By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Not many teams could withstand injuries to their three best offensive players and achieve what the Houston Texans did in 2011. Bears fans can relate to this better than anyone, watching last season bottom out after losing Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.
Despite missing a combined 18 starts from running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson, and quarterback Matt Schaub (lost for the season in Week 10), the Texans were still in a position to advance to the AFC Championship game, led by rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.
Sustaining success amidst adversity is a testament to coaching and scouting. Texans owner Bob McNair wisely recognized the capabilities of the current brain trust, extending contracts of head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith.
In six seasons on the job, Kubiak’s offense has ranked in the top four three times. The bedrock of Houston’s offense is their zone-blocking scheme. Kubiak absorbed the principles of the zone-blocking scheme during his time in Denver, working with Mike Shanahan and offensive line guru Alex Gibbs.
Conceptually, the zone-blocking scheme is designed to allow smaller, quicker offensive lineman to combat the ubiquitous athletic talent on defensive lines across the league, by blocking specific areas instead of players. When the offensive line works in concert, the first few seconds of any play – run or pass – look identical, which makes it more difficult for a defense to read its keys.
Additionally, it gives running backs the ability to read how their blockers are set up before making one decisive cut up the field. The Texans have scouted the proper talent to execute the scheme and the coaches have successfully taught it, as the Texans boast (arguably) the league’s best running back, Arian Foster, and one of the league’s best offensive lines.
When you consider how many draft busts there have been at the running back position, it’s difficult to reconcile how Foster went undrafted. He possesses size, speed, power, patience, decisiveness, and open-field vision, making him an ideal fit for Kubiak’s system. The Texans feed the ball to Foster and he produces. Foster leads the league in rushing attempts (192), rushing touchdowns (10), and is second in rushing first downs (42).
Having a running back like Foster opens up several play-action and bootleg opportunities down the field. The Texans are unique in that quarterback Matt Schaub is not the centerpiece of the offense. Yes, Schaub’s accuracy and careful decisions with the ball benefit the offense, but he’s not asked to win games, he’s relied upon to run the system. Schaub’s sleight of hand on play fakes has steadily improved, resulting in several wide open shots down the field on bootleg action.
The Texans have yet to find a second wide receiver to compliment All-Pro Andre Johnson. Instead, they’ve found creative ways to use pre-snap motion to get single coverage for their their tight ends, and Owen Daniels is having a career year. The Texans are able to disguise run/pass intentions by operating primarily out of their base or “regular” personnel groupings.
As alluded to earlier, the Texans offensive line is synchronized at the outset of each play. In doing so, defenders are delayed in reading their keys, which can either open up a cutback lane in the running game, or freeze a safety long enough to get a vertical shot over the top. By running boots, naked, waggles, and roll-outs off of play action, the Texans take advantage of over-pursuing defenses, as well as create more time for route combinations to evolve.
Despite losing 40% of their offensive line in free agency – tackle Eric Winston and guard Mike Brisiel – the Texans offensive line is still formidable. Left tackle Duane Brown is one of the best in the league, and center Chris Myers was a 2011 Pro Bowler. The Texans will be the biggest challenge yet to the Bears defensive line.
The biggest move the Texans made prior to the 2011 season didn’t involve any players, it involved hiring defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Much like Dom Capers and Mike Nolan, in one season, Phillips transformed the Texans from the NFL’s 30th ranked unit to the second best in the league. This transformation is even more impressive when you consider Mario Williams played only five games in 2011.
So how did Phillips turn it around so quickly in Houston? Making a concerted effort to stop the run, simplifying the scheme, and utilizing a rotation of ends on the edge to collapse the pocket. The Texans play a physical style of defense, flow to the football, and have great closing speed at every level.
The Texans run a 3-4 scheme and play a lot of Cover-4 (quarters) coverage, but they’ve incorporated many 4-3 concepts. For example, they primarily operate out of a 5-2 front, meaning their outside linebackers line up similar to a defensive end in a 4-3, and they play a one-gap concept. This creates congestion at the line of scrimmage and confusion in opposing protection schemes.
The Texans have an embarrassment of riches along their defensive front. J.J. Watt is the headliner and is in the conversation – along with Bears cornerback Charles Tillman – for defensive player of the year. Watt is not only a threat to get to the quarterback, he’s mastered the skill of getting into passing lanes to bat the ball, registering 10 passes defended. The only effective countermeasure for Watt appears to be a cut block, which isn’t without risk.
Watt is complimented on the inside by nose tackle Sean Cody and defensive end Antonio Smith. Cody mans the nose, while Smith typically lines up as a three-technique on the open or “weak” side of the formation. On the edge, the Texans have a deep rotation of pass rushers, led by Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed, and rookie Whitney Mercilus (Illinois).
With ends who can set the edge and interior rushers who can collapse the pocket from the inside, the Texans defensive front is formidable.
Losing linebacker Brian Cushing to an ACL tear was a huge blow. Before Watt emerged, Cushing was the star of the defense. Cushing has everything teams look for in a linebacker, aggressiveness, violent hands, the ability read and react quickly, downhill speed, and is a skilled blitzer. Cushing has been replaced with Tim Dobbins, who is a downgrade, especially in pass coverage.
Phillips is very creative with his sub packages, where he rotates a group of safeties. Glover Quin is the most versatile of the group, showing range to play both as a deep safety as well as a nickel corner. A familiar face to Bears fans, free safety Danieal Manning, plays the single-high safety role. Manning is an off-the-charts athlete, however, he still has lapses in coverage.
Signing Johnathan Joseph before the 2011 season was a shrewd move by Smith. With all the focus on Nnamdi Asmougha, the Texans snatched up Joseph at a reasonable price and he’s paid dividends, drawing opponent’s top receiving threat every week. Joseph is flanked by Kareem Jackson who leads the Texans with three interceptions.
It’s clear that Phillips’ best role is as a coordinator, however, there may be several job openings at the end of this season, so he should be a candidate for a head coaching job. What Philips has done in such short order is remarkable. The Texans give up the third least yards and points per game, and pose a huge challenge to a sporadic Bears offense.
Just a few seasons ago, Kubiak found himself on the hot seat, now, he’s orchestrating one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL. This Sunday night’s game is being billed as a potential Super Bowl preview, will it live up to the hype?
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.