Why I Still Think the Texans Need an Inside Linebacker
I recently provided a list of the biggest needs for each AFC South team in this year’s first installment of the regular Four Downs column that runs on ESPN Insider and then on Football Outsiders. The need I identified for the Texans was linebacker, both inside and outside. ESPN AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky then gave his take, indicating he didn’t think the second inside linebacker to Brian Cushing didn’t demand either premium dollars or a premium draft spot. In a post today, he reiterated that he believed the need at ILB was overrated, and that the biggest need at the position was really a full recovery from Cushing.
I agree completely with Paul that a full recovery from Cushing is a big need for the Texans, but continue to disagree with him about how much of a need a second inside linebacker is. The reason for Kuharsky’s objection is that the second inside linebacker typically comes off the field in sub packages. He’s right about that, but this is also why I disagree with him. The Texans’ primary sub package on defense under Wade Phillips has been dime personnel, regularly from a 4-1-6 look. In 2011, they played dime about four times as often as they played nickel. In 2012, dime was about three and a half times as common as nickel.
This means when the Texans do go to sub package, they’re moving from their base 3-4 front, with seven defensive ends and linebackers, to a front where they only have five defensive ends and linebackers. That’s a pretty major change in the number of big people on the field at any given point in time. The result of that is the Texans are likelier than other teams to stay in base personnel against offensive sets that feature extra tight ends and receivers. For instance, here’s how often each of the AFC South teams was in base personnel (4 defensive backs) against offensive 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) the past two seasons:
|% of Base Personnel against 12|
The Texans in 2011 had two inside linebackers they could be relatively confident in, in Cushing and DeMeco Ryans. The result is that against 12 personnel they played in their base 3-4 look almost exclusively. In 2012, with Cushing for only a couple games and with inside linebackers that could be exploited particularly in coverage, they played sub package personnel about three times as often. Granted, they were still in base personnel most of the time, but so even was a sub package-heavy team like the Titans (whose most common personnel grouping for the season was 4-2-5, not 4-3-4).
The most common personnel grouping these days in the NFL is 11 personnel, where the offense has three receivers on the field to go with one back and one tight end. Here’s how the Texans have responded to facing that the past two seasons, and the reason I see a need for two good inside linebackers.
|% of Base Personnel against 11|
As this table shows, the Texans in 2011 were much more likely than any other AFC South team the past two seasons to stay in their base personnel grouping when the offense had three wide receivers on the field. In 2012, without reliable cover inside linebackers, they spent a lot more time in sub package personnel. Of course, they should have, as they were much less effective when they stayed in base personnel against 11, giving up 7.6 yards per play on a 43% success rate for the offense compared to 4.8 yards per play and 31% success rate in 2011. (They were less effective against 11 personnel in dime, too, but the difference wasn’t nearly as big.)
For a team like the Titans that played sub package personnel on defense a lot of the time and has shown they seem to like doing so, I would agree that the last linebacker position is not that big a priority. For the Texans, though, that player is much more important. He might play only 60-65% of snaps, but he can mean a lot to Wade Phillips’ tactical flexibility and their effectiveness against some of the NFL’s more common personnel packages. I would put it behind the need for an outside linebacker, be that Connor Barwin or somebody else, but I believe it’s one of the Texans’ biggest needs this offseason.
Disclaimer: Personnel grouping information courtesy of Football Outsiders Game Charting Project.
UPDATE (2013/02/22 1905 CT): Paul Kuharsky hit on the subject in a follow-up post, including comments on the subject from GM Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak.