Houston Texans Turnover Tracker Pt 1: Interceptions - Luck or Skill?

What did Lovie Smith do in 2021 to help the Texans rank 8th in the NFL in interceptions?

The 2021/2022 Houston Texans' defense marginally improved as veteran defensive coordinator (DC) Lovie Smith took over the reins from rookie DC Anthony Weaver. Playing a simple, fast and “bend but don’t break” style of defense, Smith’s unit was heavily dependent on forcing turnovers to slow down offenses.

Forcing turnovers has an immense impact on the outcome of a game. A 2013 study concluded that teams with more interceptions than their opponent won the game 80% of the time and teams that forced and recovered more fumbles than their opponents won the game 70% of the time.

For a Texans unit that is still lacking in elite talent, they may continue to live or die by the amount of takeaways they generate. This commences the beginning of a three-part series intending to discover what exactly Smith has done to improve the units’ takeaways and determine if they are sustainable going forward.

The past Texans’ season showed an improvement in points allowed per game (29.0 in 2020 to 26.6 in 2021), yards allowed per game (416.8 in 2020 to 384.4 in 2021) and most impressively, total takeaways (9 in 2020 to 25 in 2021).

Smith’s Super Bowl winning reputation comes with many defensive principles which he hangs his hat on - none more famous than his desire for taking the ball away from opposing offenses. After finishing dead last in the NFL in takeaways in 2020, Smith’s unit skyrocketed to 12th, with 18 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries.

This takeaway statistic, per ESPN, Pro Football Reference and every other statistical database, does not even consider takeaways forced via 4th down stops. The Texans forced nine turnovers on downs and allowed a conversion rate of 57.9%, decent enough for 20th in the league.

This three-pronged view on takeaways - interceptions, fumbles and turnovers on downs - offers a multitude of possibilities to learn about what exactly Smith has his players doing to generate this game-altering statistic. With such an overflow of information to examine, this article will focus solely on interceptions, to ensure the proper level of depth is provided to readers.

How are Interceptions Forced?

Historically, takeaways are an extremely volatile stat which can be dependent on good defense, bad offense, or just plain luck. While the nature of forcing fumbles and recovering an unpredictable bouncing football is extremely lucky and hard to quantify, interceptions have slightly more predictability year over year.

A common defensive principle is that pass rush helps coverage and vice versa. Interestingly, a study conducted on all 32 defenses from 2003-2013 displays that a defense’s sack rate has next to no correlation (explains less than 1% of the variance) with a defense’s interception rate - meaning sacks are not responsible for producing interceptions.

This conclusion can be a bit misleading and helps corroborate what analytics have been telling us about the importance of pressures, more so than sacks. Of course, if a quarterback gets sacked they do not even have the opportunity to throw the ball, let alone throw an interception.

However, if a quarterback is pressured, they do have that opportunity and advanced stats tell us that quarterbacks perform far worse under pressure than with a clean pocket. PFF determined that in 2016, quarterbacks saw their passer rating drop on average by 32.7 when they were pressured, versus when they could throw from a clean pocket.

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A similar trend is seen with interception rates. In 2016, there were 219 interceptions thrown by 37 quarterbacks on 12,100 pass attempts from a clean pocket, a rate of 1.8%. Conversely, those same 37 quarterbacks combined to throw 153 interceptions on 4,942 attempts when pressure was faced, a rate of 3.1%.

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Therefore, while there is not a correlation between sack rate and interception rate, there is a positive relationship between pressure rate and interception rate. Why has this been a focus of this article?

I wanted to examine if Lovie Smith’s propensity for playing fast, getting off the ball and attacking the quarterback translates to pressures and thus interceptions.

Smith’s 4-3 defense preaches an aggressive, one-gapping style that allows his players to get upfield and closer towards the quarterback at a quicker rate than a 3-4 gap control defense does. Has that philosophy translated to production, though?

The Texans finished with the 3rd fewest quarterback pressures (124) and the 6th worst pressure percentage (20.7%) in 2021. Furthermore, via my personal tracking of their 17 interceptions, only seven were thrown under pressure, versus 10 thrown from a clean pocket.

INTs Thrown Under Pressure

First, let’s further examine the seven interceptions thrown under pressure. There are two sub-groups here; pressure caused by the defensive line winning their 1on1s (six interceptions), and pressure schemed up by a blitz or simulated pressure (one interception).


At first glance, generating more interceptions under, what we’ll call “natural” pressure, versus “schemed” pressure might lead one to believe that Smith’s principles of playing fast and getting off the ball are in fact leading to more pass rush wins and thus interceptions.

However, this stat is clouded by volume metrics. What I mean by this is Smith’s defense rushes four at an overwhelming rate and only blitzes 19.5% of the time, good for 3rd lowest in the league. By calling the 3rd fewest blitzes in the NFL (117 total), of course there are less opportunities for these “schemed” pressures and more opportunities for “natural” pressures.

Furthermore, while Smith doesn’t take the opportunity to scheme up pressures very often, there is another defensive philosophy that he could implement to confuse quarterbacks, make them hold onto the ball longer and thus lead to more pressures.

That being said, the idea of utilizing coverage disguises or rotations is one that is either foreign or allergenic to Smith. We all know he loves to call Tampa 2 and what’s even worse about calling this outdated, basic coverage is that he rarely disguises it. What you see is what you get with the Texans defense.

This is backed up by the film as five of the seven interceptions thrown under pressure came when the Texans were playing Tampa 2. Additionally, on three of those five interceptions, there were no coverage disguises or rotations.

This discovery, if applied properly, might actually be a positive for Houston. Even though Smith rarely disguised his coverage, two of the five interceptions thrown under pressure versus Tampa 2 came when he finally did disguise or rotate his coverage. It’s a small sample for sure, but helps show that maybe Smith should be playing less vanilla after all.

Take this interception in Week Nine from Jacoby Brissett (#14) and the Miami Dolphins, for example. Pre snap, the Texans seem to be in a single high coverage - either Cover 3 or Cover 1 - as indicated by Justin Reid (#20) deep in the “post” and Eric Murray (#23) lining up in shallower depth, over the slot receiver.

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Just before the ball is snapped, however, Murray bails deeper and the Texans drop into their patented Tampa 2. Due to Brissett playing under center and the play-action fake to the running back, he doesn’t get to see the defense until he hits the top of his drop, thus he has no idea that the coverage picture has now changed.

Yes, the pressure is what forces Brissett out of the pocket and he ultimately underthrows the ball on the run but the coverage rotation plays a part in confusing Brissett. This slows down his decision making process, the ball does not come out at the top of his drop, which gives the pass rush more time to generate that play-altering pressure.

Now that we’ve dove into the interceptions caused by pressure, we need to examine if these pressured takeaways are likely to increase or decrease in the 2022 season. First and foremost, going into year two of commanding the defense, if Smith is more comfortable asking his players to execute coverage rotations or disguises I would expect this to positively affect their interception rate.

Secondly, it’s important to understand which players caused and hauled in the interceptions and state if the responsible players are still on the roster. If the majority of these takeaways were due to players who are no longer Texans, well then we shouldn’t expect those plays to be made at a similar rate, unless upgrades have been made.

Of the seven interceptions thrown under pressure, four were hauled in by players still donning the battle red (Eric Murray, Desmond King x2 and Kamu Grugier-Hill) while three came from players who have switched teams (Justin Reid, Lonnie Johnson and Vernon Hargreaves).

More importantly, of the seven interceptions thrown under pressure, four pressures were caused by players still here (Ross Blacklock, Roy Lopez, Jordan Jenkins and Kamu Grugier-Hill), while three pressures (Vincent Taylor, Demarcus Walker and Jacob Martin) came from players no longer on the roster.

It is encouraging to see that 57% (4/7) of the pressured interceptions were caused and caught by players still on the Texans roster, going into 2022. That potentially provides us a floor of four interceptions caused by pressure, now can Houston improve upon that?

Generating pressure to cause the interception is more difficult than simply catching the football to secure the interception. Thus, more importance should be placed on the players in the trenches who are creating these pressures.

The determining question in my mind is, have the Texans brought in better defensive linemen than the ones they lost? Will Rasheem Green, Mario Addison, Jerry Hughes, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Thomas Booker provide more pressures than Taylor, Walker and Martin?

This is a difficult question to predict accurately but Green, Addison, Hughes and Okoronkwo (Booker not included because he’s a rookie) combined for 87 pressures in 2021. This more than doubles the combined 34 pressures from Taylor, Walker and Martin, per Pro Football Reference.

Let’s disregard for a second; opportunity, age, health and development as these variables will take a long time to quantify how they will impact future pressures. On paper, the Texans have improved their defensive line, at least from a pressure generating perspective.

This leads me to believe they can create more pressure and thus cause more interceptions going forward, albeit, not necessarily due to Smith, but rather by adding more proven talent.

The final important aspect to consider is if Smith will decide to scheme up pressure more often and not simply rely on a four-man rush like he has all of his coaching career.

The Texans have added rookies who excel at blitzing - Baylor’s Jalen Pitre and Alabama’s Christian Harris combined for nine sacks in 2021. Letting these youngsters loose and playing them to their strengths could yield more pressures and thus interceptions.

There are a lot of “ifs” to think about but Smith has the opportunity to diversify his defensive principles, become less predictable and scheme up more pressure, which has shown to cause more interceptions. I truly hope he gets the memo.

INTs From a Clean Pocket

Oh no, we’re not done just yet. We’ve only broken down seven of the Texans 17 interceptions from 2021 - the fun has just begun. The other 10 interceptions are grouped together due to their commonality of being thrown from a clean pocket.

These interceptions are less so forced by the defense and more so due to mistakes made by the offense. Again, we have two sub-groups: interceptions due to inaccuracy (four) and interceptions due to bad decisions (six).

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The interceptions due to inaccuracy were not caused by the defense pressuring the quarterback and forcing them to speed up their throwing motion or alter their mechanics - remember, these interceptions were thrown from a clean pocket.

Thus, I believe there is no reason to applaud Smith for doing anything schematically or philosophically to generate these interceptions. Rather, these are the interceptions that we can draw up to “bad offense” or “dumb luck”.

For example, take this interception thrown by Baker Mayfield (#6) in Week Two. From a very clean pocket, Mayfield simply overthrows Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver Anthony Schwartz (#10) on the “dig” route. Safety Justin Reid (#20) makes a quick break on the throw but there was no way Schwartz was catching this ball.

Here’s another one, during Week 16 vs the Los Angeles Chargers. Justin Herbert (#10) rolls out into Siberia and has all day to let a deep shot fly. When Herbert winds up, the wide receiver Josh Palmer (#5) is open in between Houston’s deep safeties.


This is a good call to beat Tampa 2, but Herbert underthrows it and leaves it inside, forcing Palmer to slow down and allowing safety Jonathan Owens (#36) to make a good play.

These unforced and inaccurate interceptions are essentially gifts to the Texans defense. This is where the volatility among takeaways spawns from - mistakes that on any given down, don’t usually happen, but sometimes the offense just messes up.

We’ve seen some of the interceptions due to inaccuracy, now it’s time for the six interceptions that I deemed bad decisions by the offense. Herbert threw two interceptions to Houston, a large reason why the underdog Texans were victorious and his second giveaway was even more head scratching than the first.

With the Texans again in Tampa 2 and again with no disguise or coverage rotation, Herbert targets tight end Jared Cook (#87) over the middle of the field, trying to find a soft spot in between zones.


I don’t have the Chargers playbook so this is me taking an educated guess, however, it looks as if Cook has an option route depending on the defense. He can either sit vs zone coverage or keep running across the field if it’s man coverage.

Cook and Herbert are simply not on the same page, with Cook sitting down and Herbert expecting the tight end to keep running. The result is an overthrown pass which lands in the waiting arms of Tavierre Thomas (#37), who happily takes it back for six.

Herbert simply isn’t going to make this mistake very often, let alone throw two interceptions in one game. Houston plays the Chargers again in 2022 and if I had to guess, Herbert doesn’t make these silly mistakes again.

Perhaps an even luckier interception occurred in Week Nine vs the Miami Dolphins. In a very drunk game with eight total turnovers by the Dolphins offense, Jacoby Brissett (#14) made a poor decision, leading to a pick by defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (#93).

Brissett is trying to find Jaylen Waddle (#17) on the shallow crossing route but never sees Blacklock in the middle of his vision. To add insult to injury, Brissett underthrows Waddle and this pass has zero chance of being completed. More good fortune for Houston.

As I near the end of the article and try to form a conclusion, I must share the split between whether these unforced interceptions were caught by players still on the Texans, or not. Interestingly, of the 10 interceptions thrown from a clean pocket, five came from current Texans and the other five came from players no longer on the team.

This even split is a bit inconclusive. Following the same logic I utilized for the pressured interceptions, perhaps this provides a floor of five interceptions. However, I would push back on my own hypothesis because unforced interceptions are simply less likely to reoccur than forced interceptions.

Therefore, I do not expect Smith’s unit to continually get lucky and be gifted interceptions off unforced errors from a clean pocket. So, where does this leave us in terms of discovering an answer to the question; is the Texans 8th most interceptions forced sustainable next season?

Concluding Thoughts

If you skipped ahead to the findings at the end, I don’t blame you. I like to write and sometimes I write too much (hell, I’m writing this at 3:47 am right now). The purpose of this piece was to firstly uncover whether DC Lovie Smith has done anything schematically or philosophically to help the Texans generate the 12th most turnovers in the NFL, specifically the 8th most interceptions in 2021.

To answer this, I believe we must solely focus on the forced interceptions due to pressure, because they are more indicative of “good defense” compared to the unforced interceptions thrown from a clean pocket that are more indicative of “bad offense” or “dumb luck”.

Only one of these seven pressured interceptions came via a “schemed” pressure (a Kamu Grugier-Hill blitz) and only two of the six “natural” pressures came via a coverage disguise/rotation. Thus, less than half (42%, or 3/7) of our forced interceptions under pressure can be attributed to Smith’s schematics or philosophy.

Is this an impressive number compared to the rest of the NFL? I don’t have the perfect answer for that because I haven’t watched and tracked every interception from every single defense. In simple terms though, if a DC is only responsible for creating three interceptions over a course of 17 games, that doesn’t sound super successful to me.

The second question I wanted to answer was whether these interceptions would be sustainable going forward. We have two opposing forces working against each other here. The fact that 58% of our interceptions were unforced errors from a clean pocket makes me believe that if luck does not continue to be on our side, our interceptions will decrease.

On the other hand, the on-paper upgrades throughout the defensive line make me a believer in improved pressure rates and thus increased interceptions thrown under pressure. The Green, Hughes, Addison and Okoronkwo additions at DE do not even account for natural progression from third year pro Jonathan Greenard, who tallied 19 pressures (and eight sacks) in 12 games last season.

The million dollar question becomes, will the hopeful increase in interceptions thrown under pressure overcome the likely decrease in interceptions thrown from a clean pocket? I don’t have a crystal ball but I would argue that a defense getting lucky 10 times in 17 games due to offenses making unforced errors will not happen again.

Maybe Houston gets lucky five or six times, but not 10. If the coaching staff has the foresight to look themselves in the mirror and the gumption to admit they got lucky, they’ll have to do something to counteract the drop-off in interceptions due to unforced errors.

If Smith and his defensive assistants do not dial up more blitzes and call more coverage disguises/rotations, they will not generate 17 interceptions again. If Smith does however get out of his comfort zone and switch things up - which he paid lip service to in a recent press conference - combined with the improved defensive line, there is the potential to sustain those impressive takeaways.

There is a tough but clear task at hand for now head coach Lovie Smith. With more duties on his plate, will he have the time to stray away from what he is comfortable with for his entire coaching career? For the sake of fun football again, I truly hope so.