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The Thief Of The 2009 Season: The Running Game

The 2009 season for the Houston Texans has been wildly inconsistent and disappointing.  For the third straight year, they find themselves looking at a 6-7 record and possibly a third consecutive .500 season.  Although the numbers in the W and L columns are the same, the way they got there is different. 

Back in the offseason, many Texans fans speculated that even a slightly improved defense, combined with the impressive offense, would catapult this team directly into the playoffs.  Since the record is the same, the casual observer would assume that the defense failed to make this minor improvement, but they'd be wrong.  Frank Bush's defensive squad is currently ranked 13th in total defense thus far after finishing 22nd last year.

So what gives?  Matt Schaub is having a career year and doing his best to shake to "injury prone" description commonly associated with him.  Andre Johnson is again leading the league in receiving yards and has equaled his touchdown total from last year.  There's only one possibility left--the run game.

Last year Steve Slaton was seriously considered for the title of Offensive Rookie of the Year.  1,659 all-purpose yards made General Manager Rick Smith look like a genius for drafting Slaton in the third round despite widespread belief that he was too small to be an every-down back.  This week Slaton was placed on the injured reserve with 437 rushing yards and 3.3 yards per attempt, a full yard and a half down from his average of 2008. 

Slaton's sophomore slump was mostly mental prior to his season-ending neck injury.  Slaton didn't show the conviction to hit holes when they appeared and also lost 7 fumbles in just 11 games.  To put it all on Slaton would be unfair though.  As of last week, Slaton had 40 more receiving yards than last year, averaging 15 more yards through the air per game than he did last season.  The increased involvement of Slaton in the passing game was an attempt to get Slaton out in space, a strategy made necessary because of a lack of holes to run through.

Alex Gibbs is widely considered one of the best positional coaches in all of the NFL.  Wherever he has coached offensive lines throughout his career, the rushing attacks have been good to dominant, including the Texans last year.  The entire Texans offensive line starting all 16 games last year was a phenomenon that was new to even him, however, and that continuity allowed those players to gel and produce fantastic results down the stretch. 

The line has not been so lucky with injuries this year.  Left guard Chester Pitts was placed on the injured reserve after Week 2, and right guard Mike Brisiel followed after Week 5.  The team wasn't exactly dominating the line of scrimmage in those initial games of the season, but two of the four 100 yard rushing games came during that period.  By way of comparison, the Texans rushed for 100 yards in all but five games in 2008.

Chester Pitts will be an unrestricted free agent following this year.  As long as it is determined that he is healthy, he needs to be re-signed at all costs.  His and Brisiel's absence has highlighted how substandard Chris Myers is at the center position.  Myers continually loses at the point of attack while run blocking.  If you want to see for yourself, watch him block throughout the Seattle game to see opposing defensive tackles push him aside.  Then watch rookie Antoine Caldwell in the one play after Myers is hurt push his man five yards down the field. 

That brings me to my next point.  Why isn't Caldwell getting a shot at center?  Myers not only loses regularly while run blocking, but he continues to have issues with larger defensive tackles while in pass protection.  Myers is a great story, going from a practice squad to starting every game last year, but without good to great guards to help him, he is simply too small to be effective.

Another factor that has adversely affected the Texans in general this year, especially in the run game, is a lack of depth.  Once Slaton started his mental problems, Gary Kubiak had Chris Brown, Arian Foster and Ryan Moats to rely on, which is woefully inadequate.  Furthermore, Kasey Studdard and Chris White might not be terrible guards but when both are thrust into the lineup at the same time next to an inferior center, bad things will happen.  All the same, an acquisition of a more quality interior lineman for next year couldn't hurt.

One last aspect that cannot be overlooked is the absence of Owen Daniels.  Obviously Matt Schaub misses him as a target, but a tight end that can run routes and catch as well as run block is an enormous benefit for the run game.  Daniels has deceiving blocking ability but his prolific talent as a receiver keeps a linebacker or a safety from attacking the line of scrimmage automatically.  Both offensive tackles Duane Brown and Eric Winston have played well this year, but if OD clears out a linebacker, that frees one of them to get to the next level in order to block downfield.

Keep in mind how inconsistent this team has been this year.  The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde halves, the fourth quarter collapses...they can all be partially attributed to the lack of running success.  The Texans have been successful converting 3rd or 4th and 2 yards or less 64% of the time running to the right, and a terrible 44% running up the middle.  No matter how successful you are with the pass, if you continually live by the sword, you will eventually die by the sword.  Take for example Matt Schaub's 13 interceptions.  That sounds a little high until you take into account that equals one INT for every 36.4 attempts.  That's still a little high, but when opposing defenses know that you have to pass to move the ball whether you have a lead or not, it stacks the deck against you.

Gary Kubiak has come under intense scrutiny because of game situations that have cost the Texans several games near the end.  This season, Kubiak finally got a better defense, only to lose his running game.  Last year's average of 115 yards per game would be the fourth best rushing output for this year's team.  I'm trying to avoid the apologist angle, but if the running game was even close to last year's, I don't think that we would be discussing the jeopardy of Kubiak's future in Houston.  Even yesterday's offensive outpouring included only 85 yards on the ground.  In my opinion, Bob McNair should worry more about the replacement of a few offensive linemen and running backs, rather than a head coach.