We are very happy to have Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, back for another season to give us his insight on the intricacies of the game.
INSIDE THE TEXANS OFFENSE
The NFL has been recently infiltrated by spread formations from the collegiate game, which originally dates back to TCU’s Dutch Meyer in the 1950s, but the Texans haven’t budged; they’re still running the ball and running it well. They’re one of the league’s best teams and their offense is built around a zone running game.
Houston’s running game consists of base NFL run concepts, but most notably the inside and outside zone concepts that they run incessantly. These two concepts are commonly bunched together and labeled “stretch runs,” which they indeed are, but there’s a slight difference between the two. In layman terms, inside zone is the “shorter” one, designed for the ball-carrier to identify the cutback lane once he puts his foot in the ground and goes to the backside. Conversely, outside zone is designed to attack the outside of the formation and continues in that direction unless an opportunity for a cutback presents itself.
The Texans run these concepts from one and two back sets, with the latter having an H-back (James Casey) accompanying the running back (usually Arian Foster). They also run these with two tight ends along with the two back set, creating 22 personnel, and one back and one tight end, establishing the 11 grouping. The running game is used to set up the passing game, which features a significant amount of West Coast Offense principles. There are dozens of horizontal passing concepts built in, notably a plethora of shallow crossing routes.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson headlines the passing game and is joined by the always efficient and accurate Matt Schaub, who does an exceptional job of selling play action along with his athletic and coherent offensive line. Johnson has seen his snaps decrease in a bid to keep him healthy and potentially more productive, which has paid off as he has exploded in recent weeks. He is still one of the league’s best at getting vertically and attacking defenses as well as picking up yards after the catch. While Johnson works the outside, tight end Owen Daniels runs through the middle of the defense and does it well, especially on play action passes. He forces linebackers to run with him in man coverage, putting them at a disadvantage, and is able to get behind them when they roam in zone coverage.
INSIDE THE TEXANS DEFENSE
It wasn’t long ago when the Texans’ defense was very poor but under Wade Phillips, they’ve been exceptional the past two seasons.
The defense features many talented playmakers, led by defensive end/tackle J.J. Watt. Watt has quickly ascended to one of the league’s most dominant players, creating havoc in the trenches with his hands. He has very quick hands and is very strong, creating a deadly combination that is illustrated when he sets up arm-over (“swim technique”) moves with his bulrush. It often leaves the offensive lineman unsure what to defend first, consequently resulting in no defense at all as they are too slow to get their hands on Watt. Watt and defensive end Antonio Smith are contributors to a base 3-4 defense that Phillips runs.
Phillips’ 3-4 is not that of a traditional kind, as it utilizes 1-gap principles opposed to the older 2-gap style. Phillips uses Over and Under fronts (along with double 3-technqiues) that are popular in 4-3 defenses, which is basically what Phillips’ defense is. The 3-4 pre-snap alignment is a mask for the 4-3 rush concepts, which is done to present multiple looks for quarterbacks.
Houston’s linebackers and secondary are also very aggressive, especially the latter as it does a good job of sitting on routes underneath while creating brackets vertically. The secondary features ball hawk and one of the league’s best cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph as well as safety Danieal Manning, who is a good player in his own right. The linebackers and secondary play a variety of coverages under Wade Phillips, which include Cover-1 (Man-Free), Cover 2 (5 under, 2 deep), Cover 2 Man (Man Under) Cover 3 (4 under, 3 deep and its variations) and Cover 4 (Quarters).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- Tight ends in play action: One of the biggest problems for the Patriots’ secondary this game could be Houston’s use of the tight ends in the play action passing game. Houston’s tight ends do a very good job of getting behind coverage and working the shallow crossing routes, and they come in different fashions. Usually the tight end will run his crossing route to the side where Schaub rolls out to, but what Houston’s been known to do is have the tight end run a shallow crossing route opposite of the quarterback rollout, thus creating a throw back across the field. This is effective because while the defense heads toward Schaub’s direction, the tight end goes the opposite way.
- NT Vince Wilfork and ILB Brandon Spikes vs. Texans running game: I think Wilfork and Spikes will have to be big in this game. The best chance of defending the stretch running game of the Texans’ is by penetrating into the backfield, which is what Spikes is very good at. Fortunately for New England, Wilfork is also light on his feet for his size and moves well. Nose tackles in the 3-4 typically give more troubles to zone blockers than those in the 4-3 because they are aligned head up, thus creating a tougher angle to get cut blocked, and they’re immovable. Brandon Spikes will have to be violent downhill once again, penetrating and most importantly, staying on his feet. He cannot get cut down by the second-level blocks of the Texans.
- Watt: The play of Watt speaks for itself. What will be interesting to see is where he aligns; will it be more at the 3-technique or at the 5-technique? He could be problematic either way, but there is a chance that he plays more inside than out today so he can go up against the interior line, which he should have a quickness advantage for. It will also be interesting to see how the Patriots block Watt. I imagine they will commit half-slides in his direction and running backs to slow him down, but this creates openings for his teammates, especially on stunts – which is another thing to watch for.
- TE Aaron Hernandez & slot WR Wes Welker vs. Texans linebackers – If there’s one area that I think the Texans defense can be exploited it's the linebackers. They simply lack speed and that is a significant problem. New England would be wise to go after them, using Hi-Lo concepts and if possible, one on one matchups with Hernandez (perhaps with backfield and inline alignment) and Welker.
- CB Kareem Jackson – Cornerback Kareem Jackson is a talented player and has improved tremendously for the Texans since coming into the league, but he still has some issues that haven’t been entirely ironed out. When dealing with vertical passes, he doesn’t always look back and locate the football. He could be a target on a few deep ball tries for the Patriots.