HOUSTON – Jalen Pitre reacted instinctively as soon as he saw Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott heading downhill toward the end zone.
The Texans’ rookie free safety accelerated into his tackle, driving his body for a low center of gravity toward his collision point, striking Elliott in the thigh and upending him shy of the goal line.
It was arguably Pitre’s most impressive tackle, among the dozen the Stafford graduate recorded last Sunday during arguably his top performance of the season.
Pitre was everywhere. He delivered a crushing hit on wide receiver Noah Brown, leaving him shaken up. He slammed into wide receiver Michael Gallup on the sideline and shook up wide receiver James Washington. He hit wide receiver CeeDee Lamb so hard he sent him flying backwards. In a nod of respect, Lamb congratulated the hard-hitting second-round draft pick.
This was the game that Pitre emerged as an all-around force as a tackler who’s also adept in pass coverage. One week after picking off Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson in the end zone for his third interception of the season, Pitre had an even more impressive game. He has 28 tackles combined in the past two games.
Since shifting to free safety from strong safety, the former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year looks like a natural at his new position and has stopped missing tackles. The vision at free safety is clearer for Pitre. By moving him further away from the line of scrimmage, he has more time to set up his hits and is making more impactful plays
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Pitre said. “I think I’ve had some success at the free safety role. I’m looking forward to continue to build off that and the trust in my coaches.
“At free safety, I do have more time to see things and do have a wider view of the field. I would say that helps.”
Pitre has recorded 104 tackles, five for losses and one sack. Although he struggled at times this season, including allowing a touchdown pass against the New York Giants when he missed an open-field tackle on Darius Slayton, Pitre has made a lot of improvement in recent weeks.
A lot of it is attributable to the position change as well as the coaching of safeties coach Joe Danna and Pitre’s commitment to play more under control.
Pitre is just as aggressive as he was earlier this season, but the results are much better.
“He knows how important it is to take the football away,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable back in his position. I think he’s going to be a great player in our league for a long period of time.”
“We made the move with him back in the middle of the field, and it’s paying dividends. He’s a good player. It seems like it’s his natural position. He was active, tackling, playing the ball.”
The tackle on Elliott in the red zone was particularly significant, earning Pitre congratulations from his teammates.
“I was happy,” Pitre said. “It was a lot of tackles like that. I’m definitely happy I got him down.”
Besides the 12 tackles, Pitre had two passes defensed. On a 1-11-1 squad heading into Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Pitre is one of the few bright spots on the roster and shapes up as a strong draft pick by general manager Nick Caserio.
He was praised effusively on social media by NFL Network analyst and retired offensive lineman Brian Baldinger.
“He brings a whole lot of leather to the party, no hesitation,” Baldinger said. “He’s a rolling ball of butcher knives. Dude is going to be feared, is feared.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com