Fortunately during this election season, you can come to a site like this where there’s no debate about the truly important things in life: The Houston Texans’ offensive line hasn’t improved. Last year, we only had 10 sacks through three weeks. Through three weeks this season, we already have 13. Yes, we’ve played three strong defenses with elite pass rushers, but unlike last year, we are having issues across the entire offensive line, especially the interior. Whereas last year there was no cohesion and there were scheme-based mistakes, this year features almost exclusively technical and procedural errors. Bad hand placement, not checking for delayed blitzes, and an inability to recognize blitz assignments are all causing havoc this year that should not be a problem for an offensive line with this much invested into it.
The Texans have the eight highest cumulative salary for offensive lineman in 2020. Let that one sink in. $36.8M, according to Spotrac. For how much the Texans have invested in the offensive line, we certainly are not seeing a sufficient return.
To the sacks from the loss in Pittsburgh last Sunday:
Sack 1 (9): Johnson and a Joke of a Pass Block
Someone explain to me why David Johnson has to block a linebacker untouched up the middle one-on-one. Scratch that, I want offensive line coach Mike Devlin to look me in the eyes and tell me that was the plan. That he does’t think his lineman can do the job. I don’t care that the Steelers are rushing six, Johnson won’t win against a man of that stature 7/10 times. I’m fairly convinced by the way David Johnson comes off the ball that the protection is designed for him to take on the weak side linebacker in case he blitzes.
This is chess versus checkers, my friends, and I’m sorry to tell you that we’re not the ones playing chess.
The first sack of the day comes from interior pass pressure caused by a combination of poor blocking and communication. If you’re telling me the Texans need both Nick Martin AND Zach Fulton to stop Tyson Alualu, a player who only recorded a single sack last year, I need to find a different sport to write about because I obviously don’t get this one.
Yes, Johnson whiffed on his block like I did at the outdoor bars this past week. But if the blocking scheme calls for a linebacker who is CREEPING up to the line of scrimmage to go free up the middle, we’ve lost even before the game began. As I mentioned last week, the golden rule for blocking is to block inside-out. The Texans do the complete opposite here.
When Steelers linebacker Vince Williams (#98) took those two lurking steps closer to the line of scrimmage, Nick Martin (#66) immediately needed to pivot and address the possibility of him coming on a blitz. Especially with the defensive lineman lined up over Fulton, Martin has to handle the impending doom that is a blitzing linebacker.
Admittedly, David Johnson’s attempt at a block here is pathetic. Williams is only 10-15 pounds heavier than Johnson. There’s no excuse for Johnson not to square up, dig in his heels, and put his entire weight against the linebacker. Johnson isn’t known for his pass blocking; both the Steelers and Texans know that. Johnson must be better at blocking than this, but I cannot overlook Nick Martin’s inexplicable lack of vision on this play. Half a sack is credited to Johnson and half to Martin.
Sack 2 (10): Watson Swarmed by Nickel Blitz
The Steelers dial up a nickel blitz here on one of the more obvious play-action passes I’ve seen in a long time. With zero rushing attack generated, there’s no point of even being under center to sell the run. This is simply stubborn play-calling.
The Texans are running a dig route through the middle and a go route by Cooks. The Steelers show Cover 2, but when the blitz is deployed, they roll into a Cover 1 look. Even against Cover 2, this play doesn’t make sense. It should have been nixed and another play should have been called.
First, Watson doesn’t even sell the run. The linebackers barely bite, as there’s nothing to convince them this isn’t a pass play. Second, the offensive line actually does a good job across the board with their blocking assignments. I really appreciate Darren Fells’ (#87) block on T.J. Watt (#90); he keeps his feel parallel and controls the breastplate of Watt throughout the snap. That’s legally holding, and no official will ever call that. The end zone view below portrays this beautifully.
When the blitz appears from the left side of the line, it immediately implodes this play. Chaos ensues. Watson begins to wheel to his left sensing the pressure and makes the smart decision to not throw against his momentum to a well-covered Fuller over the middle. Only Brett Favre and Patrick Mahomes should make this throw.
Watson has to get rid of this ball. He knows both of his receivers down the field are working away from him, and his tight end to the left is well covered. The only place this ball should be thrown is 15 yards into the open stands of Heinz Field. Watson is inside his own 15 yard line on second down; throwing the ball away his the best case scenario. Watson should know better than to continue to run this play out. For that, he gets this sack credit.
Sack 3 (11): Zach Fulton Sinks Against Swim Move
When a sack is this easy to diagnose, I tend to break down the fundamentals more to show you how this level of bad play occurs. On third and four, RG Zach Fulton (#73) gets put in the proverbial blender by this spin move.
Stephon Tuitt (#91) jab-steps and swipes past Fulton. Tuitt does a good job of driving his legs at the point of attack, even though you could argue that he is too upright and exposed. The goal of getting this high is to extend away from Fulton and maintain the distance he created before attacking Fulton’s inside shoulder.
Fulton is completely off balance after whiffing with his hands and moving his feet incoherently around. The shotgun formation has built in it the ability for offensive linemen to retreat back to reset themselves. As you’ll see in the video below, Fulton moves FORWARD when he has been beaten.
This not only further angles his hips away from the defensive lineman, but it makes it impossible to work backwards and regain contact with his man. I’d rather him try to spin around and rally to make contact with him four yards in the backfield than be completely done for right off the ball.
To a completely separate point, I think someone ran the wrong route on this play. Both Cooks and Will Fuller run the exact same route, right next to each other. I can’t seem to find a reason why they would be running so close together.
Let’s do something we’ve never done on the Sack Tracker before and put someone in slow motion to analyze step by step what goes wrong.
Just from looking at his stance, Fulton is extremely wide in his base. Those tight hips don’t allow him to fluidly shift and pivot in a violent tango with the defensive lineman. Another item this slo-mo shows is a bunny-hop step instead of active feet. Fulton’s feet aren’t paired with his arms, and he looks choppy in his deliberate attempts.
Stephon Tuitt is lined up in a 2i technique, which means he’s over the inside-shoulder of the offensive guard. On a 3rd and four, he’s allowed to freelance a little bit, but overall he’s responsible for pressing the pocket. His first step off the ball is a hard jab step outside, just like a point guard on a crossover. When Fulton sees this, he opens up his hips to parallel the momentum of Tuitt and encourage him to take an outside route to the quarterback.
Watch how Tuitt’s entire body is turned to Fulton post-swim move. Fulton can’t even attempt to hold him because of how off balance he is. This isn’t even that smooth of a pass rush; I’d ideally like Tuitt to take a more direct path to Watson and grind through Fulton, but Fulton is so stunned by Tuitt he overcompensates on the space he needs.
Sack 4 (12): Scramble Drill Swallows Watson
Technically this was counted as a sack. When this grey area occurs on the Sack Tracker, it is usually left up to my emotional state and the subjective opinion around the play to determine if it will be counted or not. If you can’t already tell, the horrific play we’ve seen upfront and pocket presence by our quarterback do not afford them any benefit of the doubt.
Something that has been evident in Watson’s career is an over-willingness to put on the Superman cape too early. As you’ll see with this play, the pressure in the pocket and pressure to not blow this game overwhelm Watson.
On first and 10, against a simple four man pass rush, Houston’s offensive line bends but doesn’t break. Unfortunately Watson has been sacked eleven times in three games at this point and doesn’t trust his linemen to protect him.
Tytus Howard (#71) impressively reads and reacts to the last-second pressure coming off the right side. Even though he handles this well, Watson’s lack of trust urges him to tuck the ball and scramble further into the pocket.
Max Scharping (#74) gets put on skates and digs in like a soldier in war. This is the last thing I’d recommend from a technique standpoint, but at this point if it doesn’t end up with Watson on the ground, I’m a fan.
There’s always the question of whether this is a coverage sack. For that, let’s check out the All-22 view.
The Texans are running a high-to-low concept where they are trying to beat zone coverage, but the Steelers linebackers do an excellent job of dropping into coverage and keeping the Texans receivers in front of them. The Steelers are running a dime Cover 2 defense. They do a good job of trapping the slot receiver and bracketing Fuller down the sideline.
This 100% qualifies as a coverage sack, but history will not remember it as such. In the sack tracker, we must assign blame. Once his first and second reads are compromised, Watson has to look to the other side of the field. He doesn’t. Instead he overreacts and flies head first into the defensive line.
Watson tallies another sack due to impatience and pulling the ball down to run too early.
Sack 5 (13): The Fells Push - You Won’t Believe Your Eyes.
At this point in the game, the Texans are in a do-or-die situation, down by seven with five minutes to go. They’ve had a miserable second half, but could settle the score and tie the game on this drive. This is the drive that separates teams. When push comes to shove, what does your team have in them? There is no room for error. Then this play happens.
When you watch it the first time, all you see is Watt surging past Howard on an inside move that is typical for the caliber of player that Watt is. But through the magic of multi-camera views, you see one of the most remarkable sacks that has ever been recorded here.
Fells pushes Watt clear out of the way and directly into the path of Watson. We need a name for this. “The Fells Force?” “The Darren Dump?” This is iconic and tragic. This is dumbfounding. The idea is that Fells chips Watt and slows down his pass rush. What occurred is quite possibly the most unfortunate play I’ve seen in Sack Tracker history. This self-inflicted wound is typical of an 0-3 team, which is exactly the position that we’re in. Fells takes the fall on this play and ends up with his first sack of the season.
Here’s where we stand on the Sack Tracker after three games:
Deshaun Watson: 3.
Tytus Howard: 2.
Max Scharping: 2.
Zack Fulton: 2.
Nick Martin: 1.5.
Darren Fells: 1.
Laremy Tunsil: 0.5.
Brandin Cooks: 0.5.
David Johnson: 0.5.