Even as I began writing this article, it was still tough to swallow – Brian Cushing is done for the year. What are the Texans going to do? You can’t replace that kind of tenacity and playmaking ability. How could you? The Bulls on Parade are as good as they are because that man was leading them on the field. There just simply isn’t another player like him; there is nobody that can do what Brian Cushing does.
Or is there?
I’ve spent a lot of time going over the tape from the Jets-Texans game to see just how the inside linebackers are used in Wade Phillips’ scheme – specifically Tim Dobbins and Bradie James – and I have come to the following conclusion: It’s going to be okay. I was very impressed with how well the scheme’s versatility made up for Cushing’s absence and even more impressed with how well Dobbins and James understood its concepts and played within them (mostly).
For starters, let’s go over the main tenets of the Texans' defensive scheme and how they applied to the post-Cushing unit during the game.
1. Stop the run.
This is single most important goal of Wade’s defense. Five yard dink-and-dunks will happen, but the highest of all priorities is making sure the opposing running game keeps the offense out of 2nd or 3rd and manageable situations.
2. Man coverage is at a premium.
In order for Phillips’ creative blitzes that utilize six or seven defenders to be effective, the cornerbacks must be capable of staying on the hip of the receiver for at least three seconds. This also applies to safeties on tight ends and linebackers on running backs, respectively.
3. Match ups, match ups, match ups.
One of Wade Phillips' best traits is that he tends to design his defenses around the talents of the players rather than trying to fit the players into his defense. If he has a converted corner playing safety who excels in man coverage, he is not going to waste him playing a deep zone when he should be tightly covering a safety-valve tight end. If he has a converted defensive end playing rush linebacker who eats pass protecting running backs for breakfast, then he will line him up at the 7-technique for the entire game. If there is a ridiculously gifted defensive lineman that can play every position imaginable, then you better believe he will play at every position imaginable.
When it comes to putting his guys into position to make plays and highlighting certain strengths of particular members of the unit from snap to snap, Wade is an absolute artist. If he wants to put J.J. Watt in position to get a sack, then he will do whatever it takes to give him single blocking. If he wants Johnathan Joseph to be in position to undercut an obvious crossing route without any hesitation, then he will roll any and all safety coverage to his side to give him the freedom to do so. That’s how it has always worked with Phillips, and that philosophy continues to shine in Houston.
So what does this have to do with Tim Dobbins and Bradie James? It means that Phillips knows what he is doing and will never put either of them in position to fail. The scheme will adjust to highlight their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. There is simply too much talent on every level of the defense to warrant anything close to panic. Let’s take a look at how Dobbins and James were used against the Jets after Cushing's injury.
This first play is a 1st and 10 from the Jets' 48. For context, this was just two plays after the Cushing injury. The Jets converted for a 1st down on a one yard run by Mark Sanchez and were primed to take some shots on a defense that just lost its leader. While the Jets' 2-back, 1-tight end offset "I" formation called for the Texans to put in their base personnel, Houston was prepared for the pass.
Houston showed as basic a Man-Cover-2 look as humanly possible and invited the Jets to send Jeff Cumberland, their athletic tight end, to split the safeties with Bradie James in coverage while the wide receivers drew the safeties to the sidelines. It was a huge gain that was just sitting there; how could they not take the bait? In reality, however, the Texans were in a sort of hybrid Man-Tampa 2 coverage (in which the middle linebacker takes a deep middle zone just in front of the safeties) and masking Glover Quin’s man-on-man matchup with Cumberland. Houston had absolutely zero intention of leaving James alone from the start, and instead risked leaving Joseph on an island with Antonio Cromartie.
The ball is snapped. The Texans rush four with Connor Barwin, Antonio Smith, Shaun Cody, and Watt. Brooks Reed takes the fullback in the flat while Joseph and Kareem Jackson take the wide receivers. Tim Dobbins takes the running back on the safety valve route while Bradie James covers Cumberland for the first 10 yards. What the Jets did not anticipate, however, was James passing off Cumberland to Quin, who maintains man coverage in the middle of the field. James then stays in his deep middle zone as a security blanket in case one of the running backs leaked into the open. Danieal Manning, the other deep safety, floats over to Jackson’s side to bracket his man.
Cromartie is Sanchez’s only option, and luckily enough for Sanchez, beats Joseph on a nasty double move. Even luckier for Joseph, Cromartie cannot keep his feet in bounds on what would have been a huge gain.
The moral of the story? Wade is taking no chances with these linebackers in coverage. Absolutely none. They either will stay far, far away from tight ends all together, or on the very rare occasions that they do have to line up across from a receiver, they will get some sort of help from Glover Quin and Danieal Manning.
Let’s take a look at the very next play. It’s 2nd and 10 and the Jets come out in yet another run formation, this time with a tight end on either side of the line (referred to as "Ace").
The Jets see man coverage with Joseph and Jackson taking their receivers at the bottom of the screen. Sanchez motions Cumberland out to the top of the screen as a receiver all by his lonesome. James, being the one who calls the defense in the first place, reads it and starts making calls. What comes next is truly impressive. Joseph starts going across the line to take Cumberland, but James stops him and sends him back to the receiver. Rather than bring Quin down to cover the slot, James elects to roll safety coverage to that side of the field and adjust the front seven to blitz accordingly.
Why does he do this? Because the other "tight end" is actually an extra offensive lineman who won’t be running routes any time soon. James reads that this is going to be a max-protect deep shot down field and that Sanchez was going to use Cumberland to overload the safeties and force one of his receivers free. Bradie’s response? Blitz the hell out of him. Long-developing routes mean that the quarterback has to hold on to the ball, which means that pass rushers can pin their ears back and go make some money.
Keep in mind what comes next happens in the span of about two or three seconds. This is the fastest mental counterpunch I’ve ever seen. James sends Dobbins over in between Watt and Reed and shows blitz. Watt is already going to be double-teamed (as he should be), but now the jumbo tight end has to decide between taking Reed and leaving a giant hole for Dobbins to blitz through, or taking Dobbins and leaving Reed alone with a running back (a huge mismatch if I’ve ever seen one). At the same time, Cody shades to the right shoulder of Nick Mangold and forces a block towards the strong side. Antonio Smith is lined up between the left guard and left tackle, with Barwin all the way out in the 7-technique. This combination of the center moving right and the guard moving left leaves a massive hole for James to blitz through. The running back now has three separate rushers to account for in a split second.
Just to make it that much harder on the offensive line, James starts shifting the big guys around. Cody shades to the opposite side while Smith kicks in over the guard. Watt also adjusts his stance and lines up over the tackle. The point of all of this is to threaten an inside stunt with Dobbins and cause hesitation in the protection.
A split second later James shifts again, and sends Watt back into the 3-technique. Cody shades back over to the strong side while Smith goes all the way out to the 4 technique. This puts the guard in a tough situation where he has to either take James and leave the tackle and running back alone with Smith and Barwin, or help the tackle with the edge rush while James has a giant hole to run though. It’s an impossible blitz to block in this personnel and Bradie knows it – masterfully orchestrated.
The ball is snapped. Dobbins and James stay home for an instant just to make sure Sanchez wasn’t setting up a screen the entire time. The tight end lets Reed go and cheats towards Watt to stop him from getting outside the tackle. Smith and Barwin work to the outside of the pocket and pull the offensive line with them.
Reed sidesteps the running back. Watt is now being triple-teamed. Smith and Barwin are pulling the guard and tackle further and further. Dobbins and James see that a halfback screen is not imminent and start blitzing through the wide open gaps.
Mangold passes Cody off and begins to work towards James, but Dobbins is completely free. Sanchez is forced to throw it now before the route develops or face a very painful sack.
Sanchez lets it fly towards Cumberland on the sideline (the throw is broken up by Manning), but what I really wanted to show was how many hands are in the air. This was a common sight during the game. The Jets had to throw through a forest for the entire night. It wasn’t just Watt getting his hands up. It was everyone. Linemen, linebackers, blitzing safeties – everyone always had their hands up. It’s hard to complete over 50% of your passes when your throwing lanes are clogged all day. Mark Sanchez certainly learned that the hard way.
The last play I want to show is the 3rd and 10 on that very same series. Originally I wanted to show linebacker play from different portions of the game, but this drive in itself presented such situational diversity that I couldn’t help but include the whole thing. The Jets have a one back-two tight end set, but Wade isn’t taking any chances and puts in his dime package (there is no such thing as "nickel" in this defense; it’s all dime all the time).
Troy Nolan goes back as the second deep safety with Manning while Quin comes in the box and matches up with Cumberland. Joseph, Jackson, and Brice McCain man up with the other tight end and receivers. James spies the running back.
Jackson and McCain blanket the two receivers towards the bottom of the screen with Manning in a deep zone to cover them. Joseph positions himself to sit underneath the other tight end’s route while Nolan provides bracket security. Quin can be seen at midfield covering Cumberland. James moves to cover the running back.
However, in typical Bradie James fashion, he overshoots the back and gets beat back inside with nobody but Joseph to help him. Luckily, J.J. Watt is all over Sanchez and forces an errant throw five yards into the turf.
Yikes, Bradie. While I don’t think James will get beat by a tight end anytime soon with Quin and Manning on the field and while he does have a great tactical mind when it comes to calling defenses, his coverage on backs is a huge liability at times. Considering that Houston still has to face backfield receiving threats such as Randall Cobb, Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, and Percy Harvin, this could be a major problem for the Bulls down the road.
Overall, other than running backs converting some first downs on occasion on catches that they really shouldn’t have, I’m not worried about the Texans linebacker situation at all. Dobbins had some violently awesome run stops throughout the game that unfortunately would have stretched this post to unimaginable length (no seriously, that guy is a run-stopping monster), and James did have good coverage at times (not all the time, but it did happen). Will there be missed opportunities sometimes? Sure. Will every running back and tight end get locked down for the entire game? Nope. Will this cost the Texans a game? Not even close.
As long as the rest of the Texans defense is still breathing, the Bulls on Parade will not stop being the strength of this team, Cushing or no Cushing.