A Tale of Two Offensive Lines

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As with any Texans post this year, we can’t avoid talking about what’s happening to the Arizona Cardinals. Don’t worry, not about that.

When Kliff Kingsbury took over the Arizona Cardinals, he brought his version of the Air Raid offense with him. He also brought his version of offensive line play with him: The Air Raid tends to use wide splits.

Arizona’s offensive line last year, on talent, was pretty suspect. D.J. Humphries is a first-rounder, but one that had never really played a great season. Justin Pugh hadn’t been a star since 2016. They lost right tackle Justin Gilbert before the season even started and had to resort to backups. A.Q. Shipley just follows around Bruce Arians until he gets to play. J.R. Sweezy caught a nice contract but hasn’t ever really justified it. 2019’s preseason was full of people wondering aloud if Kyler Murray would get David Carr’d behind that offensive line. Here’s how Football Outsiders’ Ben Muth characterized the line in preparing to write about it last year:

The scheme will be interesting. I watched a good bit of Texas Tech the last few years because their games are typically entertaining, but I don’t have a great feel for what run schemes Kingsbury will bring with him to the NFL. In college, Kingsbury’s offensive lines would take much wider splits than you typically see at the NFL level. I’m not sure if that will come with him (it’s definitely something they’ve experimented with this offseason). Even the snap count (Kingsbury seems to prefer a clapping count as opposed to a verbal one) has been a source of confusion as they’ve been flagged often for quarterback false starts in the preseason.

We’re just about done with Arizona’s preview and we haven’t mentioned a single offensive lineman, but frankly that’s because it’s not a super interesting unit outside of the scheme. D.J. Humphries is a recent first-round pick who has been banged up and ineffective in his first three years in the league. Left guard Justin Pugh was a big free-agent acquisition and he’s a solid player when he’s healthy, but has played in just 15 games over the last two years. At center, A.Q. Shipley is a 33-year-old who has bounced around the NFL a bit and is coming off a season-ending injury last year. The other guard, J.R. Sweezy, is another offseason acquisition who happens to be on his third team in three years. Rounding out the unit is yet another new face who has dealt with recent injury issues in right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who comes over from Pittsburgh.

So I think we’d call that line mediocre — at best — if it was healthy. If you want to look at some line splits for fun, here they are as compared to what the Texans ran last week:

The major difference is more in the stance. Arizona’s guards aren’t in three-point stances. But the Cardinals do look a bit more fanned out — particularly between the center and the right guard.

Now, I can’t find anybody who will write about the Arizona Cardinals line and call it impressive or good. Muth even said in his last column about them that “It was much better than I thought it would be from an offensive line standpoint, but a little more boring than I hoped it could be.” Pro Football Focus named them the 21st-best unit in the league entering this season, centering them mostly on good pass protection. Brandon Thorn of The Athletic and Establish The Run named the Cardinals his 17th-best unit in the league coming into the year, saying this:

Here’s the thing: Arizona’s line might not be talented, but they were wildly effective in 2019 at running the ball. They finished second in the NFL in rushing DVOA. On a team advanced level, they were at 3.3 yards before contact per rush attempt, which led the entire NFL per Sports Radar stats. Through Week 3’s games, the Cardinals are second in the NFL in YBC/rush attempt this year at 3.7. They’re seventh in rushing VOA. (We don’t adjust for defenses early in the season.)

I clipped this from Brandon Thorn’s podcast where he talks to Justin Pugh:

“I think a lot of teams, I almost can guarantee this, almost every team installs the exact same run plays,” Pugh said. “Once you get into the season and see what you do well, it’s up to the coaches to keep calling those things. A lot of times … I’ve seen throughout my career that we try to fit a square peg into a round hole.”

Kingsbury came to the NFL with the Air Raid reputation, but his most successful stuff to date has actually been his work in the run game. (An offense that had almost no use for David Johnson, incidentally.) They make misdirection an art form, utilize the rules of coverage in space and pre-snap motion to dictate gaps, and that is what makes the run game successful. This is something that also has roots in Baltimore, Kansas City, and San Francisco, among other places.

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Meanwhile, in Houston, the Texans are averaging 1.9 yards before contact per attempt — worse than they did last year — with a line that is completely healthy and supposedly full of young, talented players. Against the Steelers, David Johnson averaged 1.2 yards before contact per attempt. So of course, the offensive line is probably terr–

Well, okay, okay, but that’s just a flash. Just one game, right? I’m sure if I go pull up ESPN’s blocking rankings that the Texans will be terr–

Let’s not get too cute with our offense, Bill O’Brien told the CBS broadcasters. Instead the Texans can let the Pittsburgh Steelers tee off on Johnson runs for the entire half because they’re so predictable that everybody sees it coming:

Let’s run up the middle on 80% of our running plays! Let’s make sure to involve Jordan Akins as an arc blocker even though he can barely handle an outside assignment! Let’s use Brandin Cooks on an end around even though we’ve rarely had him be a decoy!

It’s very easy to pile on Bill O’Brien and Bill O’Brien’s Inevitably Easy First Boss Form, Tim Kelly. There is so much ammunition. I want to take this moment to note that inevitably O’Brien will figure out just enough to make things look better. He’s mentioned multiple times this week that he needs to scheme the run offense better. I promise you that he is going to figure something out for this run offense and it will look better than it did. We will praise it when it happens. And, inevitably, as the new thing gets figured out a little and leads to a few bad plays, he will revert back into the safety of the offense he has trusted all along, forgetting entirely why he had to change off of it in the first place.

I think the most telling thing about O’Brien’s first three weeks running the show this season in Houston was actually how he responded to an Aaron Wilson question about the vision of this offense:

Now some people will watch that clip and tell you he looks defeated. I think, as goes back to the Shredder post, that O’Brien has already won the battles he wanted to win, and now he’s realizing that this is what it was for and can’t believe it. The feisty O’Brien we saw in the first couple years of his tenure that would clapback at Brian T. Smith and tell John McClain about his contract never makes it through a full season with the Texans anymore. This man built up the idea of sole control of the Texans as a panacea to his problems so hard that he forgot that it means he’s running five full-time jobs at once. Fix the run game? How can he do that when he has five tryouts to arrange, COVID-19 protocol from the league to read, and an ownership fee-fees workshop? The Texans ran as many play-action fakes on the idea of Earl Thomas joining the team as they ran in last week’s game.

Ultimately, it’s hard to get away from the fact that the Texans have invested all that they have on this year’s line and still have demonstrably terrible results. This is a table we ran in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020:

Through three weeks, the adjusted sack rate for Watson is 12.4%. While FO no longer has access to Sports Info Solutions entire team-by-team database, we have SportsRadar saying that Watson has been pressured on 37.3% of his dropbacks. Both of those numbers are the worst in the NFL. They have Laremy Tunsil, one of the best tackles in the NFL. They have two young linemen they really like, and a center they paid big money to. And it just doesn’t matter! Not a single bit! Because they have no plan for what happens when a blitz comes.

Now, to be clear since a lot of fans read something like this and their big takeaway is that “rivers thinks o’brien sux, he probably h8s mah team” let me say: I hope I’m wrong and I hope O’Brien prints this post out and reads it out loud during the Super Bowl parade while I have to smile sheepishly at the monitor since I won’t be invited and don’t have a COVID-19 wish anyway. I’ll take it in stride.

But the flashes of O’Brien scooting the offense forward that are good aren’t flashes in good coaches. They’re philosophies. They’re game plans. They’re ideas that settle in and become what the team is about. Other coaches study the best teams in the NFL to see what they want to steal, pick the brains of the people they want to emulate. The Buffalo Bills suddenly have an offense with all the bells and whistles that has Josh Allen playing like a superstar, because they spent all offseason adding new things to the playbook.

Here’s what O’Brien did:

By his own choice, O’Brien has chosen to be the guy that Pugh talked about who tries to fit square pegs into round holes. My charitable read of the situation is that O’Brien loves the idea of being Texans head coach, but has instead created a job persona for himself that is so far removed from actually thinking about ways to coach the team that he doesn’t even know where to begin. And since there are exactly zero football people in the building that aren’t beholden to him for a job at some point, let alone a playcaller on either side of the ball with experience, he’s created a situation that requires a hands-on version of Bill O’Brien for every single face of the organization.

The non-charitable read? Bill O’Brien is bored. He’s got everything he wants. He’s in no danger of being fired. He’s assumed a life where he has to be the singular point of failure because he thought it would make him feel important. Instead, it turns out, everybody dislikes him and everybody’s yelling and fine, fine, he’ll do an RPO play this week just please stop asking questions about trades.

It is very evident that one of these offensive lines is more talented than the other. It’s just not evident that it will ever matter as long as the coaching of it is handled as a chore rather than a calling.

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