The aggressive and skilled way that Texans defensive end Charles Omenihu busted into the Dallas Cowboys' backfield didn't come as a surprise to his position coach.
Omenihu piled up two sacks and a fumble recovery Saturday night at AT&T Stadium, firmly establishing that he belongs in the conversation as a strong potential breakout candidate heading into his third NFL season.
A former Big 12 Conference Defensive Lineman of the Year and fifth-round draft pick from the University of Texas, Omenihu is the Texans' tallest and heaviest edge rusher at 6-foot-6, 280 pounds and is also capable of lining up inside on third downs. Omenihu creates serious mismatches against smaller tight ends with his superior strength and also has the explosiveness and technique to defeat bigger offensive tackles at the line of scrimmage.
Omenihu and defensive tackle Maliek Collins are building a fast chemistry and timing on line stunts that allow them to create penetration.
"You know what, Charles is getting better, he really is," Texans defensive line coach Bobby King said. "We expect him to win versus tight ends and we expect him to run games really well. I’m talking about his two nice plays on sacks, but he’s doing a nice job in other areas, too. I’m proud of Chuck. He’s going to continue to get better. I look forward to seeing that.”
Omenihu recorded four sacks last season while playing just 49 percent of the overall defensive snaps last season and had a career-high 16 quarterback hits. The former Texas Longhorns standout has been working hard to polish his craft and improve the finer nuances of his game.
Collins' push led to one of Omenihu's sacks, and Omenihu credited Collins for allowing him to break free.
“Oh, he’s got to go make the play," Collins said. "He got home. He got free. At the end of the day he went and made the play, so however you feel about it, I give him all the credit for it.
"He’s tough, man. He’s a good player and I’m looking forward to seeing him grow and continue to develop. He’s strong, he can bend. Yeah, man, he’s a great player. You’ve seen it on Saturday whenever we played, a glimpse of what he can be. He’s going to continue to work and develop to be that.”
Omenihu has seven career sacks during his first two NFL seasons. He had a career-high 16 quarterback hits, one fewer than former Texans defensive end J.J. Watt last season before the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was cut at his request this offseason. Only five players have more sacks in franchise history during their first two NFL seasons than Omenihu.
"The more and more you're out there and feeling out the guy you're going against, it's like, 'Okay, I'm giving him this, he can expect this,'" Omenihu said. "This is like my fastball and my secondary pitch is probably just as fast as the first one. You just don't know it. It's a mental game out there for me. Just being out there, pass rushing more from the outside, inside, from all over, I get an idea of what I'm good at and what I can attack other guys with."
Inside the locker room after the game, Omenihu was surprised to learn he had received the game ball from Texans coach David Culley, general manager Nick Caserio and executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby for his breakout performance.
"I was like, 'That's lit,'" Omenihu said. "I appreciate the organization for giving me that. I think that's a birthday present. I've never had that. That was a good experience. I love it."
Omenihu is competing for a starting job at left defensive end and delivered a convincing performance that dovetailed with the Texans’ aggressive defense engineered by defensive coordinator Lovie Smith forcing four turnovers against the Cowboys with five sacks.
Between Omenihu, Martin, Collins, Whitney Mercilus, Shaq Lawson and Jordan Jenkins, the Texans should have a productive group of pass rushers.
"It's crazy, honestly," Omenihu said. "You got four guys who can get after it. Jacob got speed. Maliek (Collins) got speed. He's got quick feet. You got me, I got length and quickness. And then you've got Whit who knows how to rush and still got it off the edge.
"So, it's four guys that it's like: 'Who's going to get there first, how we going to do it?' We work as a collective group. It's not just four individuals. It's four guys working as a cohesive unit to get to the quarterback. The main goal is strip sacks."
After being shut out in the season opener last season against the Kansas City Chiefs, Omenihu recorded at least one quarterback hit in 14 of the final 15 games. He had a season-high three quarterback hits along with four tackles and one for a loss against the Tennessee Titans in the last game of the season.
Over the final three games of the season, Omenihu played 71 percent, 80 percent and 82 percent of the snaps and combined for two sacks, eight tackles, two for losses, and five quarterback hits.
Playing for new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, the defense looks much more aggressive than it did a year ago under defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver as the Texans finished 30th in total defense.
"Yeah, absolutely, we got guys who have bought into what Lovie's preaching," Omenihu said. "We've got guys who are flying around and guys who have bought into the technique they want us to play, how they want us to play and as coaches that's all they can ask for is having guys bought in and 11 guys who are going to buy into the system and run to the ball. If you get a chance to get to the quarterback, you punch the ball out whatever the case might be."
And the Texans' shift to a 4-3 defense from a 3-4 alignment seems to be working in Omenihu's favor.
"I think I'm versatile enough to play in any front, but being in a four-man front on first and second down going against tight ends and tackles that's a lot easier than going against tackles and guards," Omenihu said. "I mean Lovie puts us in those positions to go against tight ends. Any D-lineman in the NFL will tell you if a tight end blocks you, that's a problem. So, that's the mentality. You can't let them block you."
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.