Much has been made of the Texans horrific offensive line in recent years. It has undoubtedly been an anchor weighing the team down. It is particularly worrisome when you finally find your franchise QB, and want to keep him upright at all costs. Preserving Deshaun Watson's health and elongating his career is of the utmost importance. Look at the Indianapolis Colts, who dealt with a similarly putrid OL for years, and quite literally destroyed the career of the talented Andrew Luck. It took them too long to fix it, and that's a problem the Texans couldn't possibly face as well.
The Importance of the Texans Returning all Five OL Pt. 1
Speaking of the Colts, I thought it was interesting to see how similar the two prospective 2020 OLs are now. It's hard not to see similarities in capital spent, and positions of strength/weakness.
In total, both teams have spent three 1st rounders, we spent two 2nd rounders to the Colts one 2nd rounder. And both teams shelled out pretty decent deals to a free agent RG. Diving even further, both teams have an elite LT, with Tunsil only getting better and Castonzo at his peak. The Colts have one of the best LGs in the NFL in Nelson, but Scharping is on that path as well in my opinion. Even the Centers are similar in how Kelly and Martin both had a rocky start, but have turned it around nicely. It's funny how RG is both OL's weakpoint, and both an outside free agent. RT is similar too as two young aspiring prospects with their best football ahead of them. The point of this comparison is to show that we have taken note from the Colts and are building from the trenches. It's a smart way to build a dynasty football team and will take the offense to the next level. No matter how many weapons you have, it doesn't matter if you can't block for sh*t. Just like how the Colts OL has ascended into one of the top units in the NFL, I expect the Texans OL too as well.
Now that we can see how similar the two OLs are, let's take a look at the journey it took to get there for the Texans. In Deshaun's first year in 2017 he dealt with Chris Clark, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Nick Martin, Jeff Allen and Breno Giacommini. According to Football Outsiders Offensive Line Ratings (uses "adjusted sack rate", "adjusted line yards", etc) the Texans finished 20th in run blocking and 30th in pass blocking. While allowing 54 sacks in the regular season.
They saw a clear issue with that starting five and poured pretty big money into free agency. Resulting in a new starting five of Julie'n Davenport, Senio Kelemete (3 year, 12m), Nick Martin, Zach Fulton (4 year, 28m), Kendall Lamn. Again according to Football Outsiders, the Texans finished 27th in run blocking and 32nd in pass blocking. While allowing 65 sacks in the regular season. A clear step back was far from acceptable.
The next year we would see a complete overhaul, and the Texans would use plenty of premium draft capital to do whatever they could to keep Deshaun upright. They put together a line consisting of Laremy Tunsil (2 First round picks), Max Scharping (2nd round pick), Nick Martin, Zach Fulton, Tytus Howard (1st round pick). In one offseason they invested a ridiculous 3 first rounders and a 2nd rounder, into the OL. Football Outsiders graded the Texans as the 21st best run blocking team, and the 27th best at pass blocking. While giving up 42 sacks in the regular season. They also finished with the 8th highest pass blocking win rate (PBWR) of 62%.
This was "statistically" their best year yet but still not great, however the eye test of simply watching the games could tell anyone that the OL had seen a massive improvement. So why wasn't that fully translating to these metrics? The pass blocking was certainly dragged down by sack numbers that had more to do with Watson and the offense as a whole, than just the OL (see great PBWR). We also dealt with consistent injuries that had to change the starting five constantly and Laremy Tunsil false starting 14 times couldn't help much either.
Luckily, these problems should drastically improve because this is the first time in the BOB era that we are actually returning all five starting offensive linemen. Tunsil will have more time to get acclimated, learn the playbook better, and get comfortable with the snap calls. Now sophomores Scharping and Howard will have more time to grow into their "man" bodies and get acclimated to the gruelling NFL season. We have already seen major improvements from Martin in the past year, and Fulton was quietly a solid contributor who held up very well in pass protection. Lastly, more growth from Watson and WRs who actually practice, will improve sack numbers greatly.
But the point of this article is that the chemistry between the starting five cannot be understated. Getting as many reps together will improve their cohesion. One man cannot make or break an offensive line, they all have to work together to succeed. In part 1 I will look at how communication and chemistry helps with double team blocks. Part 2 next Tuesday will look at how it helps with picking up stunts.
Double teams or combo blocks require communication and chemistry because offensive linemen have to know who is supposed to hold the block, and who is supposed to make it to the 2nd level. Take this play for example where Nick Martin and Max Scharping are working a double team on the DT #69. Based on the initial alignment the DT is lined up to the outside of Scharping, and so he will have to make initial contact and wait for Martin to help him out.
He does just that and Martin makes his way over to the DT, and gets hands on him. Now making this initial block is great, but getting to the 2nd level and blocking the LB (#56) will really take this play to the next level. However it is not as simple as saying that Martin will help on the initial block, and then go block #56. Scharping could be the one to go block #56 instead, it just all depends on the leverage of the LB, and which lane he attacks. If he goes to the right, Scharping must get off the block of the DT and pickup the LB. But if he runs straight/to the left a little, Martin has to block him. You can see how this decision can be really tough when you are in the heat of the moment and only have a split second to react. This is where chemistry comes into play. The more and more of these scenarios the OL has seen together as a unit, the more comfortable they will be in knowing who is supposed to make that block.
As you can see on the full play, the double team runs smoothly. Scharping makes a solid block, then Martin comes over and puts the DT in the dirt, and makes his way to the second level. He gets contact on the LB and creates an opening. Carlos Hyde decides to cut it back for whatever the reason, but Scharping and Martin did their job very nicely.
This next play shows how Scharping can be the one to come off the double team and make a 2nd level block too. #56 goes to the right this time, and Scharping passes off the block to Martin. Then Scharping gets hands on the LB and gets him out of the way. This had potential to be a huge run, but Martin needed to hold his block for a second longer, and Jordan Akins missed his block on #49.
Scharping and Martin had great chemistry working together and spent essentially the entire season together. Neither got injured and Scharping took over the starting job from Kelemete after week one. You could really see how the two got comfortable with each other, and routinely demolished on these double teams. Here's another great one against the Chiefs where they get a good push on the DT, and then Martin goes to the 2nd level to block the LB. Hyde follows their block and is rewarded with a great gain.
Here's another great rep by Scharping and Martin against the Colts this time. They drive the DT out of the gap and Martin blocks the LB, cutting him off from Hyde nicely. You can really see how effective blocking the 2nd level is, and how it creates a massive lane for Hyde's big gain. We've long been awful at blocking the 2nd level, but Martin and Scharping have shown a nice ability to do so, which should only get better.
Another great duo on the OL was formed between Tunsil and Scharping (notice a pattern here, SCHARPING IS A BEAST). They routinely created lanes on the left side of the OL and I'm excited to see them grow together. Look at this beautiful outside zone play where Tunsil makes first contact on the right defensive end. Then Scharping covers a lot of ground to make it over there and help on the block. He helps move the DE, but knows that Tunsil has it covered, so he doesn't waste any time and shoots up to the 2nd level. He then blocks LB #50 and creates a nice lane for Hyde. Once Hyde cuts back, there is a lot of space to shoot through the 2nd level, because Scharping was able to turn the LB away from the run.
On this play against the Chargers it's more of the same. The Texans run zone to the right and Tunsil and Scharping both make contact with the 3 tech DT. Scharping chips him with his shoulder and quickly goes to the 2nd level to block LB #58. Hyde takes the massive cutback lane created by the double team and makes a nasty juke to avoid the other LB. If he could've juked to the right and followed Scharping's block, he could've been gone.
Scharping's not the only one who can get to the 2nd level. Tunsil isn't as great at it, but he certainly can. He brings a lot of power to his game, more so than blocking space. Look at how far he and Scharping drive this double team, creating a huge lane, and then Tunsil blocks the LB as well. Carlos Hyde had to be pretty happy whenever a run to the left was called.
So we've seen how well the left side of the line played, and the chemistry that they built due to staying healthy and having continuity. The right side of the line wasn't as good, but a big part of that was due to Tytus Howard getting injured and only playing 8 games. He and Zach Fulton weren't able to mesh as well together, but they did show signs of promise that should only get better.
Take this double team against Indianapolis for example. They make good initial contact on the DT, then Tytus holds the block and turns him away from the run nicely. Fulton works his way to the 2nd level and gets just enough contact on the LB to give Hyde a lane to work with.
Another good double team here against the Panthers, this time with Greg Mancz instead of Fulton. They get good drive on the initial block, and you can see how well they are positioned, so that they each take on a half of the body of the DT. Then Tytus climbs to the 2nd level and gets hands on the LB. The run doesn't go his way but great job.
Tytus showed flashes but could get better with his consistency of making those 2nd level blocks. It's hard to time those in space and he occasionally whiffed. But he was always really good at helping create a push on the initial block. Look at how he creates a lane for the TD run on the first play, and then how violent he is with his block on the second play.
When the starting 5 were all healthy their play together was formidable, and improved throughout the season. This really helps to understand why the Texans decided to keep Zach Fulton and not sign someone like Larry Warford. The chemistry and communication will only get better. We are truly entering new times with this Texans OL. With the amount of capital we've invested, the benefits are starting to appear, and will only get better. Personal development from sophomores Scharping and Tytus is one thing, but the entire OL's cohesiveness improving will take the offense to new heights. Tune in next week for part 2, where I look at the importance of chemistry in the passing game, particularly with stunts and blitzes.