On September 30, 2018 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Houston Texans in this week four match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our new look Colts.
The Texans finished 2017 with 4 wins and 12 losses, in what was only their third losing season in the last decade. The last time these two teams faced off the Texans and Colts were both missing their franchise quarterbacks. In the week of practice leading up to the two teams first matchup of 2017, rookie phenom quarterback Deshaun Watson went down with a torn ACL three days before the game, leaving no time for the coaches to adjust the gamplan. As a result, half of the 2017 Indianapolis Colts wins came against the Houston Texans. This year both starting quarterbacks are expected to play in this one, hopefully the results are the same as last season.
Let’s figure out what we can expect in week four.
Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien went to work for the New England Patriots in 2007. By the time 2011 rolled around both Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels had left to take head coaching jobs elsewhere. Naturally this created a void that Bill O’Brien happily filled and after a single season as the Patriots offensive coordinator, O’Brien took the Penn State head coaching job and a few successful years later the NFL and the Houston Texans came calling.
O’Brien’s time in New England obviously had a big impact on what type of offensive system he would prefer. As a result, Bill O’Brien runs his version of an Erhardt-Perkins Offense. If you want to have a better understanding of this offensive system, Chris Brown, formerly of Grantland wrote an awesome piece on the Erhardt-Perkins and the Patriots usage of it, this is absolutely worth your time. I have that linked saved and I will post it every single time I need to take a look at a team that uses the Erhardt-Perkins, it’s really good.
Just a fun side note, in 1996 Frank Reich played for Ron Erhardt, one half of the Erhardt-Perkins creators, during a single season with the New York Jets, they “enjoyed” a 1-15 season together.
The Erhardt-Perkins system doesn’t have some of the calling cards of other systems, Air Coryell is going to push the ball down the field, the West Coast offense is going to spread the ball around horizontally. Instead of declaring either one as the guiding principle this system doesn’t discriminate. It’s up to the coach calling the plays and the players executing them to create what this system wants to do.
A team could come out and throw the ball deep 20 times in a game or you could throw 30 short concepts and you’re still well within what the system is built for. Really it’s a system built to convey information in a more efficient way and to understand a teams philosophy we actually have to watch that team play. If I tell you that the Washington Redskins use a West Coast offense, you probably understand the basis of what they do, in the same vein if I told you that the Jacksonville Jaguars use an Air Coryell system, you probably understand the basis of what they do. When I tell you that the Texans use the Erhardt-Perkins, it should tell you very little. Let’s take a look at what we might see on Sunday.
Bill O’Brien wants to, regardless of how effective or ineffective, establish the run. I saw a lot of gap (or man) blocking schemes but they will use run-pass-options from time to time so they do work in plenty of zone blocking schemes.
If you’re wondering why you would run ZBS with RPO’s it has to do with linemen being illegal receivers down field. If you use a gap blocking scheme, the linemen are going to be too far up field if a pass is thrown and a flag will be thrown (heh, sometimes). With a ZBS the linemen will move laterally first which gives the QB enough time to make his read and get the ball out before his line is more than a yard or so past the line of scrimmage. You will see gap schemes combined with RPO’s at the college level, as linemen can be 4 yards down field, legally on pass plays. This is part of the reason RPO’s are used so heavily at the college level, it’s the purest form of communism.
The play above looks a lot like the play below.
The major difference is the type of blocking scheme used. The first play is a zone run, the linemen all take a lateral step in the same direction at the snap. The second play the linemen fire out and initiate contact while the backside guard pulls from left to right.
The thing that Bill O’Brien seemed to be most concerned with in week one was the fact that they were running the ball out of shotgun looks. As a matter of fact the Texans were in a shotgun, look early and often.
O’Brien wanted to run those plays to set up plays like this. If you’re wondering if this was a RPO, yep. It looks like it. The left side of the line all step left while the right side goes instantly into a pass set, which is a common NFL RPO look.
The thing is, the run game doesn’t really have to be effective for this play to work. Watson just has to read that linebacker in the middle of the field and when he flows toward the running back, it opens Watson’s throwing lane.
It doesn’t matter if the run game is working, the linebackers are going to have to respect the fact that they have to make a tackle if the offense actually hands the ball off. O’Brien just kept pounding the rock, with mixed results in week one.
A lot of the passing concepts that the Texans use are short, quick hitting concepts that are designed to exploit specific coverages and it’s Watson’s job to to identify the coverage and know where to go with the ball as a result. Even though a lot of the throws are quick, O’Brien is going to push the ball down the field when he thinks the time is right.
Here the Texans were facing man to man coverage and they found a matchup in their favor. Jordan Thomas a 6th round rookie out of Mississippi State beats Patrick Chung and Watson finds the open man for a 27 yard gain. Thomas isn’t the first or second option on this play, this is just levels. The three pass catching options at the top of the screen are running routes that are designed to get someone open, usually the outside receiver if neither of the two on the inside separate. Instead Watson works through his progressions and is rewarded with a big gain.
Forget the incompletion, look at the play design:
I don’t like the spacing of this play, I feel it’s too compact, it doesn’t spread the defense enough leaving the passing windows too tight, but the two pass catchers running routes over the middle are in place to exploit that safety in the deep middle. Tight end Ryan Griffin comes open on the post when the safety bites on DeAndre Hopkins’ dig route, underneath. Watson makes the right read and throws a bad ball.
Ultimately Bill O’Brien isn’t a guy who is going to limit himself to any one style of offense. He has plenty of looks to spread defenses both laterally and vertically. He uses both gap and zone running schemes. I think we’re going to see a lot of RPO’s and runs from the gun in this one. the Texans went with a lot more plays under center in week two, but given the consistent success the Eagles had with similar concepts I expect O’Brien to make a young Colts defense prove it can stop such an attack.
Deshaun Watson might be struggling to come back. I say that he might be struggling because I don’t know if it’s truly a struggle or if lady luck is just returning to the median for Watson. Last season Deshaun Watson looked really, really good early in the year. Every pass the guy threw turned to positive plays. With that said, I remember watching his 2017 tape and thinking how lucky the young QB was.
Don’t get me wrong, Watson does so much right. He can read a defense, he makes good presnap reads, he does all of the things you want a young franchise quarterback to do. Except when he would just chuck the ball up for grabs. See in 2017, for some reason, those 50/50 balls seemed to always come down in the Texans favor. It was amazing to watch.
This isn’t 2017 and I don’t think his luck has completely run out, As evidenced by plays like the one below. Hopkins makes a good play on a good pass, but it could have gone either way.
LAUNCH CODES @deshaunwatson @Will_Fuller7 pic.twitter.com/MnjI7FQRsF— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) September 16, 2018
See in 2017, they were seemingly all like the play above. 2018, on the other hand, has given us a lot like the play below:
Adoree' interception of Deshaun. Watson continues to struggle, as does the Texans' line. pic.twitter.com/HmjquzTF67— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 16, 2018
And this one too:
A jump ball for Lamar Miller LMAOOOO pic.twitter.com/wpzprL4W0k— Kevin (@hou_kev) September 24, 2018
Deshaun Watson is a really good young QB. He’s a guy that the Texans should continue to build around and Texans fans should be excited to watch him develop, but he is going to have to pick his shots down the field a little better moving forward. He’s been spoiled and right now we’re seeing Watson going through the NFL growing pains he avoided in his rookie year. Hopefully the Colts can capitalize on that and hopefully Watson thinks he can fit a couple in against Malik Hooker.
Lamar Miller is an okay starting running back. He isn’t great, he isn’t bad, but he is upgradable. He’s averaging 4.0 yards per carry this season after averaging 3.7 a year ago. he has rushed for 1,000 yards, twice in his seven year career with a career high of 1,099 back in 2014. Miller is more than capable of gashing the Colts defense if they continue to struggle the way they struggled against the Eagles Corey Clement, but he isn’t someone the Colts defensive staff is putting in a lot of late nights figuring out how to stop.
The Texans drafted D’onta Foreman in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft, his rookie season looked promising averaging 4.2 yards per carry. Foreman tore his Achilles tendon in 2017 and has started 2018 on PUP. He will be unavailable for this one but he may be a concern for teams after week six.
This is just an observation I’ve made but it seems like Alfred Blue has been a backup running back in Houston since 2004. Okay, not really he’s only been on the team since 2014 but he reminds me of Ben Tate in the fact that he’s a solid long term backup and maybe it’s because I’m a Colts fan and we haven’t had a solid long term backup running back since Dominick Rhodes, but the Texans always seem to have the same RB2.
This is the Texans best run play through two weeks. The power game. Good pull and seal from Fulton. Seeing Lamar Miller out run two defenders is something we haven’t seen from him. pic.twitter.com/JJ6JZFo2vF— patrick (@PatDStat) September 18, 2018
The Texans don’t have the same quality of running backs that they had when Arian Foster ran over, around and through the AFC South in his day. Instead these backs are good enough to get the job done but they aren’t a group Bill O’Brien is going to want to rely on to guide the team to wins very often.
DeAndre Hopkins is the most physical receiver I’ve ever seen play the game. While most receivers try to avoid defenders, Hopkins often tries to run his route right through his man. I don’t think the Colts have anyone who can cover Hopkins all day, one on one. Not many teams do, he’s just too big and strong. Instead I think the Colts zone looks will be the best chance they have of keeping him in check and even then, I don’t have much hope. I believe Hopkins is just going to get his. This isn’t the most physical play you’ll see from Hopkins but it is something I hope the Colts can prevent.
Watson to DeAndre Hopkins for 28-yard touchdownpic.twitter.com/wGv0OGiGRJ— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 16, 2018
As if Hopkins wasn’t enough, Will Fuller is proving to be a nice deep threat averaging 16.5 yards per reception and has averaged 6.5 catches and 107 yards in the two games he’s played.
Clearly the Texans are going to try to throw the ball but beyond the top two receiving threats there is a steep drop off. Bruce Ellington, who left the Texans week 3 game with a quad injury and who may not play this Sunday, hasn’t had the kind of impact you would like to see from your third receiving option. Lamar Miller is fourth on the team with eight receptions and both tight ends, Ryan Griffin and Jordan Thomas each have 3 catches for 63 and 80 yards respectively.
The Texans aren’t loaded with talent at receiver but they’re talent rich at the top of the depth chart and frankly if Deshaun Watson gets time to throw, those two talented receivers may be enough to get the job done.
After Margus Hunt’s big week one performance I declared his performance nice, but nothing that should suggest he had turned some sort of corner in his football career. I thought it was evidence of a weak opponent. I’m not ready to call Hunt a top 10 defensive linemen (because I don’t deal in hot takes and if you wanted a bunch of hot takes so you could feel upset and post angry, snarky comments, you probably stopped reading at some point in the first couple paragraphs) but man, I hope I was wrong about Hunt and in week four we should see Hunt produce in a big way. This Texans line isn’t good. At all.
A lot of smart people believed that Martinas Rankin would be a guard at the NFL level, before he was drafted in the third round of the 2018 draft. The Texans have been forced to start the rookie at left tackle and if I’m being honest, he’s playing left tackle the way you would expect a third round rookie guard to play the position. If they weren’t the Texans I would suggest once Anthony Castonzo gets healthy, trading the Le’Raven Clark to give them a huge upgrade at the position. Yeah, it’s not good.
On the other side of the line Julie’n Davenport is starting at right tackle. Who is Julie’n Davenport you might be wondering (I was). Davenport was drafted in the fourth round out of Bucknell in the 2018 NFL draft.
So for those of you keeping score at home, you can start two tackles on offense and the Texans are starting two mid-round rookies at tackle. So far, the results have been exactly what you would expect them to be.
At guard the Texans went out and signed both Senio Kelemete and Zach Fulton in the off season. Kelemete and Fulton are both very talented players but again, since I know you’re keeping score at home, you can start five offensive linemen, the Houston Texans are starting 4 guys who are completely new to the Texans. The Texans are returning starting center Nick Martin, so one out of five starters are returning. Talk about turnover.
The offensive line is a unique position group. As a Colts fan you’ve probably heard how important continuity is, actually I’d wager you are tired of hearing it, but it’s true. The best offensive lines are lines that have been together for a long time. Talent up front absolutely matters but an average guard will appear to be much better than he really is if he is completely in-sync with the guys on either side of him. So while the Texans line has been very bad, they’ve had their moments, especially with downhill gap scheme running plays and they’re only going to improve.
These guys aren’t going to magically turn it on this week but when the Colts go to Houston on December 9th, we may be facing a vastly improved unit. In the meantime watch for Jabaal Sheard and Margus Hunt to successfully run those stunts and loops all day long.
What to Expect from the Colts Defense:
The Colts will need to get pressure on Deshaun Watson early in an effort to get into the young passer’s head. He’s a really smart guy who has played in some really big games while at Clemson, so it may not be as easy as it sounds, but no matter who you are, if you get hit you become human. Darius Leonard has the kind of speed and acceleration you need to have effective delayed blitzes and as a result, he’s racked up three sacks completely untouched.
I expect to see aggressive play calls up front with Matt Eberflus dialing up a lot of blitzes early and I think this will finally be the week we see Malik Hooker get a pick as Watson is going to do what he does and put one up for grabs.