Texans’ revamped defense faces tough test against Browns

CLEVELAND – Justin Reid launched his body in vain a year ago, diving toward the legs of Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb only to skid across the ground empty-handed.

The pivotal missed tackle along with substandard pursuit angles from J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham and Nate Hall allowed Chubb to dash up the sideline unchallenged to secure the first down and allow the Browns to run out the clock to finish a 10-7 victory.

Chubb unselfishly stepped out of bounds following the 59-yard run instead of scoring a touchdown.

It was an ugly performance by an overmatched Texans defense against a powerful running game led by Chubb and Kareem Hunt, arguably the top backfield tandem in the NFL. The Texans surrendered 231 rushing yards on 41 carries as Chubb (126 yards) and Hunt (104 yards) both hit the century mark. That hadn’t happened for a pair of Browns running backs since Leroy Kelly and Ernie Green on Oct. 8, 1966 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it was the third time in Texans franchise history that happened and the first time since Shaun Alexander and Maurice Morris did it for the Seattle Seahawks in 2005.

A year later, a revamped Texans defense looks much stronger under the direction of veteran defensive coordinator and associate head coach Lovie Smith.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Houston Texans

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The Texans’ defense is transforming from a unit with a bad reputation for arm tackles and not creating turnovers into a sounder, more aggressive unit. It’s a stark contrast to how they played a year ago as one of the NFL's worst defenses.

“Yeah, I don’t even want to talk about the game last year, that was just ugly on all sides,” Reid said. “But a lot more confident. I’ve been saying the same thing over and over just about how I love the aggressiveness of this defense just how guys attack downhill. 

"I think that the reads are easier in run game. I think that guys are flying to the ball and I think when you have that type of effort, which I think the effort level is way higher as well. When you have that type of effort it falls into place easier.”

Chubb and Hunt still provide a difficult challenge, but the scouting report on the Texans is changing.

In a 4-3 scheme after operating in a 3-4 previously, the Texans have much better gap integrity than a year ago. The freelancing, lack of discipline and poor fundamentals have become a thing of the past.

They had three interceptions during a 37-21 season-opening win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, matching their total for the entire season last year.

The Browns have a powerful running game and some explosive downfield weapons in Jarvis Landry, Anthony Schwartz and David Njoku even without the presence of Odell Beckham Jr., who’s out this game as he continues to make a full recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last season.

“Life’s good,” Smith said. “We did some good things last week. History has kind of told me that big improvements happen from Week One to Week 2. We will need to do that playing a good Cleveland Brown team. Just talking about them offensively, stars at every position, will be a big challenge for us. When you are building a program like we are doing right now it’s good to see how you match up against one of the best teams in our conference.”

The Texans had just one sack on Jaguars rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but did generate pressure while blitzing infrequently. That’s a trademark of Smith’s defenses, which employs a lot of zone coverage schemes.

“When you talk about zone coverage, you have to talk about the front first, and that’s making the ball come out on time,” Smith said. “ But we got pretty good pressure throughout, which as far as a coverage part, the back seven, we rely on our linebackers. We have athletes we feel like that need to be able to be comfortable in space. So, we like what they were able to do.

“Corner wise, when you get a lead you can play a lot more zone, which leads to opportunities to intercept the ball. Vernon Hargreaves to get on the board, Christian Kirksey to get on the board, Justin Reid to get on the board as far as getting picks, it's big. First game we saw some things, but we left an awful lot on the field.”

At their heart, the Browns are a run-first outfit even though quarterback Baker Mayfield is capable of piling up yardage. This is a versatile offense, but coach Kevin Stefanski’s preference is to pound the football.

“You don’t want to be an offense that is one dimensional, that can only run it or pass it,” Smith said. “When you have balance it keeps the defense, makes you play them honestly. Most defenses you start off trying to stop the run, and they have two excellent running backs, real good offensive line, three good tight ends and there is commitment though.

“When you say a running football team, is there a commitment to running the football. We, offensively, have a commitment to running the football. Cleveland definitely has a commitment to running the football.”

A dramatic improvement as a tackling defense is one of the more encouraging developments surrounding the 1-0 Texans. A year ago, there were so many missed tackles, including a rough start to the season from Cunningham, who wound up leading the NFL in tackles.

Chubb sees a major difference in the Texans, whose defense includes former Browns starting linebacker Christian Kirksey as their defensive signal caller.

“I see a lot of guys who played here, I see a group of guys who want to win, who play hard and who play together," Chubb said. "Despite things that have been said about them, they are ignoring the noise, they are going out there and they are playing their butts off. I see a team that is excited to play and excited to prove themselves.”

It won’t be an easy task, though, against the Browns. Cleveland rushed for 153 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries against the Chiefs, the defending AFC champions, as Chubb ran for 83 yards and two scores and Hunt had 33 yards and one touchdown run. They averaged 5.9 yards per carry.

“You know, I am a guy that never lives in the past,” Smith said. “I can’t tell you a lot about old girlfriends, anything like that. So, I’m just going on what we are doing right now. The team has tackled pretty good. We expect to tackle well again.

“When you talk about two great running backs like they have, you've got to be able to get by these first. Running to the ball, pursuit comes into it, as many as people as possible to the ball and wrap up on them. I mean, the team played a good football team last week. Kansas City didn’t really stop them, so that’s the challenge we have at hand.”

The Texans’ attitude and confidence is growing. That’s an important step for a defense that struggled in every way a year ago under first-year defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver.

“I feel like we know each other better,” Reid said. “ I feel like we have a better sense of chemistry and knowing what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are, but that hunger hasn’t changed, man. We focus on ourselves in the locker room and we know what we’ve got.

“I don’t think any one of us is immune to knowing what is being said outside of the walls, not that it’s important. But it still feels that hunger, man, that we’ve all got inside of us. So, we’re going to keep that chip on our shoulders and be ready to play.”

Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128

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