Pressure is on Texans to rush Baker Mayfield

Pressure is on Texans to rush Baker Mayfield

Photo of Brooks Kubena
Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence was intercepted three times but Texans didn't record a sack when rushing four linemen. He was sacked once on a blitz.

Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence was intercepted three times but Texans didn’t record a sack when rushing four linemen. He was sacked once on a blitz.

Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Trevor Lawrence, the NFL’s reigning No. 1 overall pick, an All-American quarterback whose pile of collegiate awards really only excludes the Heisman Trophy, sat in NRG Stadium’s postgame interview room after his professional debut frustrated, having to answer whether the Jaguars’ 37-21 loss to the Texans was the first time in his life he’d ever thrown three interceptions in a single game.

“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “Yeah. It is. Yeah.”

The Texans (yes, the Texans) thrice intercepted a prized rookie who often looked like a rookie on Sunday, equaling the entire sum of interceptions that last year’s defense forced in 16 total games.

The debut of new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s scheme was a continuation of a promising preseason in which the unit forced 10 turnovers in three exhibitions, and the dominant game shows the Texans can at least improve upon the mistakes of last year’s team.

But can Smith’s defense produce the same pressure this week against an AFC power like the Browns (yes, the Browns) and rattle an established quarterback like Baker Mayfield, who’s coming off his best season?

Examine the tape from Houston’s Week 1 victory and there’s reasonable room for questions. Smith said in training camp that the defense doesn’t want to rely on blitzing to create a pass rush, and, on Sunday, the Texans failed to produce a sack while rushing just four defenders.

The rookie’s biggest mistakes were made on his own. Lawrence mostly had ample time and space in the pocket to deliver throws tenured NFL quarterbacks usually make.

Lawrence sailed a throw on the run that was too high and picked off by safety Justin Reid. The quarterback stared down a receiver, which gave cornerback Vernon Hargreaves plenty of time to adjust and snag another interception on a sideline pass. Then, near the game’s end, Lawrence threw a pass out of a clean pocket directly to linebacker Christian Kirksey.

Those throws justified a plan that didn’t call for many blitzes. The Texans rushed with standard four-man fronts and attempted to make the rookie uncomfortable, while dropping the rest of their defenders in coverage. They essentially challenged Lawrence to prove he could beat them.

“We didn’t actually get the sack total that we normally would be looking for,” Culley said, “but we got the pressure from the standpoint of getting him off his timing and him making some throws that allowed us to get some interceptions and also (him) miss some throws.”

The Texans’ defense was credited with 11 hurried throws and four quarterback hits, all forced by defensive linemen who are rotational members of Smith’s pass-rush platoons in prime passing situations.

Defensive tackle Maliek Collins, a former Cowboy who signed a one-year deal for this season, was the most disruptive of Houston’s linemen. But he was twice penalized for roughing the passer on drives that eventually produced Jaguars points.

Lawrence still managed to complete 28-of-51 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns along with his interceptions, and his biggest throws came on situations in which the pass rush was too late or didn’t arrive at all.

On third-and-17 in the first quarter, a Texans pass-rush platoon that included defensive ends Jacob Martin, DeMarcus Walker and Jordan Jenkins tag-teamed with defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, who looped around Jenkins along the right edge but met Lawrence just as the quarterback delivered a 27-yard strike to DJ Chark.

Late in the game, while the Texans led 34-7, Lawrence had a clean pocket and connected on a 41-yard touchdown strike to Chark along the left sideline — a throw delivered in admittable garbage time, but otherwise indicates what effective quarterbacks can do when given the proper time.

Cleveland’s Mayfield used to be a turnover liability. In his first two NFL seasons, he threw 35 interceptions to 49 touchdowns. The ratio diminished significantly last season, when Mayfield threw for 3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions in a season that snapped the Browns’ 17-year playoff drought and ended with a 22-17 loss to the Chiefs in the AFC divisional round.

Mayfield was efficient in Cleveland’s rematch with the Chiefs on Sunday, completing 21-of-28 passes for 321 yards and an interception. He was sacked twice in a 33-29 loss.

Perhaps the Texans defense has more in store for Mayfield than their standard four-man rushes. In a rare blitz on Sunday, linebackers Kirksey and Zach Cunningham charged the center, and defensive end Whitney Mercilus broke free on a one-on-one with a blocker to drag down Lawrence for the game’s only sack.

“The defense really just kept the momentum on our side,” running back David Johnson said. “Just kept everyone rallying. Just seeing it, as an offensive guy, seeing the defense disrupt and really confuse the opposing offense, fluster the quarterback, do everything like that, really motivates us to do more. Momentum is a huge thing in football.”