You might want to finish that alfredo first. Time for a rather lengthy look at the Texans' rookie class.
You want to know how I know I’m psychic? I can predict exactly what you’re doing right now. You just opened this article thinking to yourself, "Oh boy, another rookie review! I can’t wait to see who he looks at this week!" Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you notice something. It’s the scroll bar, and it’s rapidly shrinking on the right side of the screen as more and more of the page loads. Smaller and smaller it becomes, subconsciously alerting you to the fact that no, you don’t have enough time to read this in one sitting while your chicken alfredo finishes baking in the oven. "What the? How long is this thing?" you contemplate. Right now you’re probably scrolling dow-
Um…well that was rude. You could have at least waited and read the whole paragraph before looking upon your imminent literary doom. I put a lot of effort into that narrative, and then you just had to go along and screw it up. Shame on you, guy cooking chicken alfredo. I’m pretty sure your name is something stupid…like Xavier…or Chet. Shame on you, Chet.
Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, you probably just scrolled down the page to see how long this article was while asking yourself, "Holy mother of Durga, how many people did he review this week!?" To that, loyal BRBers, I say, all of them. Why am I taking an inordinate amount of hours to drop a neutron bomb full of football knowledge on you all during finals week? Because I care about you, that’s why.
This week has alerted me to a crisis in modern American sports journalism. That crisis, of course, is that there isn’t any sports journalism in modern America. The Rob Parker controversy at ESPN a few days back really woke me up to the fact that the vast majority of mainstream media that diehard Texans fans are forced to endure these days is really nothing more than lists, rankings, loose extrapolations of generic statistics, and Tim Tebow all wrapped up in the occasional racist, sexist, or just plain stupidity-laden blanket. I see what you have to go through, and I am truly sorry. I consider BRB a safe haven for what fans really want – analysis, humor, and excessive word counts that people actively want to read rather than just mindlessly check during their lunch breaks. I, along with the rest of the BRB staff, have done my best to give this to you so far this season. I personally hope I have at least somewhat accomplished that with these tape studies, but I promise to you that for the remaining (hopefully) two months of the season, you’ll get even more.
My New Years’ resolution is simple, and that is to not be ESPN, to not be Bleacher Report, and to keep loving what I do every day. Consider this the first step. On to the review!
I find it amazing that Brandon Harris gave up a grand total of zero catches on Sunday versus the Colts despite over 90% of his snaps coming against Reggie Wayne, one of the premier NFL receivers of the past decade. Going back even further to the Patriots game, Harris has only given up one catch over the past two contests. Unfortunately, that one catch happened to be a 63 yard touchdown to Donte Stallworth, but after looking at the tape on that particular play, I saw that even that reception wasn't Harris’ fault. Pictured below you can see Stallworth running a go route with Harris appropriately playing the trail technique. Inexplicably running behind them is Quintin Demps, who was supposed to be bracketing Stallworth opposite of Harris.
Seeing as how Harris expected safety help over the top, as the coverage would dictate, playing trail technique is exactly what he should have done – Demps just left him out to dry (again). Coincidentally, a week later against the Colts, Demps would go on to give up yet another 60+ yard touchdown to T.Y. Hilton. I guess what I’m trying to say is that realistically speaking, Harris has not "given up" a single catch in two games despite the majority of his snaps coming against arguably the two best slot receivers in the league in Wes Welker and Reggie Wayne. That’s pretty impressive.
In this first still Harris is lined up directly over T.Y. Hilton, who is the tip of a bunch formation, in press coverage. Glover Quin and Kareem Jackson flank him on either side playing off coverage. There were a lot of great snaps with excellent coverage from Harris to choose from, but this particular snap caught my eye because it gave him an opportunity to prove his deep speed against one of the fastest deep threats in the NFL.
I want to highlight Harris’ wonderful footwork here. Hilton comes off the snap with a violent first step to the right, faking an inside slant. Harris reacts appropriately and begins to shift his hips in position to turn and run with the lightning quick Colts receiver.
Hilton then drives off his first step and tries to get himself in position to run a deep route without getting jammed at the line. It’s a good move to avoid the press, and Hilton gets major props from me. On the other side of the ball, Harris recognizes the fake instantly and uses his left foot, which initially was used to react to the slant as a pivot point, to flip his hips back the other way and run with the 9 route.
In this frame, you can still see Harris’ initial plant foot acting as the pivot while his hips turn back the other direction with superb fluidity. He was very, very smooth in his reaction to the fake and really set himself up to get enough speed to maintain position on the receiver’s hip.
And just like that, Harris is back on his man. You can see Andrew Luck eyeing Hilton as his first read and expected him to get open underneath the safety for a moderate gain, but Harris’ superior closing speed shut down the throwing window before it could even open.
As a result, the only thing open for Luck is a checkdown throw. Notice how Harris is still glued to his receiver 12 yards down the field.
And just for the sake of making a point, here is a shot of Harris still step for step with Hilton 30 yards down field. After Brice McCain went down, I’ll admit I was a little worried about the reported lack of deep speed that kept Harris off the field all of last year, but over the last three games I am happy to say that I have seen no speed issues whatsoever with the Texans’ second round pick from a season ago.
In this still, Harris is playing off coverage against Wayne. The Colts have roughly four miles to get a first down and need to get some yardage. The Texans know this and play a soft cover 4 to keep everything in front of them. Johnathan Joseph, Jackson, Danieal Manning, and Demps play quarters on the back end while Harris, Quin, and Tim Dobbins play zone underneath. Harris in particular is playing a hook zone to keep any receptions made in front of him in bounds.
The ball is snapped and Harris starts moving to his zone. The Colts send three receivers down field and keep both their tight end and running back in for protection.
Wayne stems his vertical route into Harris’ zone, and he starts to slide into position to bracket him underneath of the deep zone played by Kareem Jackson.
Luck is forced to scramble every which direction in the pocket due to pressure by J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith. Wayne hitches his route and starts to come back inside away from Harris’ coverage.
What I want to highlight here is that Harris displayed tremendous closing speed throughout the entire game. Wayne tried every trick in the book to get separation, but Harris was able to recover and get back on top of his man with such great short area quickness that no throwing window ever stayed open long enough to complete a pass against him. The only exception came when Wayne threw down a positively disgusting whip route that caused Harris to hold him as he cut back inside (his only real negative play of the day). Other than that, he was stellar for the entire game.
One pass defensed, coming right up.
Overall, Harris had a wonderful day. He did have one unfortunate penalty, but by the end of the game, he more than made up for that mistake with solid coverage against Andrew Luck’s best weapon. Harris demonstrated that he does have the deep speed to compete against slot speedsters like Hilton as well as the fluid hips and closing speed to keep up with physical, route-running magicians like Wayne. Who knows, perhaps we just got an upgrade to the slot corner position that nobody saw coming. He’s certainly playing like it.
Overall Grade: B+
Next up, Ben Jones. Jones has fallen off a tad since his phenomenal debut a couple months ago, but he has remained solid and I am still convinced he is our left guard of the future. The biggest trends that I have seen emerge are that while he is excellent on zone stretch plays and as a pulling guard in space, he seems to struggle in pass protection against bull rushes and can, on occasion, get driven back into Matt Schaub by bigger bodied DTs. It’s not the biggest problem in the world, considering it only happens maybe once per game if he doesn’t get the right leverage off the snap, but one of these days that shortcoming is going to cost Schaub a lot of yards. Considering that he will have to contend with Jurrell Casey and Carl Klug for the rest of his career, he needs to learn how to handle big, bull rushing DTs as soon as possible.
Where Jones really shines is in his footwork and agility. In the still below, the Texans are in an empty set with Owen Daniels lined up next to Duane Brown. The Colts counter with a balanced (and very wide) line to rush the passer. Without Arian Foster in the backfield, they can get away with lining up so wide without having to worry about the draw.
The ball is snapped. The DTs hit the B-gaps to spread the interior line out and open up a gap in the middle. Robert Mathis, who was lined up outside of Derek Newton, rushes wide to fake the "dip and rip" on the edge before stunting around the DT and hopefully getting a free run at Schaub. The entire rush package on this snap is built around this stunt, with both DTs acting as decoys to open an interior lane for Mathis to use his great lateral burst and ambush the quarterback.
Jones recognizes the stunt, passes off the DT to Newton, and gets his "high hand" (the hand closest to the center) on Mathis to jam his rush and slow him down just enough so that can reset his footing and react to the inside pressure.
Jones slide steps perfectly to close off the lane, and as a bonus flips Mathis’ hips away from Schaub to take away any leverage he may have had to rip through the block. Perfect protection.
Schaub has a clean pocket, and Mathis is completely taken out of the play.
In this still, Houston is lined up in a single wing set with Foster and backfield and Garrett Graham and Daniels lined up outside of Brown. This creates essentially an unbalanced line. The Colts counter with eight men in the box, five on the line of scrimmage with two ILBs and a SS on the second level.
The ball is snapped. Daniels takes the SOLB while Graham moves up to take the DE. Brown passes off said DE to advance on the ILB. Chris Myers and Jones double team the other DE while Wade Smith works his way towards the NT. Newton blocks the other OLB.
Jones passes off the DE to Myers and gets into position to block the other ILB.
Jones beats his man to the point of attack and springs Foster loose.
Consider the edge sealed.
Foster would then go on to gallop for 26 yards before being brought down, but it was all made possible by an excellent block by Jones.
I’m still very, very impressed by Ben Jones as a whole. He has some flaws that he needs to get worked out, but he is infinitely better at blocking at the point of attack and advancing to the second level than Antoine Caldwell. He has shown a great grasp of zone blocking concepts, and I’m confident that he will be a good guard for the Texans for years to come.
Overall Grade: B
Another strong performer from Sunday's game, surprisingly, was DeVier Posey. The rookie third rounder has been much maligned this season for his special teams penalties and non-existent production, but I’ll be damned if he wasn’t the second best Texans receiver on the field last week. With 36 snaps in total, he got almost three times the amount of playing time as Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean combined, which signals to me that this game was essentially a "let’s see what he can do" type of experiment. I’m happy to report that said experiment was a success.
This is Posey’s 36 yard reception. The Texans are again in a single wing formation, and Posey is lined up at the top of the screen. I’d like to point out here that Kevin Walter is nowhere to be seen, and yet this is a run formation. That says a lot about how much Kubiak and company were willing to test Ppsey's capabilities.
Schaub fakes the hand off to Foster and sucks up the linebackers and safety to the inside of Posey, who is running what looks to be a crossing route (a Kubiak bootleg favorite because it also looks like Posey is setting up for a downfield block on the play side, so safeties have no idea what to do). The crossing route is drawn in red, while the real route that Posey runs is in yellow. It’s a glorious sluggo that renders the safety, who is supposed to bracketing Posey inside, helpless against the pass.
Schaub completes the fake and sees that the safety has bitten ever so slightly towards the run fake, and is now playing the apparent crossing route. Got him.
Posey plants his left foot in the ground, and in one move flips his hips and explodes upfield.
What I really liked here is that DePo has developed a keen understanding for the nuances of spacing in his downfield routes. Right here you can see how he widens a bit on the stem of his route away from the safety to give himself room to work, and then as he gets closer to the corner playing the deep third he drifts back inside to find a hole between three defenders. That’s excellent awareness and recognition to get himself in position to make a huge catch.
I changed the angle here because I want to show just how much space Posey created for himself with his excellent route running. That’s five yards of open air, and in the NFL if you give a receiver five yards, you might as well not cover him at all.
As he floats back inside the hashes, you really get a good sense of how open he really was despite being in the middle of three defenders. That’s one hell of a route, and one hell of a throw by Schaub.
I switched to the broadcast feed here because you get a great angle of Posey’s body control and catch-in-traffic ability that he was known for coming out of OSU. He’s not the fastest or the biggest guy out there, but if you need a really tough reception to be made in a really small window, Posey’s your guy.
This next play made me angry. As I’ve studied the Texans' young receivers throughout the season, I’ve noticed a really annoying trend – no matter how open any of them are, Schaub will always throw it Andre Johnson first. Whether it’s Jean, Martin, or Posey, Schaub has shown such a consistent lack of trust for anyone outside of Johnson, Daniels, Walter, or Foster that he often forces balls where they shouldn’t be thrown rather than just giving the young guns a chance. This is one such example, where his reluctance to give the ball to anyone other than Andre Johnson (which I’ll admit is sort of understandable, because it’s Andre Johnson), cost the Texans three points.
The Texans are in a 1-1-3 shotgun set. Posey is at the bottom of your screen with Johnson and Walter up top. Foster is in the backfield, and Daniels is lined up next to Brown. The Colts are playing tight man coverage across the board with a single high safety in an effort to stop the Texans from getting into field goal range at the end of the half.
The ball is snapped. Posey charges ahead in what appears to be a 9 route, and even slightly dips his shoulders to the sideline to fake the corner into reacting to a stem to the outside. It’s the little things that make all the difference.
Daniels continues running his vertical route to clear the safety while Posey anchors his left foot into the grass to make a cut just as the corner flips his hips to play the 9 route. Again, got him.
As Daniels breaks to the sideline to pull the strong safety out of the middle of the field, Posey makes a downright nasty cut back inside. He’s about as wide open as he can possibly be, even more open than Johnson, and yet Schaub has already gotten rid of the ball. While Andre has two defenders right on top of him and in position to make a tackle, Posey has twenty yards of real estate ahead of him. It’s almost as if Schaub didn’t even bother making a second read, which is very troubling to me. If Posey did get the ball here and an opportunity to gain a bigger chunk of yards, then Shayne Graham’s field goal would have been a much more manageable 30-something yarder that would have given the Texans points going into the half. You can’t afford to leave a field goal off the board against the Colts, let alone the Patriots or Broncos. If the Texans want to go far in the postseason, Schaub needs to throw it to more than just one man, no matter how talented that one man may be.
Overall, I thought Posey did very well in his first game as a semi-featured receiver. His run blocking was excellent, and even was responsible for springing Foster on the 26 yard TD run that got called back due to holding by Wade Smith. His route running was superb throughout the entire game, save for his very first snap, where he sort of rounded a corner route into the end zone, but considering he was double covered the whole way, I wasn’t too upset about it. What really impressed me the most about his route running is that he showed a consistent understanding of zone recognition and where the seams were in a variety of different coverages on the back end. His cuts were crisp, and he regularly used subtle head, shoulder, and hip movements to get DBs to bite on the wrong route. His body control and catching mechanics were solid, and to be honest, as a downfield threat, he looked even better than Kevin Walter. He wasn’t blowing by people with speed or towering over them with size, but he just somehow got wide-ass open all the time. If he keeps this up, the Texans might have found a solid complementary weapon to Johnson and Daniels after all.
Overall Grade: B+
Other grades for rookies that I didn't have time to compile screen shots for:
Derek Newton: D-
The guy can't run block in space, he's too slow in his slide step to compete against speed rushers, and he routinely gets taken advantage of by finesse moves because he just insists on engaging early with both hands and leaving himself open to spins and swims. I'm absolutely done with him.
Lestar Jean: C
Not a lot of snaps to grade (only 12), but he was decent. He seemed to rely more on his big body than his technique to get open, which could hurt his impact between the 20s. He seems more of a red zone/jump ball on the sideline kind of receiver at this point. I'd like to see him become more well rounded.
Holy crap can this guy move a person or what. He routinely blew defensive linemen off the ball and rode them 6-10 yards down field. He held up very, very well in pass protection and didn't give up any ground to big, physical bull rushers like Jones is prone to. I didn't really get to see him block in space, but I definitely know he is fast and agile enough to do it based on past games. Still needs to work on cut blocking, because he mistimed a couple of those on the backside of the play. He also missed a key block on a screen pass. The potential is there for Brooks to be a dominant guard. He just has some technical refinement to work out to really be trusted on the backside cutback lane.
Whitney Mercilus: B-
Merc definitely displayed a lot of athleticism on the multitude of stunts he ran off of Smith and Watt, and he certainly had plenty of speed on the edge, but he still lacks the refinement of technical skills he needs to be dominant. I'm not seeing enough work with his hands to neutralize long-armed tackles, and he too often tries to just outrace or outmuscle them. His ability to get to the back of the pocket certainly helps J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith get their stats, as he flushed Luck into his DE's arms multiple times, but I question whether Mercilus can get his own sacks by just trying to use speed all day. If he wants to be the new Shawn Merriman, he needs to add some technical pass rushing moves to his game. I've seen him do it before. He just needs to do it again...and again, and again.