When the Houston Texans arrived to training camp, there were some issues with the lack of depth on the defensive line. The Texans lost J.J. Watt early in the season and put the depth of the defensive line further in question. Shuffling players in and out, the Texans depended on youth to pull them through the season with some seasoned veterans leading the way.
The growth and production by rookies D.J. Reader, Ufomba Kamalu, Joel Heath, and second-year player Christian Covington have been a stabilizing force for the run defense. There have been some schematic changes by Romeo Crennel but overall, it has been the emergence of the younger defensive linemen on the rush defense which has created the improvement.
Through the first seven games of the season, the Texans were giving up 135.4 yards per game on the ground and, when the play specifically of Reader, Covington, and Heath picked up, that number dropped to 71.8 yards per game the final 9 games of the season.
Bill O’Brien has taken notice of his young group up front.
“Yeah, they have,” said O’Brien of his young defensive line playing well. “They had a good game last week, productive game. I thought Joel Heath probably played his best game of the year. D.J. has been a solid player all year for us. He really has. He’s learned a lot about the pro game and I think he’s a really good player and he’s got a great future.”
O’Brien likes what Covington has put together as well. “I thought when he’s played for us this year, he’s made plays, whether it’s a quarterback pressure or maybe stopping a run or a batted ball like he had last week. I think all those guys have done a good job for us.”
“I am proud of them,” said Smith of the quartet. “I always love watching especially underdogs become big dogs. Just watching them out there play, it makes me proud. Proud to be their teammate, proud to be someone they take advice from.”
Smith is convinced the group learning on the job is good for their development and more importantly, helping the team win late in the season.
“Watching do what they do, this environment is prime for that. It is prime for building your star players because they are getting those tough reps against tough opponents,” Smith explained. “Sometimes you can spend your rookie year just getting in there 10 plays a game and never get the experience they are getting. The more they get this experience, the better they will get.”
Rookie defensive end Joel Heath has put together a strong second half of the season and notched his first two sacks of 2016 in week 17. He knew when he signed with the Texans that he would have a chance to make the team and develop his game.
“The biggest thing is, Houston is big on development. They have a lot of us to develop and be contributing factors,” Heath stated. “I think that is huge and big for us and we will develop sooner than most rookies would. Also, to have Antonio and Vince to be there and help us out and keep us under their wing is a big component of it too.”
Ufomba Kamalu was added to the roster late due to injuries and he has helped at multiple spots on the edge, also filling in when Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, and John Simon missed time this season. Kamalu is trying to take as much knowledge from the veterans to improve his game.
“Pre-practice, Vince is always out there with the rookies talking about who we are playing and what are they doing, what works well against them and what to watch for,” Kamalu said.
“It is real fun to get out there with guys you came in with,” Reader explained. “We are doing a good job of getting reps out at practice during the week and guys like Vince and Tone those guys got us right. We can go out there and have fun, it is good. You can see the game slow down a little bit for us and letting us fly around, make plays.”
Reader has been the top rookie of this year’s draft class and he has made a difference, playing multiple spots on the defensive line and helping take some pressure off of Wilfork.
It was slow start to the season for Christian Covington but the second-year player has found his niche in pass rush situations while improving his technique as a defender.
“When you see other guys, especially younger guys have success and be able to join in that success, it is fun,” said Covington. “Being able to have the d-line in and making plays, it is really contagious when we are out there having fun.”
A position that looked like a weak link early in the season has evolved into a budding group which has the potential to achieve even more. Late round draft picks Reader and Covington, plus rookie free agents Heath and Kamalu show the talent that the coaching staff has help develop.
“We don’t want to let everyone else down, we just want to go in there and play as hard as everyone else,” explained Reader. “We put a lot on our shoulders as young guys.”
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