Approximately eleven months ago, San Francisco 49er outside linebacker Aldon Smith was putting his name in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year with a 5.5 sack performance against the Chicago Bears.
Almost one year later, Smith is in substance abuse rehab and will be inactive indefinitely for the 49ers. In the Niners’ first game without their All-Pro outside ‘backer, they fared well by blowing out division nemesis St. Louis Rams. Backup linebackers Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier were able to hold down the fort at Aldon’s spot well enough for NaVorro Bowman and Co. to shut down the rest of the Rams offense.
But this week, San Francisco is going up against a more formidable foe in the Houston Texans. Houston nearly delivered the mighty Seattle Seahawks their first loss of the season, but poor game management from the coaching staff and a costly pick-six from quarterback Matt Schaub lost them the game in overtime.
Since the Texans drafted him with the third overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, Andre Johnson has been one of the game’s most dangerous receivers. Johnson features all of the skills of the prototypical NFL receiver – great downfield speed, precise route running, and reliable hands.
Without Aldon Smith wreaking havoc on the Texans offensive line and pressuring Schaub, the 49ers’ coverage on Andre Johnson becomes all the more important. The few extra microseconds Schaub has in the pocket may be all he needs to get the ball comfortably into his trusted receiver’s hands. Vic Fangio will need to get extra creative with how he organizes his secondary to cover Johnson.
Texan’s Offensive Scheme:
Let’s begin by examining how the Texan’s offense works. According to ESPN, this season the Texans have attempted 177 passes compared to 114 rushing attempts, approximately a 1.5 to 1 ratio. These numbers are misleading, as it has been well-documented how the Texans have been a run-first team for the past few years. With the league’s best one-cut running back in Arian Foster and the league’s most explosive backup running back in Ben Tate, this should come as no surprise.
Houston implements a mainly zone-blocking run scheme, in which each lineman blocks a particular zone rather than a particular player. This system works best for backs like Foster who is so good at reading gaps and making one quick cut through holes.
The Texans passing game then works off of the run game provided by Foster and the offensive line. Houston’s offense calls for a lot of play action passing from Schaub. In this unique system, the offensive line pass blocks the same way as they would if the play was actually executed as a running play, in an effort to freeze the defensive backs.
Above is a link to the Texans vs. Seahawks game highlights. At around the 0:48 mark, watch Matt Schaub’s touchdown throw to tight end Garrett Graham. Observe Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, who is lined up over Graham before the play. Prior to the snap, Smith is eyeing Arian Foster, lined up beside Schaub.
When the ball is snapped, Schaub gives Foster one quick head turn before Foster leaks out to the flats. Malcolm Smith, eyes still trained on Foster, takes one step in his direction before realizing that it is a pass play. That extra step taken by Smith was all Schaub needed to loft it over his head into the open arms of Garrett Graham. With wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins running a vertical route against Richard Sherman, Graham walks into the end zone untouched.
The next set of images are provided by battleredblog.com.
In the above play, the author of the blog has circled Andre Johnson, isolated on the left side, with Arian Foster lined up in the backfield.
Matt Schaub fakes an outside zone run to Foster, with the offensive line blocking as if it were an actual run. Observe the Broncos defensive backs. Their eyes are on the run; only the high safety is looking at Johnson.
Now with Schaub still holding on to the ball, Andre Johnson is behind the cornerback Porter, with only the high safety still covering him. At this point, the tight end Owen Daniels flashes across the middle. With Daniels being the immediate threat, the safety dives to the middle. At that moment, Johnson breaks away from the sidelines into the middle of the field, allowing Schaub to launch it over the defense for the touchdown.
What the Niners must do to counter Johnson and the Texan offense:
Without Aldon Smith, who isn’t necessarily the greatest run defender, the 49er defense was able to shut down the Rams running game. Glenn Dorsey and the defensive line were particularly impressive clogging running lanes, and Navorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks were able to clean up the mess on the second level.
Granted, the Rams rushing attack comes nowhere close to the Texans formidable running scheme. However, the 49ers defense looked as dominant as they have been against the run in the last few years against the Rams, so I expect a similar performance from the front seven, especially if Patrick Willis returns to the field.
It is the alignment and coverage schemes of the secondary Vic Fangio has to play with.
Above is a link to the highlights of the 49ers vs. Rams Week 4 matchup. If you scroll to the 1:01 mark, you will see the alignment the Niner secondary had the most success with against Bradford on Thursday night. The Niners move to a nickel personnel, in which No. 3 cornerback Tramaine Brock enters as the left cornerback with Carlos Rogers moving in to the slot.
All three cornerbacks are engaged in press man coverage with two high safeties playing deep middle. In this play, Bradford goes deep to the receiver matched up with Brock. Brock, a much quicker cornerback than Carlos Rogers, stays in perfect position the whole way down the field. Donte (W)hitner, playing high, was in the perfect position to drift towards the ball. In the end, there were two 49ers on the ball against one Ram. We can surmise who won that battle.
I don’t believe the 49ers can implement the same scheme against the Texans. Arian Foster is just too good to not have help at the secondary level. I expect the Niners to mix in more 4-2, 4-4, and 4-3 looks, with four defensive linemen. Normally, they would be able to apply sufficient pressure in a 3-4 look with Aldon Smith on the edge, but without him, expect more of a four D-line personnel. The Texans pass more on early downs rather than on third down, so expect to see Fangio place the nickel personnel in on first and second downs.
NaVorro Bowman was able to shut down the very athletic St. Louis tight end Jared Cook, so Fangio will likely trust him against the lesser Owen Daniels. Tarell Brown is most likely to match up over Andre Johnson, as he is normally tasked with covering the opposing team’s top receiver. With both Tramaine Brock and Brown proving excellent in press man coverage, expect to see some of that look against the Texans with Whitner and Eric Reid playing high. In this look, the Niners will be able to quickly roll double coverage to Andre Johnson when necessary.
The real difficulty in stopping the Texan offense is containing both Andre Johnson and Arian Foster. If the Niners implement a lot of press-man-2-high-safety coverage, the lineman and linebackers will have to be able to contain Foster without secondary help. With Foster being too much of a threat to not account for, I anticipate to see another coverage mixed in as well.
To account for Foster on running downs, Fangio may get creative with a 4-4 defensive front with a single safety. They would likely be able to play with Cover 2, 3, and 4 out of this look with the safety playing deep every time. The corners would have to play deep as well, allowing the outside linebackers to cover the flats and the middle linebackers to cover the intermediate zones. This alignment would allow for the secondary to always account for Johnson, as Bowman and Willis are capable enough in coverage to counter any crossing routes from the tight ends. Fangio will likely implement the nickel defense on early downs and the 4-4 alignment on later downs.
In order to contain the Texans offense, it is crucial that the 49ers contain Arian Foster and remove Andre Johnson from the passing game simultaneously.