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Revamped Houston Texans Offense One of Biggest Surprises of 2016 Season

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2016

Texans WR Will Fuller
Texans WR Will FullerBob Levey/Getty Images

Two weeks into the regular season, the surprise team in the NFL is the Houston Texans. The Indianapolis Colts looked like a sleeper contender heading into the preseason with quarterback Andrew Luck returning from injury, and the Jacksonville Jaguars were one of the trendier sleeper playoff candidates, but anyone with a pair of eyes can tell you that the 2-0 Texans are the hands-down favorites to win the AFC South title.

Despite just a two-game sample size, only two squads have won both of their regular-season games by at least a touchdown. Those squads are the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston.

Pittsburgh is one of the hotter teams in the league, as their offense seemingly runs through a dozen receivers and isn't slowed down when their running back Le'Veon Bell is out with a suspension, but how are the Texans on par with them, ahead of every other squad in the league in terms of point differential?

The answer is simple: their last offseason.

In 2015, Houston lost to the Kansas City Chiefs by a score of 30-0 at home in the Wild Card Round with Brian Hoyer at quarterback, Alfred Blue at running back and star receiver DeAndre Hopkins posting a below-average performance in the AFC South's participation playoff game.

Their offense was limited last season, and they made drastic changes. At quarterback, Hoyer and T.J. Yates were told to hit the road. Instead, Houston is now starting Brock Osweiler, a 25-year-old who led the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos offense for a stint last season before Peyton Manning took back the reins late in the regular season.

Osweiler, one of those rare young starting quarterbacks to hit the open market, signed a four-year, $72 million contract to play with head coach Bill O'Brien, who has three years of Tom Brady and Christian Hackenberg's freshman season on his resume. 

At running back, the Texans didn't have a starting-caliber ball-carrier after Arian Foster went down for the season due to a torn Achilles tendon. Houston and the Miami Dolphins essentially swapped running back situations, as Foster, a 30-year-old coming off of a major injury, is playing in South Beach while Lamar Miller, a 25-year-old with a career 4.5 yards-per-carry average, has found home on the Third Coast.

The team's No. 2 running back in terms of carries last season was Chris Polk with 99. He is now a free agent, as the team also let him walk.

At receiver, last season's squad was simple to figure out. They had Hopkins and "JAGs."

Hopkins had 111 receptions in 2015. The next two receivers on the squad were Nate Washington with 47 receptions and Cecil Shorts with 42 receptions. Washington is now a free agent after a failed stint with the New England Patriots, and Shorts landed on his feet with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 53-man roster cuts at the end of the preseason.

Heading into the playoff game against the Chiefs, no defense in the league was afraid of anything the Texans could throw at them. Hoyer, now a backup in Chicago, wasn't a threat passing the ball, Blue wasn't a game-changing running back and the only receiver squads had to worry about was Hopkins, so teams started to roll coverage over his way no matter the formation.

Once teams started to take away Hopkins, Houston had no counterpunch. The splits between Hopkins in Week 1 through Week 11 and Week 12 through that playoff loss are incredibly stark:

  • Hopkins' Week 1-Week 11 averages: 7.6 receptions for 104.5 receiving yards and 0.9 receiving touchdowns per game
  • Hopkins' Week 12-playoff averages: 5.9 receptions for 77.9 receiving yards and 0.3 receiving touchdowns per game

While those numbers may seem like a minuscule drop-off, the fact that defenses could immediately cut the touchdown efficiency of Houston's only big-play threat by two-thirds showcased a structural problem with the Texans offense: they needed more playmakers, both in the backfield and running routes.

Houston not only addressed this by signing Osweiler and Miller, but by drafting Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller in the first round of the 2016 draft and picking up Jeff Allen, a guard from Kansas City, as a free agent. The addition of those four players has not only changed the on-field product the Texans can throw out, but the leadership around the offense as well.

Osweiler was a team captain in Week 1 as a first-time starter for the squad. In Week 2, Allen was a captain against his former team, and he even took charge of the speech before Houston stepped onto the field in their eventual 19-12 win at home.

On top of the overall team success that the squad has had, you can point to individual efforts that those offensive players have posted in just two weeks this season.

Osweiler is averaging nearly 250 passing yards per game in the team's two wins, a benchmark that Hoyer hit in only one of the Texans' nine wins last season. Miller is fifth in the NFL in rushing yards with 189, and he is just seven yards short from tying the New York Jets' Matt Forte for the second slot leaguewide.

According to Matt Harmon of NFL.com, Osweiler is also leading the NFL with the longest depth of pass, something that couldn't have been an efficient approach in a one-receiver offense under Hoyer in 2015:

Matt Harmon @MattHarmon_BYB

Will Fuller effect: through two weeks Brock Osweiler leads the NFL in average air yards with 9.4

Fuller's deep-threat presence has opened up space for Hopkins, while also creating another element to Houston's passing game, ranking them among the Arizona Cardinals and Steelers at the top of the league in terms of vertical stretch teams.

Right now, Hopkins has 167 receiving yards and two scores on the season, while the rookie has 211 receiving yards and a score. According to NFL.com's Gil Brandt, the only wideouts to post back-to-back 100-yard games to start their careers since the 1940 season are Fuller and Washington's DeSean Jackson, who was a popular comparison for Fuller when he was going through the draft process.

In 24 offensive drives that didn't end in the first half or the game expiring, Houston has either scored or attempted a field goal 11 times, a stat which the young team must wear like a badge of pride.

The only flaw this squad has at the moment is Osweiler's interceptions on opening drives. Of his three interceptions through two games, two of them have come on the first drive of the game, as he threw an interception around the 20-yard line against Chicago and another in the end zone on a scramble against Kansas City.

His interceptions aren't particularly brutal, as two of them were elite plays made by cornerbacks in man coverage against Hopkins, an All-Pro player, but they do need to go away sooner rather than later.

Justis Mosqueda @JuMosq

Osweiler got sacked here. He has 2 on 1 left of the OC and 3 on 4 from the OC over. Needs to slide protection. https://t.co/yX0WG5kKFz

Osweiler can make some rookie mistakes, including his lack of understanding of protections, but once he gets into a groove with O'Brien's system, this offense can emulate the deep passing of the Cardinals or Steelers. There's an answer to every problem a team can throw at them.

Last year, Hopkins would line up opposite of trips, as the NFL standard is to lock up the weak-side cornerback one-on-one in that situation. Once teams began to roll coverage toward Hopkins, the Texans were forced to use subpar skill players to try to win football games, which resulted in the beating they took against the Chiefs in the playoffs.

The Checkdown @thecheckdown

Wow. @Will_Fuller7 made a ridiculous catch in #KCvsHOU... Use #NTPFuller to name the play. Best make Gameday Blitz! https://t.co/kzo4IMaFV2

Now, if you want to roll a safety toward Hopkins' side or play him in the middle of the field, Fuller will outrun just about anyone you can line him up against on the sideline. Kansas City's Marcus Peters, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, found that out the hard way in Week 2.

Hopkins against man coverage is easy, as he wins at the catch point and can threaten cornerbacks vertically when he's actually running a curl. In man-coverage assignments, defensive backs are looking at a receiver instead of the quarterback, so they have no idea what is coming their way.

Osweiler has already proved that he can stay patient while Hopkins gets open and picks apart a cornerback's decision. If a cornerback stays high, Hopkins will cut under him when he flips his hips. If a cornerback stays tight, Hopkins will leave him behind or leap into the air to a spot most defensive backs can't climb up the ladder for.

In the passing game, the only way to truly stop two vertical threats on opposite sidelines is to play with two high safeties, which takes a man out of a defense's run fit. With Miller in the backfield, that's not an approach teams can live with on a down-to-down basis, as the Texans seem more than fine running draws, power runs and inside zone runs out of an offset gun, their base lineup in 11 personnel and 10 personnel spread looks.

O'Brien is an incredibly smart offensive mind, and he's using his toys to the best of his ability. If one of them goes down with an injury, the offense will have to shape shift in an instant, but for now, even with Osweiler's sometimes erratic play, they can put just about any defense—other than the Broncos'—in a compromised position as long as they're within one score.

The media often states that free agency is a bad approach to team-building, with the foundation of their argument being that paying for foreign players on second contracts can lead to misshapen puzzle pieces or poorly allocated assets sticking around a roster for too long, but the Texans hit their spring out of the park based on early returns.

After the established Broncos, Steelers and Patriots, Houston very well might be the next big threat in the AFC. With a defense that includes pass-rushers J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, it's not hard to imagine this squad going toe-to-toe with anyone in the league on any given Sunday.

Many thought that the sleeper franchises in the AFC were the Oakland Raiders or Jaguars, who in two weeks have one combined win, with the Raiders beating the league's worst defense in the New Orleans Saints on a last-second two-point conversion. Instead, we've been pleasantly surprised by the young, clever offense that O'Brien has pieced together early on.

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