Megatrends vs. The Cover-2

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June 5, 2005
Megatrends vs. The Cover-2

by Keith Weiland

WARNING: Extrapolated season statistics are contained within the body of the article below. Proceed with caution. Those with a doctor’s note for mathematics anxiety may be excused from this article.

“At his current pace” is maybe one of the most loaded phrases in all of sports. Perhaps its most egregious use comes from the early months of the baseball season, but its usage can also create false expectations in the world of football, too. Wrought with divots, this practice of manipulating statistics will make you answer at least one question:

Is your souvenir cup half full or half empty?

Seeing as how this article is coming to you from a Texans fan website, I will present the half full perspective first and for good reason, too. There is plenty to be optimistic about this season, but don’t fret, you pessimists. (Who am I kidding? Of course you’ll fret… you’re pessimists!) I’ll give you one reason why our cups might still be closer to empty than full, and it won’t be the play of the offensive line. (That train wreck is worth its own 1,000-word article.)

Optimism reigns because the Texans are entering their fourth season, and on offense especially, that means one more year of collective wisdom for what is quickly becoming a veteran unit. If you are able to account some of the statistical inconsistency of the Texans offense the past couple years to youthful inexperience and immaturity, then choking down these half-full extrapolations won’t be so difficult.

On offense, it all starts at quarterback with David Carr. After missing a healthy chunk of the 2003 season due to being, well… unhealthy, Carr’s 2004 preseason was both efficient and effective as he completed 71 percent of his passes. While the team would stumble out of the regular season gate at 0-2, Carr and the Texans righted the ship to a 4-3 record by Week 7.

In those first seven games last year, 66 percent of Carr’s throws were completed, continuing his lofty preseason trend. He also amassed 1,917 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions for a QB rating of about 99.2.

Extrapolate those numbers across a full 16-game schedule, and Carr would have had 4,382 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions to go with that nice completion percentage and QB rating. Compare that to his actual 2004 totals of 61 percent completions for 3,531 yards, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, and it is evident he couldn’t maintain that pace in the second half of the season.

For Carr’s top two receiving options, Andre Johnson and Jabar Gaffney, each had relatively strong first half-seasons as well. Through seven games, Johnson had 42 receptions for 665 yards and 4 touchdowns. Had he continued that trend, he would have had 96 catches for 1,520 yards and 9 scores, superior to his already Pro Bowl-worthy stats of 79-1142-6.

As for Gaffney, he caught 28 balls for 411 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half of the season. Continuing that pace, Gaffney would have had 56 receptions for 822 yards and 4 touchdowns, far better than the 41-632-2 stats he actually posted last year.

So what happened midway through the season to cause the Texans’ passing game to take a turn for the worse? Despite rumors that were hushed before they gained too much steam, Carr hadn’t been injured, at least not enough to keep him off the field. And while running back Domanick Davis had recovered from his early season injuries to carry the offense down the stretch, a revival of the running game wasn’t necessarily the cause, either.

No, a big reason why those stats couldn’t be produced over a full 16-game schedule is because the Texans ran into a buzzsaw of a defense known as the cover-2. The Texans faced that defense at least five times in the second half of the 2004 season, only beating it once, against the Bears in a game defined more by survival of the elements (against a decidedly weaker opponent) than by a mastery of the cover-2.

The cover-2 defense gave the Texans offense problems because it took away the deep pass patterns, a cornerstone of the gameplan endorsed by offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Executed to perfection by Colts head coach Tony Dungy while he was with the Buccaneers, the cover-2 splits deep zone coverage with a pair of safeties to stymie those long passes. Sometimes, the cover-2 can be masked by bringing up one safety “in the box” and a speedy linebacker can drop into zone coverage unexpectedly, but the result is still marked by an offense’s inability to move the ball downfield in big chunks.

Essentially, it has been a Rubik’s Cube for Carr and Palmer to date, the win over the Bears notwithstanding. Since the cover-2 isn’t going away anytime soon, the Texans finally seem to be making an adjustment in their gameplan this offseason to counter the defensive strategy.

This summer, the Texans are implementing shorter drops and more timing patterns in the passing game during mini-camp workouts. The team has also been vocal in their commitment to the running game, which was a positive in both the home loss to the Colts and the road win in Chicago. Davis ran for 223 yards and a pair of scores in those two December games. The thinking is that a strong running game will draw one of those safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, thereby opening up the routes for deep passes.

Whether those changes in the gameplan will be enough to replace the divots in last year’s stats remains to be seen. Our first glimpse will come during the preseason when the Texans face the Bucs’ cover-2 defense on September 1. It is a test the Texans have failed three years in a row.

Failing it a fourth time seems more likely now without Bennie Joppru. Typically, a pass-receiving tight end capable of splitting the middle seam has been a key ingredient to unraveling the mystery of the cover-2. Imagine then how disappointed the team must have been when Joppru went down with a torn ACL last month, an injury that will cost him to yet another season on the sidelines.

Even without Joppru, at least the Texans are acknowledging though that a change to their offensive gameplan is needed to defeat the cover-2 and overtake the Colts in the AFC South. Couple that fresh thinking on offense with a little veteran consistency, and those souvenir cups should be half full for all of us, pessimists included.

Keith Weiland would be an optimist more often if reality wouldn’t keep getting in his way.

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