HOUSTON — Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard bolted out of his stance, accelerating into the backfield before suddenly stopping his charge to leap into the air to deflect a pass from quarterback Davis Mills, popping the football into the air to himself for an interception.
It was another snapshot of his rare combination of explosiveness and instincts. A year after a breakthrough season and having made a full recovery from offseason foot surgery, Greenard is an emerging dangerous pass rusher with a growing repertoire of pass rushing moves.
Jonathan Greenard wins chess match with repertoire of moves
For Greenard, pass rushing is akin to an ultra-physical chess match. He sets up blockers by varying his moves, body language, and studying their technique. In a memorable sequence last season, Greenard froze his rush for a moment to get an Indianapolis Colts tight end leaning in one direction as he was eager to engage the Texans’ third-year defensive end at the line of scrimmage. Then, Greenard grabbed him by the shoulder pads, slinging him to the ground, and crashed into the Colts’ backfield to hit quarterback Carson Wentz.
“That was all about using his momentum against him,” Greenard told Pro Football Network. “I like to hesitate sometimes, get their feet moving indecisively. Football is mental. You have to be able to use film study and know what they’re going to do. That’s how you win as a pass rusher. You have to use your head, hands, and feet all working together.”
Whether it’s his signature long-arm move, gaining leverage by shoving an offensive tackle backward with a powerful shove of their shoulder pads before disengaging to sack the quarterback, a spin move, bull rush, speed rush, rip move, or swim move, Greenard is a technician who recorded a career-high eight sacks last season in 12 games. Shoulder and foot injuries, unfortunately, sidelined him for five games.
The former third-round draft pick from Florida managed to have nine tackles for loss and 12 quarterback hits in just 52% of the overall defensive snaps.
“Absolutely, that was a great play he made,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said after Greenard’s interception. “But we expect great players to make great plays. Last year, he had limited amount of time on the field, but he was productive, so it’s time for him to take a step. We need a few of our guys to take that next step to where you’re really talking about them, and Jonathan has the ability to do that.
“Jonathan is a legitimate outside defensive end in the league. I’m anxious to see how far he can go. He’s a big part of what we’re going to do this year.”
Greenard credits weight loss to his recovery and significant quickness
Down to a lean 255 pounds through a stricter diet and proudly displaying his abs at practice, Greenard looks significantly quicker and is a constant threat to sack the quarterback.
“I’ve trimmed up,” Greenard said. “My body fat is way down. I feel explosive. Look good, feel good, play good. I had to cut back on a lot of stuff on my diet. When I was recovering from the foot surgery, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get big and fat and I stayed on top of my diet. I cut out starches and replaced them with greens. You can’t eat a big old burger or some pizza because it’s going to stick to you.”
Greenard is a classic tweener. He’s a student of the game whose first-step quickness tells a different story than his ordinary 4.87 40-yard dash time. It’s Greenard’s 10-yard split of 1.71 seconds that’s impressive. His first-step quickness, violent power, and ability to create leverage allow him to consistently win at the line of scrimmage. He combines strength, quickness, and heavy hands to control blockers to create big plays.
During a four-game span last October, Greenard had a sack every game (six total). He was on pace for well over 10 sacks before the injuries impacted his season.
Completely healthy after injury-plagued 2021
Now that the foot injury is completely behind him, Greenard is upbeat about this season.
“It feels good, body is feeling good, mind and spiritual, it’s feeling good,” Greenard said. “The foot is good. I just had a clean-up thing. I had been dealing with it for a while. It feels good. I haven’t had any pain since the surgery. I’m ready to move past it.
“That was the thing that was weighing on me a lot. We got it cleaned up and now we’re good to go. I can plant and explode off the ball. That helps me overall so I can set up guys to get what I want.”
Greenard’s foot passed another test, checking a box when he made it out of the Texans’ preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints unscathed after appearing in a few plays. His playing time will likely expand against the Los Angeles Rams on Friday night.
“Yes, Jonathan finished the season injured, and he’s healthy,” Smith said. “So we wanted to get him a few reps. That’s the case for our guys that we feel pretty comfortable with and we know what their role will be. I don’t have to see them all throughout the preseason to feel comfortable. We don’t have to see that to feel comfortable with that. Jonathan may get a few more plays this week.”
Greenard’s goals are fairly simple
Sacking elusive Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray twice in a game last year, Greenard is intent on providing a consistent presence throughout the season.
“My No. 1 goal is making it through 17 games and being there for my team every single game,” Greenard said. I understand nobody cares about that,” Greenard said. “This is a new year. I could have one sack, 10 sacks, don’t matter what it was.
“At the end of the day, we are all going to do that collectively, and that’s going to help us better for the team. And that way we can move forward and get where we want to go.”
Greenard uses his superior arm length to keep blockers at bay and prevent them from getting their hands on his body. He redirects his charge adeptly and is in constant motion, making him an extremely difficult blocking assignment.
“I’ve had long arms pretty much my whole life,” Greenard said. “When they introduced the move to me, it was like, ‘Wow, this move actually does work.’ One arm is longer than the other one, so I’ve been trying to perfect that and building, moving forward, building off of that move, it’s going to be a benefit for me.”
Working overtime against Laremy Tunsil, Tytus Howard
After practice, it’s overtime for Greenard before lunch, meetings, and recovery time. He regularly works on his moves against the Texans’ tackle tandem of Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard.
“He has a lot of moves,” Howard said. “He plays with a lot of energy so you going to see that every week. I’ve been here with JG for three years now and I think he’s getting better every day. I learn from him and [he] learns from me.”
The competitions at practice have been fierce. Tunsil, a former Pro Bowl selection, is one of the most athletic left tackles in the game. Both he and Howard are former first-round draft picks.
“Those guys are literally the best in the game,” Greenard said. “They tell me how they would approach a guy like me. They are going to have to do certain things to make me have to sit down or make me do other moves. So, I just basically have to stay in my repertoire or add to my repertoire, add to my arsenal and understand how they would block me and have a better counter.
“It’s a steady evolving game because even after I beat them with a move, I have to readjust and make another move after that. I guarantee you I’m not going to play somebody better than them.”
Although he wasn’t able to participate in an annual pass rushing summit with private coach Brandon Jordan, a pass-rushing specialist at Michigan State, Greenard still attended the sessions to watch and learn.
“Jon stepped up a lot,” Jordan said in a telephone interview. “He looked good. He worked hard. It’s just the beginning. He was fighting injuries last season. He’s got a long way to grow. For him to put up the numbers he put up, his upside is out of the roof.”
High percentage of sacks to snaps
Greenard’s average as a pass rusher is incredibly high. At one point during the first half of last season, the Georgia native was leading the NFL with a sack for every 13.7 pass-rushing snaps played. That’s a strong batting average.
Greenard was also an impact player for the Gators after transferring from Louisville. He was a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection who recorded 9½ sacks, 52 tackles, 15½ for losses, one interception, and three forced fumbles in his final college season.
Greenard is regarded as an ascending young player whose rare motor and growing understanding of how to apply his moves are paying dividends. He’s become the top pass rusher on the Texans. Greenard finished with three more sacks than former Texans defensive end J.J. Watt’s team-high five sacks in 2020 and was a major factor despite Houston’s 4-13 record.
He’s been more outspoken at practice this season, even yelling “Ball game” after a defensive shutdown of Mills and the offense.
“I see a confident guy,” Smith said. “First off, you don’t talk unless you feel confident about who you are as a football player and what you can do, and sometimes it takes that leader to get things going a little bit. You expect those kind of things from Jonathan. When you talk, you need to be able to make plays, and he can do that.”