Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Football Laundromat: Houston Texans Edition

Salutations, readers. TC Fleming here. This is the second in a series of articles published each Thursday concerning a specific strategic wrinkle in the offense of the Cowboy's upcoming opponent.

This week that opponent is Houston whose coach, Gary Kubiak, comes to the team after ten full years spent with Mike Shanahan as Shanahan's offensive coordinator when he was in Denver. While in Denver, they carved out a pretty distinct sort of identity. The idea, if I could simplify way down, is to use their zone blocking system to get Terrell Davis going on the ground. Then with the defense keying on him, have John Elway fake the handoff to Davis and roll to the opposite side where he had the option to either throw to a receiver whose defender had bit on the fake to Davis or run it himself into the areas voided by the over-pursuing defense. That's why Shanahan and Kubiak worked so hard to get Jake Plummer as a free agent and why they traded up to get Jay Cutler in the draft: the general system is predicated on having a quarterback who can throw well on the run, pick up yards himself when needed and just generally execute this style of play-action pass known as the bootleg.

After determining in his first year as the Houston head coach that David Carr did, in fact, suck, Kubiak acquired Matt Schaub to be the player to run his offense with, among other things, its bootleg passes. While I went into watching his two games this season without a real idea of what I wanted to write about, it quickly became apparent that his execution on those bootleg passes demanded attention. While he is not the threat to run that Elway, Plummer and Cutler are, Schaub is as good as anyone at running the bootleg. He shows the patience allowed for the longer routes that these passes feature to open up, but he rarely forced it when those routes weren't there. When he needed to go to one of the secondary options, he showed great chemistry with his receivers and communicated well with them to make surprising completions.

That chemistry is actually a pretty big theme here. Because they're the Texans, a lot of what they do doesn't garner much attention beyond Harris County. But they had what turns out to be a pretty nice little package of receivers around Schaub when he came in, and they've kept them more or less intact during his entire time there. Andre Johnson is the big name. Owen Daniels is a top-five tight end. Kevin Walters is a useful piece who can block real well and has dependable hands. And Jacoby Jones is an elite returner who's being phased slowly into the offense as someone who, along with Johnson, can stretch opposing defenses. If Arian Foster can be depended on to consistently give them even half of what he gave them in week one, this is certainly a playoff-level group of skill players. And with the exception of Foster, they know each other inside and out, and it shows up on the field.

While I've been building up the bootleg as a bedrock element of the Shanahan/Kubiak offense, it really has only accounted for about 15% of the Texans' passing attempts this year. These plays have real value though in two ways: 1) It prevents the defense from over-playing the run. 2) They always have a limited number of options, and one of those is always deep. If the safeties bite on the run-fake, Schaub will go over the top to Andre Johnson. These passes stretch the defense and generate big yards. Counting pass interference penalties and throwing in a pass to Johnson that was nullified on a silly penalty, Schaub is 7-for-9 for 142 yards with one touchdown and an interception for a QB rating of 116.2 through two games this year.

In those nine bootleg attempts, the Texans have yet to run the same play twice, but there are definitely some basic similarities. The average Texans bootleg pass is done from a run formation with 12, 22 or 13 personnel. As for the routes, they just about always are focused on getting all of the receivers at different levels on one side of the field. Just like with the sprint-out mentioned last week, the quarterback being on the move cuts the field in half because the quarterback should avoid at all costs throwing to the left when moving to the right. The Texans combat this by flooding the one side of the field with receivers at different depths. So while the safeties can concentrate their attention on one side (and sometimes they don't even do that because they're sucked in on the fake) they now have to cover three or four different depths.

All of that is certainly working in our first play. This one comes from the game against the Colts while the other two happened in the Redskins game. The offense is aligned thusly:

Arian Foster runs to the weak side of the formation (the left side). The line looks like it's doing it's normal zone-blocking thing, though making sure not to go past the line of the scrimmage so as not to incur an illegal man downfield penalty since they know a pass is coming. Schaub fakes to Foster then continues the motion that brought him to Foster, rolling out to the right. This action gets the defense flowing to the left, so when Schaub rolls out right, the lineman are just looking to not let their men get pas them, they don't have to worry about trying to redirect them anywhere. The other aspect of the protection is how far Schaub moves. Not only are the defenders out of place and blocked but even if they do beat the blocks, Schaub is so far away from them he will have time to make a pass before they can get to him. In all of these plays, one of the rushers gets free at some point, but Schaub is so far away from them that they rarely prevent a completion let alone get a sack.


The free safety on the play, Melvin Bullit, comes up hard when he thinks the play is a run and is totally out of the play by the time he realizes it's a pass. The strong safety, Antoine Bethea, does a nice job of staying back on the fake, but when Andre Johnson flashes in front of his face on his route, Bethea picks him up and runs with him. That leaves Kevin Walter deep and one-on-one with corner Kelvin Hayden. Hayden is playing soft the whole way, giving Walter as much room to run inside as he wants. Walter takes it and outruns Hayden pretty badly. Walter has created big separation deep. Schaub sees him and launches the pass but undershoots it a little, forcing Walter to slow up. When Walter slows up, Hayden more or less tackles him before the ball gets there, happy to take a 53-yard pass-interference penalty on what looked like it could easily have been an 84-yard touchdown.

That play presented two fine examples of the problems the defense faces when trying to defend these plays: 1) it's really hard to defend all the depth levels attacked by these routes, and 2) it's impossible
to do so if you follow your very natural inclination to bite on the fake.

In the second play I'd like to use to illustrate the Texans' bootleg game, the offense takes out a tight end and inserts a fullback but otherwise is in the same alignment as the first play:

The action along the line is the same as in the last play, and the run fake is just as effective on the front seven, though not on the safeties. The result is that Owen Daniels, after taking one step to give the appearance of blocking, is able to run through the linebackers without drawing their attention, but LaRon Landry picks him up.

With much of the front seven out of position from reacting to the run, Landry is left one-on-one with Daniels. Since Landry did take a step towards the line of scrimmage with the run fake, he now has Daniels behind him. LaRon does an admirable job of staying in between Daniels and Schaub, but he's left looking back and forth between one and the other as he's trying to run along with Daniels. The last time Landry takes his eyes off Daniels, Daniels pulls up. Landry doesn't realize this and keeps running. Daniels is now very open, and Schaub hits him for 15 yards.

This play really exemplifies two things that Schaub and his teammates do really well on these plays. Schaub is left standing unprotected for awhile with rushers bearing down on him as he waits for Daniels to open up. That patience and confidence is both impressive and required for these plays. Also, the unspoken communication between Schaub and Daniels is neat to watch. Schaub knows exactly what Daniels is going to do and reacts instantaneously. It's a tangible example of the benefits of working with the same receivers for three full seasons.

The final example was the least successful, but it represents the most radical take on the basic bootleg formula. There's a lot different about this situation than the other two, and there's a lot different about the play design.

While the Texans showed a willingness to go to the bootleg on any down, the great majority of bootlegs came on first down like our first two examples. In this situation, the Texans are on third down with five yards to go. Also, the point in the game is notable: it's about four minutes into overtime. Since this play needs the threat of the run to succeed, the Texans don't use bootlegs very much in the first quarter. For that same reason, they also run the risk of losing effectiveness late in games, especially close games. The defense has been burned enough times by now that the bootleg is in their mind, and the frequency of runs is less as the offense begins to place a premium on scoring quickly as time begins running out.

As for the differences in the play itself--many of them no doubt because of the game situation--both the formation and personnel are decidedly different. The Texans go here with 11 personnel, taking out the fullback and inserting third wide receiver Jacoby Jones, and play Daniels standing up, creating a four-wide look.

The big difference here is the type of run being faked. Instead of going over to the running back and simulating a handoff, Schaub pretends to pitch the ball to Steve Slaton, who would be a real threat to get to the corner were this actually a pitch. After the pitch, Schaub does as he would on the other bootlegs, letting his momentum carry him into a roll-out. The linemen reflect this change in run being faked as now their first step is back, and they're moving more as if to block for a toss.

The two inside receivers first look to block any threatening defenders, which probably helps to sell the run a little bit. Once they've neutralized any immediate threats, they release and are ready to be safety valves for Schaub. Again sticking with the theme of threatening different levels, Jacoby Jones takes off to attack the defense deep while Andre Johnson runs his route at about 15 yards, and if the defense focuses too hard on either of those, Daniels is ready to turn a short pass upfield.

Now, this particular pass ends up as a half-hearted incompletion, and it's mainly because of the efforts of two players. First, LaRon Landry is lined up fairly close to the line of scrimmage on the right side in the Redskins' nickel package, around the depth one would normally expect a linebacker to be. He stays home when Schaub makes the pitch, remaining wide of the play. When he sees that Schaub is keeping the ball, he takes off after Schaub and shows impressive speed when doing so. That takes away Schaub's time to hang back and wait for receivers to come open. Either there's an open receiver immediately, or he's going to have to throw it away, and with Landry bearing down on him, getting the ball deep to Jones might be dicey. Daniels is also still more or less engaged in blocking, so he's out.

As for Andre Johnson, that's where the second great effort comes in. From the look of things, London Fletcher's first responsibility is man coverage on Owens or maybe Slaton if he had headed right instead of left. Either way, he feels freed to go where he needs to. To that end, he alertly picked up on Andre Johnson coming across the formation. Johnson already has Carlos Rodgers covering him from behind, so Fletcher picks up coverage of Johnson underneath, bracketing him. That leaves Schaub with no real options, and he throws a pass a few feet in front of Johnson to avoid taking a sack.

This play is interesting for the twist it throws on your average bootleg, but it also illustrates the dangers of this kind of pass. Maybe it's because of the down and distance, maybe because of the formation, maybe both, but for whatever reason, the defense does not bite on the fake. Because of the longer routes involved in the play, two or three (in one instance, even four) of the potential receivers usually stay in to block. Also, Schaub does not have many blockers in front of him. So if the defense knows what's coming, they can cover two or three receivers without much difficulty and get easy pressure on Schaub. Then again if the defense guesses wrong, Foster or Slaton can get going on a long run.

As the game moves along into the second quarter and beyond, watch for the Texans when they go to run formations and see if Schaub keeps the ball himself and rolls out on a bootleg. Through these first two games, that means trouble for the opposing team. If the Cowboys, however, can diagnose quickly whether it is a run or a pass, they have a chance to shut down a major element of what the Texans do on offense.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

"Owen Wilson is a top-five tight end."

While your man love for the St. Mark's grad is admirable, the Texans in fact employ a TE named Owen Daniels.