In an otherwise disappointing season, the Texans' running game reached unprecedented heights in 2010.
Running back Arian Foster and fullback Vonta Leach did most of the legwork. The offensive line, with the help of a few new wrinkles from the coaching staff, laid the groundwork.
In a sit-down interview with HoustonTexans.com, offensive line coach John Benton explained how the Texans went from averaging 3.5 yards per carry in 2009 to 4.8 yards per carry in 2010, and how his linemen paved the way for Foster and Leach to make the Pro Bowl and for Foster to win the league rushing title.
After the struggles the running game had last season, what was the big difference this year? What changed up front?
"That's a lot of what we're looking at right now watching cut-ups, but I think all along, just staying a little healthier. Mike Brisiel and Antoine Caldwell kind of went back and forth at the one position (right guard), but other than that we were pretty solid all the way through as opposed to last year, losing both guards early in the year and going from there. Obviously, Arian and Derrick (Ward) both have a lot to do with that, but I think coming out pretty committed, changing some things. Of course, (offensive coordinator) Rick (Dennison) brought some things, and I think we were able to take the best of what we'd done over the years and kind of amalgamate a viable run game that really attacked in a lot ways."
What kind of tweaks did you implement?
"We call them gap-scheme runs and counters and pulling guards and that type of things. It was never a huge part of any game plan, but it needed to be part of every game plan. It wasn't just that, either. It was getting in some man-scheme type things, and really just having a group of change-ups that really played off how we perceived teams would defend us. Knowing what they see, they see a large number of zone scheme (plays), and thinking how would they attack us and how could we take advantage of that. And I think it made teams play a lot more honest, made them play across the board. It's a credit to the players. It's a lot more they have to put on their plate from a preparation standpoint, and they did a good job of it."
So, just to recap, there was a concerted effort to sprinkle in some man-blocking elements and other variants to the zone scheme?
"Right. We're always going to be primarily a zone scheme, and even in that a wide-zone team, but to have those change-ups and those things, I think becomes very hard for a defense to defend against."
How often did you implement those change-up plays in each game?
"Obviously, in some games, you guess more right than you do other games, so you lean on them more. It varied game-to-game, but we tried to make a big point every week to have those in, test them out, test the water with them early in the process. And a lot of times, maybe they don't go over so well, but they make that defense over on their sideline say, 'Well, we better stop this, we better prepare for this.' And I think just making them a little more honest than they'd had to play us in the past really helped."
You mentioned being a wide-zone team. From an X's and O's standpoint, what made that scheme so successful for the Texans this season?
"It's very sound. One of the reasons I really like it is it doesn't matter what personnel group you're in, whatever, you can use a zone scheme to help you. You're not trying to necessarily build a hole for the back to run through here or here or here, but making the defense stretch. The canned answer is not only are you pushing the defense back, the classic 'knock 'em off the ball,' but you're also dispersing them horizontally across the field so every defender has a lot more ground that they have to cover. And then the back has the freedom, as opposed to some other schemes, to attack the defense wherever they show their weakness after the ball is snapped as opposed to before it. So it's much harder to scheme against and just truly say you're going to stop, and it seems to be sound against base defense, substitution defenses like nickel, if they want to try and zone dog you or pressure you somehow in the run game. You see it all, but the zone schemes tend to pick that up the best, in my opinion."
How important is the athleticism of your linemen in being able to execute that?
"That's really big. First and foremost, they have to be good. At some point, you might have a very good lineman who it might not be their forte to be a true wide-zone scheme offensive lineman. It's very important to us, like I said, stretching them horizontally. You have to be able to stay with them over that time period, really beat them to a spot on the snap of the ball, to force them to have to play wide."
How good was the chemistry among the offensive linemen this season?
"It was excellent all year. It really has been all along since I've been here. We had seven guys play, and actually Kasey Studdard got in the game, so he's probably the eighth guy. But the chemistry's real good. I think they showed even going back to training camp last year that they were pretty committed to making sure they did everything to make this thing go. Wade Smith coming in from the free agent deal was a very, very positive addition both from his talents, but also his kind of quiet leadership in the room was very good for us."
You've got four coaches working to some degree with the running game and offensive line – you, Dennison, assistant offensive line coach Frank Pollack and offensive assistant Bruce Matthews. How do you divvy everything up?
"I think that's one of the great things here. We're all on the same page. No one has an ego. You just jump in and do everything you can to go, and it's a bunch of good guys to work with. Between Frank Pollack and I, we'll alternate which groups of the line we're working together with, but we really make a point that it's with all of them. Obviously, Bruce does a lot of our prep work and that type of thing in the office, and Rick's involved with running the whole offense. So in terms of the minutiae and that type of thing, we'll do it that way in terms of drills and even how we watch the line. It kind of follows a little theme, and it seems to work pretty well."