The Texans seem likely to have their best offensive line since 2015 — how does that improve them and what does that mean?

One of the biggest sources of optimism I see around the Texans this year is centered around how good the offensive line will be. The Texans PR team is in love with throwing out the stat that the Texans were 5-1 when they had a healthy Tytus Howard. In several different videos, they have pointed out that Houston hasn’t brought back the same starting unit since 2011. 2011, of course, was probably the best and most promising year in franchise history until Matt Schaub got hurt.

I think this framework kind of ignores a few major things. But I want to explain that by leading with the optimistic: I think the Texans offensive line already broke out last season. (It’s hard not to break out when you replace Julien Davenport with Laremy Tunsil!) At this point we’re on a different question: How high can they climb?

A user’s guide to injury attrition: Don’t count on the Texans line staying healthy

The average NFL offensive line lost 14.2 games to injury in 2019 per Football Outsiders’ AGL. The Texans lost 18.6. This is the No. 1 NFL position as far as games lost for a very simple reason: More of them are starters than any other position. The Texans lost eight games of Tytus Howard, a couple more of Laremy Tunsil, and the odd game here or there for other starters or would-have-been starters. The Texans were actually remarkably healthy on offense last season. The only major injury was to Lamar Miller, who the Texans replaced fairly easily between Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson.

“If this team can just stay healthy” is one of those NFL truisms that is ubiquitous at this point. If the team is healthy, they are lucky. That’s the truth of it. The Texans would very obviously get better production from their offensive line than they did in 2019 if they started their five best guys for 16 games. The odds of that actually happening are fairly low, no matter how many Bob McNair quotes from the past you’ve read on the matter.

(And, as an aside, that’s why I was so upset about Chris Clark getting starts last season. It should always be obvious to you that you need a backup plan at tackle. If Roderick Johnson wasn’t going to be that plan, you needed to solidify it earlier! A 35-year-old Clark is the kind of guy you start only when you have no say in the matter.)

The pass blocking: It’s all on Bill O’Brien

The Texans already mostly fixed the pass protection last season. The only weak link as a starter was Tytus Howard. Per Sports Info Solutions, Howard blew 12 pass blocks in 502 snaps, which is a rate of about one per 42 snaps — roughly two every three games. His replacements were much worse. Johnson and Clark combined to blow 23 pass blocks last season in 723 snaps, or about one per 31 snaps. The other four main starters combined to allow one blown pass block every 95 snaps.

This is mostly the same sort of thing you see in the PFF grading, if you’re curious: None of Tunsil, Nick Martin, Max Scharping, or Zach Fulton had a pass block grade worse than 74.

So why was the sack count still high? To me, it’s a simple combination of Deshaun Watson’s ability to buy time to make plays and an offense that gets read way too easily. You’re not touching what Watson does because what Watson does is a) phenomenal and b) can’t be untaught. But there were five different games last regular season where Watson took four or more sacks, and he threw for more than 200 yards in exactly one of those games — the opener at New Orleans when everyone had literally just met. Watson’s average time to throw last season was 2.82 seconds. In Week 4 against the Panthers and Week 2 against the Jaguars, it was higher than that. In Week 11 against the Ravens and Week 16 against the Bucs, the Texans were pillaged by the two most aggressive defenses in the NFL and had no idea how to react to it, and Watson actually had two of his fastest time-to-throw games mostly because he had no other choice. Hot routes have been an issue with this team under O’Brien/Watson and they haven’t solved it yet in my estimation.

I think the idea that the Texans are going to improve further as a pass-blocking offense is almost entirely reliant on O’Brien and Tim Kelly. Howard has a chance to be better than he was last year, but I don’t know that either Fulton or Martin’s gains should be considered banked goods. I expect the overall pass blocking execution to be fairly close to what it was last season barring a massive health swing in one direction or the other.

The run blocking: …what is with the run blocking anyway?

The Texans were pretty much bad as a run-blocking unit no matter which numbers you used. As a team, they finished third in blown blocks on rushes behind only the Rams and Cincinnati. Pretty much every player was worse in PFF’s grading on run plays than on pass plays, which I will explain by quoting their offensive line preview:

The run blocking was not nearly as good, finishing fifth-worst at 52.2. Left guard Max Scharping and right tackle Tytus Howard finished with near-identical grades — 59.1 for Scharping, 59.4 for Howard — as both rookies struggled in the run game, ranking near the bottom of their respective positions.

Center Nick Martin profiled similarly, with a 79.8 pass-blocking grade that ranked eighth but a run-blocking grade of 58.0 that ranked 25th among centers. Right guard Zach Fulton was even worse in the run game with a 42.5 grade that tied for fourth-worst among guards, but he finished 21st with a pass-blocking grade of 73.9.

If you want to just go straight up by Football Outsiders’ empirical adjusted line yards rankings, the Texans were 21st in the NFL in run blocking. This is despite having, we should add, the No. 1 run blocking line in “Power” situations last season. I did a little Twitter look at this stat and, as you’d expect, there’s regression action here:

The Texans have never had even a good offensive line as far as Adjusted Line Yards under O’Brien, but they also — obviously — haven’t had this much talent in the same room at once. Their high since 2014 was 2016’s 15th-place finish in ALY: 4.16. Those were the Brian Hoyer Texans, if you need some placement — Duane Brown, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Ben Jones, Brandon Brooks, and Derek Newton. That’s actually a pretty good line outside of Su’a-Filo. Three of those starters are still playing at a high level for other teams and Newton probably would be at least serviceable had he not torn both his patellar tendons on the same play against the Broncos in 2016.

The fact that good talent has only received average results is probably a bit of a tell for you here, but I am also looking at O’Brien and Kelly as the ultimate gatekeepers of the run-blocking problem. it’s easy to wave your hands at this and say “rookies are rookies, they’ll get better with more time,” that doesn’t necessarily excuse the rest of the line. The major players in the Sports Info Solution blown block charting were actually not Scharping and Howard, but Fulton and Martin:

For our final twist: Darren Fells led the league in blown blocks. By a lot. He had 15 blown run blocks and six blown pass blocks, both led the NFL.

What is a blown block?

That is a question that I think is both easy to note the answer to and easy to have a different standard for. Is it just allowing any sort of penetration? Is it allowing direct penetration that impacts the play? Is it just losing ground on a block? There are many different potential interpretations of where to draw the line. Some of the charted blown blocks from SIS, which I have access to, read a little questionable to me.

Coaching design matters a ton when it comes to blown blocks. You have to consider both the quality of your player and the design of the play. If the player is being asked to reach someone two gaps over, that’s not exactly an easy ask. So the player may get a blown block charted on a play like that, but that’s one that I think more accurately could be placed on the coaching staff for making an ask. Take this play:

That’s a play where you could call the block blown, but it’s a blown block of expectations to me, not one where the player wasn’t up to snuff.

What I see

I think both Nick Martin and Zach Fulton struggled to block on the move last year — so mainly on zone plays. Of Fulton’s 15 blown run blocks, eight of them came with the Texans running inside or outside zone. With Martin, it was six of 12.

Martin was particularly tormented by the Tennessee Titans, who hung four of his 12 blown blocks on the season up. Datone Jones’ power was something that Martin struggled to hang with:

Fells also struggled to block on the move, but he often was asked to pull all the way across the formation to complete his block — jargon for this is debatable, you can call it split-zone, you can call it arc — whichever word you want to attach to it, he was essentially acting more as a fullback rather than an in-line blocker. This put him at a disadvantage because it’s hard not to “get high” on your blocks when you are 6-foot-7 and moving.

I think going forward, Fells is a poor fit for this kind of role — if the Texans want him blocking, that’s fine. But he’s got to be an in-line guy to make the most of his talents.

In general, I think the Texans’ playbook has always asked a bit much of its line. That’s a primary reason the screen passes that have been in the last five years have been so bad on a yearly basis. (And why the Texans have run so few screens in general for the last few years.)

I don’t think either Fulton or Martin struggles to run zone, but I think it’s not a strong suit for either of them and making it the primary focus of the ground game is leading to more blown blocks.

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I think for the most part, people are right to be excited about the offensive line, but a lot of the improvement that seems to be penciled in seems to rely on a sudden surge of coaching acumen. I do think Howard and Scharping can grow, and perhaps even become upper-echelon linemen at their positions. But the common OL improvement trope of “they’re gonna get strong and push people around” is, well, they did that last year. They were the best Power team in the NFL. They probably won’t improve at it this year! I think it relies more on either of them getting better as they move, because that is where the Texans focus most of their energy in the run game. Better balance on the move to not get spilled one way or another, better power as they move, better burst to a spot because of familiarity with the playbook. That sort of thing.

The Texans have a good offensive line, and they might take the next step this year and become dominant. I won’t rule that out. But I think if you look at what has held them back on raw numbers and stats, it’s more likely than not that a lot of the improvement that is ascribed to them already happened in 2019. I think it’s on the coaching staff to put these guys in better positions … unless Scharping or Howard become breakout stars.

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