In August, the Texans envisioned their starting offensive line this year would look like this:
LT: 76-Duane Brown
LG: 71-Xavier Su'a-Filo
C: 60-Ben Jones
RG: 79-Brandon Brooks
RT: 72-Derek Newton
Brown, Brooks, and Newton would stay at the same spots they played at last year. Jones would take over for the newly retired Chris Myers, and go from a third guard to starting at center, his natural position. Lastly, the team's 2014 second round pick, Xavier Su'a-Filo, was supposed to start after a few volatile spot starts here and there during his rookie season.
No plans survive contact with the enemy, and the Texans' offensive line suffered from this adage. Instead of trotting out this perfect offensive line, the Texans were forced to switch things up immediately. Su'a-Filo missed most of training camp and the season's first game because of a calf injury. When he came back, he played poorly and bounced from spot starts to the bench. Duane Brown couldn't play in Weeks Two and Three because of a shoddy thumb. Brandon Brooks had an ailing toe, causing him to miss the Dolphins game. Derek Newton missed a few chunks of game time and was forced to play left guard to sure up interior run block issues.
Throughout the season, the Texans never got the chance to put out the unit they wanted to. Instead, players like Kendall Lamm, Oday Aboushi, and Chris Clark played more than they ever should have.
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The only player on the line to play every snap at his projected position is Ben Jones. Everyone else missed time and bounced around. Of the 3,610 possible snaps (722 x 5), only 2,665 (73.8%) of them were started by the offensive line the team thought they'd have in August. This figure would be even less if we account for all the position switches. Additionally, this ramshackle batch didn't play well either. When looking at adjusted line yards, a metric created by Football Outsiders that measures the offensive line's effect on the run game, the Texans are 27th with a figure of 3.39.
Then, on Monday night against the Bengals, after a bye week of rest and preparation, all that changed. The offensive line that jangled around like a racquetball in a glass cube finally saw August imagination turn into November reality. The starting offensive line that beat the Bengals was:
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And against the vicious Cincinnati defensive line, they excelled.
The first thing that stood out to me was they drove both Pro Bowl defensive tackles, Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, off the line of scrimmage. Regardless of their size and skill, the Texans' "Ace" and "Deuce" blocks consistently shoved these two four yards down the field or crumpled them up at the line of scrimmage like a piece of paper hurled at a trash can.
Xs and Os wise, they didn't run too much of the patented outside zone that they ran last year and throughout the Kubiak era. Instead, they consistently ran the inside zone. The difference between the two is on the outside zone teams try to float the play horizontally, while on the inside zone they attempt to get as many as strong double teams as possible and move the line of scrimmage vertically.
On first and ten, Houston is running the inside zone to the right. They have Kendall Lamm as a sixth offensive lineman, and C.J Fiedorowicz lined up at fullback. They are using different personnel as a way to cover up deficiencies. Fiedorowicz isn't strong enough to block defensive ends one-on-one, so they replace him with an offensive tackle. Jay Prosch isn't good at anything, so Griffin, who isn't a good blocker himself, replaces him at fullback.
For blocking assignments, Duane Brown is just trying to not get beat and wants to turn the defensive end outside. Su'a-Filo and Jones have an "ace" block to the backside linebacker. Brooks and Newton have a "deuce" block to the middle linebacker. Lamm blocks the end by himself. Fiedorowicz leads the way to the strong side linebacker.
When watching the offensive line run-block, three things stood out. They are strong, they play low, and they have great feet. Every single one of them comes out of their stance with a good wide base and low pad level. Their feet are crisp, and they hit their target. Additionally, they zip together really well. The key to double teams is getting hip-to-hip and morphing two people into one.
When they make contact, they obliterate their opponents. Jones and Su'a-Filo are perfect. They're low, stuck together like a crappy Matt Damon comedy, and are in perfect position to move the defensive tackle. Brooks and Newton aren't picture perfect like they're teammates. There's a chasm between them. This is because Newton hits later than Brooks and doesn't get enough length on his first horizontal step. For most double teams, this is DEATH. But for Newton and Brooks, it works out because of their physical strength.
Brown is perfect. He shoves his defender outside. This opens up the hole between him and Su'a-Filo. The "ace" block is moving. The "deuce" is now better. Newton fills the gap by using short choppy steps. The tackle stands no chance. His shoulders are turned to try and brace the hit, and he hunkers down in an effort to impede movement.
For Fiedorowicz, he's supposed to fit in between Newton and Lamm to the linebacker. He doesn't come inside enough. He's timid before he needs to be. He should speed his way to the linebacker, and then cool the jets and chop his feet to ensure he's under control so he can make good square contact.
Alfred Blue gets the ball. He has three holes opened up right now. He can cut left in between the "ace" and Brown. He can run behind Brooks when he peels off to the linebacker. Or he can go where he's supposed to pre-play by running between Newton and Lamm. The inside zone still opens up options for the runner, just not as dramatically as the outside zone.
Here is when complications usually occur for the Texans' offensive line. They did an incredible job moving the line of scrimmage. The problem is they didn't block the second level of the defense. Su'a-Filo and Jones have driven Peko to the same level as A.J. Hawk. XSF's eyes are inside, though. He should be peeling off to the linebacker, but he isn't even looking at him. Additionally, Jones' shoulders are turned into Peko. He's not square anymore. If Su'a-Filo comes off at this point, Domata would be free to make the tackle.
Similar problems are occurring on the right side. The "deuce" is great. Brooks comes off the block naturally after they drive the tackle to the second level. But he's not going after the middle linebacker. Instead he's attacking the strong side linebacker. So now two people will be blocking one.
One of the problems I've seen with the running backs is they hesitate when they get the ball. They receive the hand-off and contemplate what they should do. Really, they should see a hole and hit it. Zero of the three has any vision. There's no reason for them to fake something they aren't good at.
Lamm's one rule is to not get beat inside. He does a nice job hitting the defensive end square. He just doesn't have the ability to drive him up-field. After an initial stalemate, the defensive end reads the backfield and rips inside. In addition to the two unblocked linebackers, there's also a defensive end coming after the running back. There's nowhere for Blue to go.
Blue just tumbles forward and picks up four yards.
(Sorry, I was unable to get GIFs made this week)
Slaughtering defensive tackles and scattering their remains up-field is important. It's beautiful to see movement like this. It only accounts for the first couple of yards of a play, though. The intermediate gains of 7, 11, and 13 yards happen after everyone gets a hat on a hat. Covering up every defender is more important than obliterating them to ash. When the line blocks like this, a team will get four yards and nothing more. More specifically, in Houston's case, it's even more important for them to block every defender because of the lack of talent they have at running back. None of them can make anyone miss. If any defender is left unblocked, the play is going to end there.
Most of the run plays Monday night looked like the previous play. It was a lot of inside zone runs where they decimated the defensive line but didn't pick up every defender. In addition to this they ran a few terrible toss plays where linebackers went unblocked and the back couldn't make anyone miss in space, a power play here and there, some funky plays where one player blocks down and the other pulls around, and the occasional outside zone.
On third and one, Houston runs the zone outside. I hate this play call in short yardage situations because reaching the outside number is really hard to do, and penetration usually occurs on these plays. Anyways, the assignments are below. What's important pre-snap is the personnel again. We have a sixth offensive lineman on the left side, C.J. Fiedorowicz on the right side, and Prosch at fullback. One of the major flaws this team has is its inability to get anything from the tight end position in the run or pass game. Lamm played six snaps this game because of how bad Griffin and Fiedorowicz are at blocking. The Texans can't run two tight end sets with any success.
Everyone takes their zone steps. The three tough blocks are the reach blocks Su'a-Filo, Brooks, and Newton have to make. Su'a-Filo on the play side is trying to drive his guy diagonally to the left. Brooks and Newton need to cut off the defender and split the defense in half. Brooks is trying to reach a "0" technique, which is nearly impossible. Newton is reaching the "3", which is difficult, but doable.
The Bengals' defense isn't doing anything crazy. They're just taking on the gap in front of them.
Su'a-Filo hits the defender in the chest head on. It would be better if he was lower. Otherwise, he's in sound position. Brooks is blocked by the camera. Jones punches the outside shoulder to turn the nose tackle and slow him down for Brooks. Still, this is too far of a distance to reach. So Brooks will come at Peko and then cut him at the last second. Newton is fighting for that inside shoulder. Right now, his head is there because of his quick first two steps.
Jones leaves Peko to move up to the inside linebacker. Brooks times his cut perfectly. He doesn't cut when Jones is engaged to prevent the chop block. Brooks' head is on Peko's inside thigh. As he runs forward, he should flip over the top of Brooks. Newton is perfect. He has cut off the end. His head is inside, he's low, and he has completely cut off the defender to set up a cutback lane.
Su'a-Filo clears out the defender. He's low and pushing. Peko fights off Brooks' cut and drops his hands to stay upright. Lastly, Newton makes the best block I've seen this season. He's reached the end. He now has complete inside position and he runs his feet forward.
XSF takes his man out of the play. Jones is cutting the middle linebacker nicely. Blue has the ball now. He runs through the "A" gap right at Peko to take him on for one yard. On most plays, Blue should cut right behind Newton, who tosses dirt on top of a freshly buried defender.
The context is important. It's third and one, and Blue's primary job is to keep the drive moving. Yet, for the purpose of hindsight, if Blue cuts back, he has at least a double-digit gain. Everyone is in the box. The only defender in front of him is being cut by Jones. There's a sea of green in front of him.
Everyone has heard about the dirty things that occur in the trenches and in piles. Knives get pulled out, groins get punched, noses get picked. This here is a good example. I'm pretty sure Brooks pulls the back of Peko's leg to make sure he goes down. This little bit of debauchery saves this play.
This is total destruction.
Prosch is just a warm body and gets thrown down. Blue sticks his hand in the ground to stay upright.
Prosch's man makes the play.
Regardless, the Texans pick up the first.
The big picture is that even though the Texans don't run the outside zone like they used to, their line still can. Their linemen have great feet and the ability to play in this scheme. The problem is the running backs don't. Without a healthy Arian Foster, who has a Ph.D in outside zone theory, there's no reason to make Houston's current stable of RBs do something they don't have the ability to do.
Here's another example of a running back not being able to make a guy miss. Blue gets a hand-off on a power play. On this rare occasion, the line takes care of every defender. Blue is cautious when he gets the ball, doesn't make anyone miss or break a tackle, and gets brought down by a safety short of the goal line. The only reason why he gets carries is because his name is fun to shout when the Texans play in Houston. There's just a lack of skill and talent in this backfield without Arian Foster.
Only one tackle was broken by a running back this game. Jonathan Grimes dipped under Rey Maualuga after he came high off Brooks' block. That's it. The only worthwhile cutback was the best run of the night. It was a 14 yard gust from Grimes.
The Texans are running an inside zone play to the left and are loading up on double teams like a six year old does with chocolate pizza at a buffet. Newton and Brooks have a "deuce." Jones and Su'a-Filo have an "ace." Brown and Griffin are blocking the man in front of them.
This is phenomenal. This is the dream right here. Each player on a combo block is low with a wide base and is in a perfect position of power.
Jones and Su'a-Filo crumple up defensive tackle Wallace Gilberry (#95). Geno Atkins on the other side is demolished by Brewton. He's trying to get skinny and crawl through the double like a fat man through a fence. This is why getting hip-to-hip is detrimental to double teams. When the linemen become a wall, they can't get split in half when a defender tries this.
The outside blocks are fine. It's a miracle--Griffin actually holds his own. Brooks peels off the block to Emmanuel Lamur (#59). He hits him square in the chest while Newton takes over the block and moves Atkins inside. The "ace" block was almost too good. The defensive tackle's cadaver creates a traffic jam, and XSF can't get to the linebacker. Grimes sees this and cuts the other way.
Atkins tries to spin back inside to the hole. Newton keeps fighting and doesn't allow him to get there.
Like a mouse, Grimes runs through the hole.
He has plenty of space and is now somewhere Houston running backs rarely get to, the open field. Houston is last in the league in open field yards.
As stated earlier, this was the longest run a Texans running back had against the Bengals. 14 yards. There were other possible gains of this size to be had to on Monday Night. The team just doesn't have the talent at running back to take advantage of the blocks they made.
Blue, Grimes, and Polk...each of them have gotten opportunities to carry the ball, and none of them have been able to have any success. This isn't the case of Player X should be playing over Y. This is is a case of why can't the front office find someone, anyone, to pluck off a team's practice squad that is better than this batch.
The Texans averaged only 3.3 yards per carry, and it wasn't because of their offensive line. The Texans couldn't throw the ball either, and it wasn't because the quarterbacks were under constant pressure. Both T.J. Yates and Brian Hoyer had days to throw and a cozy pocket to sling from.
Houston couldn't move the ball through the air for two reasons--quarterback play and the Bengals' secondary. Besides a throw down the left sideline, both Hoyer and Yates were ineffective.
The Bengals' defense does a great job playing man and zone coverage. They also do an awesome job making sure their pre-snap looks don't match up to their coverage on the field. Very rarely is what you see what you get. Against Houston, Cincinnati swallowed up receivers and delayed the reaction time of the Texans' quarterbacks because of how well they mixed things up.
With :23 left in the first half, the Bengals showed the blitz and dropped back in unsuspected places to make Hoyer think he had DeAndre Hopkins in one-on-one coverage. Instead, they doubled Hopkins, didn't blitz despite the "A" gap pressure, and forced Hoyer to throw the ball out of bounds after eternity slipped away.
From behind this is what we see on this play. The left side of the line is shifting one gap over, and the right side is playing big-on-big or man to man. Grimes will look inside to outside for the blitz. The Bengals are in a nickel defense and are showing "A" gap pressure pre-snap. This is something both the Carolina Panthers and Bengals do a ton of. The left side of Cincinnati's defense is running a T-E stunt. The defensive end, Carlos Dunlap (#96), loops inside around Wallace Gilberry (#95), who attacks Derek Newton.
We see everyone move one gap over. Lamur (#59) drops back in coverage. Vincent Rey (#57) pops towards the "A" gap.
Punches are made. Every member of the offensive line picks up their man as the Texans try to score some points at the end of the half.
Brooks shoves the defensive tackle inside for Newton. This is a great example of his strength. His upper body is titanic. Newton will take over the tackle, and Brooks will wait for the end. Both sides of the line were prepared for the Bengals' stunts in this game. Grimes squares up the linebacker, who isn't blitzing. He's in man coverage and is just wasting the back's time. Atkins fights inside after Su'a-Filo sets on the outside shoulder. XSF does this because he has help from Jones inside.
Brooks waits for the end. XSF stays and helps on the block without a threat of a blitz. Brown is low, has his hands on the inside numbers, and sits on the pass rush. Hoyer's internal clock begins to squeal. He's looking, looking, looking.
Hoyer slings some garbage towards the sideline.
The Texans' offensive line gave their quarterbacks all day to throw against Cincinnati. Yet they weren't able to do much with their time because of their own personal limitations, the Bengals' bewildering defensive looks, and nobody other than Hopkins getting open.
Another example of the Texans' o-line providing time came with 12:53 left in the fourth quarter with Yates at the helm. On this play, the Texans are running a play-action pass. As far as the scheme, most of their pass protections look like this. The guard and tackle match up man-to-man, and Jones piggybacks to pick up trash. I still haven't cracked the code to figure out why they make the calls they do, but this is what they do.
Instead of kick-sliding out, the line goes after the defense to sell the run some. They aren't run blocking, or pulling anyone, but even a dash of a run fake gives enough of an illusion to bring the linebackers forward and keeps the defensive line reading the backfield. Brooks makes his punch. Jones starts setting back. Newton and Brown shuffle their feet to get in front of the defender.
Brooks is up against Geno Atkins. He's too high when he punches. Atkins gets into his chest and below his pads. The defender is in the perfect spot to bullrush. Brown is right in front of the defender and hits him square. Su'a-Filo has a great punch and now mirrors.
Jones comes over to help Brooks since no one is blitzing. Yates still has yet to look downfield.
Brown is all over the defensive end. So is XSF on his man. Jones takes a poor angle and can't really help Brooks. Newton is doing nothing because the end is deceived by the play-fake and stays on Griffin.
Here's another great example of Brooks' strength. Even though he's too high, he's still able to take on Atkins's bullrush. It's unbelievable. Atkins is one of the best interior pass rushers in the league and is known for his ability to go through his opponent. It's incredible for Brooks to still make this block with his pad level this high.
He throws a pass down the left sideline to DeAndre Hopkins into double coverage.
The line did give up three sacks. One was because of an overload blitz Yates missed, another was a missed assignment between Su'a-Filo and Jones, and the third was just a case of the the linemen falling off their blocks after the quarterback held onto the ball for forever. Yet most of the drop backs looked like these two plays where the quarterback scanned the field waiting for someone to get open, or missed an open receiver because of the crazy coverage.
This year, the Texans' offensive line has received a ton of criticism. As they should. But most of this is the result of the coaching staff having to shift everyone around, play guys where they aren't comfortable, and use lackluster players to fill in for injured starters. Now that the line (Su'a-Filo especially) is healthy and has an understanding of what to do, they are a talented bunch that can manhandle opponents. For the Texans to make a run at the AFC South title, the offense is going to have to lean on the line, because Houston doesn't have the quarterback play or talent at the skill positions to do so otherwise.
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