2011 Season in Review: Defensive Line

A position-by-position look at the Texans’ 2011 season

Season in Review: | | |  |

The Texans’ defensive line was part of a defense that ranked second in the NFL (285.7 yards/game) in 2011, including fourth against the run (96.0). Much of the pressure generated by Wade Phillips’ 3-4 front started with outstanding play from defensive ends and .

Smith, a team captain, set a career-high with 6.5 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl. The “Ninja Assassin” had at least half a sack in each of the first five games of the season. He had 25 tackles (19 solo), 5.0 tackles for loss and one forced fumble overall. Smith ranked fourth among all 3-4 defensive ends in sacks and tied for fifth in tackles for loss.

Watt, a rookie from Wisconsin, had a Pro Bowl-caliber season after being picked 11th overall in the draft. “The Milk Man” had 56 tackles (49 solo), 5.5 sacks, a team-high 7.0 tackles for loss and four passes defensed. He ranked fifth among 3-4 ends in tackles, third in tackles for loss and tied for eighth in sacks. Watt had 3.5 sacks in the playoffs, tying three other players for the NFL postseason lead, and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Wild Card round against Cincinnati.

Nose tackle had 23 tackles (16 solo), one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss in his third season with the Texans and seventh in the NFL [He also hosted the popular Texans TV show ]. Third-year pro rotated with Cody and had 27 tackles (14 solo) and one sack.

Third-year defensive end had 19 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble in a reserve role. , a fifth-year defensive end, had 12 tackles (six solo) in 10 appearances.

Defensive Line in Review
Starters: DE: Antonio Smith (16 games 2 postseason), J.J. Watt (16 games 2 postseason), NT: Shaun Cody (16 games 1 postseason)

Newcomers: Watt (first-round draft pick)

Injuries: Smith (shoulder, late in season)

Notable number: 2: 100-yard rushers allowed by the Texans in 2011 (Daniel Thomas, 18 carries for 107 yards, Week 2; Ray Rice, 23 carries for 101 yards, Week 6), including playoff games. The Texans limited their opponent’s leading rusher to less than 65 yards in 14 of 18 games and kept 10 of 18 opponents to 100 team rushing yards or less.

Season highlight: Wild Card playoff game vs. Cincinnati – Watt picked off Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and returned it for a 29-yard touchdown late in the second quarter of the first playoff game in franchise history. It gave the Texans a 17-10 lead, ignited a sold-out Reliant Stadium crowd and sparked a lopsided 31-10 victory. Watt also sacked Dalton for a seven-yard loss on the final play of the first half.

Quotable: “Antonio’s a vital part of this defense. He’s a really good pass rusher and we try to put him in positions where he can get one-on-one, and the time’s he’s been one-on-one, he’s really done well… He’s an all out player. He plays as hard as you can play every play.” – Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips on Sept. 29, on Smith

“I have trained in the temples of Shaolin, where I have mastered my art of ninjitsu. I can walk – I can even speak without you even knowing I am speaking.” – Smith on Oct. 4, on his “Ninja Assassin” persona during an

“I studied all week on that formation and as soon as it happened I dropped back into my zone and just put that guy on Revis Island. Or Cody Island.” – Cody on Nov. 6, after he intercepted Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on a two-point conversion attempt in the Texans’ 30-12 victory in Week 9 at Reliant Stadium

“Let me tell you, you turn on the film and this kid played one hell of a football game. Unbelievable game… It was off the charts, now. He’s been a big-time player all year long, and he plays with great energy.”- Kubiak on Dec. 23, on Watt after he was called for several penalties in a 19-16 loss to the Colts at Indianapolis

 “Like a Lycan wolf ninja – like a ninja who been bit by a werewolf and then he’s still a ninja but then transforms to the wolf come game time. And the wolf is the dog. And y’all know I got the dog, too.” – Smith on Jan. 2, on what kind of “ninja” was in store for the playoffs

“I came around and I really was trying to put my hands up, get in the way of the passing lane, and it happened to kind of stick. I realized I had the ball, so I was running to the end zone just trying not to fall down… I scored and got mauled by my teammates and the stadium went absolutely nuts. That was unbelievable.” – Watt on Jan. 7, after his pick-six against the Bengals in the Wild Card victory

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No cuts announced by Texans on Friday

The Texans did not announce any cuts on Friday after getting back from their trip to Minneapolis around 3 a.m. The team said it would announce its roster moves on Saturday.

The deadline for cutting rosters from 80 players to the final 53 is Saturday at 5 p.m. CT.

“It’s a tough day today, letting players go,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said at an afternoon press conference at Reliant Stadium. “It’ll make it even tougher over the course of the next 24 hours trying to make some more tough decisions and trying to see where you’re going to go next with your football team. (There are) a lot of tired guys here trying to make some decisions right now, so we’ve got another 24 hours to do it.”

The Texans got a long look at backups like , , and in their preseason finale against the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night.

“The overall picture goes back to numbers at positions,” Kubiak said. “Obviously, you’re working with 53, and how that 53 fits with your team, you don’t know until you start looking at it. We’ll be different. We’ll be built a little bit different because of the 3-4 just naturally from a linebacker standpoint as compared to a defensive line standpoint.

“The key is when you’re putting 53 guys together, you’ve got to keep good football players. You may go light in one spot and heavy in one spot. It’s a long season. A lot of things have to come into account as you’re putting a team together.”

One player on the bubble who did not play at Minnesota is running back , who has fallen down the depth chart since his 1,282-yard rookie season in 2008. Slaton missed the entire preseason with a hamstring injury after having an outstanding training camp.

Kubiak said that Slaton was healthy enough to play on Thursday, but he held the fourth-year pro out as a precaution.

“That was strictly me,” Kubiak said. “He was coming off the hamstring. We really only had two practices going into that game and one of those was a walkthrough, so I did not feel comfortable putting him out there on turf after he had been gone for so long. It was just a decision on my part, and I obviously wanted to watch Ogbonnaya play a great deal.”

Kubiak was asked if the Texans might keep four running backs instead of three as they have in years past.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s going to be worked out. I think you keep good football players. Steve’s a good football player, so we’ll have to see how that pans out.”

Wide receiver is a safe bet to make the team after catching three passes for 64 yards against the Vikings. A first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2003, Johnson picked up the Texans’ offense quickly after signing with the team on Tuesday.

“You’re fortunate to get a player like that,” Kubiak said. “He knew some of our terminology, so he went and played right away. It was impressive. He’s a very impressive person, and it was good to see him go out there and still make some plays. He can help us. His knowledge of what’s going on in this game and some of the things he can do, I think he can help this football team.”

Two other players caught Kubiak’s eye with standout games at Minnesota.

“That’s easy,” Kubiak said. “I thought our quarterback played very well, , and then the easiest guy to watch play is . He was exceptional last night and has been throughout training camp. It’s fun film to watch on the plane to watch him compete. It really was.”

Kollar details expectations for D-line in 3-4

For a team switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, the Texans have a surprising amount of continuity on their defensive line.

It’s the only position group on defense at which they don’t have a new coach. Assistant head coach/defensive line Bill Kollar, one of the lone holdovers from last year’s defensive staff, returns for his third season with the team.

The only new player in the D-line rotation is first-round draft pick . The rest of the linemen will have similar roles to last year. Even the ones switching to outside linebacker will be de facto defensive ends in nickel and dime situations.

Watt is penciled in as the Texans’ starting left end, a five-technique between the right tackle and tight end. Kollar said the Texans are “expecting to get big things” right away from the 11th overall pick.

“Probably the biggest thing for him this year will be playing the run,” Kollar said. “Playing the five-technique in this defense, you’ve got to be a good run defender, so we’ll be really working with that. And when it gets to third-down situations, we’ll put him inside and he’ll be an inside pass rusher for us.”

Kollar sees the 3-4 as a perfect fit for , who’s slated to start at right end. Smith played in a 3-4 in Arizona before joining the Texans as a free agent in 2009. He’ll be a three-technique, between the left guard and left tackle, which will allow him to utilize his strength against the run. He’ll still move inside to tackle in passing situations like he did in a 4-3 for the last two seasons.

“For him, he probably will like this better than he did the scheme we played the last two years here, really,” Kollar said. “We were trying to figure out a position for him when we signed him from Arizona here. We said, ‘Well, he’s really not a defensive end.’ He played more inside than he did outside and stuff. I’m sure he’ll fit right at home getting back into this type of defense.”

Watt and Smith will be interchangeable in base packages. If an offense motions the tight end to Smith’s side, he’ll slide out and become a five-technique. Watt will slide in and become a three-technique. For both players – and , who’ll be in the mix at right and left end – the main objective will be stopping the run.

“We’re not going to have eight (defenders) in the box often, so they’ll have to do an excellent job of stopping the run,” Kollar said. “A five-technique in a 3-4 scheme is almost like a defensive tackle in a 4-3. These guys have to be good run-down players. They’ve got to do an excellent job on first and second down against the run, and then they really turn out to be your inside rushers when you go to third down. They turn out to be defensive tackles.”

When the Texans use a three-man defensive line in base packages, they’re confident that and can get the job done at nose tackle. Kollar sees “absolutely no problem at all” with their perceived lack of ideal size for the position.

“What happens, the nose man’s really playing the same type technique that he played last year with us, so it really doesn’t turn out to be a big difference,” he said. “When everybody talks about the big nose man and stuff, those are the teams that play two-gap where they play the nose man head-up on the center and you just want to take two or three blockers on all the time, try to keep everybody off of the linebackers and stuff. We don’t end up playing that scheme, so we don’t need a guy that’s 350 pounds and can’t move.”

Mitchell, a third-round pick from Arizona in 2010, could be one to watch on the heels of a promising rookie season.

“He plays with good leverage,” Kollar said. “He gives good effort for the most part. He ended up playing a bunch (last season). Hopefully, he can stay healthy this year. He had that high-ankle sprain that really affected his play toward the end of the season, but we expect good things from Earl this year.”