Stories of the Season: Texans Turn to Leinart

| November 14, 2011

“It’s a big one for him and his career.”

These words speak of the now high expectations by Gary Kubiak in reference to Matt Leinart. Words that no Texans fan has really wanted to hear. This means that something has gone seriously wrong with Matt Schaub suddenly.  According to Adam Schefter, that something is a Lisfranc sprain/fracture with the early prognosis saying Schaub’s 2011 is as close to done as it could be.

These words will be ringing in the ears of all Texan fans for a while as now it is Matt Leinart’s time. This is not just a big moment for him and his career. It’s now arguably the defining moment for the Texans and their season.

Fortunately all is not lost. This isn’t a team that needs Matt Leinart to be Matt Schaub. At times this year they haven’t even needed Matt Schaub to be Matt Schaub. This Texans team is stacked with talent, and for Matt Leinart this represents a once in lifetime shot at redemption as well as a large new contract in the future.

 

2011: Year of the Texans

The Texans got a big break when the Colts announced during the final training camp cuts that Peyton Manning would be out for an unknown amount of time. Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert has proven only that he’s one for the future and that was after they started the season with Luke McCown. Their other divisional rivals are the Titans and Houston has already put them to the sword once this season. They are the dominant force in the AFC South and it’s led them to currently holding the number one seed in the AFC. Bit by bit though, things seem to be going wrong.

Mario Williams is down and out for the year with a torn pectoral injury. Andre Johnson has missed the last six games with a hamstring injury. Danieal Manning broke his left leg against the Titans but the good news is they expect him back at some point. The most serious is clearly the loss of Matt Schaub though. It’s almost like the football Gods don’t want Houston to win, but it may take losing more than their quarterback to derail their season.

 

An excellent investment

That’s not to say that Schaub isn’t a top tier quarterback. We’ve always been big fans of the work the former Falcon has done and he’s currently sixth in our passer rankings on the year (after finishing sixth in 2010). He may not be the flashiest but since that breakout 2009 season, the Texans have found the kind of quarterback most teams in the NFL would kill for. He may struggle under pressure (42.4% completion percentage) and isn’t the best when blitzed (56.7%). He has also managed to complete 61% of his passes this year at 8.5 yards per attempt and he’s done it while playing second fiddle to an imposing rushing attack. Simply put, when protected Schaub can be excellent.

 

Running to success

You see the reason why the Texans can still win is the reason they were winning before: they didn’t need Schaub to be their match-winner. They needed him to make plays, but he’s been part of a system that has been years in the making and is now flourishing. Houston’s O-line isn’t filled with Pro Bowl talent at every position. It does open up the kind of holes that their excellent running backs can scamper through and into the space of the defensive back seven. It wasn’t long ago that we were writing about the excellence of Chris Myers, a player who is now dominating our center rankings this year. He made our Mid Season All Pro team along with right tackle Eric Winston and is part of an offensive line that has earned a +8.6 grade on the year (and is only not higher due to the down year of Wade Smith).

Having that kind of line is one thing especially when you have the added bonus of having Arian Foster (+16.1) and Ben Tate (+7.0) running the ball. These are the kind of runners that if you give them space, as the Texans are, will punish a defense. And they’ll do it over and over again. The running game is a quarterback’s best friend, and doesn’t Matt Leinart know it.

 

Flying high

The running game won’t be the only thing that Leinart can look to rely on. He’s also going to benefit from excellent protection and some destructive weapons in the passing game. Take a look at the protection for a second. When you look at how much pressure (sacks, hits and hurries) the Houston line has given up compared to how many plays they have been in protection (via our Pass Blocking Efficiency signature stat), they rank third in the entire league. The former Cardinals first round pick wasn’t use to that kind of protection in Arizona that’s for sure.  Most quarterbacks play markedly better given improved protection and Houston’s is amongst the best in the NFL.

Receiving options for Leinart will include Owen Daniels (third-ranked receiving tight end on the year), Arian Foster (fourth-ranked receiving back on the year), and let’s not forget a certain Andre Johnson to come back. This hasn’t been his best season because of injury, but despite only playing 225 snaps he’s still ranked 10th in our wide receiver rankings after finishing second last year. So tell me. One of the best offensive lines in the league, a powerful and consistent running game, heavy use of play-action, and some of the best skill position players you could wish for. Could Leinart have fallen into a better situation?

 

The Wade Phillips Factor

Well I’m going to answer that with a yes. I’d want my defense to be good enough to bail me out of trouble. With the move to the 3-4, the introduction of some new personnel, and some added experience is that not the Texans defense? Sure they’re still growing but they have the components to do just that. They have players who play the run exceptionally well, with J.J. Watt behind only Justin Smith in our 3-4 DE run defense rankings. They have players who can make plays in coverage with Johnathan Joseph currently owning our second highest grade for a cornerback in pass coverage. They have players who can get pressure on the quarterback with Antonio Smith who is second in our 3-4 DE pass rusher rankings. They also have a resurgent Brian Cushing.

On a team with this much talent it’s not a surprise that Cushing’s fine season has been overlooked. This is probably fallout from his sophomore slump where he almost fell off the radar after his suspension as they tried to use him to replace DeMeco Ryans who landed on IR with a torn Achilles. The Texan is second only to Patrick Willis in our 3-4 ILB rankings and is making a ridiculous amount of plays. He’s been a large part of the defensive turnaround we wrote about last week. With his uncanny ability to apply pressure from the inside catching our attention lately he has tallied a remarkable three sacks, six hits and 18 hurries on the year already. Throw in some excellent work in run defense and coverage and you have a player who has relished the switch in schemes.

 

What about Matt?

Now, before you go thinking the Texans can win with anybody, they can’t. This is an opportunity for Matt Leinart and not an entitlement to success. There will come a time when he has to make a play, and perhaps more importantly, there will be a lot of times where he has to avoid making a bad one. None of us can really say if he has what it takes to make the most of this talented Houston team. Just one start and 220 snaps in three and a half seasons is neither a large nor recent enough sample size.

Keep in mind, he’s not a free agent who joined the team after the lockout and has had to learn the system on the fly. He joined the Texans after being released by the Cardinals just before the start of 2010 and earned his spot via the practice squad. He turned down an offer to compete for the Seahawks’ starting QB job this offseason as he liked Gary Kubiak’s offense and the coaching he got from him. For all those doubting, look at what a good defense and the right situation has done for Alex Smith. He’s taken his big opportunity and run with it. Now we eagerly wait to see if Matt Leinart can.

 

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  • motorcycle

    I think Houston will still win the division but this eliminates their superbowl chances. Houston differ from San Francisco in that before Sunday they had an explosive offense and I think that is needed to win a superbowl this year. An explosive offense needs more than a one-read QB game manager in my opinion (which is what Alex Smith is or what Leinart is he is at his best). Opposing teams now can just dare Leinhart to beat them and I don’t think he can on a regular basis or in the latter stages of the playoffs.

    Houston could get Baltimore or NYJ in the wild-cards which or both good run defenses and have elite takeaway DBs. However their remaining schedule gives them a chance to be a top 2 seeded team and then they matchup well with New England for example if they met them in the playoffs.

    With Schaub out, it’s too much to overcome in order to win the superbowl in my opinion and that is what Houston had a really good chance at before Sunday.

  • sleepy042

    Lets take a bit of a closer look at Leinarts history. He’s a West Coast offense QB from USC who should have gone to TEN in the draft. Fisher and Norm Chow (Leinart’s college OC) were set to receive him and had pieces in place to run the offense to support him. Ownership decided to draft Vince Young who was a poor fit in the system (you’ll see Young struggle in the Eagles system when he fills in for Vick).
    Leinart went to ARZ with Dennis Green who had one of the worst OL’s and no run game at the time. That and a classic tantrum after a MNF beat down cost Green his job. Whiz took over as HC and installed a vertical offense that didnt fit Leinarts abilities. Toss in some maturity issues and the fact he’s left handed and the OL wasn’t used to pass protecting that type of QB and he struggled. Case in point see the Eagles with Vick or ATL when he was there. This is why they brought in Warner who as a proven QB with quality leadership won over the team and staff. (Side note: RT Eric Winston is a stud….pass protection won’t be a problem).
    Ok so now Warner after a solid career retires. ARZ spends the offseason with Leinart coaching him up and tweaking the system. This is why they drafted Wells when they did. They knew the handover was coming and wanted to go to a power run game to ease the transition. They also brought Alan Faneca in to “improve the line” but it wound up reseating 4 of 5 ARZ OL. The big key is that the passing game didn’t get tweaked to fit Leinart. Conflict with Whiz and Leinart (see the preseason meltdown where Leinart expresses himself about Whiz) saw him get dumped.
    Leinart moves on to HOU , has to battle Dan Orlovsky for the backup spot last year. He got paid vet min with a bonus if he was named the backup QB for each week (not sure how much). If you check the gamebooks Leinart was 3rd most of the time as he was learning the system. From here the PFF article pretty much breaks down the situation.
    I’m not saying Leinart is the next Rich Gannon (isnt every promising vet?) but i’m not going to bring him down.

  • elkman8102

    Isn’t Ray Lewis 2nd to Willis in the ILB Rankings? Cushing is 3rd.

  • jebbs

    I was hoping he would get one more chance to not be a bust. I’m really pulling for the kid.