Every season there’s another narrative that provides hope for Houston’s offensive line. Two years ago it was an apocalyptic investment into the position with a Matt Kalil sized boulder hurdling towards them. Houston traded two first round picks and a second round pick for Laremy Tunsil, and drafted Max Scharping and Tytus Howard, which kept Deshaun Watson from riding the bus. Last season it was continuity. With another year playing together, the Texans offensive line will finally come together. From the start of the season, to the end, the offensive line let the team down. And this year, it was new offensive line coach James Campen taking over for Mike Devlin. The talent was here, Houston only needed the right coach to weave it into gold.
Like 2019, and like 2020, Houston’s offensive line is still struggling.
Houston Texans Offensive Line Statistics
|Year||Yards Per Attempt||Adjusted Line Yards||Run Offense DVOA||Pressure Rate||Adjusted Sack Rate||Sacks Allowed|
|Year||Yards Per Attempt||Adjusted Line Yards||Run Offense DVOA||Pressure Rate||Adjusted Sack Rate||Sacks Allowed|
|2019||4.6 (8th)||4.13 (21st)||-7.4% (17th)||34.2% (28th)||8.4% (27th)||49 (25th)|
|2020||4.3 (18th)||4.02 (27th)||-28% (32nd)||30% (26th)||9.5% (32nd)||50 (31st)|
|2021||3.2 (32nd)||3.17 (31st)||-38.6% (31st)||29% (29th)||6.8% (17th)||9 (T-16th)|
So far, this season is an inverse of 2019. That season Bill O’Brien was able to scheme a competent run game thanks to the drag flat read pass option that kept defenders in flux. Despite adding Tunsil, they struggled picking up blitzes and stunts, and the interior was a never ending leak. Last year, Houston’s offensive line was abysmal in both aspects of the game. They had one of the worst pass and run blocking units. And this season, aided by a quick passing attack that doesn’t force them to block for lengthy periods, they’ve won their individual protection matchups, but once again, this is a bottom run blocking offensive line.
The key difference between last year and this year, is Houston doesn’t have a top five franchise quarterback. They need their run game to work for this offense be successful. It was true with Tyrod Taylor, and it’s even more so with Davis Mills. Taylor could at least get the ball close to his receivers, and escape from free rushers. With Mills, a successful run game is vital for survival.
The point of contention entering 2021 was moving Tytus Howard (#71) to left guard. Howard has been a plus pass protector, because, like Duane Brown, he’s the size of Jupiter, and impossible to get around. Outside rushes are cross country drives.
Inside moves are sucked up by his frame. Without fear of getting beat outside, the inside lanes were shut down.
On his own, he was able to lock down Defensive Player of the Year caliber pass rusher T.J. Watt, and plus pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
The problem was that he couldn’t run block. On outside zone plays, he routinely struggled to reach the outside shoulder.
On the backside of the same plays, his scoop blocks with Zach Fulton (#73) were so horrendous, that even Taven Bryan (#90) could split them.
Occasionally, he’d get hip to hip on more traditional double teams and move the first level, but often, there was light between him and Fulton. The two would work against one another, creating a stalemate along the line of scrimmage, and make the road impassable.
His feet would stick climbing to the second level. Waddling, he’d fall, or lunge with his arms, allowing linebackers to run free to the ball.
The idea by moving Howard to the left side of the line, was that Houston would have a premier combination with him and Tunsil. This has been far from the case. Tunsil himself is a poor run blocker, who doesn’t like toiling in the muck, and is disinterested in banging bodies around. The same run blocking problems from before, are still plaguing Howard this season, this time at an entirely different position.
One star in a sky full of a myriad of problems, is the Texans have tried to be an outside zone team. The NFL is filled with teams like Carolina, like Buffalo, like Houston, who try, and fail to replicate what Minnesota and Cleveland can do on the ground. The goal is to stretch the defense horizontally, allowing the running back to read outside in to find a run lane.
The problem with this run scheme is it requires every player to make his block, and poor technique can’t hide behind brutality. If one player doesn’t reach the backside defensive tackle, then the running back doesn’t have room to cut back after the linebacker shoots the gap. Physical force doesn’t create lanes, since defenders aren’t moved upfield. This scheme is about head placement, angles, and putting a hat on a hat.
On 1st and 10, Houston runs split outside zone right. They pull Pharoah Brown (#85) from the strong side of the formation to block Myles Garrett (#95), preventing him from chasing down the backside. With him, and Jordan Akins (#88), running away the play, it holds the backside linebacker Sione Takitaki (#44). Tunsil (#78) and Howard (#71), are working on the backside of the play. They have to move from the ‘2i’ technique to the middle linebacker. This should be a power scoop, where Howard is able to punch and turn the tackle, opening the door for Tunsil to take over, before climbing to the second level.
The tackle doesn’t play the ‘A’ gap though. He plays the ‘B’. Howard doesn’t turn the defender, instead he sticks. His head is down. He’s a monomaniac entirely focused on Malik McDowell (#58). Tunsil comes flat down the line of scrimmage, pops the defender in the back—the scoop is split—and no one is left to block the second level. It’s an easy tackle attempt for Takkarist McKinley (#55), but Mark Ingram bounces off him, and with sheer will and determination, makes this a successful play entirely on his own. David Culley is so proud of the determination in this young man’s heart.
It’s the same play, and it’s the exact same issue. Except this time, both players rush to the second level, allowing McDowell (#58) to split the scoop and get into the second level. He bops Brown (#85), who can’t seal Clowney (#90) from the ball. Second and six becomes third and long.
Now they run midzone (back’s aiming point is the inside foot of the tackle) to the weakside. It’s the same issue. The scoop is split once again.
Howard is too focused on the second level. He slide steps inside without offering any real mustard to Tunsil. It’s a weak jam on Joe Jackson (#91). His punch is too late. He strikes the side of Jackson, rather than the chest. Tunsil’s first step isn’t deep enough, and misses his landmark, but he’s doing it all on his own. Mark Ingram (#2) sees Jackson, and rather than follow Howard up the ‘A’ gap, he cuts it behind these two and right into Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (#28).
Against Buffalo, Houston faced 1st and 20 after a Tytus Howard holding penalty on Star Lotulelei—more on this later. Houston attempts outside zone right, against a Buffalo run blitz. Matt Milano (#59) is slobbering to get to the football.
This is how the play is drawn up, but away from the clean world of dry erase markers, it unfolds differently. With Milano rushing the ‘A’ gap, right guard Max Scharping (#74) pops Lotulelei (#98) so center Justin Britt (#68) can hook and separate him from the play, and then climbs to Milano. This leaves Antony Auclair (#83) with two free blockers at the second level. One of the benefits of this play is how free flowing it is. Doors magically open cement walls. Howard and Tunsil hypothetically have a scoop to Milano, but all that changes.
Howard’s eyes are inside. He should recognize the blitz and see this isn’t a block he can make. Instead, he should focus on turning Ed Oliver (#91), and look to the backside cutback defender. His initial contact with Oliver is weak, and doesn’t affect the defender. He ejects off the block immediately to run behind the line of scrimmage to block no one. Even with Tunsil running the line of scrimmage laterally, he can’t cut Oliver off. The scoop is split. Oliver rummages along and makes the tackle for a loss.
The Texans have tried to utilize other run designs, but have fallen into different struggles. Since showcasing strength against Jacksonville, Howard hasn’t moved the line of scrimmage. Blocking Davon Hamilton, is entirely different than Derrick Brown, Oliver, Lotulelei, and McDowell.
Week one was the only time Howard was able to push defenders out from the muck. The Texans run Duo, getting a big duece block between Howard and Tunsil, and a big ace block between Britt and Scharping. Each double team needs to get hip to hip to work together to move the first level. Then based on the flow of the linebacker, one will pop off to the second level. These blocks should drive the first to the second, making this hand off easier. The back reads the middle linebacker and makes his cut off of him.
Ingram is the mouse, and Damien Wilson is the cat (#54). Tunsil’s head is down. Entirely focused on moving Jordan Smith (#92). Ingram tries to force Wilson to bite on the ‘D’ gap, and cut inside to make the block himself since the offensive line can’t. It doesn’t work. Yet, because of the first level movement, on this play design, Ingram is able to get an easy seven.
This same pillaging and devouring has disappeared against tougher opponents. This time they run duo against Carolina on 1st and 10. Howard and Tunsil have a duece against Brown (#95)—the heir to Fletcher Cox—this is entirely different than blocking Smith.
It’s perfect technique on how to take on a double team by Cox. He uses his body to shield Tunsil, and his arms to take on Brown. He bench presses Howard completely off his body, and takes away two gaps in the process. His body stuffs the ‘B’ gap, and Howard blocks the ‘A’ gap. Now there is no path to the linebacker Shaq Thompson (#7). Zero first level movement seals this play shut. Scharping doesn’t even bother with Jeremy Chinn (#21), and Phillip Lindsay (#30) doesn’t break tackles anymore.
These same blocks are required to run power plays when pulling is involved. Typically, the playside guard and tackle have a strong double team to the backside linebacker, and the center blocks down so the guard can pull. Teams pull every blocker now. There’s fullback-tight end counter. There’s dart. It’s no longer just the center blocking down anymore.
The Texans motion Pharoah Brown (#85) behind the formation, and utilize him as a puller, to run guard-tight end counter. Scharping (#74) kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage, and Brown pulls to Myles Jack (#44). Howard and Britt have an ace block to the backside linebacker Williams (#54).
Both pulls do their job. Brown and Scharping take care of their own. Tunsil can’t complete his block on Roy Robertson-Harris (#95). He’s too high when he makes contact, and stops running his feet, killing the block dead. Howard helps Britt with Bryan (#90), and is able to turn Bryan’s shoulders away from the play. Sticky. He wears out his welcome. In one fluid motion it should be a shove, then a climb to the second level. Instead his head is down, and Williams is free to join Robertson-Harris on the tackle.
This is an example of a power run play with a twist. The Texans are running power, but with Jordan Akins pulling from a flex wing tight end position. Why? I have no idea, because Akins has never been able to block anyone. Howard and Tunsil have one v. one blocks to allow Akins to pull freely to cornerback turned linebacker Cam Lewis (#47). Scharping and Britt have an ace block to Tremaine Edmunds (#49).
Howard doesn’t block Lotululei (#98). He catches him. He takes a half hearted slide step than makes contact without any sort of forward momentum. This is a block someone makes who’s trying not to get beat, instead of winning his block. Lotululei strikes the chest, controls Howard, and drives him backwards. The defender becomes the offensive lineman. This doesn’t allow Akins to pull around the horn cleanly. Akins’s man is unblocked and makes the easy tackle.
This is a similar block, made on the playside of guard-tight end counter. Howard can’t drive out DaQuan Jones (#90) on his own.
Here he can’t block Daviyon Nixon (#94) by himself.
The only run block Howard has made consistently are pulls, but Houston hasn’t utilized him on these plays often. Everything else he’s struggled at: scoop blocks on outside zone runs, moving the line of scrimmage on traditional double teams, blocking the second level, and despite his size, he can’t control defensive tackles when he’s blocking them on his own.
In the pass game, Howard has been adequate, but he hasn’t played at the same level he has at at the tackle position. His biggest problem has been picking up the schemes created to generate pressure thrown at him.
Since interior pressure is more important than exterior pressure, teams have focused on mugging the ‘A’ gap, utilizing twists, blitzes, and coffee house rushes to confuse the interior as much as possible. Quarterbacks can only dodge interior pressure, they can’t climb up from it.
There’s still confusion on who to block on the exterior. Howard suffered from similar mistakes playing next to Fulton last year. End-tackle stunts, and tackle-end stunts, gave them fits over the course of last season. Here, Houston is sliding their protection right one gap, leaving Howard and Tunsil to block man v. man. One. Two. A free rusher has to come from the exterior, not the interior, blocking the men with the shortest path to the quarterback first. Howard gets the call wrong. He blocks the ‘B’ gap instead of Davon Hamilton (#52), leaving a rusher free. TYGOD can escape this. Davis Mills can’t.
It’s 3rd and 6, Carolina is playing cover one, meaning the blitz is about to arrive. Carolina brings six. Hassan Reddick (#43) and Morgan Fox (#91) run a tackle-end stunt, with Fox slanting to the ‘B’ gap and Reddick looping around him. They also have a twist between Shaq Thompson (#7) and Frankie Luvu (#49) on the interior, and are rushing man v. man on the opposite side. Houston slides their protection one gap right, and are blocking man v. man on the left. Rex Burkhead (#28) is looking inside-out to pick up the first blitzer. Jordan Akins (#88) chips Reddick to help out Tunsil before waltzing into the flat.
Personally, I abhor chipping for Tunsil. The whole point of trading for Tunsil, and having a top pass protector is you don’t have to help him out in the pass game. Chips limit how many receiving options the quarterback has, and it even affects Tunsil’s pass set. This forces Reddick deeper up the field, confusing the stunt Tunsil and Howard are working on. Fox swipes Howard’s punch away, pulling his head down. When Reddick loops back inside, he doesn’t see it until its too late. He can’t close the gap to pick up the loop. Howard should offer a hand of help, keeping himself square, instead he turns all the way over. Mills has no hope when he climbs the pocket.
It’s the same issue on a tackle-end stunt. This one is much simpler. Howard latches on the tackle, allowing Clowney (#90) to rush free.
When he stays square, he picks these up well. It’s a world of difference.
Space is the difference between pass protecting at tackle and guard. At guard, protection takes place in a closet. The rusher is fighting for every inch of space he can create. At tackle, the rusher has the entire field to work with, and it’s up to the tackle to stay square between the rusher and the quarterback, forcing him to choose a path to the quarterback, and mirroring from there.
The mirroring, size, and pad level has been there for Howard. He’s been fine making his individual blocks. The sore spot has been his paws. His hands are wide, he tends to grab, and even tackles blockers to prevent them from getting to the quarterback.
Striking the chest clean and making contact first are other vital keys of interior pass protection. Since the lineman doesn’t have the size advantage, and the path to the quarterback is shorter, the margin of error is smaller. McDowell (#58) long arms Howard, extends him, and rips around the edge. Howard is latched onto his forearm instead of the chest.
This is one of the rare times when Howard doesn’t hit his steps. He takes a slide step, but is late off the ball. Lotulelei wins across his face, pulling Howard along with him. He’s never able to recover. Instead of taking a vertical step backwards to regain himself, Howard wraps Lotulelei, and tackles him to the ground.
When his hands match his feet, Howard controls his pass block reps. He’s too wide, and weighs too much, to go right through him.
Howard isn’t the entire source of Houston’s offensive line woes. Tunsil is allergic to run blocking, allows the occasional pressure, and they still are chipping for him. Scharping can’t handle interior monsters on his own, gets walloped by bullrushes, and can’t block the second level. Britt is an upgrade over Nick Martin, but he too, has problems against larger defenders, and is a zone scheme blocker playing on an offensive line that can block this scheme. Cannon is perfectly acceptable, has made his individual blocks, but doesn’t make the wow blocks that change a play, or affect a scheme. That being said, Howard is one of the main reasons why the Texans have one of the worst rushing attacks in the game.
Despite the investment into the position, the new players added, the position change, and a new position coach, the Texans still have one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Moving Howard to left guard hasn’t transmogrified the left side of the line into a league best position group. It’s been far from that. All it did was take a young player who excels at pass blocking on the edge, one of the most difficult parts of the game, move him to a less premium position, where he still can’t run block, that highlights his problems in pass protection, so a veteran who isn’t a part of Houston’s long term plans could fill in.
This front office has failed to admit failure. Hopefully, and eventually, they move Howard back to his rightful position of right tackle, allowing him to continue to neutralize dominant pass rushers. The Texans have made numerous terrible decisions over the last three seasons. Moving Howard to left guard has been one of them. Maybe this time they’ll finally atone for their mistake.