lamar to step up in the pocket, messing up his footwork and forcing the errant throw.

Our success rate when sending 5 defenders should've been even higher. This is because there were a handful of plays where the defense was in great position, but the offense just made a great play. Take a look at this next play for example.

A nicely designed 5 man blitz here where LB Peter Kalambayi ends up getting into Ryan Tannehill's face. He gets a pressure but the ball gets out just in time. Now look in coverage, where Lonnie Johnson is in really tight coverage on this completion. He's draped all over the WR here, but he makes a really tough catch. There's not much you can do here. We pressured the QB, and had a CB in great position to make a play. These things will happen though, sometimes the offense is just better on that one play. Nonetheless, these couple of plays brought down the success rate of sending 5 defenders, but it should still be used heavily.

4 Man Rush

By my charting the Texans rushed 4 defenders (without blitzing) 49 times (on 61% of our 3rd and longs), and 29 of those times, the Texans were successful in getting off the field. That leads to a 59% success rate, which is pretty awful. Considering the average NFL defense had a success rate of 60.5% on all 3rd downs, having 59% on 3rd and long is... not great. The difference in whether we successfully got off the field was simple, whether or not the QB was pressured. When our 4 man rush got home, and the QB was affected, we were obviously a lot more successful. Take a look at this play for example.

Against the Chiefs, J.J. Watt beats RT Mitchell Schwartz off the right edge and gets into Patrick Mahomes' face. Also, on the left side, Whitney Mercilus and Charles Omenihu run a nice stunt to get Omenihu into Mahomes' face as well. This pressure forces Mahomes to throw off his back foot, not allowing him to step into his throw and get good power on it. This causes the ball to be slightly underthrown, and close enough to CB Bradley Roby for him to get a hand into the catch point and prevent the catch.

Pressure bursts pipes. We all know that the more pressure we can apply as a defense will make us better. But these 4 man rushes weren't amazing at applying that pressure. When the pressure was non-existent, offenses had far more success. As seen here against the Ravens, Lamar has a clean pocket to step up into, and can find his WR in stride. It's not awful coverage, it's not like TE Mark Andrews is WIDE open, but because Lamar Jackson has such a clean pocket with no pressure, he can throw this perfectly. The Texans sent a simple 4 man rush WAY too often in my opinion, that number (61%) needs to go down for next season.

4 Man Rush with Blitz

We all know that our 4 man rush needs to get better. Luckily, there are good reasons to believe that it will get better. Rookie 2nd round pick, Ross Blacklock is an ATHLETE, and should help in bringing pressure up the middle. The growth of Charles Omenihu will also improve the interior rush. On the edge, not even talking about JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus, but the growth from the GOAT Jacob Martin will be insanely fruitful. I'm also extremely excited to see rookie 3rd round pick Jonathan Greenard. He's one of the most technically advanced pass rushers I've seen coming out of college. He's going to do great things. Duke Ejiofor being healthy could be very beneficial too.

Now moving on, let's talk about when the Texans rushed 4 defenders, but blitzed them. What I mean by this can be best seen on this next play. The Texans line up Whitney Mercilus, Jahleel Addae, Benardrick McKinney, Jacob Martin and AJ Moore on the line of scrimmage. They only send four of them though, one of them being Moore, on a beautiful safety blitz. He comes fast off the edge and is relentless in his pursuit. He fights through the block by the RB and forces Ryan Tannehill to step up into the pocket and right into a sack.

This creativity was rarely seen from the Texans, only sending these 4 man blitzes 9 times all year (just 11% of our 3rd and longs). I don't know why they didn't do it more, as they were extremely successful, getting off the field 6/9 times. This led to a success rate of 67%, compared to just 59% when we rushed 4, but not on a blitz.

RAC did well to scheme up these blitzes and I would love to see it more. Watch this other nicely designed safety blitz, this time, Jahleel Addae gets in on the fun. The Texans line up JJ Watt, Benardrick McKinney, Charles Omenihu and Whitney Mercilus on the defensive line. They make it seem like those are the 4 guys going to get after the QB. But, at the last second we see Addae creeping down from the box, and times the snap pretty well. He flies into the backfield and gets dived at by the RB. Addae flips over, but gets up really quickly, and gets Phillip Rivers uncomfortable. You can see how he forces Rivers to take a step sideways, and thus causing the errant throw.

3 Man Rush

When I watched the Texans 2019-2020 season live I remember absolutely hating whenever we would only rush 3 defenders, and drop 8 in coverage. It made little sense to me and rarely ever worked. Feeling those emotions during the heat of the game is one thing, so I decided to watch the film and see if my initial reaction was warranted. Spoiler alert, it was. The Houston Texans rushed 3 defenders on 3rd and long, 8 times throughout the year. Do you want to know how many times they successfully got off the field when they rushed 3 defenders? Zero, zero times they got off the field. Safe to say my emotions were warranted.

Breaking down the film it's easy to see why this concept of rushing only 3 defenders didn't work. It's quite simple honestly, QB's had way too much time to be comfortable in the pocket, and wait for someone to get open. Look at this play vs the Bills in the playoffs. We only rush 3 and while Josh Allen needlessly scrambles out wide, he eventually settles himself and has all day. He can sit around, scramble to the sideline and just wait for someone to get open. No defense can cover for this long, with only 3 defenders going after the QB, even if you had 8 Darelle Revis', they wouldn't be able to cover forever. Let alone Benardrick McKinney.

Not convinced rushing 3 defenders is awful and should never be done? That's fair, here's another play to further drive home the point. Now against the Ravens, rushing 3 against Lamar Jackson just doesn't work. Even a QB who many say is more of a runner, not a passer, can pick apart a defense when he has this much time. This just might be the cleanest pocket I've ever seen. While Dylan Cole almost had a pick, it's just not fair to expect anyone to cover for this long.

"Prevent" Defense

Let's finally look at the Texans "Prevent Defense", the main motivation behind this article. I, and many, have been furious every time the Texans line up their defensive backs WAY off coverage, and behind the sticks. This usually occurred on 3rd and 12+ and it made my skin BOIL. Every time I saw this defensive alignment, I essentially wrote off the play, and assumed we would give up the first. But was I fair to assume that? I really thought we went "prevent" more, but by my tracking, we ran it a total of 5 times on 3rd and long, and successfully got off the field 3 of those times. Leading to a success rate of 60%. Let's take a look at how it worked.

On this play the Texans rush 4, and line up essentially 6 defenders at the first down marker, with one safety super deep. The idea is to have a bunch of defenders around the sticks, force a short throw, and make the tackle before the first down marker. It works great on this play as Justin Reid chases down the RB and makes the tackle, getting the defense off the field.

The Texans were usually able to force defenses into making the "short" throw, but they weren't great at always making the tackle. This play against the Patriots will look almost identical to the previous play, however, the result is not the same. We rush 4, drop 6 to the sticks, and 1 super deep. We again force the underneath throw, but Bradley Roby misses the tackle and the next nearest defender is too late. What's the point in having all these defenders backed off, if they can't come up and make the tackle on time?

One more example here and then I'll move on. 4 man rush, drop 6 to the sticks, 1 safety super deep. Wash, rinse and repeat. We force the short throw but this time Vernon Hargreaves misses the tackle. Sigh, it happens, I guess. However, there are things we can do to prevent (haha good pun bro) this from happening. The answer, is simple. RUSH MORE DEFENDERS.

Concluding Thoughts

There was a lot to unpack there, and I don't blame you if you didn't read it all, but if you did, I appreciate you! To summarize things, the Texans were great when they sent 5+ defenders to rush the QB. Bringing more defenders created more pressure, leading to bad decisions and errant throws. This also takes pressure off the coverage, as they don't have to cover for as long as a 4, or even 3 man rush. WHICH I HOPE HAPPENS LESS AND LESS. Ending on a positive note, I have reason to believe the pass rush will be better next year. Growth from important young players, and adding Ross Blacklock and Jonathan Greenard should be big. Personnel is one thing, but if Weaver can make these schematic adjustments, and simply just send more defenders, we will be a much better 3rd down defense. Trust in our CBs Gareon Conley, Bradley Roby, Lonnie Johnson, John Reid and more. Bring the house. I want 8 man pressures, 9 man pressures, 10 man pressures, 11 man... okay, maybe not 11. Actually, let's stop at 8, that'd probably be wise. What do you think? Will the Texans defense be better next year? Let me know in the comments below.