Second Read: Houston’s killer play-action, more Week 9 observations
NFL offensive coordinators work tirelessly to find even a handful of consistently reliable plays. So when they find one, you can expect to see it over and over again.
Such is the case with the Texans’ Rick Dennison, who has the benefit of one of the league’s more prolific run games and uses that threat to his full advantage. On four separate occasions Sunday against the Bills, Dennison called for the same basic play-action pass — QB Matt Schaub faking a stretch handoff to his right, then rolling to his blindside on a naked bootleg before throwing back to the right.
The Texans successfully executed that play twice on their first touchdown drive, including on Schaub’s 39-yard scoring toss to a wide-open Owen Daniels.
In that instance, Schaub ran the play-action fake to Justin Forsett, while Andre Johnson ran an underneath route and Kevin Walter a deep post, both from right to left. While the Bills’ front seven initially played the run and their secondary worried about Johnson and Walter as Schaub rolled out, Daniels slipped uncovered up the right sideline.
Why is this such a tough play for teams to cover? You need look no further than the Texans’ next possession, which featured Arian Foster picking up 21 yards on a stretch handoff — the same play mimicked on Schaub’s TD pass.
Schaub ran an identical fake twice more after the Daniels touchdown: on a 3rd-and-10 to Walter for a first down, then in the fourth quarter for 12 yards to James Casey.
This is a popular play-action fake in NFL circles — the Eagles pulled off a similar pattern for their lone touchdown Monday night, with Michael Vick rolling out without blocker protection before throwing back to DeSean Jackson. The only difference there was that Vick rolled to his throwing side.
The major similarity: Philadelphia, like Houston, has a go-to running back, forcing defenses to commit substantial attention.
Here’s what else jumped out from the Week 9 game tapes:
1. Credit to the Steelers’ secondary or concern over Eli Manning?
The last time Eli Manning completed as few passes as he did Sunday (10) was in a 29-14 Christmas Eve win over the Jets last season. Plain and simple, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers’ maligned cornerbacks turning in a much better performance than they did — Keenan Lewis had a pair of pass breakups, Ike Taylor an interception, and just two of Manning’s completions came directly against Pittsburgh’s CBs.
Manning, though, might have the Giants’ coaches scratching their heads a bit. His form was way off Sunday, almost to the point where he looked like he was dealing with a nagging hand injury. An exorbitant number of his passes sailed well high, with some credit for that going to a Pittsburgh pass rush that had him a bit rattled.
Still, we’re not used to seeing that sort of inaccuracy from Manning, who now has gone two weeks without a TD pass and has completed just 25 of 53 passes in that time.
2. Minnesota’s missed opportunity
Adrian Peterson rushed for 144 yards on 12 carries during a spectacular first half on Sunday. Then, with the Vikings trailing in the second half, he saw just five carries.
Peterson still managed to pick up 38 yards on those limited touches, but Minnesota had to leave Seattle wondering if it had tried too hard to establish its passing attack. Christian Ponder had a rough day — a problem exacerbated by Percy Harvin being nicked up. Yet, Peterson received just two first-down carries over the final two quarters, despite the game being very much in reach.
3. Reevaluating Ronnie Brown
I owe Brown an apology, I guess. During the preseason and early weeks of the regular season, I threw in the towel on him. He appeared to be running with almost no gusto, barely providing any value for San Diego’s offense when he spelled Ryan Mathews.
He’s turned it around in recent outings, though, and helped the Chargers’ cause again Thursday against Kansas City. San Diego seems to have a better idea of what to expect from Brown now — he’s no longer a game-breaker, but he can still be valuable out of the backfield, mostly as a pass-catcher.
Sunday marked the second-least snaps Brown saw all year (17), but he had the ball in his hands on 11 of those. Those plays resulted in a very solid 73 total yards.
4. Von Miller will live in Andy Dalton’s nightmares
Miller taking over games defensively is nothing new — he has been one of the steadiest presences in the entire AFC this season. It’s fun to watch how he dominates, though, because it is not always what you expect.
At least in passing situations, Miller often stands up as a rusher on the end of Denver’s line. But what made him so tough for Cincinnati to deal with Sunday was that he did just as much damage stunting and rolling inside as he did speed-rushing outside. He recorded one of his sacks swinging up the middle, then later forced a key holding penalty along the interior. Miller’s ability to sneak between the gaps helps make him so dominant when he does turn on the jets.
5. It’s not all Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis
Luck may wind up winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he’ll owe a large thanks to Wayne, his leading receiver. The Colts have become much more than a two-man show, however — a fact that Miami learned first-hand Sunday.
Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton have developed quickly into reliable weapons (Luck targeted them a combined 18 times for 11 receptions and 210 yards Sunday), and both are doing it all over the field. Great QB play has a tendency to elevate receivers, and Avery and Hilton are responding to the challenge so far.
6. Trying to figure out Cleveland’s play calling
The Ravens have struggled all year against the run, Trent Richardson topped 100 yards on the ground Sunday … and the Browns threw the football on all six of their 3rd- or 4th-and-short situations (three yards or less to go for a first down).
Granted, Weeden did swing a pass out to Richardson in one of those situations, but the strategy did not make a lot of sense. Richardson had a 2nd-and-1 carry early, in which he put the football on the deck (Cleveland recovered). After that, the Browns played right into the Ravens’ hands — Baltimore stacked the box in short-yardage to try to force Brandon Weeden to pass. He did, and the Browns struggled as a result.
7. Just throw the football, Dallas
Yes, it’s important to establish the run in the NFL. And yes, the Cowboys are a more dangerous team when DeMarco Murray is healthy and seeing touches.
But Murray wasn’t in the lineup Sunday against Atlanta, and Dallas continued to try to force-feed its run game anyway. It’s fine if the Cowboys don’t want to just spread five-wide and throw for 60 minutes, but we saw again in that loss to the Falcons that Tony Romo does some of his best work when he’s allowed to just turn it loose.
Will he still make mistakes? Sure. What he’ll also do, though, is turn in big plays, like his ad-libbed TD toss to Kevin Ogletree, where Romo bought time out of the pocket and directed Ogletree to an open spot.
Dallas has the weapons to be a pass-first offense. Continuing to swim upstream against that plan only hurts Romo and his teammates.
8. Brian Urlacher finds the fountain of youth
The Bears’ defense has been incredible this season, with even President Obama throwing his hat into the ring for Charles Tillman as Defensive Player of the Year. What’s perhaps most amazing about Chicago’s early-season success on that side of the ball is that it has come despite a banged-up Brian Urlacher struggling to keep up.
That was not the case Sunday. Urlacher was all over the field against Tennessee, making seven tackles, returning an interception for a touchdown and forcing a fumble.
Most encouraging for the Bears: Urlacher contributed in a number of ways, a far cry from his first seven games, when he struggled to move sideline-to-sideline on runs and was taken advantage of in coverage. For arguably the first time this season, Urlacher looked like his old self Sunday. That’s a scary thought for the Bears’ upcoming foes.