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Something To Be Hopeful About--Offense Edition

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Now, I know what you're thinking.  It's probably something along the lines of, "What?  Our offense needs something to be hopeful about?  Do you really agree with that weirdo who said that losing Vonta Leach was going to hurt the Texans' offense?"  

Most likely, actually, you're probably thinking something like, "Man, is there anything that isn't improved by adding bacon?"

But I digress.

One of the less-frustrating (but still frustrating) things about the Texans' season last year was the seeming ineffectiveness of the play action attack.  It seemed to take a step backwards after being fairly effective in 2009.  How many times did we see Matt Schaub fake a handoff to a running back, roll out on a naked bootleg with acres of space and have to wait and eventually throw it away because nobody was open?  While I haven't gone back and counted, the number of times this happened was higher than it ought to have been, considering the effectiveness of Arian Foster.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that our play action was more effective in 2009 when we had virtually no running game for much of the season than it was in 2010.  However, there is cause for optimism.  While preseason results are not good for forecasting how a team is going to perform in the upcoming year, I do believe that we can look at individual processes and use them as a barometer for specific parts of a team's performance.  In other words, a team's preseason win-loss record is meaningless as a forecasting tool, but if a team is successful or not in certain specific areas, I think it is fair to look at those things by themselves and make an educated guess about how well they might do these same things in the regular season.

To give you some specific examples, I would say that preseason performance will tell us a lot about our how well our defense pressures opposing quarterbacks, how poorly our special teams covers and how well we use play action.  We've talked a lot about the first two things, but I haven't seen too much discussion on the third item--play action.

Want to find out more?  Then make like Jeb Corliss and take a massive, insane jump with me.

I believe that we will see the Texans improve on play action significantly this year.  Not only that, I don't think the presence of Arian Foster in the backfield will make or break the Texans play action success.  It's kind of a given among a lot of football pundits that in order for a play action to be successful, a team has to have an effective running game.  I'm not convinced that this is always the case.  There is a lot more to it than that.  

As an example, let's look at a game from 2009, Week 2's matchup at the Titans.  The Texans won this game after spotting the Titans something like 21 points and Matt Schaub, he who somehow lacks clutch, threw for about 350 yards and four touchdowns in leading the Texans to victory.  Check out the highlights and you'll see several long pass plays (and one brilliant short yardage touchdown) that come from play action.  The kicker?  Steve Slaton's numbers were as follows: 17 carries for 34 yards and no touchdowns.  Despite the fact that Slaton was ineffective, the Texans were extremely successful using play action.

This leads me to the conclusion that an actual effective running game is not necessarily crucial to successfully using play action.  Last year, when we had a running game, we were worse at play action.  The reason, in my mind, lies in what happens on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Even in today's NFL, where quarterbacks are putting up sick numbers with regularity, running the ball is still important.  However, despite what many commentators will tell you, running the ball is more important later in games than it is earlier in games.  The reason for this is obvious but I will state it for you anyway: it is because running the ball takes time off the clock.  In fact, at a certain point in games, eating up the clock is more important than gaining yards because it takes away time for the opposing team to score.  So it is possibly more important to run the ball and go three and out than it is to pass the ball three times and make a first down on the third attempt after two incompletions.

Because of this, and because there are situations where defenses know that an offense is more likely to run the ball (for example on third and short in field goal range), how good a run game a team has is not as important as the fact that teams are generally likely to run the ball in a particular situation.  

So if the Texans didn't appear as good at play action as they should have last year, what hope do I have that they will be better this year?  I'm glad you asked.  Let me explain.

I put this down to two primary factors: Rick Dennison being in his second year as offensive coordinator and the emergence of a dynamic, versatile set of tight ends.

As I mentioned above, part of calling play action is situational.  You want to do it in circumstances where the opposing defense is expecting you to run.  Additionally, you want to find a way for your wide receivers to get separation from their defenders (which is like, duh, something you want them doing on normal pass plays as well).  But last year a big part of the problem was that the play action was either long passes or nothing.  Given that there didn't appear to be much of an intermediate threat to the play action game, and given that Schaub is not great at extremely deep routes, it isn't hard to see why we weren't so effective at play action.

This year, however, I believe that with a little experience under his belt, Dennison is going to be more savvy about when he uses the play action.  Furthermore, with the maturation of James Casey and the return of Owen Daniels to full health, the Texans now have a series of weapons that they can deploy in the play action game to make it more effective.  MDC has done a bit of lusting over the possibilities that arise from our talented tight end corps and I'm sure you've all read his posts.  The bottom line is, with two tight ends (or more), the offense is in a prime position to go be effective in play action without ever tipping their hand that they are going to do so.  If using two tight ends and no halfback is an effective way for the Texans to run the ball and defenses have to key on that, then having one or more tight ends release from a block and run a route is going to give Schaub a great option if 'Dre or JJ isn't open.

Which brings me full circle on routes.  Last year, we didn't have a lot of intermediate routes, especially when Daniels was hurt.  If you look at the Schaub highlights from the 2009 Titans game, you'll see that he threw play action passes to WRs for long yardage and to TEs for intermediate yardage (and a touchdown).  Having a TE block, release and get open out in the flat or underneath gives Schaub another option in addition to his WRs.  A guy like Daniels, who is excellent at shedding linebackers in coverage, will make our play action game significantly more effective.  He's going to keep safeties honest, which means that our WRs will be able to get open downfield more.  He's going to get a lot of first downs because he's going to find himself acres of space to run into.  And he's going to make MDC question his marriage vows out of sheer lust.  

All in all, good things, wouldn't you agree?