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Break It Down: Repeated pick-sixes prove Houston's need to diversify route concepts

Matt Schaub angrily reacts as Seattle's Richard Sherman returns a pick for a touchdown. (David J. Philip/AP)

In today's NFL, offenses don't win pure physical mismatches for long before defenses adapt. We saw that Sunday night when the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons 30-23. Tight end Tony Gonzalez was ripping the New England defense up early in that game, but Bill Belichick switched it up by putting as many as four defenders on Atlanta's most productive weapon late in the game, and especially in the red zone. The Falcons couldn't adapt, and that proved to be the difference.

The game's best offenses are full of schematic diversity, and that's true of even the more conservative game plans. Perhaps most important is the ability to change offensive looks frequently enough to keep defenses on their toes.

For all their talent on the offensive side of the ball , the Houston Texans are not doing this. Many fans are blaming quarterback Matt Schaub for the majority of the team's issues, and it's true Schaub has been inconsistent at best. But when you talk to opposing defensive coordinators and players, it's pretty clear they have Houston's offensive code -- and they're cracking Gary Kubiak's team wide open with it. Schaub has thrown pick-sixes in three straight games, and this trend became apparent when the Baltimore Ravens beat the Texans 30-9, in Week 3.

With 2:39 left in the first half, Baltimore linebacker Daryl Smith returned a Schaub pass 37 yards for a touchdown. And what should have been alarming to Kubiak and his staff was that Smith called it as it happened.

"It was just something we've seen on film through the week," Smith said after the game. "We've been getting pressure on him, but he was getting rid of the ball pretty quick. I knew I had a chance to jump it. We got pressure on that play, and I jumped the route, and I was able to take it for a touchdown."

The Texans ran bunch left out of the Pistol formation on this play, and they had two tight ends -- Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham -- in the formation. They tried to lift Smith with Graham running straight up the seam, and that would have worked except for one fact: The Ravens knew that in such a route combo, Schaub liked to work back to Daniels with the angle route underneath.

Now, one can't blame Schaub entirely for this breakdown -- it might have helped if Graham didn't fall down -- but the way in which Smith jumped the shorter route definitely seemed to indicate that the play was basically over before it began. Smith broke off Graham right as the tight end passed him on the seam route, and broke back under to cover Daniels.


One week later against the Seattle Seahawks, the Texans lost 23-20 in overtime, but the play that tied the game in regulation was a 58-yard pick-six by cornerback Richard Sherman with 2:40 remaining. Sherman is one of the league's most athletic cornerbacks, but this play was less about beating anybody to the ball and more -- once again -- about beating the Texans with their own playbook.

Houston started the play with Andre Johnson in the right slot and Daniels outside the numbers. At the moment Daniels motioned inside to stack, Sherman motioned for safety Kam Chancellor to head up to the line to blitz. Reading this route concept correctly meant that the Seahawks knew there wouldn't be anyone to block Chancellor, and he'd get a free release off the line. That's what happened, and when Schaub ran boot action to his right and turned around to make the throw, Chancellor was already in his face. Schaub made an ill-advised throw, yes, but to blame him entirely is to miss the larger point.

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"We had a couple of options," Kubiak said after the loss. "We tried to stay aggressive throughout the game, we tried to make a play, and it ended up killing us. I wish I could call it again -- run the ball, punt, and play defense. I'll take the responsibility, though. I would have obviously called one hell of a better play."

Here's the problem, though -- the Seahawks rehearsed that coverage against a similar offensive concept in their preparation for this game. That's how easy it was for them to read and respond to what the Texans were doing.

"It was a fantastic call by [Seahawks defensive coordinator] Dan Quinn -- something that we practiced during the week for a situation like this, and we practiced exactly that happening," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. "That doesn't happen very often, but when it did, it was like the world stopped for a second."

"I wasn't watching it per se -- I knew it was coming," Sherman said. "We ran the same play against our scout team on Friday. It's a play we'd seen on film that they like to run in short-yardage situations -- roll Schaub out, and send the receiver on an 'in-and-back-out' route with a corner route behind it. You jump to the guy in the flat.

"As soon as they made the call, and we knew the situation they were in -- it was third-and-short, and it was that play they liked. They motioned down into a stack, but just because you know it -- it still takes some risk."

Indeed it does. Had the Seahawks guessed wrong on this play, with Chancellor blitzing off the edge and Sherman jumping the flat route, the deep pass to Johnson could have been open even with safety Earl Thomas covering Johnson up top.

"I think a lot of it was made up of the call and everything coming together," Quinn said Thursday of Sherman's read of the play. "It’s another example of the guys and how hard they work to study and to go about it. So for him, recognizing an opportunity that would hopefully be there and it was, credit to him and the other guys in terms of the amount of preparation, as you know, that goes into … going into each game."

There's been a lot of talk this week about the fact that Schaub isn't really able to audible in Kubiak's offense as some quarterbacks are throughout the league.

"Once we called it, started the motion, it was game on," Kubiak said on Monday. "So we just had a very, very poor play.”

Poor execution? That can't be denied. But if Kubiak wants to fix what ails Houston's offense, he should start by making it harder for opponents to read. It's evident the rest of the league has figured it out.

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