Word of Muth: Houston's Zone Stretch
by Ben Muth
The votes are in, and the Houston Texans edged out the Denver Broncos in last week’s poll for which team I'll add to coverage in Word of Muth. Since I’m playing catchup with the Texans, I’ll probably write about them two weeks in a row. For this first Houston column, I watched the Texans’ last two games (against Cincinnati and Atlanta) as well as Matt Schaub’s final game (versus Tampa Bay) to see how much the Texans have changed their protections with T.J. Yates under center. Not much changed, actually, though they are using max protect a little more often. After three games, it is safe to say that I am a fan of Houston’s offensive line.
First, let’s talk a little bit about the personnel. The player that stood out most to me was right tackle Eric Winston. He really fits the scheme, and that shows how a good right tackle can be just as valuable as a good left tackle. Winston excels in the stretch running game, particularly on the front side. He always has his helmet in the right spot, and does a good job of getting movement both vertically and horizontally. He also has the ability to knock defenders onto his tight end and move up to the second level in combo blocks.
In the passing game, Winston isn’t as good, but he’s more than serviceable. He tends to lean a little bit, as opposed to sitting back and playing with separation, but he’s a good enough athlete to overcome this most of the time. Overall, he’s one of the best right tackles in the NFL.
Opposite Winston, on the left side, is Duane Brown. He compliments his fellow bookend well in the sense that he’s a strong pass blocker. The thing he does best is move his feet in the passing game -- he has a nice change of direction to him. He struggles a little bit in the running game, particularly when the Texans run right behind him, but he’s good on the backside, and good in space. This allows Houston to pull him, as well as run some tosses and designed bounce plays to his side. It gives the defense a different look.
As far as the interior guys go, I’d say the unit is more than the sum of its parts. They all work really well together in double teams, but what stood out to me was how great they are on combo blocks. A combo block is when two offensive linemen start out blocking the same defensive lineman, and then one leaves to block a linebacker. Houston does a really nice job of making sure that the backside blocker on the combo block is always able to get his head in front of the down lineman. If I had to pick a favorite of the three, I’d probably go with Chris Myers since he seems to make the most positive plays, but all of them are solid.
The personnel is good, but Houston's success is more a case of five solid players complimenting each other and a scheme matched perfectly than it is individual talent. The Texans bread-and-butter scheme is the zone stretch running game. So much of what Houston does (the naked bootlegs, the half-roll throwbacks, the tight end crossing routes) plays off of this scheme. Houston does three things incredibly well up front in the zone stretch game:
- 1) Stretch the edge
- 2) Win the double team
- 3) Handle the backside
I’m sure most people reading this article remember the controversy surrounding the Terrell Davis-era Broncos and their cut blocks (or chop blocks, if you’re a defensive coordinator). Those were mostly on the backside of zone stretch plays, and were incredibly effective in cutting off the backside pursuit. The thing the Broncos used to do is have the lead man of a double team "post" (basically stiff arm) on the way up to a linebacker, then have the trailer come in behind to cut block the defender. This used to be legal, because the the first lineman wasn’t actively engaging the defender -- he was just leaving his arm out there to prevent getting held by a defender. In recent years, the NFL has cracked down on these blocks, making it illegal to cut block any engaged defender. That means that there are a lot fewer cut blocks in today’s game.
You'll still see them though, and Houston does it more than most teams. Now, though, they cut block more to keep the backside defenders honest, as opposed to relying on the technique almost entirely. Instead of throwing 30 cuts a game, the backside players have to be able to rip through and get their head to the defender's play side numbers. That’s the ideal result, anyway -- it doesn’t always happen, especially if there isn’t a combination blocker to help slow the defender. If a backside lineman is by himself with a player matched up inside him, he has to find another way to block him, and that’s where you’ll still see cut blocks.
If a backside lineman can get his head in the right place and mix in a few cut blocks, he's going to be successful on the backside. You don’t need to kill people on the backside -- you really need to just stay engaged, not get driven back into the line of scrimmage, and run your feet at the end of the block. If someone can do that, the running back will be able to run through arm tackles on the front side or cut it all the way back out to the back end. Giving a runner that choice is what the play is all about.
Somewhere on the front side of the play, there will be a double team. It doesn’t really matter if it’s between the center and guard, the guard and tackle, or the tackle and tight end. What matters is that the double team either gets a clean reach on the defender you're double-teaming, or that they knock him off the ball a couple of yards. Basically, this is going to be the seam that back is going to press -- once the runner gets the hand off, he has to attack the line at a certain point. Unless there is an immediate hook on the edge defender, the back is going to run at the play side double team, since that’s where you should be the strongest.
If they get a clean reach, the hole the running back presses is much wider, because every defender taking on a single block is widening themselves to maintain their gap. When the guy getting double-teamed gets reached, it means the defense now has a gap unaccounted for, and it looks worse because every other gap is three yards wider than it was initially. That means the ball carrier can recognize the hole quicker, and has room to make someone miss.
If they can’t reach the defender, but can drive him back, it creates a different kind of advantage. By knocking the defender off the ball, it allows the back to press the hole deeper, he may even get past the line of scrimmage before he has to make a cut. That puts the linebackers in a bad position, because now they have to attack the hole to fill it. Once the running back does make his cut, they can’t react -- either they get picked up by an offensive lineman, or, just as commonly, run into their own man. They get sucked up into all the muck, and can’t get out. By knocking the double-teamed defender back, you allow the ball carrier to direct where the linebackers fill.
Finally, there’s stretching the edge. This mainly comes down to the tight end, although the tackle (either on a weak side play or as part of a double team) can be responsible as well. Here, all you want is to get the edge defender two or three yards wider than where he starts while not getting driven too far back behind the line of scrimmage. You do this by threatening the defender's edge, sticking your helmet outside his numbers, and then throwing him outside when he tries to get back to his gap.
Both Texans tight ends do a pretty good job of this (though Joel Dreessen is certainly better), and Winston is even better than the tight ends. This is probably the thing Brown struggles with most, since he tends to get knocked too far into the backfield, making the running back cut back too soon. The reason the Texans are able to stretch the edge consistently is that both Arian Foster and Ben Tate do a good job of recognizing when they can bounce it outside.
Eventually, a defender is going to just stop trying to fight outside if you’re cutting back inside of him all day, or if the defender sees you do this on film a lot. The good news is that if the defender does peek his head inside, and the back bounces it outside, he’s now one-on-one with a corner who doesn’t want to tackle him, and you have the potential for a huge play. It only takes one of those a game to keep defenders honest and keep the train rolling.
That’s really the zone stretch game in a nutshell. It’s designed to gain consistent yardage in small chunks early in the game, then as the game goes along, big plays start to open up. Maybe the backside guys start to get tired from a couple of cut blocks and allow a big cut block lane, or maybe the edge defender is tired of seeing the ball run up inside him for three quarters and tries to make a play, only to lose contain. By simply covering up defenders and allowing a back the freedom to run wherever he wants, you put a ton of pressure on the defense, and eventually the cracks will show.
Next week I’ll probably draw up a couple of specific types of zone stretch plays -- some combo of weak, BOSS, release, force, and search. But I wanted to talk about the basic principles of the scheme first, so I’ll see you here next week, with pictures.