Houston Texans: With Carlos Hyde, are they now a run-first team?

The Houston Texans have defied expectations by running the ball both heavily and efficiently despite the offseason losses of their top-three rushers.

The Houston Texans were widely expected to feature one of the league’s most prolific passing offenses in 2019. After all, they were returning not only budding superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson, but also maybe the most talented trio of receivers in the NFL – DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller V, and Keke Coutee.

That expectation was only strengthened with the losses of feature back Lamar Miller, primary backup Alfred Blue, and former 2017 third-round draft pick D’Onta Foreman. Houston appeared primed to be one of those teams that slung it 40 times a game and made you beat them in a shootout. This presumption was strengthened by the fact that over the previous three seasons, no other Houston running back has eclipsed 109 total yards rushing in a season, the last being Akeem Hunt in 2016. 

Then, the games started. As of this publication, Houston is fifth in the NFL at 153.0 yards rushing per game and second in yards per carry at 5.8. It’s not just volume either. The Texans also come in third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA at 23.6% above league average indicating a remarkably efficient rushing attack.

The curious case of Carlos Hyde

Perhaps even more surprising is who they are doing it with – journeyman back Carlos Hyde (the Houston Texans are his fourth team in less than a calendar year) and noted pass-catcher Duke Johnson. Both were acquired via trade after the injury to Miller. 

Hyde’s performance (30 carries, 173 yards, 5.8 yards per carry) is probably the most unexpected part of this equation. In 2018, Hyde rushed for 571 yards for a paltry 3.3 yards per carry during his stints in Cleveland and Jacksonville. Efficiency was not his friend either, sporting a -11.0% DVOA (35th in the NFL) and a 39% success rate (42nd). Go back even further, and it’s the same story. Hyde averaged 3.6 yards per carry with San Francisco in 2017.

So, what gives? After three changes of NFL addresses in the last 11 months, did Hyde transform into a stud overnight? The answer appears to be that he has been more a beneficiary than a catalyst thus far in 2019, and he was more a scapegoat than the root cause with his previous teams.

The effect of the Texans offensive line performance

While you cannot completely unmarry a running back’s performance from his offensive line, and vice versa, this Texans group has made life easy for Hyde and Johnson. Per Football Outsiders, they currently rank 4th in adjusted line yards at 5.16 as well as 11th in power success rate, third in stuffed rate, second in second-level yards, and sixth in open field yards. Translation? They have steamrolled defenders in the running game.

Pro Football Network’s own Offensive Share Metric (OSM) also agrees Hyde has benefited greatly from his surrounding cast as it grades him at 11.80 for the 2019 season. OSM is the measure of how much individual skill is responsible for a player’s production. The higher the number, the better the player performed within the elements that are under his control.

For context, Hyde posted a 15.37 OSM mark in 2018 and 17.82 in 2017. Hyde faced a stacked box on 34.3% and 37.92% of his carries, respectively, in those seasons. San Francisco (23%, 25th in 2017), Cleveland (23.1%, 29th in 2018), and Jacksonville (19.5%, 19th in 2018) were all in the bottom half of the league in stuffed rate during Hyde’s tenure.

Running with passing personnel

It is incumbent on play-callers to put their players in the best situations for success. By running him into stacked fronts behind leaky offensive lines, Hyde’s previous teams failed to do that. He is not the kind of player that will put a team on his back, but he can be successful in favorable situations.

Thus far in 2019, Hyde has only faced a stacked box (8 or more defenders) on 3.33% of his carries, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Also, despite the considerable push being generated by Houston’s offensive line, he is still spending 2.75 seconds per carry behind the line of scrimmage, good for 14th overall – a mark not quite commensurate with the line’s aforementioned second overall stuffed rate. 

The key reason for the almost never stacked boxes has been the Texans’ personnel groupings. Of their 53 rushes on the season, 37 of them have come from 11-personnel with three wide receivers on the field. This means that not only is there rarely, if ever, a safety in the box, but there are also two or fewer linebackers on the field. Opposing defenses have been in sub-packages (5 or more defensive backs) to account for three dangerous wideouts.

In other words, Houston has been showing pass with three receivers, forcing smaller defensive personnel onto the field, and bullying them. While this has not resulted in a great deal of scoring for head coach Bill O’Brien‘s offense (15th at 20.5 points per game), but it has led to an efficient running game.

Deshaun Watson is still the man

Despite the efficient production through two games on the ground, Watson is still the engine that makes the Texans go. Though not directly comparable as OSM is a team-specific (no two teams are the same) metric, Watson’s 30.49 puts him in good company. When you view the league-wide listing, you’ll find a who’s who of franchise quarterbacks that carry their offenses and Watson is and does exactly that.

Though his total numbers aren’t gaudy (61% completed, 427 yards, three touchdowns), when he does throw, he does so aggressively downfield. Watson’s average completed air yards (8.3) and intended air yards (11.3) are both good for second in the NFL. Watson’s 60.6% expected completion percentage (xCOMP%) ranks fifth in the NFL. This is essentially a degree of difficulty rating for passers.

Adding to that level of difficulty is the 20.3% Watson scores in aggressive (AGG%) throws. These are defined as throws into tight-windows with one yard of receiver separation or less — a mark good for third in the NFL.

The running game may be moving the sticks, but it is Watson’s tight-window strikes downfield and ability to keep plays alive with his legs that are the most critical components of the Houston offense. The success on the ground has largely been a product of the mere threat of what Watson and his receivers can do in the air.

While running into six-man boxes is far more productive than stacked ones, overreliance on it runs the risk of leaving points on the board – especially with this level of skill talent.

What to look for moving forward

So far, defenses have chosen to give Hyde his space rather than give DeAndre Hopkins his, a wise strategic decision that has helped temper the potency of the Houston Texans’ air attack. I’m sure opposing coordinators will continue to employ this approach against Houston’s offense. 

What remains to be seen is how long O’Brien will remain conservative with his play-calling. While it may be a safer approach, it not only artificially caps the enormous potential of his skill position personnel, but it narrows the margin of error significantly.

Like Russell Wilson in Seattle, this forces Watson to make good on fewer opportunities to push the ball downfield and put points on the board. He will have to keep coming up with miraculous plays week in and week out to win games. It’s a big ask – one that could ultimately cost O’Brien all three of his jobs.

Ken Grant is a writer for PFN covering the AFC South. You can follow him @KenGrantPFN on Twitter.

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