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

Schaub's got time here. - Donald Miralle

Matt Weston from Battle Red Blog breaks down Houston's offensive line play from the Texans' Monday night win over the Chargers in San Diego.

Earlier this summer, I wrote The ABCs of Offensive Line Play, a primer to what I had planned to do this season if I could figure out the technology and time. Just read the piece if you haven't, and read it again if you did to refresh the old mind control master upstairs. It's a straightforward post where I bled all of my knowledge of playing offensive tackle in 100 degree heat, zone steps in shimmels and a helmet, countless weight lifting schedules, pushing guys around in games on Wednesday afternoon and Friday night from when I played football from 7th grade to 12th grade.

After my senior year ended, I had a chance to play some DIII ball, but I ended up going to Texas State University. I decided to go to a larger school to be closer to home, stay around all my friends, and pursue the intrinsic "college experience" a larger school had to offer. If I had decided to play ball for four more years, I would have become a coach, but at 18 you have no idea what you want to do for a career, let alone which character to pick in Super Smash Bros. (I've now learned Blue Yoshi is the best).

My junior year of high school, the offensive line coach I had played for over two years was promoted to defensive coordinator. Then the school brought in a 5' 10" gremlin who was a former WWF referee. He loved to spit all over us like Elmer Fudd while screaming incoherent phrases at us. He told us about playing hard, bringing our tool box to practice every day so we could put the skills we learned in there, and my favorite, "GATA!"

It stood for "Get After Their A__" (I'm sure everyone can fill in the rest). We would be in the middle of a block or trench, and he would be screaming "GATA!" while raining slobber over the dried crusted brown grass. When watching video, you would see him running down the sideline chasing after a RB in the open field, bristling with enthusiasm. He wasn't the best coach I ever had, but he loved what he did and was entertaining to play for because of his antics and not knowing what to expect that day. Whenever, I write this post we'll name it GATA! after the lunatic offensive line coach I had in high school.

Today, everyone is in luck. I was able to figure out how to make pretty geometric pictures showcasing what's going on in the trenches. I'm currently in the middle of a job hunt where I have been spending my time depressingly going through pages of Monster.com in my tighty whities, watching NFL All-22 football, reading literature, watching the Texas Rangers score two runs every night, and looking up words, with the occasional game of "MVP Baseball 2005" sprinkled in. The posts will keep coming for you to read and enjoy until things change again.

Now that the intro is out of the way, let's get into photos covered in diagrams showcasing the play from Monday night.

Duane Brown vs. Dwight Freeney

Dwight Freeney, the sack master from Indianapolis, moved to the West Coast this offseason. In Freeney's career, he has 108 sacks (107.5 w/ Indy), 43 forced fumbles, 266 solo tackles and 3 All Pro teams. He's a master at his craft of rushing the pass. Even at the age of 33, he's still going to haunt quarterbacks' dreams. In San Diego, Freeney is going to have to one thing and one thing only--rush the passer. He won't have to play on first down, third and short or any situation where he has to think about the offense is doing. His goal will solely be to get to the quarterback.

A good comparison for Freeney's situation is what John Abraham did in Atlanta. Abraham played DE for the Jets from 2000-2005 before moving to the Falcons. In Atlanta, he was able to play the role Freeney is playing now--just a situational pass rusher. In this role, he was able to achieve 13, 14, and 15 sacks at ages 32, 33, and 34. If coaches can keep older pass rushers fresh and limit their snaps, they can still be explosive, pull of double digit sacks, and consistently harass the quarterback. In Freeney's first game for San Diego, he was able to play like his old self in limited snaps.

Earlier this week, I saw some backlash against one of the best offensive tackles in the league, Duane Brown. I wanted to see why pressure was coming off the edge and if the bitter words were warranted. So let's look at a couple of one-on-one pass protection situations between Brown and Freeney to see what happened on Monday night.

Freeney_v_brown_1-1_medium

Most pass protection schemes are just like this one. They'll shift one half of the line one way and the backside will play man-to-man. On this play: Myers-A Gap, Smith-B Gap, Brown-C Gap, and Brandon Brooks and Derek Newton man up on the back side. In this situation, Wade Smith and Chris Myers will shift left to see where the DT goes; the one who becomes uncovered will piggyback and help where needed. Since there's no one showing pressure of the edge, Brown knows he'll be one-on-one against Freeney unless he receives help from Myers or Smith. What's about to make this block extremely difficult for Brown is how wide Freeney is (call it a wide 9).

Since San Diego is only using Freeney is passing situations, they can utilize him in this wide position on every pass rush and give him an extra advantage. By the time Brown makes contact with Freeney, he will already be at full speed. Brown has two options in his pass set. He can make a deeper straight back move to delay contact and push Freeney around the QB, or he can make contact sooner by taking a more diagonal l-kick slide to try to stifle him.

Freeney_v_brown_1-2_medium

This is what the pocket looks like when everyone begins to make contact. Brown went more diagonal-l in his set; as you can see, he is already at a disadvantage. His feet are very narrow, he's not square with Freeney, and most importantly, Freeney is already set up for an inside move. Since offensive linemen weigh 300+ pounds, it's nearly impossible to go straight through them; pass rushers like Freeney are trying to take on half a man. You can see how he can take on Brown's inside shoulder and attack half of him. Brown is unbalanced because of the speed Freeney is able to use from the wide 9 technique. On this play, Brown overcompensates for Freeney's speed; Brown rushes and becomes unbalanced.

There are two other things to mention. Remember how I said the playside shifts to the left and whoever remains uncovered will offer help? Offensive linemen, like 99% of other human beings, have two arms and two eyes, but in situations like this they have to be able to look both ways at once--where the blitz can be coming from and what the defensive lineman they're engaged with his doing. Smith is able to help Myers with an arm and still is able to look for anyone else coming through his gap. Look at his right arm bench-pressing the DT and look at where his eyes are. He's multitasking and being in two places at once.

The other important note is Derek Newton, the butt of the preseason jokes. He's in a similar situation as Brown, but is going against an inferior pass rusher. His man is not as wide as Freeney is. On this play, Newton's pass set is impeccable. His shoulder's are square, he's low, and his hands are by his side, ready to punch. He's also very close to Brooks and is shutting off a lane from an inside move for the DE. Compare the two and think about the differences between the two like a What's Missing? activity from a Highlights book.

Freeney_v_brown_1-3_medium

We can definitely see the inside move and taking on the half a man I alluded to in the last paragraph. Freeney saw how Brown overcompensated for his speed and his fear of him beating him outside. The DT fought inside instead so Myers takes over that block and Smith is trying to get over to help Brown out. The problem is Freeney is already so deep in the backfield he can't do much to close him off. It's like watching a point guard splitting a double team in basketball. With that much space in between, there's no way Smith can stop Freeney from getting to the QB. The backside is beautiful. Both Brooks and Newton are low with their hands grabbing the inside numbers of the defenders.

Freeney_v_brown_1-4_medium

Freeney_v_brown_1-5_medium

The last two images you can see the finished play. Freeney splits both Brown and Smith before hitting Schaub a few tenths of a second after he gets the ball to Owen Daniels for an 18 yard gain and a first down. You don't have to be perfect when pass blocking. You just have to be good enough. Now that we have seen an inside move, let's look at Freeney's outside move and Brown going against him while playing in a three-point stance.

Freeney_v_brown_2-1_medium

Freeney_v_brown_2-2_medium

These two images from the wide view showcase the first step in pass blocking, the pass set. Since more people have played basketball and not offensive line, pass blocking can be described as "playing basketball defense while trying to wrestle an alligator." Before the violence happens, you have to put yourself in front of the defensive lineman. The first part of the pass step is snapping your head back like a cobra, which can be seen in image one. This is especially important from the three-point stance (hand on the ground) compared to the two-point stance (hand on your knees/first slides). Since your hand is down, you have to get your head back even faster. In the second slide is the actual pass set. Brown's left foot is what he's kicking back with, and the right is what he's sliding with. In the image it looks just like he's playing basketball. He's low with a wide stance, not letting his feet keep together. He's just trying to stay in front of Freeney.

Brown_v_freeney_2-3_medium

Another angle of the pass set. You can see how low Brown is. He's taking a dump in Big Bend while back country camping in this picture. Remember to go at least 200 feet away from water, the trail or the campground, dig a 6-8 inch hole and pack out all waste, Duane.

Brown_v_freeney_2-4_medium

Because of Brown's perfect pass set at the top, Freeney has no chance to take an inside route unless he wants to attempt to bull rush through him (we'll see this later). Freeney attempts to go outside. The picture above shows Brown's punch. Look how he's low, moving with Freeney, and has his hands inside. It's also worth mentioning the nice chat Brooks and Myers are having while keeping #92 in front of them. Myers' eyes are looking inside for a delayed blitz. Newton is doing a great job; his hands are locked up on the numbers and he has already exploded up into his punch.

Brown_v_freeney_2-5_medium

Now we are at the end of the play. You can see Matt Schaub already stepping up into his throw. When a defensive end goes outside, you're supposed to do exactly what Brown is doing. You push him past the QB and move him wherever he goes. Look at the wall Brown has made between him and Schaub. He's a buffer between the two. Even if Freeney was able to get to where Schaub is, he wouldn't be able to make a difference on the play.

Let's look at one more example of a pass rush. This one is Freeney's bull rush. Keep in mind this last play and what speed can do to an offensive tackle. When an offensive tackle is constantly getting rushed with speed and the DE keeps trying to beat him outside, he'll get put into a lull sometimes and think "I have to get back there quickly; he's going to come outside again." The problem is that you can't guess at what the DE is going to do. The OT has to use the same fundamentals over and over and react to what the DE is doing. When you guess, you get beat.

Freeney_v_brown_3-1_medium

This is just an example of the two-point stance. Left foot back to kick with, and the right foot will slide to keep him under control. His hands are on the hip, not on the ground. Look at the split between the DT and Freeney. Look at how wide he's playing. This type of defense is something you can do on passing downs (this was the 1st and 12 play after Lestar Jean's hold).

Brown_v_freeney_3-3_medium

On this pass set, Brown's not doing so well. His hands are ready to punch, he's low, but his feet are too narrow. This is what happens when an OT gets speed-rushed over and over again. He's trying to hurry up and get back to the point of attack; when doing so, he loses his wide stance. When you're narrow, you become weak and easy to move. With a wide stance, you're strong and balanced.

Brown_v_freeney_3-4_medium

Now that they are in contact, you can see the easy route inside Freeney has. Brown has opened the gate for Freeney to walk right in. His shoulders aren't square, and it is a direct result of being fought around the edge. If Freeney took an outside route, Brown could have washed him around the QB like we saw in the last example. Look at how narrow his feet are.

Brown_v_freeney_3-5_medium

TIMBER!! Down goes Brown. Freeney was able to take advantage of his opened shoulders, his narrow stance, and runs right through him. Look at Brown's hands. You can see how they slid up and are now around his helmet. He's just holding on for dear life right now.

Brown_v_freeney_3-6_medium

Now you understand what good pass-pro is from the side of the tackle. Snap the head back, kick with short steps, wide base, shoulders square, strong punch (look at Brooks in the above image), and don't guess.

We saw examples of what not to do and what to do. Brown didn't play a bad game. You can even say that he played a good one, considering the situation he was thrust into. He was left one-on-one with Dwight Freeney on nearly every one of Houston's pass attempts. San Diego was able to maximize Freeney's ability by limiting his snaps to passing downs. Brown still did a decent enough job despite the disadvantage he was put at, holding Freeney to 3 QB hits and 1/2 a sack. The best way to attack these wide 9s is to run screens and draws to hit them off guard. There will be more about this in the Titans preview. It wasn't Brown's best performance, but it wasn't his worst either.

It's So Beautiful

Now I'll delve into just one running play because it's almost as gorgeous as standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Watching Houston for the past five years or so, I'm sure most know what the zone offense is. This play is so beautiful it has to be examined.

Zone_run__1_medium

In this play, I went ahead and drew the gaps and the blocking assignments. This is a variation in their zone scheme because the cutback is designed here. Most of the time Houston blocks everything one way, and the cutback happens as the play progresses; the running back uses his vision to choose which way he wants to attack. In the regular zone, if this play was going left, Smith and Myers would have a "soft" Ace block (which is a double team between the C and G; it's soft because he's a one-tech and Smith has to get to the OLB. He would offer limited help, a punch, and then get up to the backer) up to the backside OLB. Brown would be one-on-one against the DE. On the backside, Brooks and Newton would run a power scoop. Brooks drives with one arm up to the OLB until Newton takes over the block to the MLB (unless Newton cuts and Brooks cuts the OLB). Graham would block the other OLB. Playside then drives everything one way while the backside creates a wall to make a seam in the defense. This one is a designed cutback because Graham blocks the DE instead of going to the OLB. They leave the MLB untouched.

Zone_run__2_medium

Here we can see the assignments start to unfold. Brooks and Newton start to get hip to hip in their deuce block (double team between the guard and tackle) to drive the DT. Myers is already punishing the nose, Brown's making his DE block, and Smith is heading to the OLB. The other really cool thing this image shows is the footwork of the offensive line.

Look at Brooks taking a power step right at the DT (you can see how short his first step is; only 6 inches) and Newton's zone step to catch up to him. Brown and Smith are showing examples of a zone step as well (or a slide step; depends on what you want to call it--take one wide step and then a forward step).

Zone_run__3_medium

Now the deuce block is fully engaged. Brooks and Newton are hip to hip, driving, and they have created a 600 lb. machine that can drive the DT all the way to the end zone if they need to. Also pay attention to the LB right behind him. The cutback is starting to take shape.

Zone_run__4_medium

See where the DT and OLB ended up. They both got swallowed up by the same double team. Usually either the guard or tackle will peel off and block the OLB once he becomes even when the double team (OLB goes inside, G takes him, T takes over; if OLB goes outside, the T takes him, and the G takes over the block). This way is even better. This block makes me want to shed a tear. On the backside, Smith is engaged and driving and Brown has done just enough to get in the way of the DE. The MLB gets sucked to the left because that's where the blocks are going; by the time he realizes where the play is going, it's too late. There's no way he can catch Foster and make a play. Another way to tell it's a designed cutback is Foster's footwork. He takes two steps to the left and is already cutting back the other way.

Zone_run__5_medium

Zone_run__6_medium

The last two pictures show the finished product and a part in the defense Moses would be jealous of. The bottom one shows the half of the double team we weren't able to see earlier because Brooks and Newton fused together into Brewton. From now on, that's what we are going to call their incredible deuce blocks--the Brewton.

Really the most amazing part of the play is what we don't see. The hard work from early summer to today where Newton and Brooks took thousands of steps together, the scrimmages they ran to perfect the play, the hundreds of run-throughs, all cultivating in this on Monday night. I can't wait to see what other tweaks Kubiak will make to the zone and other displays of Brewtonism as the season progresses.

4th and Short

In the second quarter, with Houston down 14-7, Kubiak decided to keep the offense on the field and go for it on 4th and 1. The decision-making wasn't wrong. He has one of the best running backs in the league, one of the best offensive lines in the league, and the Texans had a good chance of success. The problem was the process of the play. Kubiak is a master of using shifts and motions to move the defense around just enough to give the offense an extra little bit of space. However, on this play he failed miserably.

4th_and_1-1_medium

A quick refresher on the play. Kubiak puts Greg Jones in motion to the right, then puts Graham in motion to the right, and runs a stretch play. The stretch play wasn't an issue. Moving everyone to the other side of the field and creating a rugby scrum was. In this still, Houston has 5 guys blocking for Arian Foster on the right side. They're set up to run against 4 Chargers. What Kubiak should have done is run the play to the right. They could have had an Ace on the 1-tech up to the MLB, a Trey block on the DE, Garrett Graham could have blocked the OLB across from him, and led Greg Jones up the hole. Instead, Kubiak forced the play to the opposite side. When he did, the defense shifted that way. In these next images, look at how the defense moves over when Jones and Graham go in motion.

4th_and_1-2_medium

The OLB now plays outside of Freeney instead of above him.

4th_and_1-3_medium

Now San Diego has five guys against five Texans. Houston has lost the advantage they had before motioning everyone over.

4th_and_1-4_medium

4th_and_1-5_medium

The other problem that occurs is the entire San Diego defense is fighting to the right (where the play is going). They are stacking the hole Houston is running toward. If Houston runs the play at the right side instead of switching everything to the left, they would have had an easy first down and might not have needed the ridiculous comeback.

Here's one more as an added bonus. It's an image I got from Houston's fake punt.

Keo_fake_punt_medium

Notice how the deep snapper is a little diagonal to set up the angle for his snap. I have to hand it to Marciano. This play was drawn up perfectly.

Hopefully you learned more about the intricacies of offensive line play through my writing. Remember: Don't just watch the ball when Houston plays. You will miss out on something beautiful.

All images were taken from NFL's All-22. It's worth buying, but make sure to buy Season Plus since the regular one does not come with the coach's film.

Texans vs Chargers coverage

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