On November 5, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will take the trip to Houston. In this Week 9 match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we’re up against.
The Texans finished 2016 with 9 wins, 7 losses and an AFC South division title. Two of those wins came against our Colts to a Texans team that started Brock Osweiler, which is a good indication of Chuck Pagano’s ability to coach.
Let’s figure out what we can expect in week nine.
Offensive Scheme: We’ve Seen This Before
I’m not kidding. That’s the basis of this offense. That is the 2004 New England Patriots playbook, at the time Charlie Weis had been running this scheme with Tom Brady and the Pats for four years and they had some success doing so. To make a long story somewhat short, a few years after Weis bolted for greener pastures Bill O’Brien (current Texans head coach) took the reigns in New England as the offensive coordinator.
What does an offensive coordinator do when he takes over with an established system and quarterback who has won three super bowls, you might ask? Well, he’s not going to change much.
As a result, Bill O’Brien runs the Erhardt-Perkins Offense. Grantland wrote an awesome piece on the Erhardt-Perkins and the Patriots usage of it, this is absolutely worth your time. Had Grantland continued to write pieces like this, well they would still be in business. Much has been written about the Erhardt-Perkins but if you’re looking to really understand it this is the article you need to read. It comes from John B over at Gang Green Nation, SB Nation’s Jets site. I’ll give you some of what it says below:
One of the great dilemmas for building an offense is how complicated a scheme should be. If you run the same thing over and over, the defense is going to have a good idea of what is coming. On the other hand, you also want your players to understand the offense. If you load them up with too much information, you are liable to confuse them just as much as the defense.
You also only have so much time to practice and prepare during the week. You can choose between learning a handful of things really well or being a jack of all trades, master of none. In many cases, it is better to do a handful of things really well than do a lot of things just ok.
Some coaches lean on the side of keeping it simple. Others like complexity like former NFL coach Al Saunders, whose 700 page playbook is the stuff of legend.
Erhardt-Perkins philosophy attempts to mend the best of both worlds. At the risk of being overly simplistic, it is a handful of plays run out of a wide variety of formations and personnel groupings. It is simple for the offensive players but it looks complex to the defense.
John B goes on to draw some parallels between the Erhardt-Perkins and
insane innovative college coach Mike Leach, given the simplicity of both systems.
...You heard about the Erhardt-Perkins philosophy that the Patriots base their offense upon. Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins developed it in the 1970's working for the Patriots. Sometimes in football being revolutionary can be using something really old.
Perkins later became head coach of the Giants where he hired a young special teams coach by the name of....Bill Belichick.
Anyway, here is a three man concept the Pats run. It is from their playbook from over a decade ago, and it is still there.
On this one, you have a one back shotgun set. You have the James White going into the flat, Julian Edelman running the curl, and Rob Gronkowski running deep.
Here you have a one back set under center, but the back isn't involved. Gronkowski is going down the field. Edelman is running the curl, and Danny Amendola goes into the flat.
Finally on this one, Gronkowski is going into the flat. Aaron Dobson runs the curl, and Amendola is going down the field.
From Brady's perspective, this is the same play. He just has to identify which targets are running which routes. From the defense's perspective, these are three very different plays. These are just three plays from the first half in the first meeting between the Jets and the Pats alone.
By any definition, the Patriots run an up tempo offense. Football Outsiders keeps track of offensive pace. New England is the fifth quickest team between snaps in the NFL. They are second quickest when leading by a touchdown or more. They are second quickest down by a touchdown or more. They are fourth quickest when the game is within a touchdown.
The Texans may not play as uptempo as the Pats at this point but these next few paragraphs are important for understanding how Deshaun Watson might look to call plays using an even more simplified system.
...the Erhardt-Perkins system has a less complicated verbiage for communicating plays than other systems.
Jon Gruden, a West Coast Offense enthusiast is famous for his love of a call, "Green Right Slot Spider 2 Y Banana."
Brown makes the point that the Erhardt-Perkins system has simpler verbiage than the other two. With a less wordy call, the Patriots can communicate their play quicker and have everybody understand what they are supposed to do.
It might be even quicker than Brown suggested in his article. New England's up tempo style owes a lot to time Belichick spent with Chip Kelly, then the coach at the University of Oregon, whose offense was dazzling operating at warp speed on the college level. This article from 2011 in the Boston Globe explains.
“If you want to see what’s next on the pro level, look to the colleges. That’s what Belichick does, with his alliances with coaches such as Nick Saban (LSU and Alabama), Urban Meyer (Florida and Ohio State) and, now, Kelly.
That’s why when Kelly walked into Gillette Stadium two years ago — and he’s been there three times total — ears perked up among the Patriots’ coaches, including Belichick.”
“Kelly told the Patriots he was moving to a no-huddle that only used one word to signify everything involved in a play.
Sideline calls take too long. Wristbands too.
One word is all that is needed.
The Patriots operate their no-huddle attack most often using one word as the play call.
More accurately, they use six one-word play calls a game.
That word tells all 11 players on offense everything they need to know.
Direction on run plays.
Routes for receiver on passing plays.
Shifts in formations.
Possible alerts and play alterations.
This article goes into a ton of detail about personnel, versatility and in game strategy, really take time to go read this article and the one from Grantland, you won’t be sorry.
To piggyback on that foundation from one SB Nation site is this article from another, Brett Kollmann of Battle Red Blog took a look at what Bill O’Brien looks for from his quarterback. This article is yet another good read and it spends a lot of time quoting the man himself:
"These are just some things that I believe in. I think when you’re out there and you’re thinking about who the quarterback of your team is, they have to have a few things. Number one, and don’t laugh, they’ve got to be able to throw the ball accurately. If you tell them to put it somewhere, they’ve got to be able to put it there, and they’ve got to be able to work at it to improve their accuracy. In my opinion they don’t have to be the greatest athletes in the world. If they are, that’s fantastic, there’s a really great example of guys that are great athletes that are really good quarterbacks in the National Football League right now – Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, RG3. Those three guys can throw the football. Remember that first, they’re accurate passers. So they have to be able to throw.
They’ve got to be able to make good decisions. They have to be able to be good decision makers. And you can judge a lot of that off the field. You can watch how these guys do things and carry themselves off the field, and they’ll help you when you’re watching them on the field if they’re making good quick decisions or they’re making crappy decisions. Those are things you have to observe but they have to be able to make good decisions.
This next one to me is really, really important. With all the multiplicity of the defenses these days, defenses at every level you’re seeing even, odd, we call it diamond, bear defense. You’re seeing bear. You’re seeing overload blitz. You’re seeing up the middle blitz. You’re seeing man-free, blitz zero. You’re seeing blitz zone, from the field, from the boundary. With all that, in my opinion, your quarterback has to be intelligent. He has to have a great football IQ. And if he doesn’t, if he can’t learn it, then he should play another position. I’m telling you, because nowadays that guy once he’s out on the field has got to be like a coach on the field. He has to understand what you want, how you want to attack the defense, and he’s got to understand football. In order to do it, he’s got to put work in."
He goes on to talk more about making pre-snap reads and gives some basics into what he tells his QB’s to look for, Kollman notes that the QB is responsible for making these pre-snap reads, in some systems it’s on the center to call out protections, not in Houston, that’s on the QB:
"When you break the huddle at quarterback, you have to think high to low. You can’t think low to high. I don’t care if it’s a run or a pass. Train your quarterback [when he breaks the huddle] to say ‘Where are the safeties?’ Find the safeties. I always tell the kid to find the weak safety, find the strong safety. Just train the kid to find the safeties.
Corners, you guys all know the corners on your team. They’re the sneaky dudes, man. They’re the guys, they got a lot of bravado, and they’re confident, and they’re the ones that can lie to you. Them safeties, those are the guys that direct the show back there. They can lie to you too, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve got to locate them because whether it’s pre-snap or post-snap, they’re going to tell you about what the defense is doing.
So here’s what we say. I’m just talking about two high right now, but if the safeties are twelve yards deep and they’re somewhat off the hash, more than likely they’re playing cover two. If they’re eight to ten yards deep and they’re over your number two receivers, more than likely they’re playing cover four. If they’re under eight yards, those two safeties, and maybe the weak safety is cheating to number three or maybe he’s over number two weak. If they’re under eight yards or they’re hovering in that shallow area, something’s up…it’s blitz zero – especially if it’s empty."
"[If] we put the running back out there as the widest receiver and the corner just bumps out, well, you know it’s zone coverage. If you get empty and you put the back out there on one side or the other as the widest receiver and a linebacker goes out there with him, it’s some type of man coverage. If a safety goes out there with him, it’s some type of man coverage and it’s probably blitz so that they leave the linebackers in the box because they’re going to blitz him. "
Kollman goes a bit further into the offense itself:
Beyond O’Brien’s tendency to rely heavily on the cerebral capacity of his quarterbacks, he also has an affinity for personnel groupings that provide multiplicity and flexibility. The more things that the offense can do from one personnel package, the faster the pace they can run plays. If a player can do one role well, he might make the team; if he can do three roles well, he is a starter. Flexibility like that is why the Texans may take a hard look at a fullback/tight end hybrid like Gerald Christian, a big and powerful tight end who can block well like C.J. Fiedorowicz, or an open space weapon like De’Anthony Thomas who can be moved from slot receiver to running back at will, just for the sake of infuriating defensive coordinators.
Quoting O’Brien again:
"Whether it’s high school, college, or even the pros, you have to make sure that you have like five or six base concepts, and in those five or six base concepts you’ve got to be able to move people around. So you have to have different personnel groups in my opinion. So your backs, who are your best pass receiving backs? Who are your best pass receiving tight ends? Who are your quicker receivers?
But we’ve got to have about five or six concepts where the guys can move around within the concept and know what to do. Don’t worry about figuring out how we call routes, just know that we call a route at Penn State from the strength of the formation to the weak side of the formation."
"I really believe in word association. I’ve been in both systems. Charlie and I were in a system in Maryland where it was five-eight-five, six-two-eight, six-seven-eight and all that, and that was a great system. And then when I went here, it was the words, so the thing that I liked about the words is that it gave you the ability to create new routes. Your guys understood that we’re going to call this, we’re going to call this Gotti. Gotti…a ‘go’ and an ‘option’ route. And then the next one we’re going to call Hoffa. Hoffa now is a deeper option route and a stutter-go on the outside. But they would associate things by these words and I thought that was a good way and it gave you a little bit more creativity in the offense."
I know I’ve given you a lot of links and encouraged you to click them but seriously, if you do nothing else, watch these videos, they’re absolutely fascinating and give you a good look into what O’Brien wants his offense and more importantly his quarterback to do .
Quarterback: Can Deshaun Watson Be O’Brien’s Brady?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Watson is that kind of guy, we don’t know yet. What I am telling you is, this isn’t a rookie year fluke. This isn’t RGIII version 2.0. Deshaun Watson has essentially been running this system since he was 18 years old. Things are going to be different from Clemson to Houston but they’re asking him to do the same types of things that made him successful in college.
- Grudens QB Camp:
If you go to 6:36 of that video above and listen to him give Gruden the play call from his senior year at Clemson it sounds exactly the same as the kind of simplified calls we looked at when we looked at O’Brien’s Erhardt-Perkins. There are going to be things that vary but the system of calling plays is similar, coming from Clemson he fits this scheme perfectly.
So far on the season Watson has 1,297 yards, 15 touchdowns and 5 interceptions to go along with a 61.5% completion percentage. That’s a good stat line for a veteran QB at this point in the season and a lot of it is due to two factors from what I’ve seen.
#1. Quick hitting, high percentage passes.
I’ll get the lucky idea out of the way first. Watson has a lot of trust in his receivers and to this point they’ve rewarded him for it. Eventually he’s going to lose some of the 50/50 balls he’s thrown up but for now, this is what I mean by “luck”. I don’t know if it’s truly luck if he can consistently do it. Time will tell.
Who else do you hear people say hits on a lot of quick hitting, high percentage passes? I’ll give you a hint: he wears a lot of blue, likes the number 12, plays quarterback and isn’t named Andrew Luck. Tom Brady, duh.
One more thing to note, I pulled the tape before I understood the offense he ran. I noted how long Watson had to stand at the line and survey the defense. He does it before almost every snap and now, it makes perfect sense. He’s able to call the entire play quickly in the huddle and then he’s reading the defense, looking for cues and seeing where he might go with the ball and if he needs to change the protection scheme based on what he’s seeing.
Deshaun Watson doesn’t get enough credit for how smart he is, but as a rookie this guy is as smart as they come. We’re in trouble in the AFC South.
- He is doing more than quick hitting passes:
If you remember the video of O’Brien above talk about how his QB’s are taught to work through their progressions, they read the vertical routes first and then work back to the crossing patterns. Watson didn’t need to work back, he got the perfect look for his deep pattern and at that point it had to be about looking off the safety.
Watson is hitting a lot of short passes but most importantly he’s showing that he can read a defense and progress through reads at a high level.
- Notice the line:
This protection scheme slid to the left to pick up the blitzing linebacker and as a result of that blitz, Watson knew his tight end would be open. This is the kind of quick hitting pass I’m talking about. These aren’t gimmicky, it isn’t as if they’re throwing nothing but WR screens. It’s just smart football.
- Tom Brady can’t do this:
Watson isn’t just a smart QB, he can run when he doesn’t like the look and/or the pocket breaks down. I often noticed him keep a play alive while he kept his eyes down field trying to make a play with his arm.
- Dangerous Pass:
This can be attributed to a lot of factors. Speed of the game, disguised coverage, I don’t know. What I do know, this is a time he was lucky the ball wasn’t going the other way.
- Keeping the play alive:
Watson is able to pull this ball back down roll to his right and find his TE on the other side of the field. He did escape a somewhat clean pocket but his internal clock had to be ticking on this one and it did allow him to find an open man for 6 points.
- You’ll see the other angle in the receivers section:
But this is bracket coverage. Watson knew he was doubled up and also recognized there was no one in the middle of the field. The underneath DB turned his back on the QB and Watson rifled this one to his receiver who beats both DB’s to the spot Watson throws this ball.
Watson can do everything you want a QB to do and he isn’t struggling with the mental aspect of the game like so many young quarterbacks tend to do. He’s not struggling because he’s a smart guy and he’s coming from a very similar system at Clemson.
This isn’t a gimmick. This isn’t dumbed-down. This is a good quarterback in a system he’s comfortable in. The AFC South looks like it’s finally going to get better and it’s leaving us behind in a hurry.
Running Back: They Want To Run The Ball
Another reason for Watson’s success is the fact that he has a top 5 run game to lean on. Leading that charge is sixth year pro Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman. Miller signed with the Texans in 2016 after a promising 4 years with the Miami Dolphins. The Texans drafted Foreman in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft.
Miller is the lead back and has 98 carries and 372 yards on the year. His 3.8 yards per carry is a career low but Foreman seems capable of carrying the load if Miller shows he can’t. Foreman has run the ball 50 times for 207 yards. D’Onta Foreman is a 230+ pound back that plays smaller and faster than what the scale says he should. The biggest issue he had as a Texas Longhorn, despite rushing for more that 2,000 yards in his junior year, were all the fumbles. So far that hasn’t been a huge issue though he has lost one fumble on those 50 carries.
You will see this Texans team mix up their run game and we will probably see a pretty healthy mix of both zone and man blocking schemes.
Another thing you’re going to notice is how often they bring a receiver in motion pre-snap. In this case it completely clears out the entire left side of the field and allows Foreman to run 41 yards, largely untouched.
- Hello darkness my old friend:
Foreman puts the ball on the turf on this zone run. I would have liked to see him stick his head in there and just pick up what he could on this one, even without the fumble. The defense has good contain on the back side and he’s leaving 2-3 yards on the field by taking that cutback.
- Read Option:
Teams are going to have to respect this play, if they don’t Watson and that receiver will eat yards if everyone bites on the back. Luckily for Lamar Miller the Chiefs lose contain and he outruns everyone for the first down.
- Miller on the screen:
How is it that every other NFL team can properly set up a screen pass and we just trip over ourselves? Seriously of all the questions and frustrations I have with the 2017 Indianapolis Colts this one really grinds my gears.
The Houston Texans backs are good but not great. No one is going to confuse Lamar Miller for Ezekiel Elliott and no one will confuse D’Onta Foreman for Leonard Fournette. With that said, these are backs that can handle the load and are good enough as a unit to ensure the play-action pass works and Watson doesn’t have to do everything himself.
Receivers: Get Them The Ball And Let Them Make A Play
That seems to be the idea here and it seems to be a good one.
DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller will see a lot of playing time and a lot of targets. Which is a good thing if you’re a Texans fan. Those guys are good. Fuller is in his second year in the league and hoped to build on a promising rookie campaign that saw him catch 47 passes for 635 yards. Fuller has played in three games thus far after breaking his collarbone in September.
Fuller only has 8 catches for 154 yards on the season, but in what may be the most insane stat of 2017, 5 of his 8 catches have been for touchdowns. He’s played in 3 games and already accounted for 1/3rd of every Deshaun Watson touchdown pass, ever. Fuller is currently averaging a receiving touchdown on more than every other reception. If this pace were to continue Will Fuller would catch 22 touchdown passes this season. That’s silly.
DeAndre Hopkins is someone you’ve heard about for a long time and for good reason. He’s one of the only NFL players to be drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft and earn his draft slot. He’s never had below 800 yards receiving and before this season, Houston’s QB situation can be described as spotty at best. Hopkins is described as a physical route runner and I don’t know that I would trust a current NFL receiver more in winning 50/50 balls than I would trust Hopkins. Possibly Julio Jones, but even Julio isn’t as physical as Hopkins.
You’re going to see Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller see a lot of snaps from the slot. Both guys are good role players that could give us problems. With that said I do believe Nate Hairston will be up to the task against either guy.
- Getting Cute:
Braxton Miller played QB at Ohio State. He was a very athletic college QB who wasn’t a good enough passer to play at the next level but as a good athlete who understands the game, he’s found a nice role with the Houston Texans. Drafting a former QB to be your slot receiver sounds like something the Patriots would do...
Anyway, I noticed a lot of plays that implement receivers in motion implemented in the running game. 9 times out of 10 they are officially scored as passes due to the fact that the ball is “thrown” forward but this one is tossed behind as they were hoping to throw the ball back to Watson who was well covered. Miller should have thrown this ball away, but there’s a reason he’s no longer playing quarterback.
- A modified jet sweep:
I say modified because technically this is a pass. Watson tosses this ball forward and the receiver in motion runs it in for six points.
- The two point conversion on the next play:
They opted to go for two and this was the very next play they ran. They give the same jet sweep look and then hit the TE flowing through traffic from the backside. He works his way open and Watson hits him in stride.
Notice how hard the entire defense bites in the direction of the receiver in motion.
- It doesn’t always work out:
This is what setting the edge is supposed to look like against a jet sweep. Sort of. When you set the edge usually you push a guy back to the middle of the field, in this instance the receiver is brought down.
- Hopkins beating a double team:
You saw the other angle of this play earlier. Watson saw that Hopkins was completely covered up but made the throw believing he had a window. Hopkins just ran his route and caught the ball that was thrown.
- Remember when I was talking about those 50/50 balls:
If I were Deshaun Watson I would keep throwing that guy the ball.
If you enjoy the sport of football, are an adult and don’t follow everything Brett Kollmann does, I don’t want to know what you’ve been wasting your life on. That’s a joke, we all have to make choices with our time, but seriously you should follow everything Brett Kollmann does. Including watching this awesome video breaking down DeAndre Hopkins vs. Jalen Ramsey. It’s a fun video to watch of two elite skill position players doing their best impersonation of a left tackle and defensive end 10 to 20 yards down field.
It’s a lot of fun to watch.
There’s talent here, but beyond Hopkins and Fuller, I’m not worried. Besides, those two are more than enough to beat us. At the time of this writing Chuck Pagano is still employed by the Indianapolis Colts and he has refused to play Quincy Wilson two weeks in a row because Wilson doesn’t seem to want to play special teams.
If Chuck doesn’t play Wilson for that reason, if anything happens during the game or in the week and a half between now and kick off he’s going to regret it. Quincy Wilson can’t cover Hopkins but if he’s smart he’ll have him try, physically he’s the only guy that can match up.
Offensive Line: Who Knows What To Expect?
Week 1 was rough for these Texans. They allowed the Jags to rack up 10 sacks and while part of me wanted to watch Tom Savage get pounded into the ground, I made a business decision and watched a couple games that might actually help me write this scouting report.
It really isn’t a secret that the holdout of star left tackle Duane Brown has hurt the unit, that much we know. What is harder to gauge are the protections that are being called and who is really at fault.
Brown ended his holdout and most assume he will play football at some point this year will he play against our Colts? I don’t know I would assume the team wants to get him back on the field as soon as possible but is he in shape? Is he up to speed with the offense? Does he really want to play football or is he just there to get the rest of his game checks? Nobody really knows at this point so we’ll focus on the other thing we can’t know; whose fault everything is.
For starters the Jaguars defense is legit. The Colts offense is bad, but that’s a strong unit no matter who lines up across from them. Still, no one should allow 10 sacks. The problem is the quarterback in this system is the guy responsible for calling out the protection schemes. If he reads the wrong thing before the snap he’s going to put his linemen in bad position to make a block and will ultimately lead to him getting hit.
In week 1 Tom Savage attempted 13 passes and was sacked six times, Deshaun Watson came in and attempted 23 passes while taking 4 sacks of his own. What does this tell us?
Maybe nothing, but I’m going to draw some conclusions. First, just like I thought, the Jags are good. Tom Savage is horrible at reading a defense pre-snap and adjusting the line accordingly. Deshaun Watson is a rookie who will be fooled by disguised blitzes and coverage but usually puts his guys in a position to succeed.
So what are we getting on Sunday? Couldn’t say for sure. I just hope we put a spy on Watson.
- Zone run:
The left guard gets rocked by Myles Garrett. To be fair most guards in the league would suffer the same fate. Ultimately he recovers and moves Garrett out of the way. Foreman is able to find some space and pick up a few yards. This was a poorly blocked play all around but poor gap integrity led to a gain.
- Play action buys time:
The zone step at the snap sells the defensive line on the idea that it’s a zone run to their right and they all flow that way, which gives Watson plenty of time to find a receiver. This is good play design as much as it’s good execution.
- Small hole:
This is the kind of stuff that Jamie Collins does that drives coaches like Bill Belichick nuts. I could be wrong, I could be, but I’m 95% sure this play goes right through his gap. Why was he running outside? Why didn’t he maintain his gap? Don’t know, but it resulted in a nice hole that the Texans ultimately blocked pretty well.
- Nowhere to go:
This play was blown up by Myles Garrett. Ultimately it was a poor showing from the Texans o-line as no one got a hand on him until he was two yards deep, but a lot of people are going to get beat by this guy.
I’m not going to say this is a good unit. They might be, I just don’t know. Getting Brown back will help. Watson continuing to adjust to what NFL defenses are showing him will help. Ultimately, I don’t believe the line is as bad as they have looked so far.
Stats to back up my theory:
- Deshaun Watson has played 393 snaps and has taken 14 sacks. Or one out of every 28 plays.
- Tom Savage has played 37 snaps and has taken 7 sacks. Or one out of every 5 plays.
Protection calls matter.
UPDATE: The Texans have traded Duane Brown to the Seahawks for a mediocre CB and a 2nd round pick.
This offense isn’t a top five unit this year. They aren’t. Deshaun Watson is a very good rookie QB who is going to learn a lot in the next few years. Also, in the next few years I believe this is going to be a top five unit.
We have this off-season and next off-season to build a team capable of slowing down what I believe will be an elite quarterback in this league for the next decade. He’s not there yet, but barring injury I think that’s where he’s going in the next five years.
Chris Ballard has his work cut out for him in more ways than one moving forward. The work he’s done to this point wont be enough to keep this Texans team from putting up points.