Behind Enemy Lines: Five Questions for Texans Chick

One of the things we always like doing leading up to a game against an opposing team is to check in with a writer, blogger or great fan of the upcoming team.  This week, we had the joy of reconnecting with an old friend, Stephanie Stradley (AKA Texans Chick) of the Houston Chronicle.  Stephanie always provides fantastic insight for us about the Texans and so we’re happy to share her thoughts on the Texans and this week’s Monday Night game.  You can follow Stephanie on Twitter at @Steph_Stradley.

1) The Texans have been on the rise for a few years now, what’s been their recipe to success?

Owner patience. The Texans have slowly been building their coaching staff from top to bottom, acquiring assistant coaches when they become available out of old contracts. From top to bottom, the coaches on both sides of the ball have defined football philosophies, know what kind of players they want that suit what they do, and know how to teach them.

When Gary Kubiak came on board, they fixed the passing game first. Then his first choice as offensive coordinator, Rick Dennison came on board and fixed the running game. And after years of inexperienced defensive coordinators, they got Wade Phillips last year who assembled an assistants staff that was much better. In 2011, the Texans finally got a defense that was worthy of their offense, and could properly coach and use so many of the high picks they were acquiring over the years trying to fix the defense through just drafting.

In a salary cap league, the best thing an owner can do is to make a team a supportive destination for quality coaches. I’ve been told repeatedly that owner Bob McNair does a good job providing the football side of the organization what they need without meddling. He certainly asks hard questions and knows what is going on, but he doesn’t let the business side drive football decisions. You can’t ask for much more from an owner.

2) The Texans seem to be playing well in all phases of the game, but is there one thing they do better than most teams in the league?

Actually, right now the Texans are struggling some with their special teams. The ranking of their special teams is about the worst it has ever been, but the hope is that with their experienced special teams coach, they can get the inexperienced players coached up before special teams results in a loss.

The Texans offense and defense is extremely balanced between run/pass but I think that they do the best is game planning to exploit mismatches, and then making in-game adjustments based on what they see on the field. In the first two games, the Texans had a very run oriented attack, but in the game against the Broncos, they opened up their air attack based on what the defenses were showing them.

I think what they are doing better than most teams is dominating time of possession.  The Texans defense has been dominant on third downs and forcing punts, and the Texans offense is one of the best at converting third downs.

3) How much has the loss of Mario Williams impacted what the Texans can do?

Not at all. The Texans lost him pretty early last season to a pectoral injury. For a short time, it was fun seeing him and JJ Watt lined up on the same side of the line, and it would have been interesting to see what he could have done had he stayed healthy working with a great coach in Wade Phillips. But there was no way the Texans could even make a credible offer to him given the Texans salary cap situation, and the no salary floor situation that team’s like Buffalo had coming out of the lockout.

Wade Phillips adjusts the defense based on the strengths of the players. So no Mario means that they do other things, but those things aren’t bad.

4) What do you expect the Texans gameplan to be Monday night against the Jets?

Hard to say. I thought the Texans were going to ground and pound against the Denver Peytons, and they ended up airing it out a lot more than I thought they would. Guessing they may play the Jets a bit like they played the Jaguars: Assume it will be a low scoring game, stay patient, take their shots, let the defense create short fields.

I would not be surprised by a game like the Jets-49ers…both teams swinging on defense until stuff happens. But then again, I watched that game, and generally Matt Schaub isn’t going to miss the throws that Alex Smith was missing.

The best case scenario for the Texans game plan is the old school Broncos formula: An aggressive first half with a mix of pass and run to keep down and distance honest, and give the ability to take shots down field. Then after amassing a big lead, the offense pounds the ball rushing and the defense gets into pass rush only mode.  Most of Chris Johnson’s yards last week were draw plays of no significant length that just helped the Texans cause, by keeping the clock running when the Texans had a huge lead.

5) Who are some players that Jets fans might not know, but should before Monday night?

Trindon Holliday. He is the diminutive returner who was once, I believe, the third fastest guy in the world. Pun intended, Holliday has been a bit of an adventure. He’s broken long TD returns in the preseason. He has also made many mental errors that haven’t cost the Texans a game yet, but keep fans in fear that he will. Some of these errors have resulted in terrible field position, which tends to limit the sorts of plays that can be called from your own end zone.

James Casey. He is the Swiss Army Knife of the offense, playing fullback, tight end, wide receiver. When he is in the game, defenses have no idea what he is going to do seeing where he is lined up pre-snap. It can be a challenge just charting all the places he lines up. He has very good hands and is a physical player. His nickname from Rice University is Thor. Easy guy to root for too.

The Right Side of the Offensive Line. The Texans lost their right tackle and right guard due to salary cap considerations. They have been replaced by RT Derek Newton and RG Antoine Caldwell. Caldwell has been limited this week with an ankle injury, but even before that both Newton and Caldwell have rotated with RT Ryan Harris (free agent pickup from Denver signed after an injury to Rashad Butler) and RG Ben Jones (rookie 4th round pick who didn’t play guard in college but worked at it a bit during camp).

In a salary cap league, you have to choose where you spend your money, but it takes a lot of uh stones to replace the entirety of the right side of your line with guys who clearly wouldn’t be on the Mel Kiper love letter list. The Texans have very good coaching for their offensive linemen, and have had success with guys who may not be the best individual talents, but are smart and fit the system the Texans run. Even so, there’s been some growing pains, and I expect for Rex Ryan to try to test that side of the line with things to confuse the inexperienced players.

As well as the Texans have been playing, I don’t think they’ve played their best ball yet, and part of it is this transition on the offensive line.

All the Targets Not Named Andre Johnson. In the Texans system, the ball is supposed to go to the open guy. Sounds like Football 101, until you watch teams try to force the ball to only a couple of guys.

Andre Johnson is a special talent, and he often gets the ball when he’s doubled because he’s usually doubled. But giving Johnson extra attention means that there’s a bunch of guys whose only job is to take advantage of being open. Possession, route running is more valued in the system than just speed. According to Football Outsiders, the Jets are #30 against #2 wide receivers, #17 against TEs. So maybe expect to hear from Kevin Walter, the rookie WRs (Keyshawn Martin and Devier Posey) when they give the starters a breather, and TEs Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, and James Casey.

The Texans run a ton of 2 TE sets, to help disguise run/pass, give offense flexibility, keep defenses from pinning their ears back. The Texans offensive scheme recognizes that most defensive lines have more talented athletes than offensive lines. So by keeping down and distance reasonable, creating defensive caution through cut blocks, and making the offensive line *feel* the same whether it is run or pass, it eventually neutralizes the aggression of the defense. The intent of the offense is to try to neutralize the defense early in the game, to take away any athletic advantage a defensive front 7 might have.