2011 was a largely successful year for the Houston Texans as the Gary Kubiak-coached team finally got over the playoff hump. It was sparked by a defensive turnaround the likes of which you rarely see, with the Texans going from earning a team grade of -54.5 in 2010 (second lowest in the league) to +103.2 in 2011 (third highest).
A lot of praise rightly went to Wade Phillips who installed a new aggressive 3-4 scheme that got the best out of a number of players. Players like Brian Cushing, Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt starred up front as they harassed quarterbacks and made it tough to run the ball on the Texans. But nowhere was the change more evident than in a Houston secondary that went from laughing stock to one of the NFL’s top units.
Part of this transformation came down to the offseason acquisitions of Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning and moving Glover Quin to safety. But one of the more understated moves Wade Phillips made was moving Brice McCain into the slot cornerback position. The results of which led to this selection of McCain as the Texans’ Secret Superstar.
Before he was the Texans’ sixth-round pick in 2009, not much was thought of McCain. He spent his college career playing second fiddle to Sean Smith, a cornerback who would go on to be a second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins. To some he was something of a long shot to even make the Texans’ roster, but make it he did and he ended up getting on the field for 217 snaps in his rookie year. Did he impress? Not exactly–as his -5.9 grade would attest–but given what the Texans had on their roster, that wasn’t actually too bad and suggested he could feature more prominently going forward.
That proved the case as he got on the field for 407 snaps in 2010, but unfortunately what promise he had shown as a rookie seemed to disappear. Instead he was a prominent part of a porous secondary, earning a -10.8 grade and giving up 373 yards and four touchdowns on 41 balls thrown into his primary coverage. Nothing summed up his struggles like a horrible 19-snap outing against the Jets in Week 11 where he gave up three receptions for 71 yards and two touchdowns. With just three more snaps to come in his season and a new defense being implemented, no one believed McCain would be in line for a big role come 2011.
In 2009 and 2010 McCain had spent most of his career playing outside corner with just 22% of his coverage snaps coming in the slot. But a new defense had different ideas on how to use him, and from Day 1 of the regular season he was deemed the team’s slot cornerback. With Johnathan Joseph on one side and either Kareem Jackson or Jason Allen on the other, McCain found himself on the field whenever the Texans brought on their nickel or dime defense; a role far more important than people give it credit for.
As the NFL evolves, we’re seeing more and more three- and four-receiver sets. It means teams are forced to turn to their nickel and dime units more often than ever before. In 2011 the NFL average saw teams spend 52.17% of plays with at least five defensive backs on the field, and while Houston were at the low end (39.9%), that’s still a considerable amount of plays you’re getting your slot cornerback on the field. The need to have one who can match up with guys over the middle of the field is something that is only going to increase as team’s continue trying to spread a defense out.
With the importance of the role growing, it’s key to have someone who can hold up to life in the slot. In that respect, McCain’s 2011 was something of a revelation, with the Texan slot cornerback earning a +8.5 coverage grade (including postseason) while managing the seventh-most slot snaps of all corners. The table below is a look at some of the key metrics for McCain in the slot which show just how good a player he is (the table looks at those who played at least 150 snaps in the slot).
Metric 48.5 6.9 0.76 13.2
Rank 2nd 8th 2nd 1st
Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, but in this case they paint a pretty good picture at showing just how effective the former sixth-rounder was when he was moved into the slot. With the role seeing cornerbacks matched up with the likes of Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, and Marques Colston among others, it’s a position of increasing importance. So while it won’t garner attention like a shutdown corner, it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Indeed, it’s arguably a tougher position to play than being an edge corner. Playing outside you can set up in such a way that you only have to defend one release, whereas in the slot you have to watch out for a receiver going either way. You’re also closer to the snap of the ball so have greater responsibilities in the run game, and have to contend with playing through traffic over an often congested middle of the field.
It’s an area of the game teams are exposing more with the emergence of players like Welker, and it’s something defenses need to adjust to if they’re going to contend. After all 31.4% of all wide receiver yardage came from guys lined up in the slot. So having a sure tackler like McCain (just two missed tackles in 2011) who can keep track of these guys and make plays on the ball (no touchdowns allowed, two interceptions and nine pass break-ups) is becoming more and more of a necessity, especially with them being so hard to find.
It’s why Brice McCain is more than just a role player. He’s a Secret Superstar whose importance to the Texans’ defense is much more than you’d think.