Another week of bone-crunching hits and jaw-dropping performances in the NFL has passed us, and now we enter the final week in the first quarter of the NFL season. As was the case last week, the focus of this post will be on a single game that absolutely deserves to be watched by fans because of the quality of play that will be displayed on the field. This week’s featured matchup is the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Houston Texans.

Both of the teams have a lot of fantastic talent, which creates some important matchups to watch. The Steelers’ ability to stop wide receiver Andre Johnson is a major question. Can they slow down the Texans’ running game, especially now that Arian Foster has returned? What about the Texans’ offensive line; can it handle the Steel Curtain? These questions are a few of many that should be answered this Sunday, but in the meantime, I’ll preview some of the things the Texans do on offense, and what the Steelers do on the defensive side of the ball.

Breaking Down The Texans Offense

The Texans’ running game is one of the best in the league every year, and much like his days in Denver it seems head coach Gary Kubiak can plug in anyone and get production. Last year, Foster — a second year player and former undrafted free agent running back — ran for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns, while a couple years earlier rookie Steve Slaton ran for nearly 1,300 yards in the same system.

It all starts up front with the Texans’ offensive line. They’re one of the best in the league in run blocking, and it shows on a weekly basis, as they continue to help their running backs churn out quality rushing performances. As discussed previously on this site, the Texans’ running game is mainly made up of two types of run concepts – inside and outside zone. These two concepts are often ran by the Texans and help set up their passing game.

The passing game has become very good this season, and a lot of it has to do with the success of the running game as well as the pass protection by the offensive line. The running game allows for play-action passing (or “play-pass” as Bill Walsh called it) ,which creates a lot of open space for the passing game while the offensive line often uses zone protection (similar to zone blocking in the run game) to protect quarterback Matt Schaub. The Texans’ passing offense is built off a few core concepts that are used through various formations and personnel groupings. These personnel groupings are identified by two digits — running backs and tight ends on the field.

  • 11 (1 running back, 1 tight end)
  • 12 (1 running back, 2 tight end)
  • 13 (1 running back, 3 tight end)
  • 20 (2 running back, 0 tight end)
  • 21 (2 running back, 1 tight end)
  • 22 (2 running back, 2 tight end)

The formations that the Texans use include but are not limited to the following:

  • Twins (two receiving threats to same side of formation)
  • Empty (no running backs in backfield)
  • Split Backs (two backs in backfield split to each side of quarterback)
  • Quads (four receiving threats on one side of the formation)
These formations are the few the Texans will use to run their set-up plays that lead into their core passing concepts. Their set-up plays include screen passes to their flankers and running backs as well as play-action rolls once the running game starts taking over. The Texans’ core passing concepts include the following:
  • Hi-Lo’s
  • Flood
  • Mesh
  • Snag

The Hi-Lo concepts can be defined as two or more receiving threats in one area running similar routes at different depths. The Texans use quite a bit of these in their passing game, and one can be seen below.

On this particular play shown above, the Texans ran a shallow route underneath, which serves as an outlet to the quarterback, with a corner route at the second level behind it. This route combination threatens one defender in one area. The cornerback on this play ends up being put in a bind because of the route combination, and he bites on the shallow route ran by the tight end, which allows the corner route to be free. This was a two-man Hi-Lo ran by the Texans.

The next concept is the Flood concept. This concept that can be ran various ways from what I’ve seen and is one of the better ones in the NFL today.  On this play, the Texans came out with a Trips (three receiving threats to one side) with a single receiver to the backside. To the Trips side, the #1 (furthest out) ran a clear out route (“Go”) to clear out the cornerback to free up the underneath to the #2 and #3 receiving threats to run out routes at the same depth. Meanwhile, on the backside, the Texans had their H-Back run a flat route to accompany Andre Johnson’s square-in route.  Since this was man coverage, it occupied the attention of the underneath defenders because they had to trail the #2 and #3 receiving threats, consequently leaving the backside square-in open because of the lack of underneath defenders and the cornerback in a trailing position.

The third concept that the Texans run is the Snag concept. This two man route combination is one that I really like watching because of how effective it is. What this concept does is horizontally stretch the outside linebacker and puts him in a bind, having to decide between the flat route and the pivot route.

The X receiver is taught to sit down in the hole in the zone that is left by the outside linebacker once he is stretched out by the tailback (T) on the flat route. He does this as soon as the outside linebacker crosses his face. However, if the linebacker does not stretch out horizontally, the X receiver is taught to use a “bounce” technique. The “bounce” technique is used once the outside linebacker walls off the receiver, and the X receiver then turns it back outside and runs straight at the sideline like he would on an out route.

The last concept is simply known as “Mesh”. Mesh is another 2 man concept that the Texans frequently used with success against the Saints last week, and it serves as an extension of the pivot route in the aforementioned Snag concept. On this concept, the two inside receivers to each side of the formation will run crossing routes at a depth of about five-to-six yards and cross each other, causing a “rub” (or a “pick”) of the defenders in man coverage. This ends up freeing up one of the crossing routes for a catch. The Texans will frequently use corner and wheel routes along with this concept to cause stress on the defense deep.

This concept is also effective against a zone, with the crossers taught to sit down in a hole in the zone coverage similar to the Snag concept.

There are three players who could do damage for the Houston offensively: Foster, H-back James Casey and Johnson. Foster and Casey can do multiple things out of the backfield, such as running the ball effectively (Foster), lead blocking (Casey), and catching the ball out of the backfield (Foster and Casey). These two players are very dynamic and could cause headaches for Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Lastly, Johnson is a player that causes a lot of sleepless nights for defensive coordinators around the league because of his ability to change the score of the game at any time. Johnson’s combination of great route running skills, hands, speed and size cause a lot of mismatches in the defensive backfield and forces teams to roll coverage his way, thus bracketing him with multiple players and freeing up others. Bracket coverage is double coverage in football, which can be done by having two defenders to each side of a receiver or one above and one below the receiver.

Opening The Steel Curtains on the Steelers Defense

LeBeau will have his hands full on Sunday while attempting to slow down the Texans’ aforementioned weapons. He’s one of the most innovative minds in the history of the NFL and does a lot of interesting things with the Steelers’ personnel.

The Steelers defense is a three down lineman, four linebackers front that uses various techniques along the defensive line and mixes in two man fronts. When in a three man front, the Steelers will go to their “Okie” front, which is when the center and offensive tackles are covered. This leaves the two guards uncovered, which requires the two inside linebackers to deal with them.

The Steelers will also go to their two man fronts, which is typically accompanied by four linebackers. In these two man fronts, they will play an Even front, which leaves the Center uncovered while the Guards are covered. They will also use double three techniques along their two man defensive line.

 Even Front

Double 3 techniques

In both of these fronts, the Steelers use one-gap and two-gap principles. The one gap principle along the defensive line asks the defensive linemen to charge a specific gap that is assigned to them based off the technique they’re playing. In the two gap principle, the defensive linemen will need to hold up the blocks, which allows him to read and react to make a play on the ball carrier or quarterback.

Furthermore, the Steelers will apply pressure in various ways, with only their two/three down lineman and their outside pass rushers or with multiple blitzers. One of the blitzes that they like to use is known as Fire Zone. The Fire Zone blitz basically operates as the main structure to the Zone Blitz, which is frequently associated with the Steelers and LeBeau.

A Fire Zone blitz is a five man blitz that typically has an inside linebacker attacking the C gap (outside the OT) along with four rushers, the three down lineman and the strong side (SAM) linebacker. This is run out of both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, but in Pittsburgh it’s mainly done out of the 3-4 scheme because they spend so much time operating in it. On the backside of this blitz, the defensive end drops into coverage instead of blitzing and is one of three underneath defenders (ILB and SS). In the defensive backfield, the two cornerbacks and free safety drop into deep thirds responsibilities and cover any vertical threats.

Dick LeBeau’s Fire Zone rules from his playbook

(credit to Brophyfootball.blogspot.com)

In pass coverage, the Steelers use both one-high safety and two-high safeties (split-field) to cover vertical receiving threats. Despite using both, they will mainly operate out of one high safety, which is typically Cover 1 or Cover 3. The reason the Steelers operate mainly out of this one-high safety is because it allows them to be flexible and roll into other coverages as well as play it behind their blitzes, such as the Fire Zone blitz. The Steelers frequently turned to the one-high safety coverage during their Week 3 win over the Colts.

(credit to Smartfootball.com for the image)

As can be seen above, Cover 3 is similar to the three underneath-three deep coverage in the Fire Zone blitz. The biggest difference in the two is that there are four underneath defenders, while there are three deep defending any vertical threats. The Steelers will sometimes go to this against a Twin set of receivers, which is two to one side of the formation.

One last coverage that I want to cover because I feel it is an integral part of the Steelers pass defense is Loaded Zone. Loaded Zone is a zone coverage that’s commonly used by the Steelers against Twins and Trips (three receiving threats on one side of the formation) sets, and when there is a nub (no WR, closed TE) side.

In the image above, the Steelers are in their nickel package, and are running Loaded Zone out of it. The cornerback at the bottom of the screen defends the flats, while the #2 cornerback on the #2 receiver is a curl defender, and the nickel cornerback on the #3 receiver is the hook defender. On the backside, there’s a flat defender as well as the safety (at top of the screen deep) who drops toward the middle of the field with half field responsibilities. The Steelers will run this coverage in more ways than one, sometimes manning up on all the Trips receivers as they did on this play.

Things To Watch For

Texans Bookends vs Steelers OLBs – Can Duane Brown and Eric Winston contain the pass rush of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley? The Texans’ bookends are good, as is the entire offensive line, but they’ll have their hands full on Sunday.

Steelers DL vs Texans OL – The Steelers had some issues against the Colts last week when they saw a lot of inside and outside zone runs with zone blocking. Nose tackle Casey Hampton struggled to hold up blocks and maintain leverage, while the safeties and linebackers were not quick enough getting into the alley to cut off the run. The Steelers must do better this week because they face basically the same type of running game scheme, but this time it’s much more dangerous.

Steelers DBs/LBs vs Texans Screen Game – The Colts had some success last week against the Steelers’ linebackers and defensive backs when throwing screens. Will the struggles continue for a second week in a row for the Steelers? If they do, it will open up the Texans’ passing game even further, and allow them to go into their core concepts.

Texans’ Double Moves vs Steelers DBs – The Texans like to run a lot of similar routes and then use double moves to get aggressive defenses to bite hard and then hit them over the top. The Steelers are a very aggressive defense and again had some minor issues against the Colts. Curtis Painter overthrew Pierre Garcon Sunday night, and Garcon was open because of Pittsburgh’s aggressiveness.

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