Ghosts of playoff loss highlight new Texans special teams coordinator's task

HOUSTON -- Make no mistake, the Houston Texans' special teams units get reminders about how the catastrophic playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs began.

The Texans were down a touchdown before many fans even made it to their seats thanks to a 106-yard return by Knile Davis on the game's opening kickoff. That set the tone of a game that would see five turnovers by quarterback Brian Hoyer, J.J. Watt reach the breaking point with his injuries, and the Texans become the first AFC team ever to be shut out in a home playoff game.

That it started with special teams was fitting, though. For several years now, the Texans have tried to improve the unit. They're now counting on new special teams coordinator Larry Izzo to accomplish that.

"I think you gotta have instincts," Izzo said. "Guys that really stand out are guys that they somehow find a way to get to the ball. Obviously you've gotta have the tools physically. Speed, quickness, toughness, playing physical. ... There's not just one thing, but if you have a few of those, you have a chance to be a productive player. And you have to be smart. Honestly, smart and coachable. There's a lot of things that can happen on any given play and you have to be able to do things within the scheme. That's kind of what we're looking for. Smart, tough, physical guys that have instincts and want to make play."

Izzo spent five seasons with the New York Giants as a coach after his playing career ended. The Texans hired him this offseason after firing former special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky, who was the only remaining coach left over from the staff before Bill O'Brien.

Week after week during the 2015 season, O'Brien called for better special teams. The Texans ranked 31st in kickoff return yards last season and 25th in yards per punt return.

That need for improvement showed most glaringly in that 30-0 playoff loss to Kansas City.

Key special teams players come from the reserves on the roster, and the Texans' task is to find those players who might not be starters, but have the willingness and tenacity to contribute in that way.

"Last year, if you look at our 53-man roster, at the end of the year we had 18 guys on that roster that were undrafted in their careers," O'Brien said. "Eighteen guys. And a number of those guys I would tell you made our team based on special teams. That’s something that we really emphasize. ...Larry [Izzo] ... he talked to these guys about a guy like Steve Tasker who, when he came out, he was a 14th-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills and ended up probably being one of the greatest special teams players of all time."

The Texans started to find some of those players toward the end of last season. The additions of linebacker Brian Peters and cornerback Charles James II made for a marked improvement in special teams play. There's also a lesson in Izzo's own path to the NFL. He was undrafted in 1996 and played 13 seasons in the NFL with the help of his special teams prowess.

The real test for the players vying for special teams roles will come later in the offseason, when padded practices are allowed. For now Izzo is making the most of what he's able to do.

"When you are in the meetings you have to be glued in; there's limited time to make the points," Izzo said. "Unfortunately, guys when they come up from college, they need a lot of reps, and that's part of the process. When I played, you had more time and you had more time to get reps. You saw an increase in the skill level. A faster learning curve. It's challenging (now), but everyone's working within the same rules. the faster we can get these guys caught up and understanding what we're looking for, the better we'll be."