Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins is the clear top option in the Houston offense, but the rest of the passing attack is slightly unorthodox: the #2 and #3 receivers for the Texans are both tight ends.
Rookie WR Will Fuller got off to a hot start to his career with 211 receiving yards in the first two weeks of the year. He fell off that pace with a 31-yard game against the New England Patriots in week 3. Since that game, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (54 receptions) and TE Ryan Griffin (42) have more receptions than Fuller (39). Even Patriots FS Devin McCourty had to comment that the Texans “tight ends are making a lot more plays now than the first time we played them.”
The Texans really don’t have any other reliable or consistent targets in their offense, which means that a lot of weight will be placed on the shoulders of the tight ends. If they don’t produce, then the Texans won’t have a passing attack.
We spoke with Brett Kollmann of BattleRedBlog.com for the inside scoop on how the Texans use their tight ends in the passing game.
“This has been a terrific year for Texans tight ends, with both Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz having great seasons (by their standards, at least),” Kollmann writes. “Both of them are big-bodied pass catchers that do their best work over the middle, and teams have found out early and often this season that leaving them unchecked while doubling DeAndre Hopkins is just begging for Bill O'Brien to dink and dunk you to death with slants, quick outs, and stick routes to his tight ends.”
The Patriots often cover tight ends with SS Patrick Chung, and will play a lot of three-safety sets against two-tight end packages with FS Duron Harmon joining Chung and McCourty. McCourty will drop down into coverage with Chung, while Harmon mans the deep half of the field.
Patriots captain LB Dont’a Hightower believes the Texans have a unique approach to the tight end position.
“They do a lot of things great,” Hightower said about the Texans tight ends. “I can’t say my man’s name but 87 [C.J. Fiedorowicz] does a real good job for them with what they do as far as blocking and getting on the field and downfield, and Griffin and [Stephen Anderson]. I think they do a good job of getting those guys out there on the field and the way they use them is unique and is definitely something that we’re going to use. We’re going to try to look at and limit those guys. They do a lot of game plan things with those guys as far as getting them on the field with mismatch, so we have to be alert as well.”
And a unique opponent deserves a unique game plan. Maybe LB Kyle Van Noy could cover a tight end or two, and since the Texans don’t really have a #3 wide receiver that produces, the Patriots could devote CB Eric Rowe to covering a tight end when they’re flexed away from the line of scrimmage.
Fiedorowicz only gained 7 yards over the first three weeks of the year, including a 0 yard performance against the Patriots. Since week 4, Fiedorowicz has 552 receiving yards, 9th most of all tight ends in the NFL. Griffin was one of just two tight ends to exceed 50 yards against the Patriots this year, although 20 of Griffin’s 52 yards game on the Texans final drive.
The Patriots will need Chung to play an outstanding game, and the defenders will have to be clever in their coverages to remove the easy passes to the Texans tight ends.