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Texans DC Lovie Smith's defensive strategy: 'We're going to get the ball'

HOUSTON -- When new Houston Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith sat down with his defense at the start of the team’s offseason program, he had a message about how the unit was going to play football.

We’re going to get the ball.

“That’s been an emphasis in every meeting,” safety Justin Reid said. “... We have target goals on how many times we even want to punch the ball. This is the first time I’ve seen it where we’re tracking just strips attempts, punch attempts -- tracking all of that. Really trying to put an emphasis on guys to go after the ball and create turnovers, because those are game-changing situations.”

It’s perhaps even more of an emphasis because of the way the defense struggled to force turnovers last season. In 2020, the Texans had nine takeaways -- three interceptions and six fumbles recovered -- which ranked last in the NFL. The 31st-ranked team, the Detroit Lions, forced 12 turnovers. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only the 2018 San Francisco 49ers (7) forced fewer turnovers in the last 10 seasons.

“Last year just felt like, like I said, the defense, it just wasn’t tight enough,” Reid said. “Too many holes, too many pitch-and-catches. We tried to put some emphasis on the ball, but we didn’t do a good enough job last year, plain and simple.”

Takeaways have been a trademark throughout Smith’s NFL career, and three times his teams (2003 as the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and 2006 and ‘12 as head coach of the Chicago Bears) have led the league in that category.

“We have a basic philosophy on how we want to play football,” Smith said. “Yeah, we want to stop the run, we want to be sound and all those things. They determine the winner by how many points you score, and one of our goals on defense [is] to score as often as possible, just like on offense. And if we can’t score, it’s about taking the ball away.”

It’s clear from watching team drills during training camp that Smith’s defense understands their coordinator’s mandate.

“Our job is to fly around the ball and get the ball,” safety Lonnie Johnson Jr. said.

While the quarterback play has gotten more consistent as camp has gone on, the defense impressed in the first two and a half weeks of practice.

“As a defense, you can’t wait for the offense to turn the ball over,” Smith said. “You have to take it away. So on defense, first off, the philosophy that it’s a takeaway. You have to take the ball away on the defensive side, and then you got to practice it. Simple as that.

“You just have to keep practicing it, like you practice tackling, like a receiver practices catching the ball.”

Smith’s focus is on defenders playing with their instincts because, “it's about eyes on the ball [because] that's where the takeaways come.”

“Coach Lovie Smith's system, it's so much more aggressive,” Reid said. “He lets us play free on the back end. He's very intent about us wanting to make plays and going and making plays, playing with instincts, playing with security; at the same time, but when we see an opportunity to make a play and go strip the ball out, he harps on us going to do that. He's in my ear literally every day.”

And for a defense that not only ranked last in takeaways last year, but ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA, it’s been about rebuilding the unit.

“[Smith is] definitely an old school guy,” cornerback Desmond King said. “You can tell that by his demeanor and how he coaches. He likes the basic fundamentals. He teaches that every day to us. That's what you want to do as a player. You want to start from the basics and build from the ground up. I think that's what we're doing now, starting from the bottom and building up to where we want to be.”