Houston's defense makes big leap
Houston has become a 3-4 defense kind of town.
The Texans have gone from one of the worst defenses in the NFL to the best in one season with new coordinator Wade Phillips installing the scheme. Across town at Houston, one of his proteges, Brian Stewart, has guided a similarly remarkable turnaround, teaching the 3-4 scheme to the seventh-ranked Cougars (12-0, 8-0 Conference USA).
Stewart worked as Phillips' defensive coordinator in Dallas from 2007-08, and Stewart says his defense is a mirror image of the one his mentor is employing with the Texans.
Houston plays No. 24 Southern Miss (10-2, 6-2) for the Conference USA championship on Saturday. The Cougars have gone from 96th in scoring defense in 2010 (32.2 points per game) to 30th in 2011 (20.9 ppg), the third-best improvement in the country.
''I wouldn't say it's a remarkable turnaround,'' Stewart said Tuesday. ''I just think you keep on laying bricks. The more bricks you lay, you build a foundation, and then you build a house. We just kept laying bricks.''
Houston coach Kevin Sumlin hired Stewart in January 2010, after the Cougars ranked 103rd out of 120 teams in total defense (432.83 yards per game) and 96th in scoring defense (32.17 ppg).
Stewart bounced around various college jobs in the 1990s, then worked as a defensive backs coach for the Texans in 2002-03 under Dom Capers, another 3-4 proponent. He first worked under Phillips with the San Diego Chargers from 2004-06.
''I knew right then that he had a really smart, outstanding knowledge of the game,'' Phillips said.
Now that they live in the same city again, Stewart and Phillips talk frequently, sometimes about football, more often about their personal lives.
The 46-year-old Stewart says Phillips has taught about ''90 percent'' of what he knows about defenses. But Phillips downplays how much he still helps Stewart.
''He already knows as much as I do,'' Phillips said. ''We've discussed football and stuff before, but he's his own man, he knows what he likes. I know he likes some of the things that we did, but there are also some things he wanted to do on his own, and he's done a good job with that.''
Senior linebacker Marcus McGraw, now second in career tackles in school history (489), said Stewart arrived on campus with instant respect among the players because of his NFL experience.
''People started telling me, `He was the Cowboys' coordinator. I saw him on `Hard Knocks,''' McGraw said. ''Once he got here, we were all excited, we all had our notebooks out, and we were ready for learn.''
Stewart began implementing his defense at the most basic level in the spring.
''He just really talked to us like little kids,'' McGraw said, ''like we were at zero, and didn't know anything about football, at all.''
The process continued to be agonizing last season.
The Cougars gave up 409 yards rushing in a 47-24 loss to Mississippi State, 642 total yards in a 59-41 loss to Southern Miss and 373 yards passing a 35-20 loss to Texas Tech.
''It really wasn't hard to learn,'' senior outside linebacker Sammy Brown said. ''It was just a new defense and everybody was new at playing it, so we really didn't trust one another. Everybody was going out there, trying to make the other person's plays.''
While Case Keenum and the offense overpowered opponents early this season, the defense still worked out the kinks. The Cougars improved to 5-0 with a 49-42 win at UTEP, and Brown said the defense had a breakthrough the following week in a 56-3 rout of East Carolina.
''We knew, in that game, that we could trust one another,'' Brown said. ''We knew then that we could be a really good defense.''
Brown, playing the position where DeMarcus Ware excels with the NFL's Cowboys, leads the nation in tackles for loss (2.2 per game). Houston ranks 16th in pass efficiency defense and seventh in turnover ratio (plus-1).
Before the season, Sumlin said the two areas where he wanted Houston's defense to improve the most were in points and third down conversions.
The Cougars have allowed fewer than 20 points in each of their last four games, and have given up conversions on only 37.23 percent of third downs. Last year, Houston's defense yielded conversions on 49.43 percent of third downs.
''I don't think surprised is the word,'' Sumlin said. ''I felt like we were improving in two-a-days. You never know how much. It's a combination of a lot of things, but our defensive staff is doing a great job.''
Stewart says the defense still hasn't reached its potential, and will get one of the biggest tests of the season against the Golden Eagles, who are averaging 37 points per game.
''We're not where we want to be, we're not the defense we definitely want to be,'' Stewart said. ''But we're a work in progress, and that's good.''