Jalen Pitre had the right instincts, the right idea and more than enough speed to make a potential impactful play during a prime opportunity to deliver an open-field tackle.
Instead of celebrating, though, the Texans' talented rookie safety was left grasping for air as he came in a bit off-balance and missed yet another tackle Sunday. Pitre allowed a 54-yard touchdown in the third quarter as Slayton eluded the second-round draft pick from Baylor and raced down the left sideline at 20.07 miles per hour, per NextGen Stats.
Afterward, Pitre was relegated to the bench for some time after the missed tackle as he was replaced by veteran safety Eric Murray.
Although Pitre has had his moments this season, including two interceptions against the Chicago Bears, the Stafford graduate has also experienced some growing pains. He has missed a team-high 21 tackles, a shortcoming which has held back his progress overall.
Pitre is one of the fastest and most aggressive players on a defense that ranks last in the NFL in rushing defense, surrendering 181.8 rushing yards per contest and is on pace to give up 3,090 rushing yards for the season.
Although Pitre hasn't lost his starting job, Texans coach Lovie Smith acknowledged that the rookie needs to improve.
“I think that Jalen needs to, like all of us defensively, need to play better football," Smith said. "Jalen is our starter and also, he’s our rookie starter. We don’t expect him to be Ronnie Lott right away. We’ll give him a little bit of time to start comparing him that way. Do we need to improve? Yes, and he is making progress like all of our guys are.”
Pitre has missed 25.0 percent of his tackle attempts, ranking him second among all eligible safeties, according to the analytics site, Pro Football Focus. While Pitre has also recorded a sack, a fumble recovery and 63 tackles to rank third on the Texans' beleaguered defense, the Texans need more from him.
One area Pitre can improve upon: making a safer tackle instead of going for the biggest play possible.
As noted by Smith, help never arrived for Pitre on the missed tackle on Slayton, who gained 51 yards after the catch on his touchdown pass thrown by Daniel Jones. Slayton outraced linebackers Blake Cashman and Christian Harris and defensive backs Steven Nelson and Jonathan Owens to reach the end zone.
“There has to be a correctable thing, because Jalen will be the first guy to tell you he’s missed too many tackles," Smith said. "He’s too good of a football player. There are some things that can happen in that situation. First off, we had a blitz zone, man coverage, he was guarding the slot guy. It was too far off of him first, too much space in between. As a defender, there are some positions you’re put in where maybe it’s zone coverage, and we have guys take a shot on their leverage side because they know they have their teammate there.
"Then, there’s some situations where it’s man coverage, when you’re the last guy they could possibly get him down, you have to get a more secured tackle. A lot of things kind of go into it. One of those situations where third-and-long, we needed to just make a secure tackle. But after he missed it, we should have another wave of defense, a safety. It’s not like it was a zero coverage blitz. We had others, Christian Harris had a change to get him down. We had a couple other players that had an opportunity to. Unfortunate play. If we could have stopped momentum early in that third quarter, it might have been a different outcome, too.”
A former Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Pitre has a 40.6 overall PFF grade. He has a 118.8 passer rating against him from opposing quarterbacks when targeted in coverage.
Pitre has plenty of athleticism working in his favor. It's just a matter of playing with more precision and executing at a higher level.
“The speed of the game is there," Smith said. "There’s a speed of the game, but you have to be able to adjust to that speed and make tackles. There’s no way around it. We can’t continue to miss tackles.
"Running games, running backs look a whole lot better, yards per carry, explosive plays, a lot of that. If you talk about a defensive back, normally it’s that second line or the third line of defense, and that leads to yards per carry getting up there a little bit. But, no, there’s no way around it. We have to be able to tackle, period, in those positions.”
A former all-district selection and district Most Valuable Player who had his No. 24 jersey retired earlier this fall at Stafford, Pitre recorded 83 tackles, six interceptions, one sack, four fumble recoveries, and four forced fumbles as a senior in leading his team to the Class 4A regionals.
"I’m just trying to be a role model," Pitre said at the retirement ceremony. "There’s a lot of great talent that comes from Stafford year in and year out. I’m just trying to be a guy they can look up to.”
The son of Rick and Devita Pitre is one of the top rookies in the NFL. He is continually striving for improvement and models his game after top NFL safeties, including Budda Baker and Tyrann Mathieu.
However, Pitre needs to perform at that level. It isn't from a lack of effort.
“Jalen is a good football player, but he’s missed a lot of tackles,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said this season. “If tackling is something you can certainly improve, we’ve talked to Jalen about that. Finding areas that you can improve as a football player, it’s not just about all the splash. It’s about being consistent and improving areas that maybe you’re not performing as well. He’s got the right attitude.
“He’s got as good as a routine as any young player from the time he walks in the building in the morning. Before practice, he’s in the weight room, he’s stretching, he’s going through his preparation. Being a good player is about having the routine, having preparation, being committed to that week after week, day after day.”
A lot of this falls under the category of rookie learning experiences for a 1-7-1 team heading into Sunday's home game against the Washington Commanders.
“When you’re a rookie in this league, there are teachable moments daily," Smith said. "Pulling them in, hugging them, talking to them, coaching them throughout the course of the game, yes. Jalen wasn’t the only rookie. Every rookie to a man, did something that we need to clean up. And,yes, as coaches we’re always doing that.
"It’s not like we’re kicking them out of the family making them change their last name or anything like that. When you deal with young players, there’s going to be moments like that. You want the moments to be just less and less each week and hopefully now that we’re in the second half of the season that that will be the case.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.