Last season the Texans’ offense was a dizzying array of play fakes founded upon an interesting run game that utilized jet sweeps, zone reads, option plays, and quarterback draws. These plays were then turned into spellbinding downfield throws that found their way past chasing defensive backs. When that didn’t work, Deshaun Watson made it work by teleporting around tackles with some warlock shape-shifting, scampering for first downs and finding forgotten open receivers.
With Watson starting and leading Houston’s offense, the Texans averaged 34.6 points per game and had an offensive DVOA of 13.9%. That was last season. This season, Houston is 0-2. The team is 26th in points scored. They are averaging 18.5 points a game. Everyone is dizzy with the comedown.
Part of the reason for the downturn is that there was always going to be a downturn. Deshaun Watson claimed he wanted to throw 70 touchdown passes this year. That’s an impossible feat extrapolated upon last year’s impossible touchdown rate. Last season was spectacular, but Watson was never going to score points at the rate he did as a rookie for the rest of his career. A drop in points scored was expected, but a fall to 18.5 points a game...that’s unexpected.
Houston’s offense hasn’t been long-lost potatoes under the sink spoiled rotten either. They have moved the ball well at times against both the Patriots and Titans to start the season. Currently they are a respectable 17th in offensive DVOA, a rate Houston would have thrown a box of puppies off a bridge to obtain in pre-2017 Bill O’Brien seasons.
The monumental problem is that Houston has had too many negative plays, penalties, and turnovers. Through two games, the Texans have twelve negative plays, tied for ninth most in the league. They’ve committed six offensive penalties that have lost 43 yards. These nauseating plays and petty crimes have turned promising drives into third down rescue missions, and so far, Houston hasn’t been able to toss out an inflated orange jacket to save their drives. The Texans are facing an average third down of 8.73 yards. This is the fourth longest average third down in football. Houston has converted just 31.8% of their third downs, which is 25th in the league. They’re sustaining drives at a mediocre rate compared to the rest of the league, but they’re digging graves too deep to punch themselves out of. Two other possible scoring drives ended with downfield forced heaves that led to interceptions.
Last season, this throw would have been a miraculous OMG touchdown. It was one of those throws that made Watson the darling of the NFL last season. It’s 2nd and 7. Houston is finally in Tennessee territory. They decide to take a shot. The two tight ends are kept in to block. Houston has seven blockers and just two receivers running routes. Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins are streaking just outside the seams of the defense.
After the play-fake, Kenny Vaccaro gets drawn in. The more intelligent Kevin Byard isn’t convinced. He immediately turns and runs with Hopkins, who uses a little swim move to get a nice release off the line of scrimmage. Hopkins is double-covered. It would take a miraculous throw and catch to come down with this ball. Instead of throwing to single coverage created by the play-fake to an open Fuller, Watson is swayed by Hopkins raising his hand. Double coverage. Back of the end zone. Adoree Jackson comes down with the ball. Houston turns what should have at least been three points into nothing. Nothing at all.
A similar version of this same play was attempted the previous weekend in New England. Except this time, it’s recently undrafted Vyncint Smith as the intended target. Play-action. An attempt to go deep. A throw into double coverage. Interception.
These two pass attempts are forced, and they end with Watson’s only two interceptions this season. Bill O’Brien is in Watson’s headset telling him to take a shot deep. Both shots came on second down in pseudo run situations, and neither offered an out if nothing is there. On both passes, Watson follows his orders and turns the ball over.
This repetition isn’t only reserved just for deep tosses. Against New England, the Texans utilized Hopkins, a perennial spectacular isolated sideline receiver, in the slot to try and steer him away from Stephon Gilmore. Multiple times, Houston faked the run and found Hopkins on a quick slant. It was a cute little play. It worked well, and it even worked when New England instantly dropped a linebacker once they caught on.
O’Brien tried the same strategy against the Titans. They were ready for it. With Hopkins tighter to the line of scrimmage, Malcolm Butler followed him over and played press man. Butler was slathered all over Hopkins from the onset of the route. The predictable ended with a simple incompletion.
Creating open receivers with route combinations has never been one of O’Brien’s strengths as an offensive coordinator. Before last season’s play action passing frenzy, the majority of O’Brien’s offense was composed of isolated Hopkins routes, tight ends running out into the flat for four yards, and checkdowns to running backs. Houston doesn’t have the inside receiving talent to beat man coverage and create short easy completions. O’Brien needs to do a better job at scheming to get guys like Bruce Ellington, Ryan Griffin, and the Jordan rookies open. Without it, opponents can bracket the outside receivers and take their chances with Griffin running up the seam without a worry.
In the New England game especially, Watson spent a lot of time when the pass blocking was good holding and waiting and waiting for someone to get open. Houston just doesn’t have the inside receiving talent to make up for Hopkins and Fuller being covered. Or, in the case against the Patriots, whenever Fuller is missing.
On third and six here, the Patriots are in their nickel defense. They have four defenders covering the trips right receivers, a linebacker covering Griffin tight at the line of scrimmage, and another spying Miller in case he decides not to block. Each receiver runs his own isolated route. No one can get open and beat man coverage.
In the red zone, it’s the same thing. Quick slants and inside crossing routes. No one can get open. Watson can only fade to the right and attempt to create something out of nothing with Hopkins.
There also seems to be a lot of predestination in Houston’s offense. Too many routes are aimless. It looks like Watson is often reading one side of the field based on the defense’s pre-snap alignment. If that’s covered, his only options are to toss it out of bounds or scamper. The entire field is a canvas of opportunities, but Houston is leaving too much of it empty.
The slants against Cover Two are ignored, and each receiver looks to be moving at three-quarter speed. Watson doesn’t have any other options when Griffin can’t beat man coverage with a curl route, so he steps up and runs to convert the first down.
All of this stagnation has led to Watson holding onto the ball for too long. His brain isn’t moving as quickly as it should be. There’s a lack of timing in the passing offense. Unlike last season, Watson is late on throws and missing open receivers.
Here the Texans are running a play-action pass that leads to Watson rolling right and throwing against the grain. The twin right receivers are each running posts. With New England biting and hurrying back into what looks to be Cover Three, the linebacker opts to undercut Hopkins’ route, leaving Ellington wide open. Watson misses it. He ramps up the difficulty and slings it to Hopkins. Nuk leaps, takes shots from two defenders, and fails to come down with the ball.
Both of these issues have been exacerbated by Houston’s pass protection. and they in turn have also exacerbated the issues with pass protection. Despite the individual collection of talent Houston assembled this offseason composed of third round pick and personal draft crush Martinas Rankin, competent in New Orleans Senio Kelemete, often injured but promising Nick Martin, Pro Bowl potential guard Zach Fulton, and pretty good (!) 2017 left tackle Julie’n Davenport, the Texans’ pass protection has once again been horrendous. Last season the Texans allowed 54 sacks, had an adjusted sack rate of 9.2% (30th), and a pressure rate of 37.9%. This season Houston has already allowed seven sacks, has an adjusted sack rate of 9.6% (26th), and a pressure rate of 32.5% (30th).
First and foremost, the biggest problem on the offensive line is at the tackle position. I <3 both of these players in that hipster nerd mom’s basement football-blogging way, but in these first two games, both Rankin and Davenport have been excruciating to watch. It’s such a bummer. Davenport hasn’t looked right playing right tackle. His pass set is Playstation One clunky. He often abandons any possibility of meeting the edge rusher at the point of attack and turns his shoulders, opening the gate for the rusher to climb through. His underwear is on backwards. He just looks uncomfortable.
This is an outside zone run play to the left that exemplifies Davenport’s foot work trauma. Last season Davenport was pretty good at cutting and walling off the backside defenders. Here, at the right tackle position, Davenport’s (#70) first step isn’t even a step. He brings his left foot inside, doesn’t gain ground, and doesn’t even come at the end. The play is finished.
Rankin has had similar struggles. He too isn’t meeting edge rushers at the point of attack. He’s trying, though it often it leads to them popping his outside shoulder and ripping around the edge to murder Watson. Rankin just hasn’t been quick enough with his pass set to play against players like Harold Landy, who’s going to be a monster, Brian Orakpo, and Derrick Morgan.
Both Davenport and Rankin get beat by the ‘5’ technique defensive ends ripping around their outside shoulder. This outside pressure forces Watson to climb up in the pocket. Kelemete does a decent job, but he can’t ride the bull for eight seconds. Jurrell Casey collapses the pocket with a bull rush and leaps over to sack Watson.
Even if their feet are decent, which they aren’t on this play, the tackles’ punches have been timed incorrectly or have been feeble. Rankin gets vertical rather than continuing his kick-slide diagonally. This leads to him hitting the inside half of the defensive end and giving up the edge. Davenport has a nice first step, but he brings his feet together and cancels his pass set. He turns his shoulders to the defender and loses his strength. There’s no punch. He catches Trey Flowers (#98). Flowers rips, bull rushes, and drives Davenport behind the quarterback to give him the path to Watson.
Houston’s tackle play will get better. Both players are still babies. Rankin needs to get acclimated to the pro game after missing the entirety of training camp with a foot injury. Davenport has never been a full time right tackle; he has to get used to playing with opposite feet and hands.
It’s not all on the tackles, either. Kelemete’s hands have been putrid. He’s been unable to control blocks. At the guard position, penetration isn’t allowable. It condenses the pocket, collapsing where Watson can go, and gives the defensive tackle a path to the quarterback.
This is also a collection of players that have never played next to one another. Martin is centered between two new guards. Both Rankin and Davenport have never stood next to Kelemete and Fulton, and in Davenport’s case, he didn’t play next to Fulton until Seantrel Henderson’s ankle snapped. As a result of all the newness, Houston is struggling at picking up blitzes. They are allowing too many free rushers off the snap.
Logan Ryan picks up a rare sack here by running in a straight line. It’s impossible from this position to know if either the entire line is moving over one gap to the right and if Rankin blows it, or if Kelemete is following a rusher he should have left alone once he skirts inside. The reason why doesn’t matter as much as the result. Watson has no shot. He goes down on first and ten and puts Houston in a 2nd and 17 hole.
All of these mistakes lead to negative plays, incompletions, scrambling attempts, and creates a diabolical landscape for Watson to play quarterback in. His sides are never Tempur-Pedic. The pocket is constantly coming in on him. Occasionally, there’s a free rusher impossible to escape from. This crushing environment has turned Watson from a Russell Wilson type of calm navigator into a butterfly garden.
Against Tennessee, Watson started shifting his eyes to the line of scrimmage and pulling the ball down at the first semblance of pressure. Even when Watson has kept his eyes up, he’s hurrying his feet, tossing the ball away, and missing open check-downs that can lead to completions.
Another enormous part of the problem is that the Texans are trying to run last year’s offense without really running it. Against New England, Houston was running the same play-fakes and deceptive hand-offs they did last year, but they were doing it without utilizing Watson as a runner. It’s all a bunch of noise. The shotgun runs and fake throws are empty gestures. When Watson starts a hand-off, he’s going to carry it out.
These play-fakes just waste time when teams ignore Watson’s potential to run. The numbers advantage is gone. Front sevens get an additional second or so to rush the passer, which is something this offensive line doesn’t have the luxury to allow. If Houston wants to replicate last year even a little bit, Watson is going to have to be used as a runner. It will pull safeties down, get linebackers moving, and create those one-on-one downfield throws he had last year. It will also lead to wild horse meadows for Watson to run through.
The decision to keep Watson in the pocket to protect a reconstructed ACL makes sense for future preservation. But the Texans’ offense is suffering for it. This season Houston is running play action on only 13% of their plays, which is the 28th lowest rate in football. That’s a criminally low rate for any offense, especially one with a mobile quarterback. The Texans are averaging just 5.7 yards on these plays, compared to 5.2 yards per play without play action.
Watson is still just 23 years old. He only has eight starts as a professional quarterback in him. It’s going to take time for him to purely win from the pocket. There are going to be lessons he’ll have to learn. Things will stutter at times. Sure, it could lead to better success in the future, but right now, for this season, the decision to keep him from running will limit the offense and minimize the ease of playing in it.
This strategic decision is frustrating the Texans’ run game as well. These longer developing run plays that aren’t yanking the defense in opposite directions and give the defense extra time to swarm the ball carrier. When Houston has run the ball straight ahead, they’ve been excellent at it. The Texans are averaging 4.65 yards per carry on runs up the middle and are among the league leaders in adjusted line yards.
Houston’s run offense has mostly been outside zone plays with Fulton leading the way on power and Rankin leading the way on dart here and there. This has also been the best Lamar Miller has looked since he signed with Houston. This offensive scheme change has turned him from a vertical, between the tackles plodder to a one cut and go runner. Add this to a summer filled with chicken and vegetables, and Miller has turned back into a running back with actual explosion.
2nd and 4 becomes an easy first down in a two tight end set. The Texans are running trap by utilizing Fulton to kick out the unblocked Brian Orakpo. The playside ‘deuce’ between Rankin and Kelemete drives not only Casey backwards, but ends with each down blocker picking up a linebacker—a sublime block. Martin blocks down on the tackle to allow Fulton to pull freely. Jordan Akins takes care of Vaccaro (#24). Miller makes one cut and then gets the hell up the field.
The scheme and personnel change has turned the run offense from inefficient and clogged to an actual effective part of the offense. It’s no longer a boa constrictor suffocating the clock and bridging the gap until the defense gets back on the field. It’s been the best part of the Texans’ offense so far. Even Alfred Blue is running straight ahead through some open wounds and picking up an absurd 6.0 yards per carry.
It should get even better, too. The Texans have seen one player miss his block too often. This has derailed run plays at the line of scrimmage or turned fifteen yard gains to seven yard pickups. On this power play, Davenport helps out too much on the first level. As a member of the playside ‘deuce’ that gets to the backside linebacker, he needs to get first level movement, which he does; he just turns his shoulders inside and is unable to get to the next level.
This leads to the backside linebacker flowing over the top and forcing Miller wide to the sideline, limiting the paths available to him and forcing him to take a right at the fork in the road.
More time playing together should correct these little missed blocks. It will lead to more cohesion. Linemen will leave for the second level when they should. They’ll know how much they should and shouldn’t help and how much help is available to them depending on the shade of the defender. Again, more time will help Davenport and Rankin get used to the situation thrust upon them.
Different personnel should help the run game as well; that will also help the pass game. Both rookie Jordans, Akins and Thomas, have popped off on video so far this year. Each has shown athleticism in the pass game and can actually block defensive ends and linebackers. Since O’Brien has been the head coach, he hasn’t had a tight end that can block the edge. Not even C.J. Fiedorowciz could consistently do it.
This block by Akins on Derrick Morgan isn’t Earth-moving, but it’s acceptable. He covers up the end and keeps the integrity of the hole created by the double team. Even something this simple has been missing forever in this offense.
More importantly, it’s exceptional compared to the constant missed blocks Ryan Griffin makes.
The Texans can limit missed blocks that spoil run plays blocked well by everyone else by giving playing time to the rookie tight ends. This also offers the possibility of open receivers in the short part of the field. Griffin has one catch on six targets for 19 yards. Akins has caught all four of his targets for 32 yards. Thomas has caught one of his five for 27 yards. Houston knows what they have in Griffin; it isn’t and never has been much of anything. It’s time to give the kids a shot.
The short and intermediate passing game has already been helped out by the return of Fuller. With both him and Hopkins on the outside, teams have, and will continue to, bracket them at times, leading to an open center of the field for Bruce Ellington to zoom around in. Whether Ellington can get open is a different question, but here, after Watson leaves the pocket, Ellington is able to seep away from the defender for the completion. The key is the entire center of the field is open because of the talent outside.
Fuller is also a diabolical player to cover with one man and no safety help. The defensive back can either play off-man and let Fuller cut wide or curl back to the quarterback for an easy completion...
...or he can attempt to play tight at the line of scrimmage, which will usually lead to wide open downfield passes. This is death for single high safety looks.
Fuller offers a glimpse of what can and should be a dynamic passing offense. He’s a horrendous match-up for any defensive back playing man coverage. He can burst past press coverage and run past safeties when they’re around. He can sit down against off-man. His presence can pull safeties to his side of the field to open up more space for Hopkins on the other side. When the spotlight is placed on both, the middle of the field is an open meadow through a mountain pass.
Fuller’s return is also a perfect reminder that it’s only been two weeks. Things will get better. O’Brien will hopefully use Watson as a runner again, making the play-fakes meaningful, which will then open up the play-action game that was integral to last year’s demolition. Houston’s offensive line should improve as they learn how to play together and grow more accustomed to their new roles. Watson should get comfortable in the pocket again, start making better decisions, and play like he has in the past when the rush is there. And now, unlike last season, Houston can run the ball straight ahead without all the camouflage.
It’s only been two games. Of course, it means nothing if they lose at home to the Giants this week.