Protecting Deshaun Watson was a tough task for the Houston Texans in 2018. Their young quarterback was sacked a league-high 62 times a season ago, and spent much of his season under seige in the pocket.
Given this, offensive line was a big need for the Texans heading into the offseason. They drafted offensive tackle Tytus Howard in the first round and guard Max Scharping in the second. In addition, they traded for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil shortly before the season began.
Now, Watson has still been sacked 18 times already, so the protection has not completely come together. It is also true that some of those sacks can be traced to the quarterback holding the football too long. But do not think that acquiring players was the only way the Texans looked to protect their quarterback. Head coach Bill O’Brien has also used some schematic elements to stress defenses while protecting his quarterback. Some heavy, condensed formations using maximum protection schemes are one way, while some spread, empty formations have been the other. Two completely different approaches, but both having some success.
The first aspect of the Texans’ offense we can examine is how they use empty formations. With receiving talents such as DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, plus an emerging tight end in Jordan Akins, spreading out the defense gives Watson a number of ways to stress the defense. In addition, these formations force the defense to spread out their alignment, lest they leave themselves vulnerable on the edges and in the secondary.
Let’s start with this red zone play against the Los Angeles Chargers. Early in the second quarter, Houston faces a 2nd and 12 on the Los Angeles 21-yard line, breaking the huddle with 12 offensive personnel and aligning in an empty formation, with Watson (#4) in the shotgun:
Houston runs a variation of the “Hoss Juke” design, which if it sounds familiar, it should. In Super Bowl LIII the New England Patriots — a team O’Brien used to coach for — ran that play three straight times on the game’s only touchdown drive:
The formation and the route concept stretch the defense horizontally and vertically. The Chargers actually show pressure pre-snap but drop eight into coverage. The beauty of this design is that it gives the quarterback an answer for almost any scheme in the secondary. Here, the Chargers drop into a single-high zone coverage, and that allows Watson to bracket the free safety with the two seam routes:
Watson looks first at Hopkins (#10) out of the left slot, and that freezes the free safety in the middle of the field. The QB then comes to the right and hits tight end Darren Fells (#87) on his seam in the end zone for the touchdown.
Even when the defense chooses to bring pressure, the empty formation usually provides Watson with a quick read and throw, sometimes based off of a rub concept. On this 2nd and 10 against the Chargers, Watson aligns alone in the shotgun and the Texans have three receivers to the left side of the formation:
Los Angeles brings pressure here, sending five after Watson and using a mirrored tackle-end stunt. But the Texans still have five in to block, so the QB has time to get the ball out. He looks to the right, where a rub concept frees up Fells on a quick slant:
Here is a similar design against the Carolina Panthers. Houston goes empty again and puts Keke Coutee (#16) in a stack slot to the right behind Hopkins. Hopkins releases vertically, while Coutee runs a simple curl route. The vertical release — plus the attention paid to Hopkins — creates space for his teammate on the curl route:
In a similar vein, the empty formations give Watson a good look at the defense, allowing him to find and exploit potential bubbles or cushions that he can identify pre-snap. On this 2nd and 8 against the Atlanta Falcons, the Texans empty the backfield again and put Watson in the shotgun. Hopkins is again in a stack-slot formation, this time to the left:
Take note of the coverage over Hopkins. Atlanta shows a Cover 4 alignment pre-snap with a safety giving Hopkins a ton of cushion. Watson spots this before the play, and comes right to Hopkins on a quick post route that the QB throws with pretty good timing and anticipation:
Again, the ball comes out quickly, protects the quarterback, and allows him to exploit a weakness in the coverage identified before the play.
Here is one more example of this at work. On this play against the Panthers, Houston empties the backfield once more. Fuller (#15) is in the slot to the left, and will run a slant route:
As you can see, Fuller’s slant route takes him into another soft area of the coverage, in front of the safety and between two underneath defenders. Watson sees that as well, and comes right to Fuller almost immediately after the snap:
These empty formations flip the pressure equation. Instead of putting the quarterback under duress, these alignments stress the defense and allow Watson to identify soft spots in the coverage and get the ball out of his hands quickly. In addition, O’Brien has a number of ways he can create additional space for his receivers post-snap with stack-slot formations, rub concepts and by taking advantage of the attention that players like Hopkins and Fuller command. These empty formations are a great way to help your quarterback, keep him upright and enable him to get the ball out quickly.
Condensed and Heavy
But there is another way that O’Brien has used formations, personnel and scheme to protect his quarterback, and it is almost the schematic opposite of the previous ideas. O’Brien has also used some condensed formations, often with heavier personnel, to implement some maximum protection route concepts.
Over the past few years, the Texans have been a heavy Yankee Concept team. This is usually a two-receiver, maximum protection route concept. Here is an example of Houston running this design last season out of the shotgun, with some eye candy to distract the defense:
As you can see this is really just a two-receiver concept (the motion man does release to the flat) and the rest of the offensive players stay in to protect the quarterback.
This season, Watson and the Texans have run some similar designs, often out of 12 or even bigger personnel packages and from more condensed formations than we discussed in the previous section. As with the Yankee Concept example from last season, these plays usually have just a few receiving options for the quarterback and focus on protection, but they can still be successful in the downfield passing game.
Take this play against the Chargers. Facing a 2nd and 9 in the third quarter, the Texans align with Watson under center and use a jumbo 12 personnel package, bringing into the game reserve offensive lineman Roderick Johnson (#63) and aligning him on the wing to the right:
Here is the route concept:
Working off of play-action, Watson has a dig route from Hopkins working from the backside. Atkins runs a deep out route, while Fuller runs a deep post. The quarterback has all day to throw here thanks to the protection scheme, and finds Fuller late on the deep post for a huge play:
Here is another maximum protection, two receiver route concept working off of play-action. Facing a 1st and 10 in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Texans line up with Watson under center using a traditional 12 personnel package. Hopkins and Fuller align in a slot close to the formation, with Hopkins on the inside:
Sometimes, you need to be a good actor to be successful in the NFL. The Texans show an outside zone running play to the right, but run Fuller and Hopkins on routes breaking to the inside ... eventually. Watch as Hopkins in particular slow plays this route, showing a block prior to curling to the middle of the field:
So here, O’Brien moves the pocket a bit, uses a maximum protection scheme, but is still able to get both of his receivers open thanks to personnel, alignment and scheme.
Let’s close out with this play against the Falcons. As mentioned earlier, the Texans are big fans of the Yankee Concept. Well, if a schmuck like me can figure that out, certainly NFL defensive coordinators and advance scouts can as well. This has led to teams using a “cut” or a “nail” call where the safety in the middle of the field drops down to handle the crossing route, while the cornerback then replaces the safety in the middle of the field. Here are the Patriots running that against Houston in Week 1 last season:
This has forced O’Brien to come up with some additional variations of the Yankee Concept to try and counter these calls. That brings us to this play against the Falcons. Facing a 1st and 10 late in the third quarter, the Texans run this design:
These are simply two out-breaking routes, again off of play-action and using maximum protection. But watch the cornerback at the bottom of the screen. He is anticipating some sort of Yankee Concept here and starts to drift to the middle of the field, either to replace the safety or to cover the deep crossing route. But Fuller is running this deep out, and is wide open for Watson:
Sometimes, as an offensive coordinator you have to counter what defenses are doing, and this is a good example.
Again, Watson was pressured heavily last season and protecting their young quarterback was a huge need for them going into 2019. While they acquired some new players in the draft and via trade, sometimes scheme is another way to address the problem. So far the Texans have been doing just that.