But Matt Schaub—the NFL’s rifleman without the arm—will ultimately determine if Houston’s season is Super Bowl or bust
Much like how a person’s interpretation of the Second Amendment often reflects their broader political beliefs, a person’s opinion of Matt Schaub often reveals their greater football dogmas. Most discussions about Schaub veer into a misguided debate about the player himself. But there are six years’ worth of film that clearly illustrate what Schaub is: a smart system quarterback with functional out-of-pocket passing ability, shrewd ball-handling aptitude and unequivocally below average arm strength.
This isn’t a discussion; it’s a blatantly obvious scouting report. The debate is whether you can win with a quarterback like Schaub. In other words, can you capture a Lombardi Trophy when your quarterback is more of a puzzle piece than cornerstone?
When impassioned Texans fans rush to Schaub’s defense, trumpeting his three 4,000-plus-yard seasons, career 91.9 passer rating and his team’s back-to-back AFC South crowns, they’re really just taking the affirmative: yes, a team can win a title with a puzzle piece quarterback. Debaters on the negative side essentially argue that the Texans’ regular season success has been merely with Schaub, while their postseason failures have been largely because of him. Schaub doesn’t necessarily lose big games, he just lacks the dynamic tools to win them.
In July, Texans general manager Rick Smith made headlines by saying on Sirius XM, “Quarterbacks are judged by championships. That’s just a function of the position. That’s just the reality. And [Schaub] understands that. He knows that. And he does have to play better in those situations for us to take our team to the next level.”
This certainly doesn’t mean Smith—or his boss, owner Bob McNair—side with the negative. After all, they signed Schaub to a five-year deal last summer worth over $29 million guaranteed. More importantly, they’ve surrounded Schaub with a supporting cast that just might be good enough to actually let the debate solve itself. Because, without question, the rest of Houston’s lineup is of Super Bowl quality.
Gary Kubiak’s scheme is predicated on deception and ambiguity. The primary objective of most of its play designs is to make defenders uncertain about whether they’re seeing a run or pass. The Texans masterfully do this in the pre-and post-snap phases. Presnap-wise, it’s not just that they stick with flexible base two-tight end personnel (which they used a league-high 61.3 percent of the time last year; the next highest was Detroit, at 49.5 percent). It’s that they align that personnel in condensed formations that naturally engender both intertwined route combinations and outside run-blocking angles. And they amplify this tactic with motions and shifts.
Postsnap-wise, the ambiguity is prolonged by a cohesive zone-blocking front five that fires off each snap with identical synchronized motion. This spearheads Houston’s trademark stretch carries (since 2009, no team has run outside a higher percentage of the time), as well as the play-action bootlegs and rollouts. It all works because for at least the first 1 or 2 seconds post-snap, it’s impossible for the defense to decipher run versus pass (see Graphic A). The more open the down-and-distance, the more potent the ambiguity; over the last three years, the Texans have averaged an NFL-best 6.9 yards per play on 1st-and-10.
It helps that Houston’s front five is full of good players—at least on the left side. Tackle Duane Brown is coming off his first All-Pro season and has arguably the league’s best combination of power and dexterity when run-blocking on the move. Brown is also steady in pass protection, having been called for holding just three times in four years. Aided largely by the system’s regular use of moving pockets, he rarely requires help against top edge-rushers.
Schaub doesn’t necessarily lose big games, he just lacks the dynamic tools to win them.
Left guard Wade Smith, who must bounce back from recent arthroscopic knee surgery, is also coming off a Pro Bowl—the first of his 10-year career—and has an excellent sense for angles and second-level timing in the run game. Center Chris Myers is the line’s third returning Pro Bowler. Outstanding initial quickness allows the ninth-year pro to consistently land the difficult but crucial reach-and-seal blocks that stabilize the front side of most zone designs.
The right side of Houston’s line is a work in progress. With young seventh-rounder Derek Newton struggling last year, Rick Smith spent a third-round pick on 315-pound Brennan Williams, who will compete for the starting right tackle job. Competing at right guard are 2012 third-and fourth-round picks, massive Brandon Brooks (the favorite) and former Georgia center Ben Jones. Both have decent power, though Jones had a few issues in pass protection last season.
As you’ve heard a million times, the key to a zone ground game is having a running back who can plant and explode downhill on one cut. Arian Foster is certainly that. Though not quite as dominant as usual last season, the soon-to-be 27-year-old still has the AFC’s most formidable combination of power and agility. His fluid change-of-direction is borderline astounding for a 6-1, 225-pound upright runner. Foster will continue to get the bulk of the carries in front of solid bruiser Ben Tate.
For a zone ground game to be great, the wide receivers, tight ends, H-backs and fullbacks must buy in as blockers. Otherwise, the outside lanes that zone runs often syphon into will be clogged. Internally, Texans coaches make sure to always celebrate good wide receiver blocking. They’re fortunate that 11th-year star Andre Johnson (fresh off a career-high 1,598-yard season) is a leader in this sense. The scheme naturally puts all ancillary blockers in favorable one-on-one situations—tight ends and H-backs especially. When approaching targets, these blockers are often already in motion and coming from an unseen angle, which is why lithe receiving type tight end Owen Daniels and every man H-back Garrett Graham can thrive.
While this run game should remain proficient, it will miss the steady move-blocking of departed H-back James Casey (now an Eagle). Ryan Griffin (247 pounds) was drafted in the sixth round to fill the void, though don’t be surprised if the Texans wind up using more traditional fullback sets in 2013. They’re hoping that a change of scenery will help 32-year-old ex-Jaguar Greg Jones recapture at least some of the point of attack fervidity that made him the quickest, nastiest lead-blocker in the NFL three years ago.
The same motion concepts that aid the zone run game set up a lot of Houston’s base passing attack. The rolled pockets and watered down defensive looks that play-action naturally engenders allow Schaub enough room to plant, gather and step into throws. That’s a great way to accommodate his arm. That said, obvious passing situations—most notably third-and-long—are inevitable in the NFL. That’s where Schaub’s shortcomings become an issue.
Knowing that their 32-year-old signal-caller is not going to suddenly develop newfound power and velocity, the Texans have instead sought improvements by augmenting their wide receiving corps. DeAndre Hopkins was drafted in Round 1 to be the long-overdue No. 2 threat opposite Johnson. Hopkins isn’t a burner, but in a rolling play-action system that’s full of slow-developing cross-field routes, he doesn’t need to be. Scouts liked the hands and body control he showed at Clemson. That’s important.
The middle-round wideouts that Houston drafted last season will now make up the depth at wide receiver. Fourth-rounder Keshawn Martin has the quickness to be a viable catch-and-run artist from the slot. However, he hasn’t been effective against tight man coverage, which is why undrafted third-year pro Lestar Jean has challenged for his playing time. Ideally, DeVier Posey would be the front runner for No. 3 duties, but he did not play much as a rookie and spent this past offseason rehabbing from a torn Achilles suffered in the Divisional Round loss at New England.
J.J. Watt might be coming off the most dominant single season in defensive history. Playing mostly from what amounts to an interior end position, he had 20.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and 16 pass deflections (five of which resulted in an interception).
Tempting as it might be, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips does not sit down on Tuesday mornings and draft a game plan propagated on Watt kicking the tail of that week’s opposing right tackle and guard. Phillips, like everyone else, might envision an otherworldly tail-kicking in the back of his mind, but no coach can assume he’s going to get that. Much more goes into designing good defense.
While most defensive coaches try to put their best player in position to draw one-on-one matchups, Phillips knows that his 290-pound monster doesn’t just attract regular double-teams, he defeats them. So, Phillips is comfortable leaving Watt at strongside end and letting underrated gap-shooter Antonio Smith play the more opportunistic weakside three-technique.
Starting between the ends is nose tackle Earl Mitchell, a high-octane backup over the last three years. Mitchell is squatty but quick. His ascension to the first string leaves the D-line thin in the middle, as ex-Panthers bust Terrell McClain and sixth-round rookie Chris Jones will vie for backup nose duties. But there is still imposing depth on the edges, with unheralded role player Tim Jamison, who is hoping to bounce back from his October Achilles tear, and 2012 fourth-rounder Jared Crick, who has popped out on film playing about 14 snaps a week.
While these are the D-line position labels of a 3-4 front, the Texans are, conceptually, more of a 4-3 defense that aligns in a 5-2. Their outside linebackers play up on the line of scrimmage and are responsible for the widest gaps. That leaves the interior defenders each assigned to one gap, allowing them to play in attack, not react, mode. (This is why Houston’s defense is often characterized as “swarming.”)
Filling the outside backer spots this year are Brooks Reed on the strong side and 2012 first-rounder Whitney Mercilus (replacing departed free agent Connor Barwin) on the weak side. Reed plays fast and is disruptive in traffic, which is why, as soon as third-round rookie Sam Montgomery or fourth-round rookie Trevardo Williams learn the ropes, Reed will probably move to inside linebacker. Mercilus was relatively quiet in Year 1 but showed hints of explosive movement. He’ll find that the toughest part of filling Barwin’s shoes is developing the feel for peeling back into flats coverage off certain zone blitz reads (a staple of Phillips’s scheme).
Until Reed changes positions, the inside linebacking spot next to Brian Cushing will be filled by either Darryl Sharpton, Tim Dobbins or Joe Mays. Sharpton, the most intriguing option if healthy, has shown some fire in run defense, but he’s not great in coverage. That’s not a problem as long as Cushing is fully recovered from last October’s ACL injury. Because the Texans always keep a rich reserve of versatile safeties, Phillips can eschew nickel packages (two linebackers, two safeties) when facing three-receiver sets and instead go dime (one linebacker, three safeties). That means the Texans only need one adroit coverage linebacker (Cushing, with his read-and-react burst in space, is phenomenal.)
The loss of firm-tackling box safety Glover Quin would have jeopardized Houston’s dime packages, except second-round rookie D.J. Swearinger is believed to ultimately be capable of filling that vital utility role. Swearinger did not post great workout numbers, but respected analysts loved the decisiveness he played with at South Carolina. He also showed stability in man coverage, which is imperative in Phillips’s system.
Though newcomer Ed Reed has far and away the most illustrious pedigree of Houston’s safeties, the most important safety in 2013 might actually be Danieal Manning, who is slated to start ahead of Swearinger. The converted cornerback can readily guard most tight ends, and he brings adequate physicality when dropping into the box. Proactively, Phillips can do more with Manning than he can with Reed, a banged up soon-to-be 35-year-old who still has unbelievable recognition skills but gradually declining range and limited strength near the line of scrimmage. What’s more, Reed’s status for Week 1 is in question, as he’s coming off hip surgery and has not had many reps in this unfamiliar scheme.
It’s easy to aggressively deploy your safeties in the box when one of your cornerbacks is Johnathan Joseph. The eighth-year pro is among the small handful of cover artists who, when healthy, can face wideouts mano-a-mano with little to no help. Good as Joseph is in press and trail technique, he’s equally suffocating in downfield outside solo coverage, which is crucial given Phillips’s willingness to shift his predominant two-man coverage concepts to single-high zone (i.e. Cover 3).
Opposite Joseph is Kareem Jackson, who has evolved into the caliber of corner you’d expect a 20th overall pick to be. Jackson aced many tough solo-man assignments last season, showing a newfound ability to break on the ball. While he has shadowed Wes Welker in the slot at times, his primary area of operation is on the outside. The hope is that Brandon Harris can shore up the slot position long-term, though it’s been tough sledding for the callow 2011 second-rounder. Should one of the starting corners go down, expect No. 4 man Brice McCain to fill the spot, given that Harris is not comfortable on the outside.
Last year’s fifth-round pick, Randy Bullock, will make his pro debut after spending his rookie campaign on Injured Reserve with a torn groin. There’s a new punter, too, with 13-year Raider Shane Lechler replacing Donnie Jones. The six-time All-Pro saw his numbers dip in 2012—his 39.0 net average ranked 20th in the league—but plenty of punters have still been fruitful at age 37. In the return game, the Texans did have Trindon Holliday, but his non-development at wide receiver ultimately discouraged coaches from sacrificing a precious roster spot for him. After Holliday was cut last October, the solid-but-not-spectacular Keshawn Martin stepped in and posted 12.1 yards per punt return and 23.9 yards per kick return.
Houston’s Super Bowl chances depend on what side you take in the Schaub debate. The vote here is negative, with the thinking being that the Divisional Round, maybe Conference Championship, is as far as a middle-of-the-road quarterback can go. But that’s just one man’s opinion.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.