ARLINGTON – Lovie Smith nodded his head vigorously and clenched his fist on the sideline, gestures of strong approval from the plainspoken, white-bearded veteran Texans defensive coordinator.
Watching the Texans’ defense take the football away three times against the Green Bay Packers a week ago at Lambeau Field, Smith saw proof that his teaching is leaving an imprint on the minds of his overhauled defense.
Smith knows what it’s supposed to look like. The former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach has coached everyone from Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher in his trademark 4-3 defense.
After taking over the NFL’s 30th-ranked defense from last season, a unit that lacked aggressiveness and cohesiveness, Smith is optimistic about what he’s seeing.
One year after the Texans had just nine takeaways on three interceptions and six fumble recoveries to rank last in the NFL in that statistical category, the Texans were extremely opportunistic during a 26-7 preseason opening victory at Green Bay.
Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson had two fumble recoveries, including one on a sack-strip from defensive end Jon Greenard. And cornerback Tremon Smith intercepted a high Kurt Benkert pass and tapped his toes on the sideline like a wide receiver to remain inbounds.
This is what Smith has been hoping for as he’s imparted knowledge and techniques about how to develop a strategy for getting the football as the Texans prepare for their second preseason game Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
“We have a basic philosophy on how we want to play football,” Smith said. “Yeah, we want to stop the run, we want to be sound and all those things. They determine the winner by how many points you score and that’s one of our goals on defensively to score as often as possible, just like on offense. And if we can’t score, it’s about taking the ball away. It’s not a good defensive game unless you’ve done more than make a tackle. Takeaways are important and if you’ve been at practice, you’ve seen guys buying into that.
“I think it’s a mindset. We as a defense, you can’t wait for the offense to turn the ball over you have to take it away. So on defense, first off, the philosophy that it’s a takeaway. You have to take the ball away on the defensive side and then you got to practice it. Simple as that. You just have to keep practicing it, like you practice tackling, like a receiver practice catching the ball. All of those things.”
Toward that goal, Smith has developed a system for how to track turnovers and attempts to create them.
What that means is constantly trying to punch the football out of offensive players’ hands and disrupt passing lanes to create interceptions.
“That’s been an emphasis in every meeting,” said veteran safety Justin Reid, who has five career interceptions and no interceptions last season. “We have target goals on how many times we even want to punch the ball. This is the first time I’ve seen it where we’re tracking just strip attempts, punch attempts, tracking all of that. Really trying to put an emphasis on guys to go after the ball and create turnovers, because those are game-changing situations.
“Last year, the defense, it just wasn’t tight enough. Too many holes, too many pitch-and-catches. We tried to put some emphasis on the ball, but we didn’t do a good enough job last year. Plain and simple.”
Twice with the St. Louis Rams as defensive coordinator and once as the Bears’ head coach, Smith’s defenses have led the NFL in takeaways. Against the Packers, the Texans looked fired up with something to prove and the results reflected that mentality.
“I think it was a matter of us just running to the ball,” Johnson said. “I know that’s what our coaches have been harping on the entire training camp: just running to the ball and giving effort. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It’s just a measure of us playing hard. I don’t think it’s anything special. It’s us going out there and doing our thing and playing hard.”
While the Texans’ defense a year ago under a first-year defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver who was also tasked with coaching the defensive line didn’t succeed in its goal in taking away the football very often, players have expressed a lot of confidence that this year is going to be dramatically different in that area.
“Coach Lovie Smith's system, it's so much more aggressive,” Reid said. “He lets us play free on the back end. He's very intent about us wanting to make plays and going and making plays, playing with instincts, playing with security; at the same time, but when we see an opportunity to make a play and go strip the ball out, he harps on us going to do that. He's in my ear literally every day.”
Some of the changes Smith has instituted are technical. Others speak to the credibility he’s built from coaching past standouts like retired Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber.
“Definitely an old-school guy,” said nickel back Desmond King, a former All-Pro selection signed to a one-year, $5 million contract this offseason. “You can tell that by his demeanor and how he coaches. He likes the basic fundamentals. He teaches that every day to us. That's what you want to do as a player. You want to start from the basics and build from the ground up. I think that's what we're doing now, starting from the bottom and building up to where we want to be.”
A former NFL Coach of the Year who reached the Super Bowl once as a head coach and another time as the Rams defensive coordinator, Smith went 89-87 during his two NFL head coaching stints, going 17-39 in five seasons at Illinois before being fired in December.
Smith also holds the title of associate head coach in addition to running the Texans’ defense.
“Guy’s been coaching football for longer than I have been alive, so I’m going to listen to that guy,” Texans first-year special teams coordinator Frank Ross said. “You can’t put a price on experience so if you don’t have your rabbit ears up and listening when a guy like Lovie Smith is talking, you are missing an opportunity to grow.”
Smith helped build the Tampa 2 defense as the Buccaneers linebackers with Tony Dungy. Now, the Big Spring native and Texas Sports Hall of Fame member is working to teach the finer points of his 4-3 defense.
“I love this defense so much,” said Texans linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, who had two tackles for losses against Green Bay. “I think that it is a mutual feeling with all of us. You see the guys just flying around. The defensive line is going crazy. It is just a lot of fun.
“We’re nowhere where we need to be, but I am excited about the future. I am excited about the season and the guys we have in the room. You can see that guys are flying around everywhere and making plays. The defense is going to be something special.”
Smith likes what he’s seeing. He likes what he’s hearing. Now, he wants to see the Texans continue to take steps and keep building momentum heading into the regular season.
“Well, I know it's coach talk, but I'll give it anyway,” Smith said. “It's been rewarding. It's been a lot of fun. Our guys, you've had a chance to be around them. They show up every day. They take coaching. They're like a sponge. They're hungry and just buying in to what we're doing.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.