1. A MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE
Deshaun Watson’s spin out and dump-off to Taiwan Jones was a mystical experience that defies any futile combination of sounds our bodies can make.
This is the greatest play in Texans’ franchise history. It’s better than J.J. Watt’s pick six against Cincinnati, or Gary Walker’s bicep flexing inaugural game sack, or Andre Johnson’s one hander in Tennessee, or that time Jadeveon Clowney scalped Chris Ivory, or DeAndre Hopkins’s unofficial under the legs or one handed catch, or even his touchdown over Adam Jones that grabbed the Bengals’ toe and handed them their first loss.
What makes it even more spectacular is he’s made plays like this before. The unbelievable is routine. He did it against Philadelphia last season. He did it against New England his rookie year. He kind of did it against Oakland this season, but that was against only one defender after a kick to the face spun his retina around in his orbital bone.
Here, in the Wildcard Round, to save Houston’s season, and send the team to Kansas City, it’s the singular most important play anyone has made in this franchise’s history.
Houston is the obvious underdog against Kansas City. I have zero expectations for this game. If Will Fuller V wears a helmet they can potentially play shootout against them. If the defense forces enough turnovers there’s the potential they can reenact their week six win. Dim light. Slight haze. With Deshaun Watson the Texans are never out of any game.
2. THEY KIND OF LEARNED SOMETHING
Entering last week’s Wildcard matchup against the Buffalo Bills I wrote a very important film room on the Texans’ rushing offense, the Bills’ run defense, and ESTABLISHING THE RUN.
To paraphrase, the Bills’ run defense isn’t actually an obvious weakness to exploit. It’s a good run defense bogged down by six man boxes, missed tackles, and problems getting around blocks at the second level. Houston had not been using its run offense in a way to attack the Bills’ defense.
There were things they could do to make it work better. They needed to get Duke Johnson more carries. He had 3 for 38 yards. Johnson should have had more carries. His broken tackle rate doubles Carlos Hyde’s, and could actually take advantage of the Bills tackling struggles.
They needed to get their offensive linemen up to the second level, instead of Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas, and Darren Fells. No matter how much Bill O’Brien wishes Houston had Baltimore’s tight end chimera, he doesn’t. Houston’s tight ends are atrocious blockers. Gap scheme plays fail with them because they can’t hit and stick on the second level.
Houston didn’t focus on getting their offensive line to the second level. For the majority of the game they did the same things. To switch things up, they gave rookie fullback Cullen Gillaspia eight offensive snaps. As a lead blocker, he actually has power, tenacity, and strength to devour second level defenders.
On Deshaun Watson’s zone read touchdown run he did exactly this.
There was 1:41 left in the third quarter and the Texans were shutout. Down 16-0 they were starving to score. First and ten. Ball at Buffalo’s 20. The Bills were in their Nickle defense with Tremaine Edmunds (#49) and Lorenzo Alexander (#58) in at linebacker and safety Micah Hyde (#23) in the box. Buffalo mostly plays Nickle, and without a tight end in the game, they chose to play without a third linebacker.
The Texans lined up in a split shotgun set with Carlos Hyde (#23) and Gillaspia (#44) in the backfield. At the line of scrimmage, Trent Murphy (#93) is the read defender. The offensive line blocks inside zone. Laremy Tunsil (#78) moves up to Alexander. Zach Fulton (#73) and Nick Martin (#66) have an ‘Ace’ to the backside linebacker Edmunds. And the right side of the line blocks man on man.
The play is simple. If Murphy sits and plays Watson, Hyde gets the ball and Houston runs inside zone. If Murphy crashes down, Watson keeps with Gillaspia as the lead blocker pulling up to the second level, and on this play, it means blocking the safety Hyde.
Murphy strafes far enough along the line of scrimmage for Watson to keep. Gillaspia pulls in front of him, and this is very important, ignores Murphy entirely. He pulls around Murphy and places his hat on Hyde’s inside shoulder. The outside shoulder is the aiming point to create an alley for Watson to run through, but because of his strength, this is enough to make the block. He doesn’t stick though. Hyde is able to break off and pursue Watson.
Gillaspia keeps at it. Hustling downfield. He engages Hyde again and shoves him across Watson and into Tre’Davious White.
Deshaun Watson smashes safety Jordan Poyer (#21) head on, and carries Murphy, pursuing back from behind, to get across the goal line. Houston was finally on the board.
This was a vital play to the comeback. Scoring from 20 yards out saved time on the clock. It removed the possibility of having to go for it, or even worse, settling for a field goal.
It’s going to be a vital play against the Chiefs this weekend too. The zone read fake hasn’t worked in two months. The surprise of Fells or Akins seeping out into the flat isn’t worth their weak blocks. If Houston goes the ball control route against Kansas City, they’ll need second level blocking, blocks like this from Gillaspia,to attack Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, and use Watson as a manufactured runner. As funny as it is to say, and I mean this as earnestly as possible, the Texans may need Gillaspia to beat Kansas City.
3. JOSH ALLEN AND1 MIXTAPE TOUR
I present to you— Matt Weston (@Mbw987) January 8, 2020
The wonderful and the deranged, the absurd and the horrendous, the horrors and the impossibilities committed by playoff Josh Allen pic.twitter.com/DuZsGDBOzr
4. THIS IS WHAT BEAT TOM BRADY?
Tennessee took down the Patriots in the Wildcard Round 14-13; let’s not count the late game pick six. It cheapens the events that unraveled. The offense scored zero second half points. Tennessee had 76 passing yards. That’s it. The league’s best passing defense stuck Stephon Gilmore on A.J. Brown. They kept a safety deep to take away Ryan Tannehill’s deep middle play action attack. Tennessee’s secondary wide receivers had trouble getting open. After all of that, the Titans won with Tannehill completing 8 of his 15 attempts for 72 yards, averaging 4.8 yards an attempt, throwing one interception, and most importantly, finding Anthony Firkser in the redzone on 3rd and 10 to continue their lunatic redzone touchdown rate of 75.6%.
This is the most TITAN UP box score I’ve ever seen. Take a look at this passing chart. Long live Tannehill. Long live the AFC South. Could you imagine an All-AFC South Conference Championship game in Houston? A-F-C South-South-South. May his will be done.
You know Marcus Mariota was furious, thinking to himself, “Are, you kidding me? I could do that.” But, at the same time, Mike Mularkey was howling and huffing somewhere in a Floridian RV park after a hard day of Python hunting, listening to the game on the radio, smiling, thinking, YES, oh YES, this is how football should be played. Individuation exemplified.
Now, I don’t think the New England Patriots are dead by any means. They are a metal claw sticking out from the landfill. Tom Brady dropped off last year. He dropped off a bit more this year. He was good, not great, but the biggest problem wasn’t him. His receivers failed to beat man coverage. Short hook zones and a focus on the flat killed their running back heavy passing attack. The receivers he had from week one to the NFL Playoffs were entirely different. Aside from Julian Edelman, he never gelled with any of them. Constantly he was screeching at receivers failing to adjust their routes after they were run to completion and running past the ball after presnap audibles were called.
Moves were made to repair their passing attack, but none of them really worked out. Mohamed Sanu, Antonio Brown (lol), N’Keal Harry, Ben Watson. Additionally, losing fullback James Develin and center David Andrews killed their power run game, and as much fun as it is to see iron man Arena Football, Elandon Roberts wasn’t a good second level blocker this season.
They’ll have draft picks and cap space. They still have Bill Belichick. They had the league’s best defense by DVOA and points allowed. The division will probably be weak once again as Miami continues their rebuild, Buffalo stares down regression, and Adam Gase keeps living off of Peyton Manning’s success. Enjoy this. Savor this. Because we’ll probably still be watching the Pats in January once again.
5. OUTSIDE ZONE RUNNING
The Titans beat New England after Tannehill completed eight passes because they ran the ball a lot. They ran the ball 40 times for 201 yards and 1 touchdown. That’s a lot of times JIM. And of these carries, Derrick Henry had 34 of them for 182 yards and 1 candle blowing touchdown. 6’3” 247 pounds. A genetically modified laboratory specimen comes to life. I wonder what his hair smells like?
After all those previous smash mouth failures: Chance Warmack, Andy Levitre, Brian Schwenke (who I will always hold out hope for), the Titans have finally put together a dominant run blocking offensive line. Free agent addition Rodger Saffold and 2019 third round pick Nate Davis, were stitched to center Ben Jones, and conjoined to their first round pick tackle combination of Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. Finally, after all those years, the Titans finished fifth in run offense DVOA.
The fireworks fizzled at first. Taylor Lewan was sobbing on the bus and wasting away because of a four game suspension. Jamil Douglas didn’t work at right guard. Lewan is one of the league’s best run blockers, and without him, the right side blubbering, and Marcus Mariota failing to push the ball downfield to set up lighter boxes, the Titans rushing attack struggled.
Rodger Saffold started off as a free agent bust. It took them a few weeks to get going once Lewan returned. Davis needed time to adjust to the pro game. Tannehill bombed it downfield. Tennessee had the league’s best play action attack. Once everything culminated together, Tennessee morphed into an angular blocking, second level crushing, bending, banging, bouncing attack that left defenses the color and consistency of prunes.
The Titans love to run outside zone to the weakside of the formation no matter how many tight ends they have on the field. Here they have three. Two lined up right. One lined up left. Second and one. The Patriots are in their 5-2 ‘Superbowl’ front that constrained the Rams’ all-time great rushing attack to 62 yards.
Left tackle Lewan (#77) smothers Dont’a Hightower (#54). Left guard Saffold reaches and hits Lawrence Guy (#93) head on. John Simon (#55) is the left edge defender. He plays the run wide. This forces Derrick Henry to cutback inside for a modest eight yards. This is the bend.
It’s outside zone left, but this time the left side is the strong side of the formation. Lewan is quick off the snap and is all over Deatrich Wise (#91) to drive the line of scrimmage and create the hole. Even though Saffold and Ben Jones (#60) can’t get to Roberts (#52) it doesn’t matter. Roberts aggressively flows over one gap. Henry keeps expanding his run. The sharp angle gets him too far up the field. Henry runs past his tackle, breaks an attempt from Kyle Van Noy (#53) and is eventually tackled from behind after picking up ten yards. This is the bang.
The formation is balanced. It’s outside zone right. Center Ben Jones does a spectacular job reaching the outside shoulder and cutting off the 345 pound Danny Shelton (#71). Right tackle Jack Conlin (#78), like Lewan, is quick off the snap. He gets to Wise’s outside shoulder before Wise is out of his snap. His partner Nate Davis has a perfect zone step. He gains depth and ground. Conkin sets Wise up. Davis gets to his outside shoulder, overtakes the block, and drives him up field. Van Noy plays this run wide as well. This forces Henry to cutback for nine and into Hightower.
The Patriots plan to force Henry inside, and keep him from bouncing wide didn’t work. It removed the 75 yard run, but led to him mass producing successful plays. The Titans consistently reached the first level, made contact at the second level, and on the rare occasions they didn’t, Henry amputated limbs to pile on more.
This is poetry. This is the soft animal of your body loving what it loves. It’s outside zone left. This time both Saffold and Lewan get their heads on the outside shoulder. Perfect symmetry. Bonus points for Jones to drive the defensive tackle wide, and alligator death roll into the second level.
Henry is an outside zone runner unlike anything I’ve ever seen. He has the ability to leave his feet on cutbacks and trample over cadavers all while continuing forward. An illusion is created when he runs. He somehow looks like he’s gaining ground even when cutting horizontally.
As great of an outside the tackles runner as he is, he doesn’t rely on it anymore after spending his youth trying to bounce everything wide. The reads are correct. The plants are decisive. The cuts are crisp. And once he decides to run upfield, he doesn’t merely break tackles, he’s the ocean carrying shells onto the beach. Defenses can try and funnel him inside, leading to fresh cut grass, or force him wide, where he’ll stiff arm his way to 75 yard gains. Beating Tennessee’s blocks and limit the space Henry has is the only hope defenses have. There isn’t a correct scheme decision. Players have to be great to limit their rush attack.
When teams get frustrated and annoyed, tired and bored, they’ll get aggressive to try and create negative plays. The Patriots blitz Roberts and stunt the defensive tackle inside. One of the keys of zone blocking is taking correct steps and trusting your feet. Conklin does exactly this here. The tackle crashes inside. He takes one slide step, and immediately gets vertical to drive him inside. There’s no fearful thrashing. It’s a calm reaction.
From there, Henry plants, cuts laterally and away from Shelton to get outside the box. This is the bounce.
It’s Henry one v. one against a defensive back. Brain shredding melatonin nightmares of the dead’s old bedrooms. Once he turns up field, the defensive back has to backpedal away from him to catch up before initiating contact. He has to plan contact perfectly. He waits for Henry’s stride to show his torso. He doesn’t get to decide. Henry takes him for a seven yard windows down drive.
The last wrinkle seen from Tennessee’s outside zone attack is when they bring a fullback in. With a fullback, they like to run outside zone to the weakside, block man on man, and get the fullback up to the second level. A three v. three blocking scheme. Henry with just the safety to beat is a perfectly drawn play. Duron Harmon (#21) makes a 1990s no fear tackle here to prevent a disaster.
Henry had runs of 29, 15, 11, 11, 10, 9, 9, 8, 7, 6, 6, five runs for 5 yards, and five runs for 4 yards. The most dominating 14 point performance ever seen. The Titans have wanted to be a physical rushing brutal team. They’re finally that. It’s only taken four years, Ryan Tannehill’s deep passing attempts, the play action game, and a continued and relentless investment into the offensive line to make it happen, but it happened, and because of it, the Titans, not the pretty narrative typed out by the Chiefs or Ravens, ended the Patriots season in the Wildcard round.
With 5:12 left in the second quarter, Tom Brady completed a pass to Rex Burkhead that took New England to the one yard line. No quarterback sneak. Protecting the old man’s bones. No real viable redzone passing threat. The Patriots tried to pound the ball on the ground.
Rashaan Evans (#54) made a tackle on each play of this redzone stand. Now, if you don’t know who Evans is, you should, and now you will. He’s the Titans’ premier chase and tackling inside linebacker, and a key component of one of the league’s best run defenses. This season he led the Titans with 35 solo run tackles, and finished 17th overall (Zach Cunningham finished third).
The Patriots try to run outside zone left. Harold Landry (#58) gets swallowed up by left tackle Isaiah Wynn. Sony Michel (#26) mistakenly doesn’t bounce this run wide. He tries to follow the fullback blocking Kevin Byard (#31) in the hole. There’s no space. Michel takes a diagonal step towards the play. This is all Evans needs to get downhill. He jumps over the bloated beached body of the freshly cut Jeffery Simmons (#98) to make the tackle midair. Violent and vicious. This is my favorite Airbud movie cover.
Second and goal the Pats go with a light box. They try outside zone left again. Both left guard Shaq Mason (#69) and center Ted Karras (#75) try to cut Jurrell Casey (#99), who had a spectacular game, and Evans. Neither can. Evans leaps backwards, then pursues, to get in on the stop Casey makes.
Third and goal. The Patriots go heavy once again and try to run outside zone left once again. Simmons (#98) creates penetration across Karras’s face instantly. This gives Evans a crease to run through. Because there’s a defender in each ‘A’ gap, no one from the backside can get to Evans. Michel tries to bounce this run wide, despite Landry setting the edge this time. Highlight reel. Another Evans tackle.
Three plays. Two yards lost. A coward’s field goal. 13-7 New England. It would be the last time they would score.
8. A MONSTER AMONG MONSTERS
There were numerous incredible performances this past weekend. Deshaun Watson carrying the Texans in the second half, J.J. Watt returning from a torn pectoral to make an impact, Henry outside zone scheming, Josh McCown outrunning Ziggy Ansash on a zone read play, Jadeveon Clowney renewing his citizenship as a denizen of the backfield, Taysom Hill showcasing himself as a lite beer version of Lamar Jackson, Stefon Diggs temper tantrums, and D.K. Metcalf breaking rookie records. Out of everyone this weekend, Fletcher Cox was the most dominant, and it’s disheartening it will be lost in the dust of Pro Football Reference after being on the losing end of a banal, yet close, but banal, Wildcard Round game.
Cox dominated the interior of the Seahawks’ offensive line. Seattle was a run heavy offense that likes to wait for safeties to creep down so they can exploit them with vertical routes. With injuries to Chris Carson, one of the best tackle breaking backs in the game, and Rashaad Penny, and injuries to their offensive line as well, the Seahawks are realizing they don’t have the run blocking to lead lackluster backs to successful gains. They had 64 yards on 24 carries last weekend. A revelatory experience.
It was impossible for D.J. Fluker and Joey Hunt to block Cox on the interior. The 310 lbs. of man who plays like he’s 450 lbs. made negative play after negative play, and collapsed the pocket, leaving Russel Wilson scavenging in ruins and rubble. Cox had four tackles for no gain or less. The most yards gained against him was one yard. This happened twice. He also had one quarterback hit and constantly forced Wilson to break out of the pocket.
Right guard Fluker (#68) and tackle Germain Ifedi (#65) have a double team against Cox that’s supposed to get to the backside linebacker. No one moves. Cox is cheese in the bowels. Stuck in place, he spins back to the running back and yanks him backwards.
On second and one the Seahawks try and convert on the ground. Cox is lined up as a ‘3’ between Fluker and Ifedi. Seattle runs outside zone left. Cox leaps across Ifedi’s face, and using only his shoulder, drives him two yards into the backfield.
The box score can’t measure the entire impact of a player. It’s calculus is clean and simple. Nice little tally marks. It can’t define something like this though. Seattle is running outside zone right. Fluker is supposed to get to Cox’s outside shoulder, instead, Cox punches his chest, strangles it, and becomes the blocker. The back bounces inside of Fluker three yards behind the line of scrimmage and into the talons of the defense.
This run stop is overwhelming. Fluker attempts to reach his outside shoulder again. The same thing happens. This is a body slam on Summerslam. With Fluker gelatinous on the ground, Cox hops over him to make the tackle.
For some hilarious and unknown reason, Seattle tries to block down on Cox with a flex wing tight end, it ends, of course, in disaster.
Third and two. Seattle tries and throws for it. Cox walks out of a time machine and into the year 1993 across from center Joey Hunt. Lemon yellow sun. Surprise left. Hunt gets his hands on Cox first. That’s the only thing he does well. Cox swats his punch away, drives a straw into his sternum, slurps his heart, throws him down with one arm, and forces Wilson throw the ball up.
At 29 years old Cox still has a lot to give as both a pass rusher and run defender. Last year he received a first team All-Pro bid. He’s made five Pro Bowls. He’s won a Superbowl. He has 48 sacks and 62 tackles for a loss from the defensive tackle position, and has been one of the premier interior defenders of this decade. If nothing disastrous happens, Cox could end up in the Hall of Fame. I don’t know. Maybe. His play was the best part of the Eagles loss.
9. AN INTERIOR RUSH
The Saints have the best pass protecting offensive line in the league. They finished 1st in pressure rate, 3rd in adjusted sack rate, and allowed only 25 sacks this season. Drew Brees was sacked 12 times. Defenses recognized before the snap. Ball out quick. Their starting five offensive line back. It was expected for their pass protection to be even better before their playoff game against Minnesota.
The Vikings have struggled in coverage. They’ve been led by their pass rush mostly composed of Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. Together they’ve combined for 22.5 sacks, 46 quarterback hits, and 99 pressures. They won their matchups in New Orleans.
These two sacked sacked Brees three times, hit him six times, and forced a fumble that was recovered. They created pressure in a different way than they typically had this season. These two beat the Saints’ offensive line by winning matchups on the interior of the line of scrimmage, and utilizing inside moves.
Guards aren’t used to swims and rips. Space is nonexistent. It’s a knife fight in the closet. Andrus Peat (#75) is up against a spinning Griffen (#97). He tries to punch the slippery otter, falls forward, and Brees is stuck heaving the ball at Alvin Kamara’s feet.
Rather than leave Hunter and Griffen out wide against the Saints’ best pass blockers, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, they put them as ‘4is’ adjacent to wide ‘5’ defensive ends to create space for them to rush against the Saints’ guards. Griffen is able to bullrush, bend, rip, and almost bring down Brees from behind.
Griffen picked up his solo sack against Larry Warford (#67). To really sell play action you have to pull the guard. This linebacker’s key is from the guard to the back. It really yanks them down. It leaves Warford trying to block a free rushing Griffen though. Griffen gets half of Warford, extends him, and bullrushes into Brees for the sack.
On Hunter’s strip sack of Brees, ending a drive in Minnesota’s territory, Ramczyk (#71) tried to aggressively set on Hunter. He’s too wide. Too flat. Worried about the speed. Hunter chops his punch away and jolts inside. The best part of the play isn’t even the rush. Hunter wraps Brees with his left arm, and knocks the ball away with his right. This is body contorting slumber party Twister.
Interior rushes have always given Brees trouble. It’s difficult to see and throw over them. He’s never had the speed to bail from the pocket and make plays happen on the move. He suffocates against inteiror pressure. The Vikings changed their pass defense, that struggles in coverage, by creating pressure from where it typically doesn’t come from. This changed the complexity of this game from a defensive perspective, and was a vital reason why Minnesota pulled off the upset.
10. GET VERTICAL
I’m a sucker for some deep passes. This past weekend Houston, New Orleans, Minnesota, and Seattle all hit on deep passes to create instant offense when they needed it. Short passes are efficient and boring. Perfection is needed to move the ball. Downfield throws are a market inefficiency, and the best play in sports.