Organized training activities (OTAs) are often criticized as little more than glorified walk-throughs. Quarterbacks get to throw under token pressure, running backs recognize no one is trying to take their heads off, and the members of the defense are playing the equivalent of two-hand touch.
You can decide if the biggest news story of the Houston Texans’ OTAs came when Arian Foster strained his calf or when Ed Reed decides he will be ready to play. The general atmosphere was so nonchalant, the debut of J.J. Watt’s shoe line and DeAndre Hopkin’s willingness to accept a gay teammate were deemed as newsworthy as any other event.
Something significant came out during a brief interview of Darryl Sharpton by Drew Dougherty of HoustonTexans.com, which should have drawn more notice. Apparently, Sharpton has been assigned the job of calling the defensive signals.
Dougherty asked what is was like to be “the guy out there that’s calling things (the signals) out:”
It’s something I haven’t done in a while, since I was at the University of Miami. But being out in this role is good. I know a whole lot more about the defense, having to call the plays and line more guys up. It’s an extra responsibility, but I look forward to it, and so far so good.
Bradie James had the duty last year, and he did such a bang-up job, he is still unemployed. Sharpton does not have a big pair of shoes to fill; what James left behind needs to be burned in an act of ceremonial cleansing.
The Texans were ranked seventh in yards allowed and ninth in points allowed in 2012. Clearly, James had a hand in this above-average performance. But when it counted, his leadership was lacking.
Two plays stand out in the 41-28 loss to the New England Patriots in the divisional round. Houston had fallen behind two touchdowns in the first half but had closed the gap to 17-13 by halftime. To keep the momentum in its favor, it had to keep Tom Brady and the Patriots offense from dictating the tempo.
The pressure of keeping up with Brady the QB was proving to be too much for Bradie the LB. The Pats scored on the opening drive of the second half, and the key play was a 40-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez out of the no-huddle. The eight-yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley came over the right side of this two-tight end formation:
With the score now 24-13, the teams traded a couple of possessions before Houston took over at its own 10. The Texans gained 47 yards before the infamous Matt Schaub interception to Rob Ninkovich had New England back in business at their own 37-yard line.
Three rapid-fire plays put the ball at the Houston 28. If the Texans could just hold the damage to a field goal, there was still 9:47 to go in the third quarter. This was more than enough time to make up a two-touchdown deficit.
This is what the defense looked like half a second before the ball was snapped:
How could these so-called professionals dawdle up to the line with so much at stake? After a 23-yard run by Ridley, New England is 1st-and-goal on the 5-yard line.
The team's motivation may have been fading. But Bradie James, the QB of the defense, is charged with getting the players into formation regardless of the score. The blame falls collectively on all 11 men but most of all on the man who sets the alignment.
Tom Brady now calls the same strong-right, double-TE formation where Ridley zipped through the “B” gap into the end zone just 30 minutes ago. Instead of putting Wes Welker in motion out of the slot, he leaves him there and sets Brandon Lloyd five yards wide of the left tackle:
Johnathan Joseph is in man coverage on Lloyd, who is looking right at his QB. Joseph should be in press coverage, but nursing two sport hernias means he needs a big cushion. Some help over the top by Glover Quin would seem like a necessity.
But Quin and Danieal Manning are both playing run, convinced the same formation will result in the same play. Everybody looks flummoxed as Brady makes a no-step throw to Lloyd for a 31-13 lead.
Simply put, Mr. James, “Fool you twice, shame on you.”
To be fair, James has the defensive calls relayed from the sideline via a radio in his helmet. The onus for these tactical failures lies primarily with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
In the picture above, Joseph has his attention directed towards James, waiting for any adjustments to the coach’s call. To think a team that thrives on being unpredictable would run the same play again is completely shortsighted.
Without a doubt, Sharpton has studied this game and realizes these are examples of what to avoid. If the message fails to get through to Phillips, these same consequences will be repeated every time the Texans meet an opponent who favors a quick-strike offense.
Next, we will consider how the addition of a new player will have positive effects on the Texans’ style of play.
Jones replaces the multifaceted James Casey, who left Houston for a featured role with the Philadelphia Eagles in Chip Kelly’s spread offense. He was never utilized to his full effect with the Texans. Casey, who had never played the fullback position, was asked to block like one in 2012 because nobody else was on hand to do the job.
On top of that, he was expected to run pass routes like a tight end, often on the same play. The role is often called an H-back, but most offensive coordinators in the NFL shy away from that label.
The confusion over how to get the most out this mishmash of roles was obvious by season’s end. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required for Premium Stats), Casey’s snap count dwindled to an average of 24 over the last five games. He had 42 per game over the previous 13 contests.
In the same New England game we looked at earlier, Casey did not make a block until the nine-minute mark of the second quarter. In total, Arian Foster had 22 carries for 90 yards. The so-called fullback cleared the way for Foster on just four of those carries.
To block effectively, you have to get your pads below those of the guy you are blocking, so most of your energy is directed at his center of gravity. Casey tended to aim too high, often leading to a clothesline block like this:
Jones is a different breed from Casey. His approach is to attack the intended target head-on.
Here is a look at a 56-yard run by Maurice Jones-Drew given up by the Indianapolis Colts. It happened in the Week 17 game, where MJD wrapped up the NFL 2011 rushing title.
The play call is a counter trey where most of the line is zone blocking to the left. The fullback helps sell the play by going in the same direction. The exception is the right tackle, Guy Whimper, who brush blocks the oncoming left linebacker, Gary Brackett:
Drew looks like he is taking the handoff left, so Brackett continues the backside pursuit—but not for long because Jones breaks to the right and locks him up:
The setup is complete as MJD follows his fullback just long enough to cutback into an open lane up the middle of the field:
This is one of the Jaguars’ favorite plays, and they ran it half a dozen times in this game with positive yardage gained every time.
The Texans run their system without any significant change of direction in the backfield. The cut typically takes place after the back hits the hole.
Jones will be asked to seal off any penetration by the linebacker or a stunting lineman to create the hole—then seek out someone to engage on the second level.
He is an expert at neutralizing whomever is trying to attack the gap created by the offensive line. When your blocking technique is this close to perfect, the holes should be numerous and gaping.
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