AFC South: Ryan Harris
The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.
After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.
San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.
Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?
Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.
Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?
Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.
How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?
Williamson: It would be inaccurate and na´ve to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.
Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?
Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.
Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?
Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.
This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?
Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.
One key positional battle for each AFC South team as training camps get underway.
Houston Texans: Right tackle. There is a lot to sort out at linebacker, and we don’t know who the third receiver is going to be. But we’ll go to the right side of the offensive line, where Derek Newton is coming off knee surgery and third-rounder Brennan Williams has battled a knee injury of his own. Ideally the two would slug it out through camp, but we don’t know when they both will be ready to make a full push for the position. That could give sixth-rounder David Quessenberry the chance to win the job, at least at the start, or prompt the Texans to turn to middling veteran Ryan Harris. It’s a key position that will have a big bearing on how Arian Foster runs and the protection offered to quarterback Matt Schaub.
Indianapolis Colts: Receiver. There is a lot to sort out on the offensive line. But the Colts have question marks at receiver for Andrew Luck in his second season. Reggie Wayne is locked in as the super-reliable top option. But Darrius Heyward-Bey is No. 2 and never lived up to his draft status in Oakland. With a good quarterback in a new system, could he blossom? T.Y. Hilton did some good things as a rookie, and if he minimizes his drops, he can really be productive, particularly from the slot. After that, things thin out. LaVon Brazill is suspended for the first four games. Griff Whalen missed his rookie year hurt.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Quarterback. Once again, the team will be trying to find the guy who can perform best: Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne. But new general manager David Caldwell, new coach Gus Bradley and a new staff don’t have the investment in Gabbert, the 10th pick in the 2011 draft. Henne has more experience. Both guys played their best when they first started last season. Gabbert fizzled on a bad team, got hurt and was shut down. Henne had a couple of big games, but ultimately didn’t offer much more. Coordinator Jedd Fisch’s system will allow the quarterback to make plays on the move more, which should be advantageous to Gabbert. Mike Kafka and Matt Scott are unlikely to pull an upset.
Tennessee Titans: Cornerback. Although Jason McCourty is locked in as the top guy, the second cornerback slot is up for grabs. Incumbent Alterraun Verner is a smart player with a good knack for slot play. But the team is moving toward more aggressive man-to-man play, and that’s not his forte. Tommie Campbell is physically gifted and fits the mold. The question is whether he can handle it mentally. New senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams did good work as the Titans' defensive coordinator (1997-2000) when there was a similar question with Denard Walker. Rookie third-rounder Blidi Wreh-Wilson also will get a crack at the job.
Now third-round pick Brennan Williams, who was expected to make a strong push for the starting spot, has been placed on the physically unable to perform list after a recent knee scope.
Per Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle, Williams will “miss too much time this summer to realistically be a factor when the season starts.”
Ryan Harris and Andrew Gardner are other options, as is sixth-round pick David Quessenberry.
But the Texans need to get settled at right tackle, which was a trouble spot last season. Newton experienced growing pains and yielded at times to Harris.
Injuries are fluid and things can change in a hurry. Perhaps Williams suffered a setback or his initial diagnosis was ultimately incorrect.
The Texans and Williams downplayed his knee issue after he got rolled up on in May.
“He got rolled up this morning in a drill that he was doing, but we think he’s going to be fine,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on May 11, per the team’s website. “All indications are he’s fine. We’re going to keep him out tomorrow and then put him back to work next week, so we got lucky.”
“I’m feeling great,” Williams said at the time. “Somebody’s been praying for me. I’m doing (all right) ... just a little bit of swelling. Nothing too bad. I’ll be back pretty soon.”
Did the Texans really feel that way then, or did they feel compelled to spin hard on a May injury?
I guess it’s not important. But they need Newton or Williams, and preferably Newton and Williams, ready for their opener at San Diego on Sept. 9.
The major question facing each team in the AFC South as summer break looms:
Houston Texans: Even if Derek Newton recovers well from his knee surgery, are they sure he can be good at right tackle? In Newton's first year as the starter there, veteran Ryan Harris still got a share of the snaps. Now the team has to see how Newton recovers, will consider rookies Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry and brought Harris back as veteran insurance. They’ve surely got comfort in numbers, but you’d much rather have a sure thing at the front of the line. If second-year man Brandon Brooks doesn’t play well from the start at right guard, right tackle could be an even bigger problem. And the Texans need to be able to send Arian Foster both left and right to be unpredictable in the run game. They also need to protect Matt Schaub from all angles.
Indianapolis Colts: The team’s biggest defensive moves have been keyed on stopping the run. Outside linebacker Erik Walden is an edge-setter, defensive linemen like Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin should help stop backs and safety LaRon Landry is a force in the box when he’s healthy. If cornerback Greg Toler pans out, he will help the pass rush, and rookie outside 'backer Bjoern Werner could be an impact rusher if he transitions quickly from college end. But can this team consistently rush the passer? The only truly proven rusher on the defense is Robert Mathis, and for the first time he’ll be playing without Dwight Freeney drawing some of the blocking attention. To me, the major question is: Can they rush the passer effectively?
Jacksonville Jaguars: Who is the quarterback? Blaine Gabbert had most-favored status from the last regime, because the general manager of the last regime traded up to draft him 10th overall. That doesn’t mean anything to new GM Dave Caldwell or new coach Gus Bradley. They are looking for a guy who will give them the best chance to improve. If it’s Gabbert, that’s fine. But Chad Henne has said he believes there isn’t a charade element to this competition, and the team is talking as if new addition Mike Kafka and even undrafted rookie Matt Scott have an equally good chance of winning the job. Odds are very high this team will be looking for its long term-quarterback in next year’s draft. In the meantime, opportunity abounds.
Tennessee Titans: All Titans questions start with the quarterback. Jake Locker is now protected by a great offensive line, which should also greatly improve the run game. The new offense will give him a lot of play-action as well as rollouts and bootlegs, which will be threatening because of his extraordinary speed. His short-yardage targets should be dangerous -- Kevin Walter is super reliable; Kendall Wright should blossom; Delanie Walker and Chris Johnson need to be consistently reliable. The deep guys are a solid bunch if healthy. Kenny Britt and Nate Washington are capable of making downfield plays, and the team is super high on rookie Justin Hunter. The defense will be better, which means the Titans will have the ball more. What can Locker do with it?
Tom Gower takes on the biggest remaining issue for each team.
Gower says wide receiver: “Considered about the most pro-ready receiver in this year's draft, the Texans are counting on (DeAndre Hopkins') relatively polished route-running skills and natural hands to let him step in as a starter immediately. Most late first-round receivers of late have been eased into the lineup, but the Texans need Hopkins to be a high-impact player immediately.
Kuharsky counters: Sure, Hopkins’ development is a big storyline going forward. But the right side of the offensive line is more of a lingering issue and didn't add a first-round pick. Right tackle Derek Newton is recovering from major knee surgery, and could lose out to third-rounder Brennan Williams. Veteran Ryan Harris could be in the mix as well. Second-year right guards Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks are promising, but also need to prove they are going to be better and solidify a line that needs more consistency on the right side.
Gower says cornerback: “(Greg Toler) ranked in the top 10 in success rate and yards per pass. However, those stats are heavily dependent on Toler's role. His career history suggests that Toler can be a good nickel or dime corner, as he was in Arizona last year, but that he struggles when asked to play a full-time role.”
Kuharsky concurs: A cornerback pool of Vontae Davis, Toler, Darius Butler, Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy really could have used one more solid entry, perhaps between Davis and Toler, but certainly between Butler and Vaughn. Cornerback depth is an issue for most teams, and it was more than a bit surprising that the Colts didn’t add one in the draft. It’s good they didn’t reach, but they might still be on the lookout for some additional help.
Gower says quarterback: ”It is very hard to win games with quarterback play as bad as the Jaguars have had recently, and generally requires a strong defense (the Jaguars ranked 28th by Football Outsiders in defensive DVOA in 2012) and a strong running game (the Jaguars ranked 27th by DVOA there). The addition of (Luke) Joeckel and the return to health by Maurice Jones-Drew should mean an improved running game in 2013, but another season of (Blaine) Gabbert and/or (Chad) Henne behind center likely means another high draft pick for Jacksonville in April 2014.”
Kuharsky counters: Gower, pretty much agrees with my thinking here. Sure they need a quarterback. But I don’t see a move they should have made that they didn’t make, and neither does he. Wait a year, build elsewhere, make things better for the next quarterback in a year. So setting quarterback aside, my concern is the pass rush, where they really haven’t added anything on the edge and don’t have sufficient depth.
Gower says defense: “The Titans seem to be counting on a lot of internal improvement, better coaching with the addition of senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams (though Jerry Gray returns as defensive coordinator) and an offense that can do a better job of sustaining drives. While Tennessee fielded a particularly young defense in 2012 and some internal improvement is likely, most defenses that improve quickly devote more resources to adding better players.”
Kuharsky specifies: You can’t have too many pass-rushers, and counting on dramatic improvement from multiple holdovers seems shaky. So I’d narrow Gower’s category to defensive end. The team could sign John Abraham or Israel Idonije, two veteran ends who have visited recently. Adding one would make me feel a lot better about the team at end beyond Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley and fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards.
The Texans held onto offensive tackle Ryan Harris with a one-year contract, says Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle.
A look at elements of the offense Pep Hamilton ran with Andrew Luck at Stanford and how some things from that will translate to the Colts this year, from Kyle Rodriguez of Colts Authority.
“With the legislative session past its halfway mark, the outlook is -- at best -- mixed for a series of sports incentive bills, including one worth $60 million for the Jacksonville Jaguars,” writes Matt Dixon of the Florida Times-Union.
A look back at Andy Levitre’s work against J.J. Watt in a Bills-Texans game from Tom Gower at Total Titans.
Pending free agents of note: Safety Glover Quin, fullback James Casey, outside linebacker Connor Barwin, cornerback Brice McCain.
Weaknesses: The pass rush beyond J.J. Watt was insufficient and there was too much room for plays to be made in the secondary. The right side of the offensive line wasn’t good enough. Pass-game threats beyond Andre Johnson didn’t develop and now DeVier Posey is recovering from a torn Achilles. Red zone offense sputtered late in the year. Special teams allowed too many returns and didn’t get enough.
Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks and both Derek Newton and Ryan Harris saw time at right tackle. Bradie James is a smart veteran, but might they look to a younger and more athletic option from on the roster or outside?
Depth issues: The Texans like to play a package on defense with a third safety playing as a linebacker, and neither Quintin Demps nor Shiloh Keo was very good in that role. Secondary depth wasn’t good enough.
Health concerns: Inside linebacker Brian Cushing is coming back from a torn ACL. Posey’s got a long rehab again. McCain is rehabilitating after suffering a broken foot. Swing tackle Rashad Butler, who’s going to be a free agent, is coming back from a torn triceps. Two backup inside linebackers who I believe are good players, Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins, finished the season on IR.
Unseen issue: They seem to love Shaun Cody as the primary nose tackle with help from Earl Mitchell. But couldn’t an upgrade there would make things a lot easier on the inside linebackers?
That’s not unreasonable.
After all, a team with a somewhat-faint pulse sprang back to life at Reliant Stadium on Saturday, smothering the Cincinnati Bengals in a 19-13 victory in the wild-card round of the playoffs that earned the return trip to New England next Sunday afternoon.
“We played dominant defense, we played great, we played inspired,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “It’s good to be firing on all cylinders. We’ve got to get ready to play even a tougher game.”
“We kind of wanted to reset our batteries this week,” center Chris Myers said. “We know what we do best as an offense: Run the ball, pound it and control the line of scrimmage. That’s what we focused in on all week.”
The key numbers that plugged into what Reed and Myers spoke of: The Bengals didn’t convert one of their nine third-down chances and allowed Andy Dalton to hit on less than half his passes for just 127 yards; the Texans gave the ball to Arian Foster 32 times and he gained 140 yards and scored a touchdown while helping his team hold the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds.
Houston’s worst-case scenario got better, and at the very least the Texans will have a 2012 season as good as their 2011, which ended with a divisional-round loss in Baltimore.
“It’s been a gut check for this organization through this past month, and the players led the way today and I’m very proud of them,” coach Gary Kubiak said.
A closer look at some key ingredients that got the Bulls on Parade into the divisional round of the playoffs for the second year in a row:
The quarterback’s first playoff game: Matt Schaub threw a really bad pick-six, and there were stretches where the Texans appeared very reluctant to have him try anything that carried even a mild degree of risk.
But he made enough plays to get a "W" in the first playoff game of his career, connecting on 29 of 38 attempts for 262 yards. He looked to Andre Johnson on 21 percent of his throws, a number far better than the 37 percent he forced during the Texans' three recent losses.
It was tight end Owen Daniels who gave the Bengals matchup fits and hurt them the most with nine catches for 91 yards.
The offensive line didn’t only block well for Foster and the run game, but also created time and comfort for Schaub, who wasn’t sacked and was hit only twice, according to the stat crew.
It crushed Schaub to miss last season's playoff run after he suffered a serious foot injury in the middle of the season.
He’s a 1-0 playoff quarterback now.
Foster’s record: No back in NFL history had topped 100 yards in his first three playoff games until Foster pushed into triple digits Saturday. His line did great work, often getting a 1- or 2-yard push before he caught up to his blockers.
“He’s become a fine, fine player -- and it just seems like the bigger it gets, the better Arian gets,” Kubiak said.
When Foster ran for one final first down that iced the game, Texans owner Bob McNair said he wanted to run out on the field and kiss him.
“A nice little hug would do,” Foster cracked.
Red zone: I waited for the good vibe of the day to get sufficient consideration before I asked Foster about the team’s red zone struggles going unsolved. In reply, he took the nickname he has used for me in our periodic conversations the past few years -- Mr. Positivity -- public.
But it doesn’t take a Negative Nellie to know that one touchdown in four chances like the Texans had against the Bengals won’t suffice at Gillette Stadium. The Texans were actually 2-for-2 scoring touchdowns once they got inside the 20 on Dec. 10 at New England. The thing was, they were already down 28-0 when they finally got there.
Schaub emphasized how the Texans didn’t want to force things when they were assured of makeable field goals from Shayne Graham. But the Patriots' offense burns at a higher temperature than the Bengals', and Houston won’t likely be able to choose to be conservative if it wants a chance to advance to the AFC title game.
“It was our Achilles' heel today,” Foster said. “When you get in the red zone, especially against a team like New England, you have to score touchdowns, you can’t kick field goals, because they like to put up points and they like to put up points in a hurry.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in our defense, but that man behind center over there is a great player. You have to keep him off the field and you have to capitalize any time you get the opportunity.”
A healthy Johnathan Joseph: The team’s top cornerback has been inconsistent this season, at least in part because of groin and hamstring injuries. Phillips said once Joseph was back to practicing full-time, he’d return to form.
That sure seemed like the case against Cincinnati.
Dalton didn’t even throw a ball the direction of A.J. Green, his top receiver, in the first half. He looked for him 11 times in the second half and had one big 45-yard completion. But Green stopped on one route in the middle of the field and Joseph, who was sticky most of the game, grabbed an interception and took it 14 yards to set up Graham’s fourth field goal that boosted the Texans’ point total to 19.
“Physically, I’m probably better than I’ve been all year,” Joseph said.
Joseph and the Bulls on Parade were the first playoff defense to hold an opponent without a third-down conversion since the Bengals did it to the Bills in the 1988 AFC Championship Game.
Success will be defined a lot differently at Gillette Stadium against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Phillips will soon start pondering just what his guys might try differently given this second chance.
It seems like at least once a game, QB Matt Schaub drops back, fakes a handoff, turns and rolls out. He sets himself with plenty of time and throws back across, usually to WR Andre Johnson running deep, hitting him for a big play.
The Texans make it look easy. But considering there is no lack of film of this play, should it be so hard to stop? Why does this Texans' deep bootleg throwback play create so many big gains?
“When they do put the ball out there and fake the handoff on the play-action, automatically a lot of the linebackers and safeties and corners and all step up and play the run,” said Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, who will help defend against it Sunday at Nashville’s LP Field. “Off that, they run a heck of a lot of boot and they are able to make plays off the boot.
“They give you the same exact action as the boot and make one cut off of the boot, and that’s kind of what screws everybody up. You see it and you’re like, ‘OK, I read the boot, I’m going to go make the play.’ And he turns up and goes the opposite direction. With a player as dynamic as Andre Johnson, you put the ball up in the air, as a DB you take one wrong step and he’s going to make you pay for it."
Johnson sees it pretty simply: “I don’t know how they [the coaches] set it up. It’s something that just works.”
Defenses come into the game wary of the Texans’ run game and wary of those play-action bootleg rollouts. They are aware of how often Schaub throws to a target moving the same direction he's going, which is the natural way for it to work.
The frequency of those runs and rollouts can lull a defense into a predictive play. A throw against the grain in such situations is almost counterintuitive. And the changeup not only can produce a big play but also can alter what a defense does going forward for fear of getting burned by it again.
It can work against man coverage and it can work against zone. The key is a single high safety.
“The only way to really stop it is to play tight man-to-man coverage, and that opens up a lot of other cans of worms,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s a zone-defense killer. It’s a lot like a 3-pointer against a packed zone in basketball.”
On Thanksgiving at Ford Field, the Texans had the ball on first-and-10 at their own 26-yard line, working from the right hash mark. Let’s look at how it worked in that situation.
The Texans lined up with three receivers bunched left, tight to the left tackle, with Johnson between Kevin Walter and Lestar Jean. Tight end Owen Daniels was in a three-point stance beside right tackle Ryan Harris. Running back Arian Foster was directly behind Schaub, who was under center.
Schaub took the snap, turned to his right and met up with Foster, faking the handoff wide of the right hash mark, with Foster angling off right tackle.
Cornerback Drayton Florence, one of the defenders lined up to cover the bunch of receivers, blitzed, bought the fake and ran down the line of scrimmage after Foster, rendering himself irrelevant in defending the play.
Walter veered to the right at the snap and tried to take out defensive end Lawrence Jackson with a low block but pretty much missed, yet slowed down Jackson's pursuit. Then Walter got up and positioned himself as a short target on the right hash.
Jean started to move right as if he’d be participating in backside run-blocking, then turned and ran a short route to the left sideline.
Daniels ran from the right side across the field, turning to face Schaub about 12 yards deep between Jean on the sideline and Walter in the middle of the field. The three targets form a triangle.
Meanwhile, Johnson ran down the left hash, and after about 15 yards he faked left, suggesting he too would move with Schaub, who rolled left after the play-action. Safety Louis Delmas was 5 yards deeper and turned to go toward the sideline behind Johnson.
The other safety, Eric Coleman, lined up like an off-corner on the left, and moved forward 5 yards when he thought Foster took the handoff. That gave the Texans Johnson against Delmas as that single-high safety they want on this play. Corner Jonte Green was up near the line of scrimmage on the same side, and looked to be ready to set an edge that would have forced Foster back inside. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy took five steps forward playing the run before he wheeled to chase downfield.
After faking left, Johnson cut back and was crossing the field from left to right at the Detroit 45-yard line. He was well behind Coleman, Green and Levy as they chased to catch up, and well in front of Delmas who was playing catch-up coming across and also bumped into back judge Greg Yette.
If Schaub had led Johnson more, it could have gone for more than 37 yards. Johnson slowed down to catch it and Coleman caught up to make the tackle. Even so, it qualified as the big play on a 74-yard touchdown drive.
And if Schaub throws an accurate ball to Johnson against guys who have changed direction three times, the odds of success are pretty good. On this play, he was nearly at the left hash when he threw it, and Johnson was nearly at the right numbers when he caught it.
“We work on those things quite a bit so that it all times out and meshes together,” Schaub said.
And the play can influence a game well beyond one big gain.
“If you hit one or two of those a game, it creates thoughts for a defense and they start to go to coverages that are a little softer,” Schaub said. “Then that allows for the run game to be open and creates more options underneath for catch-and-run opportunities.”
McCourty and the Titans' secondary will be on high alert for it Sunday, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be caught by surprise.
You see the same thing off bootlegs over and over, and you can start to think you know what’s coming, and that’s just what the Texans are looking for -- to hit a defense with a big play on the throwback like the one in Detroit.
“When he steps back and resets his feet and throws the boot throwback, that’s one of the toughest routes to cover,” McCourty said. “You’ve always got to have in the back of your mind when you are covering the boot that they can pick it back up and throw a boot throwback. …
“You have to have your eyes in the right places. They’ll be hitting you with the stretch play, hitting you with the stretch play, coming back with the boot, coming back with the boot. Then that one time in the middle of the game or late in the game, they hit you with the boot throwback. It’s tough to prepare for because they kind of lull you to sleep.”
According to ESPN Stats and Info, just 16 of Foster’s 111 rush yards came after first contact, tied for the fewest in a 100-yard game since the start of 2009 (including games with a minimum of 20 carries).
Foster’s 4.0 yards before contact per rush was tied for his highest in a game this season.
For a back of his caliber to have a chance to build up speed and assess what’s in front of him for four yards is a tremendous advantage.
I’m typically a skeptic about split jobs. But Gary Kubiak and his offensive line coach, John Benton, deserve a lot of credit for the way they’ve patched up the right side of the line.
Derek Newton played 77 percent of the time at right tackle, with Ryan Harris getting the other 23 percent. Rookie Ben Jones played 73 percent at right guard with Antoine Caldwell getting the other 27 percent.
It’s patchwork in a way, but it seems to be maximizing the play of the rebuilding side.
The line not only run blocked well, but pass protected well too. Matt Schaub was hit three times with two sacks.
Another big factor that helped the run game: The Bills, who are the league's worst run defense and regularly gets shredded.
Here’s a breakdown of how much each team has been able to use its preferred combination of offensive line personnel.
Preferred combination (L-R): Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Myers, Antoine Caldwell, Derek Newton.
Snaps together: 181 of 338 (54 percent)
Total combinations: 5
My thoughts: The Texans are using Ryan Harris some at right tackle and Ben Jones at right guard by design, so this is less telling than it is for everyone else who wants to have the same five all the time.
Preferred combination (L-R): Anthony Castonzo, Joe Reitz, Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn, Winston Justice.
Snaps together: 0 of 290
Total combinations: 6
My thoughts: Reitz hurt his ankle in the preseason and hasn’t played. His replacement, Seth Olsen, is not on IR with the possibility of being reactivated later. The four starters with Olson have played 59 of 290 snaps, 20 percent.
Preferred combination (L-R): Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton, Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri, Cameron Bradfield.
Snaps together: 102 of 278 (37 percent)
Total combinations: 6
My thoughts: I think they would have probably been better off with Will Rackley, but the left guard was hurt in the preseason and is on IR. There were strong, early indications the team was heading toward the above configuration even if Rackley was healthy, so we’re using it as the preferred combo.
Preferred combination (L-R): Michael Roos, Steve Hutchinson, Fernando Velasco, Leroy Harris, David Stewart.
Snaps together: 266 of 291 (91 percent)
Total combinations: 4
My thoughts: Eugene Amano was in line to be the center until a preseason arm injury put him on IR. You’d like a line that’s been healthy and together basically the whole season to be playing far better than this one has.
But a team that had a very solid offensive line last season is sorting through change. Their five guys played 13 regular-season games together in 2011. Then right guard Mike Brisiel left for a free-agent deal and right tackle Eric Winston was released for salary-cap savings.
That put Antoine Caldwell in line to inherit the right guard spot and Rashad Butler in line to inherit right tackle.
Caldwell won his job in the preseason, but Butler lost out to second-year man Derek Newton, a physical but still-raw player.
Then Butler landed on IR Aug. 31 with an arm injury.
Now both Caldwell and Newton find themselves in rotations.
Rookie Ben Jones (a fourth-rounder, not undrafted as I initially said) is taking some time away from Caldwell and veteran Ryan Harris, signed after Butler was injured, is getting some of Newton’s snaps. Against Denver, Caldwell played 57 percent of the time and Newton 75 percent of the time.
Gary Kubiak said the subs getting time helps keep the starters fresh and pointed to the way the team brought Duane Brown along in his first year as the left tackle with a similar rotation.
“We’re kind of playing seven football players up front,” Kubiak said.
If they feel they are getting the most out of that, so be it. But cohesion is one of the biggest buzz words around any offensive line, and when you’ve got four guys manning two spots, chemistry-building and familiarity come more slowly.
“We knew what we were facing when we got started this year, we know our challenges there and the key is we’re going to be good up front,” Kubiak said. “I expect us to be good up front. The best thing for us right now is we’ve got a young guard who’s earned reps, and we’ve got a young tackle that we’ve got to make sure as coaches we bring along the right way…
“I think there is a process here to becoming a seasoned pro and playing a lot of snaps and we’re trying to do it the right way.”
Sunday, the right side of the Texans' line will be dealing primarily with Titans end Derrick Morgan and tackle Sen'Derrick Marks. Morgan is getting better and Marks is especially good against the run. But the defensive linemen are surely guys the Texans think they can contain.
The Titans had a four-point lead Sunday with two minutes left in the fourth quarter at LP Field. Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton lined up in the shotgun on second-and-25 from midfield.
Titans end William Hayes slid around Denver right tackle Ryan Harris and got both hands on Orton. But the quarterback slid to his right and moved up in the pocket. He pump-faked, then let the ball fly.
It was on target to Jabar Gaffney and safety Chris Hope wasn’t pursuing at an ideal angle. He never turned his head as Gaffney tried to come back to the ball, drawing a pass interference call that cost Tennessee 49 yards and set up the Broncos for the go-ahead touchdown.
It felt like the Titans were in control of the game before that play. If they could have stopped the Broncos from gaining 25 yards on the ensuing three plays it was going to be over. That’s a scenario anybody would take.
But Hayes and Hope failed them, Orton made the play and the Titans unraveled, losing 26-20.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans are touting left tackle Michael Roos as the only left tackle in the NFL who has started every game and not allowed at least a half sack, according to STATS.
STATS says Roos joins Denver Broncos tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris as the only tackles in the NFL who have not yet surrendered a full sack in 13 starts. Clady and Harris each have allowed a half sack.
When details of quality pass protection come to light, the obvious question is about something with less statistical evidence. Is Roos as good a run-blocker?
"I personally think I am a better pass-blocker than run-blocker, yes," he said. "I am not the strongest guy out there. So it's one of those things I try to work on every year, keeping pad level down and getting stronger. At times, guys get off the blocks off me a little bit more than I'd like. I try to work on it every week -- hand placement, using my leverage, using their momentum and all those little things, the game within the game that you've got to play."
"I think I have some strength to gain. It's one of those things where you can't really do much during the season. Once the offseason hits I'll work harder than I did last year and the year before and see where it goes."
This week's assignment in Houston will include a lot of snaps against Mario Williams.