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Breaking Down the Texans Offense

Posted Dec 20, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason looks at a Houston offense in flux, focusing on Matt Schaub, Dennis Johnson and Andre Johnson.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It would be nearly impossible for an offense to be in a more transitory state than the Houston Texans.

They're led by an interim head coach. They have used three different quarterbacks this year, and two have have played a nearly equal amount of snaps. Their top two running backs are on injured reserve, as is their playmaking tight end, Owen Daniels.

This isn't the Texans offense you've known, nor is it likely to be the Texans offense that is featured next September. By then, running back Arian Foster should be back from injury to play the third year of his five-year contract, and the Texans could have a new quarterback, if they decide one of the top prospects at the position is worthy of the top-seven pick the Texans are guaranteed to possess, no matter how they finish the next two games.

But for a unit with more questions than apparent answers, it remains capable.

SCHAUB'S RETURN:

The chance to take a long look at first-year quarterback Case Keenum was scuttled when he suffered a thumb injury Sunday, thrusting Matt Schaub back into the lineup.

In quarterback rating, the difference between the two is negligible this year; Keenum's 78.2 rating is just 0.6 points higher than Schaub's. In terms of experience and efficiency of production per possession, the Texans have the better quarterback. With Schaub at the controls, the Texans have averaged more points per possession (1.39 to 1.33), more yards per possession (33.75 to 24.47) and more first downs per possession (1.92 to 1.21).

What has damaged Schaub in 2013 has been giveaways. One of every 6.38 possessions he has led has ended in a turnover, compared to one every 10.33 for Keenum. Schaub has thrown an interception once every 30.4 pass plays; the league average is once every 39.6, and Keenum's rate is once every 45.3. Among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, only Christian Ponder, Terrelle Pryor, Eli Manning and Geno Smith have thrown that many interceptions. A majority of Schaub's interceptions (seven of 10) have come without any discernible pressure.

Schaub's efficiency drops precipitously under pressure, even though his interception rate does not spike. And just five teams have allowed their quarterbacks to be hit more often than Houston (one hit every 5.66 pass plays).

But when Schaub avoids the self-inflicted mistake, he remains capable of consistent production, and that's part of the reason why Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. believes Schaub is the more dangerous quarterback to face.

"I would say so, just because his experience. He’s played against us before," Harris said. "Instead of a guy like Keenum … he hasn’t played against us. Schaub has and he’s beat us before."

But Schaub is less likely to run, and more likely to hold the football an extra half-second to one second in the pocket.

"We know that if we have good coverage at first, he’ll sit in there and take the hit," Harris said. "That’s kind of what you like as a defensive standpoint from a quarterback compared to guys like [49ers quarterback Colin] Kaepernick or someone like that who can run. So having that pocket quarterback definitely helps us.”

THE "OTHER" DENNIS JOHNSON

If you're in your mid 30s and older, you hear that name and you think of the freckle-faced point guard who helped the Seattle SuperSonics and Boston Celtics to NBA championships.

This Dennis Johnson is expected to start in place of the injured Ben Tate on Sunday, and is only beginning to make his name. He was not invited the NFL Scouting Combine and was lost in the shuffle at Arkansas behind starter Knile Davis, whose speed was on full display on his 108-yard kickoff return for the Chiefs against Denver in Week 13.

There's potential in Johnson, who was known at Arkansas as much for his kickoff returning as his rushing. But it's not a potential the Texans ever conceived of tapping this year; they waived him at the roster deadline when the preseason ended and only were able to re-sign him after the Browns waived him nine days after claiming him in September.

At 5-foot-7 and 193 pounds, Johnson relies on staying low to the ground and churning through narrow holes to get his yardage.

"He has a low center of gravity," said Texans left tackle Duane Brown. "In our scheme, he makes that one cut and he’s going downhill. If there’s nothing there, he can get you three to four (yards) just falling forward and running behind his pads."

Nevertheless, with just 37 carries as a pro, he remains something of an unknown quantity.

"It’s a challenge because, when you’re used to seeing a guy over and over on film you kind of get a feel for him. With this guy, he’s played this year but it’s been more situational," Terrance Knighton said. "Early in the game, we’ll see how they try to attack us and his strengths and things like that, and we’ll just try to adjust to it.”

ANDRE JOHNSON: STILL THE ONE

Just one reception away from the fifth 100-catch season of his career, the most accomplished player in the Texans' 12-season history is now, more than ever, the center of Houston's offense, with the running back corps depleted and afore-mentioned issues at quarterback.

In spite of that, Johnson has had a typical season for him in terms of yardage per game and receptions.

"That is remarkable – just being the number one receiver and everybody knowing he’s getting the ball," Harris said.

His yardage after the catch is down -- from 4.93 yards after each reception last year to 3.86 this year -- which is due to being a greater focal point than ever of opposing defenses, who have keyed on him more as the Texans play from behind.

Of the 159 passes thrown by all Houston quarterbacks in his direction, 64 have gone for first downs -- a percentage of 40.25. The league average is 34.51 percent, and when Texans quarterbacks throw to all other targets, their first-down percentage plummets to 28.54 percent.

Although rookie DeAndre Hopkins has demonstrated promise, the Texans' passing game still goes through the 11-year veteran.

"He’s still one of the best in the game," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. "People don’t talk about him as much because they’re not winning right now. But he’s one of the best, hands down. He shows up on the tape every week."

NOTES

-- With Owen Daniels still not cleared to practice (he's the Texans' designated-to-return player on injured reserve) and Garrett Graham "not looking good," according to Phillips, the tight-end repetitions could go to Brad Smelley -- assuming he is healthy. Smelley has struggled with a back problem recently and is "iffy," Phillips said. Daniels' production has been nearly impossible to replace.

-- Although Houston ranks 11th in yardage per game (359.1), the Texans are just 22nd in yardage per play (5.205) efficiency at moving the chains is sub-par, as 26.71 percent of their plays have gone for first downs, 22nd in the league and 1.30 percent below the league average (and 7.64 percent worse than the league-leading Broncos offense).

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