Despite playing competently against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Houston Texans’ offensive line was one of the reasons why they found themselves down 31-7 early on in the fourth quarter last week. Already this year, just like last year, the line’s run blocking and pass protection were filled with mistakes that limited their offense and stole yards from the box score. They flailed in vital moments, killed drives, and lopped off Houston’s ability to keep up and come back against Kansas City.
Houston’s defense is worse than it was last year. Their only meaningful free agent addition was starting free safety Eric Murray. They lost D.J. Reader to free agency and released Tashaun Gipson. John Reid was the only rookie who played nearly half the game, which says more about the secondary than anything. In this matchup, in an attempt to slaughter old demons, Houston had to score points to keep up. Instead, they were held to seven points until Kansas City stocked the shelves waiting for tomorrow, allowing Houston to camouflage the scoreboard. The line’s blocking was an enormous reason for Houston’s limited offensive output.
Houston immediately went to their veteran acquisition David Johnson. Here, they’re running duo on first and ten. Duo is more than a meme. It’s a power run play without all the pulling. Houston gets two big hip-to-hip double teams to each linebacker, and then clears an alley with their tight ends along the right side of the line of scrimmage.
Savor this. This is one of the few plays where Houston’s moved the line of scrimmage and blocked the second level. Max Scharping (#74) and Tytus Howard (#71) each come off the first level and smash the second. Their blocks open up an easy lane for Johnson.
It isn’t all perfect though. Houston is missing something on nearly every play. One seemingly small mistake stains and soils things, turning verdant turf into a filthy 1970s New York street. Thirteen yards becomes seven. Nine becomes four. On this attempt, Johnson has Daniel Sorensen one v. one in the hole. His maneuver to bounce this to the sideline is wrangled by a low, leg sweeping tackle. The offensive line provided all they could. Johnson failed to accentuate their performance.
On the following drive, with the score still 0-0, Houston went to a dual running back split shotgun backfield. It’s running back-guard-tight end counter. Da. Johnson (#31) is pulling to the alley defender Tyrann Mathieu (#32), Zach Fulton (#73) to Frank Clark (#55), and Darren Fells (#87) to Sorensen (#43). The play design is fantastic. It creates three pulls with short travel distances. Yet, one missed second level block, limits this successful run to seven yards.
Head placement prevents Duke Johnson (#25) from getting more. With Clark looping inside, and the play side defensive tackle doing the same, this is the perfect accidental play call. The quick slants inside, and away from the play, create space for the pullers to block in isolation. Fulton makes his block. But Laremy Tunsil’s (#78) head is on Anthony Hitchens’s inside shoulder (#53) allowing him to sneak away.
Fells (#87) makes the same mistake when he leans into Sorensen (#43). He had a hell of a time blocking safeties this game.
Du. Johnson is able to break out of Sorense’s tackle, but it slows him up, narrows his hallway, and allows Hitchens to come over and clean up the play after he escapes from Tunsil’s grip.
One of Houston’s schematic problems over the last two seasons has been their inability to block any one run scheme well. They run a lot of different plays, but nothing can be defined by the word ‘staple’. It’s been a Golden Corral where nothing is fulfilling, and everything is just kind of crappy if you’re blessed enough to be there on the right day.
This split outside zone run play on first and ten shows actual promise though. Last season, the left side of the line of scrimmage, Nick Martin included, looked better blocking outside zone, and the right side was more fitted for power run plays.
On this run, the right side gets a great ‘Ace’ between Martin and Fulton, who [gasps] actually blocks the second level. Fulton is perfect. He aids Martin in creating horizontal movement while never over committing so he can attack the second level square. Howard takes a great zone step. He hits his landmark. His pad level is a little high, but he can bend sedans over his legs. The hand exchange to worm his way into the defender’s chest is what a summer of hard work looks like. And just as importantly, Da. Johnson’s cutback is snowy, as he slaloms inside of Juan Thornhill’s tackle attempt to tremble his way to nine yards.
This was another one of those precious instances where everyone made their block, and this time, the back accentuated the yards created. If the Texans can create more runs like this, and solidify themselves as a good ____ blocking team, like the outside zone on this play, it will go a long way to the team having a competent rushing attack.
In the screen game, the issues remain the same. Houston is running a slip screen to the left. They have three lead blockers. Both Scharping (#74) and Martin (#66) flail into the open field. Fulton (#73) makes a waning crescent moon trip to the refrigerator look like a drag race. Martin stumbles, and almost takes out Da. Johnson on his own. Neither blocker sticks to their block. If Scharping and Martin plow the way, Johnson has twenty yards of space to run.
Instead, Da. Johnson is left to fend for himself, and does a great job utilizing stretchy exaggerated movements to cutback around tackle attempts to convert the first down.
This is a sad version of duo, the same power play without the puller, as described earlier before. Except this time it’s missing the physicality and pad level needed to create a rushing lane for Du. Johnson.
It took eight minutes, but here we are. Houston’s offensive line has narrow bases, ceiling fan dusting pad level, is no longer joined at the hip, and huffing and puffing at a brick wall that is straw for most teams.
Scharping blocks the entirety of Chris Jones (#95). Because of this, he’s stuck to the block like an intruding and soon to be legless rat. Doomed in glue, he’s unable to peel off to Sorensen (#43). This read forces Da. Johnson to cut to the right. Fulton (#73) has inside head placement. It’s an easy play for Anthony Hitchens (#53) to make. An arm wide open clotheslines him, and Howard is unable to turn the defensive end, allowing him to get in on the play as well.
High pad level, and meek blocking that lacks a brute murderous physicality is a common theme to Houston’s run game when it struggles. Week one is a continuation of last season. The only strategic reason for this, if there is one, is if Houston is timid to drive defenders off the ball because of the amount of read-pass options they run, but that argument is empty on pseudo straight forward power run plays like this.
The DeAndre Hopkins trade was, is, and will forever be disastrous. It wasn’t made because of football purposes. The red button was squished to detonate a hostile coach-player relationship. Da. Johnson was a part of the package that sent Hopkins to Phoenix’s sprawling wasteland, and already, he looks better as a runner than he did for the entirety of his 2019 Arizona season. His first touchdown run as a Texan was sick.
It’s the read-pass drag flat option offense, but this time Randall Cobb (#18) is the flex wing tight end rather than Darren Fells. What will the Texans come up with next? The first read defender is right defensive end Mike Danna (#51). If he crashes, Watson keeps and runs the fast break with Cobb. From there they play two on one against Mathieu (#32). Danna sits and gives Watson an easy decision to make. The rest of the offensive line is blocking down a gap.
Scharping almost blows this play. He helps Tunsil out, allowing the nose tackle to get up field after he slants inside. Fortunately, he’s able to latch into his side and drive him horizontally.
Da. Johnson is nimble and quick. He’s a footwork God following Ariadne’s thread. He cuts inside of Scharping’s block, accelerates, makes a horizontal cut to singe L’Jarius Snead, and scorches to the pylon. This time the back’s individual talent spills over Scharping’s error.
Although the Hopkins trade is a nauseating landmark in the cult of Tough-Smart-Dependable, that is currently defining Houston football, notice the ‘T’ doesn’t stand for talented, it doesn’t mean Da. Johnson the player should take the blame. His ability to make plays like this is something the offense missed last year with Carlos Hyde’s head down spiked shoulder pads running style. Enjoy this exuberant Johnson while his lumbar is limber and his hamstrings are slick.
On the following drive Houston’s lead had already evaporated. They found themselves tied 7-7 with Kansas City. This drive was crushed by a sack allowed by Fulton on 2nd & 6. Chris Jones (#95) sucks the life out of Fulton and this drive on this rep. The left side of the line of scrimmage is sliding one gap over, towards Hitchens (#53), leaving Fulton and Howard to block man on man.
First, Jones overwhelms him with strength to gain control of the block. Then he extends him off his chest to create separation. And he finishes his escape by pulling Fulton back down, and swimming over the top. It’s a better player dominating another. Watson has no chance here. The play is over in a blink.
On the following play, Watson can’t find anyone open. He’s forced scrambling to scrape together something positive. Houston punts a coward’s punt at Kansas City’s 50 on 4th and 4 because of the hole Fulton puts them in, and of course, O’Brien’s own frustrating inhibitions. They don’t see the ball for another nine minutes and eleven seconds, and when they do, it’s time to play two minute drill to try and score before the half down 14-7.
Pocket maneuvering by Watson to lead Du. Johnson in the flat against cover seven, and a quick out to Jordan Akins against a cover one blitz, puts Houston at Kansas City’s 33 yard line. A second down pass protection error sandwiched between two empty sideline attempts, mangled a dire need to score points, and forced Kai’imi Fairbairn to do something he doesn’t do, knock down 50+ yard field goals.
On 2nd and 10 the Chiefs are playing cover six. It’s cover three to the field side and cover two to the boundary side. Their linebackers are pink tailed and walling off crossing routes.
Kansas City is blitzing five in an unconventional manner. Danna (#51) and Ben Niemann (#56) are the ones scurrying into coverage. Tanoh Kpassagnon (#92) slants into the ‘A’ gap, and Derek Nnadi (#91) does the same. They bring three more off the right side of the line of scrimmage.
Houston is sliding the protection right and blocking man on man to the left. They save Niemann for Du. Johnson if he blitzes. When he doesn’t, Du. Johnson looks inside-out then works back across the line of scrimmage to pick up Mathieu. Du. Johnson is underrated as a runner, pass catcher, and pass protector.
Everything looks to be picked up well at first. Then entropy crumbles things immediately. Nnadi devours Martin. Just absolutely eats his vital squishy interior. Martin is high, caught off guard, and wobbling. Nnadi gets both hands on this chest and quickly bounces wide.
This pressure is entirely on Tunsil though. The end man of the line of scrimmage leaving is a tell-tale sign of a stunt. Defenses have to maintain rush lanes, especially against a quarterback like Watson. There’s no one for Tunsil to block. He looks for work like he’s supposed to, but he commits a fatal sin in doing so. He should be square to the line of scrimmage waiting for a package to arrive. He turns his body away from the line of scrimmage to help Scharping. Arms buried in flesh, he’s completely oblivious to Nnadi coming back around again.
Terrified, with terror unleashed upon him, Watson jolts around the backfield with three defenders collapsing in on him, and misses Du. Johnson seeping into the second level.
After the missed field goal, Kansas City receives the ball with all three timeouts and :25 remaining. They pull off what Houston was unable to. They travel 43 yards in 21 seconds and Harrison Butker puts down an easy 29 yard field goal. Of course they also receive the ball to start the second half, put seven more on the board, and the Texans find the score switched from 14-7 to 24-7 by the time they see the ball again.
For every successful carry, there’s an inverse failure. This is another successful outside zone run. Tunsil splatters the 2i, making a block he has no business making, and accidentally blocks the second level thanks to some shoddy linebacker play. Martin’s leg is amputated and he loses the inside linebacker, snapping a possible ten yards to seven.
Houston takes a hit of Arthur Smith’s little blue pipe, and makes the outside zone tangier by running it to the weak side of the formation. The safety walking into the box complicates things though. Fulton is forced to take on Sorensen instead of Damien Wilson (#54). Scharping is required to cut off Wilson from an improbable position.
Scharping doesn’t get the memo. He turns away from the flow of the play to sever Hitchens. Da. Johnson is stuck. He can’t bang this run through the ‘B’ gap since Wilson is running wild. Howard makes a fine block if the ‘Mike’ linebacker is blocked. The head placement is great. His checkpoints are met. He loses momentum though, and when he does, Kpassagnon is able to drive him backwards some, taking away Da. Johnson’s ability to bounce this run wild. A missed assignment shatters a promising play.
Later in the drive, Houston finds themselves with a newborn set of downs. The Texans have another funky backfield. This time it’s read-power. Running back Jordan Akins (#88) pulls across the play to provide an outlet if Mathieu chases down the line of scrimmage. Fulton pulls to Wilson (#54). Scharping and Tunsil have a strong double team to Hitchens (#53). And Martin is blocking down on the defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton (#98) so Fulton can pull without a hitch.
Kansas City isn’t stagnant. Wharton stunts inside. Martin catches him in the side well. His feet stop though. He’s Atlas holding the Earth up instead of harnessing Wharton’s momentum against him. The 255 pound nose tackle clogs up the interior.
The bigger issue is the play side double team. Scharping and Tunsil don’t create vertical movement against Jones (#95). Contact isn’t made in unison. Jones plays Scharping, and isn’t phased by Tunsil’s heaving. The second level goes unblocked. Da. Johnson has nowhere to go. He squeaks through the interior, and is brought down by Wharton and Hitchens.
Martin struggles against Wharton on the following play as well. It’s outside zone left to the weakside of the formation.
Both Fulton and Scharping complete commendable second level blocks. Fulton’s single handedly carves out a cutback lane for Du. Johnson. Martin’s pad level is too high though. Warton wins the leverage battle, shoots hands into the chest, and drives Martin backwards. From this point he peels off the block and envelopes Du. Johnson. But, even then, this play was doomed to fail since Akins (#88) couldn’t cut off safety Juan Thornhill (#22) anyways.
After two runs that create three yards the drive comes to an end. It’s 3rd and 7. Up to this point Tunsil did his job. He kept Watson’s blind spot comfortable, locked down Frank Clark and whoever they placed across from him. This time Clark (#55) flips to the left side of the line of scrimmage and is matched up with Howard (#71).
Clark sprinted around the edge to zip past Howard whenever these two were matched up against one another. Usually these routes were too wide to have an affect and Howard could peel back to provide enough hindrance. This time Clark gets him.
Howard’s pass set is both too flat, and too narrow, for the rusher he’s up against. He’s quickly waddling with squeezed cheeks to the point of attack. Once he’s in the vicinity he’s forced to turn to Clark, offers a limp paw, and Clark slides under the dangling limb. The chase is on. Watson does enough Watson things, and turns this into a two yard loss, but is unable to turn the third into the fourth and pull off the mystical.
The final nail in Addie’s coffin came on the following drive. Watson’s fateful downfield attempt. Each of the Texans previous meaningful attempts down the sideline failed.
The first, Will Fuller V jumped back to adjust to the back shoulder throw, and couldn’t handle it.
The second, rookie cornerback L’Jarius Snead, pressed Brandin Cooks at the line of scrimmage and chased him down with the ball in the air to eradicate the go route attempt.
That’s Tim Kelly’s super cool, super vertical, kill them all offense we spent the summer bombarded by the empty possibilities of hopes and expectations with. And it ended with the typical Houston downfield attempt. Two deep routes going through the middle of the field. Will Fuller runs a deep dig. Cooks runs a deep post. Neither one is open. Down 24-7, Watson, desperate and viscous, heaved something awful up to the miniature Cooks, instead of hitting the flat against Cover Four.
The play ends in tragedy because of the pass protection. Fells, who led all tight ends in blown blocks last season, was the end blocker, trying to keep the wildcat Tyrann Mathieu from getting to Watson. Mathieu pulled off a wily pass rush move. He yanked Fells’ inside shoulder with one arm and scattered over the top and into Watson’s throwing arm. Calamity. Cataclysmic tragedy.
Kansas City turned the turnover into a touchdown and went up 31-7. Game over. Burn up the solar system. Everything else after this doesn’t matter.
For a team that has devoted three first round picks, three second round picks, and a little more than $31 million of their cap to the offensive line, the Texans haven’t received play worth that investment. Houston should be winning games because of their offensive line. Currently, they are constrained by it. In this game specifically, Houston needed to get more from this position group. They played adequately against a below average Kansas City front, and it wasn’t close to being enough.
Unlike last season, Houston knew who their front five would be entering Week One. All the weekly wriggling and flopping of the waterbed would come to an end. You gotta get a box spring. You have to grow up some day. Despite this, despite the allure of continuity, Houston’s offensive line is making the same mental and physical mistakes they made last season. Continuity hasn’t yielded an uptick in performance. It’s yielded the same mistakes that buzz into a swarm of mediocre offensive production.
This can’t continue to happen for Houston to break past their divisional round wall, let alone even make the postseason this year with games against the ravenous fronts Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee employ that could put them in an insurmountable hole. It’s been one game, but it’s the same game that was seen week after week last season.