After watching the preseason and charting all of the minutes up through the Dallas game, I've come to a conclusion that basically anyone could have just watching the games: This team has a lot of damn weapons. Assuming Owen Daniels comes back healthy, the Texans can go four deep at both wide receiver and tight end with either established threats or players who have shown that they could use an expanded role.
On the other side of the ranch, fullback Vonta Leach is coming off a noticeably poor year blocking. The Texans tried to bring in competition for him in camp via Justin Griffith, only to watch Griffith hurt himself before they even got to a preseason game. Leach won the job because of the two sweetest words in the English language: de-fault.
So on the surface, it seems like the confluence of these two factors would mean that the Texans would spend less time in the trusty I-Formation. For the non-football savvy, the I-Formation essentially means that there are two backs in the backfield (for example, Leach and Foster) lined up together. There is a basic I, which has them in a straight line, and the Offset I, which has Leach split off to the side rather than lined up right behind the quarterback. The Texans last season adapted to their lack of a run game, but actually spent a LOT of time in the I-Formation anyway. According to Football Outsiders, they ran with a single running back just 50% of the time, which was 25th in the league. Yet, they also ran out of the I-Formation just 55%, good for 24th in the league.
Basically, because of the poor effectiveness of the run game, the Texans threw a lot more out of the I-Formation last season. What that led to is a lot of snaps being wasted on a fullback (Leach) who brings nothing to the table in the passing game, particularly when he is not blocking well like last year. I'll go more in-depth behind the cut, but try to answer the poll question before you go there. What formation do you want the Texans to run most of their plays out of this year?
Obviously, the first question that pops in my mind when we're talking about formations is the effective plays. By which I of course mean: the play-action pass. The play-action pass has been the Texans biggest gainer for the entirety of the Kubiak era, and a majority of the biggest gains we've had over the past two seasons have been the direct result of an incredible play-action fake.
The Texans used play-action just about two-thirds of the time out of the I-Formation last season. That's a stat that seems to back the continued use of Mr. Leach. If you break down the data even further, you'll find that the ten longest play-action passes the Texans threw, seven of them came out of the I and three of them came out of the single-back, which is about on par with what you'd expect given the split. While it's certainly a comfort zone thing for Kubiak, I don't actually think the numbers bear out that the play-action loses effectiveness for the Texans when they ditch the I-Formation.
Now of course, the Texans were also a bit limited last season by the rash of injuries at tight end. No such excuses for that this year, as they should have Daniels, Joel Dreessen, James Casey, and Garrett Graham ready to go for Week One. If Kubiak and Dennison are still hell-bent on running with a second person in the backfield, they can always run with two tight ends and have one of them go into motion behind the line. Or even, perhaps, use Dreessen (the best blocker) as a pure H-Back, as the Texans did in some shotgun snaps last season.
I'm extremely interested to see what kinds of formations and personnel mixes the Texans use this season. On paper, they should have a very versatile offense. The only player that doesn't fit is Leach. Nothing personal, Vonta; you just weren't born for the passing age. Get your 2007 form back and I'd be happy to see you get some more snaps and give the offense even MORE versatility.
But as it stands right now, Leach is the weakest and most one-dimensional player in the Texans offense. And I'm really hoping he's spending a lot more of the season on the sidelines waiting for the goal line unit to be called to duty.
I like both the idea of more two-tight end sets and more three-wide sets, but I'd like to see the Texans run three-wide most. If they can force nickel backs onto the field, they should have an advantage blocking-wise with how good Kevin Walter is at it and how big and physical Andre Johnson and Jakespeare are. Add Dreessen to the mix and you've got four blockers who should be able to beat their men, and we all know that this offensive line is going to need every little bit of help it can get. I won't even get into the delicious possibilities of Johnson, Walter, Jacoby Jones, and Owen Daniels on the route tree, but that is a scary offensive set for any defense.
But that's just one man's opinion. What formation do you most want to see and why?