The Texans’ offensive line has been a source of derision among many members of the fan base over the the opening half of the season. Me, you, and Deshaun Watson’s rib cage have all at some point cursed the various assembly of individuals who have been tasked with protecting the Texans’ quarterback and providing some kind of clear running lanes through which Alfred Blue can gallop for a precious four yards.
While they may have struggled during the opening salvo of the league season, Houston’s offensive line may have turned somewhat of a corner. Over the past three games—all wins, of course—against the Jaguars, Dolphins, and Broncos, the Texans have allowed six sacks. To put that in context, they had conceded 24 sacks over the first six games for a sack per game total of four. The average sacks surrendered over the course of any three game stretch during the first six games of the 2018 season was twelve. Yes, small sample sizes are what we’re working with here, but it’s important to note that this progress was achieved with the aid of a few small schematic adjustment; while minor, they have gone a long way in aiding the Texans’ struggling offensive line as they attempt to cope with opposing teams’ pass rushers.
The way I rationalize Bill O’Brien’s early season approach to his offensive line was to that he wanted to see what the new group would do together. After all, this was a new unit with three free agents added to the ranks. There are ways you can scheme around an offensive line via pick plays and clear outs for running backs that don’t require the line to have to hold on for dear life for three seconds before the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand. O’Brien’s theory kind of backfired and the unit struggled mightily for the start of the season. BOB started to make small changes to the offense which yielded some results. He moved Deshaun Watson out of the pocket more because Watson is really talented on the move; play action and bootleg buy him more time to make a more thorough read of the field before making a throw. This worked in getting the offense out of the stagnant funk it had inhabited, but they were still conceding pressure and, more importantly, hits upon the franchise’s prized asset.
It’s at this point I hope Bill O’Brien realized that if any stability was going to come out of the offense that the offensive line would first have to be addressed.
What the Texans’ last game against Denver really showcases is a couple of things. One, the flexibility tight ends bring to the Texans’ offense from a blocking and alignment standpoint. Two, the impact that has on defenses.
When faced with two rushers of high quality like Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, the Texans knew that putting the pair of them out on a island against Julien Davenport and Kendall Lamm would be essentially sentencing Deshaun Watson to life without a sternum. What the Texans did for the entire game was either double Chubb, Miller, or both on almost every single pass down. There wasn’t going to be a second where either of these two wouldn’t have to deal with at least two Texans trying to corral them into the turf.
The Texans didn’t just stick a extra man on the line in pass protection. They utilized something that had worked quite well during Watson’s hot streak last year—chip blocking. Imagine you’re trying to deliver a baby and someone comes in, slaps you in the face, and then runs away. That’s what chip blocking is. It’s a distraction, an impediment of a pass rusher’s progress through a partial block before a player breaks into another action, usually running a route.
On this play, we have Von Miller (58) and Bradley Chubb (55) on either side of the line. On each side, there’s a tight end either inline or shading out to create at least an obstacle for the pass rusher to get through.
On this particular play, Chubb is going to chase Ryan Griffin out into coverage in the flat. What we’re going to look at is Von Miller and Jordan Thomas here. Sometimes it’s just the downright simplicity of where you are standing that makes the extra difference. Miller’s strengths as a rusher play to this wide nine alignment. He is the prototypical edge rusher. His first step is accompanied by a sonic boom. Better yet, this allows him to get to the edge and turn into everyone’s favourite 90s toy Stretch Armstrong in order to dip under the lineman’s block and flatten to the quarterback.
However, with Thomas in this alignment, Miller can’t just tear off of the edge and attack the right tackle’s outside shoulder. He’s gone from attacking at a straight line to having to evade another potential blocker. This is what chip blocking does well. It’s another obstacle that a pass rusher has to get through. It’s another variable they have to account for pre-snap. More on that second part later, but for now let’s look at what happened on the play as a whole.
Thomas squares up to Miller on the snap. Miller comfortably breezes by Thomas, but he forces Miller to take extra steps. Making Miller take a wider arc gives Kendall Lamm more time to get out of his kick slide. He meets Miller head on rather than futilely chasing him after he’s already been beaten to the edge.
After Thomas is done being a nuisance, he peels into the flat to offer a potential safety valve to Watson if his reads are covered and he just wants a warm bed, a home cooked meal, or a quick and easy three yard completion. Let’s just quickly skate over the fact that Von Miller left Kendall Lamm literally grasping at the air like he’s Wile E. Coyote trying to grab the Roadrunner. Miller’s progress is impeded, and the play doesn’t get blown up in the backfield.
This is the utility the chip block offers. Von Miller is Neo in “Matrix Reloaded,” fighting off the hoards of Smiths. The only way you can stop him is by throwing bodies at him. In this scenario, the body happens to be Jordan Thomas, who impedes Miller’s progress before offering the utility of a easy short completion should the need arise. The Texans’ offensive line is not about being able to have Davenport or Lamm halt Miller or Chubb on a single block. That would be a nice reality to live in, but it’s not this one. This offensive line is about winning the war, even if that means losing the battle.
Here’s an iteration of the strategy with the added wrinkle of play action boot leg to create more time and space.
The Texans are in an I-formation with Ryan Griffin acting as the fullback. As you can see jogging into the shot from the right hand side, that’s Jordan Thomas, who’s going to stop and line up in line alongside the left tackle. Over on the other side, it’s Von Miller in a seven technique to the outside of the right tackle. We know what he’s here to do. The play action fake is going to draw the defensive line and linebackers to the left while Watson boots back to the right.
Thomas motions back across the line to provide an additional blocker. I wonder who for The play action holds the linebackers in place so no additional blitzers will be come from the backside. Meanwhile, Ryan Griffin gets the fun task of taking on Von Miller alone. Miller doesn’t go tearing off of the edge due to the play fake, but once he knows Watson has the ball, he explodes into Ryan Griffin’s chest and tries to use him as a quarterback battering ram. Thomas quickly shuttles over to make a wall of meat that Miller has to work back through in order to get to Watson. Once again, an individual blocker loses the battle but the line wins the war.
Rushers have to take chip blockers into account during pre-snap. That’s important. A pass rusher is looking for the quickest way to get to the quarterback, the one way he may a move in order to beat his blocker based on how the blocker is handing or where his hands are. The possibility of having to deal with another blocker is a part of that equation. To add further mental gymnastics, what if you get chipped by a player that’s coming from your blindside?
That’s Thomas lined up slot right coming in to blindside Von Miller before releasing into his route. Also note Bradley Chubb on the opposite side of Miller getting chipped by Lamar Miller before he releases into his route. While less emphatic than Thomas’ block on Miller, Lamar Miller forces Bradley Chubb inside into Davenport, making him abandon the tackle’s outside shoulder, where he thrives. This is a war of attrition for the Texans’ offensive line. That war is only won by wearing down your enemies to the point that you make them uncomfortable in the things that they once found comfort in.
Once more, here’s Bradley Chubb and Von Miller on opposite side of the defensive line with a tight end lined up in the slot to the outside of Chubb.
Chubb is forced to pull up before he can even get into a sprint because Ryan Griffin has come from his blind side. Now he has to brace for that contact, lest he risk getting knocked off balance and have his pass rush attempt stop altogether. In one fell swoop, Griffin serves as a blockade for Chubb to get around, slowing his momentum and making the circumstances at which his left tackle faces Chubb far more favourable than they would be had Chubb been allowed a clean run. It’s similar for Von Miller on the other side. Just like earlier, Lamar Miller is here just to deny Von Miller the tackle’s outside shoulder and force him back inside in the waiting arms of the right tackle. At this point, I kind of feel bad for Von Miller. This is bullying. The man just wants to sack the QB. Why won’t you let him live?
Joking aside, this is what chipping gives the Texans:
- It’s imperative that they get some form of support since the majority of the Texans’ offensive line cannot win one-on-one blocks consistently or in some cases at all.
- This support comes in the form of tight ends and running backs from a variety of alignments chipping in and throwing partial blocks that either impede or force a potential rusher into a position that makes it an easier engagement for the offensive lineman.
- All of this serves one primary function, which is to create time for Deshaun Watson to throw the football.
Bill O’Brien has done well to recognize the problems surrounding the line and introducing this mechanism to help his offensive line. The problem is it took nearly five weeks. What’s more, teams are not going to allow this to happen every game. The natural counter to chipping is to add additional blitzers. If the Texans are bad blockers in one-on-one situations, guess what you should do? Induce situations where those can happen, and the only way of doing that is by committing more defenders to the pass rush.
The Broncos were woeful at this. They refused to blitz despite the fact that when they did, things like this occurred:
The Broncos are stacking the line and going for one-on-one across the board. The Texans fear this and decide to throw men at the problem. They have Lamar Miller in blitz pickup and Ryan Griffin there on the right side to chip Von Miller as usual. The Broncos’ safety here is going to come on a late blitz. This is going to showcase two things:
One, blitzing creates pressure, and pressure creates bad situations for the offense to function in. Secondly, while the Texans are good at chipping they, much like their more rotund brethren on the offensive line, struggle to actually block one-on-one. In this case, they fail to pick up the late blitz. This is not an isolated case of bad communication or bad blocking; in many cases, there wasn’t a threat of additional pressure.
I call this one ‘‘Who’s block is it anyway?”. Julien Davenport tips his head inside to triple team #48 (I guess) and forgets that Ryan Griffin was only supposed to chip Bradley Chubb.
The point here is that the Texans’ offensive line is still a liability. While these incremental changes to protection schemes have given them some much needed help, teams will start to scheme against this and add more blitz packages to put pressure on the additional blockers. Additional blitzes will bring opportunities. If teams commit safety blitzes, they could leave their back end susceptible to deep passes, especially if they have to commit to man coverage looks like most blitz packages command. For the Texans, the thought of DeAndre Hopkins in one-on-one man coverage down field is a really good look. But longer routes need more time to develop, and that means that the blocking has to be there. It’s also aided by the fact that Deshaun Watson is a magician who can buy extra time with his ability to eluded tacklers, though that’s not a get out of jail free card either. Putting Watson at risk is the exact thing the Texans shouldn’t have to and haven’t wanted to do.
All of these are going to be microcosmic battles that the Texans will face at some point over the rest of the reason. As the offensive line demonstrated over the course of the game against Denver, it’s not about winning the battle. It’s about winning the war.