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Thursday, May 30, 2013
For Titans and Jags, Texans-like offenses

By Paul Kuharsky

Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert
Fans should see quarterbacks Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert roll out more in the 2013 season.
Jake Locker will roll out. Uche Nwaneri will zone block. And, of course, Arian Foster will run plenty of stretch plays.

Under Gary Kubiak, the Texans have long run an offense centered around zone blocking, play-action, rollouts and bootlegs. A disciple of Mike Shanahan from his time playing for and working under him in Denver, Kubiak is a firm believer in many of the tenets Shanahan used with the Broncos.

In 2013, we’ll see many of the same offensive principles in play for both the Titans and Jaguars as well.

Tennessee offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains worked extensively under the late Mike Heimerdinger, the former Titans coordinator who was one of Shanahan’s best friends. And Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch was the receivers coach in 2008 in the final year of Shanahan’s 14-year tenure in Denver.

No, the Titans and Jaguars won’t be carbon copies of Houston when they have the ball. There is different personnel and there will be different wrinkles.

But there will be plenty of recognizable similarities among the Texans, Titans and Jaguars when they have the ball.

Kevin Walter, the receiver cut by Houston who signed with Tennessee, said in early April the Titans' offense is basically the same.

Said Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell: “I think you’ll see a lot of common threads with all three of those offenses."

Perhaps that bodes well for the Colts’ defense, which will address a lot of comparable philosophies and strategies in all six of its division games.

“If that’s truly the direction that those teams are heading, it’s obviously a system that’s proven and has won and won a lot and won Super Bowls when you are talking about Shanahan in Denver,” Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. “That stretch zone scheme, it’s worked, it’s tough.

“But then at the same time, if that’s the case, in the same division playing them twice a year, you can peel the decals off the helmets, put the new decal on and walk into your guys and say, ‘Hey, there is a ton of carryover from week-to-week in the division.’ You’re going to see the four or five same run plays. The bodies might be different, the personnel might be different, but from a scheme standpoint, it helps.”

To be effective and efficient on offense, there are big questions that need to be answered about the capabilities of the two teams from the AFC South that weren’t in the playoff field in 2012.

Chuck Pagano
Head coach Chuck Pagano says thanks to similar offensive schemes of the Colts' divisional opponents, Indianapolis can gameplan on defense.
Putting Locker and Blaine Gabbert on the move more often should work in their favor.

“The appealing thing for us is it takes pressure off the quarterback,” Caldwell said. “It allows the quarterback to get out of the pocket, it allows us to utilize the athleticism of our offensive line and put them in position to succeed.”

But the scheme can also help a disciplined defense by pretty much cutting the field in half. Quarterbacks shouldn’t be throwing back across their bodies when they roll and boot. If a play-action fake doesn’t get defenders leaning the wrong way, they can find themselves with less room to patrol.

We have to see how Locker and Gabbert adjust to altered schemes. But given their struggles in their first two years, it’s hard to figure things could be worse in a scheme their coaches believe will suit them both better.

Titans RB Chris Johnson often seemed disinterested in catching passes last year, and that will have to change if he’s going to do work more similar to Foster's. Maurice Jones-Drew has run successfully on plays with zone blocking, but the Jaguars' identity has typically been that of a power-running team during his time as the lead back. That could be a big switch for him, and for a guard like Nwaneri, who’s known more for his strength than his agility.

The Colts aren’t the only defense that could benefit from the changes.

Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee will all see more of the what they will be defending from each other in OTAs, minicamp and training camp while working against their own offenses.

“A lot of people have played that offense, we’ve played against it before,” Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “When I was in San Diego we played against Denver all the time. They were leading the league in rushing every year. So you’ve got to be aware that they are going to try to run it well.

“It probably helps a little bit that you work against it, but all of them have different running backs and different offensive lines. Scheme-wise, at least you know something about it, which helps a little.”

One downside for Houston has been that it’s not a very good come-from-behind offense.

Houston is keyed around Foster and the play-action possibilities he creates. Fall behind by two scores and it’s difficult to continue to run and to convince defenses you’ll be handing the ball off.

Last season, the Texans faced first half-deficits of 14 against the Packers, 21 against the Patriots and 10 against the Vikings. The average margin of those three Houston losses wound up being three touchdowns. In the Texans' playoff ouster at New England, they were down 14 early and lost by 13.

Matt Schaub, Locker and Gabbert all need to be able to take over a game when necessary, knowing there are times when their run-based offense will not be able to run -- either because it’s getting stopped or because their team needs to gain more yards faster than their running back can likely get them.

Tracking just how similar the three teams are in their offensive approach will be an interesting storyline for us to track this season.

Titans coach Mike Munchak said he believes while it will be easy to see commonalities, there will be plenty of differences, too. The Titans will deploy Delanie Walker as an H-back, for example, while Houston is much more of a fullback team, now with Greg Jones.

“Our quarterback is a lot different than Schaub, they’re different guys with different strengths,” Munchak said. “On the offensive line, Houston is always looking for more athletic guys. We obviously went for some size and are a little bit of both athleticism and power. We run a lot of the plays we both think are good stuff, we like to pass off our base runs and things like that.

“But I think you’ll see enough difference that teams will have to prepare for us differently than Houston -- just enough of a percentage that gives defenses headaches when they have to prepare for us. There is still a lot to differentiate us.

“And the Texans are doing everything a lot better than we are now, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”