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.

Kubiak excited about coaching staff additions

With his coaching staff now complete, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is feeling good about the group that’s in place.

Most of the coaching changes came on defense, beginning with new coordinator Wade Phillips, who was brought in to overhaul a unit that ranked 30th in the NFL last season.

“The key is, does Wade feel good about what we’ve put together on defense, and he does,” Kubiak said. “That’s the most important thing. We’ve got a lot of experience on our coaching staff right now, more than we’ve ever had. We’ve got to go back and fix a side of the ball and get our swagger back, so to speak, as a football team that we had entering last season and for six weeks last season. So I’m looking forward to doing that.”

When Kubiak hired Phillips three days after the season, he told Phillips that he’d get him the assistant coaches of his choice. He did just that with new linebackers coach Reggie Herring and defensive backs coach Vance Joseph, who both have extensive experience in Phillips’ 3-4 defense.

“That’s very important,” Kubiak said. “You can’t try to plug a square peg in a round hole, so to speak. We did interview a few people for the secondary position, but those two guys were Wade’s targets from the get-go. So I’m happy to get it done.”

Herring, 51, coached linebackers in Dallas with Phillips from 2008-10. Joseph, 38, spent the last six seasons in San Francisco’s 3-4 under two Phillips protégés, Mike Nolan and Greg Manusky.

“They’re both very impressive coaches,” Kubiak said. “Vance is a young coach who’s gotten very respected quickly in this league. The job he did in San Francisco with their secondary, all you’ve got to do is go back and look at it. I mean, he did a hell of a job.

“Reggie’s coached a lot of places. He’s been a coordinator. But really, this one boils down to he’s kind of Wade’s right-hand man. He’s been with Wade in Dallas. He basically can coordinate Wade’s defense for Wade, so that was a very, very important hire. Lot of energy. We need that on our defensive side of the ball.”

While Herring and Joseph joined the Texans’ staff, senior defensive assistant Ray Rhodes retired. A 30-year NFL coaching veteran and former head coach of the Eagles and Packers, Rhodes was with the Texans for three seasons.

“Ray’s been a friend of mine for many years,” Kubiak said. “I was just happy to have him around. He really helped me a lot as a head coach – not only what he did for the defense, but what he helped me with as a head coach. He’s a great person. He’s a legend in this business.”

One veteran coach the Texans won’t have to replace is offensive coordinator Rick Dennsion. He interviewed in January for the head coaching position in Denver, where he spent 24 seasons as a player and coach, but the job went to former Panthers head coach John Fox.

“He should’ve had an opportunity at that job,” Kubiak said. “He’s done a great job in the NFL. He should’ve been probably interviewed for some more head jobs. He’s ready to be a head coach, but that’s all about timing.

“Denver’s loss, in my opinion, is our gain. He did a great job for us last year. You can see how much we improved in a lot of areas. Rick brings stability. He’s a very class act, so I’m just happy.”

Last season, Dennison’s first in Houston, the Texans ranked third in offense. Dennison helped the Texans average 4.8 yards per carry, up from 3.5 in 2009, and improve from 12th to fifth in the red zone.

Had the Texans lost Dennison, Kubiak would have been searching for his fifth offensive coordinator in six years.

“I’ve been through a few coordinators – for the right reasons, because they’ve gotten great opportunities,” Kubiak said. “I would’ve been happy for him if it would’ve happened, but the fact that it didn’t, we can move forward.”

The only change to the Texans’ offensive coaching staff came with this week’s departure of Bruce Matthews. Matthews accepted the ’ offensive line coach position on Wednesday after two seasons in Houston as an offensive assistant.

Kubiak and the rest of the Texans’ coaches have  now had a couple of weeks now to work with Herring and Joseph. The entire staff has been evaluating potential free agents this week and will begin looking at draft prospects on Monday.

Already, Kubiak has seen the benefits of working side-by-side with Phillips, who has spent the last 29 years as a defensive coordinator or head coach.

“It’s been very good,” Kubiak said. “It’s the first time I’ve had such a veteran defensive coordinator from that standpoint for me, so it’s a very comforting situation being able to just talk ball with Wade, and to talk head-coaching talk, it’s very comforting for me also. It’s a tough change for us, but it’s one that we had to try to make to improve things. I feel very comfortable about the guys we’ve got and it’s time to get to work.”