The Houston Texans, led by first-year head coach Bill O'Brien, are one of the early surprises of the 2014 NFL season.
They started 3-1 after besting a tough Buffalo Bills team in Week 4, before losing to the Cowboys, Colts and Steelers all by a touchdown or less. This team could easily have a better record than what they have now and after a big division win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 8, they'll be looking forward to the Eagles coming to town on Sunday before their bye week.
When you look at this offense, it all obviously starts with their running game. Arian Foster is the focal point of this attack, as he has been for some time, and O'Brien has done a great job of continuing to incorporate a lot of those same stretch plays that Foster had so much success with under Gary Kubiak into their repertoire. The Texans run the stretch play as much as anyone in the league, and luckily for you we've already broken it down numerous times this season. Ross Tucker and Ike Reese diagrammed the run on Eagles Game Plan before the Washington game in Week 3.
On this play against Oakland, look at the job the offensive line does at getting movement up front with their double teams before moving up to the next level to block the linebackers in space. Look at all the possible creases for Foster, where he can stick his foot in the ground and get downhill. When he gets in the open field, Foster is hard to bring down, as he takes this run 40 yards for a near touchdown.
This is a vintage outside zone run particularly on the backside. Despite a stumble out of the blocks from the left guard, Ben Jones, notice the playside linemen stretching the defense, while the backside cuts on this short-yardage play. Now, this is a bit out of character for this outfit, as they run almost always out of one-back sets, but you can see the execution of the blocks really well on this fourth-and-1 run that results in an 11-yard gain.
Last week against Tennessee, the Texans' offensive line did a great job once again, this time on the move. The Titans are running a Fire-X blitz, with two crossing inside linebackers. Look at how Jones, center Chris Myers and right guard Brandon Brooks adjust on the fly to the blitz and block it up to help spring Foster (who makes a man miss) for a 44-yard gain and a first down.
Chip Kelly explains all the time on his Kellystrator segment how important it is for the defense to create a wall against these zone running plays, so that the back doesn't have a crease to get upfield. Another key component in stopping these plays, however, is the backside defenders. Foster is a great cutback runner, and if the playside defenders form a wall against the run then the backside defenders have to not only maintain their gap integrity (like Lawrence Timmons of the Steelers does above), but also finish the tackle one-on-one and get the ball carrier to the ground. Timmons is unable to do that on this first-and-10 play as Foster goes 11 yards to move the chains.
Against Tennessee, the backside outside linebacker overpursues, loses contain, is unable to recover and allows Foster to run 34 yards for a touchdown at a key stage of the game. The Eagles have done a really good job against the stretch run concepts utilized by Washington and Arizona, and will need to repeat that on Sunday against Houston.
Discipline against the run comes in many forms and the Texans, like all teams, love to hit you with play-action off of their favorite looks in the run game. Look at how poorly the Washington defense bites on the stretch play at the second level. As they recover to try to get to their landmarks in coverage, second-year receiver DeAndre Hopkins reels in a pass for the longest play of the Texans' season, a 74-yard touchdown. Hopkins is a strong-handed possession receiver who can still get downfield and make plays over the top, as evidenced by this play from Week 1.
Here's another example of the Texans attacking downfield off stretch-action, this time running a form of the "Drive" concept with a shallow cross from Hopkins, a dig from Andre Johnson and a vertical route down the middle of the field from a former Eagle, Damaris Johnson. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick steps up and hits Johnson for a 40-yard gain and a first down. Johnson has been a good addition to the Texans' passing game as a vertical threat. He has caught a number of balls down the seam for them in the deep passing game.
Defensively, much like the Cardinals a week ago, the Texans are a big proponent of the dime package.
On this shot, there are six defensive backs on the field. At the bottom of the screen is Johnathan Joseph, considered their best cover corner. At the top is cornerback A.J. Bouye, who comes on the field in their subpackages to play on the outside, allowing defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell to slide former first-round pick Kareem Jackson (lined up in the slot to the top of the screen) further inside. The two deep safeties are veterans Danieal Manning and Kendrick Lewis and the dime backer (our version of Nolan Carroll II or Arizona's version of Deone Bucannon) is starting safety D.J. Swearinger. An aggressive, physical, competitive player, Swearinger (No. 36 at the line of scrimmage) flies around the field and brings a very diverse skill set in terms of his ability to hit and cover and the Texans use him in a variety of ways.
On this play, Swearinger will be a blitzer, as the rest of the secondary plays in Cover 1, with Lewis as the deep safety and straight man coverage across the field. This is one of the more common coverages the Texans play, though they do a really good job of mixing up their man and zone looks.
Jackson, a physical corner, mugs the slot receiver off the snap and quarterback EJ Manuel forces a throw that Bouye is able to pick off for a key fourth quarter interception.
The Texans aren't a huge blitzing team, but they are very effective when they bring extra rushers, particularly on third down. Houston boasts one of the best third-down defenses in the league, holding opponents to just a 35.2 percent conversion rate. On this play against Dallas, quarterback Tony Romo and the offensive line think Swearinger is coming on a blitz. The safety is actually dropping back into coverage and with four rushers attacking three blockers to the opposite side (the center slid to the right to help account for Swearinger), they get a pressure and an incompletion to force a punt.
On this play, you see another popular blitz from the Texans, another one of those Fire-X concepts with two twisting inside linebackers up the middle of the offensive line. With the two defensive ends attacking the offensive tackle's outside shoulders, wide lanes are created to force Andrew Luck to step up into the pocket. Tight coverage on the back end allows J.J. Watt to come up with the sack.
Watt is obviously a generational talent and is easily the most impactful defender in the game right now. His ability to win in so many different ways from so many different spots is a rarity. I could've easily done a piece entirely on his play. He will be a force to be reckoned with in the NFL for years to come.
The Texans utilize a ton of stunts and twists up front. They love using a lot of T-E (tackle-end) stunts to create an open lane for a free rusher on the passer.
Let's take a closer look.
On this play last week against the Titans, linebacker Whitney Mercilus (a former first-round pick) attack the inside shoulder of the right tackle, crossing his face and rushing the B gap (between the tackle and guard). Then, notice Watt, lined up as a 3-technique, take a step or two upfield, before looping around Mercilus and running outside of the right tackle on his way to the quarterback. Mercilus is essentially giving himself up, attracting the attention of the right tackle to help Watt get a free look at the quarterback.
I talked with former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker about these types of stunts back in the summer and he told me they are typically called "Me" or "You" stunts. What's the difference between the two? He explained that the defensive tackle is typically the player making the call on the stunt, so if he calls a "Me" stunt, then he will be the one looping and attacking the quarterback. Conversely, if he calls a "You" stunt, then YOU will be the looper and I will give myself up to get you free to rush the quarterback. The shot above from last week was a "Me" stunt, now let's take a look at a "You" look.
Check out the "You" stunt from the Texans against Pittsburgh from a couple of weeks ago. Defensive tackle Tim Jamison (No. 96) attacks the outside shoulder of the guard, while Mercilus this time is the free rusher, penetrating upfield for a beat before looping back inside to attack Ben Roethlisberger and come up with the sack.
Later in the game, the Texans run the same stunt twice on the same play, with a "You" stunt on both sides of the formation. What happens here? Again, Mercilus comes free and sacks Roethlisberger, this time getting the ball out and allowing Watt to come up with the fumble recovery. The Texans are a very, very active defensive front, with a number of pieces that are dangerous pass rushers and moveable weapons who can get after opposing quarterbacks in the passing game.
The Texans got one of those weapons back last week against Tennessee, when the first-overall pick in May's draft, Jadeveon Clowney, returned to the lineup. Clowney is a physical force up front, capable of wrecking a game and being one of the most powerful players on the field at any given time. On this play against Washington in Week 1, before his injury, Clowney works through two blockers and chases down DeSean Jackson on a reverse (with help from Brooks Reed). Clowney played a bit of a limited role last week in his return, but should see an expanded workload on Sunday. With him back in the lineup, this Texans' defensive front will be even more difficult to contain.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.