The Texans took a calculated risk when they jettisoned Eric Winston from the team and allowed Mike Brisiel to walk in free agency over the offseason. The team almost literally had no choice on Brisiel, who signed a deal in Oakland that Houston would have been out of their minds to match. With Winston, his pass-blocking had continued to go steadily downhill, though I think he was still run-blocking at a fairly high level. But of course, that move was all about cutting salary to make room for signing others.
Now we are four games into 2012, and the plan has changed repeatedly since the two above moves were made. First, assumed Winston replacement Rashad Butler did not play well, and lost the job to second-year player Derek Newton in the preseason. Next, Brisiel replacement Antoine Caldwell was predictably underwhelming. After coming into the regular season as the unquestioned starter, he now splits snaps with rookie guard Ben Jones.
Following that, Newton nearly got Matt Schaub killed in a 31-25 win over Denver. The result since has been an “every third series” rotation with swing tackle Ryan Harris, who joined the team after Butler’s season-ending injury. To cap things off on the offensive line machinations (so far), Caldwell rolled an ankle against Tennessee, which may or may not keep him out of the lineup against the Jets in week five.
Regardless of all the changes SINCE Winston and Brisiel left the team, the running game wasn’t going to be the same, at least not right away.
In 2011 the Texans finished with a 4.5 yards per carry average (7th in NFL), and 153 yards per game (2nd). Four games into 2012, Houston sits at 3.7 yards per carry (20th), and 136.5 yards per game (9th). Of course, the stats NEVER tell the whole story. The Texans are playing from ahead SO much in 2012, and they are running the ball into the ground to eat clock. But the running game isn’t the same, as pretty much everyone predicted.
The running backs play a role in this too. I won’t go too much into Arian Foster’s responsibility, as you can read those thoughts in the previous blog entry. Ben Tate is certainly capable, but he has been up and down in 2012. Still, with both Foster and Tate, you get the feeling they are both about to break out and have huge games more than a feeling that they will continue to “struggle.”
Struggle, of course, is a relative term here. The Texans are still a top rushing team – but they aren’t running it like the Houston Texans run it. They aren’t running it the way Gary Kubiak expects.
I’m interested to see how these double-rotations on the right side of the offensive line shake out going forward. Offensive linemen will tell you that playing well as a unit is as much about chemistry, repetition, and timing as it is about talent. When you talk about the Texans’ zone-blocking scheme, it’s thought to be even more reliant on that chemistry, repetition, and timing. You have to know how the guy next to you moves, you have to know when he’s going to release and hit the next level. This of course is what has come directly from Texans’ offensive linemen AND coaches – but that tune changes once the deck gets shuffled. Now it’s “this guy has earned a right to get on the field” and “we can win with a rotation,” and so on. Coachspeak – it wouldn’t be the NFL without it.
I can’t imagine both offensive line rotations continue throughout the rest of the season. I just don’t think Kubiak is comfortable with that long term, but right now he needs to see them on the field to allow one to separate himself from the other. Even if that doesn’t happen, I expect Newton especially will be back to the singular starter by the halfway point of the season.