I wrote several times about the Houston running game for The Athletic in 2018. It was wildly inconsistent on a pure results basis. The first two games both yielded at least 148 rushing yards, then the team went a month rushing for under 100 yards just once … and then, they ran for 145 yards or more in four of their next five games. Finally, to close the season, they were held under 100 yards in three straight games, then had 134 against the Jaguars with Deshaun Watson holding the ball more often than ever.
One thing I wasn’t able to do in-season was look on a broader scope about certain types of plays — losing an entire day to charting a game is a tough sell when there’s only so much time in the season in which I can write. Thankfully, Sports Information Solutions can help us here, as they chart every play in the NFL season and even chart what types of runs each team uses on each down.
I suspect that if you are a fan of the Texans or have followed my writing at all, you’ll already know that despite the Texans finishing 26th in rushing DVOA, Deshaun Watson was a major positive influence on their running game. Watson finished with 89 carries, the second-most of any quarterback in the league, and a 7.7% rushing DVOA.
The problem with Houston’s running game isn’t hard to see, but I will bold it anyway
Houston Texans running offense by rush type:
|Running Play||YPC||Success Rate||Plays||NFL YPC||NFL Success Rate|
Yes, the Houston Texans were a zone running team that could not run zone to save their lives in 2018. The funniest part about this chart is that you can draw a direct axis to games they ran for 100 yards and how likely it was they ran Power — only 14 of their Power runs came in the seven games they didn’t reach 100 yards rushing.
While charting blown blocks is a highly subjective thing, and the Texans offensive problems go beyond just blown blocks, I think it is instructive to focus on Nick Martin here. Martin is the one player on the line that I think escaped most criticism, but he had more blown blocks than any lineman that ran zone for the Texans last year.
Per SIS, Martin blew seven rushing blocks on zone plays in 2018. No other Texans lineman or tight end had more than four blown blocks on all rushing plays in 2018.
Martin simply has to be more consistent on his combo blocks and with his initial get-off at the line of scrimmage. Most of his blown blocks are issues of hand positioning on the run rather than play speed. He gets his arm on an opponent, but not the full block — I think he also has a tendency to get a bit too upright when he’s on the move.
Another factor is an NFL truism that makes a lot of sense and is something the Texans will have to deal with next year: Zone blocking schemes take chemistry and time to grow that chemistry. It could be argued that when Martin passed off Steve McLendon up there, that he thought Kelemete would be in good position to make that play. That’s the kind of sixth sense about teammates that grows over time. The Texans core offensive line (Kendall Lamm, Julian Davenport, Kelemete, Zach Fulton, and Martin) had barely played together at all before 2018.
Now Houston is faced with another offseason that seems likely to be rife with change. I think Fulton is safe because his contract tells us he is. (He would save the team almost no money on being cut.) My thinking is that Davenport will not be an unquestioned starter, and that Martinas Rankin will get a long look at left guard. Kendall Lamm and Seantrel Henderson are likely to be part of a battle to start at right tackle. This is before we even get into how free agency and the draft will play out and who might be added besides a Davenport challenger.
I think as the Texans head into next offseason, they need to be a little more cautious with just how much zone they run. The personnel in place — Lamar Miller notwithstanding — wasn’t great at it, and it’s likely that the offensive line will all be learning how to play with each other again in 2019. This unit had most of it’s success running with Power and using Watson to get a numbers advantage. That’s where I’d build the run game to start with, mixing in zone on a good basis to get a read on how the players are gelling.
Unfortunately, this coaching staff clings stubbornly to what it wants to do, and it would not surprise me if I’m writing this same post somewhere next offseason. The big key is Martin — if he’s the linchpin of this offensive line, the Texans need a resurgent 2019 season from him in the worst way.
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