In this piece, I will be focusing on how Houston can improve their first down running game and make defenses fear them, leading to a more efficient play action attack. Let’s start with understanding the run game by looking at the box numbers and how efficient the Texans were against six, seven, and eight man boxes. A good summary is shown below:
As one would expect, the more defenders in the box, the less efficient Houston was. What was also interesting is that we saw seven man boxes 53% of the time yet still decided to run the ball. While Houston was inefficient against seven defenders, it got downright ugly against eight man boxes. No one should run against this stacked of a box. It never turns out well. Just look at how little room there is on this play. Houston has seven blockers to deal with eight defenders. The math just doesn’t work.
The play above was at least better because of the design. Will Fuller V motioned over to try and draw a defender, Max Scharping pulled, and Carlos Hyde was sent to block too. At least they tried something creative. There should be more of these looks in 2020 with both David and Duke Johnson in the backfield.
However, it got uglier in late game scenarios when the Texans were trying to hold a lead and kill the clock clock. That’s a simple concept, but it doesn’t mean the play calling has to be simple. Look at how condensed the formation is with multiple tight ends and few wide receivers. Everything about these plays screams “RUN.” There is no reason to give the defense that much information. Don’t show your hand this easily.
These are the kinds of runs that should be cut out of Houston’s offense. The predictable, late game, heavy formation runs when the defense knows its coming. Put the ball in Deshaun Watson’s hands and let him win the game for you.
Teams should really only be running against six man boxes. Houston in particular was so much more successful with a 5.2 yards per carry when running against six man boxes. This play is beautiful. Everything is blocked nicely, as the blockers get to the second level and make contact. This opens up a nice lane for Carlos Hyde. He doesn’t even get touched for the first 15 yards of this run.
These big runs didn’t just happen against the Chiefs’ porous run defense. Whenever Houston saw a six man box, they thrived. The next play pictured came against the Titans and their ninth-ranked DVOA run defense. The blocking is great. They get to the second level. Hyde has a huge cutback lane. With less defenders in the box, the offensive line is competent when run blocking. Things are just so much easier.
This leads me to my final point. When running the ball on first down, Deshaun Watson and Duke Johnson should have been getting the bulk of of the carries in 2019. Below is the carries split from last year.
Carlos Hyde getting 69% of the first down carries spelled trouble. When Hyde was on the field, defenses essentially knew the run was coming since he wasn’t a passing threat, and defenses could sell out for that. Now, with David Johnson being the dual threat that he is, it will be much harder for defenses to key in on the run. As shown in the table above, both Duke Johnson and Deshaun Watson had higher yards per carry numbers than Hyde, albeit with lower total carries. Both Watson and the Johnsons should be given more first down carries, to diversify the offense and become more efficient.
Duke consistently got more yards than was blocked for him. He’s a much better runner than people give him credit for, constantly showing great vision, patience, and cutting ability.
Watch Duke on this play. Previous Texans running backs would just plow forward up the A gap and take the one yard gain. Not Duke. He wants more. He bounces it outside, makes a guy miss on the edge, and is off for a 32 yard gain. He can make these runs against loaded boxes more successful from his pure talent.
Another aspect that should continue to be added is utilizing DW4 on read option plays. Houston did it sparingly last year. Watson had 15 carries, but he picked up 5.5 yards per carry when called upon. When faced with higher box numbers, running Deshaun allows Houston to take one of those defenders out of the equation.
Here the Texans leave Melvin Ingram (#54) unblocked and make him the read man. Even though there are seven in the box, Houston makes it six by ignoring him like this. Gordon crashes down on the run fake, so Deshaun takes off. He makes Ingram and a safety (#36) miss on the play, showing off his athleticism and how he can make Houston’s run game more dynamic.
Taking away Hyde’s predictability while adding more Duke and Deshaun carries should go a long way toward improving the Texans’ running attack. They should still be saving the run for when they get six man boxes, but when they get the typical seven and even eight man boxes, splitting the carries better—specifically getting Watson involved more—should help big time. Having an even more efficient and effective first down offense should scare defenses and force them to sell out harder on Houston’s play action fakes. This should raise the completion percentage on those throws and make our offense more dangerous.
“Establishing the run” is a myth. It has no basis in fact, at least for the Texans in 2019. Even if you have an efficient run game, defenses would rather give up the run while focusing on the pass, as that can yield more yards at a quicker rate. O’Brien’s first down runs aren’t really hurting us, but they aren’t really helping the offense as a whole either. Ideally we would want the run game to set up our play action fakes more effectively, but because we aren’t running an absurd amount, I wouldn’t say that it is a detriment.