Lovie Smith has a philosophy on defense. The new Houston Texans defensive coordinator believes that a defensive unit should be able to score.
If they can't find the end zone, they should at least be able to force takeaways.
Houston's defense did both on the way to a 20-14 victory against the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium — and once wasn't enough for Smith's revamped squad.
Since the Texans' elected to switch over to a 4-3, Smith has emphasized the importance of turnovers. From the first drive, that was the biggest storyline.
Defensive end Jacob Martin delivered a booming sack fumble on third-and-7 during the Cowboys’ first drive. Fellow defensive end Charles Omenihu would recover the ball, setting the Texans' up at the Cowboys' 23.
Six plays later, Houston was on the board thanks to a 2-yard touchdown run from Mark Ingram II.
"It's crazy, honestly," Omenihu said. "You got four guys who can get after it. Jacob got speed. Maliek (Collins) got speed. He's got quick feet. You got me, I got length and quickness. And then you've got Whit (Mercilus) who knows how to rush and still got it off the edge."
Omenihu, who did not play last week during the team's 26-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers, made the most of his night. Considered a hybrid player by Smith, the third-year pro out of Texas worked both inside and out, lining up as a 3-tech while also working more off the guard's outside shoulder.
It paid dividends for Houston's pass rush. Omenihu finished with two sacks in the second quarter before calling it a night.
“That whole front got after it," Texans head coach David Culley said. "We talked last night in our team meeting about the three E’s: effort, energy and execution. The effort and the energy from those guys were unbelievable tonight and when that happens, with that group as deep as they are, good things happen."
Pressure leads to quarterback making mistakes. Ben DeNucci made three before the final whistle blew in the second half. The second-year quarterback threw three interceptions, each helping Houston complete the comeback.
During the third quarter, a tipped pass from cornerback Tremon Smith allowed third-year safety Lonnie Johnson to land his first career interceptions. A foot race a 53 yards later, Johnson scored his first NFL touchdown, and the game was tied at 14 apiece.
"Just seeing, seeing the way the quarterback was leaning that way, just following the ball," Johnson said. "See ball, get ball. Take the ball and then the rest is history. Get to the end zone.”
An interception from Johnson was bound to happen soon. Since his return from the inactive list, the former cornerback-turned-safety has been causing turnovers left and right in practice. Last week, he recorded three practice picks alone.
Johnson wasn't the only defensive back to walk away with an interception.
Rookie cornerback Shyheim Carter intercepted DiNucci in the fourth quarter, diving for a low pass intended for Cowboys' wideout Johnnie Dixon. Houston would extend its lead to six with a 24-yard field goal from Ka'imi Fairbairn.
One drive later, a deflection by Carter from DiNucci's pass would land right in the hands of Terrance Brooks, thus helping Houston improve to 2-0 in the preseason.
"I’m not surprise by how they’re playing back there," Culley said of the secondary. "I’m not surprised with the turnovers. They’re trying to do exactly what Lovie wants to do on defense as far as being able to create turnovers because of the scheme that they’re playing."
Johnson said that pressure upfront helps create turnovers. Houston added plenty against Dallas' second-team offensive line. On top of Martin and Omenihu, defensive tackle DeMarcus Walker consistently was adding pressure up the middle.
Rookie defensive tackle Roy Lopez Jr. came close twice in the third quarter, but delivered his second career sack during Dallas' final drive.
Last season, Houston finished the regular season with nine total takeaways. They have seven through two preseason games — including four interceptions.
Last season, the Texans managed to finish with a league-worst three picks. Maybe Smith is on to something?
"The name of the game is being able to take the ball away," Ingram said. "They’ve been causing turnovers at a high rate, both last week and this week. Hopefully we’ll continue to grow in that way. We’ll continue to limit big plays. We’ll continue to create big plays for our defense."
Scheme fit can make a difference for even the lowliest of teams. Smith's Tampa 2 style continues to be a game-changer for the 30th-ranked unit a season ago.
It's the preseason. Games like this won't matter. It does, however, paint a picture on where teams need to improve - or, in the case of the Texans defense, where a team has improved.