Negative plays, the concept of first-down runs, and Bill O’Brien’s Texans

Your Houston Texans are having, compared to 2018, a highly effective season running the football. They’re averaging 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, which puts them fourth in the NFL. In 2018, that number was 4.3. Both numbers see a Deshaun Watson boost (Watson averages 5.7 yards per attempt for his career), but the Texans have clearly improved from 2018, where they struggled to run out of base formations for whole games at a time at the end of the season.

However, because of the shape of what running the football looks like for most teams, how much Houston cares about the running game — and in particular on first down — anchors their offense. The Texans improved from 15th to eighth in DVOA this week on the heels of Watson’s four touchdowns against a Patriots defense that was playing historically well. The ceiling of the pass offense has been improved by all the additional weapons that they’ve brought in. With a 30.3% pass DVOA, the Texans are seventh-place and not far out of the top five.

The Texans are one of two teams with a top-8 offensive DVOA that has a negative run offense DVOA. The other, Kansas City, has run the ball 269 times to Houston’s 326. Critics of Bill O’Brien tend to revert to the idea that he plays too simple of a pattern: run, run, slant. That’s not necessarily true. The Texans did run-run-pass last year only 18 percent of the time — a high amount, but not outlier high like Seattle was.

But this was a massive problem against New England, where Carlos Hyde had just 10 carries for 17 yards. Often, the concept of “staying on schedule” is invoked in NFL circles. For O’Brien, he most often harps in press conferences about the idea of avoiding negative plays and mistakes. “We don’t have a play for first-and-30,” to paraphrase something he said about the Jaguars game in London. Where we have a ways to go in the analytics world is finding a way to make coaches understand that failed rushes in a non-clock killing situation are mistakes.

Last week Bill Belichick posted up eight in the box 30% of the time for Hyde, a much higher number than he was used to seeing. (Over the full season, that number is 14.1%.) He played to keep the Texans from running on first down because it is fairly evident to anyone who watches games that this is what O’Brien likes to do. O’Brien changed nothing, barely ran anything that would occupy a defender like a read-option, and the run offense died on the table. It was only for the grace of Watson and Duke Johnson that Houston’s pass offense was able to save the fact that it was handed the ball on second down with an average of 8.75 yards to go for the entirety of the game.

The top five teams in terms of running the ball on first down are Baltimore, Oakland, Dallas, Houston, and San Francisco. Baltimore and San Francisco have unique, well-documented run games — one has Lamar Jackson and a pile full of Greg Roman schemes, while the other has Baby Shanahan’s impressive set of tactical advantages. The Raiders have Derek Carr at quarterback, so they have little choice but to run the ball. The Cowboys … well, I hope if you’re reading this you know that as an organization they have decided to prove that signing Ezekiel Elliott to a huge contract was worth it even though it wasn’t.

The other thing those four teams have in common: they actually run for positive DVOA on those first downs. That is something the Texans don’t do, and something that gets even more extreme when you split out recent games:

It’s also something that is borne out in multiple years of data. The Texans ran 278 times on first down in 2018 and had a -25.2% DVOA on those carries. (The only teams that ran more were Seattle and Baltimore, and each only by two rushes.) The Texans ran 267 times on first down in 2017 and had a -14.1% DVOA. (The only team ahead of them that year was Minnesota, at 276.)

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I am not quite as anti-run as a lot of my fellow analytics disciples. At the end of the day, what you are trying to do in a football game is play to where defenders aren’t and play to where your strengths are. Sometimes, as it was against Kansas City’s woeful run defense, that will mean you run the ball a lot more.

But the Texans have been donating downs away under O’Brien’s watch for seasons, and since we just spoke Duke Johnson targets into existence last week, let’s speak this one into existence too: Those donated carries don’t always have as much negative yardage as a sack does, but they continue to put the passing offense in situations that are trickier than they should be. Worst of all, the runs themselves are not particularly interesting. I make it a point to pick out O’Brien’s exotic designs with Watson and satellite receivers and praise them. They were a big part of the Kansas City game plan. Whereas the Ravens and 49ers are running on first downs with a big schematic advantage, a lot of the donated downs Houston runs are just simple inside zone.

Red zone stalls are often part and parcel with donated plays. Houston’s first field goal drive against the Colts in Week 7 started out with a failed run and a false start. Their second? Failed run on first down. We focus in on Watson’s sacks because they are loud. Comparatively, these little runs for no gain are silent killers that set up the sacks.

With coaching, it’s always the little things. If O’Brien ran the ball four or five times less on first down a game, this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s all it really amounts to. But the more stagnant and easy to read an offense is, the easier they are to defend. Right now, everybody knows what is coming on first down. Even the fans.

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