This past offseason, the Houston Texans sunk their cap space into their offense while ignoring their defense entirely. After two years of using Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, T.J. Yates, Tom Savage, and Brandon Weeden at quarterback, the Texans actually made a quarterback decision instead of wasting time with New England castoffs, below average veterans, reignited old flames, a mid round transient, and Brandon Weeden. Houston brought in mail order quarterback Brock Osweiler on a four-year, $72 million deal.
Rather than watch Alfred Blue plod away for an anemic rushing attack, the Texans also signed Lamar Miller for four years and $6.5 million a year. Then they drafted Tyler Ervin. To end the days of their passing game consisting of only throwing the ball to DeAndre Hopkins every play, Houston drafted Will Fuller and Braxton Miller and promised Jaelen Strong would see an increase in snaps. On paper, Houston was all set to grow from an offense that was ranked 21st and 24th in DVOA the last two seasons into a capable unit.
It's October now. Through five games, the Texans' offense is the worst in the NFL. The Texans are 32nd in DVOA, 30th in rushing, and 32nd in passing. They've scored 82 points, tied for 31st, and don't even have a bye week to use as an argument for their basement-dwelling. It was reasonable to expect growing pains with a new quarterback, running back, WR2, and an offensive line missing three of last season's starters. Stutters were expected. But this? The inability to even form full sentences? This has been far from expected.
The run game has been a disaster so far because of the offensive line. Lamar Miller is an artist who creates pretty runs with sharp cuts of the brush and speeding rushes of color. He needs space to work. All the Texans' offensive line has provided him with is three yard spaces and unblocked linebackers to run into. Right now, Miller has a DYAR of -31 (26th), a DVOA of -16.6% (25th), a success rate of 45%, and he's averaging just 3.7 yards a carry. The Texans moved on from Alfred Blue only to turn Lamar Miller into Alfred Blue.
The biggest issue on the offensive line isn't spectacular blown blocks that lead to backfield obliteration. It's blocking on the second level. The Texans had been running a lot of inside zone with two strong double teams and the occasional power pulling play mixed in between. Together, four players working in pairs of twos move the first level and then unclasp to the linebacker. At the first level, they aren't getting enough vertical movement. Because of this, the offensive line is having to travel a longer distance to get the next block. This makes these second blocks more difficult, leading to whiffs, misses, and destinations never fulfilled. Linebackers have roamed freely. They've suffocated space in the box and the run game. As a result, Houston has been plodding between the tackles.
Additionally, Jeff Allen has been worse than Ed Reed, thus far another disastrous free agent signing where Houston opted for a lesser player without a big difference in cost. Allen was signed for a million dollars less per year than Brandon Brooks once Brooks left for Philadelphia. So far, Allen hasn't done anything well. The Texans have stopped running power plays because Allen brings kisses, not punches, and crawls through space. He doesn't have the quickness to get to linebackers. He and Derek Newton haven't worked together well either. On runs over the right tackle, Houston is averaging 1.7 yards per carry and is 29th in adjusted line yards. This has more to do with Allen than Newton, who is a great run blocker that excelled next to Brooks. There isn't drive on the first level, and they don't know when to head to the linebacker, let alone who's leaving. Allen has been a blown blocking black hole at right guard through five games.
Lamer Miller himself is also going to have to play better, too. He's not the main reason why Houston can't run the ball efficiently, but he is still part of the problem. Teams don't pay a running back $6.5 million a year to only pick up what the offensive line creates. You a pay a running back to make the line better. You pay him to break tackles, zip past safeties, and bounce around defenses.
Miller has 101 carries and 14 catches. He's broken only seven rush tackles and two pass tackles. His broken tackle rate is one of the worst in the league at 7.8%. By subtracting running back yards from adjusted line yards, one can get an idea about the extra yards per play a team's runners are picking up. Houston's adjusted line yards are 3.83 and rushing yards are 3.78. At -0.05, they are 25th in the NFL, and Miller has 75.3% of the team's carries. The Texans are also towards the bottom in the NFL in second field and open field yards. No matter where you look, the offensive line or the running back position, the Texans have struggled on the ground.
Excruciating run blocking was on display against Kansas City and New England. The Texans are in 1x0x4 personnel on 2nd and 3 against a nickel defense. This is the perfect defense to run this play against to pick up the first down. Both down interior linemen are in the gap, which creates a natural hip to hip double team. The linebackers are in place for the guards to block after movement is created.
Center Greg Mancz comes off the ball way too high. He's standing up. He's also taking on the entire defender. He doesn't give Xavier Su'a-Filo any room to take on half of the defender. On the right side, Allen and Newton have zero chemistry. Newton takes a slide step left. Allen does the same to the right, but never fully moves over. Instead, he just offers a hand of help.
Both double teams turn into stagnant single man blocks.
After offering a hand of help, they move to the second level. If they are going to do this, they must block the linebackers.
Mancz isn't strong and he plays high. He offers little punch. He makes up for this with his feet. On inside run plays and plays with pulls, he's forced to move nose tackles vertically, but he doesn't have the strength to do it. The defensive tackle picks up the line of scrimmage and moves it backwards.
Blue cuts to the left, right into the defensive tackle. At the next level, Allen is too slow to get there, despite moving off the first level quickly. Su'a-Filo doesn't grab and hold onto the chest well enough to stick to his block. Unlike Allen, XSF has the athleticism to get there, but he falls off his blocks too often because of poor hand placement.
Three defenders rip Blue apart.
Houston has already started to move away from inside runs. Against Tennessee and Minnesota, they ran the outside zone more often. This gives Lamar Miller more freedom and space. He can put his vision to use, make a cut, and then scamper to lands devoid of life. It puts more pressure on him than his offensive line, who don't need to drive; they just have to get hats on hats. The way the offensive line has played, this is for the better.
The run game was abandoned against Minnesota, thanks to a quick 24-0 deficit. But against Tennessee, Miller had some actual real Lamar Miller runs. This here is the stuff. The covered lineman has the defender covering him. The uncovered lineman moves to the gap towards where the play is going. There's lateral double teams between both tight ends on the right, right tackle and right guard, and left guard and left tackle.
Zone steps are taken. One lateral step followed with a forty-five degree angled step. The covered lineman aims for the inside shoulder and the uncovered lineman takes a deeper step to gain depth to overtake the block.
Immediately, there's a free linebacker. Xavier Su'a-Filo, who is as average as they come, gets tossed by Jurrell Casey. He's stumbling like it's 2 a.m. on Sixth Street. Wesley Woodyard is free to run wherever he pleases.
Everywhere else, the blocks are neutral stalemates by the time Miller gets the ball. Mancz was unable to reach the inside shoulder, but is still in the way and moving the nose tackle laterally. The same can be said for Chris Clark. Allen has the defensive end covered up. The ones going to the linebacker are in good position.
Mancz sees Woodyard come free, so he leaves his block and sacrifices his body to prevent Woodyard from getting into the hole and making a play in the backfield.
Now is when Miller has to work. There are seven defenders around him. He was patient and ran laterally, processing the possible running lanes. Nothing opened up play side, so he's forced to cut back and wiggle to get into space. He cuts left once away from the muck, a second time to break a safety's tackle, and then falls down at the 14 yard line.
Rather than Miller being stuck in between the tackles with nowhere to go, the outside zone allows him to take control of the play and have a greater impact. No longer is he forced to take the little bit the offensive line creates. He can naturally run outside. Houston needs to run plays that get him in space, and the outside zone does exactly that.
By getting Miller in space and letting him do what he does best, the run game should improve from its dismal state. The blocking may get better as the players play together, and Duane Brown returning to the lineup helps that, but I don't see much of an increase in performance. There's talent issues on the interior with Sua-Filo, Mancz and Allen. The run game's improvement depends on Miller cutting his way into the open field.
The passing game has turned from "I Think I Like Brock Osweiler" to "When Can The Texans Cut Brock Osweiler?". After throwing the ball down field with ease against Chicago and Kansas City's single high safety looks, the Texans have failed to find success as opponents adjustmented. New England sat down, looked Houston in the eyes, and told them they weren't going to throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins or Will Fuller. They forced Osweiler to throw the ball into the middle of the field to complementary receivers. The Texans weren't able to do that. They were shut out that game by a defense that ranks 24th in DVOA. Since then, other teams' have mimicked that strategy.
Since teams have switched to using two deep safeties and bracketed Fuller and Hopkins, Brock Osweiler is 4/-9 (21%) for 99 yards, 5.21 yards an attempt, and has completed 2 interceptions to 0 touchdowns on deep passes. Osweiler has been forced to use accuracy and ball placement to beat defenses. He hasn't been able to do it. The deep passing game has plummeted along with Osweiler's play.
Osweiler has been stupefied and perplexed by two deep safety looks. The majority of his pass attempts are dumps into the flat to Jaelen Strong, Ryan Griffin, C.J. Fiedorowicz or Lamar Miller before other routes are finished without any threat of pressure. This is why Osweiler's yards per attempt has fallen to six yards. This is why his DVOA is -23.9%.
Sometimes, these plays work. Like here against Tennessee, the nickel corner gets beat by Strong and he's open heading to the sideline. Osweiler has seven players blocking. There is a brief whiff of pressure. He dramatically overreacts to it like he's in a a telenovela. Instead of standing tall in the pocket and trusting pass blocking that has been above average so far, Osweiler scurries to the right as the stunt is stopped across Newton's face. He tapdances and then rips one over Strong's head. The Texans don't pick up a first down and are forced to kick the field goal.
This is a good quick passing play from Houston. A defender is beaten, and there's actually a chance to pick up the first down. The majority of these are four yard rags of toxic waste. But even on the good ones, Osweiler's accuracy and ball placement has been sporadic. He misses this throw. So far, he's missed more throws than he's made.
It's not like these two safety coverage looks have completely chained Fuller and Hopkins to defenders. They can still get open. They are open. DeAndre Hopkins caught a buffet of Golden Corral quality passes from five different quarterbacks last season and still ended up being the third best receiver in the league. He can beat man coverage with swim moves. He boxes out corners to create space. Even when covered, Hopkins is always open because of his catch radius. The ball just needs to be placed in a reachable spot away from the defender. In 2016, he has a DVOA of 2.8%, a catch percentage of 52%, and just 283 receiving yards through five games.
Will Fuller is a cheetah with Red Bull palpitating out of his heart. He's so fast that he levitates past defensive backs. But he's so much more than a Ted Ginn jackpot deep threat. Fuller is a great route runner who cuts routes off and leaves defensive backs' jaws on the floor. These two receivers have been open. Brock Osweiler has just been missing them.
Osweiler doesn't give routes time to develop. He looks short instead of down field and is taking six yard throws over deeper throws. This is all despite good pass blocking from his offensive line. He's had plenty of time to scan down field. The Texans have a pressure rate of just 12.7%, which is 11th in the league.
Against Tennessee, it is 2nd and 4. The Titans are in their base defense. It's a perfect play-action chance. Osweiler is faking the hand off to Miller and rolling right. There are routes run into each level of the defense. Hopkins is going deep by running a corner. The tight end is dragging across the middle. Everyone's most hated fullback, Jay Prosch,tumbles into the flat. Of course Osweiler throws to the flat.
Hopkins fits perfectly in between the defensive back and the safety. He is wiiiiiiide open for an easy fifteen yard gain. But since teams have started playing with two safeties back, Osweiler has insisted on throwing short instead of down field.
This isn't an aberration. These plays happen all of the time. Osweiler is afraid of the rush. He's afraid of turning the ball over. Because of that, the Texans' passing offense has stalled into the short left and short right parts of the field.
So much is made of the scheme since George Godsey had play-calling duties taken away. What the coaching staff can do a better job of is running route combinations to help spring lesser receivers who are now seeing more targets. They run mostly isolation routes that force these players to beat man coverage, and they haven't been able to do that. What they have done is call up plays to attack the center of the field Houston is being force fed.
Quarterback analysis can be over-complicated by trying to analyze every specific detail when a lot of it can be simplified down to whether or not the quarterback can make throws. Right now, Osweiler isn't making the throws needed to beat Cover Two and Cover Two Man schemes.
This is a third and four play against Tennessee. Houston is in the shotgun and has trips left against Cover Two Man. Hopkins is lined up in the slot against Perrish Cox and is running a straight nine route into the center of the defense. Hopkins is one of the best receivers in the league. Cox has a success rate of 47%. That's 103rd in the league. This is what Bill O'Brien dreams about in his two hours of sleep every night.
Hopkins swims around the press coverage and gains a foot of separation. The safety is pulled to the sideline, thanks to the corner route. Osweiler has Hopkins open. He lofts the ball short. He puts it high and in front of Hopkins, which pulls Cox back into the play and leads to a near-interception. Hopkins goes over the back and defends the pass.
The coverage here is pretty good. Cox is in the vicinity of Hopkins. But in the NFL, this is open. It's up to the quarterback to throw the receiver open. Osweiler hasn't made his throws, and he hasn't shown the ability to place the ball in spots where only his receiver can get it.
The Texans' passing attack has been an inefficient splattering of throws into the flat instead of passes out to their best receivers. This is on Osweiler. The offensive line has protected him. He has the horses outside that can catch passes no matter the coverage. The plays have been called to beat default Madden two safety deep defenses. Osweiler just hasn't done it.
The quick dump-off passes, overreaction to pressure that messes up his feet and mechanics, leading to inaccurate throws, the decision to throw shorter rather than deeper, the inability to throw players open, and poor ball placement have led to the passing offense becoming stale and predictable. It is now operating in a twelve yard trunk. The offense looks 2013 Schaub-ish.
Defenses know this. Things are predictable. Defensive backs are playing off the ball and sitting ready to pounce on these routes. These innocent six yard passes are going to start turning into disastrous interceptions.
Last week against Minnesota, the Texans went down 17-0 and still had not picked up a first down on their own accord. To mix things up, they go empty with five receivers on first down. Osweiler takes the snap and instantly looks to the flat route in the slot. Harrison Smith is playing six yards off the receiver. He takes one lateral snap and recognizes the route right away. He bolts forward. The ball bounces off his hands and into the ground.
The Texans' passing offense has been putrid, inefficient, and ugly. It still hasn't hit Brock Bottom yet. Plays like this are sitting there for defenses to take advantage of now that the offense exists in a corroded and predictable box.
It takes time for all these new parts to get used to each other and start playing good football. They have faced tough defenses; their opponent's defensive DVOA so far is -6.8% (7th). But the Texans still have the worst offense in the NFL. This wasn't expected from a team that finally made a real quarterback decision by a supposed QB guru and applied their resources to acquiring speed at skill positions.
For things to improve, it's going to take Lamar Miller getting placed into space on runs that take advantage of his skills and mask the offensive line. It's going to take Brock Osweiler doing something more than throwing the ball deep down field. He has to be a real quarterback, and that hasn't happened through five games. With J.J. Watt's injury and general attrition on the defense, it's going to be up to the offense to carry this team if they want to be something other than the least bad team in a bad division.
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