Secret Superstars 2014: Texans
Bright spots were few and far between for the Houston Texans in 2013. After a 2-0 start they collapsed to an 0-14 finish and the No. 1 overall pick. On an individual level, aside from the ever-dependable displays from Andre Johnson and the continuing excellence of J.J. Watt, there was little to celebrate.
In search of an unsung hero, we delve into the same area that yielded the Texans’ Secret Superstar in our first foray into the world of the Secret Superstar back in 2011. Three years ago, we highlighted the entire offensive line as the beating heart of Gary Kubiak’s offense, this time around we look at a young player emerging to form a succession plan for an group looking to reclaim its place among the league’s elite.
A third-round pick in 2012, Brandon Brooks waited patiently as a rookie after registering only 174 snaps in his debut season. After a camp battle with Ben Jones last summer, Brooks entered his second season as a starter and certainly made the most of his opportunity. Come season’s end, only the Eagles’ pairing of Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans would have higher run block grades among the league’s guards.
Starting With a Bang
In the Texans’ opening two victories they collected 284 yards on the ground with Brooks their highest-graded run blocker over the first eight days of the season. Up against the Chargers’ 3-4 front, Brooks showed the strength to control bigger linemen at the line of scrimmage while also working to impose himself on linebackers at the second level.
Late in the second quarter he displayed both qualities on the same play to open a big lane for Ben Tate. First, setting Kendall Reyes onto a block by center Chris Myers, Brooks then quickly climbed to cut off Donald Butler to open a clear path to the markers off his outside shoulder. Over the first two weeks of the season the Texans would run 18 times either directly inside or outside of Brooks collecting 78 total yards at more than four yards per carry.
Early Struggles in Pass Protection
As well as Brooks started as a run blocker, he showed a potential weakness in pass protection, surrendering 14 pressures (one sack, three hits, 10 hurries) in the first four weeks of the season, earning a pass protection grade of -4.1 in that spell. Those cracks in pass protection first started to show against former Secret Superstar Jurrell Casey in Week 2 with a quick pressure surrendered late in the fourth quarter leading to one of Matt Schaub’s many pick-sixes from last season.
Isolated in space with Casey, Brooks simply couldn’t cope with the inside swim and surrendered immediate pressure, forcing Schaub to get rid of the ball quickly. This quick pressure, combined with a miscommunication between Schaub and DeAndre Hopkins, led to a simple pick-six for Alterraun Verner to set up an eight point Tennessee lead inside the final five minutes of the game.
Brooks’ struggles snowballed against the Ravens and Seahawks in the next two weeks as his season hit its low point early on. The likes of Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, and Michael Bennett were able to work Brooks inside and out with his struggles in pass protection affecting his run blocking too. A toe injury (which may have played a part in his loss of form) saw Brooks sit out the Texans’ Week 5 loss in San Francisco and the break appeared to come just at the right time for him.
Strong Form to the Finish
Aside from struggling with Calais Campbell in Week 10, Brooks’ struggles in pass protection didn’t re-surface after his return to the lineup and his run blocking was a model of consistency. From Week 6 on, Brooks graded positively as a run blocker in 10 straight games (+1.0 or above in seven of those 10), only breaking his streak with a -0.4 run block grade against the Titans in Week 17. On the plus side, that game saw him yield no pressure, faring much better in his return encounter with Jurrell Casey absent for the Titans.
Brooks’ best performance of the season came in Week 15 against the Colts and helped earn him a spot on our Team of the Month for the final quarter of the season. You might expect a +5.4 grade (+4.1 run block) from a guard to be a story of him annihilating defensive linemen and burying linebackers but these highest grades are accrued by consistency, not flashes of dominance.
Though he is a pretty big guard (reportedly down to 325 pounds last summer) he made hay against the Colts making blocks on the move. Not only working vertically to the second level, Brooks shined moving laterally on pull blocks, demonstrating his versatility beyond the Texans’ base zone offense.
For a first season this wasn’t just a solid set of displays, this was a rousing success for Brooks. His strength as a run blocker and steady play as a pass protector gives the Texans’ offensive line a real axis of strength in the middle next to Chris Myers as they look to re-establish the line under new head coach Bill O’Brien.
An offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link but, if the Texans can plug their holes at left guard and right tackle, there’s no reason to think that Brooks can’t join with former PFF All-Pros Myers and Duane Brown to launch the Texans’ offensive line back among the league’s best in 2014.
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