A Texan-Sized Rebuild
Have we ever seen a team win its division and then in the following offseason go get new starter at quarterback (Brock Osweiler), running back (Lamar Miller) and at two of the top four wide receiver spots (first-round rookie Will Fuller; third-round rookie Braxton Miller)? Remarkably, the Texans made all of these decisions by choice, not necessity.
QB Brian Hoyer’s up-and-down 2015 season ended at a spectacular depth: four interceptions (plus a lost fumble) and 19 incompletions on 34 attempts in a home Wild-Card loss to Kansas City. On the season, Houston’s rushing attack ranked 28th in yards per attempt, due largely to a paucity of speed and quickness at running back. Even more glaring was the lack of speed and quickness surrounding top receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins is the most fascinating piece of this offense, and one of the most befuddling case studies in pro football. Watch him in a vacuum on film and you see that he himself lacks speed and quickness. In fact, at times he borders on being methodical. And yet, on that same piece of film, you’re liable to see Hopkins catch eight balls for 140 yards. And some of those catches will be on throws that no receiver would ever be expected to catch. Hopkins’ unparalleled acrobatics as a ball-plucker is matched only by his innate sense for winning late in routes, after the ball is in the air.
Last season, many of Hopkins’ 111 catches came against true double coverage. He regularly saw linebackers buzz underneath him, safeties rotate over the top and, occasionally, two defenders flat-out bracket him. In one game, the Saints even doubled Hopkins with the single-high safety, leaving the entire middle of the field vacant and much of the rest of their secondary in true one-on-one coverage with absolutely no help. You very rarely see a defense double-team with its middle-field safety.
In that game, Hopkins was held to five catches for 36 yards, both season lows. Houston won 24-6. New Orleans’s tactic, albeit extreme, highlighted Houston’s underlining problem of having a lack of playmakers around their star receiver. Hence this year’s selections of Will Fuller and Braxton Miller in the top half of the draft. The Fuller pick appears to be a cut-and-dried case of an offense adding vertical speed. The Notre Dame product could prove to be rough around the edges, however; on draft night NFL Network’s Mike Mayock compared him to Ted Ginn Jr. because of his susceptibility to drops. Miller played quarterback for much of his career at Ohio State and could also take time to develop.
The developmental aspect makes both rookie receivers wild cards for 2016. But for the sake of football discussion, let’s assume they’ll be on the field in a meaningful capacity. Their influx of speed, especially with speed so vertically oriented, will most greatly impact opposing safeties. The more impacted the safeties are, the less flexible a defense’s coverage concept can be. In other words, offensive speed helps regulate a defense’s scheme.
That’s critical, because Osweiler will need the help of regulated coverages. Much was made about how the Texans signed him despite never having met him and knowing so little about him. O’Brien has understandably downplayed this, but the concerns are valid. The Texans can’t possibly know what Osweiler truly is, even from after studying all of his pro film. In most of his seven starts last season Denver had a run-oriented gameplan that centered around outside zone play-action and two-tight end sets. Playing two tight ends can be one of the purest ways to regulate a defense, since most teams play base 4-3 or 3-4 personnel against it. In base defense, there are significantly fewer blitzes and disguises. A quarterback’s life is made easier. Same goes for the zone play-action, where the routes often all attack only one side of the field. And so the QB need only read that side of the field.
Maybe Osweiler proves to be The Next Big Thing. But with so-so arm strength—his throws lose velocity on the back end when they’re on a rope—it’s most likely his success, especially in 2016, will come from reading coverages and managing the game. O’Brien’s scheme, at its core, is built for this. It’s an intensively timing-based system, which naturally (but not always) calls for the ball to be out quickly.
This, by the way, is another reason Hopkins is such a befuddling case study: He’s super productive in a timing-based offense despite being an inconsistent route runner. Hopkins is more than capable of running crisp, shrewd routes at the shallow and intermediate levels. But what goes unnoticed are the plays he compromises by running sloppy or flat-out incorrect routes. Far too often last season, Hopkins would do this and the quarterback would look elsewhere. That’s when Houston’s dearth of complementary receiving talent reared its ugly, problematic head.
And so it reasons that, as much as the selections of Fuller and Miller were about infusing speed to schematically help Hopkins, they were also about creating viable targets to expand the passing game beyond Hopkins. This suggests O’Brien’s scheme could soon really open up. Likely, a handful of three-step timing throws will become five-step timing throws in an effort to create deeper aerial shots. O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey are astute designers of downfield route combinations. And last season Osweiler was effective going downfield when the design called for a fade throw. (Though fades attack deep, they don’t require significant arm strength.)
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The final piece to Houston’s new puzzle is Lamar Miller. He was a solid contributor in Miami’s passing game, catching 47 balls for 397 yards in 2015. He’s not a Marshall Faulk-type hybrid weapon; most of his receiving comes on routes out of the backfield. But with an inexperienced quarterback, that’s enough from a running back—especially in an offense that, having so much more talent at wide receiver than tight end, is likely to play more 3-WR, 1-TE packages than 2-WR, 2-TE packages. It’s harder to tactically regulate coverages out of three-receiver sets, as that’s where defenses will play their nickel and dime sub-packages, rather than base. To offset this, Houston will have to simplify their passing game by incorporating Miller. The more he touches the ball, the less you’re asking of Osweiler. Plus, the less the defense will mess around with disguised looks.
Expect Miller’s touches to come on the perimeter. That’s where he’s most effective setting up blocks and using his unexpected speed and lateral agility. Where O’Brien’s scheme most differs from his NFL alma mater New England’s is on the ground. The Patriots prefer gap scheme runs—i.e. runs with pull-blockers and an emphasis on physical power. O’Brien prefers outside zone runs with an emphasis on stretching the defense horizontally to create rushing lanes.
But let’s not dive too deep into these offensive logistics. What’s important is the general change the Texans made to their offense: more speed and youth at the skill positions.