H-Town Sports

Houston Sports Blog - Real sports cities have TWO Conference USA teams

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Cornucopia of Sports

- For five years now, David Carr has not been permitted by his truckload of offensive coaches (with the exception of six quarters of football in 2005) to call his own plays on offense at the line of scrimmage. Carr is apparently given a run/pass option from the sideline and is allowed to check from pass to run or run to pass, but he has generally not been authorized by any of the various coaching staffs to check to an entirely different play based on the defensive alignment that he reads pre-snap. To me, this is probably the most glaring example of why the Texans offense is permanently stalled. This is a major handicap that winning NFL teams (and even college teams) would never tolerate, and the root cause of this problem (Carr's football IQ) is also allowing the Cover-2 defense to throttle the Texans' offense on a weekly basis.

Opposing defenses consistently play a Cover-2 zone defense against the Texans, rolling a safety over to double-team the Texans' receivers if they choose to run a route penetrating more than about seven yards downfield. This is not some uniquely designed scheme specifically created to attack the Texans; it is a common, conservative defensive strategy that was made popular by Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay and has subsequently spread throughout the NFL. The Cover-2 allows opposing teams to complete passes of five yards or less and relies on its defensive secondary and linebackers to prevent yards after catch, and at the same time, tries to limit the offense's ability to make plays downfield by rolling the safeties over to double-team downfield receivers.

In order to beat the Cover-2, the QB must occasionally be able to pick out a favorable situation downfield and put the ball in a spot where his WR can catch it BEFORE the safety rolling over to that WR's side can create the double-team. The defensive philosophy is that an offense that dumps the ball off to a receiver 90% of the time is not going to produce enough yardage to score points at a winning level, and forcing the ball into double-teams is obviously a risky proposition that will likely lead to a significant number of turnovers, two qualities that have sadly become the identity of the Texans' offense. Therefore, winning teams must (and routinely do) thwart the Cover-2 by having their QBs make throws downfield before the double-team materializes. The Texans, however, have NEVER made these plays, dating back to the franchise's inception.

It is apparent from reading the reports, listening to the coaches and watching the games that David Carr cannot read NFL defenses successfully enough to make play-calling decisions at the line of scrimmage or to execute successful passing plays downfield against the Cover-2. Carr is not able to anticipate where the defense and his receivers are going to go, so that he can put a ball to a spot to meet the open receiver, but instead he only can react to the play as it develops, which is an approach that would not permit any QB to produce winning plays downfield. The Cover-2 works against the Texans because Carr cannot mentally make the right decisions downfield in a quick enough fashion to make the throws necessary to force the defense out of the Cover-2. Therefore, the results are consistently three-fold: (1) Carr holds the ball too long, waiting for the WR that he has isolated as his chosen target to beat the double team that has been caused by the safety that has rolled over, such that either the pocket collapses or Carr's bad footwork is exposed; (2) Carr forces a ball into the double-team at the wrong moment, leading to an incompletion or a possible interception; or (3) Carr dumps the ball off short. Carr may be tough enough to take a hit or talented enough to fire a ball into traffic, but it is quite evident that he is not mentally equipped to lead an NFL offense.

Watch the QBs on winning teams and the plays that those QBs make downfield. Rarely is it as simple as a Lee Evans v. Petey Faggins situation, where the receiver simply breaks free behind the entire defense. More often than not, these type of plays are made when the QB makes a quick read and threads a ball to his WR in that instant when the WR has shaken the cornerback and just before the safety has locked down the double-team. Against a Cover-2 zone, the downfield passing game requires precise, instant reads as much as it demands pass protection and a strong throwing arm. Even when the pocket holds, the Texans have never been able to beat the Cover-2 zone, and until they figure out how to do so, they will never be able to move the ball quickly enough downfield to score a winning number of points on a regular basis.

- Congratulations to the Astros for adding Carlos Lee and Woody Williams. It is certainly nice to see ownership rewarding their loyal fan base by spending some of those surplus revenues on talented players. Personally, I think both contracts are considerably excessive, especially Carlos Lee's, as I have commented on this blog before.

Woody Williams, famed ex-Cougar, is coming home, but certainly not for a discounted price. Paying $6.5 million per season for two years to a guy who is turning 40 next season and who was far from dominant outside of the spacious confines of Petco Park (1.45 road WHIP in 2006, 1.64 road WHIP in 2005) is not a slam-dunk winning decision, but clearly the Astros need some help at the back-end of their rotation. For $13 million, is Williams going to be that much better than Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz, Fernando Nieve or Troy Patton could be, given their chances? I don't think so, but signing Williams' contract is certainly defensible and could prove to be a bargain if he provides 200+ productive innings each of the next two seasons.

Carlos Lee is a nice player, but he is not an elite player, and paying Lee an average of $17M per season through the age of 36 demands that he be more than just a nice player. If Lee hits 40 HR and drives in 130 and the Astros score 5+ runs per game for most of the span of his contract, then the signing will likely be considered a success in hindsight. If Drayton expands his payroll to $115M+, such that Pettitte and Clemens can be re-signed and guys like Lidge, Wheeler and Ensberg can be kept on the roster, then the move is even more defensible. More likely, Lee's signing will result in the departure of several players due for pay raises (like Taveras, Ensberg, Huff, Wheeler and Lidge), which may or may not result in a better team on the field. The early hands have been dealt, but whether or not the Astros' offseason is a successful one is yet to be determined. There are still a lot of moves on the table, and Purpura and his staff have a lot of decisions to make. Don't start saving up for playoff tickets just yet.

- Quietly, the Rockets have won another three games in a row and sit one game behind San Antonio in the Midwest. Tracy McGrady's game is progressing beautifully from a scoring machine to an all-around All-Star, and I believe that this transformation is going to benefit the Rockets' tremendously in the playoffs. Rafer Alston's inconsistency both with the shot and off the dribble demand that the Rockets have a second playmaker on the perimeter, and T-Mac is fitting that role perfectly. Plus, McGrady's jumper is still off the mark (42% on jump shots, which make up 82% of his shots), so a diversified offense that involves more of Tracy-creating and less of Tracy-shooting is proving to be a successful strategy.

The Rockets' defense continues to be its calling card, leading the league in points allowed, third in the league in opposing FG%, fourth in the league in TO differential and fifth in the league in rebounding margin. These are all very important categories that collectively represent a broad range of the game, and the Rockets are faring well above average in all of them. That bodes quite well for the rest of the season, as long as the core players can remain healthy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make some valid points about Carr's ability to read defenses in the NFL and the way other teams have schemed against the Texans this year. However, I think most of the opposing teams who have went with the cover 2 against the texans is not because they dont think Carr can make a big play down field, but rather its because they have no respect for the Texans running attack.

The only major weapons the texans have on offense is at the WR spot. Therefore, any smart D coordinator would go with a cover 2 and ensure that these guys are not available to make plays down the field.

No defense in the league at this point is concerned enough to go out of a cover 2 scheme and put an extra man in the box to stop the texans run. Teams are merely daring Carr to beat them on his own and he doesnt have that ability.

I mean the Texans faced a cover two almost all day on Sunday and Lundy manages 8 rushes for 11 yards... are you kidding me?

You mention that Carr needs to learn to put the ball in a spot where his WR can catch it before the safety rolls over for the double team. But since the texans have no threat of a running or a play action pass, the safeties can cheat and get into the double teams earlier. This takes guys like Andre Johnson out of the game. And then what it comes down to is Carr completes a bunch of "dink and dump" type passes for minimal yardage.

Im not trying to defend Carr, Im merely pointing out that he is the type of QB that needs at least some kind of running game to be effective. The system that Kubiak put together in Denver always included a heavy and successful dose of the run. This to me is the main reason why the Texans offense is actually worse this year, then it was last. Until the Texans can prove that they can move the ball on the ground, it will be extremely difficult to start making big plays down the field.

Mon Nov 27, 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Great stuff, anonymous. Thanks for commenting.

Following up on your point (and playing some devil's advocate), the Texans are currently 26th in the league in rush yards per game at 96 and tied for 25th at 3.8 yards per carry. To get into the upper third in the league, the Texans would need about 20 more yards per game or 0.4 additional yards per carry. I'll argue that those are both very slim margins. Do you think that if the Texans were at 116 ypg on the ground rather than 96, the downfield passing game would improve significantly? For example, if the Texans had been merely terrible running the football rather than downright horrendous against Dallas and the Jets (instead of 34 and 25 yards rushing, respectively, let's say they had 74 and 65 yards rushing), they would then be averaging 103 yds per game on the ground and would be near the middle of the pack in the NFL instead of 26th. In four of the last six games, the Texans have had over 131 yards on the ground (averaging 153 yards), but the scoring output has still been pretty pathetic. Not sure if this proves anything, but just food for thought.

You may be right on your point about the motive for Texans' opponents playing the Cover 2 being a lack of fear of the running game rather than a lack of fear of David Carr. I tend to think that the passing game is more in defensive coordinator's mind than the running game in this era when he creates his defensive game plan, given that the difference between good running attacks and bad running attacks is much slimmer than the difference between good passing attacks and bad passing attacks, in terms of yards allowed per game. It seems like having a QB who can make those plays downfield against any defense should be a necessity for an NFL team when choosing its starting QB, and if Carr can't make those plays, then he is by definition unqualified for the job. Is it not a sign that Carr should not be a starter in the NFL if he cannot force opponents out of the Cover Two with the pass?

Mon Nov 27, 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All very good points. Its tough to estimate exactly the improvement in the running game that would be needed in order to see a difference in the passing game. Even though the texans have a had a couple of games where they have rushed for good yardage, I still dont believe the opposing team ever felt threatened by Lundy. In the Buffalo game, they rushed for 180 or so yards... But on the biggest play of the game, a 3rd and 2, Kubiak did not even have the confidence to run the ball for the first down! Now, I know this was a horrible call by a coach, but he obviously lacked some kind of confidence in picking it up with the run.

Something else I did not mention previously is that one of the keys to playing a successful cover 2 defense is to get pressure on the QB from the front 4. This is something most teams have not had trouble doing against Carr. Combine that with his habit of pre-maturely fleeing the pocket, and the cover 2 is pretty effective against the Texans.

If they continue down this same road, and end up with the top pick in the draft, I think Adrian Peterson would be the guy to take. Carr just isnt the type of QB to run a successful offense without a running game.

If they can also beef up that offensive line via free agency, then I really think things could open up for Carr and those receivers. However, Im just old fashioned in a sense that I believe it starts up front on the line and with the running game.

Once again, Im not really a big David Carr guy, but I can also say that he hasnt really had the cast and crew around him in his years in Houston that normally breeds success. That being said, he may be nothing better than a glorified #2 QB that happens to be starting in Houston. For the time being though (especially with his contract), he needs to be considered the #1 starter.

Wed Nov 29, 08:51:00 AM  

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