Texans’ coach DeMeco Ryans and defensive coordinator Matt Burke are working together for the first time.
Ryans is installing the defense that was so successful for him with the 49ers over the last two years. Burke is using the offseason program to build a strong relationship with Ryans and understand exactly what his new boss expects from him as they try to improve a defense that’s been one of the NFL’s worst over the four seasons.
Burke runs the defense during the OTAs, but Ryans looms large because that side of the ball has been his expertise since he first strapped on pads as a kid growing up in Alabama.
The Ryans-Burke dynamic is going to be crucial for a defense that could have four new starters and will have a lot of new contributors.
“I didn't have a lot of personal history with DeMeco,” Burke said after Wednesday’s OTA. “Building that relationship as we go through this and spending some long hours in the office trying to get up to speed has been very cool. I've really enjoyed it.
“It's invaluable for me to have him around, and it's really been collaborative. Having been in similar schemes but kind of bringing them together -- just being able to lean on him and talk about what he saw or some things I saw (or) things I'd like to change. It's been awesome for me to have that resource as we go through this installation and growth period.”
Even though they’ve been asked multiple times which one of them is going to make the defensive calls in games, they’re keeping it a secret. Burke is making calls in practice, but Ryans is expected to make them during the season. First-time head coaches like to make calls as Lovie Smith did for the defense in 2022.
Ryans and Burke know what kind of defense they want – the same kind Ryans used at San Francisco. The defense is expected to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. That’s easier said than done, as the Texans know so well because they’ve been so dreadful at both.
“If you wanted to pick one word, it would be ‘attack,’” Burke said. “We're going to base out of a four-down front. We play our defensive line in a penetrating style, try to edge them up, play 9-techniques -- those sort of things to cause disruptions.”
Edge rushers who are 9-techniques line up outside the tackles and tight ends. They’re pass rush specialists like rookie end Will Anderson Jr.
“Our goal is to be able to affect plays with our front by the style they play, the attack mode they play in and penetrate and disrupt and reset the line of scrimmage,” Burke said. “The more that you can pressure a quarterback with four (linemen) and not have to commit other resources to doing that, that helps protect your coverage a little so you can play multiple coverages and change that element if you can affect the quarterback and the offense with your front. That's kind of the general approach and philosophy we're taking.”
Ryans and Burke know before they can attack the quarterback, they have to stop the run. They’re taking over a defense that’s been pathetic against the run for four consecutive seasons. That kind of futility that begins with his linemen and linebackers getting manhandled is not something Ryans is accustomed to.
In his two seasons as the 49ers’ coordinator, they were third in defense and seventh against the run in 2021 when they lost the NFC Championship Game to the Rams.
Last season, they were first in defense and second against the run. They reached the NFC Championship Game again, ran out of quarterbacks because of injuries and lost to the Eagles.
Stopping the run, something the Texans have been unable to do for the last four seasons, was the hallmark of Ryans’ defenses at San Francisco. The Niners allowed 103.5 yards and 4 yards a carry in 2021; 77.7 yards and 3.4 a carry last season.
Looking back, it’s hard for Texans fans to remember in 2018 they were third against the run. Romeo Crennel’s defense allowed 82.7 yards rushing and 3.4 a carry. Those were the good old days for the defense.
It started to unravel in 2019 when they were 28th in defense, including 25th against the run, surrendering 121.1 yards and 4.8 a carry. Because the Texans won the AFC South and a wild card playoff game, the decline of the run defense didn’t get much attention.
That changed in 2020 when those numbers grew to 160.3 and 5.2 after Anthony Weaver replaced Crennel as the coordinator, and they finished 30th in defense.
With Lovie Smith as the coordinator in 2021, they were 31st in defense, including 31st against the run with 142.2 yards and 4.6 a carry. Last season, with Smith as the head coach and coordinator, the run defense spiraled into the depths of ineptness. The Texans finished 30th in defense and gave up 170.2 yards and 5.1 a carry.
Improving a run defense as pathetic as the Texans have been for four years – allowing 148.5 yards a season during that span – doesn’t happen overnight. Ryans and Burke told general manager Nick Caserio what they needed, and he has acquired a lot of veterans and rookies to help correct that issue.
Anderson and Dylan Horton are defensive ends who were drafted in the first and fourth rounds. Defensive end Chase Winovich was signed, and Jacob Martin was re-signed.
Veterans added at defensive tackle were Shelton Rankins, Hassan Ridgewood and Byron Cowart.
The Texans also signed veteran linebackers Denzel Perryman and Cory Littleton and drafted linebacker Henry To’oTo’o.
It’s going to take time for Ryans and Burke to evaluate the front seven. The secondary is just as important, of course. The defensive backs have to play the run, too, for the Texans to improve in that area.
Having joint practices with the Dolphins and Saints will help. Trying to improve the run with so many new players is a painstaking process, as is teaching the new scheme in general, including the coverages.
“In phase one,” Burke said about the offseason program, “we started (by taking) every player and said, ‘This is what you can work on and improve through this first phase so you have that foundation.’ (Ryans) has done a really good job of wanting to build a foundational aspect to what we do and understand the whys and the intricacies. We had that time coming through phase 1 and phase 2, and now it's like we're all together. He went from specific to big picture, and it's been a cool process for those guys to go through.”
The Texans have four more OTAs and the mandatory minicamp on June 13-14 before they go on vacation. When they put on pads for the first time at training camp, that’s when the coaches will start to find out what kind of defensive improvement they might be able to make in Ryans’ first season.
John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on SportsRadio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He writes three columns a week and does two Houtopia Football Podcasts for SportsRadio610.com.