HOUSTON – Pep Hamilton spent a portion of his summer teaching the greater nuances of football strategy.
The Texans’ offensive coordinator held in-depth conversation while meeting virtually with a group of coaches in Los Angeles from his office at NRG Stadium.
The topics flow quickly during the fifth annual NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit as he broke down his offensive philosophy, teaching what he believes in about how to attack defenses and exploit their weaknesses.
Among the nuances Hamilton emphasized during a teaching session that included Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans: Explosive plays and what’s their common denominator, best offensive and worst offensive games, the reason behind those performances, to identifying and dissecting defensive schemes.
The former Howard quarterback is explaining the game within the game.
“Do they always match personnel?” Hamilton shares with the group. “Carry or spot drop? Cut crossers. Cover Zero. Pressure issues, base down and distance. Biggest strengths and weaknesses. Tip: What things can you clue in on to give you a good idea of what you’re getting? Corners’ strengths and weaknesses.
“Third down. Blitz issues? Red zone: Where does it change from the open field? What does their Zero look like and when to expect it? Red-zone identity. Touchdown common denominators. Fourth down, two-point play, backed up passes, best route to run on each guy, double move, game plan.”
It’s a window into how Hamilton sees the game and instructive to how he’s putting his imprint on the Texans’ offense after being promoted from passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach by head coach Lovie Smith.
A former head coach and general manager of the DC Defenders in the XFL, Hamilton, 47, coached retired Colts quarterback Andrew Luck as an offensive coordinator, Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert as his position coach, was the Cleveland Browns’ associate head coach, and a quarterbacks coach for the New York Jets, Chicago Bears, and 49ers. At the college level, Hamilton has worked at Stanford as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and at the University of Michigan as an assistant head coach and passing game coordinator.
For Hamilton, it’s all about using all of the information and resources he can supply to teach and inform his players to formulate an effective game plan and strategy to score points and create a balanced, unpredictable variety of play-calling while protecting the football.
“It’s important that we have information that we can present to our players,” Hamilton said during the summit. “We’re looking at some of the games where they really had their way against their opponent defensively. You’re always assessing the strengths and weaknesses of not just their scheme, but also their players. Why are they better against certain schemes and certain teams as opposed to others? The first cutup we typically watch is an explosive-plays cutup. What you’ll find out during the course of a season is that if there’s a similar pattern of the types of plays that give them problems there may be something in their scheme or in their rules we can attack.
“Getting a sense of a team, the personality of the team, where they are with the current state of their team is a big part of our process. The defensive coordinator, it’s very important we understand their temperament. It’s also important we understand and know historically the schemes and systems he’s been a part of so we can try to anticipate as much as we possibly can what their tendencies are going to be. We’ll do a thorough investigation of the defensive coordinator we’re facing and hone in on what we feel like he’s known for. The defensive identity, the raw data, and the film, it should all correlate to put into compartments based on the tendencies and what you’ve learned by studying them.”
It’s because of his knowledge and acumen and a background working with successful quarterbacks, including Luck and Herbert, a Pro Bowl passer, that could give the Texans’ offense a boost under second-year starting quarterback Davis Mills.
Now, it’s Hamilton’s job to kick-start a Texans offense from a 4-13 squad a year ago that was one of the least productive in the NFL. Houston finished 30th in scoring, last in total offense and rushing offense, and 28th in passing offense.
That starts Sunday against a stingy Colts defense that added cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year this offseason. They also are headlined by disruptive defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and defensive back Kenny Moore II.
“We’re excited to see after all the things we’ve been working on throughout the offseason and training camp if we can go out and execute at a high level against a really good football team in the Indianapolis Colts,” Hamilton said. “Their defense, it’s well documented how good they are in their front-seven and on the back end. With the addition of Gilmore, they’re a formidable bunch.
“The way the CBA is set up, you have few opportunities to go out there and play tackle football before you play a regular season football game. It was important for us in the preseason to get our guys a chance to set their pads and ultimately harden our knuckles. But now, we understand there will be a little more strategy involved in trying to get first downs and we have to do a great job of making our in-game adjustments but more importantly just executing our offense.
The few bright spots were the consistent threat of star wide receiver Brandin Cooks and the late-season potential flashed by Mills. Many NFL general managers have indicated that Mills would have been a lock to go in the first round this year had he not declared early for the 2021 NFL draft.
Hamilton is tasked as the architect of an offense that needs to significantly upgrade the running game with rookie running back Dameon Pierce, establish imposing wide receiver Nico Collins as a consistent complementary presence to Cooks, and improve the pass protection for Mills. Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil is back from thumb surgery that sidelined him last season, and Tytus Howard is back to his natural right tackle spot.
The Texans, of course, ran a scaled-down version of their playbook during the preseason.
Mills wasn’t playing with Cooks or Tunsil. After completing 66.8 percent of his passes for 2,664 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions during his rookie season, the former third-round draft pick from Stanford is looking forward to running the show under the direction of Hamilton.
“It’s going to be fun,” Mills said. “I think we have a lot to work with. Pep has mixed a bunch of stuff up and we’re excited about we can do. We’ve all seen it throughout practice and we’ve been excited for what we’re capable of and ready to go there and perform it and display it out on Sunday.”
“It’s a lot of collaboration, obviously. Pep has been the helm of it. We have prepared well and we have a lot of not tricks we’re going to pull out of a bag, but a lot of stuff that we think is going to be really efficient out there. I think on Sunday, once we start moving that ball, it’s going to be really exciting.”
Mills’ development is Hamilton’s big-picture project.
At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Mills is a big, strong traditional pocket passer with enough mobility to throw on the run. He went 2-9 as a starter in 11 starts and 13 games played overall as a rookie for an 88.8 passer rating.
Mills had an encouraging training camp. He has displayed chemistry and timing, especially with Cooks, Collins, and tight end Pharaoh Brown. The way Mills gets the football out of his hand and reads the defense appears sharper and more certain. He’s had greater command of the offense and organized several informal workouts this offseason, including one at his high school in Atlanta where he was a blue-chip recruit and another in Portland, Oregon, where Cooks lives in the offseason.
In the final four games of the season, Mills completed 68.9% of his throws to go 2-2 in the final month of his rookie year. During that span, he passed for 927 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 106.1 passer rating.
“I think we’ll find out once he goes out there and plays a regular season game,” Hamilton said. “I do think that we did somewhat have a governor on him in the preseason. Now we feel like we’re going to have to do whatever to go out there and score at least one more point than the opponent. That’s not in anyway saying we’re a run-first team, we’re a score-first team. However, we need to score the ball, that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
Mills had 12 touchdowns with one interception in eight home games at NRG Stadium overall and four games with 100+ passer ratings, including a 141.7 mark in a loss to Jones and the Patriots.
“We feel like he’s playing faster, and that’s really just processing information as you drop back as opposed to just saying, ‘Okay, what happened pre-snap is the determining factor in where we start,’” Hamilton said. “You’ve got to be able to make post-snap reads, and we’ll continue working on that, but that’s something that I feel like he’s improving that.”
The Texans were tied for last in the NFL in rushing touchdowns last season with just eight scores on the ground. They averaged a league-low 3.4 yards per carry and gained just 1,422 rushing yards overall. Rex Burkhead, who was re-signed, led the Texans with just 427 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
The Texans hope that Pierce, an aggressive, downhill-style player from Florida, can energize the running game in a way that didn’t happen last year.
“We just felt it was a process for him to really just work on and be able to play without the ball,” Hamilton said of Pierce. Ultimately, you have guys that come out of college football that are good runners but the transition is pretty much dictated by their ability to protect the quarterback as well as staying on the field, and being able to give us tough yards for four quarters.
A year ago, the Texans didn’t have an offense that regularly challenged defenses. That’s not something that Hamilton shies away from. It is his job to anticipate problems, fix them, and create an offense that’s capable of moving the football and finding the end zone.
As the replacement for former offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, Hamilton is being discussed by players for his creativity and confidence. There’s a lot of energy at camp, and the offense has had its moments where it’s clicking and in sync.
“I look forward to it,” said Cooks, who signed a two-year, $39.6 million extension this offseason after catching a team-high 90 passes for 1,037 yards and six touchdowns on 134 targets last season. “Obviously, there’s been a lot of work that’s been put in and continuing to be put in. At the end of the day, just got to go out there and play. All the things that we’ve learned over the summer and this training camp, you get to put it to life.”
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Pep and everything he’s been bringing to this offense over the summer and in training camp. You know, preseason is one thing like you said, but you look forward to actually getting out there, where it truly matters, and putting this thing together. That’s for sure.”
During practice sessions, Hamilton is orchestrating his philosophy and finding ways to get the football to the Texans’ skill players. He’s in constant conversation with Mills, huddling with him after plays to discuss the defense and his decisions.
“Pep is a smart guy,” tight end Pharaoh Brown said. “He puts us in a lot of good situations and it’s just building on top of that. In the red zone, I caught the fade just one-on-one with a small corner. Today, we came back and hit him with a slant. So now that road is growing, being able to flex out and take advantage of little, small defensive backs.”
The tight ends have been a large part of every offense Hamilton has been a part of previously, and there’s expected to be an uptick in targets for them this season.
“I love it, I’m excited,” Brevin Jordan said. “Everywhere Pep has been, it shows that the tight ends are very valuable in his offense. So, just tune in.”
The Texans were outscored by a combined 62-3 margin by the Colts in being swept in the annual AFC South season series a year ago.
“We’ve got to come back, get back, make it feel right again and go get win a game this weekend,” Mills said. “We’ve got a whole new team over here, they’ve got a new coach, new players, new pieces out there, so you’ve got to look back at last year to kind of get some energy. I wouldn’t say revenge game but hold a little bit of a grudge so you can go out there and play fast on Sunday. Treat it like it’s a new game because everything is different. It’s not going to be the same as it was last year so it’s old and new at the same time.”
The Texans averaged just 16.5 points per game last season. Working with an offensive staff that includes receivers coach and passing game coordinator Ben McDaniels, running backs coach Danny Barrett, offensive line coach George Warhop and tight ends coach Tim Berbenich (his former colleague with the Colts), Hamilton is optimistic about the Texans’ offense this season.
“We have a depth of experience, but a diverse group of coaches with regards to our backgrounds,” Hamilton said. “Having the opportunity to go back and coached college football as well as the time that I spent in the XFL, it gave us a good outlook, a different outlook on different ways to really stress the opponent. So, we’ll see. We’ll see when it gets to game day.”
“Pep has full control of how he wants to do this,” McDaniels said. “He’s done a great job of preparing us as coaches and players to play effectively within the system. We’re excited to continue to roll through that process.”
The Texans need to build a more effective running game to keep defenses honest and execute play-action plays. Mills averaged 7.2 air yards to rank 28th overall last season.
Toward creating more explosive plays, Hamilton believes in a lot of information-sharing and a collaborative approach by listening to players and coaches’ feedback.
“Really it’s all about the players and where they are with regards to having a good sense of the foundation of what it is that we want to do,” Hamilton said. “We have constant dialogue with our guys. In our meetings, we treat our meetings as dialogue sessions.
“Open discussions about not only our system, but we’re open to ideas that the players may have at times and how we can best feature their talent. It’s all about the players. It’s all about what they know. We want them to be able to go out and play fast.”
The outlook for the offense is surrounded by a lot of optimism. The results will tell the story about how effective Hamilton’s playbook and personnel are performing. The early signs, though, are encouraging, and players are upbeat.
“I think Pep brings a lot of energy and juice to the offense,” Texans veteran center Justin Britt said. “Good mixture of run and pass and aggression. Without giving anything away really, it’s going to be a fun year. The playbook is exciting, and it all makes sense, and it’s crystal clear, and it gives us a chance to go out there and execute at the highest level.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com