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The Film Room: The Houston Texans Are Still A Zone Running Team

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Matt Weston breaks out the pictures and clears up the unanswered pre-season question, "Will the Texans remain a zone run team?".

Bob Levey

At the moment, there are still multiple unknowns regarding the third head coach in the history of the Houston Texans. It remains to be seen if Bill O'Brien is competent or another Bill Belichick coaching tree disaster. No one knows exactly what he looks for in a quarterback after deciding to draft a project in the fourth round. It was not known if he would run draw plays on third and eight. We didn't know if Houston would continue to operate the zone scheme that made their running game the envy of the league the past five years. It's only been a week, and there are still questions as to what lies at the bottom of the ocean, but the 17-6 win over Washington opened up a Wonder Ball of answers regarding the Texans' offense. After bathing in the glory of technology and watching the coach's film, the answer is clear:  The Houston Texans are still a zone running team.

Against the Washington Redskins, the Texans ran the ball 34 times for 115 yards, which comes out to 3.0 yards a carry. From the charting I did, they ran a variation of the zone on 22 of these 34 plays. On the remainder of these plays, they ran draws, inside runs from the shotgun that used a man blocking scheme, wild pull plays I've never seen before, fullback leads, and quarterback sneaks. What's missing are the counters, powers, and traps that we were all waiting for.  What's remaind is the zone run game we assumed we would kiss goodbye when Gary Kubiak was canned.

Against Washington, there were various examples of Houston running zone plays.  Here are a few.

Quarter 1, 10:09 Remaining. Result: Arian Foster Left Guard for Three Yards.

This is a play you have seen thousands of times if you have watched the Houston Texans play football for the last eight years. It's the zone stretch that Denver made famous during their pre-Manning glory years. The rules are simple. The lineman asks himself, am I covered? If he is, he'll block that defender while aiming for the play-side half of him. If he isn't covered, he's running some type of double team with the play-side lineman next to him. Then at the snap of the ball, each player takes a zone step towards the play-side (a short six inch diagonal step and one six inch step forward).

As far as this specific play is concerned, Duane Brown (Left Tackle #76) is covered by a "4i."  He and Ben Jones (LG #60) are going to need to drive him to the "Mike" linebacker in a "Deuce" block. Ryan Griffin (Tight End #84) has a one on one block with the "7" technique. Chris Myers (Center #55) is covered, so he will attack the outside shoulder of the nose tackle, drive him to the inside linebacker, and then once Brandon Brooks (Right Guard #79) can take over the world, Myers will peel off to the linebacker. Derek Newton (Right Tackle #75) and C.J. Fiedorowicz (Tight End #87) are responsible for the back-side 4i and the safety creeping up into the box. Now, because of the distance to the second level, there won't be a scoop block (backside double team). Newton will aim for the end's inside shoulder to reach him and turn his shoulders. C.J. takes a zone step left in case the end slants inside and then heads up to the safety.

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Zone steps are taken.

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Contact is beginning to be made. In this game, Washington's defense did a great job of flowing play-side against the zone. In this image, every defender understands what play Houston is running by now. They are all moving left except for the play-side outside linebacker, who's setting the edge.

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The "Deuce" block has taken shape. Brown has started to drive the defensive end and can feel Ben Jones behind him to take over the block. Brown has his hands on the defensive end with his eyes on the "Mike" linebacker. The scoop block that was supposed to be a power scoop turns into one on one blocks. On a power scoop, the covered offensive lineman punches the inside shoulder and drives until the uncovered lineman is able to take his place. Afterwards, he heads to the second level. Here, the nose tackle flows too far inside for Brooks to help out. So what Brooks does is continue left until he is head-up with the inside linebacker. Once this goes down, he goes to the next level and makes his block. On the other side of the world, Newton fails to reach the end. He needed to reach the defender, because on zone plays you want the back-side to split the defense in half for the cutback. Instead, he drives the end back towards the play leading to a big heaping glop of bodies.

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The play-side fails to move the line of scrimmage, the back-side doesn't separate the defense, and Griffin allows Brian Orakpo to get into the back field. As a result, there's no room for Foster to run.

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He tries to cut back, but there's no seam for him to run through.

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The previous play wasn't meant to bash on the offensive line (we have all article long to do that), but it is an immaculate example of the basic zone play Houston will run all season even if the result was lackluster.

But the fun thing about the zone is there are many variations and tweaks you can make to it. The coaching staff can add magentas, reds, and greens to the basic black and white drab this play is.

Outside Zone: Quarter 1, 6:13 Remaining. Result: Arian Foster Right End for Nine Yards (Brooks Holding).

The rules here are the same as the previous play. The covered lineman aims for play-side shoulder and the uncovered lineman double teams with the man next to him.

Here, Brown, Myers, Brooks and Newton, and Fiedorowicz are covered. Brown will cut the back-side "4i", Myers is going to attack the nose tackle's outside shoulder and drive until Jones can overtake, and Fiedorowicz will reach the "7" and try to turn him inside. However, unlike the previous play, the hole is meant to come off of Fiedorowicz's block. This play is drawn up to go outside. The biggest difference comes on the play-side double team.

Newton will only punch the "4i" and then head to the "Mike" linebacker. The key to this play is his ability to get to the linebacker and prevent the defender from flowing into the hole and tackling Foster for a loss. He can't spend all weekend long hanging out in the double team. On most plays, Newton will plow the defender backwards until he becomes even with the linebacker and then peel off. On this outside stretch play, he's only offering a tiny bit of help before going to the second level.

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Zone steps!

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The play develops. Brown is cutting the end and is throwing his head into the inside leg. The wide five on the outside goes unblocked because he's too far out to make a play on the ball. This play is a good example of Jones' lack of speed. Everyone on the line is about to make contact except for him. There's still a man-sized hole of space between him and Myers. Newton is delivering a punch and Brooks is trying to get to the outside shoulder. C.J. is changing his route because the linebacker has slanted inside, which gives him an easier block. There's no need to reach the outside shoulder if he lurches inside for him.

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Newton has already peaced out and left the double team. In the previous play, he would still be blocking with Brooks to make sure Brandon can get his head on the outside shoulder. Instead, he leaves and Brooks doesn't get proper head placement. His noggin is on the inside shoulder. This is bad because it gives Ryan Kerrigan (#91) the chance to fight outside and get into the backfield. The rookie tight end is doing a great job jostling the linebacker inside. His feet are what make this block. He's under control with his footwork, and he's able to quickly adjust to the slant and shove him farther inside like a nerd into a locker.

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There's a great seam for Foster to run through, except for one issue. Brooks has his arms around Kerrigan's head like he's going to rip it off in a Kratos-style Gorgon decapitation. Brooks wasn't quick enough to reach the outside shoulder before Newton departed so all he could do was grasp his arms around him.

Also give a nice golf clap for Myers and Jones for blowing up the nose tackle and knocking him four yards backwards.

/claps quietly

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A play that would have been a nine yard gain is negated. It's a shame because everyone else made great blocks to open up this much space for Foster to gallop through.

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This subtle change in Brooks and Newton's "Deuce" block occurred because of where the play was designed to go. Most of the time Foster is looking to come right behind the first play-side double team and then look back-side for a cutback. In this case, there was no cut-back available and Foster was looking to go outside from the time he was handed the ball. These tweaks add change to the staple play and do enough to keep the defense off guard.

Weak-Side Zone: Quarter 4, 7:02 Remaining. Result: Arian Foster Right Tackle for Nine Yards.

Although the previous plays were a weensy bit different, they followed the same set of rules and both were run toward the strong side of the formation. Nearly every zone play flows strong-side. If it goes to the back-side, it's because the running back chose to. Yet you can purposely scheme to run the zone weak-side by putting the fullback or a H-back to work.

The Texans are running the same play as the first one depicted, except here Fiedorowicz is lined up on the left and Houston is running the ball to the right. By doing this, Houston only has to deal with three play-side defenders rather than four. Also, the pre-snap hole to run through is larger. On the back-side of the play, there is a "0" and "3," which is a tighter lane to run through than the play-side "0" and "4i". There's more room for Foster to work with when the ball is shoved into his belly.

As far as assignments go, everything is the same except for play-side. Brooks and Newton both have a man in their gap, so they will be blocking one on one. There's is no strong play-side double team going up to the linebacker. Instea,d they are blocking BoB (Big on Big) and the rookie fullback, Jay Prosch, is going to have to make a grown man block by clearing the inside linebacker out of the hole.

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The focal point of the play is the two big circles outlined. Myers and Jones must create a new line of scrimmage and get to the back-side linebacker, and Newton and Brooks can't allow penetration. If this happens, there is a clean gap in the defense for Prosch and Foster.

Some might call this a lead play, but it isn't. On a lead play, the offensive line doubles the first down lineman play-side and purposely doesn't block the linebacker. This dismissal of the linebacker is a result of how Washington's front looks on the play-side rather than the double team choosing not to peel off off and block the linebacker.

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Here's example #2 showing Jones's slugishness. The nose tackle isn't fighting to the right, Myers has the outside number covered, but Jones still isn't close to making contact. Both Newton and Brooks are in great position to drive the defenders down the line of scrimmage and buss' the defense wide open.

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By the time Jones is about to make contact with the down lineman, he's in the second level and needs to peel back to the linebacker. This is a great block by Myers, especially since he had a few rough plays where he was obliterated four yards into the backfield. Prosch is in the hole and is squaring up the linebacker like two Bighorn Sheep in Canyonlands National Park.

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Prosch opts to aim for the outside shoulder of the linebacker and pushes him inside. Newton and Brooks have done a great job staying on their blocks while Brown and Fiedorowicz have done just enough to allow Foster to take the hand-off cleanly.

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I don't know for sure if the play is drawn up to go inside and Prosch should be attacking the linebacker head up or if the coaching staff wants Foster to bounce the play to the right. Only the Texans' coaching staff and the man above know the answer to this question.

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Arian Foster is still really good at football.

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Of all the iterations of the zone, this one is my favorite. It allows the offense to counter the defense when they assume Houston is running play-side before the snap. Even if it does put the lineman in unfavorable positions by throwing them into one on one blocks rather than double teams, the benefit of switching it up and running the opposite way is worth the risk.

Inside Zone from Shotgun: Quarter 4, 14:34 Remaining. Result: Jonathan Grimes for Two Yards.

This iteration of the zone comes out of the shotgun formation. Houston is running an inside zone play, or what I call the traditional zone, rather than the sideways flowing, cut blocking scheme we have grown to love over the years.

The Texans are running the inside zone to the right. Rather than take diagonal zone steps, the offensive line will take slide steps to get hip to hip on double teams. CJF is blocking the defensive end, who's standing up. Newton and Brooks have a "Deuce" block to the first second level defender in the box. There's a difference between how this block is made compared to the ones made in the previous play. Rather than Newton trying to get to the outside shoulder of the defender until Brooks overtakes the block, Newton and Brooks are stepping towards each other and trying to get hip to hip to push the down lineman to the linebacker. So the goal will be to block the "3" technique to the safety #25.  On the backside, Myers and Jones are making a similar block to the one Newton and Brooks are making instead of a quick scoop block. Then Brown is sealing the defensive end off so he can't scream down the line of scrimmage.

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Here is another "only the coaching staff knows" moment. Brooks and Jones, the covered linemen, are taking slide steps while the uncovered lineman are taking zone steps. I assume this is how the offensive line is coached to block because the same thing is seen on both sides of the line. My guess as to why this is done is so the uncovered man can get there quicker.

Yet I disagree with the reasoning. I would rather see both linemen take slide steps so they can become one man and get to hip to hip. The steps they are taking aren't congruent and it will lead to chasms for a defensive lineman to slip through.

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Grimes takes the hand-off.  He has three different holes opening up and four unblocked second level defenders to deal with. Jones and Myers look nice and square, but Newton and Brooks are an abomination. Brooks is farther up the field pushing to the right while Newton is behind him pushing up. Rather than work with each other, they are working against each other like two tectonic plates creating a fault in the Earth's crust. This is due to their footwork and the steps they took.

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The play is run to the right, but for some reason neither Newton or Brooks recognize the safety they need to get to. Brooks is boxing out the defender and Newton is still pushing with all of his might. Neither have their eyes on the safety. Grimes sees this and bounces awkwardly to the left after taking the hand off. On the left side, Myers and Jones worked together seamlessly and Myers can now block the linebacker.

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The play is now a mess. Brooks will kind of just wallow his way into the linebacker, who was going to cover Foster in the slot. Newton will leave the down lineman to block the safety at the last second. Grimes has nowhere to go.

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If this play is blocked well, it will be a nice way to get double teams going against a spread defense. Additionally, there's no draw element or play fake, so Houston can run this play quickly.

Zone with Motion: Quarter 1, 13:43 Remaining. Result: Arian Foster Right Guard for Nine Yards.

The last iteration of the zone I'm going to outline is nearly the same as the first play. The variation comes on the back-side due to the motioning of a tight end from the slot into the backfield.

Before the snap, Ryan Griffin motions from the slot to the backfield, where he lines up right behind the left guard.

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When he motions, he brings his slot defender, Brian Orakpo (#98), along with him. As a result, the assignments change on the back-side. Houston chooses to have Brown block Orakpo and Griffin block the defensive end lined up as a "4i". It doesn't really give Houston an extra blocker since the same number of men are in the box, but it does mess with the back-side defender's keys. This confuses the defense and hinders them from pursuing the ball carrier.

Everything other than who blocks the outside linebacker and defensive end remains the same.

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Of all the thirty-three rushing plays Houston ran against Washington, this one was the most well executed. Myers takes a great zone step and opens the nose tackle up for Jones. Newton gives a strong punch and Brooks is low and square to take on the end. The rest of the linemen making one on one blocks are square and head up with the defender.

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Jones opts to cut the defender once he gets his head across. Myers can now look back for the linebacker. If the linebacker floats over the top, he can take him easily.  If the linebacker attacks downhill, Foster will already be in the hole and Jones' carcass will stop him from getting back into the play.

The best part of this play are the one on one blocks. The most important component to these blocks are staying on the block long enough for the running back to reach the hole. The lineman doesn't have to create a new line scrimmage. He just needs to square the defender up and keep him in front of him. Double teams require the violent, blood gushing, back breaking blocks, but man on man blocks are all about stability.

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This was the best run lane Foster had to work with all game.

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Going into the season, Houston was thought to be primarily a power running team, but the opposite has held true. The Texans are still a zone run team. They look to flow the defense one way in the stretch run game and split the back-side while adding wrinkles and variations to it as the game progresses to keep the defense from flowing and shedding to shut it down. The staple zone play is the same, but the tweaks added so far are different than what we've seen the past eight years.

Despite affirmation of the zone run scheme and the subtle tweaks added, the Texans were inefficient on the ground against Washington, gaining only 3.0 yards a carry. If we look at rush DVOA (check out the numbers from both teams--they are comical. Each had disastrous numbers.) Houston finished with -35.2%, which comes out to 28th in the league. Obviously it takes a larger sample than a week for the numbers to balance out, but Houston was an inefficient running team last Sunday even if they ran for over one hundred yards. This landmark stat was reached simply because they jammed the ball into the line of scrimmage over and over again like a three year old playing the piano.

There were two issues I saw in the run game. One, the offensive line didn't communicate at the line of scrimmage and made numerous mental errors.  Two, they had issues blocking linebackers and safeties at the second level.

Quarter 4, 2:40 Remaining, Result: Arian Foster Left Tackle -3 Yards.

At the end of the game, with Houston trying to run out the clock, they ran the usual zone play. Here the Texans have two tight ends on the line of scrimmage and Foster in the backfield. This resulted in Washington matching up with a strange defensive front. They have four men on the line of scrimmage and four in the box. But more importantly, on the play-side, there is a "3" and "7" tech with a "1" on the back-side.

Griffin will give a hand to CJF then block the safety, CJF blocks the "7", Brown goes up to the "Mike" linebacker, Jones has the "3" to himself, Myers has the other inside linebacker, Brooks blocks the "1", and Newton finishes off this lengthy list by blocking the "4i". It's rare for a team to run a zone play without getting one strong double team, but this front gives Houston an odd match-up.

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Before the snap, Jones is expecting help from Myers. He takes a wide step to reach the defender only for him to slant inside. Jones can't recover. What he should do is continue with his steps, head up to the linebacker, and allow for Myers to block the "3". But Myers has the "1" scraping across his face. If Jones knew before the snap he wasn't going to get help, he wouldn't have overpursued so much.

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All Jones can do is quickly try to turn back inside and shove the defensive end. It's already too late.

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The end is in the backfield looking to wrap up Foster for a negative four yard loss.

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But Foster is still really good at football.  He spins out of the tackle and picks up positive yards in an impossible situation.

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Houston ran this same play in a similar situation where Brooks thought he was going to get help from Myers against a "3" technique, but none arrived and Foster was slammed to the chunky turf two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Throughout the game, there were numerous issues like this where failed assignments hampered an otherwise successful play.

The inability to get to the second level and block linebackers was just as detrimental as the lack of communication, but it occurred more often against the Redskins.

Quarter 1, 2:58 Remaining. Result: Arian Foster Left Guard for Four Yards

The Texans are running the same weak-side zone play described earlier. Man on man blocks on the play-side with Prosch taking out the "Mike" linebacker, a scoop block (back-side double team) on the "0" to the back-side linebacker, and Newton and CJF have one on one blocks as well.

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At the snap, the nose tackle immediately starts flowing to the left. This is going to make it impossible for Brooks to get across his face to supplant the block. Brooks should flow this way for a few more steps and then head up to the back-side linebacker.

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At this moment, he should climb up to the next level. Additionally, there's not enough push to create a hole because of the movement by the nose tackle. Myers can't drive him up the field by himself and this movement shuts down Brooks from helping. There's no hole for Foster to run through.

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Now we just have a mosh pit. It's a Slipknot concert circa 1999.

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The beauty of the zone game is the unknown. At the snap, there's an idea where the hole is going to be, but the running back doesn't truly know. The ball carrier just goes with the flow like free verse poetry or Joycean stream of consciousness. Regardless of the wall of bodies and there not being a hole play-side, Foster can still cut back and make something happen. The big problem is Brooks' inability to get to the second level. The back-side linebacker goes unblocked and steps up into the hole and tackles Foster.

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Every member of the offensive line had issues with the second level: Brown, Myers, Brooks, Newton, and Jones each had instances where they either got caught in a double team too long, never found the linebacker, or just weren't able to get a hand on the defender because of a poor angle or lack of speed. In the zone scheme, where cut backs are vital for long runs, it's imperative to  get a hat on every defender.  When you don't, ten yard gains become two yard gains.

The communication issues are something that should expected in the first few weeks of the season as the offensive line begins to gel and play against other colored jerseys. These issues should be fixed as the line works together. But the lack of ability to get to the second level is troubling. There's no new additions heading to the line, except for maybe Xavier Su'a-Filo, who's athletic enough to get to the second level, but it remains to be seen if there's any plans to have him take over for Jones this year.  Even then, he's still a player who was inconsistent at UCLA.

Brandon Brooks, who didn't practice much this training camp and may just be rusty, and Ben Jones, who's slower than erosion, looked especially languid on Sunday. For the zone scheme to create a running game great enough to mask the passing game, the offensive line must put a hat on every defender to give Arian Foster the ability to cut back through the defense and get into the open field. If not, it just puts greater pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick and the passing game.  I'm sure Bill O'Brien doesn't want that.

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