Lovie Smith believes strongly in an opportunistic approach with the Texans defensive coordinator establishing right away that a defense can’t be considered a good defense if it doesn’t take the football away.
A year ago, the Texans had a league-low nine takeaways for the entire season under former defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver.
Now, an overhauled defense has forced 19 turnovers through 10 games to rank fourth in the NFL behind the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots. That aggressive penchant qualifies as one of the few bright spots for a 2-8 team heading into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.
They’re currently setting a pace to finish the season with 32 turnovers, which would be the second-highest takeaway total in franchise history behind the 2014 team that finished 9-7.
The Texans have a franchise-record 10 turnovers in the past two games, with five turnovers apiece against the Tennessee Titans and the Miami Dolphins. That included quarterback Ryan Tannehill being picked off a career-high four times, including twice by cornerback Desmond King in his best game of the season, last Sunday during a 22-13 upset victory at Nissan Stadium.
“The takeaways, I just know that we preach it, we believe in it, and the guys believe in it,” Smith said. “I just don’t think you can say that you played a good defensive game unless you take the ball away. That’s not anything new, that’s how we’ve been for many years. It matters when you look at the reason why a team won, you look at turnover ratio, it kind of tells you about an awful lot. We know our part in that, of taking the football away, so the guys are doing a great job of that.”
The Jets are shifting back to Wilson, the second overall pick of the draft, after he missed the past four games with a sprained knee. His return to the starting lineup is partly because quarterback Mike White tested positive for COVID-19 and unvaccinated quarterback Joe Flacco was deemed a close contact. Josh Johnson will back up Wilson after being promoted from the practice squad.
Wilson is 1-5 as the starter, with four touchdown passes, nine interceptions and a 27.0 quarterback rating, which ranks 31st out of 33 qualified passers.
“It’s more about us, and we’re going to defend the quarterback position,” Smith said. “They’ve played so many guys, it’s not like they’re going to a different game plan every time they put in a different quarterback. Zach Wilson is an athletic guy that can make any throw.
"There’s a reason he was the second player in the draft. When you’re playing a guy like that, there are certain things you have to do. We set our defense up for athletic quarterbacks, so, hopefully, we’ll be able to shut down them down.”
In the Texans’ wins over the Jaguars and the Titans, the Texans had eight turnovers with seven interceptions and now have 13 interceptions overall. They trail the New England Patriots, Bills and Dallas Cowboys in that category.
“We’ve done some things better defensively,” Smith said. “No. 1 is keeping the ball in front of us. We haven’t given up a lot of explosive plays. You have a chance to win when you do that.
“Intercepting the ball, we’re doing a great job of that. In an ideal world, almost 70 plays, have a chance to punch it out a few more times. I’m talking about causing fumbles, and that’s a part of what we need to do.”
Wilson has a 63.5 passer rating. He’s also been sacked 19 times, including 15 sacks in the first three games of the season when he was processing slowly.
“He hasn’t played in a while, I do think there’ll be some opportunities there,” safety Justin Reid said. “He’s a talented kid. He’s still a first-year guy coming off a knee injury.
“I think it’ll be critical if we get a jump start on the game, force him into passing situations early. I think that’s going to play a lot into our favor as a defense to create turnovers.”
The Texans rank 30th in total defense, and are still adapting to the change from the 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment built around Cover 2 coverage concepts.
“It’s a little different, but I’m a fan of it because it’s a lot faster, a lot more aggressive,” Reid said. “You don’t have to do as much side-to-side reading. It’s more downhill. I think that’s created some more pressure that we’ve been missing the last couple of years.
“Not just understand it, but to really believe and excel in it. Having eyes on the quarterback in the zones, maintaining leverage, trusting your teammate to be in their gap. You do your job and fly around and have fun with it.”
A former All-Pro selection, King hadn’t intercepted a pass since the 2018 season until last season. He has shifted to outside corner after starting the season as a nickel.
“Des King has a good big-picture outlook on defense,” Smith said, “He knows football, tendencies and all that, but he’s a smart football player. One of the harder positions, of course, is to play inside. You have to do an awful lot. But some of the same skills that you look at there in a player, you see on the outside. Des is doing an awful lot for our football team.”