Another week, another round through the buzzsaw that is the Houston Texans’ early season schedule. First there was the improbable comeback against the surprisingly rejuvenated San Diego Chargers, then the overtime thriller in the always-heated divisional home game against Tennessee, followed by the offensive implosion against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. All of that tough sledding, and yet Gary Kubiak and company haven’t even hit the hard part yet.
It’s time to buckle that chin strap extra tight. The Seahawks are coming.
If there is one game in the first quarter of the season that can tell us if this Texans squad has what it takes to get a Lombardi, it is definitely hosting the big bad wolf of the NFC. Seattle contained Cam Newton and the Panthers, bludgeoned the mighty 49ers to death in the rain, utterly dismantled the lowly Jaguars within one half, and they still have not played their best game. There is no way around it - the Seahawks are a damn good football team. Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, and Russell Wilson are not men to be trifled with, but if there is one certainty in the National Football League, it is that even gods can bleed if you hit them hard enough. The question, now more than ever, is how to deliver that hit.
I spent this last summer in study mode while trying to find cracks in the armor of the Texans’ toughest 2013 opponents. The Dean Pees hybrid front and the Matt Patricia 4-3 are both interesting in their own right, but there is something so intrinsically fascinating about Pete Carroll’s defense. Sometimes it’s a 4-3 over, sometimes a 4-3 under, and sometimes it even becomes a 3-4. Hell, if I had Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin, K.J. Wright, and Bobby Wagner to work with, I would probably line them up all over the place too. Even more unique than the Seahawks' business up front is the party in the back. What other team lines up gigantic corners both on the outside and in the slot for the sole purpose of beating the life out of opposing receivers? What other team employs a 235 pound strong safety that runs like a deer and hits like a linebacker? The answer, of course, is none. However, as intimidating as the exceptionally violent Seahawks secondary is, attacking the Legion of Boom through the air might be the Texans’ only option.
When you first turn on the tape of the Seahawks' defense, it is hard not to notice the near constant safety presence down in the box. Kam Chancellor has made a lot of money near the line of scrimmage, and even when he is not prowling down by the trenches, Earl Thomas is usually somewhere nearby. The Seahawks' front seven is hard enough to run against, but the addition of Chancellor or Thomas to the mix makes it nigh impossible. To put it simply, I do not expect Arian Foster or Ben Tate to get much traction in this one. The Texans' running backs will get their carries, sure, but getting many yards from those guys is not very likely. So what does a team with a future Hall of Famer, a stud rookie wideout, and two great Wisconsin Badger tight ends do when they can’t get the ground game going?
Throw the ball, and throw it a lot.
I know that a good portion of you are sitting there right now thinking that I am insane. The Seahawks have the best pass defense in the NFL. There is no way anyone will ever get open, right? Wrong. Seattle’s pass defense is formidable, but Gary Kubiak's Denny’s menu is actually surprisingly full of plays that are well suited to face a man coverage-oriented scheme that packs the box. This of course comes mainly out of necessity to find a way to beat said man coverage when defenses start loading up against the run game.
A little pop quiz: What do Jerry Rice, Rod Smith, and Andre Johnson all have in common? If your answer is "Everyone knew they were getting the ball, but they still couldn’t stop it," you would be correct. Gary Kubiak has worked with all three of these receivers from the early 1990s up until the present day, and every single one of them has accumulated countless yards from one concept – the pick play. The pick play, to put it as simply as possible, is using one receiver’s route to "accidentally" run into a defender that is trying to guard a second receiver in man coverage to delay them just long enough to give that second receiver some space to catch the ball. Houston in particular loves running pick plays out of stacks and bunch sets that pack as many bodies into as small an area as possible in order to create chaos within coverage schemes.
A lot of the Texans’ pick plays from bunch sets against Seattle will look something like this when in "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends).
The X receiver (Andre Johnson) on the left side of the bunch will get matched up with the defense’s right cornerback (in Seattle’s case, Brandon Browner), while both tight ends would likely draw coverage from strong safety Kam Chancellor and either K.J. Wright or Bobby Wagner. Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham’s main responsibility is to simply get vertical and become obstacles for Brandon Browner while Andre Johnson runs a drive route across their backs. If run correctly, Browner has to essentially cross four lanes of traffic just to get within reach of Johnson, let alone actually catch up to him. If the Mike linebacker, Bobby Wagner, bails into a zone or Earl Thomas comes down to pick up Johnson as he runs across the middle of the field, then all of the sudden the deep post and corner routes from the tight ends become viable deep reads that can be exploited. Seattle simply cannot afford to stay in man coverage for too long against bunch sets because of how devastating concepts like the drive route can be if executed properly.
The Texans do not just run pick plays at the line of scrimmage, as they are well known for boxing out defenders down field from a variety of formations (ignore the sack and the overthrow; all we really care about here is the concept).
Hell, Houston even had a harsh dosage of their own medicine in Week One against the San Diego Chargers. Mike McCoy, the brilliant offensive mind most famous for making Tim Tebow a playoff winning quarterback, came out guns blazing against the blitz-heavy, man coverage-oriented Texans defense with a barrage of clever play designs (like the one below) out of bunches and stacks to free up their decimated receiving corps while constant hot throws to running backs made the Texans' interior blitz packages practically irrelevant. It was not until Houston switched to zone coverage in the second half that the Chargers' offense was shut down.
Beyond pick plays and the occasional bubble screen, the Texans will also have to find a way to defeat Seattle’s man coverage in the event that Garrett Graham and Owen Daniels need to stay in and help block the Seahawks' pass rush (a very real possibility if Duane Brown does not play). I have no doubt that this will be the toughest task for the Texans in the entire game. Seattle’s secondary excels in straight up "me versus you" man coverage, especially with a number one corner that is able to lock down an entire half of the field. The only solution, as far as I can see at least, is to attack literally everyone who is not Richard Sherman, starting with the other highly touted corner on the Seahawks' roster – Brandon Browner.
Browner, widely recognized as possibly the most physical cornerback in the NFL, is an absolute load to handle at the line of scrimmage. His jams are violent, and he has plenty of straight line speed to keep up with all but the fastest wide receivers deep down field. Browner’s main weakness, however, is his feet. He can beat you up and run with you, but Browner’s long strides and gigantic frame (for a corner) make it very difficult for him to chop his feet and cut sharply with more polished route runners, and his stiffer hips make it tougher to recover after biting on double moves. Comebacks, double releases, out and ups, sluggos, and stutter-gos have a tendency to give big-bodied corners fits, and Browner is no exception. If the Texans put both tight ends on the line and keep Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins a yard or two off, it should give both of them the necessary room to work with to keep their releases as clean as possible without getting jammed. When Brandon Browner is unable to put his hands on receivers, it tends to cause problems.
In addition to going after Brandon Browner with double releases and quick feet (an Andre Johnson specialty), it is imperative to get DeAndre Hopkins some face time with Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Unlike the Texans, the Seahawks do not normally move their corners around the field to match up with specific receiving threats, so both safeties are usually tapped to handle slot duty from ten to fifteen yards off on receivers that are motioned from one side to another. As a result, there is often tons of free yardage for the taking with square ins, quick outs, digs, smokes, and slants.
Once the Seahawks are forced to transition from man to zone, just like the Texans did against the Chargers, that is when the real game begins. San Diego failed to adjust their game plan when Houston went into zone and were completely suffocated in the second half. Brian Cushing stopped blitzing and instead made the most important play of the game – dropping underneath a Danny Woodhead angle route to make a spectacular diving interception that would be returned for a touchdown. Ironically enough, just two weeks later the Ravens would also go with a zone look against a Houston bunch formation and get a pick-six underneath the very same route, this time run by Owen Daniels.
The Texans must not make the same mistake again. The Seahawks’ base zone look is a Cover 3, and just like all zone shells, it has its weaknesses. Cover Three, which features three deep zones, is usually vulnerable to curl routes underneath the corners that are playing soft, but the Seahawks like to mitigate that kind of high percentage throw by dropping linebackers and safeties into the curl/flat zone under their outside corners. The best option against the Seattle zone defense, just like against any other Cover 3 base, is to overload the deep seams and start channeling your inner Rex Grossman.
From Houston’s "Ace" package, which features a tight end on either side of the offensive line, the Texans could essentially copy and paste the San Francisco 49ers' game plan from two weeks ago and use both of their tight ends to stress the number one and number two seams, which should force somebody free.
The same concept can be used even from a bunch set, where the Hawks are more likely to counter with a Cover 6 (two deep defenders playing a quarter of the field while the third plays half) in order to keep the deep safety closer to the action. The X receiver and first tight end are used to overload the number one seam while the second tight end runs a post to the number two seam unopposed. If the deep safety bites on the post, the first tight end’s seam route is wide open. If the cornerback takes that seam route, the X receiver’s corner route behind the linebackers is open for a big gain. No matter what, Cover 3 is always going to be a lose-lose once the offense starts going vertical. Ed Reed is the only safety in the history of the game that could essentially cover both seams at the same time, and Earl Thomas is no Ed Reed (yet).
Greg Roman’s plan to produce some big chunk plays had a pretty good amount of success considering how often Kyle Williams was running free deep down field, but unfortunately the Niners' offensive line gave Colin Kaepernick zero time to throw the ball. Even when Kaepernick was well protected, his eye discipline and pocket presence were so terrible that any passing play was practically doomed from the start. It was, at least on paper, a great game plan and even better playcalling by the San Francisco coaching staff. The execution on the field was just plain poor.
From botched screen passes that should have gone for huge yardage…
To Colin Kaepernick getting happy feet and missing a wide open Kyle Williams off of broken coverage by Walter Thurmond…
To the offensive line not giving Kaepernick any time to hit Kyle Williams deep in the number one seam after blowing by Walter Thurmond (again), this offense was just plain ugly to watch.
For the sake of not dragging this article out too long, I will stop right there. Those were just a portion of a big plays that San Francisco failed to make. The Niners just could not stop shooting themselves in the foot the entire night. Bad reads, bad protection, and bad throws turned what should have been a massive night for Vernon Davis and Kyle Williams into an embarrassing performance for a Super Bowl contending team. I credit a lot of Seattle’s defensive dominance to a pass rush that was in the backfield for a good chunk of the game (that might come as a shock to a few Seahawks fans, I know). That pass rush will only get more fearsome once Bruce Irvin returns from suspension in Week Five. God help the rest of the NFC West when he does.
The Niners were not the only team with missed opportunities. Carolina botched plenty of their own potential big plays in Week One when the Seahawks were in zone looks.
There was that time Cam Newton didn’t notice Steve Smith with 15 yards of grass in every direction…
Or that time Greg Olsen dropped a perfect pass in the seam on third down…
And who could forget Cam Newton overthrowing Brandon LaFell in the number two seam, also on third down.
When the Seahawks are taken out of their bread and butter man coverage, either through schematic necessity or otherwise, they become just as beatable as any other team. Richard Sherman is a man among boys, but not even he can stop the right pass being thrown to the right route against the right coverage. To beat the Seattle secondary, it will not come down to who is the better football player, but rather who makes the fewest mistakes. The Seahawks thus far have capitalized on their opportunities. Their opponents have not. Such is the way of football, I suppose.
If the Texans want to score a respectable amount of points, they need to keep Seattle’s pass rush package, and especially Michael Bennett, off the field. If that means that Matt Schaub has to run the muddle huddle and two tight end sets for the majority of the game just to make sure that Red Bryant is left out there as an "edge rusher" on third and long, so be it. If the Texans' ground game is going to get wrecked by his strength, they might as well take advantage of his weakness as a pass rusher. Then, and only then, do I think that Schaub will have enough time in the pocket to make the aforementioned deep throws when Seattle is in zone. If Duane Brown does not play, this game could get sloppy in a hurry.
Well, there you have it. Nearly three thousand words and the only advice I can give the Texans is "don’t suck." I would make a great football coach.
1. Whitney Mercilus, not J.J. Watt, will lead this team in sacks on Sunday, notching two and a half against backup left tackle Paul McQuistan.
2. This game just screams Owen Daniels to me. I think he catches seven passes for over 100 yards and a touchdown.
3. D.J. Swearinger continues to prove his value by breaking Zach Miller's streak of converting the last four hundred third downs for the Seahawks.
Seahawks vs Texans coverage I Field Gulls