Successful teams need to run the ball well in order to finish off opponents late in games. The Texans showed the ability to do just that against the Lions, as Dave Archibald explains.
Most well-regarded offensive minds get their reputations for their work in the passing game. We think of the horizontal passing attack of Bill Walsh, the downfield assaults from Don Coryell and Bruce Arians, or the unpredictable wizardry of Sean Payton’s. Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien is no exception, having made his bones as the offensive coordinator for a New England Patriots offense featuring quarterback Tom Brady. Brady’s excellence overshadowed the New England ground game, but O’Brien has built successful run attacks, too, and showed that ground game acumen late in Houston’s 20-13 win over the Detroit Lions.
With 10:14 left in the game and a one-score lead, the Texans started a drive on their own 35. The ensuing drive traveled 45 yards in nine plays – six of them runs – and ended with a field goal to give Houston a 10-point lead. Most importantly, the drive consumed more than six minutes, leaving the Lions with a two-score deficit and barely four minutes remaining. Detroit managed to put together a field goal drive to narrow the gap to seven again, but the Texans responded with a run-only drive that consumed the remaining 2:53 of clock and all of the Lions timeouts. It was a masterful display of putting the game away on the ground.
Going Through the Motions
Running out the clock is difficult. When the offense has a late lead, the defense can anticipate the run and load the box to stop it. This is where offensive minds like O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey make their money: how do you run when the defense knows the run is coming?
One technique the Texans employed was to use late shifts and motion to upset the Detroit defense pre-snap. On their first nine drives, Houston employed motion or pre-snap shifts on 18 of 51 plays (35%) but they shifted or motioned on 9 of 13 (70%) plays on their final two drives before the final kneel-downs:
Watch how the pre-snap movement elicits a reaction from the defense. They must account for the moving player in the pass game, mirroring him with a man defender or adjusting their zone defenders’ positioning. It may even change the passing strength of the offense – the side with more eligible receivers – forcing the defense to switch up their safeties. If the motion man is a tight end, as is typical, it affects the geometry of the run game, removing a gap from one side of the line and creating a gap on the other. This may force the defensive linemen to move as well. Most significantly, it makes the defenders think: What’s my assignment? What’s my gap responsibility? Who am I helping on? Where might a blocker come from? If the offense shifts late enough, they can snap the ball with the defense still trying to answer these questions. Even a slight hesitation can be the difference between a defensive stop and a win for the offense.
On the second play of their final drive, Houston puts tight end Ryan Griffin (#84) in motion from the inside slot left to a wingback position on the right. Four different Lions players move to compensate. Free safety Glover Quin (#27) shifts down and to the right to mirror him, while fellow safety Rafael Bush (#31) drops from the left side to the deep middle. Linebacker Antwione Williams (#52) moves down to the line of scrimmage, and cornerback Nevin Lawson (#24) widens a bit:
Griffin ends up across from Williams, but he ignores the linebacker, instead arcing up to Quin on the second level. Initially unblocked, Williams advances on running back Lamar Miller (#26), but it’s a trap – left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (#71) pulls and trap blocks Williams. The rest of the offensive line down blocks, and with defensive end Kerry Hyder (#61) crashing inside, Miller has a huge hole between tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (#87), who is blocking Hyder, and Su’a-Filo. He rumbles for a 10-yard gain and a huge first down.
Mixing in the Pass
The Texans came out on their tenth drive with three straight run plays, but on the fourth play, they do something a little different:
Houston initially shows an i-formation offset weak to the right side, but they shift tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz shortly before the snap to the right side. The Lions show a run-heavy Cover 3 look, playing their cornerbacks way off at the snap and putting eight defenders in the box to counter the run. Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler sees this. The Texans have a run play called, but Osweiler doesn’t change it – all the offensive linemen still fire out to run block. Instead, he takes a quick drop and throws to star receiver DeAndre Hopkins (#10), who runs a quick slant to the empty middle of the field. Lions cornerback Johnson Bademosi (#29) recognizes the slant and closes, but he’s still five yards away when Hopkins catches the pass. It’s an easy eight-yard gain for the Texans, keeping them on schedule and the clock running.
This is a smart play by Osweiler and shows good chemistry with Hopkins. While throwing is theoretically risky in this situation, this is about as safe a play as it gets. This alert keeps the defense honest and prevents them from over-committing to stop the run.
The Texans have struggled on offense this year, ranking 31st in points and 29th in yards. They’ve shown a little promise with the run game, however, ranking 11th in the NFL in rushing with 912 yards and 16th in the league with 4.2 yards per carry. Against a poor Detroit Lions run defense (24th with 4.4 yards per carry), they were able to do enough. O’Brien and Godsey didn’t run any trick plays, but they found little edges to keep the Lions off-balance: motion, the trap block, and the slant alert. The big win propelled the Texans to 5-3 and they enter their bye week atop the AFC South.
Follow @davearchie on Twitter. Check out his other work here, like his look at the QB class of 2014, his analysis of value plays at left tackle and a great performance from Case Keenum.
All video courtesy of NFL Game Day.