HPF.com: With their oldest draft class now entering just their fourth year of play, it is difficult to conclude definitively whether the personnel moves – at least those involving drafted players and undrafted free agents – are to blame for what ails this team. The team has nailed two of its first round picks – wide receiver Andre Johnson and cornerback Dunta Robinson – plus they have found a couple key contributors in the draft’s later rounds, such as running back Domanick Davis (fourth round) and starting cornerback Demarcus Faggins (sixth round). The Texans have had their share of busted picks as well (supplemental second round pick Tony Hollings at running back tops that list), but they have likely been on par with the league average.
The Texans have been less successful in bringing in veteran free agent talent, forking over big bucks to three-fifths of their beleaguered offensive line. They have also been on the tortuous side of key injuries to players like Tony Boselli, Gary Walker, and Bennie Joppru.
It may be fair to judge then that the team is still too young to succeed, but there has always been a veteran presence, especially on defense. With Carr in his fourth season, having a couple weapons in Johnson and Davis to go with a largely veteran offensive line, I wouldn’t necessarily blame their problems on youth.
That leaves coaching, and yes, I believe it is a problem. Dom Capers is not a very emotional guy, which serves well with younger players prone to ride the highs too high and the lows too low, but four years into this position with a now-veteran bunch, I think his well-rehearsed and canned approach with players and his unwillingness to adapt his gameplans on the fly will be his undoing in Houston.
.NET: The most obvious problem is that old Texans bugaboo – quarterback protection. Carr has already been sacked 27 times this season – he’s on pace to hit the ground 108 times in 2005. Besides the unsuccessful campaign to bring Pace to Houston, did the Texans do anything to upgrade their offensive line? And is the line the main reason that this team is dead last in passing offense at 89.3 yards per game?
HPF.com: The chorus of the offseason song and dance was that all this offensive line needed was to just spend another year together gelling and working out the kinks to their zone blocking scheme first introduced in 2004. There was some reason to clap along in unison, as the line showed vast improvement in run blocking in the second half of the last season, and the thinking was that the breakdowns in pass protection were going to be solved with a few adjustments to a shorter passing game.
Unwilling to give up two first-rounders to sign Pace, the Texans signed right tackle Victor Riley in the offseason to a one-year contract. He was given the opportunity to compete with Seth Wand to start at left tackle once he reported to camp in shape, despite never really playing the position in his NFL career. Riley won the job, but the dismal results a quarter of the way through the season speak for themselves, as Chester Pitts will likely start in his place on Sunday.
In addition to shifting Pitts over from guard, the team has experimented with shifting other members of their starting five around like they were playing musical chairs. Center Steve McKinney will bump over to left guard where he played for the Colts, and a rookie, Drew Hodgdon, will step in to snap the ball this week. Right tackle Todd Wade is also on the verge of losing his starting job, too.
And yes, the lack of pass protection is the main reason (of several other key reasons) why the offense is ranked last in passing offense thus far into the season. But the pass protection breakdowns are not entirely the fault of the five guys on the offensive line. Tight ends, running backs, and even the quarterback himself have also been to blame for the disastrous results, much more so than most outsiders think.
.NET: The story’s a bit happier on the rushing side of things – the Texans are 11th in the NFL when pounding the rock with a 123.8 YPG average. We know that Domanick Davis is a pretty good back – what are his strengths and weaknesses as a player? And why hasn’t he scored a TD this season?
HPF.com: Well, first know that a big part of that ranking has been also due to the scrambling feet of David Carr. He is reluctant to throw the ball away when he should put it four rows up into the stands, but he at least has the moxie to scramble upfield for positive yardage. Carr is on a pace to rush for nearly 600 yards this season.
As for Davis, he figured out midway through the season last year how to run in the Texans’ version of a zone blocking system. Previously, he would try a little too hard to make something happen, jitterbugging around the line the scrimmage. He would try so hard to gain the extra yard that he failed to protect the football at times. Now, Davis patiently waits for the backside hole, makes a single cut, and runs downhill to daylight. Drafted as a kick returner and third down back, Davis can also catch the ball in the flat and make people miss in open space.
Davis has been inconsistent as a pass blocker, and while people often underestimate his thick middle (he is listed at 221 pounds), he is neither a bruising back nor a speed back. Davis’ failure to score touchdowns this season though is more of a result of the offense’s inability to pass and extend drives into the redzone than anything else. Davis actually had a touchdown reception last week against the Titans, but it was nullified by a penalty on one of his linemen. Davis’ touchdown deficiency will prove to be more of a statistical aberration over the rest of the season.
.NET: Preseason prognosticators rated Houston’s receivers as a fairly balanced unit, with Andre Johnson and Jabar Gaffney at the wideout positions, and Davis out of the backfield. Right now, Davis leads the team in receptions with 18 (and a 6.4 yard-per-catch average) while Johnson and Gaffney have 10 catches each. The Texans have three passing TDs this season, and they’ve been outgained by almost 400 yards in the air. What gives?
HPF.com: The team has been awful in pass protection in obvious passing down situations. Unfortunately, when you’re an 0-4 football team, you’re in obvious passing situations quite a bit.
Part of the problem has been that opposing defenses have taken away the deep pass by playing a cover-2 scheme, and they have always kept two guys hanging around Andre Johnson for an entire game. Now, the situation is even worse. Johnson injured his calf and is doubtful to play this Sunday. The Texans will need another wideout to earn Carr’s confidence to throw the ball downfield.
.NET: Let’s talk about this offensive line. Player-by-player, what are the issues here? And why does this team keep striking out when it comes to assembling a decent line?
HPF.com: At left tackle, Victor Riley is playing out of position and appears to maybe adding back a few of the pounds he lost just before training camp opened. He can run block but is slow footed against the faster pass rushers. He might see some time at right tackle this week. Left guard Chester Pitts started at left tackle in 2002 and 2003, and he might be the best left tackle on the roster. He has been prone to mental lapses in drawing penalties, but he is otherwise solid, though not spectacular.
Center Steve McKinney had also been arguably playing out of position until this week, coming to the Texans four years ago after playing guard in Indianapolis. He is a subpar pass blocker and did not have the feet and strength to play center at a high level. Rookie Drew Hodgdon takes over for him now at center, but he isn’t ready. While he has the strength, Hodgdon will obviously lack the savvy of a veteran.
Right guard Zach Wiegert has been fairly dependable when he isn’t hurt. Steady and strong as a run blocker, he has slowed down as a pass blocker. Right tackle Todd Wade is a big man, but he has had problems with speed rushers and backside rush blocking, a key ingredient to the team’s zone blocking system.
The Texans have tried to build their line with veterans, dating all the way back to taking Tony Boselli with the first pick in the expansion draft. None of them have outperformed their contract. Of their drafted players, only Pitts has been acceptable, as third-rounders Seth Wand and Fred Weary have yet to show enough improvement.
.NET: Let’s talk defense. The Texans are 25th in the NFL in both yards and points allowed per game. They run a 3-4 scheme with Gary Walker, Seth Payne and Robaire Smith as the top linemen on the depth chart. How effective is that line, and what sort of effect is first-round draft choice Travis Johnson making in that equation?
HPF.com: Their effectiveness is often overlooked because the Texans’ version of the 3-4 doesn’t ask its linemen to rack up a lot of stats. These guys are doing their job when they squat on the line of scrimmage, tie up a couple blockers, and clog the rushing lanes. Fans would love to see the ends get into the backfield a little more often though. Payne is the leader of the defense, a hard worker and a pleasure to watch on the field.
Gary Walker has been largely ineffective since his Pro Bowl season in 2002. After signing a huge contract extension two years ago, Walker has been hurt often, missing fifteen games since 2003.
When the Texans drafted Travis Johnson, it’s as if they replicated Walker’s DNA (in a good way). He has shown plenty of fire in practice, and he does bring a little pass rush ability, too. He is still young and has been handled by a single blocker too easily thus far in the regular season, but he’ll keep getting a little better with each game he plays.
.NET: The Texans overhauled their linebacker corps in the offseason, releasing Jay Foreman and Jamie Sharper (thanks for the latter, by the way!) in favor of Kailee Wong and Morlon Greenwood. Jason Babin is in that equation as well. Who’s the best linebacker on this team right now, and who’s taken Sharper’s role of pointman in terms of both leadership and total tackles?
HPF.com: Babin was supposed to be the best linebacker. The Texans gave up three draft picks to move up into the first round of the 2004 draft and select Babin. After starting all sixteen games his rookie year, Babin was benched after his second game this season. It turns out though that a torn labrum in his right shoulder suffered in the preseason might have quite a bit to do with ineffective play this year.
Wong is the most consistent of the linebackers and perhaps the de facto leader of the unit. He might as well be – he has played just three of the four linebacker positions on the defense. Wong is not a gamebreaker though. That responsibility was supposed to fall on the shoulders of Antwan Peek, who is a starter at outside linebacker for his first season.
.NET: With all the sacks Houston’s allowed, they’ve amassed only four on defense. Is the lack of pressure a matter of talent, scheme, or both?
HPF.com: There is certainly a talent deficiency at linebacker, but the scheme is likely at fault for the lack of sacks and forced fumbles. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio brought with him a complicated system from his previous post as the Colts defensive coordinator before the Tony Dungy regime, a system that seems to have his players reacting too often to what they read instead of forcing the action. The unit tends to stiffen though when an offense enters the redzone. They are capable of going long stretches of keeping opponents out of the end zone.
.NET: The Texans have no interceptions this season, and the secondary looks to be a bit of a mess. They released cornerback Aaron Glenn and safety Eric Brown in the offseason, and acquired former Oakland CB Philip Buchanon. Four games in, Buchanon has lost his starting job to Demarcus Faggins. How is 2004 rookie wonder DB Dunta Robinson performing in his second season, and how would you rate this secondary overall?
HPF.com: Robinson is the star of the defense, and teams are reluctant to throw at him when they can avoid it. You just never see him beaten deep. Robinson has Pro Bowl ability to shut down his half of the field.
The secondary as a whole looks a whole lot worse on paper than they are in reality. The defense asks too much of this unit when the front seven fails to pressure the quarterback consistently.
.NET: This is a team in trouble right now. They’re in a tough division, and there appear to be several aspects in need of serious rebuilding…or complete demolition. If you were Charley Casserly for a day (or an offseason), what would be your cure for what ails this team?
HPF.com: My “to do” list would have just two items:
1. Fire the coaching staff.
2. Fire myself.
Seriously though, the problems this team needs to deal with cannot be fixed within a day. They are unfortunately far more complicated than that. However, there is a small core of young talent here that is underachieving right now. A change in coaches (and subsequently gameplan philosophy) could go a long way in re-starting this team’s climb toward the playoffs.
At the top of the wish list for the general manager this offseason ought to be drafting a few new offensive linemen, in particular one of those elite left tackle prospects that ought to be available when the Texans pick in the first round. The question bubbling now though is whether Casserly will still be around next April to make those selections.
Keith Weiland writes the "Advance Scout" column for Houstonprofootball.com, the leading independent website for Houston Texans coverage. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.