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Texans' line keys running game with zone scheme

The Houston Texans are one of the league's hottest teams and are drawing deserved attention.

Houston hasn't lost a game since September, winning in a variety of ways that were mostly by close margins. Then came Week 13 and its dominant win over the Cleveland Browns.

That victory opened the eyes of the league, as the Texans cut down a Browns team that was riding high after two straight victories. Three interceptions led the way for Houston, shutting down rookie Baker Mayfield in the first half and then managing to maintain the lead despite Mayfield throwing for 351 yards in the second half.

The defense played well again in Week 13, but what about the offense? The unit led by rookie Deshaun Watson has done its share to contribute to the winning streak, and deserve a closer look at how it's doing so after recording victory No. 9.

Let's go Behind the O-Line to figure out what is working for the AFC South leaders.

Houston has found success on the ground as of late, with 27-year-old running back Lamar Miller racking up 100-plus yards in consecutive weeks. The Texans do so with a zone-based running scheme that sees a lot of its success thanks to the ability of Miller.

Like Jay Ajayi once flourished in Miami (and later, Philadelphia), Miller excels because he's an effective one-cut back. Miller takes hand-offs and uses his premier vision to identify lanes, exploding through openings for big gains. As Around The NFL's Gregg Rosenthal put it in the Week 13 recap podcast, Houston gets what it blocks for -- and then lets Miller do the rest.

That was on full display on multiple Miller runs in the last two weeks, with none going for a greater gain than Miller's 97-yard touchdown run against Tennessee. Houston broke the huddle in 12 personnel, lining up a tight end on each side of the line in a balanced single-back formation. Unlike most of their runs, which are zone plays, this involved an ace block (frontside center-guard double team), with guard Zach Fulton and center Nick Martin teaming up to drive nose tackle Austin Johnson away from the frontside A gap and clearing space for backside tackle Julie'n Davenport to pull and engage rookie linebacker Rashaan Evans. That was enough for Miller to burst through the hole and past Fulton, who had since moved to the second level to get enough of linebacker Wesley Woodyard for Miller to run through his half-hearted tackle attempt.

From there, Miller was off to the races, breaking another tackle attempt by safety Kevin Byard in the secondary and outrunning Kenny Vaccaro to the end zone for the score.

Miller's best play is highlighted in the aforementioned zone schemes. The beauty of a zone scheme is it doesn't require crushing blocks, instead needing just adequate play from the men up front and leaving the rest of the work to the running back. Miller is excellent in these situations, identifying and hitting running lanes for big chunks. On this first-quarter run against Tennessee, Miller takes a handoff to the right, sees the defense controlling the front side of the line, cuts back and hits a lane created by the blocking of guard Senio Kelemete, who takes defensive tackle Jurrell Casey into the flow of the play, creating a cutback alley. Miller races past defensive end Brian Orakpo, who was slow to close the gap and misses on his tackle attempt as the back sprinted forward for a gain of 21.

This is where Houston is at its best on the ground. A consistent zone run attack works wonders for the Texans in the rushing department, no matter the opponent, as the rest of its linemen frequently give admirable efforts when pulling but don't always finish the job.

When it comes to the passing game, the Texans are extremely far from reaching their potential. The blame is on the line, which struggles to create a solid pocket for Watson.

Davenport struggles often with wide edge rushers, getting beat by a multitude of moves from opposing defenders. Davenport frequently fails to keep rushers from collapsing the outside of the pocket, or gets beat around the edge. He was bullied by Cleveland's Myles Garrett for a sack early in Week 13, and truly only does his job well against straight rushes, which are rare because of their unproductive nature. He is, however, a good pulling blocker when called upon.

The problems in pass protection continue as you move down the line to the interior linemen. The group up front -- Martin, Fulton and Kelemete -- often gets pushed back when dropping to protect, failing to remain stout and often causing Watson to bail out of the pocket. It's increasingly apparent against added pressure, starting with five-man rushes and worsening from there, and even when Watson finds a way to make something out of nothing, it leaves one yearning for more.

It's an issue that pops up all over their game tape. It's so frequent, Watson has become skittish on longer dropbacks, sometimes sensing non-existent pressure. It causes him to miss open targets downfield in favor of pulling the ball down and attempting to escape. It also explains his average time to throw (3.03 seconds), which is the second slowest in the league among passers with at least 100 attempts, per Next Gen Stats. Only Buffalo rookie Josh Allen holds onto the ball longer.

It's frustrating to watch at times, because when Watson has time to throw, he shows how high his ceiling truly is. On this Week 13 throw to DeAndre Hopkins, Watson has ample time to survey, step away from pressure and perfectly place a pass between two defenders to Hopkins for a gain of 17.

Watson has a cannon for an arm and uncanny accuracy, but only gets to show it when he's protected -- which doesn't happen often.

Where Houston is finding success is when it designs escapes for Watson via play-action rollouts. The quarterback is fantastic at throwing on the run. He did so twice against Tennessee for touchdown passes.

In the same formation that produced Miller's 97-yard touchdown run, Watson instead runs a play-action bootleg, firing a bullet to Demaryius Thomas for a 10-yard score.

It's truly beautiful to watch, it happens fairly often and is a tantalizing example of how good Watson can be, if he could just get consistent protection up front.

Houston addresses its issues up front by mixing in quick throws via screens, swing passes and shorter targets. But too often, the Texans are running multiple routes downfield -- even when they have a lead and don't necessarily need to do so.

If the Texans can protect better, these plays will become successful and lucrative more often. But for a Houston team that can't rebuild its line in the middle of the season, it seems like a trap waiting for them when facing better teams come playoff time. In the meantime, they'll be best suited to ride Miller on the ground, mix in play-action bootlegs and pick and choose when they try to take their deep shots.

The Texans would be wise to limit those, though, and instead rely on a run-first approach and a stout defense. It's their best -- and perhaps only -- route to success, win streak or not.

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