by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Finally! For the first time in their ten-year existence, the Houston Texans enter a season looking to build on a playoff experience. Terrific coaching is to thank for that newfound experience. In 2011, Gary Kubiak oversaw an offense that ranked 10th in scoring and 13th in yardage despite missing star running back Arian Foster in the early parts, superstar receiver Andre Johnson in the middle push, and starting quarterback Matt Schaub down the stretch. As we’ll examine, it was Kubiak’s well-polished, well-taught, motion-based zone system that enabled Houston to overcome the barrage of injuries.
Defensively, after years of new coordinators and new schemes, the Texans finally hit on Wade Phillips and his unique one-gap-attacking 3-4. The scheme, which was aided by the acquisition of a premium cover corner in Johnathan Joseph, produced a defense that ranked fourth in scoring and second in yardage despite a season-ending injury in October to two-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher Mario Williams.
With his club finally tasting genuine success, owner Bob McNair rewarded Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith with three- and four-year contract extensions, respectively, this past spring. Validating McNair’s faith by winning a second AFC South title shouldn’t be too hard for the two leaders of this organization. Yes, free agency wasn’t especially kind to the Texans, so their depth on both sides of the ball is, at the very least, less experienced than a year ago. But all of the genuinely significant contributors are back, and with the Colts rebuilding from the ground up, the Titans searching for an identity, and the Jaguars fecklessly hoping to win with an offense that can’t throw, Houston’s path back to the top of the division is about as wide open as they come.
McNair will soon have to make another decision about a new contract for one of his leaders; Matt Schaub’s current deal expires after this season. Schaub may have already been signed to a long-term deal by now if not for the fact that injuries have cost him five or more games in three different seasons since he was dealt to Houston in 2007. Because of his fragility, this is somewhat of a "make or break" season for the 31-year-old.
Schaub’s performance in 2012 will dramatically impact not only the Texans’ immediate future, but also their long-term construction plans. To understand why is to understand the Texans at their very core. Theirs is an interesting core, as it challenges the most popular notion of today’s NFL.
Look at the signalcallers who reached the Super Bowl over the last six years: Eli Manning (twice), Tom Brady (twice), Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner. These are great -– not good -– quarterbacks. Their teams were built around them and their performance dictated who claimed what trophies around the NFL.
The Texans are not built around Matt Schaub. They’re quarterbacked by Schaub, but he doesn’t have the type of tools you build around. Schaub is the consummate "good" quarterback. He’s accurate, smart, and moderately athletic. But he doesn’t have a cannon arm (not even close, in fact) or innate playmaking prowess when things break down. The longer Schaub holds the ball in the pocket, the less effective he becomes. That’s always a telltale sign of a limited quarterback.
This dose of blunt truth always prompts Texan fans to bring up Schaub’s stats: 4,770 yards and a 98.6 passer rating in 2009; 4,370 yards and a 92.0 rating in 2010; a rating of 96.8 in 2011. Impressive numbers, indeed. But they’re proof that Schaub is simply a good fit in Gary Kubiak’s system.
Kubiak’s system does not demand a lot of quarterbacks in terms of sheer physical talent. It’s a system that naturally allows the quarterback to be managed. (This is why the Texans were able to survive when fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates took over for the final month-and-a-half last year.) It’s also a system that requires patient decision-making and consistent accuracy, which is why Schaub excels in it.
What the Texans must decide after this season is whether their system is strong enough to ultimately carry them to a Super Bowl. If they feel that it is and they believe Schaub can stay healthy, they’ll re-sign him. If there’s an inkling of doubt, they could find themselves searching for a franchise quarterback.
If any system is good enough to disprove the theory that you need a superstar quarterback to reach the Super Bowl, it’s Kubiak’s. Unlike Jim Harbaugh, who nearly led the 49ers and their "system quarterback" Alex Smith to the Super Bowl last season, Kubiak isn’t trying to go against the NFL’s grain by orchestrating an old-fashioned power run offense. His scheme is perfectly designed for the increasingly finesse nature of today’s NFL.
Yet, it’s a scheme built around the run. Not just the run game itself, but also the threat of the run. Houston’s passing attack stems largely from run elements like play-action, bootlegs and rollouts. This is why so much of the Texans’ passing game takes place out of base personnel. The Texans do a marvelous job using pre-snap motion and tight formation wrinkles to disguise their run/pass intentions and create favorable one-on-one matchups (in blocking and receiving) for fullbacks, H-backs and tight ends.
This is why losing fullback Lawrence Vickers and No. 2 tight end Joel Dreessen hurt this team. Most of Vickers’s snaps will wind up going to H-back James Casey. Casey has been featured more and more as a motion-oriented backfield lead-blocker since joining this team as a fifth-round pick in 2009. When aligned in the backfield, his route running and downfield receiving prowess create unusual matchup problems for defenses –- something Kubiak is well aware of. As far as replacing Dreessen goes, the hope is that third-year pro Garrett Graham can perform well enough that the Texans won’t feel obligated to use Casey in the No. 2 tight end hole.
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To fill Dreessen’s shoes, Graham must be a strong one-on-one blocker on the edges and a smooth intermediate route runner between the numbers. The blocking aspects are more important since lithe, soft-handed seventh-year veteran Owen Daniels will be the primary receiving weapon inside.
Important as it is for the fullbacks and tight ends to win their favorable matchups as blockers, it’s the continuity of the offensive line that makes Houston’s system really work. Coached by offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and line coach John Benton, this is an extremely well-schooled, fundamentally sound group. Five blockers firing off the ball with the same synchronized mechanics play in and play out makes it impossible for defenders to tell whether the Texans are running one of their stretch handoffs or executing a play-action rollout. These two seconds of ambiguity are the secret ingredient to this prolific offense.
Given the emphasis on offensive line continuity, it’s understandable that fans might be concerned about the loss of starting right tackle Eric Winston and starting right guard Mike Brisiel. Both were dependable veterans. But both were also dismissed willingly, as Rick Smith released Winston and chose not to re-sign Brisiel. This is an indication that Dennison and Benton believe they can coach up and integrate in-house replacements Derek Newton (tackle) and Antoine Caldwell (guard). Caldwell has been with the organization since 2009, so his transition should be relatively seamless. Backup tackle Rashad Butler, who was battling with Newton for the starting job, was lost for the season with a torn triceps in Houston's final preseason game.
To hedge his bets on the right side and look towards the future, Smith spent a third-round pick on Miami’s Brandon Brooks and a fourth-rounder on Georgia’s Ben Jones. Brooks is a guard who, at 350 or so pounds, has enough size to perhaps one day become a right tackle. At this point, though, he’s in need of mechanical refinement. Jones was a center in college and is projected to play that spot here, though most centers, especially in a zone scheme, can easily pick up the guard position.
Jones won’t sniff the starting center job anytime soon, as dependable veteran Chris Myers signed a four-year, $25 million contract this offseason. Myers doesn’t have the strength to win in a phone booth, but he’s a master of leverage and angles. At left guard is Wade Smith, a versatile run-blocker and, for the most part, a reliable enough pass-protector. At left tackle is Duane Brown, who recently earned a new six-year, $53.4 million contract for his mobility in the run game and consistency in the pass game.
The moving pockets and run fakes help Houston’s passing attack not just by giving the so-so-armed Schaub more room and time to throw, but also by naturally extending the duration of each play –- which extends the amount of time Texans receivers have to run their routes. This enables the Texans to execute many of their shrewd route combinations out of base personnel.
Of course, route combinations are always going to look good with Andre Johnson outside. When healthy, the 10th-year veteran is arguably the best all-around receiver in football. Johnson’s greatness allows Houston to get away with having just a basic possession receiver like Kevin Walter in the No. 2 spot. With Owen Daniels as the lone slot threat following the departure of Jacoby Jones, the Texans tabbed Michigan State’s Keshawn Martin in the fourth round. Martin will play ahead of third-round rookie DeVier Posey, who was suspended for most of his final season at Ohio State and is seen as more of a developmental project.
It’s easy to assume that undrafted fourth-year pro Arian Foster is just another product of a zone-blocking system. Indeed, Foster’s one-cut downhill style and well-honed vision and patience are a perfect fit in this scheme. But Foster would be a perfect fit in any scheme. He plays with a natural burst and has tremendous power. He’s also very good in the passing game. Not just out of the backfield, but also detached from the formation, where he can catch bubble screens or short hitches and slants.
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Foster’s backup, Ben Tate, is also a gem. The 2010 second-round pick rushed for 942 yards on just 175 carries last season, showing confined power inside and just enough speed to keep defenses mindful of the stretch play. Tate isn’t a natural third-down back, though, which is why ex-Seahawk Justin Forsett was signed as insurance in case Foster is for some reason unavailable.
People see three Texans lining up with a hand in the dirt and just assume that Wade Phillips is running a 3-4. He’s not. Phillips’s scheme is really a 5-2. The outside linebackers align standing up, but they crowd the line of scrimmage and have virtually the same gap responsibilities as defensive ends would have in a 4-3.
Many 4-3 schemes are centered around one-gap concepts. So is Phillips’s scheme. He plays an under front with his defensive line, which means his weakside defensive end -– usually Antonio Smith -– is lined up between the guard and the tackle in the three-tech. Lining up to the outside of Smith is linebacker Connor Barwin, who, in this position, draws backside run containment responsibilities and faces one-on-one blocking as a pass-rusher. Barwin plays the same role that Phillips had DeMarcus Ware play in Dallas.
Though Barwin posted a commendable 11.5 sacks last season and was a constant nuisance in the backfield, the Texans may hope to one day turn his premium role over to Whitney Mercilus, whom Smith used a first-round pick to acquire. Having spent his Illinois career playing defensive end, Mercilus won’t be expected to carry a heavy load as a backup outside linebacker in 2012. Most guys in his position would at least be cast as a pass-rushing specialist out of the gates. However, on the other side of Barwin, the Texans already have another high-octane rusher in last year’s second-round pick, Brooks Reed.
Effective as Reed is at chasing the quarterback, his greatest strength is setting the edge and filling against the run. Offenses may soon find it hopeless running to his side of the field given that he lines up behind defensive end J.J. Watt. The 11th overall pick of a year ago has already been projected as a future Hall of Famer by his smitten defensive coordinator. Watt’s uncannily long arms and natural all-around strength create nightmarish congestion in the trenches. Having played tight end at Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin, he also has preternatural nimbleness for his build.
Most important about Watt and Reed –- as well as Smith and Barwin –- is that they play with near-reckless tempo and energy on every down. That’s really the most defining characteristic of Phillips’s defense. Yes, Phillips does a great job with pre-snap disguises and overload blitz concepts, but what makes those concepts great is the 5-2 alignment creates additional spacing that allows the front seven to play fast. While most defenders pin their ears back on third-and-long, Texans defenders play in attack mode at all times. Over the course of a game, this can make an offense become very reactionary.
Young linebackers can play every down with their ears pinned back and not run out of gas, but most defensive linemen can’t. Stationed between Watt and Smith is Shaun Cody who, like Jay Ratliff in Dallas, plays his nose tackle position more like an under-tackle. Cody is well-cut for a 300-plus pounder, but he still has to share snaps with Earl Mitchell, a third-year pro who offers more lateral agility in traffic. Alongside Mitchell is backup end Tim Jamison, a surprisingly explosive undrafted fourth-year man who fits this scheme by consistently creating big-play opportunities for others through penetration. The Texans had another guy like this last season in Tim Bulman, but he was somewhat of a fringe player and left in free agency. The expectation is that fourth-round rookie Jared Crick can be a dramatic upgrade and even push Jamison for playing time.
We’ve saved the best for last in the front seven by finishing with inside linebacker Brian Cushing. The fourth-year pro is absolutely sensational in a system that has him constantly playing downhill. He is ravenous against the run and often the key component of Phillips’s blitzes, which are designed to create sack opportunities for specific players depending on the situation. Cushing has the speed to be the primary pass-rusher, and he has fervid power at the point of contact to be the setup man who eats blocks. This combination makes it difficult for offensive linemen to diagnose Houston’s pass-rushing designs before the snap.
Starting next to Cushing will likely be Bradie James. The 31-year-old showed signs of decline in Dallas last season, but because the Texans only use one linebacker in virtually all of their passing down sub-packages, they don’t need a dynamic athlete in the second inside spot. They just need a stalwart interior run-stopper who understands his gaps. If James can’t physical handle things, the Texans will have to turn to either Mister Alexander (a diminutive undrafted second-year player who at least plays with decent tempo) or Tim Dobbins (a career-long backup who plays with some pop but has limited range). Ideally, Darryl Sharpton would be the next man up, but he’s had trouble recovering from a 2011 torn quad.
Phillips uses just one linebacker in his sub-packages because he has a rich rotation of versatile safeties who are good enough tacklers to be counted on for making openfield stops at the second level. Starter Glover Quin, with his ability to play slot corner or drop back deep near the numbers, is the best of the bunch. The retail version of Quin is Troy Nolan, who can operate at deep safety or dime linebacker. Nolan and the more finesse Quintin Demps generally come off the bench behind rangy but historically hit-or-miss free safety Danieal Manning.
Manning has played cornerback at times in his career, but the Texans likely have enough depth at the position to keep him in what’s clearly his more comfortable centerfield spot. Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are the starting corners. Joseph is a first-class cover artist who shadows the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver week in and week out. He’s not quite a shutdown corner (currently, only Darrelle Revis truly is), but Phillips’s system wouldn’t work without him reliably handling huge assignments. As for Jackson, he’s had an up-and-down career since being taken in the first round three years ago, but he seemed to get more comfortable as last season wore on.
Brandon Harris was drafted last year to play in the nickel slot, but the second-rounder has looked slow thus far and may land on the depth chart behind fellow 2011 classman Roc Carmichael (a fourth-rounder who spent 2011 on IR). That would mean a lot of "inactive" Sundays for him, as ahead of Carmichael is slot corner Brice McCain and ex-Cowboys safety/corner Alan Ball.
With punter Brett Hartmann out for the first three games as part of his late 2011 performance-enhancing drug suspension, the Texans signed veteran Donnie Jones. They’ve also signed a veteran kicker, Shayne Graham, who won the job after fifth-round rookie Randy Bullock landed on IR with a torn groin. Tiny but electrifying return ace Trindon Holliday hasn’t picked up the receiver position well enough to garner a roster spot either of the last two years, but he snagged one this year with an explosive preseason.
The defense is dynamic enough for Houston to make a Super Bowl run with a system-based quarterback, though that quarterback plus the handful of stars on both sides of the ball must find a way to stay healthy for a change. A safer, more realistic projection for this well-schooled club is another Divisional Round playoff appearance.