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.
The Houston Texans have imported every aspect of what they look to do from a schematic standpoint from Bill Belichick, who imported everything he does from a schematic standpoint from Bill Parcells, who imported everything he did from a schematic standpoint from Chuck Fairbanks and Hank Bullough. It’s also important to note that Belichick was introduced to the 3-4 defense while working for the Broncos under defensive coordinator Joe Collier while their head coach Red Miller had learned about the 3-4 defense as a defensive coordinator under, none other than, Chuck Fairbanks.
I gave you that history because the system that Fairbanks brought to the NFL is still being used today, and the Houston Texans use the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 scheme. Chances are if you are familiar with a 3-4 defense you’re probably familiar with the Fairbanks-Bullough.
We’ll dive into the Fairbanks-Bullough by looking at a great article on the modern 3-4 defense from Mile High Report, SB Nation’s Denver Broncos blog. Steve Nichols of MHR, gives us this article which covers the basics:
What is the 3-4?
In the 3-4, there are three defensive linemen on the field (DLs). We call the centermost DL a nose tackle (NT) and the other two defensive ends (DEs).
We also have 4 linebackers (LBs). The centermost 2 are called inside linebackers (ILBs) and the outer two are called outside linebackers (OLBs).
In the 4-3 we call the LBs nicknames, based on position, from weakside to strong side "WILL, MIKE, SAM" (for strong, middle, weak). But in the 3-4 they are named (in the same order weak to strong) JACK, WILL, MIKE, and SAM.
Advantages include -
- It is easier to obtain quality LBs than qualtiy DLs, and thus easier to build a 3-4.
- More "pure athletes" are on the field, since many would consider a LB to be more skilled than a DL.
- Increased reaction time for LBs. The LBs start further back than they would in a 4-3, so they have nearly .5 to a full second to read a play as it develops.
- Puts more men in the short zones to disrupt passes.
- Allows for a much larger play book, as LBs have more play uses than DLs. This also means more flexibility for the defense.
- Stops runs to the outside (wider spaced OLBs).
Disadvantages include -
- It is not as effective against the inside running game as the 4-3, and most of the League is "run first" and runs the middle.
- More often than not, a 3-4 can be more expensive to field (comparing the cost of LBs to DLs).
On first glance it would appear that there are more advantages, but this is offset by the glaring disadvantage against the run relative to the 4-3.
So is the 3-4 a "coach driven" scheme, or is it based on personnel?
The truth is, any defensive coordinator can run a 4-3 or 3-4 indifferently. While coaches have preferences, they more often defer to what they have available. If the team could go either way, the coordinator is probably going with what he is more comfortable with.
What's better, the 3-4 or 4-3?
Don't get in the mind set of "better" when thinking about formations and systems. They are different, and do different things. While some formations and some systems are great match-ups against other formations or systems, the rule of thumb is that the team that executes their own program better than the other team executes theirs is going to prevail.
Do 3-4 teams have seperate systems than 4-3 teams?
Yes and no. Some systems can be run regardless of system. The "Cover Two" systems can be run in a 3-4, but none are currently. The "Zone Blitz" system is a system run by both the Steelers and a few 4-3 teams.
The "Bullough" variation of the "Fairbanks 3-4" is the system being used (most notably) to great effect by NE. No team has returned to the original Fairbanks, and the classic 3-4 system is now just called "Fairbanks-Bullough". It is strictly a 3-4 system, as is the "Phillips" 3-4.
What are the systems being used by today's 3-4s, and how do they work?
There are three systems being run out of the 3-4s.
1. The Fairbanks-Bullough (we'll call it the Bullough).
2. The Phillips
3. The Lebeau Zone-Blitz
This system is what most people think of when they think of the 3-4. It is based on 2-gap play on the D-line.
The system was used in colleges for years before, but came to the pros in 1974 and was built to withstand professional offenses by Coach Fairbanks. He coached Oklahoma (where the system was created in the 40s), and the Patriots.
Coach Bullough (who was a head coach for BUF but the defensive coordinator for NE in the 70s) refined the system further. It no longer looks like the collegiate 3-4 of the 40s and 50s in which the 3-4 was close to the line, every player was a brute, and the team played mostly zone).
The NT is a 2 gap player who lines up at 0 or 1 technique. The DEs will be aligned based on situation, play, and match-up. All three players are typically bigger than in the other two systems. They often plug up the OL to allow the LBs to make the big plays, and so they get little credit in the stats themselves.
One common tactic is to shift over or under (depending on the direction of the shift). Most 4-3 do this on the DL on a few plays. But in the 3-4 as run under the Bullough, the team will often "scissor", which means they shift the DLs one way, and the LBs another.
Here's a scissor:
This gives the OL little time to react to a new formation. Is the JACK LB going to "cheat forward" and play like a one gap DE, or is he going to zone? Note how the NT can now draw double coverage from the Right Guard and the Right Tackle, and the Left End (The right most "X") is still there to cause problems for the Right Tackle. The SAM LB is now in an ideal position to wrap around the line and take out the QB.
The confusion doesn't stop here. The LBs can zone, man, or blitz. That's three things that each of four LBs can do. Do the math to try to predict the number of variations. Then, before patting yourself on the back, consider that each of those actions have further variations. Man - which man? Zone - zone where? Blitz - through which lane?
Despite the fact that the Bullough can be confusing, the system relies on a lot of "bend; don't break" thinking. The system will often give up short yards in the run, and blitzes are not common. The idea is that the longer the offense is on the clock, the longer it takes them to score, and the more plays the offense risks an interception, fumble, or a fourth down.
One thing to note is the “Elephant position” that was famously employed by NFL hall of famer Lawrence Taylor under Bill Parcells.
What does the “elephant” do? James Dudko published the following article to his Cover 7 WordPress site about how Chandler Jones might factor into the Patriots 3-4 system. It’s a great read that goes into the days of LT and how the position translates today:
That position is known as “Elephant,” and third-year pro Chandler Jones is ready to be New England’s elephant this season.
Ostensibly, the elephant is a 3-4 outside linebacker.
...The elephant may nominally be an outside linebacker, but he is also the primary pass-rusher in Belichick’s scheme.
The ideal template for the scheme was Lawrence Taylor with the New York Giants in the 80’s. Belichick was Taylor’s defensive coordinator in those days and tweaked his 3-4 schemes to give Taylor maximum pass-rush opportunities.
That involved moving him around, as well as keeping him up on the line. Years later, Belichick got even more creative with his second great elephant, ex-Patriots ace Willie McGinest.
He routinely let McGinest switch sides and even line up with his hand down. McGinest’s alignment was the key to the front the Patriots showed offenses. Depending on how he began a play, the Pats could either be 4-3 or 3-4.
That’s just how it will be with Jones. Even if he begins in an outside linebacker stance, New England can easily transition to a 4-3 look.
It would simply involve Jones joining the three-man line as a standing rusher, or with his hand down. Belichick could then bunch remaining linebackers Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower together behind the de facto four-man front, and suddenly it’s a 4-3.
That’s a ploy Belichick often used with the Giants. He’d shift D-end Leonard Marshall further inside and let Taylor join the edge of the line. Meanwhile, Pepper Johnson, Carl Banks and Gary Reasons would stack behind the front.
One other wrinkle could involve actually deploying four traditional D-linemen and playing Jones on the outside as one of the three linebackers. He would still be able to blitz off either edge.
Essentially the “Elephant” is just an OLB that will be used in a lot of different ways and is athletic enough to be used all over the defense in a multitude of ways. A good Elephant will excel in rushing the passer, dropping into coverage disguising what looks you’re giving the opposing QB. Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs and (obviously) Von Miller both come to mind when I think about players who are used in a similar way.
We’ll get into who the Texans plan to use in this role but we all know who it is and we all know how much the Texans have invested in this role. It really isn’t possible to invest more than they have and it has paid off in a big way.
Another thing I wanted to point out from this article is the Bill Belichick quote on labeling a team a 3-4 or 4-3 team:
Belichick once rightly derided the insistence on labelling defenses 4-3 or 3-4, per ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss:
“Honestly, I think that’s something that is a media fabrication. There are a lot of different alignments out there. You see 4-3 teams use odd spacing. You see 3-4 teams use even spacing. You have 11 players, you can put them in various positions. Whether you want to put it on the pre-game depth chart as one thing or another, I think is a little bit overrated.”
Belichick is essentially stating that modern NFL teams play defense and labeling them one thing or another doesn’t really matter. Remember that come draft time, labeling a player in 2017 as a 3-4 or 4-3 player is silly. Can they play defense? Can they run, rush, cover and hit? That’s what matters not that they played in a 4-3 or 3-4 in college.
The Texans aren’t going to do anything that hasn’t been done before, with that said, defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, a long time Patriots player, is going to have his guys ready to execute at a high level.
On another note, this years head coaching candidates may end up including Mike Vrabel. He doesn’t have a lot of experience as a DC, but he was elevated to his current role, in large part, so that the Texans could hold on to the young play caller. Vrabel is a talented coach on the rise and his name may pop up as a candidate, post Black Monday.
Let’s look at personnel.
Defensive Line: I’m Not Sure Watt To Say
The Texans have been able to find talent up front from multiple sources. They’ve done a great job finding players who fit what they want from each position along the line and prior to J.J. Watt going down, I was concerned about the health and safety of anyone who lined up in the backfield. Frank Gore has children and I didn’t want J.J. Watt to be responsible for his death, as our junior varsity offensive line didn’t stand a chance.
With that said they still may not stand a chance. Defensive end Carlos Watkins, a 4th round rookie from Clemson is outplaying his draft position, nose tackle D.J. Reader a 5th round rookie is vastly outplaying his slot, fortunately for us I believe Ryan Kelly will take care of Reader. Until week 8 you could have expected to see Christian Covington, a 6th round pick in 2014 who was playing really well in a rotation with Joel Heath. Covington was hurt in their week 8 match up with the Seattle Seahawks.
Who will fill his role? If I had to guess I believe it will be Colts legend Kendall Langford who hasn’t seen the field much this year but will likely see time in a rotation on Sunday.
- Watt hurt:
I just want to get this play out of the way first. Watt lines up on the left side of the line and sets up teammate Brennan Scarlett for an untouched run at Alex Smith. In the process Watt awkwardly planted his left leg, breaking it, somehow.
Either way I hate to see this injury. I watched three Texans games leading up to this week and J.J. Watt is absolutely the most dominate defender I’ve ever seen, it’s not close and I just wish he would stay healthy. His absence will help our Colts, but between you and me, it won’t impact the outcome one bit.
- Good Coverage, Relentless Pursuit:
This defensive line absolutely benefits from good coverage from time-to-time, with that said they play with a great motor and will come after Jacoby Brissett, full speed, for 60 minutes.
- Watch Them Swarm:
The line makes a good play, maintaining their gaps on the stretch run. Watt does what he does and makes a play, but had he just taken up that block he’s setting up the flowing linebackers to make the stop. Even without Watt, this is a nice stop.
But watch how this defense swarms to the ball. Were they jumping on the pile? Maybe. It might not have been legal, but I know for a fact it wasn’t a lot of fun for the guy at the bottom of that pile.
- The Read Option:
Watt guessed wrong here and the movement as well as the option holding the back side linebacker creates this hole. The Colts don’t give this look often but if we are able to spread them out and put a hat on a hat we might find some room, but don’t count on it.
I included this play to show the interior pressure that caused Smith to leave the pocket. Given our situation at guard I expect to see Brissett on the move early and often.
- Old Fashion Counter:
This is the most basic of misdirection plays run by Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs. They lined up heavy to the right side of the defense, motioned a fullback to the left and got the defense going that direction. The defensive line made this game possible by biting hard in that direction.
Misdirection with Marlon Mack could result in a few chunk plays as long as we keep seeing “Mack and Cheese”.
This defensive line is a good one, even without Watt. With that said they aren’t the Seahawks and as weird as it is to type, they aren’t as good as the Jags, but they’re good. I expect our line to struggle at times and given that the Texans are going to use multiple looks and rush different players on different downs from those looks, it could end up being a long day for our line against this front seven.
Linebackers: The Other 4 Guys Our Line Will Struggle Against
We won’t have to worry about a couple Texans linebackers but for different reasons. Whitney Mercilus tore his pectoral muscle in the same game J.J. Watt suffered a broken leg. To make matters worse for them, they lost that game too.
The other LB that I’ll touch on is Brian Cushing. Cushing has been suspended 10 games for using PED’s. This is shocking to Brian Cushing’s mother and no one else. There have been rumors since Cushing left USC that he used PED’s and those rumors seem to be founded. He was popped before for using HGH, which he denied and now he’s blaming the failed test on a legal substance, over the counter substance: DHEA. Ladies and gentlemen of the Stampede Blue jury; DHEA is a known masking agent.
He’s clearly been taking it to hide his other steroid usage. Former teammates aren’t surprised. I’m not naive enough to believe that there are a lot of 250 lb men who run 40 yards in under 4.8 seconds, who don’t use PED’s. Frankly I don’t care that they do it, it’s 2017, players know the risks and when I try to imagine putting myself in their shoes, where playing well and earning a big contract will ensure my daughter has an easy life. If I were a guy who wasn’t a superstar without them, would I inject myself with anabolics? My answer and Jerrell Freeman’s answer is the same. I wouldn’t think twice.
Now back to guys who will play.
Benardrick McKinney was a 2nd round pick in 2014 and you’re going to see a lot of #55 on Sunday. McKinney has been in on nearly 94% of the Texans defensive snaps, you’re going to see him a lot because the guy is pretty good.
Seeing the success of McKinney the Texans jumped on Zach Cunningham out of Vanderbilt with the 57th pick of the 2017 draft. Cunningham has played around 70% of the teams defensive snaps and looks to be a big part of the defense, for better or worse, in the foreseeable future.
Brennan Scarlett has seen a lot of time in the wake of all of the injuries this defense has sustained. Scarlett was a UDFA in 2016 and has played well all things considered. This guy flashed when I was watching the tape, mostly as a cleanup guy. He seems to have good instincts but gets to the ball a little late. I haven’t done any extensive work on him but my limited watch of the guy leads me to believe he’s good at football and probably not the best athlete. He’s the anti- T.J. Green.
Another guy you might see is ILB Dylan Cole. If you’re a fan of the NFL draft and follow the process you probably remember his name. I’ll give you a little more on Cole below but I’ll just say I hope I get to watch him play this week as he has been working his way back from a bum hamstring.
The last guy I want to talk about is Jadeveon Clowney. I talked about the Texans making a large investment in the “elephant” position. Well, Clowney is that guy. His career got off to a rough start, injury after injury mounted until he eventually got healthy and now, he’s looking like he was worth the number one overall pick in 2014.
- 2 points:
The Texans aren’t afraid to send their backers, and they’re good at it. This play sees Brennan Scarlett, Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney all rush on this play. McKinney is the guy running the loop against the right side of the line who eventually gets home for 2 points.
- Pass Rush:
True to his Elephant role, Jadeveon Clowney lines up with his hand in the dirt and unless I have a poor understanding of everyday physics, that should have drawn a holding flag. On the other side you see Brennan Scarlett rush against Joe Thomas. Neither guy should have had an impact on the play. I would say they flush the QB out of the pocket, only they didn’t, Kevin Hogan freaks out and escapes a clean pocket. As a result he runs away scared and Benardrick McKinney finishes the play.
- Rookies doing rookie things:
On this play you see Zach Cunningham run past the play, I’ve watched this clip roughly a hundred times but Cunningham had no idea the fullback didn’t have the ball on this one. Seriously, rookie 2nd round draft pick Zach Cunningham doesn’t know who has the ball. When you hear people talk about “football instincts” and mentioning someone that doesn’t have them, this might be one of those things they’re talking about.
He’s in position to make a 2-3 yard stop, instead he lets RB Isaiah Crowell run behind him to be tackled by the OLB who lined up on the opposite side of the field, once again, Brennan Scarlett.
- Dylan Cole:
This play is why scouts put stock into pro day and combine workouts. I followed the 2017 draft closely. I had watched tape on a lot of guys who ended up being drafted late on day three. The guys I hadn’t watched tape of, I had read about and I ended up reading or watching all but a handful of guys who ended up being drafted.
Fairly late in the process I read about some guy from Missouri State named Dylan Cole. I couldn’t find much tape on the kid and what I could find he looked to have stiff hips. But his pro day numbers were insane. I chalked it up to him being a workout warrior, great at lifting weights, probably not a great football player.
Long story short, I, along with all 32 NFL teams, was wrong. He went undrafted and signed with the Texans and let’s just say I would have loved to have taken him in the 7th. He would have provided a huge upgrade in Indy and if he has recovered from injury will have an impact on Sunday.
This is a good unit capable of doing everything. Jack Doyle played good football again for the first time this year against the Bengals, I don’t expect him to have the same impact this week as I look for McKinney to blanket him all day. I also expect to see some questionable plays in the ground game from the young LB’s the Texans are going to send out on 1st and 2nd down. On 3rd down I fully expect to see far too much Jadeveon Clowney. In hindsight, I wish I would have given you more Clowney gifs, so here are some I found on Giphy.com:
The Texans like using cover one. If you’re unfamiliar with cover one click here. They played cover one more than 43% of their snaps in 2016, more than any other team in the league. They do run a healthy amount of zone as well and we will see both single high safety and cover 3 looks all day.
Free safety Andre Hal, cornerback Kareem Jackson, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, safety Marcus Gilchrist, safety Eddie Pleasant and cornerback Kevin Johnson are the guys you can expect to see a lot of come Sunday.
This unit features a former UDFA in Pleasant as well as seventh rounder Andre Hal. In contrast they also feature three former first rounders in Jackson, Joseph and Johnson. Marcus Gilchrist is the lone second rounder in the bunch and he went in the middle of the second in 2011.
Johnathan Joseph is by far their oldest DB and he might be their best, playing at a high level in his mid 30’s, he and Frank Gore will probably swap tips on Medicare coverage after the game.
Kareem Jackson seems to have struggled and Kevin Johnson hasn’t been on the field enough for anyone to get a feel for him. Johnson was drafted in 2015 and the thought at the time was that he was drafted solely to cover T.Y. Hilton. Hilton has burned these Texans before and, depending on Johnson’s health, he may do it again if Brissett looks his way.
This Texans defensive backfield is currently ranked 22nd against the pass and the defense as a whole has given up the 3rd most points of any defense in the league, while giving up the 5th most TD passes.
- Tampa 2:
This ball should have never been thrown here. It’s cover 2, someone should send Kevin Hogan this link, so he can better understand where to throw the ball against cover 2. Even though he’s leaving yards on the field if it’s completed, it could have still resulted in a positive play, instead he misses his target and 75 year old Johnathan Joseph is in position to make the play.
Also this gif cuts off early, but it’s not a play that ends with some sort of amazing blooper. Joseph scores on an 82 yard return.
- Don’t focus so much on the TD:
They gave up the score here and while it’s important to note that a guy like Marlon Mack could have similar success in this area of the field, the rest of the receivers are locked up by DB’s. This is good coverage and poor open field tackling. It’s a worse play by linebacker Zach Cunningham, a linebacker shouldn’t miss that tackle.
- Again the Chiefs score:
This was a match-up problem on a school yard kind of a play. Smith rolls left as his pocket collapses to buy more time. He needs more time because no one’s open. Charcandrick West squeezes out of the backfield and moves with his QB (as you’re supposed to do) and the linebacker just can’t match up here.
Everyone else is well covered.
- Hole in the zone:
Like Bill O’Brien preached in the coaching conference videos I included in yesterday’s offensive scouting report, often the deep middle is the best place to attack 2 deep safeties.
Linebacker Zach Cunningham could have made this play if he had a better feel for the depth he needed to play his zone. Again with the instincts. I liked Cunningham in last year’s draft and he could really improve with time. With that said, the things he needs to improve upon are tough to learn. Hopefully for our sake the Texans play him, he doesn’t get better and he’s a 15 year starter, despite playing so bad.
These DB’s aren’t bad but they aren’t good. Once again, the Jags have a much better secondary and it isn’t close. If Mercilus and Watt were both healthy, these DB’s would look like world beaters, a pass rush makes everything easier on the back end of a defense. All in all, these guys are beatable if Jacoby can make good reads and recognize coverages.
If there’s a game the Colts can score points, it’s this one. The Texans are giving up the 3rd most points in the league and 5th most passing TD’s. Their run defense is stout, ranked in the top 10 and I see no reason to believe they won’t continue that against us.
This isn’t going to be a defensive struggle, unlike previous years the Texans offense is better than its defense, which I believe is due in large part to injuries. If the Texans defense was healthy they may not pose a postseason threat to the Patriots, but it wouldn’t shock me to see them make a little run.
With their injuries they’re an average defense with a good, but young QB. They might win the AFC South, but they’ve got their work cut out for them. It’s safe to say, however, the road to the AFC South championship no longer runs through Indy. This Houston Texans team is the captain now.