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You can’t blame Osweiler for Houston’s problems

As a former player, I have grown frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and coaches’ game plans.

Of all the teams in the NFL currently leading their division, the Houston Texans are the least respected. They haven’t given fans much reason to consider them a title contender. Against New England and Minnesota, the two best teams they’ve played, they were blown out.

And Sunday, they won, despite being outplayed by a Colts team that has been ravaged by injuries and isn’t expected to do much. So, what or who is the problem? There is only one way to find out. Break down the coaches’ film. Football novice beware: Read at your own risk.

First of all, it’s not quarterback Brock Osweiler’s fault. The big contract he signed in the offseason comes with an increased level of scrutiny. A man getting paid $72 million won’t get much sympathy and he shouldn’t want it, but he should want a new game plan. The coaches are the problem with this team.

Strategically stubborn

Coach Bill O’Brien, who is thought to be an offensive guru, has been failing his well-compensated quarterback. Two weeks ago, in a conversation on Mike & Mike about the viability of Chip Kelly’s system, I drew a distinction between Kelly’s system and Kelly the coach. Kelly’s system was great, but Kelly the coach has not shown the ability to adapt as opponents figure out how to stop his key concepts.

O’Brien is displaying the same tactical rigidity, but avoiding the criticism.

In week 1, rookie Will Fuller emerged as a legitimate playmaking receiver opposite Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins. Since then teams have given the Texans a heavy dose of double high safety coverages to ensure that Hopkins and Fuller don’t catch deep passes. Fewer defensive players in the box has been good news for Texans running back Lamar Miller, who is the league’s fourth-leading rusher, but Osweiler hasn’t been the $72 million-man the Texans were expecting. Because O’Brien and the Texans are asking Brock to defeat cover 2, Tampa 2, and two-man with basic one-receiver or two-receiver concepts.

Rather than break down why those didn’t work and haven’t for several weeks, I am going to help the Texans staff. (Coach O’Brien, feel free to mail the check to ESPN. They know how to find me.)

Make better use of the first 15

All NFL offenses script their first 15 plays. Of course you want to score, but the first 15 should be a recon mission. Run a variety of shifts, formations, and alignments for Hopkins. And track the defensive adjustments. Then you can dictate to the defense the coverages you want. For example: on the first third down, line up in a three-receiver spread formation, but align the tight end outside of the receiver. If a linebacker follows him outside and the safeties stay in a two-deep shell, you know they are in 2-man. Then shift the tight end back to his traditional alignment and all three receivers to a bunch formation on the other side. The defense will either stay in 2-man, in which case you can torment them with picks and rub routes from the bunch, or they will check the coverage to a cover 2 zone, then you can run three-receiver flood concepts at the safety and cornerback.

Smart defenses have answers for these, like Hi-lows, Cones, and Boxes, but there are route combinations that’ll beat those too. This is why people say that football is like chess.

Screens aren’t just for the blitz

Most coaches only see the screen pass as the answer to a blitz-happy defense, but it can be deadly against some two-deep coverages. A well-designed running back screen against any 2-deep coverage can result in one tackler against two linemen and a running back. You only need to hit one to change the way the defenders play for the rest of the game. Suddenly, their zone drops won’t be as deep, creating bigger gaps in the downfield coverage.

Play action for intermediate, not deep

When you are running the ball as well as the Texans did against the Colts, conventional football logic would tell you that the safeties will start to creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. And the proper response to that is a play-action deep post route, attacking the area vacated by the safety. However, the Colts and many of the other teams that have faced the Texans refuse to go into single-safety coverages. They are content to let Miller run the ball, but not give up big plays to Hopkins. That doesn’t mean that the Texans should abandon the play-action all together. They should design play-action passes that target the backs, tight ends, and slot receivers because, while the safeties won’t bite on the run fake, the linebackers will. I agree 12 yards to C.J. Fiedorwicz isn’t quite as sexy as 60 yards to Hopkins, but there is nothing attractive about sending the punter in the game.

(Coach O’Brien, we’ll know if you read this, cause we’ll be watching your Monday night game next week. It’ll be too late to play it off.)

Though most of the issues I see with the Texans are schematic, Osweiler isn’t blameless. He has been inaccurate. He threw a third-quarter pass behind Hopkins that was intercepted by the Colts’ Vontae Davis. But Osweiler also threw some impressive passes, including a perfectly thrown game-tying seam route and overtime deep ball to Jaelen Strong, setting up the game-winning kick.

The Texans have the players on both sides of the ball to contend in the AFC, as long as the coaching catches up to the talent. I believe O’Brien will figure things out by playoff time. And the team could advance to the conference championship and maybe even play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

Domonique Foxworth is a senior writer at Andscape. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.