Are Schaub, zone scheme right for Texans?

April, 9, 2013
4/09/13
8:29
AM ET
The way the Houston Texans used -- and didn’t use -- James Casey was an issue I struggled with in 2012. Gary Kubiak increasingly forced a round peg (a quality pass-catcher with great hands capable of being a matchup problem) into a square hole (a fullback who worked as a lead blocker far more than a pass target).

It’s one of the objections to the Texans offense for Robert Mays of Grantland, too.
"As teams find new ways to use players who don’t fit certain boxes, the Texans are trying to shove their players into them," Mays writes in a piece about the shortcomings of the Houston offense.

“... Offensively, the Texans have a specific plan, and against most teams they execute that plan well. The run game wasn’t nearly as effective last year as it had been in years past (mostly due to a lack of consistency and the resulting shuffling on the right side), but the run-first, play-action-later Houston offense still had plenty of moments. It’s when the running isn’t an option -- either because of ineffectiveness or a big deficit -- that the plan falters. Former Texans lineman Ephraim Salaam refers to it as 'staying on schedule,' but with offenses like the ones in New England, New Orleans, and Green Bay, relying on point production that can so easily come off the rails just doesn’t feel like an option anymore.”

It doesn’t feel like an option when the Patriots, Saints or Packers are blowing a game open early. And to succeed in the playoffs in the next few years, the Texans are almost invariably going to have to get past Peyton Manning’s Broncos or Tom Brady’s Patriots, if not both. (Manning was still finding his footing in Denver when the Texans won there last season.)

It’s a very well done and well-argued article.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsUsing a run-first offensive philosophy, Houston is tied for the NFL's fifth-best record during the past two regular seasons.
The one element of it I consider debatable is the idea that a zone running game can’t be bread and butter for a team in today’s NFL.

"These days, very few teams lean on the straightforward zone running game for the majority of their offense," Mays writes. "[Mike] Shanahan’s new team did plenty of zone blocking this year, but it was combined with read-option looks and the constant running threat of Robert Griffin III. No offense to Matt Schaub, but I’m not sure teams are too worried about his feet.”

But what’s it matter how many or how few teams lean on a zone running game for the majority of their offense? With such a philosophy the Texans are 22-10 over the past two regular seasons.

Yes, games against some good teams with high-powered offenses came apart and couldn’t be salvaged.

That’s a problem heading forward. I’m not sure, however, that the way to fix it is to decide that a primary tenet of your organization has to be scrapped.

They've got a lot invested in this system and only four teams have a better two-year record -- Green Bay, New England, San Francisco and Atlanta. (Baltimore has fared the same in the two-season sample.)

Say you have the sixth-best team in the league, but not one of its preeminent quarterbacks.

How do you improve enough that you can get past the teams that do?

Well, Schaub needs to play better in games against those high-caliber opponents, and he needs more help to do so. Part of that help might come from enhanced schooling that gets him ready for, and gives him freedom to make, adjustments to what a defense is doing on a given play. Houston’s defense, meanwhile, needs to get a better handle on the league’s top quarterbacks, right from the start of games against them.

Yes, the Texans offense needs to evolve. Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison need to develop the new talent that is drafted, but they also need to tinker with their system, and the needed tinkering goes beyond strengthening the existing scheme or getting better at it.

What changes can they make to the scheme to ensure that it’s not over-reliant on being run-first and play-action second? How can their offense, lacking a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at the helm, still stand toe-to-toe and be in games against those talents at the end?

I’m better at asking the questions than answering them, but I don’t doubt football minds far better than mine can solve the puzzle and increase Houston’s chances.

Is the only way to beat a high-powered team these days to become a high-powered team? If so, then no, the Texans aren’t going to find themselves getting past the second round of the playoffs, where they’ve stalled the past two years.

It’s a quarterback league, but not everybody gets to have a complete stud. The Texans aren’t going to magically land a Colin Kaepernick, particularly as they pledge their fidelity to Schaub and just gave him a giant deal a year ago.

I still believe a unique team centered around a strong running game and a strong defense can make a run with a quarterback like him, provided he doesn’t wither at key moments.

Schaub isn’t going to get more dynamic. They can get him more dynamic weapons, field a more forceful defense, peak at the end of the season instead of at the start and have a chance.

It seems better to me than suggesting they completely revamp the offense when such a revamp would require a different kind of quarterback who’s not readily available and who a lot of other teams are looking for, too.

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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