Know Your Enemy: Houston Texans
After a tough-as-predicted win over the Browns, the Ravens are preparing for the second game of their home stand, this time against the Houston Texans.
The Texans are an interesting football team. They’ve made the playoffs each of the last two years, beating the Bengals in the wild card round both times. But they’ve failed to make it past the Divisional round, and questions linger about whether they’re capable of winning it all. I took a look at the film to see what the Ravens can expect from Houston this time around.
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The “Good” Houston Offense
For the most part, Houston has a very good offense. It would be easy to argue that they have the best running back tandem in the league with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Foster has put up some big numbers in his time as a starter, but Tate is an intriguing player too and shouldn’t be overlooked. In my opinion they’re pretty much equal players, and the team is equally dangerous no matter which back is on the field. Both backs have the right traits for Rick Dennison’s zone blocking scheme: patience, vision, and burst. I was particularly impressed by Foster’s ability to squeeze through tight holes and keep hands off of him.
Additionally, the Texans have two excellent tight ends, Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham. Both are more-than-capable receivers who can make contested catches and stretch the field. Houston likes to move Daniels all over the field. They’ll line him up at FB, TE, WR – think Aaron Hernandez, though not quite that good. Graham is the better blocker of the two, but both are complete tight ends who can stay on the field for passing and rushing downs. And don’t be surprised to see Daniels and Graham on the field together for much of the game…both have seen 100+ snaps so far this season.
The biggest weakness on the Texans offense is Matt Schaub. That may or may not come as a surprise, but it’s true. Consequently, the Texans use scheme to negate his impact on the offense. In particular, they like to run the ball, use play action, and use pre-snap motion. Successfully running the ball takes pressure off the quarterback, forces the safeties to move closer to the LOS, and sets up play action. The Texans zone-running scheme creates opportunities for boot-action, where Schaub fakes the handoff and the line blocks down as if it’s a zone run. Schaub then rolls out to the opposite side of the field, away from the defense, which is flowing toward the RB. This can create huge mismatches, such as a TE on a lone safety with space to run. See below for an example of the impact the boot-action can have:
Additionally, putting players in motion pre-snap can expose defensive assignments, bolster blocking, and create coverage problems/mismatches. The Texans use a ton of motion, especially with their tight ends and running backs. They like to move running backs out wide on the LOS to try to get a favorable matchup against a linebacker, for instance. One thing I noticed about Schaub is that he is not afraid to take shots when he sees single coverage. The Ravens will need to be very disciplined in their assignments, and the safeties will need to be near-perfect in this one.
Here, Houston lines up with their 12 personnel. They motion Arian Foster to the offensive left, where he joins Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins. Not only does this show Schaub that Weddle is in man coverage against the RB, it also clears up space in the middle of the field where the tight ends are going to go to work. San Diego reacts to the motion by bringing both inside linebackers up to the line of scrimmage.
Here, you can see the alignment of both teams following the RB motion. The two tight ends will be the first looks for Schaub. The linebackers are at the line of scrimmage, meaning they will likely bump the tight ends or just rush the passer. This is going to put a ton of pressure on the safeties.
In this image, the ball is already in the air (circled in red). It appears that Schaub is forcing the ball to his primary read, Graham, because of the pass rush (see the two blue arrows, both pointing at players on the verge of ending Schaub’s life). However, with another second, Schaub could have also looked to Daniels, who is single covered and has good position on his man. The result of this play can be seen below, circled in orange.
The “Bad” Houston Offense
As I mentioned before, the biggest weakness on the Houston offense is Schaub. After watching the film, I walked away feeling that this could be the best team in football with a different quarterback. Now, don’t get me wrong – he isn’t awful. This is a playoff team with him, so it could be worse.
Even still, Schaub has average-at-best mechanics, including an inefficient throwing motion. His arm strength is definitely below average, and he doesn’t handle pressure well. Rather than standing in the pocket and delivering a strike with a player in his face, Schaub bounces backwards and throws awkwardly off his back foot. If the Ravens are going to get turnovers in this game, they’ll likely result from pressuring Schaub.
Interception Under Pressure
On first down, with about 90 seconds to go in the first half, the Texans get the ball back at midfield. The Titans are going to bring a 5-man blitz, including both inside linebackers. The ‘backer who is directly in front of the RG will crash in and occupy the blocker, freeing ILB Moise Fokou to follow into the B-gap. Houston’s line is quickly overwhelmed.
In this shot, BOTH inside linebackers have blown past the Houston line and are heading straight for Schaub. Meanwhile, TE Owen Daniels is running a slant toward the middle of the field. Schaub sees a space where he can unload the ball, but Daniels has other ideas. He is about to cut his route back toward the opposite sideline. Meanwhile, Pollard has Daniels tightly covered and also has his eyes on the quarterback. When Daniels cuts his route, Pollard is going to keep going toward the spot where Schaub is throwing.
The result is the easiest interception of Pollard’s career. It’s also worth noting Schaub’s position in this image. He has just released the ball and is off-balance with his weight on his back foot. He has his back turned to the rush, anticipating being hit. I can’t post gifs anymore, but if I could, you’d see the ball lazily floating into Pollard’s waiting hands.
The reason pressure is so important is that it creates turmoil and forces the quarterback to make a mistake. It’s impossible to know the exact play call here – for all we know, Schaub may have been fully aware that Daniels would cut back toward the opposite sideline yet decided to force the ball early when he saw the blitz. Daniels could’ve broken his route to give Schaub an out when he saw pressure, but he didn’t. Either way, pressure created a miscommunication and an interception, and this is where the Ravens can beat Houston’s offense.
Holy J.J. Watt
The Houston defense is very strong across the board. They have studs at every level, including Watt on the line, Cushing at LB, and some guy named Ed Reed at safety. Obviously, Reed has been recovering and hasn’t seen the field yet. But once he does (and it appears he will play this Sunday), we all know what he’s capable of.
The Texans run an interesting defense. It resembles the Oklahoma 5-2, which was a college defense ran by coaches such as Chuck Fairbanks and Bum Phillips. These were some of the first men to introduce the 3-4 to the NFL, and the 5-2 looks a lot like the 3-4. (Side note: Houston’s particular defense uses 4-3 principles, meaning one-gapping linemen, whereas Bum Phillips and many of the 5-2 defenses used two-gapping linemen).
Houston nearly always leaves its two OLBs on the line of scrimmage (thus the 5 in 5-2). They stack the two ILBs over the guards, which was a wrinkle of the Oklahoma 5-2. The team has a lot of faith in these linebackers, as well as their secondary, and feels confident bringing 5 rushers on most passing downs. ProFootballFocus has Houston’s OLBs, Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, rushing the passer on 84.8% and 90.9% of passing downs, respectively. Miscommunications along the Ravens line will result in a long, painful day for Flacco, because in addition to the OLBs there are some pretty beastly linemen on the Texans roster, too.
Including, of course, the infamous J.J. Watt. Frankly, Watt is one of the most incredible players I’ve seen on film. He is strong, fast, relentless, and smart. He has a bevy of pass rushing moves. He is a sure tackler. He is a nightmare matchup for any lineman, and the Ravens will have quite a time stopping him. He is made even more difficult to stop by Houston’s scheme, which allows him to move all over the line and target the opponent’s weakest link. I have a feeling we’ll see him on the defensive left, tormenting Osemele, more than we will see him lined up over Yanda.
J.J. Watt Versus the Run
In the first image, you see J.J. Watt lined up as the 5-tech. Tennessee is in a heavy set with two TEs on the right side of the offensive line. In the second image, Watt is engaged with the RT and is using a swim move to get past him. Then, in the third image, Watt is AGAIN engaged (I use the term loosely), this time against a badly outmached tight end. Watt holds him at bay with one arm and takes down the ball carrier for a two-yard loss.
Using double teams at the point of attack and running away from Watt’s side of the field will be important for the Ravens. Even Leach may have a hard time taking on Watt as the lead blocker, so it will be up to the Ravens to win with scheme rather than brute strength.
J.J. Watt Versus the Pass
There isn’t a whole ton that needs to be said about this series of images. This is a perfectly executed dip/rip move (image 1, dip…image 2, rip…image 3, sack). It’s even better because the guard being thoroughly embarrassed here is the Titans’ first round draft pick from 2013, Chance Warmack. Warmack was an All American from Alabama who was viewed as a mauling run blocker. He said that J.J. Watt was, “just another guy” recently, but the proof is in the pudding.
In the end, the Ravens know what J.J. Watt can do. This isn’t their first time facing him, and they’ll do what they can to scheme for him. But he’s the kind of player that can ruin even the best-laid plans. Here’s to hoping the Ravens eat their Wheaties on Sunday.