WITH 6:52 REMAINING in the second quarter in Houston on Sunday, the Texans start their huddle at the Jacksonville 33-yard line, facing third-and-one. They hold a 10--3 lead with an AFC South title and the third playoff berth in the franchise's 14 years on the line. If they're stopped, the 50-yard field goal attempt would be at the edge of kicker Nick Novak's range. To the 71,054 fans at NRG Stadium, it's clear that this will be one of those plays that decide their team's season.
This is an article from the Jan. 11, 2016 issue
Offensive coordinator George Godsey, bald head peeking over his trusty call sheet, sends out his heavy personnel: two backs (one fullback), two tight ends (including reserve lineman Kendall Lamm) and receiver DeAndre Hopkins split left. The Jaguars counter with their base package, loading nine defenders in the tackle box. Only free safety Sergio Brown and cornerback Davon House, matched up wide against Hopkins, are outside spitting distance of quarterback Brian Hoyer.
When an NFL offense founders, coordinators like Godsey bear the glare of the public spotlight. But if you go behind the scenes, it's immediately apparent that a game plan is a collective effort. Last week the Texans gave SPORTS ILLUSTRATED rare and exclusive access to the hours of discussion, research, film study and creative energy that shaped their offensive strategy for one of the biggest games in team history. From Godsey and coach Bill O'Brien to their assistants and the players, everyone had substantial input into the overall scheme as well as the individual play calls.
"I really don't think you go into a game thinking, 'Man, this game plan sucks,' because it is a collaboration," Hoyer said five days before he would make his first start since Dec. 13, when he suffered his second concussion in less than a month. "We're talking about it all week. You're just hoping you get the plays at the right time against the right defense."
As he approaches the line, Hoyer is confident that all that scheming has paid off. He eagerly demands the snap with 13 seconds left on the play clock, because this is exactly the defensive look that Godsey hoped would be there when he made his call.
Omaha ... set go!
IT'S 1 P.M. ON Monday, Dec. 28, and the Texans have put the previous day's 34--6 victory over the Titans to bed and turned their attention to the Jaguars. While the players are off until Wednesday, the coaches have been at the office since a little after 4 a.m.
Following the blueprint in New England—where O'Brien and Godsey worked under Bill Belichick—Houston has developed what's called a "game-plan offense," meaning that it varies based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. Godsey sits before two computer monitors; film runs on one, and a blank play-call sheet appears on the other. The sheet is formatted with different categories: drive starters, play action, boot sprints, quick dropbacks, empty formation, second-and-short, two minute etc. All week long Godsey will fill in the sheet by pulling a play call from old sheets (there are at least a dozen pages of calls grayed out on Excel files in the background), or by getting input from his fellow coaches or by creating new plays after drawing alignments and routes on a coaching pad.
"The key is to make all these concepts, whether they are run or pass, look similar to other plays," says Godsey, a 37-year-old former Georgia Tech quarterback who's wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt and sweatpants. "If you can do that, then you have something, because in theory, the defense shouldn't know what to expect."
During the week the coaches are constantly communicating by phone or text while viewing film of the Jaguars. They bring up which concepts they think will work and cite changes they've seen in their AFC South rival since the Texans' 31--20 victory on Oct. 18. The players, especially Hoyer, who is in Pittsburgh getting final clearance to play following his concussion, are weighing in as well.
"Hey, paratrooper this week?" Hoyer texts to Godsey on Monday afternoon in reference to a curl concept against zone defenses (actual terms and plays have been altered).
"Ok," Godsey replies, along with a picture of what he has already put in his call sheet. "Which three do you like out of these empty plays?"
"Everything except coffee draw," Hoyer responds.
More than a few emojis are used, complete with Hoyer's throwing out the cash sign to Godsey, to say that he wants their cash pass concept, or man-coverage beater, included. Ah, game-planning in the 21st century.
Godsey is looking for the right formula to involve Hopkins, his Pro Bowl receiver, and draws inspiration from watching the Falcons' boot actions in the opening possession of their 23--17 victory over the Jaguars on Dec. 20. Meanwhile, Houston's other offensive assistants are tackling their portions of the game plan.
Receivers coach Stan Hixon and offensive assistant Pat O'Hara come up with red-zone plays. Running backs coach Charles London is in charge of identifying Jacksonville's blitz tendencies and plotting the two-minute drill. Tight ends coach John Perry handles certain game situations—third downs, four minutes (that is, running out the clock) and being pinned deep—while scouting both Jacksonville and the Texans for tendencies that Houston can exploit. For instance, Perry's self-scout reveals that in the past two games the Texans have 11 runs and zero passes with two backs in the backfield. The Jags likely know this as well, so Godsey will try to find a way to "surprise" them with a play-action pass out of a two-back set.
Offensive-line coach Mike Devlin handles the running game and draws up the protections on chosen pass plays. Tim Kelly, the offensive quality-control coach, speeds the process by breaking down film in advance, which includes labeling Jacksonville's plays in Texans-speak for each assistant. This is the same grunt task that O'Brien and Godsey performed with the Pats, and errors can be perilous.
They will all come up with calls they think will work, along with clips of the Jaguars' various defensive schemes in different situations. Each coach adds comments into the team's XOS Digital film system to alert others to plays that Houston should run or avoid, then discusses them directly with Godsey. Over the course of the week, he and Devlin will go to the offensive coaches' meeting room and present each package in the game plan to O'Brien for his approval.
THERE ARE A few things about the 5--10 Jaguars that worry the 8--7 Texans. O'Brien basically goes from office to office telling anyone who will listen that Jacksonville has the league's third-best rushing defense (3.6 yards per carry). Godsey flips on the film and sees nosetackle Roy Miller penetrate opposing offensive lines, linebacker Telvin Smith (who would later be ruled out with a shoulder injury) outrun would-be blockers to make plays from sideline to sideline and strong safety Jonathan Cyprien blow up plays in the box. All three are of such concern that Houston's scout team players wear their numbers.
Still, the Texans have run successfully in their three previous games against the Jags (129.0 yards per game), especially with power plays. Those concepts, using different personnel and alignments, are installed in the game plan and feature Alfred Blue, the team's 6'2", 223-pound power back. But Houston's also going to try to run on the edges after watching the Falcons and the Saints exploit the Jaguars there.
"What do you think about tossing it, George?" O'Brien asks during a 90-minute, state-of-the-game-plan meeting with Godsey and Devlin on Tuesday night to go over first and second downs and the running game. (They'll have similar meetings the next two nights to cover third downs and the red zone, with the passing game mixed in.)
"Well, there's two ways to look at it," Godsey says while scarfing down a snack. "One, they're faster than us, but two, there's some angles we've got. I feel like we have angles to run that toss; it's just a matter of making sure we don't overrun the defense."
O'Brien shows some clips he saved from New England's recent loss to the Jets, highlighting how the Patriots are using running back Brandon Bolden to bring speed to their pass and run game.
"Can anybody do that for us? Hunt?" O'Brien asks about the undrafted free-agent speed back Akeem Hunt.
"We've got something with that," Godsey says, then goes through his list of possibilities, including a belly toss play that calls for a fake to the fullback, then a backside toss to the halfback—usually Blue.
"I love the play," O'Brien says. "What do you think about tossing that to Akeem? I know [the Jaguars] are going to be fast in pursuit. But we do have angles, so maybe Akeem.... "
"Can outrun it?" Godsey finishes the sentence. "Yeah, maybe it should really be his play."
Godsey also mentions running boot out of two-back personnel to break their own tendency, and his plans to get the ball to Hopkins.
"Love it," O'Brien says.
After watching the Bills gash Jacksonville with read option in Week 7, Houston also implements an extensive Wildcat package with quarterback B.J. Daniels, who was claimed from the Seahawks' practice squad on Dec. 21. O'Brien likes the Wildcat (dubbed Devil this week) because it not only forces teams to prepare for a wrinkle but also gives his quarterback a breather.
The Texans think they've found a weakness in the Jags' blitz zone coverage, in which the defenders pass the receivers off instead of matching up. A shallow cross could bust big. "We might have a shot to hit it," Godsey says.
The trio run through a bunch of possible plays to take advantage of the blitz and then return to the Bills film. When they see the holes Buffalo was able to open with the read option, a few whistles are heard. What follows is a meandering 40-minute conversation that produces a play from scratch.
Devlin begins by bringing up a play that the 49ers had used to "work" Devlin's Jets during a 34--0 loss in 2012, when QB Colin Kaepernick ran five times for 50 yards, including a seven-yard touchdown. Kaepernick ran behind two tight ends, a fullback and a pulling tackle.
In the XOS system Godsey calls up the identical play the 49ers ran for 10 yards down to the four-yard line against the Patriots later that season, when Godsey was their tight ends coach. "Oh, I remember this," says O'Brien, who was at Penn State at the time. "I know exactly what you're talking about. That's so hard on the defense. It's basically their goal line package. That's a good play."
After they discuss a similar play the Jets ran with Mike Vick last season, another one the Bills have used and a comparable concept from Houston's own playbook, Godsey goes to the whiteboard. Daniels would replace Hoyer; Hunt would be in the offset-I to Daniels's left; two tight ends and receiver Jaelen Strong would be on the same side, in a trips package just off the line. Daniels would fake a handoff around right end to Hunt. While the Jaguars are confused or falling for the fake, the trips would crash down on the end and linebackers, and Daniels would sprint around the left end with a guard pulling in front.
"I don't really see their ends being conscious of that, do you?" Godsey says, performing the crucial part of game-planning: predicting how the defense will react based on film study.
"You're going to get some serious crashing," O'Brien says. "Looks great."
By Sunday the Texans have installed six plays for third-and-short, a situation they've been in 13 times in their three previous meetings with the Jags.
"Watch," Godsey says, "we won't get one now."
ON THAT third-and-one midway through the second quarter, Godsey chose to test the Jaguars' defense on the edge, using Hunt on the belly toss that O'Brien had endorsed. Exiting the huddle, Hoyer saw that weakside linebacker Hayes Pullard (Smith's replacement) was inside the tackle box. Had Pullard lined up outside, Hoyer would have alerted—that is, used the tagged alternate play call. "I knew we had a good look [from the defense]," Hoyer said afterward. "I wanted to snap it before they could adjust."
At the snap, right guard Brandon Brooks crossed the face and angled off the dangerous Miller. Hoyer faked to fullback Jay Prosch, drawing in all three linebackers and end Andre Branch, then made the backside toss to Hunt. Left tackle Chris Clark, filling in for the injured Duane Brown, got to the second level and delivered the key block: a seal on the Will linebacker, Pullard.
"That guy [Clark] is a true professional," Godsey says. "Every time we've needed him, we've been able to count on him."
With Hopkins blocking the cornerback, Hunt ripped off a 25-yard run to the Jacksonville eight. "A huge play," says Hoyer.
Flashing the speed O'Brien thought would be so valuable, Hunt had four touches on the outside in the game for 55 yards. (A 55-yard reception was called back by penalty.) Blue punished the Jaguars up the middle with 21 carries for 102 yards. The Texans averaged 5.2 yards per rush.
Hopkins gained 89 yards from seven catches. One came on a slant off play action out of a two-back set, another on a low crossing route against man coverage.
As for that Kaepernick-like package the coaches drew up? The Texans used a modified version of it with halfback Jonathan Grimes at QB rather than Daniels on the two plays following Hunt's third-down dash: a five-yard power sweep by Grimes and a pass by him that tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz couldn't corral in the end zone. Hoyer returned for the next snap and handed off to Grimes for a three-yard touchdown run that put the Texans up 17--3, on their way to a 30--6 victory and the division title.
"Most of the plays and packages worked, but, yeah, not everything goes according to plan," O'Brien said on Monday. "But like Belichick did with us in New England, I let these guys coach, and they did an excellent job. I told them this morning that all of them, defense and special teams as well, deserve a lot of credit."
That was last week. Now the Texans have a playoff game to host on Saturday against the Chiefs. Time to wipe those call sheets clean and start all over again.