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Film Room: Dissecting the Houston Texans’ passing game

What they do well, and what New England can exploit.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Protecting Deshaun Watson was a tough task for the Houston Texans in 2018. Their young quarterback was sacked a league-high 62 times a season ago, and spent much of his season under seige in the pocket.

Given this, offensive line was a big need for the Texans heading into the off-season. They drafted offensive tackle Tytus Howard in the first round and guard Max Scharping in the second. In addition, they traded for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil shortly before the season began.

Now, Watson has still been sacked 32 times already, so the protection has not completely come together. It is also true that some of those sacks can be traced to the quarterback holding the football too long. But do not think that acquiring players was the only way the Texans looked to protection their quarterback. Head coach Bill O’Brien has also used some schematic elements to stress defenses while protecting his quarterback. Some heavy, condensed formations using maximum protection schemes are one way, while some spread, empty formations have been the other. Two completely different approaches, but both having some success.

Empty Formations

The first aspect of the Texans’ offense we can examine is how they use empty formations. With receiving talents such as DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, plus an emerging tight end in Jordan Atkins, spreading out the defense gives Watson a number of ways to stress the defense. In addition, these formations force the defense to spread out their alignment, lest they leave themselves vulnerable on the edges and in the secondary.

Let’s start with this red zone play against the Los Angeles Chargers. Early in the second quarter Houston faces a 2nd and 12 on the Los Angeles 21-yard line. They break the huddle with 12 offensive personnel and align in an empty formation, with Watson (#4) in the shotgun:

Houston runs a variation of the “Hoss Juke” design, which if it sounds familiar, it should. In Super Bowl LIII the New England Patriots - a team O’Brien used to coach for - ran that play three straight times on the game’s only touchdown drive:

The formation and the route concept stretch the defense horizontally and vertically. The Chargers actually show pressure pre-snap, but drop eight into coverage. The beauty of this design is that it gives the quarterback an answer for almost any scheme in the secondary. Here, the Chargers drop into a single-high zone coverage, and that allows Watson to bracket the free safety with the two seam routes:

Watson looks first at Hopkins (#10) out of the left slot, and that freezes the free safety in the middle of the field. The QB then comes to the right and hits tight end Darren Fells (#87) on his seam in the end zone for the touchdown.

Even when the defense chooses to bring pressure, the empty formation usually provides Watson with a quick read and throw, sometimes based off of a rub concept. On this 2nd and 10 against the Chargers, Watson aligns alone in the shotgun and the Texans have three receivers to the left side of the formation:

Los Angeles brings pressure here, sending five after Watson and using a mirrored tackle-end stunt. But the Texans still have five in to block, so the QB has time to get the ball out. He looks to the right, where a rub concept frees up Fells on a quick slant:

Here is a similar design against the Carolina Panthers. Houston goes empty again and puts Keke Coutee (#16) in a stack slot to the right behind Hopkins. Hopkins releases vertically, while Coutee runs a simple curl route. The vertical release - plus the attention paid to Hopkins - creates space for his teammate on the curl route:

In a similar vein, the empty formations give Watson a good look at the defense, allowing him to find and exploit potential bubbles or cushions that he can identify pre-snap. On this 2nd and 8 against the Atlanta Falcons, the Texans empty the backfield again and put Watson in the shotgun. Hopkins is again in a stack-slot formation, this time to the left:

Take note of the coverage over Hopkins. Atlanta shows a Cover 4 alignment pre-snap with a safety giving Hopkins a ton of cushion. Watson spots this before the play, and comes right to Hopkins on a quick post route that the QB throws with pretty good timing and anticipation:

Again, the ball comes out quickly, protects the quarterback, and allows him to exploit a weakness in the coverage identified before the play.

On this play against the Panthers Houston empties the backfield once more. Fuller (#15) is in the slot to the left, and will run a slant route:

As you can see, Fuller’s slant route takes him into another soft area of the coverage, in front of the safety and between two underneath defenders. Watson sees that as well, and comes right to Fuller almost immediately after the snap:

These alignments can also create some one-on-one mismatches, even if the defense is dropping into zone coverage. On this play against the Baltimore Ravens, Watson sees presnap that Hopkins is working against linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (#48). That is a matchup that the Texans will take on every single snap:

These empty formations flip the pressure equation. Instead of putting the quarterback under duress, these alignments stress the defense and allow Watson to identify soft spots in the coverage and get the ball out of his hands quickly. In addition, O’Brien has a number of ways he can create additional space for his receivers post-snap due to stack-slot formations, rub concepts and by taking advantage of the attention that players like Hopkins and even Fuller command. These empty formations are a great way to help your quarterback, keep him upright and enable him to get the ball out quickly.

Condensed and Heavy

But there is another way that O’Brien has used formations, personnel and scheme to protect his quarterback, and it is almost the schematic opposite of the previous ideas. O’Brien has alsy used some more condensed formations, often with heavier personnel, to implement some maximum protection route concepts.

Over the past few years, the Texans have been a heavy Yankee Concept team. This is usually a two-receiver, maximum protection route concept. Here is an example of Houston running this design last season out of the shotgun, with some eye candy to distract the defense:

As you can see this is really just a two-receiver concept (the motion man does release to the flat) and the rest of the offensive players stay in to protect the quarterback.

This season, Watson and the Texans have run some similar designs, often out of 12 or even bigger personnel packages and from more condensed formations than we discussed in the previous section. As with the Yankee Concept example from last season, these plays usually have just a few receiving options for the quarterback and focus on protection, but they can still be successful in the downfield passing game.

Take this play against the Chargers. Facing a 2nd and 9 in the third quarter the Texans align with Watson under center and use a jumbo 12 personnel package, bringing into the game reserve offensive lineman Roderick Johnson (#63) and aligning him on the wing to the right:

Here is the route concept:

Working off of play-action, Watson has a dig route from Hopkins working from the backside. Atkins runs a deep out route, while Fuller runs a deep post. The quarterback has all day to throw here thanks to the protection scheme, and finds Fuller late on the deep post for a huge play:

Here is another maximum protection, two receiver route concept working off of play-action. Facing a 1st and 10 in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Texans line up with Watson under center using a traditional 12 personnel package. Hopkins and Fuller align in a slot close to the formation, with Hopkins on the inside:

Sometimes you need to be a good actor to be successful in the NFL. The Texans show an outside zone running play to the right, but run Fuller and Hopkins on routes breaking to the inside...eventually. Watch as Hopkins in particular slow plays this route, showing a block prior to curling to the middle of the field:

So here, O’Brien moves the pocket a bit, uses a maximum protection scheme, but is still able to get both of his receivers open thanks to personnel, alignment and scheme.

Let’s close out with this play against the Falcons. As mentioned earlier, the Texans are big fans of the Yankee Concept. Well, if a schmuck like me can figure that out certainly NFL defensive coordinators and advance scouts can as well. This has led to teams using a “cut” or a “nail” call where the safety in the middle of the field drops down to handle the crossing route, while the cornerback then replaces the safety in the middle of the field. Here are the Patriots running that against Houston in Week 1 last season:

This has forced O’Brien to come up with some additional variations of the Yankee Concept to try and counter these calls. That brings us to this play against the Falcons. Facing a 1st and 10 late in the third quarter the Texans run this design:

These are simply two out breaking routes, again off of play-action and using maximum protection. But watch the cornerback at the bottom of the screen. He is anticipation some sort of Yankee Concept here and starts to drift to the middle of the field, either to replace the safety or to cover the deep crossing route. But Fuller is running this deep out, and is wide open for Watson:

Sometimes as an offensive coordinator you have to counter what defenses are doing, and this is a good example.

Slowing Them Down

So the question becomes, how does one slow down this offense? The Ravens did a good job of that a few weeks ago, and while it might surprise you to hear this Baltimore did not do anything truly exotic. They mixed up their coverages, they brought pressure at times, and they also capitalized on hesitation from Watson himself.

“Exploit the hesitation.” That phrase might sound familiar to followers of my work, but for the uninitiated this was a phrase I stressed in the leadup to Super Bowl LIII. Throughout last season Jared Goff would be too hesitant at times in the pocket, and it would lead to missed opportunities for the Los Angeles Rams’ offense.

On perhaps the biggest play of Super Bowl LIII, Goff hesitated before throwing a deep post route in the direction of Brandin Cooks. That allowed Jason McCourty to break towards the middle of the field to prevent a touchdown.

(You likely recall that play came on a Yankee Concept design):

Returning to Week 11 of this season, on Houston’s opening possession against the Ravens O’Brien called for a variation of the Yankee Concept, with Hopkins running the crossing route while Kenny Stills (#12) runs not a post, but a deep corner route:

On this play there is a big window to throw the corner route to Stills, but Watson hesitates. Then, as the pocket collapses around him the QB tries to make something happen, but he loses the football as he is eventually sacked:

Baltimore would recover the loose ball.

Often Watson’s hesitation comes when he is trying to get the football to Hopkins. On this sack from the first quarter, the Texans run a stick concept to the three receiver side of the formation, while they employ slant/flat on the backside:

Hopkins runs the weakside slant route. Watch how long Watson keeps his eyes trained on his favorite target:

This is another missed opportunity for the Houston offense. Baltimore just drops into a standard Cover 2 on this play, and there is actually a chance for Watson to hit the vertical route along the right sideline in the soft spot of the Cover 2 scheme. But with his eyes trained on Hopkins, Watson is in no position to get his eyes to the boundary to throw this route. (Note: The flag on the play was for offensive holding, which the Ravens declined).

For good measure, one more example of Watson hesitating (this time on a curl route from Hopkins) and it getting him into trouble:

Watson faces pressure off the right edge (Howard (#71) struggled in this game and might be a focus of pressure schemes on Sunday night) but there is a window for the QB to click and climb the pocket and throw this curl route to Hopkins on the right side of the field. Instead, he tries to create in the pocket and is sacked once more.

Speaking of pressure schemes, you know the Patriots love to bring the heat this season. On a 4th and 2 play against Watson, the Ravens brought a Cover 0 blitz look that New England might use as well:

The Texans cannot pick up every pass rusher, and Watson is forced to hurry his throw. Hopkins has a step against the single coverage but the pass is slightly off target due to the pressure, and it falls incomplete.

This season the Texans have done some things schematically to help their quarterback in the pocket. But as the Baltimore Ravens showed, sometimes pressure leads to hesitation on the part of the passer himself, and that can be a critical step in slowing down an offense. This season the Patriots have thrived on bringing pressure to create hesitation in the minds of an opposing QB, and we should look for more of the same on Sunday night.