There is no absolute formula for winning football games in the NFL. Different teams win in different ways. Some win with dominant defenses. Some win with versatile and dynamic offensive play. The Texans have yet to put it all together on offense, in particular, and if there was one axiom that was spoken more than any other during the bye week, it was "run the ball."
The Texans running game has struggled in 2015 for a variety of reasons. There's little question that the run game MUST find its footing (no pun intended) over the last half of the season. Head coach Bill O'Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey have preached that the offense needs balance and the run game hasn't quite pulled it weight thus far.
But, as seen against the Titans, the threat of the run opened some aspects in the offense. With Ryan Griffin presumably returning for the Cincinnati game, the trio of tight ends is at full strength for the first time since the season opener. So, even though the Texans haven't produced much in the run game, threatening to run early in the win over Tennessee paid off handsomely, even getting the tight ends involved, then paid off big in the second half.
Let me explain.
On first down in the second quarter, the Texans came out in 11 personnel, aligned 2x2 - two receivers to the left and a TE/WR combination to the right. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz was attached, off the ball on the right side, while Jaelen Strong was aligned in the slot on the left side.
On the snap, Brian Hoyer extended the ball as if the Texans were running outside zone opposite of Fiedorowicz, to the left side.
As Hoyer pulled the ball back into his belly, he immediately booted out to the right side. Fiedorowicz sold the run. Titans safety Michael Griffin fell for it hook, line and sinker. By the time that Hoyer booted out, Griffin and the rest of the Titans defense was still chasing the zone run to the opposite side.
Fiedorowicz then released from his block out to the flat as Strong came open on the crossing route from the other side. The Titans free safety Da'Norris Searcy saw no one in the vicinity of Strong and immediately sprinted toward the rookie receiver. Although Strong was open, Searcy was closing fairly quickly, so Hoyer flipped it forward to Fiedorowicz. The second year tight end had no one within yards of him.
He turned it upfield for 14 yards and another first down. The next play? Hoyer found Hopkins for the offense's first touchdown of the day.
The Texans hadn't shown any real proficiency running the ball to that point in the game (early 2nd quarter). But, a good play fake, an excellent slam and release by Fiedorowicz and the threat of the run helped Fiedorowicz get wide open for a 14-yard catch.
But, there's more.
In the third quarter, ahead only 10-6, the Texans aligned again in 11 personnel, 2x2, on first and ten in Tennessee territory.
Hoyer faked another zone stretch to the left side, this time in the direction of Fiedorowicz. Hoyer extended the ball, pulled back, but didn't boot fully to the right side as he did on the previous play. It was only a half boot but effective nonetheless.
But, the play fake completely sold Searcy at free safety. He got caught peeking into the backfield and it was just enough to suck him forward and work a deep route behind him.
Texans wideout Nate Washington was in the slot on the right side and sprinted hard back across the formation, toward the back pylon in the end zone. He had Titans defender Coty Sensabaugh on his outside hip and ran right by him.
Who should've been there to help? Searcy.
Why wasn't he there? The threat of the run.
Washington sprinted past, had two steps on Sensabaugh and made a brilliant catch for the game clinching touchdown.
Threatening the outside zone sold the one player, Searcy, that could allow for the big play on that touchdown.
The first full-on bootleg got a tight end, Fiedorowicz, WIDE OPEN for an easy first down catch. The second half boot, off the same run action, accounted for the game clinching touchdown. That was nothing but selling the run and the threat of the run.