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The Film Room: Dispatches From The Deep Zone

We take another look at the Texans’ secondary to find out what’s going wrong.

NFL: Houston Texans at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I talked about the Texans’ coverage schemes and how the Patriots identified and attacked them. Since that post, there have been some noticeable changes in the Houston secondary. Kevin Johnson has returned, and the previous starting strong safety, Corey Moore, has been replaced by Marcus Gilchrist. I thought with these two changes, it would be interesting to take another look at how the defense has evolved (or maybe it hasn’t) over the course of the season. Before we take a look at some of those things, let’s do a quick refresher on what kind of coverage schemes the Texans like to run.

Cover 4 (Quarters Coverage)

This is by far the most common coverage scheme the Texans secondary fields on a play-to-play basis. Cover 4 is a scheme where the two safeties and two outside corners occupy four deep zones whilst three short zones are manned underneath by mostly linebackers (though the personnel can change depending on the offense’s look). Here’s how the Texans look when lined up in Cover 4.

What Cover 4 allows the Texans to do is double or bracket the outside receivers while handling any underneath routes with the short zones. What makes this scheme really interesting is how the Texans go about bracketing those outside receivers. Typically in Cover 4 schemes, there are two kinds of concepts utilised in order for safeties and corners to know what their responsibilities are on a given play, based on certain things the offense shows them. These responsibilities change depending on the formation look.

Against two receivers on one side of the field like the Patriots are showing above, teams running Cover 4 will employ concepts like ‘‘palming’’ to designate responsibility. For example, if the outside receiver is running a go route and the slot receiver is running an out, the corner will ‘‘palm’’ off the go route to the safety while he attacks the underneath route.*

*Thanks to texanskoolaid for sharing that article on Cover 4 schemes.

However, the Texans don’t actually do this. Instead of the safety taking the deep route, he crashes the underneath route whilst the corner peddles deeper into the coverage just like this:

Now that we’ve gotten a refresher on what Cover 4 is, let’s address some of the issues surrounding it.

Defending The Out Route

Due to the way Cover 4 works, the corners are usually aligned 5-8 yards off the line of scrimmage. This can often create space on three-step routes such as outs, slants and hitches. Against these routes, the DB has to respect the possibility of the WR running a deeper route whilst at the same time having to key on the possibility that the route is shorter. This requires the DB to maintain the same level of cushion that he’s giving the WR pre-snap, so it’s roughly 5-8 yards. Take this play against Seattle as an example.

It’s a second and 7. The Texans are in Cover 4. Just before the snap, you see Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph both begin to start their peddle into their zones in order to maintain their cushion with their WRs. The call is a play-action rollout to the right where Tyler Lockett is running a comeback route right to the sticks. This is how the Texans’ DBs often have to operate. They must maintain the cushion and protect against the double move or deep ball while playing the short pass to the best of their abilities.

The Texans have always put their corners in this kind of predicament. It always left space underneath in order to adequately protect against the deep pass. This year, however, opposing offenses have begun to key in more and more on the Texans’ struggles in covering those short yardage situations. To show you just how much teams have started to target the Texans in this fashion, let’s take a look at the route charts for Seattle’s Paul Richardson when he faced the Texans.

You can kind of tell the Seahawks wanted to attack the Texans with the out route. It’s gets better, though. Take a look at the receiving chart for the Rams’ Cooper Kupp from this past weekend.

That’s right. The Rams dedicated an entire player on their offense to run just one route all day simply so they could take advantage of the Texans having their corners play off-coverage. This isn’t just against one specific corner, either. All Houston corners are getting burned underneath by this. Here’s Tyler Lockett getting four (4) yards underneath against Kareem Jackson’s zone:

It’s actually really good defense by Jackson here to get to the sideline and keep Lockett in front of him before squaring him up and driving him back with the tackle. Kevin Johnson is one of the more fleet of foot corners the Texans have, yet again he’s playing a losing battle, this time against Paul Richardson.

Again, this is excellent coverage by Johnson. It’s just the fact that he was starting this fight five (5) yards behind that ultimately kills him here. He and the rest of the Texans’ CBs are Sisyphus attempting to push the boulder up the hill, knowing full well it’s gonna come straight back down.

This has long been a lingering problem. The Texans routinely give these 4-10 yards catches up in order to protect against longer passing attempts. This brings us to another issue facing the Texans’ secondary.

Defending The Deep Ball

Yeah, about protecting against the deep ball...

The Texans have allowed the most completions of 40 yards or more of any NFL team this season with 12, and they are tied for 8th in completions of 20 yards or more.

We saw how the Patriots manipulated and exposed the Texans’ safeties. What has changed since then? Let’s start with this:

Hey Cover 4, whatcha knowin? I’ve come to see your cover blowin’.

The Colts are running a SAIL concept here, which is designed to drag the intermediate zones to the outside while T.Y. Hilton runs a deep post in the middle of the field. As we showed above, the Texans’ safeties attack the underneath routes whilst in Cover 4 while the corners play the deeper routes.

TE Jack Doyle has released out into the flat whilst Kamar Aiken is being carried through Brennan Scarlett’s short outside zone. Scarlett has to pass Aiken off in order to close on Doyle. Behind him Joseph is keeping his cushion and trying to cap any potential Hilton deep route while Andre Hal has to come down out of his deep zone in order to cap Aiken’s out route. On the other side, the corner and safety are doing what they are supposed to do in Cover 4, which is bracket and isolate a receiver, essentially taking them out of the game. What this does, however, is bring the safety out of the play. With Hal vacating his zone to deal with Aiken, the entire deep middle of the field is open. Hilton is running a route right into that space.

The cushion that Joseph had been so attentive in maintaining suddenly becomes the worst thing in the world as Hilton breaks inside and just burns up field giving Jacoby Brissett a wide open expanse of the middle of the field to throw to. This opening of the middle of the field is what the Cover 4 creates. Safeties cheat on the outside receivers, doubling them, and it leaves the middle of the field open and the corner with no help over the top.

Here the Rams run almost the exact same concept as the Colts above, with Robert Woods running a post into the middle of the field and Cooper Kupp running an out route. Andre Hal joins Kareem Jackson in bracketing Kupp while Joseph does the exact same thing he did against Hilton and attempts to cap the potential go route.

Just like before, Hal goes under and the ball goes over into the wide green yonder.

Where Do We Go now?

To say there is a problem within the secondary is a bit of a understatement. There is a bit of contextualizing needed to understand all we’ve seen above. The Texans are without their premier rushers and the front seven is not as strong as it was last year (it should be noted, however, that the Texans’ adjusted sack rate right now is better than what it was last season; I’m skeptical of that trend continuing). The Texans’ defense works in tandem, trusting that the front seven can get enough pressure to not allow some of the longer developing pass plays while at the same time forcing teams in unfavorable downs by being stout against the run on early downs. Since the Texans are weaker up front, it seems bizarre that they wouldn’t adjust the back end scheme to offer more protection.

I do believe the Texans still have talent in the secondary. Kevin Johnson flies to the ball, Johnathan Joseph can suffocate receivers with his presence, and Kareem a really good tackler. It’s just that all three of them are being put in horrible positions by how the Texans ask their safeties to play. Safeties, by the way, who are by no means great. Marcus Gilchrist had a really bad game against Seattle and Andre Hal has struggled with form for the larger part of the season. One of the great things the Texans’ D did last season once it lost J.J. Watt was that it remade itself up front with how it attacked offensive lines. The same needs to be done on the back end now.

Cover 4 does offer the secondary a reprieve by creating mismatches against two receiver sets, but it leaves extremely noticeable gaps in the defense that teams are exposing. Here’s Seattle running Tre Madden out of the backfield on a go route that goes right in between both safeties bracketing receivers.

Not only is it leaving large space in the middle of the field wide open, it’s asking the corners to defend receivers who run 4.3 and 4.4 by standing five yards off and giving the wideouts free releases. There’s not additional safety help over the top because the safety is tasked with undercutting the route while the CB attempts to cap a route against a speedy receiver already running at full capacity.

It’s a lose-lose situation, and the Texans are doing nothing to remedy it. No press coverage. No double safety help over the top. Nothing. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but after watching the secondary for the past few games, it’s gotten frustrating to watch the same mistakes and problems get exploited while nothing is done to address it.

This has been going on long enough that things need to start changing with the Texans’ defense. Mike Vrabel’s first year has been rough due to so many injuries, but it could get rougher. His defense isn’t really changing, and teams are beginning to key in on that. The Texans’ 2017 season might be on the rocks, and it’s going to be really interesting to see if this secondary gets shipwrecked.