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Analyzing What’s Wrong With The Texans’ Offensive Line

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The Texans’ offensive line has been the worst in football the last two years. Here’s a guess why.

New York Giants v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Last year Houston allowed 54 sacks, finished 30th in adjusted sack rate, and 31st in pressure rate. The Texans’ offensive line was a war crime. Breno Giacomini played every snap at right tackle; he was credited with 47 blown blocks and allowed 8 sacks. Jeff Allen, Greg Mancz and others played right guard. Nick Martin started 14 games, was fine in the pass game, but didn’t do much moving the line of scrimmage. Xavier Su’a-Filo continued to whiff in ways so embarrassing that it was impossible to miss his flailing during the television broadcast. Left tackle was an instant disaster without Duane Brown. Kendall Lamm, Chris Clark, and eventually rookie Juli’en Davenport all played the position. No matter who the quarterback was (Deshaun Watson, T.J. Yates, Tom Savage, or that guy who got a concussion for Christmas), it didn’t matter. The offensive line was awful. It was awful because its players were awful.

This season Houston’s offensive line is once again horrendous. They’ve allowed ten sacks, are 25th in adjusted sack rate, and they are last in pressure rate allowing pressure on 41.1% of all drop backs. The difference this year compared to last year is that Houston has a capable collection of talent. Davenport was an acceptable left tackle last year. Senio Kelemete was fine in New Orleans, but struggled with his hands in pass protection and getting to the second level in the run game. Zach Fulton was brought over from Kansas City, where he showed Pro-Bowl potential and the ability to play all three interior line spots. Nick Martin was expected to see his career take off with better guard play surrounding him. Seantrel Henderson is very big, but was very bad the last time he consistently played. And backing the tackle spots was rookie Martinas Rankin, a tackle I loved coming into the 2018 NFL Draft, but it’s now complicated.

Houston invested in the offensive line position this past offseason. But in a weak free agent class, and with the lack of draft capital available after sending both their 2018 first and second round picks to Cleveland, they had to make due with what they had available. I believe Brian Gaine did an admirable job, considering what he was given; he didn’t sink an abundance of resources into players who didn’t deserve it. Entering this season, I was expecting the offensive line to possibly be mediocre. At a minimum, I thought it would be slightly below average. Allowing Deshaun Watson to be pressured 41.1% of the time wasn’t anything I expected at all whatsoever.

In the regular season opener in New England, Henderson went down with a broken ankle. This led to Davenport moving from left tackle to right tackle and Rankin coming in off the bench to play left tackle. This didn’t make sense to me at the time, and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Davenport played left tackle his collegiate career, played left tackle all of last season, played it all summer, and now suddenly he’s forced to switch sides. His brain is wired to move with his left foot as his anchor and to slide from there. The move to the right has left Davenport unable to kick-slide quick enough to keep up with edge rushers, which has led to him hurrying off the snap, which has led to all the false starts and being susceptible to bull rushes. Davenport is currently unplayable.

Rankin hasn’t been much better either. Davenport gave up four penalties, five pressures, and a sack against the Giants. Rankin allowed eight pressures. He too is suffering from similar problems as Davenport. He’s been unable to kick-slide quick enough to the edge to meet the rusher at the point of attack. He’s constantly taking two steps and abandoning his pass set, turning to the defender, and giving the rusher a path to the quarterback. The quickness hasn’t been there as a left tackle. After missing all of training camp with an injury of his own, Rankin walked the plank and is now drowning.

This decision to move Davenport to the right side and Rankin to left has been frustrating. Even if Rankin is slightly more comfortable at left tackle, the marginal benefit isn’t worth the cost of Davenport playing right tackle. Davenport has gone from an acceptable left tackle last season who looked even better during the preseason to a revolting sight.

The second problem is the interior of the offensive line. Kelemete is once again struggling to control defensive linemen at the point of attack in the pass game. His hands aren’t there. He’ll pop out of his stance and stay in front of the defensive tackle, negating them at the beginning of their rush. He can’t ride the bull long enough, though. Defensive linemen have been able to get into his chest and swing him off them, leading to short paths to Watson. Fulton and Martin have been better than Kelemete. They’ve been perfectly capable on the inside. But this one hole is souring the interior blocking.

Third problem is the scheme. Bill O’Brien is doing nothing to help his young offensive tackles. He’s rarely chipping on the edge to keep edge rushers from turning the corner freely. Edge rushers are often in easy pass rush positions, with their only concern being the man in front of them. Ryan Griffin is a putrid blocker this year. He always has been. He’s still playing the majority of the snaps at tight end, and it’s keeping better blockers, Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas, off the field. Double teams with Griffin might as well be individual blocks.

Additionally, Houston is running an offense where receivers are rarely schemed open. They struggle to beat man coverage to the center part of the field. The line is having to block forever because of how long Deshaun Watson is holding onto the football. Play-action doesn’t exist. Rushers are rushing in obvious situations without anything affecting their cadence.

This shouldn’t have happened. The Texans’ offensive line shouldn’t be as bad as it is. It’s absurd that an injury to the shoddy Henderson has derailed things to this point and the Texans are running the offense that they are. This team shouldn’t be fielding the worst offensive line in football, yet here we are once again.

The line has been collapsing since the 2016 season. 2015 was the last really good offensive line Houston had. An offensive line consisting of Brown, Su’a-Filo, Ben Jones, Brandon Brooks, and Derek Newton won games for them. They controlled the line of scrimmage against undefeated Cincinnati. They ran the ball effectively, which won the final three games of the season to close out the AFC South. They allowed only 26 sacks all season and finished 8th in adjusted sack rate. Since then, the Texans have finished 17th, 12th, 30th and are now 25th in adjusted sack rate. They’ve finished 8th, 27th, 31st, and are now 32nd in pressure rate. They’ve gone from being a great to a mediocre run blocking team during that time.

For four of the five years O’Brien has been the head coach in Houston, the offensive line coach has been coached by Mike Devlin (Paul Dunn coached the line for the first year under O’Brien). I don’t know anything at all about Devlin aside from a bio. He used to play. He coached the Jets’ offensive line. What I do know is that during his time as the Texans’ offensive line coach, the team has only developed one offensive lineman into a passable player. The linemen that have gone elsewhere have become better. The free agents they’ve signed have flopped.

Houston drafted Su’a-Filo with the 33rd overall pick in 2014. He had prototypical size for a guard and excellent feet. With some additional strength, he looked like he would become a consistent NFL starter. This never happened. He never learned how to punch and grab the chest. He was always pushing and shoving rather than strangling the chest. He couldn’t block the second level. He’d fall off the occasional blocks he would make. He flailed in pass protection because of his punch. Something that seemed like a simple fix at UCLA became an Achilles’ heel in Houston. Now he’s on Dallas’s roster after failing to catch on in Tennessee this summer.

Seventh round pick Kyle Fuller is on the practice squad. Second round pick Martin has been injured with a bum ankle for most of his career, but he still hasn’t shown the consistency in the run game you’d expect from a second round pick; most of his pass protection is him helping the guards rather than engaging in one-on-one blocks. It’s too early to tell on Martin, Davenport, and Rankin, but the results have been disappointing so far. Greg Mancz is the only lineman that has been awarded a second contract, and he exists as a great backup interior blocker.

After leaving Houston in free agency, Brandon Brooks became a top five guard in the NFL. He didn’t allow a sack last year during his Super Bowl winning run in Philadelphia, and has since spoken out about how much happier he’s been in Philly than in Houston. Ben Jones, allowed to depart for Tennessee in free agency, has gone from passable to good in Tennessee anchoring down the center of their line of scrimmage. Duane Brown is still the same Duane Brown up in Seattle, the widest man to ever live, impossible to get around.

Houston replaced Brooks with Jeff Allen. Allen was charted with 16 blown blocks, 3.5 sacks allowed, and 9 committed penalties last season. In 2016, he was charted with 18 blown blocks, 4 sacks allowed, and 5 penalties. These two seasons came at his age 27 and 28 seasons, when offensive linemen typically enter their prime. Allen was soup-stained and sloppy, offering nothing as a puller. He couldn’t get to the second level at all. He played only two years of his four-year $28 million contract before being cut and is currently out of the league. Chris Clark was a swing tackle who became unplayable last season after being a starter in Denver in a different lifetime. This year, Kelemete has been worse than he was in New Orleans. Fulton has been good, but he hasn’t been as great he was with the Chiefs.

I have no idea why Houston has been unable to develop young offensive linemen, seen their former offensive linemen have more success elsewhere, or seen their free agent additions play at a lesser level than their previous stop. The only real success story is Greg Mancz, a backup guard and center, now that Davenport is getting squashed and drowning on the right side.

What I do know is the offensive line has careened from great in 2015, to acceptable in 2016, to the worst unit in football these last 19 regular season weeks. The only constants here are head coach Bill O’Brien and offensive line coach Mike Devlin.

This is purely internet sleuthing and cyber detective work. It’s browser searching speculation. But it’s warranted because something hasn’t been right regarding the Texans’ offensive line. I don’t know enough to say for sure, but with the track record this team has since 2014, it sure does look like there’s an offensive line coaching issue in Houston.