Better, worse or the same? A closer look at the Texans' 2020 defense

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HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans’ defense was on the field, they blew a 24-0 lead in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs.

This offseason, new defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver reflected on the game, saying, “That was obviously a tough day. We started off, we were on the highest of highs and then we couldn't have crashed on that roller coaster fast enough.

“We've got to stay consistent throughout and just trust in our ability and trust that we'll be able to stop any hemorrhaging.”

Has Houston done enough on defense this offseason to be able to trust that? The biggest change head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien made this offseason was promoting Weaver from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator, replacing longtime coach Romeo Crennel, who is remaining in the organization as an associate head coach.

So are the Texans better, worse or the same as the defense that allowed the Chiefs to score 41 consecutive points? Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the Texans’ defense:

Defensive line

Additions: Ross Blacklock (second round of NFL draft), Jonathan Greenard (third round), Auzoyah Alufohai (undrafted free agent)

Losses: D.J. Reader (Bengals), Joel Heath (Broncos)

Returners: J.J. Watt, Charles Omenihu, Brandon Dunn, Angelo Blackson, Carlos Watkins, Ira Savage-Lewis, Eddie Vanderdoes

Better, worse or the same? Worse

Houston will miss Reader. Last season, Watt called him “one of the most underrated players in the league.” The 2016 fifth-round pick had his best season in 2019, but the four-year, $53 million contract he signed in Cincinnati was out of the Texans’ price range. Instead, Houston signed Dunn to a three-year contract and drafted Blacklock to take some of those snaps.

Can the Texans depend on Omenihu in his second season? He played a significant number of snaps as a rookie (the third-most among Houston defensive linemen) and had three sacks.

"He wants to make a big jump this year and that's his goal," Watt said of Omenihu. "I know that he's putting in the work to do that, and I'm looking forward to seeing him progress."

As always, the production of this group will depend on the health of Watt, who missed half of the 2019 regular season with a torn pectoral muscle, but returned in record time for the playoffs.

Inside linebackers

Additions: Nate Hall (reserve/future contract), Jan Johnson (undrafted free agent)

Losses: None

Returners: Zach Cunningham, Benardrick McKinney, Dylan Cole, Peter Kalambayi, Tyrell Adams

Better, worse or the same? Same

There was not much turnover in this group, and the improvement will come if Cunningham continues to take a step forward. It’s a contract year for the 2017 second-round pick, whom O’Brien has said he wants to re-sign.

In 2019, McKinney and Cunningham were excellent at stopping the run, but struggled against the pass. According to Pro Football Focus, Cunningham led all linebackers with a 14.2 run-stop percentage. McKinney ranked 15th in that category. But McKinney also had the third-highest passer rating allowed (140.1). Cunningham ranked 12th (124.5).

Outside linebackers

Additions: Davin Bellamy (reserve/future contract), Jamir Jones (undrafted free agent)

Losses: Barkevious Mingo (Bears)

Returners: Whitney Mercilus, Brennan Scarlett, Jacob Martin, Duke Ejiofor, Chris Landrum

Better, worse or the same? Same

This group has mostly stayed intact, and the pass rush needs to be better and more consistent than last season. Along with a healthy Watt, the Texans need to see consistency from Mercilus, who signed a four-year, $54 million contract in December.

Mercilus had 7.5 sacks in the 2019 regular season, but only two came after Watt was put on injured reserve. The double- and triple-teams that Watt attracts free up Mercilus.

"We have a bunch of talented rushers on the roster," Weaver said. "The beauty for me is that I've got to find ways to put them in the best place to be successful. We have guys that can win one-on-ones, now we've just got to put the pieces in the right spots. But … we've got guys that can get to the quarterback and it's all about what we can do schematically to help present those matchups so they can be successful."

Safeties

Additions: Eric Murray (free agent), Michael Thomas (free agent), Jaylen Watkins (free agent), Shalom Luani (reserve/future contract)

Losses: Tashaun Gipson (cut, signed by Bears), Jahleel Addae (unsigned), Mike Adams (retired)

Returners: Justin Reid, A.J. Moore, Jonathan Owens

Better, worse or the same? Same

Reid played through the entire 2019 season with a torn labrum and only missed one game. He had surgery during the offseason. Weaver says he could see Reid “taking a huge jump” in his third season, especially if he is 100 percent healthy. The Texans expect him to be a leader in the secondary.

There have been a lot of changes in this group, but it remains to be seen if it has gotten better without Gipson and with the additions of Murray and Watkins. Unless Houston makes another move at safety, it looks like Murray will replace Gipson and start alongside Reid.

After the draft, O’Brien noted that the team’s safeties are a “diverse group of guys. ... Eric Murray played corner; Jaylen Watkins has played nickel. They're not just safeties.” Thomas, who signed with Houston in April, will play primarily on special teams.

Cornerbacks

Additions: John Reid (fourth round of draft)

Losses: Johnathan Joseph (Titans)

Returners: Bradley Roby, Lonnie Johnson, Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves, Phillip Gaines, Keion Crossen, Cornell Armstong, Anthony Chesley

Better, worse or the same? Same

Roby was the team’s best cornerback in 2019 even though he missed five games with an injured hamstring in the middle of the season. Entering training camp, Johnson and Conley are expected to start outside, with Roby in the slot. The Texans will depend on Johnson a lot more in 2020. When Weaver was asked about the young cornerback this offseason, he noted that it's a difficult position for rookies.

"To come in and have success early at corner is not easy," Weaver said. "Those guys, they're out there on those islands, they're all by themselves and sometimes they’re just not being put in the best positions. We've got to help them. I've got the utmost faith in our DB room. They’re competitive, they’re talented and they can make plays, but we've got to help them up front. We've got to affect the quarterback somehow, some way to get that ball out quicker and not just leave those guys on islands."