It’s All Downhill From Here

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November 25, 2004
It’s All Downhill From Here

by Keith Weiland

Ten games into the season and the Texans’ running game is still going nowhere. With the implementation of a slight variation of the zone blocking scheme on the offensive line, weren’t we supposed to be watching something akin to what we see in Denver and Baltimore?

The Texans’ second season saw vast improvements over the first from its offensive line and running back. Domanick Davis earned Pepsi Rookie of the Year honors after he took over midseason as the team’s featured back, gaining more than 1,000 yards on the ground. The offensive line matured and grew as a unit, cutting down the sacks allowed by half from the expansion season.

After the end of the 2003 season, the Texans saw an opportunity to take their burgeoning ground attack to the next level. The team hired veteran offensive coach Joe Pendry, signed free agent right tackle Todd Wade, and announced plans to employ a zone blocking scheme in favor of the man blocking scheme used the first two seasons.

It was a curious decision but one that carried with it much promise given the scheme’s successes for the Broncos and Ravens. The results to date, however, still leave me curious.

While the passing offense has shown vast improvements with the health and maturation of David Carr and Andre Johnson, the rushing offense has taken a step sideways, if not backward. The team’s average yards per rush is down a half yard (from 3.9 in 2003 to 3.4 this season), and that even takes into account the 44 rushes from Carr where he’s gained an average of 4.3 yards per carry.

So the question of who or what to blame becomes an important one, as the team must decide what direction it must take to make the necessary improvements in 2005. There are two primary culprits here: the offensive line and the running back.

Pendry’s zone blocking scheme is designed to have the linemen work in unison and open cutback lanes for the running back. It requires technique, quick decisions, and teamwork, but most of all it requires practice.

The Texans began the season with changes on three of their line positions. Wade joined the team from the Dolphins, second-year Seth Wand assumed the all-important left tackle position, and Chester Pitts shifted to left guard to make room for Wand. Heck, even their "blocking" tight end, Mark Bruener, is new this year. Only center Steve McKinney and right guard Zach Wiegert retained their 2003 positions on the Texan line.

With change comes the anticipation that the offensive line will need time to learn each other’s new roles, not to mention a new system. But are the Texans trying to force the scheme onto a set of players better suited to a different system?

At first glance, the answer may be yes. The Broncos employ a stout, stubby, athletic group, which before this season, featured five starters who all weighed less than 300 pounds, quite an anomaly in today’s NFL. It has worked for them because their intent is not to blow defenders off the line of scrimmage with brute strength, but rather to guide them a bit in the direction they want them go to allow enough room for the back to read the lanes. It also helps that the Bronco linemen can cut block on the backside with the best of them.

So the quick answer is that the Texans need to get leaner and meaner on the line to emulate the Broncos. Not only would that be difficult to achieve at this point, given the long-term contracts and salary caps present, but it is also misleading.

Take a look at the heights and weights of the Ravens offensive line in the chart below, compared to those of the Texans and Broncos starting units. Given the success of the running game in Baltimore, a simple determination cannot be made on this basis.

Pos. Texans Broncos Ravens LT Seth Wand 6’7" 327 Matt Lepsis 6’4" 290 Jonathan Ogden 6’9" 340 LG Chester Pitts 6’3" 320 Ben Hamilton 6’4" 283 Edwin Mulitalo 6’3" 345 C Steve McKinney 6’4" 320 Tom Nalen 6’3" 286 Casey Rabach 6’4" 301 RG Zach Wiegert 6’5" 309 Dan Neil 6’2" 285 Bennie Anderson 6’5" 345 RT Todd Wade 6’8" 315 George Foster 6’5" 338 Orlando Brown 6’7" 360

The Ravens example shows a truer profile of how an offensive line can be built to best employ a zone blocking scheme. Get big, athletic guys who can mash.

And again, the size of the Broncos’ line is an anomaly in the league. It is unfair to try and compare the Texans’ group to that unit. Aside from the Broncos, who use a more lateral zone blocking system, the better zone blocking teams in the league simply defend an area and actually need less movement than those in a typical man blocking system.

While a talent upgrade on the Texans’ offensive line is needed – notably an improvement in the second year of Wand and improved play from the interior – the team would be better served in supporting this system for at least another season.

So if I have acquitted the offensive line’s spotty play, does this mean I will do the same for Davis? I’m afraid not.

Though Davis was fighting an injury during training camp, he showed flashes of brilliance in the preseason game against the Broncos, gaining 49 yards on 7 carries. Then came the season opener against the Chargers, when Davis fumbled twice despite averaging more than four yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns.

Spooked, Davis fumbled two more times the following week in Detroit. While he has not fumbled since Week Two, Davis has not been the same runner since losing those footballs against the Chargers.

Originally drafted to be a third down/change of pace back and kick returner, Davis surprised all of us, including the Texans, when he burst onto the scene last season averaging 5.5 yards per carry during a five game stretch early in the season.

Since then, however, Davis has run at a 3.2-yard per carry clip, and that average drops to just 3.0 when only the 2004 season is taken into account (through ten games). As quick as we were willing to anoint Davis as the team’s featured back last year, we should be just as willing to reconsider it before next year.

The zone blocking scheme employed by the Texans is as demanding of the running back as it is of the linemen. The back should make one and only one cut, then head straight upfield. Finesse backs need not apply.

Successful backs in most zone blocking schemes are great downhill runners with above average field vision. This type of back must not hesitate for the holes to open; the system works best for intuitive backs able read the seams and cut across the grain.

Davis initially appeared to be that type of back based on his 2003 performance. As it turns out, especially since his fumbles against the Chargers, Davis is more of a jitterbug runner and not a “one cut and go”-type of back.

Ironically, the Broncos of all teams figured this out the hard way this season as well. They began the year with the diminutive Quentin Griffin as their featured back, and he produced subpar results. After opening the season against a porous Chiefs defense, Griffin ran for a 2.4-yard per carry average before stepping aside for Reuben Droughns.

So why has Droughns succeeded where Griffin has not? Like Davis, Griffin was a fourth round pick last year, and he had the draft profile of a third down and change of pace running back. Droughns, a journeyman who was even made available to the Texans in the expansion draft, has been able to make the cut-and-go better than Griffin.

As with the linemen, a simple size comparison has its limitations, but take a look at the selected running backs of the Texans, Broncos, and Ravens. Jamal Lewis, the biggest bruiser of the bunch, has had the most success, even eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark that Davis had hoped to do this season.

Texans Broncos Ravens Domanick Davis 5’9" 216 Reuben Droughns 5’11" 207 Jamal Lewis 5’11" 240 Tony Hollings 5’10 216 Quentin Griffin 5’7" 195 Musa Smith 6’0" 232 Jonathan Wells 6’1" 245     Chester Taylor 5’11" 213

Something else interesting about this chart. The closest thing the Texans have to a big, bruising back like Lewis is Jonathan Wells. In his two games as the featured back, he has rushed for 178 yards on 48 carries (a 3.7 pace versus Davis’ 3.0), and he has done so behind the same novice zone blockers that Davis has also had in front of him.

While he is not nearly as talented as Lewis (and arguably not nearly as talented as either Davis or Tony Hollings), Wells’ success behind the Texans’ offensive line this season clearly makes the point that the team needs a bigger back capable of seeing the seams and making a single cut to daylight. Davis’ shifty, two-cut style makes him a dynamic runner, but probably not the best one to carry the load in this system.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this is that Hollings, the second round supplemental pick last year, also doesn’t appear to be much more than a change of pace back in this system as well. He hasn’t proven yet that he has the necessary vision to run between the tackles, though he is more of a straight-line runner than Davis.

Hollings, who will begin to see an increased workload over the last six games of the season, may yet prove me wrong. Once he is completely healthy and matures into more of an NFL back, he may be the answer. To this point though he has only shown flashes like that of a change of pace back.

So the offseason priority on offense is to find a new running back to carry the load. General manager Charley Casserly has never selected a running back in the first round, so it remains to be seen if he would consider doing so with this year’s draft class. What Casserly has done with success is find a new running back via free agency. This offseason, one potential candidate in particular seems to stand out to me most.

Lamont Jordan was drafted by the Jets during the second round in 2001, and he has served as Curtis Martin’s backup ever since. With his good size (5’10” 230 pounds), hands, and vision, Jordan is a cutback runner who accelerates through the line. Better still, he can break tackles and catch passes out of the backfield.

In relief duty for Martin this season, Jordan is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, and he has caught seven passes for more than 10 yards per catch. And get this: Jordan hasn’t fumbled once since 2002.

If Casserly decides to pursue Jordan in the offseason, it certainly won’t be the first time. The Jets turned down Casserly’s trade offer before the 2003 draft when he reportedly floated the Texans’ third overall pick for Jordan and the Jet’s 13th overall pick, plus other considerations.

Oh, and get this: When Casserly organized his staff to run a “mock” mock draft in 2001, guess who was the choice of his war room after taking Michael Vick first overall? That’s right, Jordan was the team’s mythical first pick of the second round.

While it remains to be seen if the Texans target a running back in either free agency or the draft, expect Casserly and the coaches to have their eyes open looking for one.

Keith Weiland will try to be funnier the next time. Domanick Davis Domanick Davis Home

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