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Thursday, May 21, 2009
Spotlight or searchlight for Texans safeties?


 
  Getty Images
  While the Texans made some expensive offseason additions to their defense, they did not add any high-profile competition for Nick Ferguson and Eugene Wilson, their presumed starters at safety.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Defensive upgrades were to be the theme of the offseason for the Houston Texans.

They grabbed defensive lineman Antonio Smith with a big-dollar free-agent contract. They drafted linebacker Brian Cushing with the No. 15 pick overall.

But outside of adding fourth- and sixth-round cornerbacks and a seventh-round safety/special-teamer in the draft, the Texans didn't add anyone of note to their secondary.

What does that say?

Either the Texans liked what they had enough to believe it will work better with an upgraded front seven, or they didn't like the options in free agency or the high value spots in the draft. Perhaps both.

"We have some quality guys back there, that if things are going correctly, they can contribute and make plays for us," said defensive coordinator Frank Bush, who took over as defensive coordinator for Richard Smith, whom Gary Kubiak let go. "Of course it's all tied together. Hopefully the front seven can do some things that are going to ease some of the pressures on the back end."

Bush said his veteran safeties are smart, contentious and understand the system and that the younger guys at the position are following suit.

Had there been a "gotta have him" first-round safety, he could have landed in Houston. There wasn't, so at organized team activities (OTAs) this week the Texans have lined up with Nick Ferguson at strong safety and Eugene Wilson at free safety on the first-team defense, with Brandon Harrison and Dominique Barber behind them.

The résumé lines for the four, with assessments from Bush:

  Ferguson

Ferguson has played nine seasons with the Jets, Denver and Houston. Last year he was considered a nice addition for depth and to assist in further establishing the culture coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith wanted to grow.

Bush: "Nick's a very tough kid. He hits a ton, he studies a tremendous amount. He's got real good zone coverage awareness. He might have a little bit of problem with some man-coverage things, but all in all, he's solid."

  Wilson

Wilson has 12 interceptions in five seasons playing both corner and safety. He was a second-rounder, 36th overall, for New England in 2003 and was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams. He signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay last year and didn't stick before finding a home in Houston. He started the last nine games of 2008 at free safety.

Bush: "He's been playing safety, but he played corner in college. He's more athletic, more of a coverage safety, more in the middle of the field, a ball hawk. He's a willing tackler. He will come down in the box and lay some wood on you when he has to. But he's really comfortable ball-hawking, breaking on the ball and making plays on the ball."

  Harrison

Harrison was a fifth-round pick by the Texans out of Stanford in 2007 but missed his rookie year with an injury. He played in 15 games, starting six last season.

Bush: "Harrison is a Stanford kid, so of course he's smart. He's a big, physical presence. He's probably over 220 pounds, a kid that can strike you, runs well and moves real well for a big guy. His biggest deal is to keep getting quality reps and more experience. A big kid like that, you probably want him closer to the box. He's got almost linebacker size, but he's capable of playing in the middle of the field."

  Barber

Barber was presumed by many to be heading for the starting strong safety spot opposite Wilson this year, and still could be. At 6-foot, 218, he's thick and can thump if he's finding his way to the right spots.

Bush: "He actually played some nickel-type linebacker for us last year. He's another kid you like towards the box. But he has a tremendous understanding of the game -- his dad played, his brother played -- he really understands football. We're able to put him in the middle of the field and he can help guys get lined up and do things that way. He's got a lot of football savvy."

Troy Nolan, the seventh-rounder out of Arizona State has nice ball skills, but will have his initial opportunities on special teams.

If things pan out as the Texans envision, the club will get improved pla
y from the group of holdovers, boosted by a pass rush that will consistently force quarterbacks to make quicker decisions. If they don't, the spotlight will very likely chase the safeties and feel more like a searchlight.

It seems they have three candidates to be the in-the-box kind of guy. But they could have set things up better for competition at free safety, where I will be interested to see how Wilson can do.

"It's going to be on the DBs to cover so that the front seven can work and get those sacks," Barber said. "We know the front seven is going to get that push and it's going to come down to us making that play on the ball."

 
  Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMI
  New coordinator Frank Bush is looking for more discipline and accountability from his defense.

During this offseason work, the safeties have an additional chance to prove themselves as leaders. Cornerback Dunta Robinson will re-emerge eventually, either after signing the franchise tender that upset him or with a long-term contract. Without him around, Jacques Reeves -- a popular target of fans -- and Fred Bennett are the frontline corners.

Part of the appeal of fourth-round defensive back Glover Quin out of New Mexico was his versatility, but Bush said Quin is working with the corners for now along with sixth-rounder Brice McCain out of Utah.

The expectations Bush has for the safeties and defensive backfield are in line with the message for the whole defense, he said.

"More than anything, more discipline, being more consciously aware and accountable for their techniques and the things that we ask them to do," he said. "We're going to be sticklers for the details and by doing so make those kids more prepared to do the same things over and over and over again and get the same looks instead of , I won't say just ad-libbing it, but instead of having different techniques. We want the same things over and over and over again, so it becomes habit."

Barber said new defensive backs coach David Gibbs has streamlined a big piece of the safeties' lives.

"He's helped simplify a lot of the calls for the safeties and it makes all of the adjustments easier," Barber said. "And in three days of practice, you can tell we are flying around and have made a lot of progress already."

When Houston played its best defense last season, it was when coaches became less cautious and more aggressive. That was a big theme for Kubiak as he made the change from Smith to Bush, and players have universally talked about how they prefer the mindset.

Does a safety in that line of thinking have to be less afraid of giving up a big play?

"It's a controlled caution, I guess you would say," Bush said. "We will always try to give them the different techniques and the pointers to help them out in those situations. When we feel like we need to be aggressive, we're going to always give them some tools to protect themselves. Football is aggressive. If we can just play to those principles, we should be fine."