Houston Texans Offensive Line Review: GATA! (Texans v. Chiefs)

Down goes Case Keenum. Again. - Jamie Squire

Matt Weston breaks out the pretty pictures and analyzes Houston's protection problems on third down, how to block a QB sneak, and why Brian Cushing was viciously cut down.

Over the past week, there has been slathers of noise regarding Case Keenum with questions ranging from "Is Keenum the future starting quarterback?" to "Is he a horrendous fraud?". The problem with all these statements and assumptions is that he's only played one game. There is a thing called sample sizes, and a sample size of one offers zero to little predictive ability. Before we come up with a general consensus about his play, let's wait until the sample size starts to mount up and we have a better idea on who he is as a NFL quarterback. At least we can enjoy the fact that he's making Texans football fun again and we don't have to live in the Schaub box for the foreseeable future. That being said, there are still important pieces of information to glean from Week Seven's game against the Chiefs.

Entering the fourth quarter last Sunday, the Chiefs were leading 17-16.  Houston had four drives to try and score a two desolate points to take the lead. They failed.  Their last drives went punt, punt, punt, fumble. The problem with their drives was that Houston couldn't pick up any yards on first and second down, and they failed to pick up the overloaded blitzes the Chiefs brought on third down and long. Houston had trouble on first and second down because their All-Pro running back, Arian Foster, was knocked out of the game in the first quarter.  The other problem was that Ben Tate cracked his ribs in the second quarter. These injuries are out of their control, but the Texans did have control over picking up the blitz in the fourth quarter, and they should have done a better job doing so. Since they were inept in this regard, their third down plays were: sacked for -6 yards, sacked for -15 yards, sacked for -10 yards and, if we include second down on the final drive, sacked for -6 yards. After watching the behind view, there were a few key problems with the pass protection that still continue to irk me.

2nd Qtr., 10:05 Remaining, 3rd and 1. Result: 26 Yd Pass to Andre Johnson

In the first quarter, the Chiefs didn't bring too many insane blitzes against Houston. They tested the waters to see what Keenum could do.  After the bomb to DeAndre Hopkins down the sideline, they quickly changed their mind faster than a thirteen year old girl changes boyfriends and started bringing the pressure against the newborn quarterback.

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On 3rd and 1, the Chiefs blitzed six to try and stop the Texans' empty back formation; this same formation will be problematic in the fourth quarter. Everywhere else, Kansas City is in man-to-man coverage with a safety helping over the top of the left side. Right when Keenum receives the snap, Andre Johnson proves why he is good at playing football and beats his defender on the quick slant.

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With a man about to crush his right side, Keenum is able to release the football because Andre Johnson has made the corner look foolish. He hits him in stride and Johnson is able to pick up a heavy dose of yards after catch because the Kansas City secondary is too busy covering the left side of the field.

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On this play, Keenum just barely got the ball off because Kansas City creatively used their blitz to allow a defender to rush freely. If you don't know enough about Houston's pass protection principles, read this so this post doesn't become a confusing mess. Here the nose tackle is playing on the left shoulder (it might not look like it because Chris Myers' head is turned, but he is) of center so they make a lucky call. This means that the left side of the line shifts one gap over and the backside plays man-to-man or BOB (big on big), depending on what you want to call it. On this play, Keenum is naked and has no one protecting him other than the five in front of him. The Chiefs are going to blitz Akeem Jordan (#55) through the A gap while Mike DeVito (#70) and Dontari Poe (#92) rush the gap straight ahead.

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Everywhere we are seeing great fundamental pass protection. Brandon Brooks and Ryan Harris have made great punches and stifled the defender. Duane Brown seems to be in good shape to take on Tamba Hali. He's low, squared, and his hands are getting into punch position. The problem is that Myers and Wade Smith have to block three guys, and two doesn't equal three. Myers has shifted to the A, Smith to the B, and Brown to the C. They did nothing wrong in their protection; they just didn't have the numbers to block what the Chiefs brought.

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Smith now sees Mike DeVito coming free and leaves Jordan (#55) all alone. This violates one of the fundamental rules of pass protection:  One must never leave the inside man for the outside man. It's common sense that someone who's inside can get to the quarterback quicker than someone on the outside. However, it works in this situation because Smith is able to get just enough of both players to give Keenum enough time to throw the ball. Keenum's eyes are also worth mentioning. In the fourth still, he looks left and sees nothing he likes and then switches his eyes towards the wide open Andre Johnson.

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The protection has been excellent except for the middle of the line. It was a case of not having enough players to block the blitz. If Houston kept a back in to help, they would have picked up the blitz without a problem and Keenum wouldn't have been touched on the play. This time it worked, but the problem was the process, not the outcome.

In the first half, there were multiple times where Kansas City brought the blitz against the empty back formation and had success. However, due to word limits and your patience, we will jump ahead to the fourth quarter where the pressure turned into sacks that strangled Houston's ability to move the football.

4th Qtr., 12:02 Remaining, 3rd and 9. Result: Keenum Sacked for -6 Yards

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Before the snap, Keenum sends Ben Tate in motion to the right to empty the backfield. This again leaves him all alone with only the five men in front of him to protect him.

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When Keenum is about to be sacked, he has Tate open in the flat on the hot route.  The problem is that the safety is shadowing over the top and there would be a slim chance for him to pick up the first down. You could blame the failure of this play on either nobody being open to pick up the first down or Keenum not having enough time for his receivers to get open. This third down is not the result of the quarterback missing his read or failing to read the blitz.

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AHhHhHhHhH! There's a lot on this screen, so I understand the worry. I counted the number of blitzers, the blocking assignments and what the defense is doing. Since there are two "3" techniques on both the left and right side, the guards and tackles are playing man-to-man and Myers will piggyback backwards picking up trash in the middle while looking for any unblocked rusher. This means Smith will block Houston, Brown has the left defensive end, Brooks will block the "3", and Harris has Tamba Hali. The problem is that the Chiefs are bringing five on this play and are overloading the right side. Like the previous play, the problem is the same.  Three can't block four.

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Here the assignments outlined are starting to develop. Myers is piggybacking, looking for any trash and any incoming rusher. Everyone is in good position, but the Chiefs have overloaded one side. Smith is blocking no one because Chris Houston (#50) left in coverage. Brooks is blocking his man Dontari Poe (#92), and Harris is keying on Hali (#91). Again the problem is not the protection, but that Brandon Flowers (#24) is coming free off the edge unblocked. Because of pass protection schemes, this man will come free every time.  No matter how well the quarterback reads the blitz, he's going to be under pressure.

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Derrick Johnson (#56) comes around Poe's rush.  This is reminiscent of the Watt/Cushing stunts I discussed earlier in the season. Myers sees Johnson coming over the top and takes over Brooks' block. Brooks is square and quickly moving with a wide base to cover up Johnson. It's a perfect example of how to pick up a stunt like this. Ryan Harris is doing a good job on the right side; he has a strong punch and is playing low. Flowers is still screaming after Keenum because no one is back there to pick him up.

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The pressure is only coming from Church.  Everywhere else the pass protection is alright alright.

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The quarterback moves to the right to escape Church, but Keenum is a tortoise running away from the hare in this race. If Houston kept a running back to block the play, it could have panned out differently. If the back was lined up on the left side, they would have played man-to-man on the right and had a lucky call. The back would have had his eyes on the right side, but as Keenum moved to the right to escape Church's blitz he would have been able to move over and stifle him. If the back was lined up on the left, they would have gone man-to-man on the left side and had a ringo call. Myers would have picked up Poe because his hands would be feeling the inside, Brooks would block Johnson, Harris would block Hali, and the back would pick up Church. The latter is better, but either way Houston would have had the personnel to deal with what Kansas City was bringing.

4th Qtr., 8:15 Remaining, 3rd and 8. Result: Keenum sacked for -15 Yards

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This play is all around confusion for the Texans' offense. Houston is lined in bunch left against a Kansas City defense that is about to blitz four and keep seven back in coverage. Keenum and the offensive line each have their faults on this play.

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Before Keenum is grounded, he has Garrett Graham open in the middle of the field. The problem is that his eyes are watching the left side of the field, where all three of his receivers are and where all three failed to get open. If Keenum moved his eyes to the center of the field, he probably would have completed a pass to Graham. It looks like the middle linebacker is covering him, but in the stills below you shall see that Graham was open when he made his break.

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On this play, Kansas City overloads the right side of the line of scrimmage. They blitz Hali and Houston off the edge and fake the blitz with Johnson. The Texans' offense counters with a lucky call, but they should have made a ringo call. This is because the nose tackle is playing outside of Myers' right shoulder. This would have led to Myers blocking the A, Brooks the B, and Derek Newton the C. Because of the formation, Smith would have blocked down and helped Myers with the nose tackle while keeping his eyes open for an inside blitz.  Duane Brown would have blocked Allen Bailey (#97) either way. What had happened was Smith, Myers, and Brown shift right against two guys while the backside was left to pick up Hali and Houston.

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At the snap, Johnson peels back in coverage and Brooks has to jump from blocking him in the A gap to blocking Houston (#50) in the C gap. Brooks was simply fooled on this play. He should not have guessed on what the defense was doing; he needed to kick back like he normally does in pass protection. If he did this, he would have been in position to pick up Johnson or Houston.

A back would have been necessary if Houston did blitz.  Since they rushed four, he only would have only been covering up the line's mistakes. Brooks' shoulders are turned and he's off balance trying to get in the way of one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. There's no way he can get over quick enough to get in the way of Houston. Like the last play, the guard and center are doubling the nose while looking for a delayed blitz. Also, it's important to note that Graham is about to make his break and Johnson is out of position to cover him because he faked the blitz.

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Brooks tries his best, but can't get enough on Houston to stifle his pass rush. The tackles are doing a great job on the outside.  I'll even say that Newton has a strong punch on Hali. Myers and Smith are doing an incredible job doubling Poe (#92). They are hip-to-hip and both have their heads up scanning the field like a periscope.

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Keenum tries to escape the pressure by rolling to the right.  In the process he runs right into Hali and becomes a sandwich so gruesome that even Andy Reid wouldn't touch it. In these two plays and the rest, there are a few common themes.  One of the guards isn't utilized, Keenum missed an open hot route, which at times would not even have led to a first down, a back would have been beneficial in protection, and the Chiefs are overloading one side of the line.

4th Qtr., 4:30 Remaining, 3rd and 4. Result: Keenum sacked for -10 yards

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Here Houston is in trips right and an empty backfield against Kansas City's nickel formation.

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If Case was able to react quick enough to the pressure, he could have completed a pass to either one of the wide receivers highlighted. Both beat their man on slant routes and are begging for the ball.

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This is nearly the exact same blitz package they ran in the previous play we went over. The only difference is that they smoked Eric Berry (#29; "smoke" is showing the blitz) and brought the blitz from off the screen with Hali. Additionally, they faked the blitz with Johnson to trick the guard and the nose tackle rushes the gap opposite from where he's lined up.

The offensive line makes a ringo call, but again it should have been a lucky call. Since Poe is lined up as a 1 or 0i (depending on your preference) on Myers' left shoulder, the Texans should have shifted towards his side. Myers would have blocked the A, Smith the B (Houston), and Brown the C (Hali). On the backside, Brooks would have felt for the nose guard while looking for the blitzhen he feels Poe he would take over Myers's block. Newton would have been manned up on the defensive end, Allen Bailiey (#97). Instead, they made a ringo call away from the blitz and the left side is torn apart like candy wrappers on Halloween night.

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Here we see the ringo call, with Myers, Brooks, and Newton shifting one gap over. Smith is sizing up Johnson, but he's about to take off backwards in coverage. This leaves Brown on Houston and Hali chasing after Keenum with nobody in his way. Again this protection would have worked if they had a back into block. The back would be looking inside to outside for the blitz and would have cut Hali coming off the edge.

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There's no one in Brooks' gap so he blocks down on Poe and doubles him with Myers. Again, Newton is doing an excellent job and makes the best punch I've seen him make all season. Brown is doing a decent job washing Houston inside and Smith has no one to block. Like the other three plays, the guard is left wondering what to do and has to try and find someone to hit.

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Watch out, Case!

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Keenum is left crumpled underneath Hali like a civilian from Rampage World Tour splattered in between George, Ralph, or Izzie's toes.

4th Qtr., 1:41 Remaining, 2nd and 10. Result: Keenum sacked for -10 yards

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On this vital second down, Houston's wide receivers are lined up slot right.  Ben Tate is running a curl route out of the backfield against the Chiefs' dime formation.

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Keenum really doesn't have anyone open on this play other than Tate.  Graham is kind of open in the center of the field.

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OMG, we actually get a correct call at the line of scrimmage now. They make a ringo call because the "3" technique is on the right side of the line and there's no defensive tackle lined up on the left side. So Myers has the A, Brooks the B, and Newton the C. Newton is going to have a hellacious block to make because Hali is playing in a wide "9" and his only purpose in life is to get to the quarterback. On the backside, Smith has Johnson and Brown has the defensive end.

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Here Keenum actually has a fairly clean pocket and no one is chasing after him. It's amazing how well the pass protection works when Kansas City doesn't overload one side. The Texans actually give Tate the option to go out for a route if no one is blitzing, instead of just chasing out into the flat at the snap. Of course this occurs on the play where Kansas City is not blitzing anyone. As far as the offensive line goes, Newton has a a fairly good punch, but he's waaaay too over extended right now. His head is too far over his toes and he's leaning forward more than he should. Myers and Brooks are going to get a good double team going on Poe (#92) and Smith is looking for someone to block. Brown is also doing a decent job by washing Houston inside.

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Keenum has the chance to step up into the pocket to make a throw with pressure coming from the outside. Both Newton and Brown have done an acceptable job blocking the outside rushers. Newton is working Hali to the outside of the pocket and Brown is forcing Houston inside.

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Instead of stepping up into the pocket, Keenum panics and runs to the left side. He does this while being completely oblivious to the fact that Hali was running around the outside of the pocket. Both Keenum and Hali collide together like the plane crash in season three of Breaking Bad.

To say that Keenum played terribly is a bit of a stretch. I think he and the Texans played admirably, considering the circumstances. They were going against the best defense in the league while implementing new offensive formations and plays with a quarterback making his first career start on the road. That being said, Houston could have done a better job implementing their plan by putting Greg Jones back there to help pick up the blitz ,and the offensive line could have made better calls here and there. If Keenum made one or two throws by stepping up in the pocket or finding the open man, the game could have gone differently. If Houston kept a back in to help pick up the blitz and gave Keenum enough time to throw down field, the game could have gone differently. Both sides are at fault and we would be here all day trying to decide where the blame should lie. It will be interesting to see how Kubiak schemes the offense going forward and how well of a job he does putting Keenum into a position to succeed.

Offensive Line Play for Dummies: How to Block a QB Sneak

Everyone knows what a quarterback sneak is, but few know how it's blocked. I presume everyone believes that they just dive forward into one pile and look and see where the quarterback ends up. However, there is a method to this madness.


3rd Qtr., 1st and 1, 3:52 Remaining. Result: Keenum runs for no gain

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There's a lot to be learned on this play. We get an understanding of the base set of nearly every goal line defense and how teams block the quarterback sneak. Most goal line defenses use a "0" at nose tackle, two "3"s and two "9"s with the linebackers and safeties filling in the leftover gaps. On the offensive side, every player takes a slide step towards the gap inside. They don't block a man, but they get as low as possible and drive the inside gap to create a wedge. This is especially important for the guards and center who are trying plow the nose tackle into then end zone. The key is to get as low as possible and get underneath the defender's pads.

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I love this image because it shows the step the linemen are taking. Every player is taking a slide step, which is a parallel step inside with their left foot and a vertical step with their right foot.

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Here everything is beautiful except for the two tackles. Both didn't take their steps inside quick enough and are too high. Keenum is also not low enough; he should be low and driving behind Myers. If any of you have played or watch rugby, you want to see a scrum. The center and guards are like a hooker and his two props, and the quarterback is like the lock, using his legs to drive behind the pile.

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Everyone looks like a lock from rugby except for Newton. They are all angled and driving into the pile, except for Derek Newton, who is too damn high. If Newton can't get low on a QB sneak at this point in his career, all hope may be lost for him.

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What we end up with is a pile of mush. The tackles allowed too much penetration inside and the center and guards didn't get enough push up the middle to create space for Keenum to sneak into.


Saving the Worst for Last

As most of you have pointed out in the past, I tend to save the most worrisome and gruesome plays for the very end. I did this accidentally in the past, but I'm a bit of a masochist when it comes to sports, so I'll keep this tradition going. This time we'll top this post off with Brian Cushing and why his terrorizing blitzes led to him being violently cut down.

2nd Qtr., 14:08 Remaining, 1st and 10. Result: Inc Pass thrown to Donnie Avery.

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If anyone had any reservations that Houston's pass protection scheme is that simple, here's further proof that it really is. The Kansas City Chiefs use the same principles. Since Earl Mitchell is a "1" and playing on the left side of the center's shoulders, the Chiefs slide the coverage to the left and the right side is man-to-man. Wade is running his basic 3-4; he is blitzing Cushing up the middle while Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed are coming off the outside.

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Eric Fisher has the best form I've seen since I've been watching the All-22 this season. He's low, square, using his arms to keep Mercilus off his chest and his hands are on the inside of the defender's pads. It's a beautiful thing.  If you are a chubby 13 year old playing middle school football or a high school senior, keep this image burned into your brain every time you go back to pass block. Cushing blitzes right off of Mitchell.  Only Jamaal Charles stands between him and the quarterback. It's the bull against the matador on this play.

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Charles has done a strong job standing up Cushing at first impact. He's lower than him and has driven his head right into his sternum. Running backs usually aren't this physical when pass blocking and mostly just try to get in the defender's way.

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Even though Cushing is shocked by Charles, he still is able to swim over the top of him. To stop #56 you have to do more than just deliver one strong blow because of the tenacity and high motor he plays with.
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Cushing leaps and tips the ball at the line to prove to Watt that he's not the only one that can swat the ball at the line. The ball then goes fluttering high across the field like the Goodyear blimp.

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The ball slowly soars towards Donnie Avery and falls right in front of the corner's feet. Smith is extremely lucky the physics didn't play out differently and this pass wasn't intercepted.

2nd Qtr., 13:57 Remaining, 3rd and 10. Result: Inc Pass to Anthony Sherman.

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One play later, Wade sends Cushing after Alex Smith again. This time, only Knile Davis stands between him and the quarterback.

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Cushing does an incredible job taking on only half of Davis and peels over the outside of his block.

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He swims over the top of the block and just barely misses hitting Smith before he releases the ball. The vital aspect of these two plays is that the Chiefs were unable to block Cushing heads up and had to make an adjustment to stifle him.

3rd Qtr., 7:28 Remaining, 2nd and 7. Result: 1 Yd Pass to Anthony Sherman.

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Here the Chiefs use a different pass protection scheme when the Texans overload the right side of the line. They shift everyone one gap over to the left (Lucky) and have Charles take on whoever comes off the edge. This time Wade brings Cushing and Mercilus off the edge to try and stop Kansas City from scoring a touchdown in the red zone.

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Look at how wonderful everything fits together when you keep a back in to pick up the blitz. Everyone is picked up and there is no risk of a man coming free from the side Houston overloaded. If offensive line play interests you and if you bought the All-22, watch the behind view of the Chiefs' games. Their offensive line does a stupendous job keeping a clean pocket and they run some of the most magnificent Ace and Deuce blocks I've ever seen.

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In the previous image, you can see how Cushing is running high and trying to get to top speed to attack the quarterback. Since Cushing is running at full speed, he can't make a quick lateral movement to dodge Charles' cut block. When you add Cushing's speed to the force Charles displayed and we saw on the first play, disaster occurs. The Chiefs couldn't stop the tenacity and success Cushing had rushing the passer, so they countered his hellraising attack by cutting him. Cut blocks are a part of the game and injuries can occur at any moment. It was a violent and clean hit.  It won't change the fact that it's a damn shame that Cushing will be out for the rest of the year.

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Also, it's silly that this is a 15 yard penalty and the hit on Cushing is a legal hit. The NFL needs to create some type of continuity and stop coddling the baby lamb that is known as a quarterback.

Bonus Images from the KC HOU game

Texans vs Chiefs coverage

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