Fundamentals, technique crucial to secondary improvement

Of all the challenges facing Wade Phillips as the Texans’ new defensive coordinator, perhaps none is more daunting than improving the secondary.

The Texans allowed 267.5 passing yards per game in 2010, seventh-most in NFL history in a 16-game season. Only one player in their secondary, six-year cornerback , has more than three seasons of NFL experience.

Phillips knows that he and defensive backs coach Vance Joseph have their work cut out for them.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a better rush in the 3-4,” Phillips said. “It’s a lot of fundamentals with those guys, and that’s why we got Vance. He’s familiar with a lot of the teaching techniques that we utilize. Even though we have young players, we think we can improve them quickly. A lot of technique work, and we don’t want to give up big plays. That’s always been our philosophy.”

Joseph spent the last six seasons in San Francisco under Greg Manusky and Mike Nolan, two former protégés of Phillips. He has watched tape of every Texans game and practice from last season and said that his focus with the Texans’ young secondary will be on “every-day defensive back fundamentals,” from footwork to eye placement to tackling to catching the football.

“It’s going to be being technique-sound, being a good tackler and knowing where to put your eyes,” Joseph said. “Defensive back play, 85 percent of it is knowing where to put your eyes. And that’s discipline and that’s technique. If your eyes are not seeing it correctly, you can be a 4.4 guy and play 4.7, or you can be a 4.6 guy and play 4.4 if you see it quick enough. Eyes are everything for a defensive back.”

The offseason obviously would be an ideal time to work on those fundamentals with players. That’s not happening because of the lockout, but Joseph feels confident there’ll be enough time for it because of the simplicity of Phillips’ system.

“We’re going to spend time on fundamentals, and that’s going to be the key,” Joseph said. “That’s the beauty about being with Wade. His system is not a complicated system, but it’s based on being a good football player. And when you have guys who are good football players in a system that’s player-friendly, that’s when you play fast and you don’t make mistakes. Teams who make the least mistakes, they win the games for the most part. When it comes down to it, it’s the teams that are fundamentally sound and smart teams.”

The Texans also are hoping for a boost from three rookie draft picks – cornerbacks (second round, Miami) and (fourth round, Virginia Tech) and safety (fifth round, Idaho).

“I think all three of them will be active on gameday,” Phillips said. “That’s the first step. If you can get that, then you’re replacing guys that you had last year, but I think you’re upgrading. And that’s what we’re looking for from those guys, to either help on special teams or help on specialized sub defenses, or play. (There) could be a possibility they’ll be playing.”

Free agency could bring new veteran players to the mix, but the Texans are still waiting to see when that begins and which players are available. For now, all they can go by is what they have on the roster, which includes seven cornerbacks who were drafted in the last four years.

“I think we have a nucleus of guys that are capable of doing the things that we want to do,” Phillips said. “We have quite a few guys, (and) then we have some guys we drafted that we think will help also. We lost some guys in the secondary; both safeties are gone, so there’s some opportunities there. But I think there were some young players that showed up pretty well last year at a lot of positions, so that’s a reason for optimism.”

The Texans would like for cornerback to fill the void at free safety, and Phillips said that safety showed flashes last year as a backup. Whether or not they move Quin probably depends on what happens in free agency.

“We think that’s his best position,” Phillips said. “We think he did a good job at corner last year, but we think that he could be even better at safety. So if at all possible, we’ll try to work him there.”

Regardless of the personnel in the secondary, Phillips expects the front seven to make a difference in pass defense. Not only through a better pass rush, but through run defense that allows the Texans to have at least four defensive backs in coverage at all times.

“I think if you can stop the run with the front seven, that even helps your pass defense more because your safeties don’t have to get involved,” he said. “A lot of people talk about an eight-man front. If you stop it with a seven man front, then your secondary can play pass first, and that helps you play better pass defense.”

Whether through fundamentals, new personnel or old personnel in new places, that’s the goal all around.

Joseph gets to know DBs through film study

In a typical offseason, Vance Joseph would be getting to know his players the old-fashioned way – mini-camps and OTAs, meetings and practices.

Instead, the Texans’ new defensive backs coach is familiarizing himself with them the only way he can: Film study. Lots of it.

“I’ve watched every game they played last year probably five times, and I’ve watched every practice,” Joseph said on Tuesday. “I don’t have my guys here, so I’m watching as much film as I can so I know what I’m dealing with when they walk in the door. I’m trying to figure out what kind of player they are, how they respond to adversity — when good or bad stuff happens, how they respond.”

The Texans had the worst pass defense in the league last season, but Joseph has seen encouraging signs on tape. In 2010 first-round pick , for example, he sees a “really, really good zone player.”

“He’s physical,” Joseph said. “His eye placement is correct. His biggest issue is man-to-man technique, which for most young corners, that’s the problem. In this league, if you’re playing man-to-man and you lose that battle, it’s probably going to be a 30-yard, 40-yard gain. If you’re in zone and you don’t do the right thing, it may not be a huge gain. So we’ve got to fix his man-to-man technique, but he’s a very good zone player and he’s a physical tackler.”

, who likely will be moving from cornerback to safety, is another player who has caught Joseph’s eye.

“He’s a good football player,” Joseph said. “He does a lot of things correctly. He’s a coach’s dream because he’s going to do it right all the time. A bunch of the guys (are like that). Even watching (safety) a little bit this week, he’s a guy who’s capable of doing it right. That’s important.”

Cornerback , a six-year veteran, is the Texans’ most experienced defensive back. He had six interceptions last season, including three with the Texans after he was released by the Dolphins.

“He made some plays last year,” Joseph said. “That guy does some things that make you really, really excited. I’m looking forward to him playing corner for an entire training camp. Because his entire career, he’s been in between safety and corner, safety and corner. I want to see him play corner and see how good he can be. He was a first-round pick out of college, so somebody saw something in the guy. He can play. He just needs more corner reps. He’s got long arms, he’s tall, he can run. So we’ll see.”

, a sixth-round pick in 2009, and , a fifth-rounder in 2010, spent most of last season in reserve roles behind Quin, Jackson and Allen.

“I like Brice,” Joseph said. “I watched every practice from last year, camp and the fall, and watching the one-on-one stuff, Brice was one of our better one-on-one players from playing press and playing off-man. He’s got a unique skill which is speed that we can always use. And McManis is a tough guy. That’s his unique quality, and toughness wins games. Speed wins games. So those qualities are definitely going to be used. I like both of those guys.”

Cornerback , a third-round pick from Eastern Kentucky in 2008, has played sparingly since breaking an ankle late in his rookie season.

“Physically, he’s got it,” Joseph said. “It’s no question. Sometimes for a guy, he can get caught in a rut a little bit with the same system, same coach. Sometimes a new system and new coach, hearing it different hits his brain different, and you hope he reacts different to my coaching than he has in the past. But he’s a gifted enough guy, and I’m hoping the light comes on.”

The Texans also have three incoming rookies, cornerbacks and and safety . Joseph and Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips expect immediate contributions from all of them. Joseph said that the more he watches and reads about them, the more excited he gets.

“Keo, I’m assuming after we get him here, you’re going to want two or three more like him,” Joseph said. “Brandon Harris is going to be a pro from day one. And I think Roc’s going to be fine. He’s a competitive little guy. He wants to be great. He’s been a worker his whole life, and that’s important. It’s three confident guys. They believe they can, and that’s half the battle playing DB in the NFL. You’ve got to believe you can.”

A former NFL cornerback himself, the 38-year-old Joseph is eager to get to work with the players he has gotten to know mostly by their play on tape.

“Watching their season last year, I’m encouraged because they play so hard and they’re young, so most of them are blank pages,” he said. “So whatever I teach them, they’re going to hopefully retain. And they don’t have a bunch of bad habits because they’re young guys. But hopefully we can get it done quick, and camp’s going to be interesting. Wade’s system is so simple that we’re going to spend time on fundamentals, and that’s going to be the key.”