Why Texans defense, future QB have bright outlook under new coach DeMeco Ryans

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The Texans were not just bad defending the run in 2022. They were historically bad.

Houston allowed 170.2 rushing yards per game during the regular season, by far dead last in the NFL. It was the worst mark since the 2008 Detroit Lions (172.1 rushing yards allowed/game). In 2022, Texans opponents could abandon the pass completely knowing they could still be successful. Like vs. the Titans in Week 18, when Tennessee had just 10 pass attempts, including just one in the second half, to 45 runs in a 17-10 victory. Derrick Henry rushed for 219 yards on 6.8 yards per carry in the contest. 

The game encapsulated Houston’s run defense, which was embarrassing all season long. 

That’s something that figures to end with DeMeco Ryans being named Houston’s head coach on Tuesday. Not only was stopping the run his calling card as a standout NFL linebacker with the Texans and Eagles — he led the league with 126 solo tackles in 2006, when he was the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year — but it was also the strength of the defenses he coordinated with the 49ers


The 38-year-old, a hot candidate in this year’s head-coach cycle praised for his intelligence and tremendous leadership skills, could help elevate a young defense that has some good young pieces, taking pressure off the blue-chip quarterback Houston is positioned to take with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. 

As a beloved former Texans player, he also energizes a fan base that has had little reason to cheer in recent years. The franchise hasn’t had a winning season since 2019. 

With Ryans, the 49ers ranked seventh in run defense last season and second this past season. In 2022, regular season and playoffs, San Francisco didn’t give up 100 rushing yards to a single player. In fact, no one had more than 69 rushing yards against the Niners (Raiders‘ Josh Jacobs, Week 17). That suggests Houston’s run defense is in for a big improvement. 

Even with All-Pro pass rusher Nick Bosa on the defensive line and All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga on the back end, the 49ers’ defense is built around the second level. Fred Warner, a two-time All-Pro selection, and Dre Greenlaw are arguably the best inside linebacker tandem in the NFL. They combined for 257 tackles in 2022. 

Ryans could take a similar approach with the Texans — building from the middle and out — to improve the run defense. Christian Kirksey, who turns 31 in August, was the only Houston linebacker to have at least 75 tackles last season (he had 124), which shows how weak the Texans were in the middle. 

Houston’s defensive backs, like rising stars Jalen Pitre and Derek Stingley Jr., should also benefit from Ryan’s diverse scheme. 

Last season, the Niners ranked in the top 18 in usage of five different coverages, according to Pro Football Focus: Cover-2 man (15th), Cover 3 (12th), quarters (10th), Cover 6 (18th) and Cover 1 (10th). 

With Lovie Smith, the Texans were more predictable, in Cover-2 zone 23% of the time, the highest rate in the league, per PFF. Outside of Cover-2 zone and Cover-1, which Houston was in 23.7% of the time last season (10th), Houston ranked in the bottom third of the league in usage of every other coverage. 

While Smith’s defense tied for fourth last season with 27 takeaways, Ryans’ San Francisco defense tied for second with 30. Of those 30, 20 were interceptions, which was tied for first in the league. So the Texans will be expected to take another step in generating takeaways with Ryans, too. 

If he can successfully turn around the Texans defense, Houston could be a great situation for its potential franchise quarterback of the future (presumably Ohio State‘s C.J. Stroud or Alabama‘s Bryce Young). 

Many defensive-minded head coaches, with the right systems and offensive coaching staff in place, have created a strong support system for superstar quarterbacks. That list includes the Patriots‘ Bill Belichick (Tom Brady), Seahawks‘ Pete Carroll (Russell Wilson), Ravens‘ John Harbaugh (Lamar Jackson) and the Bills‘ Sean McDermott (Josh Allen).

Assuming the Texans use their top pick on a QB, they still have a second top-12 selection in this year’s draft — acquired in the Deshaun Watson trade last spring — and more than $39.2 million in cap space, fifth-most in the league, according to Over The Cap. So Ryans has the resources to spearhead a drastically improved team in 2023. 

His work is just beginning.

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