Man, what a week of football we have just consumed. Rookies shined all across the country during a six day stretch that provides our first moments of happiness in nearly seven months. Robert Griffin III threw for over 300 yards and outdueled one of the finest quarterbacks of the last decade. Stephen Hill galloped away from Bills defenders for a pair of scores. Don’t’a Hightower scored his first NFL touchdown on a fumble forced by fellow rookie Chandler Jones. Even Texans rookies got in on the action as Whitney Mercilus racked up a ridiculous 5 sacks.
Wait…what? No he didn’t. He didn’t do anything. Actually, most of the Texans rookies didn’t really "do" anything. That’s not to say they played poorly, but on the whole there weren’t many opportunities for any rookies to see the field, let alone do something spectacular on it. I guess that lack of need for immediate impact from the nation’s youth speaks highly of the depth that Houston already had going into the season, but it sure would have been nice to see the little ones go to work against a relatively weak squad. On defense, 10 of 11 starters returned this year, with the only new face being in a position in which we have no rookies. On offense, every single line position was filled with a veteran and Kevin Walter has yet to be unseated as the second receiver. There really wasn’t much room for advancement on a roster that was already stuffed with talent, so not immediately forcing a bunch of guys barely of drinking age on to an NFL field was to be expected.
Unfortunately, that makes writing this column a bit more difficult.
Let’s start with the ground rules. First, I reserve the right to include the occasional second or third year player in these reviews, as some of them have so little live game experience that they can practically be counted as a rookie anyway (LeStar Jean and Derek Newton are prime examples). Second, some players will be talked about more than others (or rather a few won’t be talked about at all some weeks) simply because they give us more reasons to look at them. As much as I love Ben Jones, he won’t be stealing snaps any time soon in the same quantities of Keshawn Martin and Whitney Mercilus. Third, I won’t be using a mathematical formula with positive or negative plays to determine how a player does from game to game. As much as I love Football Outsiders, statistics never tell the whole story. Assigning positive or negative value to individual snaps is so subjective in some cases (such as measuring the effectiveness of a downfield block) that assigning a statistically objective number to it would completely ruin the point of this series. Instead, I’ll simply give a letter grade that reflects how the individual player performed as it relates to scheme fit, execution, and generally just not doing anything that can result in a loss for the team. Think of it as grading a personal journal entry rather than a math test.
First up, Whitney Mercilus. I’ll admit that my expectations were quite high for Nubs this week. The Miami offensive line was hurt and had an inexperienced tackle in Jonathan Martin. Ryan Tannehill had never faced a defense as complex as Wade Phillips’ scheme. J.J. Watt was on the field. There were a million reasons to believe that the Texans would be in the backfield on the majority of snaps, but alas the pass rush was just kind of…average. Sure Watt, Antonio Smith, and Tim Jamison were responsible for accumulating three combined sacks, but it all just felt kind of disappointing considering what could have happened.
Looking at the tape, I attribute the lack of monster sack totals to two things: constant quick throws from three-step drops by the Dolphins and the most vanilla opening day defense fielded by Wade Phillips in history. The Texans showed absolutely nothing to Peyton Manning (who you can bet is watching this tape closely) and still managed four turnovers. I guess that is more of an indictment of Miami’s offense than anything else. Generally I noticed that when the defensive backs showed Quarters, the coverage was Quarters. When they showed Man Cover 1, it was Man Cover 1. A few blitzes were sugared and the OLBs dropped into coverage occasionally, but for the most part what you saw was what you got. Everybody just covered their receivers, played their gaps, and went after the quarterback in any way they could….everybody except Whitney Mercilus, that is.
I was thoroughly disappointed in the Merc’s performance this week during his limited snaps in relief of Brooks Reed. I really would only have to show you one single picture of his play because almost every single snap looked exactly the same: Either run as fast as you can to the edge and beat him with speed, or if that doesn’t work, try to go against momentum and cut back inside. It was basically Dwight Freeney without the spin move…except it didn’t work. Hand usage was average at best, and I saw zero attempts to rip, swim, or just straight bull rush inside. Jonathan Martin could just get in the seat all day and push him behind the pocket. It was almost too easy for him. Take a look below.
That’s pretty much all you got out of Whitney Mercilus on Sunday. He came hard every down and showed incredible speed, but his technique was so predictable that virtually any tackle worth his salt could overcome his athleticism fairly easily. Here’s hoping that Whitney varies his pass rushing moves next week in Jacksonville because if someone with that much explosiveness managed to master hand usages and leverage…look out.
Overall Grade: C-
Next we look at LeStar
Johnson Jean. I know I’m not the only one who couldn’t tell 18 and 80 apart on the field. If you don’t have a good view of their numbers, they literally look exactly the same. Johnson is much better at pretty much every single skill it takes to be a receiver, but when Jean made an amazing catch for a would-be touchdown, it was almost impossible not to yell "Attaboy Andre!" out of reflex.
Anyway, as for Jean’s play, there really wasn’t much to complain about. He didn’t get that many snaps, so we really didn’t get to see that much of him in a game situation, but the little that I saw was pretty satisfying for the most part. He showed some great speed when he went after that recalled touchdown grab, and even beat the corner despite him playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. One play in particular caught my eye. It was in the third quarter, roughly two minutes left.
In this picture, the Texans are lined up in a basic offset "I" formation. Jean is lined up slightly off the line of scrimmage behind Andre Johnson. The Miami defense is in a basic Tampa 2 scheme while the defensive line is an over front, which means the strength of the defense is on the offense’s strong side. The secondary is in zone coverage, which is read while James Casey is motioned out wide, and then back into the backfield. As it stands, an outside linebacker is covering Johnson while a cornerback has Jean. The safety is almost assuredly assigned to make sure Johnson doesn’t get over the top.
The ball is snapped. Miami rushes four, and they are all picked up by the offensive line. Johnson runs a slant towards the close sideline to draw the safety on his side, and is immediately bracketed by both the linebacker and the corner. Owen Daniels looks to be in the early stages of a deep post into the seam between the two deep zones (a famous cover 2 killer). Casey runs to the flat and draws the strong side OLB. Schaub fakes the hand off to Ben Tate.
While all of this is going on, Jean runs what is called a whip route. A whip route is a man coverage killer, but also works well against a zone if you happen to have Andre Johnson drawing every single defender on his side of the field. The basic principle is like a fake slant. You start your route with two to three quick steps to get the defender’s hips turned and focused on stopping you, and then you cut back out into the flat. It’s a timing route that is mainly used to give the receiver a bigger cushion against aggressive corners that like to jump those pesky short out routes. Jean’s version of the whip route, however, leaves much to be desired. His first steps are sluggish, and his route is painfully clunky and rounded. He cost himself a good 3-4 yards of distance covered by not exploding off the line. This is slightly concerning because the Kubiak scheme relies so heavily on timing, route running, and precision. Jean was spectacular in terms of speed, body control, and timing his jumps on deep routes in the pre-season, but so far his short game leaves a lot to be desired. See below.
In the third still, you can see Cameron Wake getting around the back of the pocket, which forces Schaub to start moving forwards. Andre is now being triple covered and is still somewhat open (by his standards). Daniels faked the post and went for a corner route, which is also well covered by a corner, linebacker, and safety over the top. Casey is somewhat covered in the flat, and Tate is wide open as the safety valve underneath the linebackers. Jean is also running uncovered in the flat. This is where I have to give him a lot of praise. Many receivers would see Andre’s presence clearing the field and abandon the flat for a slant to try to get to the first down marker, but not Jean. He recognizes that the corner, while covering Johnson, is not man to man and is in fact playing the hook zone to stop the out route that had been killing them up to this point. The corner, while his hips were in fact turned, has his head facing the quarterback and is actually in excellent position to either break up the slant or outright intercept it if there isn’t enough juice on the throw. Considering Schaub didn’t have time to set his feet to throw a proper out route, I’m fairly confident the corner could have made a play on it. Jean, wisely, stays home in the flat and sets himself up for a clean grab and the possibility of making something happen one on one after the catch. Very smart play from a young receiver.
In the final picture, Schaub dumps it off to Tate for a moderate gain. The main thing I wanted to emphasize is that positioning of the corner closest to Jean. He backed off Johnson and is pretty much exactly where Jean would be if he didn’t read the coverage right and went for the slant. I don’t see any conceivable way that ball would not have been picked off if it was thrown to him. Great instincts.
Overall Jean was decent. He needs to refine his route running but his downfield capabilities and zone recognition were very, very good this week.
Overall Grade: B-
How about some Keshawn Martin love? A lot of people got on him for his drop in the first quarter, which admittedly was a bad one, but he had a pretty nice game the rest of the snaps he was in (which, again, weren’t that many). What really stood out to me was his route running. Some of his cuts were just plain dirty, and I remember seeing him turn a DB’s hips twice and avoid the defender getting into his hip pocket on a beautifully run fly route. If the safety had not been thirty yards deep he would have been wide open for a touchdown. I also distinctly remember a screen play which featured a wonderful block by Kevin Walter that was unfortunately blown up by a poor performance from Antoine Caldwell. Martin’s most impressive snap, however, came in the second quarter with a little under four minutes to go. It was 2nd and 10 after an incompletion intended for Andre Johnson. See below.
James Casey is motioned out to the Y receiver position next to Duane Brown. Andre Johnson is at the bottom of the screen as the X. Martin is the Z in the slot. Daniels is to the right of Derek Newton. The Dolphins are in the Over front again, and are giving yet another Tampa 2 look. Martin has drawn the weakside OLB in coverage.
The Dolphins bring four. Johnson crosses the face of his defender rather than sandwich himself in between the DB and the sideline. Casey breaks into a drag underneath the MLB. Daniels looks to be floating towards the deep zones again and draws both the strong OLB and a DB in double coverage. Foster starts heading towards the flat as the receivers get down field and clear the zones. Martin sees the linebacker go for press coverage and adjusts his trajectory left to beat him past the legal 5 yard contact zone. So far so good.
The next still really emphasizes how many weapons the Texans have available to them. Johnson beats his man and gets positioning to box out the defender for a catch underneath the deep safety. Martin shows one hell of a lateral burst and evades press coverage. The linebacker barely gets a piece of his shoulder and Keshawn doesn’t lose any speed in his route. Daniels, while double covered at the moment, is in a great position. The strong OLB has decided not to run with him and opted to watch Casey on drag. The strong safety is paying attention to nobody but Andre Johnson. Depending on if Daniels is running an option route, he could very easily cross the face of the free safety on a post route for a huge gain. Casey, as mentioned previously, is temporarily open while the MLB changes direction. Foster looks to have nobody covering him as he moves to the flat. Pick your poison, Miami.
This last still shows Schaub already throwing the ball, but I wanted to display it anyway. Johnson and Martin are running free. The strong corner picks up Casey in the flat. Foster has 11 yards between him and the linebacker. Daniels is blanketed. Guess who the pass goes to - Daniels. Martin runs an absolutely perfect route. He beats the press coverage. His cut is on a freakin’ dime. He has at least eight yards of cushioning in almost every direction. You can’t ask for someone to be more open, and considering Martin’s exceptional run after the catch ability, I would take him versus a free safety on a shallow angle any day of the week.
That right there is a big gainer, but instead Schaub throws the ball to Daniels, who did not run a post and instead busted out a hitch route into between two linebackers (he probably didn’t have any other options built into the route, so it isn’t really his fault). I have no idea how this did not get intercepted, and we were lucky it was only an incompletion. Wake might have been breathing down his neck behind the pocket, but all Schaub had to do was lead K-Mart out of his break and he had at least 20 yards. I don’t mean to talk too negatively about the man. He’s a very good quarterback and I’m glad to have him in Houston, but you absolutely have to make the right progressions on 2nd and 10. Martin held up his end of the bargain, his quarterback has to do the same. Thank Durga Andre pulled in a 24 yarder on the next play or Reliant would have gone nuts.
Overall Grade: B
Finally to round it out, let’s look at Derek Newton’s highly anticipated debut. Right off the bat let me just say that watching this guy play was a heart attack on every snap. He either was so dominant as to force involuntary salivary responses or was so inept as to cause objects to fly across my bedroom. As expected, the Dolphins put Wake one on one against Newton all day long, and for most of the first half he was spectacular in pass protection. He got into the seat well, timed his punches, and didn’t get baited into being overly aggressive. When it came to run blocking, at times he was downright dominant on the backside of the play, as pictured below.
This still shows part of the conundrum with Newton. In short yardage situations where he was taken off the leash and allowed to just maul the defensive end in front of him he was terrific. His strength, athleticism, and brutality really came through in these kinds of situations. No cheese, no tricks, just straight physicality. Graham looks like he was supposed to double team Wake on the backside cutback lanes on this play, but Newton pushed and pancaked him three yards off the line of scrimmage before Graham could even throw a chip in.
And then we get to something a little more, shall we say, technical. All day Newton looked helpless on pitches and stretch runs to his side, especially in something other than short yardage. In the three stills below you can see him completely blow a block in space. He over ran the linebacker he was supposed to engage, which resulted in said linebacker shedding him easily and making the tackle on Foster. If Newton held his block, Foster was primed for a wide open hole that could have netted a first down and a whole lot more.
This was a common occurrence. When it came to disengaging blocks and advancing to the second level, he just seemed lost, like he didn’t understand where to go or who to hit. I saw him bounce off linebackers from poor angles and bad timing the entire day. I’m not sure if it was decision making or a lack of understanding his role in the scheme, but all game long if it didn’t involve a short yardage push with a clearly defined assignment for him to take, he was just worthless. Even in the passing game, as time went on, Wake got more and more pressure on Schaub. It could have been fatigue or a lack of adjustment to a very, very smart pass rusher – who knows. What is known, however, is that Newton needs a lot of coaching before I’m comfortable with him next to the equally sketchy (and at times downright terrible) Antoine Caldwell.
There is a lot of potential here. Physically, he is very gifted. He can really move a pile when he puts his mind to it. He just needs to work on the technique it takes to deal with a 60 minute chess match in pass protection and learn how to work himself into blocks on the second level. I believe as the season goes on he can get better to the point of not being a concern, but for now consider my britches in a permanent bunch.
Overall grade: C-
On the whole, I shouldn't really have expected any better from our younger players. It's a new game to them. None of our rookies or second year players really did anything to cost us the game, so I can't really complain that much. At the same time, however, we were playing the Miami Dolphins. If we trotted this squad out against the Ravens, Packers, or Patriots, I'm not so sure I would be singing the same tune. I sincerely hope to see improvement across the board against in Jacksonville, and I'll let you know what I find next week. Thanks for reading.