It seems like at least once a game, QB Matt Schaub drops back, fakes a handoff, turns and rolls out. He sets himself with plenty of time and throws back across, usually to WR Andre Johnson running deep, hitting him for a big play.
The Texans make it look easy. But considering there is no lack of film of this play, should it be so hard to stop? Why does this Texans' deep bootleg throwback play create so many big gains?
“When they do put the ball out there and fake the handoff on the play-action, automatically a lot of the linebackers and safeties and corners and all step up and play the run,” said Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, who will help defend against it Sunday at Nashville’s LP Field. “Off that, they run a heck of a lot of boot and they are able to make plays off the boot.
“They give you the same exact action as the boot and make one cut off of the boot, and that’s kind of what screws everybody up. You see it and you’re like, ‘OK, I read the boot, I’m going to go make the play.’ And he turns up and goes the opposite direction. With a player as dynamic as Andre Johnson, you put the ball up in the air, as a DB you take one wrong step and he’s going to make you pay for it."
Johnson sees it pretty simply: “I don’t know how they [the coaches] set it up. It’s something that just works.”
Defenses come into the game wary of the Texans’ run game and wary of those play-action bootleg rollouts. They are aware of how often Schaub throws to a target moving the same direction he's going, which is the natural way for it to work.
The frequency of those runs and rollouts can lull a defense into a predictive play. A throw against the grain in such situations is almost counterintuitive. And the changeup not only can produce a big play but also can alter what a defense does going forward for fear of getting burned by it again.
It can work against man coverage and it can work against zone. The key is a single high safety.
“The only way to really stop it is to play tight man-to-man coverage, and that opens up a lot of other cans of worms,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s a zone-defense killer. It’s a lot like a 3-pointer against a packed zone in basketball.”
On Thanksgiving at Ford Field, the Texans had the ball on first-and-10 at their own 26-yard line, working from the right hash mark. Let’s look at how it worked in that situation.
The Texans lined up with three receivers bunched left, tight to the left tackle, with Johnson between Kevin Walter and Lestar Jean. Tight end Owen Daniels was in a three-point stance beside right tackle Ryan Harris. Running back Arian Foster was directly behind Schaub, who was under center.
Schaub took the snap, turned to his right and met up with Foster, faking the handoff wide of the right hash mark, with Foster angling off right tackle.
Cornerback Drayton Florence, one of the defenders lined up to cover the bunch of receivers, blitzed, bought the fake and ran down the line of scrimmage after Foster, rendering himself irrelevant in defending the play.
Walter veered to the right at the snap and tried to take out defensive end Lawrence Jackson with a low block but pretty much missed, yet slowed down Jackson's pursuit. Then Walter got up and positioned himself as a short target on the right hash.
Jean started to move right as if he’d be participating in backside run-blocking, then turned and ran a short route to the left sideline.
Daniels ran from the right side across the field, turning to face Schaub about 12 yards deep between Jean on the sideline and Walter in the middle of the field. The three targets form a triangle.
Meanwhile, Johnson ran down the left hash, and after about 15 yards he faked left, suggesting he too would move with Schaub, who rolled left after the play-action. Safety Louis Delmas was 5 yards deeper and turned to go toward the sideline behind Johnson.
The other safety, Eric Coleman, lined up like an off-corner on the left, and moved forward 5 yards when he thought Foster took the handoff. That gave the Texans Johnson against Delmas as that single-high safety they want on this play. Corner Jonte Green was up near the line of scrimmage on the same side, and looked to be ready to set an edge that would have forced Foster back inside. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy took five steps forward playing the run before he wheeled to chase downfield.
After faking left, Johnson cut back and was crossing the field from left to right at the Detroit 45-yard line. He was well behind Coleman, Green and Levy as they chased to catch up, and well in front of Delmas who was playing catch-up coming across and also bumped into back judge Greg Yette.
If Schaub had led Johnson more, it could have gone for more than 37 yards. Johnson slowed down to catch it and Coleman caught up to make the tackle. Even so, it qualified as the big play on a 74-yard touchdown drive.
In summary: The Texans faked a run right that got virtually all the defense going that way, then they rolled Schaub left, and the defense reversed course, chasing Schaub and his targets the opposite direction. Then the throw went back to the right. Houston effectively got Detroit’s defense to change direction three times.
And if Schaub throws an accurate ball to Johnson against guys who have changed direction three times, the odds of success are pretty good. On this play, he was nearly at the left hash when he threw it, and Johnson was nearly at the right numbers when he caught it.
“We work on those things quite a bit so that it all times out and meshes together,” Schaub said.
And the play can influence a game well beyond one big gain.
“If you hit one or two of those a game, it creates thoughts for a defense and they start to go to coverages that are a little softer,” Schaub said. “Then that allows for the run game to be open and creates more options underneath for catch-and-run opportunities.”
McCourty and the Titans' secondary will be on high alert for it Sunday, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be caught by surprise.
You see the same thing off bootlegs over and over, and you can start to think you know what’s coming, and that’s just what the Texans are looking for -- to hit a defense with a big play on the throwback like the one in Detroit.
“When he steps back and resets his feet and throws the boot throwback, that’s one of the toughest routes to cover,” McCourty said. “You’ve always got to have in the back of your mind when you are covering the boot that they can pick it back up and throw a boot throwback. …
“You have to have your eyes in the right places. They’ll be hitting you with the stretch play, hitting you with the stretch play, coming back with the boot, coming back with the boot. Then that one time in the middle of the game or late in the game, they hit you with the boot throwback. It’s tough to prepare for because they kind of lull you to sleep.”