But do the Texans really know what they’re getting with Brock Osweiler under center?
1. No matter what the Texans might say, Brock Osweiler was a mystery to them when he signed him for $37 million guaranteed. Not only had they never met the man, but they’d learned little about him on film because the Broncos minimized Osweiler in so many of their game plans last season.
2. Bill O’Brien runs a sharp, Patriots-style scheme that can make life easier on a quarterback. As long as that quarterback can play with patience and decisiveness. O’Brien’s scheme features short, defined reads out of three-step timing. This negates the pass rush, which is a real plus because Houston’s offensive line can’t always be counted on to do that. When O’Brien does go deep, it’s often with a sixth offensive lineman to shore up the protection. The scheme helps get wide receivers open, too. It’s one of the best in the league at utilizing “switch releases”—the receivers’ paths crisscross either off the snap or shortly thereafter. Switch releases blur zone defenders’ responsibilities and force man-to-man defenders to back off.
3. The interior of Houston’s O-line looks precarious. Second-round rookie Nick Martin is the new center. Mentally, center is the most difficult position to play other than quarterback. At left guard, Xavier Su’a-Filo was a severe liability last season. It’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to keep his job for 16 games.
4. DeAndre Hopkins is a difficult player to categorize. He doesn’t have dynamic athleticism. He’s a No. 1 receiver in a well-schemed offense, but he can’t create his own space on the backside of a formation like a pure No. 1. Hopkins doesn’t have to create his own space, though. His ability to make contested catches and win 50/50 balls is unparalleled. Consequently, he’s highly productive. And he could be more productive if he gets a better grasp on the nuances of Houston’s scheme. The question is, how much do you pay a guy like this?
5. The Texans overall will be a much faster offense in 2016. Not only did they draft speedy receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, they also signed ex-Dolphins tailback Lamar Miller, who has just enough burst and hip swivel to turn the corner in the outside zone runs that O’Brien likes. Miller will headline what’s become a rather deep backfield. In addition to Jonathan Grimes and Alfred Blue, there’s rookie Tyler Ervin, who, being a fourth-rounder, is all but a lock to make the team. And there’s little known undrafted second-year pro Akeem Hunt, who has supreme quickness. Hunt was the only Texans back with dangerous wheels last season, yet he got just 23 touches in seven games. Not saying he’ll get this, but he’s worth at least five touches an outing this season.
6. J.J. Watt is the only player in the NFL who is so good that he transcends analysis. So instead of lauding Watt—a nebulous task that has nowhere to end and everywhere to begin—the smart move is to discuss how offenses might scheme to contain him. The Chiefs in the wild-card game last year came the closest to figuring it out. Instead of double- or triple-teaming Watt, they often left him unblocked by design. You can feature misdirection and read-option concepts doing this. It neutralizes Watt’s physical advantage and compels him to be a mental player first and foremost. Be careful, though. If you’re going to unblock Watt, it must be a fast-developing play. Anything slow-developing, like a screen or a bootleg, is asking for trouble.
7. Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel really capitalizes on having the game’s best defensive player. Crennel is as diverse with his defensive fronts as any schemer in the league. He’ll move around Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney and John Simon—often simultaneously. And it doesn’t just happen in Houston’s third-down dime package. We saw a few amoeba fronts out of the base 3-4 grouping last year. Changeable fronts make it that much harder for offenses to focus on Watt.
8. The player who benefits most from the changeable fronts, however, is not Watt. It’s Clowney. If the third-year pro can stay healthy (have to call that a big IF at this point), he can be special. But we must understand, special in what context? Clowney is not a natural edge rusher. He has a sensational first step, but it’s not accompanied by the requisite flexibility for dipping and turning the corner. That why he’s a much better pass rusher inside than outside. Clowney is most dynamic on schemed pass-rushing tactics. Things like twists and stunts, particularly long stunts, where Clowney loops from one side of the D-line to the other. Watt is the best in the league at using stunts to compromise blockers and create pass-rushing angles for his teammates. From there, Clowney, even more than Whitney Mercilus (who, by the way, is flexible enough to bend the edge), becomes Houston’s most dangerous weapon out of these designer pass rushes.
9. Houston’s coverage foundation is obvious: Cover 4, also known as Quarters. In this coverage, the outside cornerbacks and safeties each take one-fourth of the field. They start out in zone, but that zone converts to man against any receiver who is in their quarter region after crossing the linebacker level. The coverage is not easy to perfect, but its versatility is very beneficial.
10. Second-year corner Kevin Johnson is perfect for a Quarters coverage scheme. He might already have the best transitional agility in football. Johnson can start out squatting in zone and burst into a break on the ball or a receiver’s route. Another corner who has always been proficient in Quarters, not so much because of short-area movement skills like Johnson, but more because of his sense for downfield angles, is Johnathan Joseph.
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