One of my big worries coming into the season was about how the passing game would adjust to new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. He's an offensive line guy who had a focus on running the football, and by all objective measures, the Texans have benefited from his experience with that. The fact that Derrick Ward ran for 80 yards on Sunday despite looking like he was wading in a pool of Jello on every run is a testament to that.
Now of course, if you listened to conventional football wisdom, the Texans getting a great running game would take their offense to the next level because it would open up their play-action passing game even more. The problem with that logic was that the play-action pass game was already astonishingly good by objective measures, as shown by their 75.2% DVOA on play-action passes last year, which was third in the NFL behind only the Steelers and the Patriots.
Certainly this game was destined to be an outlier because without Andre Johnson and with Jacoby Jone's laissez-faire attitude on catching footballs, the Texans had no deep threat to scare anyone. But even beyond that, the play-action game has looked off so far. I don't have a handy-dandy DVOA calculator with me, I think they only give those out if you're on the Football Outsiders staff, but the Texans have had just two PA passes that have yielded 30+ yards this season, and one of those was a pass interference penalty. Last year they had ten completed 30+ yard catches. In the first eight games of the season.
Behind the jump: More on play-action, a game of good Frank Bush/bad Frank Bush, how the Raiders were able to get pressure on Schaub, and praying that one play of Kareem Jackson's career at least shows some signs of technical improvement.
Increase the size of your passes by up to 10 yards!
My first crack at the reason for the play-action pass losing effectiveness was perhaps the Texans were blocking too many people. A quick check of the spreadsheet proved that theory wrong, as the Texans big-gainers all involved a lot of blockers last season: They averaged 6.27 blockers and only blocked with five guys on three of the eighteen 30+ gainers.
So what could be the culprit? Are they overdoing play-action? Well, not really. They averaged 11.3 PA passes last year and while they've done a little more this year, 11.7 per game (in 3.5 games that I've charted so far), you have to take into account the extra quarter they played in Washington.
About the only statistical difference so far is that they're running the bootleg PA a lot more than they did last year. Only five of the eighteen 30+ yard gains came on the bootleg, yet the Texans are running about five of them a game so far this year, as compared to 1.875 a game last year. This makes sense anecdotally, as Schaub is not a running quarterback and the Texans, having trouble in pass protection the last couple of games, probably want to keep him away from the line a little.
Whatever the problem is, they need to fix it fast before they get to the real meat of their schedule after the bye week. The ground game has been a real boon to the Texans, and if they can add it to that play-action game, it'll make the offense dominant. Otherwise, we've likely traded one effective offensive centerpiece for another.
Cover zero zone.
There was one play in the first half that was almost astonishing because of how easily the Raiders exploited it. The Texans rush four here and the Raiders have an extra offensive lineman in their set, plus the running back. This means that the Raiders have three receivers against seven Texans in coverage. And yet...
You would really think that a four man advantage on defense would be enough to swing a play, but whether it's the players not being right in the scheme (possible) or the scheme just flat out being awful (my guess), the Texans secondary just can't run the zone well enough to use it as often as Bush does. I understand that it's Football 101 to play a lot of zone if you have a weak secondary, but I think the idea behind that is that it's supposed to limit big gains. Instead, some of the longest plays of the season have come because of the zone.
Meanwhile, how about an effective blitz from Frankie? Texans Bull Blog already had a look at the cornerback blitz already, so I'll leave that to them, but how about another victory out of the two-down line look?
That one is just tasty to me. I would like to see Bush use this setup more on third downs, but also make it a bit less obvious that a blitz is coming. When I see a two or three down line look from Bush, it's about 80/20 that a blitz is coming. Creativity? Yes. Game theory? Not so much. But it's a step up from what we had last year. At this point I think we just need to wean him off the zone. Anyone know a good rehab center for that? Can someone call Buddy Ryan?
Thunder stunt all dinosaur, you know?
Just because the Texans kept Schaub sackless doesn't mean that they were doing a better job pass-blocking. Schaub looked much more determined to get the ball out on time, and on a few third downs, simply chose the dumpoff no matter how short of the sticks he was. I can see third and long becoming a real problem for the Texans this year if the offensive line doesn't start getting better pass protection.
The Raiders were killing Rashad Butler with stunts. It doesn't help that he's next to Wade Smith, who in my eyes has easily been the weakest pass blocker on the team through four weeks. Here's a sample from the cover-your-eyes reel:
Butler won't be a problem (and honestly, his performance in this game wasn't anywhere near the rookie Duane Brown / Seth Wand pantheon of sadness) for much longer, but between Smith, Foster, Myers' inability to take on bigger tackles, and the sadness that is Owen Daniels, this is going to remain an issue.
Mixed metaphors about bright spots in shadows.
So it was the Raiders, and it was the Raiders receivers, who are awful. In fact, on one catch in the second quarter, it looked like Darrius Heyward-Bey didn't even get his hands up to try and catch a slant until the ball was 4/5ths of the way there.
But Kareem Jackson had at least one play where he looked like he might be on the right path:
Isn't it pretty? Look at that coverage. Don't think about that deep ball that Heyward-Bey dropped that probably should've been pass interference. That's bad. Just watch this play over again and chant "serenity now!"
Now the question will be: Is Jackson on the Amobi Okoye career path (shows flashes in good matchups, is otherwise ineffective) or is he really going to pick up his play to below-average or *gasp* average (the Duane Brown route), because if he can just be as mediocre as Jacques Reeves was in 2008, and Troy Nolan can catch balls, the pass defense can improve to the point where it won't be a total liability.