A top priority for the Texans this season is to execute a balanced attack with equal amounts of passing and rushing.
Passing wasn’t a problem last season. The quarterback tandem of Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels helped the Texans average 234.4 passing yards per game, which ranked 11th in the league.
The run game was a different story. The Texans’ 99.1 yards rushing per game ranked 22nd, and the team averaged 6.2 yards fewer than 2006.
Head coach Gary Kubiak said that to improve the run game, a few things had to change. Namely, the team needed more talent at running back and a new blocking scheme.
The draft and free agency took care of the first need. The second is being handled by new assistant head coach Alex Gibbs, who is installing the same zone blocking scheme that powered the Denver Broncos’ run game during their 1990s Super Bowl years.
Many fans wonder: What is zone blocking, and how will it improve the Texans’ run game? Here is an in-depth response to those two questions:
The basic concept behind zone blocking in the running game is that offensive linemen work in tandem to block players in their zone, instead of having a predetermined man to block.
“We’re going to block the people in our area at the time they get there, so almost regardless of what the defense can do to you, they’re going to show you where the holes are and where the ball should be run,” offensive line coach John Benton said.
Adjacent blockers help clear the way for the running back by coming off the line in unison to attack the defensive line on the play side, or the side where the ball carrier is going. This can be a huge advantage for the offensive line because it creates a double team on one defensive lineman and opens up a crease for the runner.
“It’s not just about brute strength. It’s (about) being fast and getting up to the second level quickly and being able to cut guys." - Duane Brown
Essentially, the running back is responsible for finding a crease, making a cut and then running upfield. Dancing behind the line of scrimmage is frowned upon.
If the defense overplays the ball, the runner can opt for a cut-back play. If the defense plays behind the ball, the running back can run to the outside.
“The thing everyone likes about the zone scheme who has bought into it is they’ll really tell you there is no true way to defend it, because no matter you do (as a defense) there’s an answer built into every play,” Benton said. “You don’t have to call a different play to have your answer, like a lot of offenses do.”
Another advantage to the zone blocking scheme is that after offensive linemen double team a defensive lineman, one of the two offensive linemen can penetrate further to attack a linebacker. That clears a much bigger path for the running back.
“The better you are getting to what we call the second level, or the linebackers, the more successful you can be with your bigger runs and that type of thing,” Benton said. “So the speed and the quickness is more of a priority than some of the other offenses, where you’re working double teams the entire time and kind of mashing them and making them come to you.”
A final element of the zone blocking scheme is the use of the cut block, which occurs below the knees when a players is not engaged with another blocker. This technique helps seal off backside pursuit.
A cut block is most effective when linemen on the backside of the play block the defensive player(s) in front of them, opening up a cut-back lane for the running back.
Because offensive linemen in a zone scheme have to be able to move to where the ball is going rather than where they are when the ball is snapped, these blockers have to be quick and agile.
That’s where the Texans’ reconfigured offensive line comes in.
Getting to the second level
The mastermind behind the Texans’ zone scheme is Gibbs, one of the best offensive line coaches in NFL history who came out of retirement to help Kubiak improve the running game.
Gibbs spent 13 combined seasons (1984-1987 and 1995-2003) in Denver. During his nine seasons there with Kubiak, the Broncos led the NFL in rushing with 20,150 yards. From 2004-2006, Gibbs guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFL-best 8,157 rushing yards in his capacity as assistant head coach/offensive line.
Gibbs’ brand of football is athletic, tough and successful. And with the help of Benton, whose offensive line only allowed 22 sacks last year, Gibbs has added athleticism to the front line.
Starting center Chris Myers, a free agent from Denver, boasts strong hands and an explosive step after the snap. Plus, he knows Gibbs’ system.
“I was already familiar with zone blocking,” Myers said. “But he’s changing the Houston Texans’ run game. Having the guy who signifies the whole zone blocking scheme helps a lot here.”
In mini-camp, left tackle Duane Brown, the 26th overall draft pick, showed he could play with the first team.
“It’s all about movement,” Brown said. “It’s not just about brute strength. It’s (about) being fast and getting up to the second level quickly and being able to cut guys. And that helps me a lot because that’s my kind of game. I’m an athletic left tackle.”
Being thrown out against defensive end Mario Williams was a baptism by fire for Brown, but he made vast improvements with Gibbs in his face during the three-day camp.
“He’s (Gibbs) just bringing me up to speed,” Brown said. “The first day was pretty rough. I got chewed out a little bit. Being with the first team, you can’t have too many mistakes. He’s been surprised at how well I’ve caught up on things and he’s excited about working with me.”
Guard Chester Pitts said Gibbs pushes his lineman to play at the next level on every snap.
“It’s the attitude and everything he brings with him,” Pitts said. “He expects and demands your absolute best, and not just your absolute best but doing it the right way all the time.”
Gibbs’ zone scheme is not simple, so he methodically works with players on the field and in meetings.
“He’s a great teacher,” right tackle Eric Winson said. “He’s very specific in what he wants to do and he just knows exactly how to teach the guys, and I think he finds exactly what each guy can do and really tries to develop on that.”
Running with it
Of course, Gibbs’ zone blocking scheme isn’t a magical pill that the Texans can swallow to generate 1,000-yard rushers with consistency, but it has been successful wherever he has coached.
The Texans’ offensive line already looks quicker and more agile than it did last year. Pitts even lost 10 pounds. During training camp, Gibbs will be cramming reps down the players’ throats, making sure they have perfected their technique and can move in unison.
And he won’t let down. Not until the Texans consistently cut block, keep defenses guessing, create lanes for the ball carrier …and win a championship. That’s what Gibbs’ scheme is all about.