by Derrik Klassen
A Week 4 home loss to the Carolina Panthers may have changed the complexion of the Houston Texans' offense for the rest of the season. Carolina sacked quarterback Deshaun Watson six times and pressured him relentlessly. The young quarterback was left scrambling around looking for checkdowns and stripped almost entirely of opportunities to attack down the field. An otherwise explosive Texans' offense stalled out, scoring just 10 points as Watson posted one of the worst games of his young career.
Something had to change. With a banged-up offensive line and wide receiver Kenny Stills out of the lineup, Houston could not keep going back to the same well they had for the first few weeks. Intermediate and deep passing concepts as the core of the offense just weren't going to cut it, at least not with the offense in its current state. Contrary to the coach's earned reputation as a dull playcaller, Bill O'Brien immediately made an adjustment for Weeks 5 and 6 to shift the offense's primary focus into a more fitting direction. The Texans became the best and most frequent users of the "empty" offense in the league overnight.
Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Watson recorded 23 dropbacks out of empty formations over the previous two weeks -- 28% of Houston's 82 dropbacks over those two weeks have come out of an empty formation. Watson only took 30 dropbacks out of empty through the first four games of the season. Suffice to say Houston has recently made it a point to get the ball out of Watson's hands as soon as possible.
O'Brien has also done well to piece together a complete empty offense. Watson is not being thrown out to the wolves and asked to figure it out on his own. Many of the Texans' empty concepts have built-in options to beat different coverages.
Houston's favorite empty combination over the past couple weeks has been follow-pivot from an offset stack. Follow-pivot is a two-man route concept that features the leading player in the stack running a 10-yard square-in while the trailing player runs a shallow crosser or a pivot, depending on the coverage. The concept is designed to be a hi-lo that has an answer for man coverage (crosser) as well as zone (pivot). It is an Urban Meyer staple that has been heavily infused into plenty of NFL offenses, most notably that of Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy.
Here are two instances in which the Texans face zone coverage and the trailing receiver runs the pivot. He sits down in space because the defense in each play shows an underneath zone defender ready to cut off the shallow crosser and a cornerback hovering the flat area. Rather than try to bully through the zone defender, the trailing receiver tries to sit down as soon as possible in between the underneath zones. Watson hits the 10-yard in on the first play because he knows the route will break under the safety and he can lead the ball away from the linebacker over the hash. In the second play, Watson throws the pivot because the linebacker responsible for it has to cover a ton of ground since he had been lined up over the B-gap like a blitzer.
And here is what Houston's follow-pivot looks like when it converts to a shallow crosser instead of a pivot. With the defense in man coverage, the trailing receiver has no immediate area to sink into and look for space. He will have a defender draped right over him. Instead, the trailing receiver works for inside leverage and crosses the face of the quarterback. Watson not only recognizes the man coverage, but knows that if the defender peppering the B-gap actually blitzes, the shallow crosser will be wide open. Upon taking the snap, Watson wastes no time confirming the blitzer and replacing him with the ball. Another easy conversion for the Texans.
That's not where the built-in answers stop, either. Houston also has an adjustment for when the outside cornerback is playing off coverage against the trailing receiver. Rather than cut inside like against man or sit down versus low-zone cornerbacks, the trailing receiver runs a 5-yard speed out to the sideline to pick on the cornerback's deep alignment without running into defenders over the middle.
This clip is against zone. The trailing receiver comes off the ball with the outside cornerback in a deep-third alignment and the slot cornerback pressing to disrupt the leading receiver. Will Fuller, the trailing receiver here, knows that he has time to work outside of the slot cornerback and space to work underneath the outside cornerback. Watson hits Fuller with plenty of room to spare and sets him up to run after the catch.
This clip presents a similar read for the trailing receiver, even though the coverage is man instead of zone. Fuller, again the trailing receiver, takes an inside stem to force the outside cornerback to commit himself and get involved in traffic with the other two players. Fuller then cuts to the outside, and shortly thereafter Kansas City's cornerbacks run into each other to enable the leading receiver, Hopkins, to run free. This play gave Houston the final first down they needed to kneel out the clock.
Houston's other favorite empty play call is a Y-stick concept that flips the responsibility of No. 1 and No. 2 to the trips side (the two outermost receivers). "Traditional" Y-stick tends to feature a vertical route by No. 1, a short outside route by No. 2, and the stick option by No. 3. In Houston's inverted Y-stick call, the No. 2 goes vertical to attack either the seam or sideline, depending on the leverage of the defender, while No. 1 runs a hitch to occupy the flat area. This variation of Y-stick that Houston runs is not new or innovative, but more NFL teams do appear to be using it, and it works for Watson.
Watson hits the stick on both occasions here. The play is designed specifically to hit No. 3 on the stick, so it's not like Watson is doing anything taxing. Watson has executed with this level of accuracy and precise timing on every single empty call over the past two weeks, though. He has been a machine. As Steven Ruiz of USA Today noted in his Week 6 power rankings, Watson has completed 90.5% of passes for 9.2 yards per attempt on passes out of empty over the past two weeks. Quarterbacks cannot get much better than that when operating out of empty formations.
High-level execution out of empty formations is not new for Watson. Even at Clemson, Watson excelled out of empty formations, and he has only confirmed that skill with each passing season in the NFL. Houston was second only to Pittsburgh last year in percentage of plays out of empty, after all.
Between O'Brien's uptick in creativity and Watson's necessity to get the ball out before the offensive line gets him crushed, Houston have found themselves a stable foundation for their offense with empty formations. It's unlikely the Texans can live out of empty formations at this same rate all year, but they should continue to roll with it as much as possible, for as long as possible. If they can keep things fresh and continue to add new wrinkles, they will not be forced out of empty any time soon. When O'Brien adds some stick-draw calls into the mix, Watson will really be cooking with gas.