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?
22 Dec 2011
by Ben Muth
Well, one week after I praised the Houston Texans offensive line, they came out against Carolina (one of the worst defenses in the league) and ... played a nice game. Did you see what I did there? I made it seem like the Texans line played poorly because they lost, but then I went a different way. I’m so witty.
In all seriousness though, Houston’s offensive line played well on Sunday against the Panthers, and had very little to do with the Texans’ surprising loss. Clearly, the quarterback play was an issue (as were turnovers), but the big guys weren’t responsible for that. Really, I thought all five guys played well, particularly in pass protection where they were all stellar.
Eric Winston didn’t play as well as I’ve seen him play in the past, but he certainly wasn’t bad. He gave up a little penetration when Arian Foster or Ben Tate were running behind him, but he made up for it by getting good width on the defensive ends. This allowed the runners to cut it back inside of him on occasion. He also got a clean hook a couple of times, letting the ball carrier to scoot around the edge.
I thought Duane Brown played the best game I’ve seen him play. It started a little slow -- they ran behind him on three straight plays to start the game and only gained more than a yard on the play where Foster fumbled -- but during the second drive the big fella really kicked it into gear. He got much better vertical movement in the running game than he has in the past, and he still is moving well in space. He also did a fine job on the backside of plays away from him. Combine that with his typical solid performance in pass protection and it was a strong day for Brown.
The interior guys played as well as they have all season. Antoine Caldwell stepped in for Mike Brisiel, who is out with a fractured fibula, and I didn’t really notice a significant drop off from the starter. I think Brisiel is a little better at the point of attack (especially in one-on-one versus a three-technique), but Caldwell more than held his own. Caldwell seemed like very good backside blocker (whether he was throwing cut blocks or staying up), so I don’t think there will be any problems with Brisiel out. I did see him get bull rushed once in pass protection, but overall he wasn't bad, and really the only reason it stood out at all is because the rest of line was so great in protection for the entire game.
Last week, I said I wanted to get into some of the specific varieties of the stretch that Houston runs. The specific play I want to talk about today is called "Release." It’s a stretch concept up front, which means stretch footwork and general stretch blocking assignments. However, there is also a lead blocker on this play, and he can block basically whoever he wants. The other key to the play is the tight end motion. Houston ran this play twice in the first half, and we’re going to look at both runs.
|Figure 1: Texans Release Right|
The first time Houston ran it there was about 3:30 left in the first quarter. The Texans were in a classic I-formation with the tight end lined up on the left side (Figure 1), and Carolina was in a base 4-3 over, where the three-technique is to the tight end side. Before the snap, Houston motioned Owen Daniels across the formation, snapping the ball when he was in a flexed position to the right. That motion is really the the basis for the entire play.
When Daniels motions across like that, someone on the defense has to account for him as receiver. He’s too wide for a linebacker to cover him, and the safety on that side is going to be too deep to cover him effectively. So, the defense has to adjust their alignment, they can either widen the linebacker or roll the safety down. The tight end will block whichever defender comes out to him. Here it is the outside linebacker.
That’s the ideal situation for this play, because now the offense will outnumber the defense at the point of attack. The right tackle (Winston) is man-to-man with a defensive end. His job, like we discussed last week, is to widen him and keep him on the line of scrimmage. Here, he really only does half of that -- he does a nice job of pushing the defensive end out (probably between four-to-five yards), but he gets knocked back two yards into the backfield himself. This was a passable block, but not ideal.
The right guard (Caldwell) and center (Chris Myers) are in a combination block where they'll start on the nose tackle and move to the middle linebacker. It’s important to point out that you are never supposed to chase linebackers on this play. That means you set a track to try to intercept them at the point of attack, but if the defender goes flying out wide too fast, you simply stay on your track and pick up the backside linebacker. This is because the lead back has no assignment. With the ability of the ball carrier to cut back against overanxious defenses, that linebacker will get picked up by somebody in better position or get caught up in other blocks outside.
Caldwell gets to the second level quickly and throws a really nice block on the Mike linebacker. In fact, he might have gotten up too quickly, as he didn’t give Myers much help at all before he left. As a result, Myers was a little behind the block the entire play. Now, as with Winston’s block, it wasn’t bad -- just more of a stalemate than a head coach would like. If either Winston or Myers had executed a better block, the other’s block would have been more than fine. But since they both only made average blocks, the play wasn’t as big as it could have been.
On the backside, both the guard and the tackle ended up wheeling on the defensive lineman over them. That surprised me because usually you’ll see the guard and tackle combo the three-technique to the backside linebacker on zone stretches. Wade Smith must have felt that the defensive tackle was playing hard into the A-gap as he decided to wheel back on him, which led Brown to wheel back on the defensive end. It’s hard to tell on the TV tape (give us All-22 please!), but I’m willing to give Smith the benefit of the doubt.
So, we have two mediocre blocks on the play side (Winston and Myers) and one nice block (Caldwell on the Mike). The backside is solid, but right now there is no one responsible for the backside linebacker. This is where the fullback is supposed to come in and make stuff right. Lawrence Vickers decides to try to take it outside and helps out Daniels, as Daniels isn’t much of a blocker, really. I would’ve liked to see Vickers turn it up tight and chip the nose tackle on the way to the backside linebacker, but that’s easy to say with hindsight. At least Vickers was decisive and physical, and allowed Foster to get a solid four-yard gain on second-and-9. The play didn’t get as many yards as it could have, especially considering the base look and the linebacker bump, but it was a nice gain.
|Figure 2: Texans Release Left|
The next time Houston dialed up "Release" was in the second quarter with about 8:05 left. This time, Houston started in the Offset I-Formation, with the fullback to the right, and motioned the tight end to the left. Carolina was once again in a 4-3 Over, but this time they had the left outside linebacker (defense’s left) walked up on the line of scrimmage. When Daniels motioned across the formation, the safety rolled down (making him Daniels’ man) and the linebackers stayed put.
Here, Brown did an excellent job on the defensive end. He widened him three-to-four yards and drove him off the ball a solid yard as well. Smith and Myers were working from the nose to the middle linebacker, but since the linebackers didn’t bump outside with the motion, the guard was able to give just a little more help to the center. It made a difference, as Myers’ block was a little better, and Smith still got to the Mike.
Since the outside linebacker on the backside was walked up, the backside linemen (Caldwell and Winston) knew they were probably going to end up on the down linemen, since there was no linebacker to work to. That’s exactly what they did, and they left the blitzing linebacker unblocked since he was so wide. Plus, that backside linebacker has to be wary of the bootleg anyway.
That leaves Vickers one-on-one with the play side outside linebacker, and Vickers just crushes him. It was time to pass the syrup, because Jordan Senn was getting fed a big ol’ stack of pancakes. Foster followed his fullback for a very nice 15-yard gain.
You've probably noticed that in the ideal situation Houston only gained four, while in the less ideal situation the Texans gained fifteen. Well, that’s football. There’s an old saying that "It’s about Freddies and Joes, not X’s and O’s," and that was the case here. Houston just made better blocks on the second play. But it also shows why this play is so popular with stretch teams (and a real staple of the Gibbs-style attack). Because of the motion and the fluidity of the assignments, especially for the fullback, it allows you to block well against all kinds of fronts, and never puts you in a truly bad situation. There’s a reason this is my third-favorite play in all of football. The top two, for the record, are tackle eligible and the flea flicker.
That wraps it up for this week. Remember to follow me on Twitter. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to look over Tennessee’s abomination last week and do a little Twitter breakdown of that. Until next week, happy holidays everybody.
10 comments, Last at 23 Dec 2011, 2:13pm by Dean