Tyrann Mathieu ready to settle in permanent home -- at safety

HOUSTON -- Shortly after Tyrann Mathieu was released by the Arizona Cardinals, the defensive back sat down with Houston Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to talk about the partnership they could have.

During that meeting, Mathieu expressed something important to him in his search for a new team: He wanted to focus on playing safety.

In his first five NFL seasons, the Cardinals played Mathieu at several positions to take advantage of his versatility and playmaking. The defensive back saw time at safety, cornerback and even linebacker, registering 41 passes defended, 28 tackles for loss and 11 interceptions in 66 games. The Texans, who ranked 24th in passing defense in 2017, have used Jadeveon Clowney in a similarly versatile role in Crennel's defense, moving him all over the front seven so opponents have a harder time double- or triple-teaming him.

But when Mathieu signed in Houston, the Texans committed to starting the veteran at safety, where he hopes he can become a better -- and more focused -- contributor.

"This is why I chose to play for the Texans," Mathieu said. "[In Arizona], I had a lot on my plate. I couldn't really focus on really one position. I think a lot of times coaches may ask me to strictly rely on my instincts, but am I really getting better at football? I think those were questions I needed to answer, and I think Romeo answered those questions for me.

"I played four or five different positions, I had four or five different responsibilities and I never could really perfect one craft. I think right now, for me, it's just committing to safety, playing safety the best way. From there, like I said, the game plan kind of dictates, too, where I'll line up."

ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen watched film of Mathieu and noted he is such "a uniquely talented player that he has the natural instincts to find the ball regardless of where you line him up."

"You look at his snap counts in Arizona and it's all over the field," Bowen said. "I think he's excellent at doing that, but I also understand what he's saying -- that his focus is more at one position. And especially the defensive back, I think that's important."

Last season for Arizona, Mathieu led the NFL with 1,263 snaps played: 1,056 on defense (99.4 percent of the Cardinals' total defensive snaps) and 207 on special teams. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 663 of those defensive snaps came at slot corner, 167 at free safety and 94 at outside linebacker.

"By lining up him up at one position during OTAs, you're allowing him to learn all the details that go into playing that position," Bowen said. "Your eyes, your footwork, your angles for the ball, how you tackle ... all those things are involved in playing the safety position.

"The difference between corner and safety, the first thing, is where you put your eyes. Your eyes are your No. 1 thing, your No. 1 tool to be a productive football player as a defensive back. How you read run/pass, what you see pre-snap based on formation alignment movement, and also the angles to the ball. There's a much different angle to the football from the cornerback position to the safety position."

During the first week of the Texans' OTAs, Mathieu said he's still adjusting to solely being a safety. This focus gives Mathieu an entire offseason and training camp of reps and allows the Texans -- based on the way he played in Arizona -- to move him around when they have to.

"I haven't really played the safety position," Mathieu said. "I've played it in the past, but I haven't really practiced it. So that's been an adjustment for me, [but] it definitely helps me slow things down. Just focusing on one position, trying to be the best at that rather than just being good at everything. So I think it's important for me to just embrace it like I have been and just trying to continue to grow as a safety."

Still, at the NFL owners meetings shortly after Houston signed Mathieu, Texans coach Bill O'Brien said when watching film of the veteran that two things stood out: Mathieu's versatility and playmaking. Versatility is something O'Brien has valued since he came to Houston, and something particularly noticeable in the additions in free agency and the draft this offseason. But, O'Brien said, "we also understand that a guy needs to have basically one home."

"[Mathieu] needs to understand and master that one home, which is safety," O'Brien said. "When you watch him in these sessions that we've had, you can see a guy that's very instinctive, that moves well and that can probably do a few different things for us, but we're going to start him at safety and let him hone in on that."

One way to take advantage of Mathieu's versatility while still letting him focus on safety, Bowen said, is to move Mathieu around in crucial situations, such as on third down and in the red zone.

"There's so many situations that you can go through as a coach, but when you use that versatility, is it to take one of their players on the opposing team and erase them from a game plan at a critical down and distance?" Bowen said. "In those situations, I'm going to use Tyrann Mathieu to take away one of their top players, whether it's a tight end, a running back in space, a versatile running back that can run routes also, or that's a slot receiver that I've got to stop on third-and-2 to -6. I can't let him run an option route. Or whether that's doubling the No. 1 wide receiver to take him out of the play. And that's versatility to me. That's still versatility."

Regardless of which position Mathieu plays most, the Texans believe they have a playmaker in him.

"I just want to prove my point that I'm one of the best safeties in this league," Mathieu said. "Obviously, I had some setbacks, I had some challenges, and I try to take those challenges head-on. ... I'm really trying to just come here with a clean slate; it's a fresh start for me, and [I'm] just trying to prove my point again."