By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Texans are probably going to have trouble scoring points against the Patriots, and it’s not because of their relative lack of weapons. It’s not necessarily because of their rookie quarterback, either. Their struggles on Sunday will mostly be a result of the five large men up front.
Offensive lines across the NFL have mostly played poorly to start the 2017 season, and the Texans are scraping the bottom of that list. There may not be enough adjectives to describe how disgusting, revolting, and appalling their “performance” has been so far.
The highest Pro Football Focus grade of the season so far on the Texans O-line goes to center Nick Martin, a second-year player seeing real game action for the first time, with a barely-average 71.2. After that, it’s a bloodbath. Blood red everywhere on the color-coded PFF grading system.
A hideous 35.2 grade for left tackle Chris Clark. A ghastly 41.8 for other left tackle Kendall Lamm, who has split snaps so far. A repulsive 34.3 for left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo. A putrid 39.3 Greg Mancz. An absolutely, positively abominable 29.8 for right tackle Breno Giacomini.
Perhaps you’re not particularly trustworthy of the alchemists behind the scenes at PFF. I am, but their grades aren’t even necessary to know that the Texans offensive line has been terrible, no good, and very bad – the “real stats” bear that out too. Texans quarterbacks have been sacked the most (13), they have allowed the highest rate of sacks in the league at 17.8 percent, and they’ve gained the fewest net yards per pass attempt (2.8), which factors in yardage lost due to sacks. Their run game hasn’t been much better; if not for QB Deshaun Watson’s 49-yard rushing touchdown last Thursday against the Bengals, they’d be averaging 3.72 yards per rush.
Bill Belichick is well aware of the weak offensive line play happening across the league. In an unusually thorough answer to a question about that from a Texans reporter during his Wednesday conference call with the Houston media, the Patriots head coach blamed the NFL’s lack of padded practices in training camp and the preseason – and he’s far from the first to say it.
“You’re playing a contact position with pads, and you’re practicing it without pads the majority of the time. That usually develops a lot of bad habits, and a lot of the techniques that a player would have the chance to work on and improve with pads, that opportunity just isn’t there without pads,” said Belichick. “So, it’s hard to improve at those positions when, a lot of times, you’re practicing techniques that are really not the ideal technique or, in some cases, incorrect, and it just develops bad habits, especially on the offensive line.
“I think that the way, without being able to practice, favors the defensive players a little more, whereas the offensive unit has to work together and be able to block things at more of a game tempo with pads and penetration and combination blocks and things like that. It’s just hard to simulate those and hard to get the timing of those when you’re just standing up watching each other without pads on a lot.”
He busted out another golf analogy in continuing his insightful diatribe against the restrictions on padded practices:
“So, I mean, look, we’re all coaching under the same rules, but I think it’s harder, especially at that position, to improve when you really can’t practice your skill. It’s like, you go out to the driving range and hit drives and hit balls, but you can’t go on the putting green,” said Belichick. “And then, to think that your putting is going to be at the same level as your driving when you can’t really practice it, it’s not really realistic. But, again, all teams are operating under the same set of rules, so it is what it is. But, it’s hard. It’s hard at that position. It’s hard to tell a guy, ‘This is what you should do,’ but he really can’t go out and practice it.”
And yes, it’s been hard for offensive lines across the league. Only 12 linemen in the entire league have graded at 80 or above by PFF. Only two, Falcons center Alex Mack and Steelers guard David DeCastro, have graded 90 or above (“Elite”).
It’s probably a matter of time that the NFL more-or-less normalizes and offensive lines start to play better as units. But for the Texans, it’s mainly a talent issue. Their offensive line just isn’t good, and it will likely be their downfall against the Patriots. Look for Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, and the like to feast when the Texans are in passing situations.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.