by Andy Benoit
Longtime Broncos fans may feel hints of déjà vu when they watch their team square off against the Texans this Sunday. Gary Kubiak has molded Houston’s offense into his modern version of the zone-oriented scheme that he helped oversee as Denver’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 1995 to 2005. Wade Phillips has molded Houston’s defense into a more modern version of the one-gap hybrid scheme that he orchestrated as Denver’s defensive coordinator/head coach from 1989 to 1994.
Let’s analyze how Houston’s schemes and execution methods will fare against a redefined Broncos club.
1. The zone blocking scheme
We all know the basics of zone-blocking: offensive linemen being responsible for areas instead of specific defenders; the initial action taking place laterally; running backs looking to make a cut and drive. It’s a very effective system that the Texans have mastered.
The Texans have the most cohesive front five in football. Not because everyone has played together for a long time, as rotating right guards Antoine Caldwell and Ben Jones, as well as right tackle Derek Newton, are new to the starting lineup this year, but because, when the ball is snapped the Texans linemen play with exquisitely synchronized timing and rhythm. Play in and play out, all five Texans blockers exhibit the same zone mechanics. That’s a sign of good coaching.
The Texans also incorporate their tight ends, fullbacks and H-backs into the zones extremely well. They do this in a litany of ways, most notably with subtle pre-snap alignment wrinkles and post-snap motion. From a sheer physical skills standpoint, James Casey, Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham aren’t great blockers. But in this scheme, playing off movement and uniquely designed advantageous angles, they’re excellent.
Denver’s front seven is athletic enough to compete with the Texans’ east-west blocking. Middle linebacker Joe Mays plays with the kind of natural downhill instincts necessary for attacking zone runs. Their defensive tackles are well-sized. On the edge, coaches this week must make Von Miller alert to the backside blocking designs. Miller is a dynamic, improving run-defender, but awareness has been somewhat of a work in progress for him.
2. The Texans’ passing game
Besides Andre Johnson, there are two defining characteristics of Houston’s passing attack: stretch play-action and misdirection. Both are byproducts of the zone run game. Houston is potent here not because defenses fear Arian Foster and Ben Tate (though they do), but because this offensive line paints a very vague picture early in the play.
Look at this shot from Week 1 of last year. Can you tell if it’s going to be a handoff or a play-action rollout? Neither could the Colts. (It was a play-action, for the record.)
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
With their stretch play-action, the Texans are able to freeze their opponents for the first 1.5-to-2 seconds of most plays. That’s how they create so many great angles for their motion blockers or route runners.
As for the misdirections, these include Houston’s abundant screen passes, throwbacks, and bootlegs. Kubiak has myriad play designs that punish the defense for freezing or flowing hard in one direction. All of them are simple to execute, which gives Matt Schaub the help he needs. The ninth-year veteran is a smart, sound quarterback, but he doesn’t have the arm strength or upper-body mass to make stick throws from a crowded pocket. Misdirections allow Schaub to deliver the ball from space.
With linebacker D.J. Williams still serving a suspension, the Broncos will have a difficult time identifying and hunting up the screens and crossing patterns that define Houston’s pass game. Also, given his youth, safety Rahim Moore could be someone Kubiak and Schaub put a gold star on.
3. Houston’s offense in action
Four plays from the Texans’ second quarter touchdown drive against Jacksonville last week illustrated the type of balance, variety, and cunning subtle disguise that make this offense great. Here’s the breakdown:
- Third play of the series. Third-and-3. Schaub completes to Foster in the flat for 18 yards.
Based on the down and distance, Houston knew Jacksonville would be in man-to-man coverage, so they started out with trips receivers bunched to the right side. They also aligned the trips close to the formation, which is something they often do to create better angles in their run-pass disguises.
The play called for Foster to leak into the flats. Based on the formation alone, Jacksonville had virtually zero chance of stopping this. Foster’s man-defender, linebacker Russell Allen, would have to fight through a three-receiver crowd just to reach Foster. (Note: it wound up being a two receiver crowd, as Houston motioned one of the receivers to the other side.)
As it turned out, the Texans didn’t even need the bunch concept. Allen immediately bit hard on the run-action. This is a perfect illustration of how linebackers are manipulated in play-action not by the fake handoff, but by the movement of the offensive linemen. The fake handoff on this play was lazy and half-hearted. But, at that point, Allen had already reacted to the cohesively flowing linemen and was well out of position.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
- Fourth play of the series. First-and-10. Foster runs for a gain of nine.
A simple zone run executed to perfection. Three things stand out on this play, all of which exhibit why Houston ranked second in rushing last season.
-- The continuity of the offensive linemen
-- Foster’s lateral agility and vision on his cutback
-- The backside block from H-back Casey, which came off post-snap motion.
Notice that the block came against defensive end Jeremy Mincey. This allowed right tackle Newton to immediately get to the second level. An H-back blocking a defensive end is not something most offenses want. But in this case, the angle of the zone play titled the matchup in Casey’s favor. This is Houston’s run game in a nutshell. Great execution and design.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
- Sixth play of the series. First-and-10. Schaub completes to Kevin Walter down the seam for 13 yards.
Houston was in base personnel, and Jacksonville was in a base zone look. Having moved the ball successfully on the ground the past few series, Houston figured Jacksonville would be honing in on the run, so they created an exaggerated run look by motioning wide receiver Walter down inside the formation. With this set and the offensive line’s run action, the Jaguars had every reason to bite downhill. And they did.
Schaub and Foster also sold their fake handoff more aggressively this time. That was because, unlike the earlier play, the Texans were trying to get Jacksonville’s linebackers to bite north and south, not east and west. Also, with the Jaguars in zone instead of man, there was less initial spacing and more defenders staring at the ball. The fake had to be more convincing. Lastly, Walter’s route on this play was longer than Foster’s route to the flat on the earlier play. Thus, there was more time for the fake.
With the defense drawn up, and with safety help cheated to Johnson’s side, Walter simply had to sit down in the expansive space at the back end of the intermediate level.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
- Seventh play of the drive. First-and-goal from the 8. Tate runs for a touchdown up the middle.
This was a classic power run. Left guard Wade Smith got a good pull, right guard Caldwell and tackle Newton got a great point of attack double team on tackle C.J. Mosley. H-back Casey devoured linebacker Kyle Bosworth. And the ballcarrier Tate did a great job using his blocks and setting up his cut. Plays like this remind us that the Texans aren’t just a one-dimensional zone-running team.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
4. Houston’s defensive front
Everyone thinks Wade Phillips runs a 3-4. Really, he runs a 5-2. In a true 3-4, the defensive linemen play two gaps. Houston’s front defenders play one gap. Yes, there is a nose tackle shaded almost directly over the ball. But that doesn’t matter -– plenty of classic 4-3 teams shade a nose tackle over the ball. What matters is whether there is a three technique and on which side he lines up.
This is a typical Texans front look. It’s a 5-2 under front. Outside linebackers Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin have the same gap responsibilities as 4-3 defensive ends. On the weak side of the formation, end Antonio Smith is lined up as a three-technique. (This is technically a balanced formation, but with a balanced formation, the right side is generally considered the "strong" side. If the three-technique were aligned on the strong side of the formation, it’d be a "over front.") With the nose tackle shaded to the right, either Barwin or Smith is guaranteed to face one-on-one blocking. If the tight end runs a route, then both will face one-on-one blocking. Making sure you get at least one of your best rushers to face one-on-one blocking is what every one-gap defense aims to do.
Don’t be surprised if the Texans move their front seven defenders around before the snap a bit more this week. The Falcons gave Peyton Manning and the Broncos a lot of trouble with this Monday night. Movement helps create spacing and room for defenders to run. That’s the premise of Phillips’ scheme. He prefers speed and energy over size and power. He has a great joker in Brian Cushing. Not only is the fourth-year star explosive in space and traffic, he’s also incredibly instinctive when the action gets chaotic. Most players have to always be in the right position at the snap in order to make plays. Not Cushing.
5. Mixed Coverages
Phillips is able to be aggressive with his front seven because he has talented corners and versatile safeties. Johnathan Joseph is a top-five cover artist who can maintain his man-to-man responsibilities deep downfield and also jump routes from perimeter zones. He’s the reason Houston has so much success playing Cover 3. On the other side, Kareem Jackson is a bit hit-or-miss, but he works in this scheme because he uses the boundary well and can get safety help.
That is, if the safeties aren’t playing man coverage. When he’s not going Cover 3, Phillips is usually resorting to some sort of hybrid look. Being former cornerbacks, Houston’s starting safeties, Glover Quin and Danieal Manning, are both capable of handling man-to-man assignments inside. Backup Alan Ball can also play safety or corner. This lends tremendous versatility to what Phillips can do, especially when you factor in Joseph’s greatness.
The secondary’s versatility isn’t confined to the back end, either. Quin’s potent tackling is extremely valuable in the box. Backup safety Quintin Demps is also proficient up front. That’s why the Texans played 25 percent of their snaps in dime last season and just six percent in nickel.
The Broncos, with their two-tight end offense, present an interesting dilemma for Phillips. Does he play his base defense and hope that run-oriented linebacker Bradie James doesn’t get forced into coverage? Or does he go dime and hope that his safeties can hold up against the inside running of Willis McGahee and Lance Ball? The guess here is he’ll go dime, as that lends more opportunity for disguise.
Phillips doesn’t like to disguise unless it’s an obvious passing situation. The Falcons are the same way, but their willingness to bend this rule against Manning won the game for them Monday night.
Cowboys offense vs. Bucs defense
It’s easy to look at a box score, see that the Bucs gave up 179 yards to Victor Cruz and 199 yards to Hakeem Nicks last week, and assume that their cornerbacks struggled. But Aqib Talib and Eric Wright weren’t the problems. (Backup corner Brandon McDonald, who replaced an injured Wright in the second half, well, he was a problem.) When you play a high volume of man-coverage concepts like the Bucs did, you’re counting on your pass-rush reaching the quarterback. No defensive coach gameplans to have his corners blanket receivers for longer than 3.5 seconds. The Bucs got nothing from their four-man rush Sunday, and their blitzes were equally fruitless.
Another factor was Tampa Bay’s linebackers. Their awareness in coverage is so-so at best. The Giants took advantage of this by incorporating multiple underneath route combinations often. This sucked the linebackers up, widening the deep mid-level passing windows. Don’t be surprised if Dallas copies elements of New York here. Staying in base personnel and keeping Jason Witten aligned tight to the formation will put a burden on Tampa Bay’s linebackers. Not only can this create mismatches in the passing game, it could also give the Cowboys an opportunity to rediscover their ground game.
Bucs offense vs. Cowboys defense
Will Rob Ryan try to confuse Josh Freeman? You’d think so. After all, that’s what any good Ryan does. Freeman, though better through two weeks, floundered against complex pressure packages last season. However, at Seattle last week, facing a rookie quarterback who was playing behind a makeshift offensive line, Ryan opted for a lot of basic zone looks. With veteran Gerald Sensabaugh still out of the lineup, is Ryan concerned about the youth at safety?
Look for the Bucs to make a more concerted effort to get tight end Dallas Clark involved. He was an afterthought last week until Freeman found him underneath three consecutive times in the two-minute offense. The Seahawks threw out of tight end-heavy formations in order to make outside linebacker Anthony Spencer a pass defender in space. The Bucs will likely use Clark in different formations to try to make Spencer uncomfortable.
Saints offense vs. Chiefs defense
It’s true, the Saints offense doesn’t look the same. Drew Brees, normally the fastest progression reader in the league, has been a tad slower. That could be because the Saints have been less diverse and creative with their formations this season. A high volume of personnel packages and different sets have always been key to their offense. But with a thinning receiving corps -– Robert Meachem is gone, Devery Henderson has been out, Marques Colston is banged up -– the Saints have lost a bit of their downfield versatility. Play-caller Pete Carmichael has tried to compensate by using Darren Sproles more at receiver spots. Theoretically, that makes sense. However, Sproles can only stretch the defense horizontally. The Saints are used to stretching defenses vertically.
Carmichael would be wise to make Jimmy Graham more of a focal point. If he uses Graham early as a third wideout instead of a tight end, the Chiefs will be forced out of their comfort zone. Their nickel back, Javier Arenas, doesn’t have the size to defend Graham inside. Last season, the Chiefs would bring in an extra safety specifically to help against dynamic receiving tight ends. If they do this again Sunday, the Saints will have more opportunities to incorporate their backfield weapons in the passing game. Or, the Saints will simply split Graham outside the numbers and force one of those safeties to play him one-on-one in an unfamiliar part of the field.
Chiefs offense vs. Saints defense
New Orleans' run defense got embarrassed by Carolina’s zone run game last week. Things went south when the Panthers went to three-receiver sets. With the Saints spread out, they simply ran to the opposite side of where strong safety Roman Harper aligned. That isolated nickel linebackers Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Casillas against Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart. The nature of the three-receiver formations created impossible angles for those linebackers to handle. Carolina’s simple approach worked so brilliantly because the Saints defensive line did nothing against the run. By spreading out and forcing a linebacker off the field, Carolina made New Orleans’ run defense reliant on penetration from its front four. That front four has long been a weakness for this team.
The Chiefs don’t have a read-option running game, but if Jamaal Charles is healthy, they’ll have a very dynamic ground weapon in three-receiver sets. They ran from these sets effectively in the first half of their Week 1 bout with Atlanta. They’ll do so again this week unless New Orleans’ front four comes alive.
Raiders offense vs. Steelers defense
What jumped off the screen from the Raiders-Dolphins film was how Oakland’s interior offensive line got manhandled by the power of Miami’s front four. Even in a more finesse-based zone-blocking scheme, the lack of physical strength from guards Cooper Carlisle and Mike Brisiel and center Stephen Wisniewski is an issue. Penetration on the play-side will always destroy a zone run. With defenses not fearing Oakland’s passing attack, they’re able to fully commit a box safety to the backside. This allows defenders to be more aggressive in front-side pursuit, which leads to penetration and, at the very least, nullifies the offense’s primary advantage of zone-blocking: flowing linemen.
The Steelers, with their agility-based defensive ends, actually struggled a bit against zone running teams last season. But they didn’t get to face an offense like Oakland’s.
Steelers offense vs. Raiders defense
Oakland’s secondary is utterly depleted. Corners Joselio Hanson and Patrick Lee weren’t able to contain Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline on deep hook routes outside the numbers last week. The deep hook might just be Antonio Brown’s best pattern. If Brown doesn’t kill the Raiders outside this Sunday, it will be because one of his teammates killed them first inside. With the injuries, safety Michael Huff will likely be forced into a slot corner role. Being a former first-round corner, he’s physically capable of handling those duties, but if Huff could thrive with those duties, he wouldn’t have been moved to safety in the first place. The Steelers have been making great use of tight end Heath Miller in the flats. Expect them to send Miller on some inside-outside misdirection routes in order to exploit middle linebacker Rolando McClain’s stiffness in changing directions.
Obviously, the Raiders’ best chance at hanging with the Steelers is winning the battle up front. With defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy being more strength-oriented than speed-oriented, and with head coach Dennis Allen knowing his secondary can’t hold up if the play gets extended, Oakland will likely make a concerted effort to keep Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket. In that case, they’ll need defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly to do something they didn’t do last week: show up.
Jets offense vs. Dolphins defense
Let’s take this opportunity to highlight a few young Dolphins players who had big games last week. Outside linebacker Koa Misi, the historically underachieving second-round pick from three years ago, did a phenomenal job blowing up lead-blocks in the run game last week. He’s a player Jets fullback John Conner must be specifically prepared to face. In Miami’s sub-packages, rookie defensive linemen Derrick Shelby (undrafted) and Kheeston Randall (seventh-rounder) showed impressive versatility and body control, particularly against the pass. If they can become consistent facets of a rotation, the Dolphins will have one of the best defensive lines in football.
Dolphins offense vs. Jets defense
Since the Jets are known for bringing pressure, expect Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman to dial up a lot of three-step drops for Ryan Tannehill early in the game. That's not because they doubt their offensive line’s ability to pick up Rex Ryan’s blitzes and exchanges, but because they doubt their young quarterback’s willingness to hang in the pocket against New York’s pressure looks. Tannehill has a noticeable tendency to flee the pocket before pressure arrives. That’s typical of a young quarterback –- especially one that got to play in a clean pocket throughout his college career. The problem with a quarterback fleeing too early is, even if sacks are avoided, the timing and structure of the play are still compromised. The Jets entire scheme is built around compromising offensive play structure. That’s why so much of what they do is aimed at simply creating the illusion of pressure (four-man zone exchange pass rushes from overload looks, etc.). By calling quick-strike passes, the Dolphins will rob Tannehill of the opportunity to get nervous and scramble outside. That will help him establish a rhythm early on.