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2017 Opponent Scouting Report Week 17: Texans Defense, JJ Watt back in the lineup?

Kansas City Chiefs v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images


On December 31, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Houston Texans. In this Week 17 match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we’re up against.

To answer the question “Is JJ Watt going to be back?” Of course not and if you clicked on this story for that reason, don’t be silly. The guy broke his leg and had surgery. He did Tweet this out on December 1st and he was walking with a limp then. If you’re here because I “tricked” you, I’m totally not sorry.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 17 with a look at the Texans scheme and what they did in Week 9.

Defensive Scheme

Normally my Tuesday scouting report is on the opposing teams Offense and I look at what scheme they will attempt to use to move the ball on our defense. Normally it isn’t 5 am the day after Christmas when I pull film to breakdown and write the article with. So today, going into the final game of the season, I’m reversing the order and we’re talking defense (read: I Screwed Up, A Chris Shepherd Story). Tomorrow we’ll cover the offense, but today we’re throwing it back to what I said about the Texans defensive scheme in week 9:

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.

Chuck Fairbanks

If you want to blame someone for the Patriots reign of terror, blame this guy.
If you want to learn more about what the Pats do, why? But seriously you can click here.

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

The Bullough

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 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.

If you’ve read this far and aren’t here just to pretend to be mad about the title in the comments, include the word “thermos” in the subject of your comment. First person to do it earns a shout out in tomorrows look at the Texans offense. Big deal, I know.

Now that you’ve been given a refresher on how the Texans would like to run their defense, let’s take a look back to Brett Mock’s week 9 recap against these same Texans. I’ve included a few gifs to further highlight what Brett points out:

One of the keys to the game, getting T.Y. Hilton involved in the offense, went according to plan as Jacoby Brissett connected for a 45-yard touchdown and put the Colts up 7-0 early.

I’m not 100% sure what this coverage call was on this one from the Texans. At the top of the screen they bracket (I believe) Kamar Aiken with a corner/safety combo while appearing to use a zone at the bottom of the screen. If you watch the safety nearest the bottom of the screen he keys on the middle level out route which leaves TY one-on-one with Johnathan Joseph and Hilton wins this one.

This play design is a good one from our Colts. It’s designed to stretch the defense and create passing options at all three levels of the defense. You have two out routes, one short, one mid and then TY’s skinny post. I’m going to give Jacoby Brissett a lot of credit on this play for understanding the play design, keying on that safety, and making the deep throw when we’ve seen him check down time and time again. He had the mid level out route open as well but he took his shot to TY and it paid off big. Good play call, good execution, 6 points.

  • Brett didn’t mention this play:

At times in this game, both backs found some room to run. With that said, we averaged around 3.0 YPC. It wasn’t a great effort when looking at the entirety of the game but the room should be there if go out and consistently find it.

Fast forward a couple drives:

After another offensive drive that featured a long pass to T.Y. Hilton, the Colts got back on the board with a field goal.

Again, major credit to Jacoby on this play, he sees cover two and attacks the defense where it is most vulnerable. Solid read, good throw. It was after this game I believed we were going to turn the corner and win 3-5 more games over the last 8 weeks. I believed that because Jacoby was playing like this instead of not making quick decisions, rolling right, and then trying to throw to goodness knows who 30 yards down field with no one in the area and Jacoby praying he was outside of the tackle box. But you know, I expect a lot.

As per usual, just when the Colts looked to have the game in hand, Jacoby Brissett made a big mistake. When you’re running a two minute drill with a 10 point lead, you’re hoping to use clock and potentially get a touchdown or a field goal before the half. Standing in the pocket scanning the field for a long time on third and medium is simply stupid. Allowing a strip sack returned for a touchdown when your defense hasn’t allowed Houston to get anything going is inexcusable.

This pushed the score to Colts 10 - Brissett 7 at the half.

Brett writes these recaps and usually has them up pretty quickly after each weeks game is played, it’s an impressive feat and a job that I want no part of if I’m being honest. I say that because I disagree with his assessment of this play, but given the fact that he watched this play one time, taking notes, it’s easy to see how any Colts fan who has watched Jacoby hold the ball in the pocket long enough to bake cookies, all year long would be frustrated and come up with that conclusion in the moment.

Brissett absolutely screws up on this play but it’s in the fact that he didn’t secure the ball as the hit came in. All he has to do is wrap the ball up, take the sack and live to play another down. Instead he... shot-puts (??) the ball backwards, showing why his track and field career ended in the process.

There were failures along the offensive line here too. Anthony Castonzo fails to recognize the loop and blitz outside. This isn’t something we’ve really seen a lot of from AC this year. In case you haven’t noticed he’s having a great year and yes it completely sucks his great year also happens to be the worst season as a team he’s had outside of his rookie year, when he played like a rookie.

I wish we could see the other angle of this play, I suspect that when Jadeveon Clowney engages with AC he hold him in place which prevents him from getting to his spot to slow down the OLB who eventually causes Brissett’s failed shot-putt.

Next came halftime!

Both teams started out the second half with ineffective drives.

No gifs needed, we didn’t do anything!

Quan Bray sucked it up on a punt return, in that he should have called for a fair catch and didn’t, setting up this series of events:

Brissett took immediate pressure in his own end zone. Luckily, he was able to escape a potential safety and pick up a first down with his legs.

This one is pretty simple, everyone on defense sucks up trying to rush the passer, the DB’s go deep with the receivers and the QB finds a crease outside with no edge contain. First down Colts.

A run for one yard and a sack backed the Colts back up to 3rd and 17 from the Colts 11 yard line. Another short pass on third and long came up well short and results in a punt.

This is what happens when Jadeveon Clowney is isolated on Jeremy Vujnovich. Vujnovich isn’t good but I’ll give him a pass here, Clowney is legit.

So we punt and then get the ball back.

In one of the strangest plays I have ever seen watching football, T.Y. Hilton took a short pass over the middle for a long touchdown in the most unlikely way you’ll ever see. Texans defender Kareem Jackson slipped as he tried to make a tackle on T.Y. Hilton and never touched him down. In a great veteran move, Hilton got back to his feet and ran in for the score to push the Colts to a 17-7 lead.

I’ll concur this was a crazy play and I didn’t think there was anyway TY avoided the defender but, well, he did. Great play, ended up being one of the most fun plays in an otherwise bleak season.

It became blatantly clear that the Colts fear giving away games after their horrible showing in the second halves of games during the first eight weeks of the season. Quick release options, dump-off passes, and running plays designed to chew up clock dominated the Indianapolis playbook to start the fourth quarter.

The scariest part of this, outside of the fact that Indianapolis has proven entirely incapable of closing out games, is that the Colts offense had been playing its own version of “prevent.” After Frank Gore carried the ball twice to keep the clock moving, Indianapolis was bailed out from taking a sack with a defensive holding call. On the next set of downs, the Colts threw a short out to Jack Doyle for four yards and then rushed Gore up the middle for one, forcing themselves into a third down and five situation. Another pass attempted to Doyle was incomplete and put the ball back in Tom Savage’s hands

We truly did give the Texans the last shot to go win this game and in rare form we managed to win one.

Final Thoughts:

The Texans didn’t do anything special on defense. They did manage to stop insanely predictable runs in the second half when our Colts decided to try to conservatively salt the game away, but otherwise their extensive list of people on IR had a greater impact than the guys who were actually on the field.

Ultimately your offensive and defensive game plans have to complement each other and when your starting QB goes down a few days before the game, you can’t possibly put together a new, all encompassing game plan and implement it with any kind of success.

For us fans this game means the potential for a better draft slot. While I’m sure the players are aware of that fact, think about it from their perspective, the more they lose the higher the pick they get, the higher the pick that comes in the earlier he’s going to play, the earlier that guy plays, the earlier you or one of your teammates (guys you have an actual relationship with and some of them you may actually like) loses their job. The Colts can’t get a “worse” pick than they have but they could slide into the #2 overall spot.

This isn’t as true for the Texans as their pick was traded to Cleveland for the pick that landed them Deshaun Watson, (and if you’re a Cleveland Browns fan and you’re still making excuses for passing on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson, just stop it, your front office screwed you) so losing this game doesn’t mean much in that sense.

The sense it does mean a lot to both teams is that they both have plenty of players who know what it’s like to win the AFC South. Both teams know what a big deal it was that the Texans were finally able to win in Indianapolis and both teams are going to want to stop it from/make it happen(ing) again.

It feels cliche to say this game will be played for pride but honestly that’s exactly what it’s going to be. Both Chuck Pagano and Bill O’Brien’s jobs are rumored to be over come Black Monday, this game is going to be a mixture of a “rivalry”, winning in Indy, an AFC South deal, win one for the Gipper, keep coach’s job, travesty of an NFL game.

I don’t know who wins that game but in my opinion it’s going to be won in the locker room by whoever rallies their troops better because most of these guys are looking forward to the vacation they have planned with their friends and families that start in the weeks following the game.

One final note; if Bill O’Brien does become available I am 100% throwing my hat behind bringing him in for an interview. I don’t know if he would be the best candidate available but I have a suspicion that his next NFL head coaching job will see him have great success if he has any kind of a QB at all. This year we saw the beginning of what he can do with a legit QB. Brissett comes from the offense that O’Brien runs, Luck would flourish in that kind of system, and if the Texans are dumb enough to let ego (which is rumored to be one of the major issues) halt that progress that was shown before Watson went down, I hope we would be smart enough to at least kick the tires.