Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
20 Oct 2005
by Michael David Smith
Before the 2003 NFL draft, ESPN ran a funny commercial that showed David Carr lining up without an offensive line in front of him. We all got the message: Teams use the draft to address their needs, and no team had more glaring needs than the Houston Texans along the offensive line.
Surprisingly, Houston drafted only two offensive linemen that year, third-round tackle Seth Wand of Northwest Missouri State and seventh-round center Chance Pearce of Texas A&M. In 2004 Houston didn't draft any offensive linemen, and this year it drafted just one, fifth-round center Drew Hodgdon of Arizona State.
Every NFL fan knows what has happened: Houston's line still stinks.
But what I don't like about the football media is the way they analyze offensive lines as single entities, rather than examining offensive linemen as individuals. We hear that Houston's line is bad and Kansas City's line is good, but we rarely hear specifics about the individual players on the line. So on Sunday I watched the Houston offensive line on every play of their horrible 42-10 loss to Seattle to try to figure out who was the weak link, and whether anyone pulled his weight.
Quality control coaches use various systems to grade film, but to keep things simple I just watched each offensive lineman and marked when he made a good play and when he made a bad play. Good plays were blocks where the lineman clearly performed his assignment, either opening a hole on a running play or keeping a pass rusher at bay on a passing play. I had a fairly high standard. I didn't award a good play to a lineman just because the player he blocked didn't sack Carr. A lineman had to completely shut down the man he was blocking to earn a positive mark.
Bad plays consist mostly of missed blocks and penalties. Houston's linemen had a lot more bad plays than good plays, so I'll get into specific examples in a bit, but first, here are the results:
|Player||Position||Good Plays||Bad Plays|
Note: The starting lineup, from left to right, was Pitts, Brown, McKinney, Zach Wiegert, and Wade. Wiegert went down with an injury during the first series and hadn't done anything I marked as a good play or a bad play. Todd Washington filled in for him on the next two plays, and he also didn't do anything worth noting. Beginning with the second series, McKinney moved from center to guard and Hodgdon came in at center for the first NFL game of his career. Later in the first quarter, Riley came in for Wade at tackle. Riley and Wade alternated for much of the rest of the game.
Now, for some impressions of each player:
Chester Pitts became the Texans' starting left tackle as a rookie in 2002. In 2004 Houston moved him to guard, and, in my opinion, he's a fairly good guard. Sunday night was the first time he played tackle since 2003. I guess the Texans' brain trust figured, "If he's playing well at guard, we ought to move him back to left tackle, since that's the most important position on the line." Big mistake. Pitts was terrible Sunday.
When Seattle's Grant Wistrom was called for roughing the passer, Wistrom was furious that he was penalized, and with good reason: Pitts shoved him into Carr. If there's anything an offensive lineman can do that's worse than shoving a defensive end into his quarterback, I can't think of it right now. It was the kind of play you see from a guy who hasn't played tackle in a while and doesn't know what to do when someone is rushing to his outside.
Well, maybe there is one thing worse than shoving someone into your quarterback: Tackling your own running back. On a Domanick Davis run up the middle, Pitts just kind of lunged to his right and didn't block anyone. Davis tripped over him.
Want another example? Seattle tackle Craig Terrill isn't exactly known as the most overpowering player in the league, but on one play he bull-rushed Pitts with ease. Late in the first half on a handoff to Davis, Pitts got into position to block linebacker Kevin Bentley, made contact with him, and then just â€¦ stopped. Bentley made the tackle. Why Pitts didn't keep blocking, I can't imagine.
The final problem I had with Pitts, and something he demonstrated several times against Wistrom, is that he just isn't quick enough out of his stance when pass blocking. Again, that's something a guard can get away with because there's not a speed rusher barreling down outside him. But a tackle needs to be ready to engage a defensive end the instant the ball is snapped, and Pitts simply can't do it.
Pitts was flagged once for holding and once for lining up off the line of scrimmage, which is the type of penalty a player gets when he's playing out of position.
Milford Brown repeatedly struggled against the pass rush. On Houston's final drive Seattle's Rocky Bernard ran right past him to sack Carr. That was pretty much par for the course. Seattle's defensive tackles are all fairly quick on inside pass rushes, and Brown just wasn't ready for them. On several occasions Brown allowed rushers to get into Carr's face.
Offensive coordinator Joe Pendry, who became Houston's offensive line coach last year and took over as coordinator when Dom Capers fired Chris Palmer this season, believes in a zone-blocking scheme in which linemen block a specific area rather than a specific player. The problem, as I see it, is that too often Houston linemen just stood around doing nothing on plays when no Seattle players went into their zone. On one play, when no one came into Brown's zone, he just stood there instead of looking to help one of his teammates.
Brown is a big guy who made a couple of nice plays when run blocking, but he really shouldn't be anything more than a backup.
Brown was flagged once for holding.
Todd Wade is, on the evidence of Sunday night, the best player on the Texans' line.
In the third quarter Wade pancaked Bryce Fisher on a six-yard Davis run, then on the next play he made a nice block to seal the inside as Houston ran a good-looking play action pass, selling Seattle on a run to the left and allowing Carr to roll out and hit tight end Marcellus Rivers to the right. Later, Wade drove Bernard onto his back on consecutive plays. I love stuff like that.
Wade is definitely a better run-blocker than pass-blocker, though. He's listed at 6-foot-8 and I don't think he gets low enough when taking on inside rushers. Wade looks a little jittery when he's expecting a speed rush, and he was twice flagged for false starts.
Victor Riley struggled against Fisher much more than Wade did. On a few plays Fisher didn't bother going around Riley because he had no trouble at all simply shoving him to the Qwest Field turf.
Riley didn't seem to understand his role on certain plays. He lined up at right tackle on a pass where Carr rolled to the right, which means he can't let anyone outside him. So what does he do? Lackadaisically steps to the inside as Seattle's D.D. Lewis pressures Carr to the outside.
This is Riley's first season in Houston after four in Kansas City and three in New Orleans. Like Wade, he is much better as a run-blocker than as a pass-blocker, which is why the Texans' attempt to turn him into a left tackle just didn't work.
Riley was flagged once for illegally running downfield on a pass.
Drew Hodgdon did literally nothing well. I don't want to be too hard on a player stepping into his first game, but Hodgdon looks like the kind of guy who was drafted for his work ethic and attitude and is now finding that those attributes can get a player only so far. On first-and-10 from the Seattle 25-yard line, Hodgdon and Carr didn't connect on the snap, and as Carr bent down to grab the loose ball, Seattle's Chuck Darby shoved Hodgdon into Carr.
On running plays Hodgdon didn't get any drive. On passing plays he struggled to deliver the snap and get his hands up in time to block. This guy isn't ready for the NFL yet.
Hodgdon was flagged once for holding.
Steve McKinney has started every game in Texans team history and he's supposed to be the trusty veteran. But having to switch from center to guard on the first series had McKinney looking confused all night. On his second play at guard Davis ran up the middle and McKinney stood there and watched as his man, Wistrom, stopped Davis for a one-yard gain. Maybe he was trying to remember his assignment. I don't know. But it was ugly.
On passing downs, Seattle sometimes overloaded Houston's right side to get more rushers than Houston had blockers. McKinney, lined up at left guard, was almost always slow to recognize what Seattle was doing and didn't get over to the right in time to block anyone.
I marked one run-block as a positive, and I was probably being a little generous. McKinney was flagged once for a false start.
Having said all that, let me make clear that not all the problems Houston has are the offensive line's fault. Domanick Davis got truly horrible blocking from his receivers. On one first-quarter run, Jabar Gaffney completely whiffed on a block and Davis got stuffed. Later in the first quarter running back Vernand Morency lined up as a receiver and didn't come close to blocking Kelly Herndon, who crashed in and hit Davis for no gain.
On Grant Wistrom's sack of Carr, Wistrom ran right around Rivers, the tight end. It's one thing for a tight end to lose a one-on-one battle against a defensive end because he gets overpowered. It's something else entirely when a defensive end just out-hustles him to the outside.
And Carr is far from blameless in all this. I don't think I've ever seen a team that took an early lead use as many eight-man fronts as Seattle did. The Seahawks clearly didn't think Houston's passing game could beat them, and Carr proved them right, even though there were quite a few plays when Seattle rushed only three linemen and Carr had plenty of time to pass.
You don't need me to tell you the Texans are bad. The only question is: what can they do to improve? I think with Pitts at guard and Wade at tackle, they could have a competent pair of linemen on the right side. McKinney struggled at guard, but I think he is decent at center. That leaves the left side of the line, and there's just nothing they can do until the off-season. Left tackle looks like Houston's highest 2006 priority, but by the time the calendar changes, a new coach and a new quarterback might be even higher priorities.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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