They come from everywhere, with a great initial push that puts blockers on their heels and speeds up the clock in quarterbacks' heads.
The Houston Texans have a lot of excellent pieces. But to me, nothing sets the tone more than their swarming defensive front. A different defensive lineman or linebacker pops through into the backfield and forces a mistake, drags the quarterback down or strips the ball and pounces on it with great frequency.
Forty-four sacks are nice, and ranked sixth in the league. But they are hardly the only representation of how effectively the Texans have rushed. Opposing quarterbacks completed a league-low 51.9 percent of their passes against Houston. They've been hurried and harassed, throwing inaccurately and throwing balls away to avoid hits and sacks. The front always has hands up, and batted down a league-best 19 passes.
The work of the group is going to be the No. 1 thing to watch Saturday at Reliant Stadium. Can Cincinnati’s big offensive line keep the Texans off quarterback Andy Dalton long enough to let him work? If it can’t, the Texans should wind up in prime position for a second-round game in Baltimore.
“The front seven is probably the best in football; they flat get after you,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “Antonio Smith is their best player. J.J. Watt, to be a rookie, he’s been very impressive. And then those guys [Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed] come off the corners -- they call them linebackers, they’re really defensive ends.
Dalton, who’s missed work with the flu this week, said the constant effort of the Texans’ defense is what he notices every time he watches it and what the Bengals have to be prepared to counter.
“They just play so hard,” he said. “That’s the one thing you see on film. They are never giving up. Even guys who are getting blocked, it’s not like they are stopping their feet. They are doing everything they can to get off of their blocks. That’s what makes their defense play the way they do.”
An AFC personnel man I spoke with this week said he sees a weakness for Cincinnati on the interior line, where left guard Nate Livings, center Kyle Cook and right guard Mike McGlynn will be susceptible against Houston.
The Texans do superb work with stunts and twists where a defender loops around and makes an offensive line switch who they block. Those plays will cause the Bengals’ bigger, slower linemen problems.
“They run their stunt game better than anybody,” the personnel man said. “They rush to the point where the offensive line cannot pass off, they are so deep into their sets, deep into their rush, that you can’t pass it off. If you pass it off, another guy is going to come free. They do a real good job making it so those offensive linemen cannot come off of you to take the looping rusher.
“The Texans are just too deep into their rush, you can’t do it. There is not enough time. They do it so quick, they are so tight. If you want to put on a clinic of how to rush with stunts, put on the Houston Texans' defense. That’s like no other team I’ve seen do it, that’s as perfect as you can do it.”
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will find stuff out of the regular-season matchup, which the Texans won in Cincinnati on Dec. 11, to exploit in a second chance.
What’s the antidote for the Bengals?
Dalton will have to get rid of the ball in a hurry, and drives will be reliant on yards after the catch and the ability to string together long drives with a lot of first downs. The Texans will win some plays by taking away Dalton’s first and second reads, and he simply won’t have the time or opportunity to find the third.
Of course, Cincinnati rushes the quarterback well, too. The Bengals had 45 sacks from 15 different guys. But their 4-3 front is more straightforward, and Houston's offensive line is another team strength.
Smith said the Texans take pride in dependably rushing the passer every week. Those 44 regular-season sacks were the sixth-best total in the NFL. Eleven different linemen and linebackers factored into those sacks.
“That’s consistent, man,” Smith said. “The front seven has done a tremendous job, especially with all the sacks spread over not just one or two guys. … Each and every person on this defense has a role and a job to do, and is capable of getting it done.
“We’re capable of getting to the quarterback, I don’t think that’s been a problem all year. Teams started changing up the way they attacked us with the quick passes and the three-step drops and slide protections. But with our outside rushers we’re still able to get there.”