Four Downs: Ravens 41, Texans 7

It’s hard to get away from the idea that this game felt like a turning point.

The Texans, as noted, came in to today with a great chance to snag a head-to-head win over another of their few real rivals in the AFC. They came in off a bye, rested, and they had the opportunity to watch multiple weeks of Ravens film and tailor their game plan. They knew that a loss would put them into danger, and, as a team, the Texans opted for the danger.

The game was 14-0 at halftime. It would have been 20-0 if not for a doink off the goalpost and an ambitious fake field-goal attempt by the Ravens. The Texans faced 11 Ravens drives and were only able to keep one of them — when they kneeled out the first half with six seconds left — from ending in Texans territory. On offense, the Texans generated 110 total passing yards after you took note of the seven sacks. They ran the ball decently — though the overall numbers looked better than they were after Carlos Hyde’s long touchdown run — but they couldn’t do anything as a passing offense. Most of that yardage came in the first few drives, when DeAndre Hopkins was targeted on slants.

With their tails between their legs, the Texans are headed back to NRG on Thursday night for another must-win with the Colts. They can’t exit this three-game stretch 0-3, and after what happened this week with an aggressive, blitz-happy defense, it’s hard to have a lot of confidence about them beating the Patriots — who live for that kind of aggressive man-to-man this season — without a much better game plan.

Gotta coach better, same as it ever was.

1 — A not-so-brief treatise on the officiating and its role in this game

The NFL’s pass interference rules are a disaster. Allowing the penalty to be a spot-foul puts a ton of impetus on NFL officiating to bat 100%, because one wrong penalty can shift a game. The NFL’s new rules to allow challenging pass interference penalties — an overreaction to one swing in the NFC Championship game — have been an even bigger disaster because officials refuse to overturn clear pass interference penalties. That happened on Houston’s first drive:

So, here’s the thing though: It’s your coaching staff’s job to understand that these calls do not get overturned. Bill O’Brien was throwing a timeout into the sea. There was no way this was ever getting overturned. We know this! We see it every week! These calls don’t get overturned on challenge.

I understand that it creates a lot of cognitive dissonance among fans when calls like this happen, and I understand that it undermines faith in the NFL product. Pardon my language, but it frankly — as a fan — fucking sucks! It sucks that we have to have this conversation every week because the NFL won’t fix this.

The referees did not lose the Texans this game. They didn’t make the Texans go 2-of-10 on third downs, they didn’t make the Ravens outgain the Texans by 3.3 yards per play. I am sympathetic to ideas about game script and yes, getting points on the board first for Houston would have made this game closer. But the tenor of these comments — the idea that something was taken from the Texans that they didn’t have a chance to do anything about — is rooted in quitter talk. The Texans had 57 total offensive plays. They were average-to-bad on most of them. The Texans had 64 total defensive plays. They were average-to-bad on most of them. They lost this game because they weren’t the best team on the field.

It is very convenient to dismiss the result of this game as one where the Texans lost because “XX points got handed to the Ravens” on “things that should have been called.” But, that’s literally part of home-field advantage in studies! Referees are never going to be flawless. A team can’t get rattled by them.

The Texans did not play well enough to win the game. That’s what it is.

2 — Bill O’Brien and urgency

Coming into the Kansas City game — a huge game that the Texans won — a lot of the tone of Bill O’Brien’s comments throughout the week came off as if he knew he was an underdog. As if he had to make changes to win.

One of my biggest complaints about O’Brien as a head coach — and something that is maddening as a fan — is that he’s so good at making adjustments when he actually puts in the effort. The Kansas City game was one where they unveiled the read-option and RPO game as a base concept, and it crushed in that game.

This week? Nothing. No urgency. The Ravens are a great team. We’ll have to play well, and that starts with a good practice today. We’ll have to play disciplined and assignment-sound football. We can’t rock the boat.

The Texans played their base game. They barely used the read-option or RPOs at all. Hell, they barely had any pass offense outside of DeAndre Hopkins.

Maybe their base game is good enough to take out the Jaguars. Maybe it’s good enough to take down some of the other teams left on their schedule. But to have two weeks to prepare for one game and come out with this — it’s a tough look for anybody who wants to praise O’Brien. It’s a tough look for the organization as a whole.

I want to preface this next point with the idea that I might be wrong — it occurs to me that when you spend a lot of time with anything, you start to ascribe meaning to it. And perhaps more meaning to it than you should. I have spent a ton of time making videos of press conferences this year, and listening to what the Texans and their opponents have to say.

Does it mean something that the Texans weren’t as shocked as the fans that they lost? Multiple players noted they weren’t shocked after the game. Whereas Earl Thomas, the Ravens safety, expressed that he was surprised they won like they did:

It could just be idle chatter. Tunsil has played on a lot of losing Dolphins teams and has certainly been through the wars. Reader’s dismissal of it was interesting because it looked like he had more on his mind than he actually said.

Does it mean anything? I don’t know and I’m not going to tell you I know for sure. But it definitely set off some alarms to hear a player say he wasn’t surprised that they got their asses kicked like this.

3 — The relentless Ravens pass rush

One thing that the Texans haven’t really had to deal with this year is an aggressive pass rush. They had played just one team in the top 10 in blitz rate. The highest team they had played, Jacksonville, was at 30.6% — 13th — and also did pretty well about putting pressure on Watson in Week 2.

The Ravens, at a league-leading 49.4%, were always going to bring the heat. They brought it, and there seemed to be little accounting for it.

This is something that I think it’s hard to understand based on the video that we have — the all-22 is imperative in dissecting why Watson didn’t feel comfortable throwing to his reads. My initial perspective is to give a lot of dap to the Ravens secondary, which is full of talented players and used to covering in man. That was certainly the case on the play-action sack:

Watson did not have a great day in the pocket, particularly after his ankle was rolled at the end of the first half. He was short on a few throws, and he appeared to be a little less mobile afterwards.

But a lot of the sacks and hurries didn’t feel like Watson trying to freelance so much as they felt like a quarterback’s first reads getting taken away. That comes down to coaching.

Either way, obviously, hard to win a football game when the quarterback takes seven sacks and 10 quarterback hits.

4 — A defense laid bare

Houston’s defensive strength is in stopping the run. But Baltimore is one of the most unique and harmful run offenses in the NFL, and they enforced their will on the Texans. The Texans hung on for about a quarter — after the first quarter, Houston had allowed 34 rushing yards on seven attempts — and 18 of them came on one Lamar Jackson scramble past Jacob Martin.

But once Baltimore got on track with their running game, there really wasn’t much the Texans could do about anything.

The Texans had no answer for Lamar Jackson, who had 86 rushing yards. They had one sack — on a read-option where Brennan Scarlett jumped the entire play — and two total quarterback hits. As predicted, Romeo Crennel settled into comfortable zones and Jackson made them pay after a wobbly first quarter.

The Texans weren’t able to get a turnover. Jackson’s ability to change arm angles kept them from winning some of the coverage downs. And, obviously, they gave up 229 rushing yards in the final three quarters.

Many defenses are going to look foolish in front of this Ravens offense, which is well-designed, firing on all cylinders, and able to gain so, so many easy yards. This is very much to me a tale of a team that I think you’d have to be deep in the lab to stop.

But it was an eye-opener about how stark things are for the Texans without Watt and Clowney that there was nary a shred of resistance after the first quarter. If there were adjustments, they didn’t matter. The Texans were routed without mercy, and when they can’t stop the run, there’s almost zero upside as a defense here. It’s all rooting for self-inflicted mistakes from one of the best offenses in the NFL.

We saw how that went.

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Week 11 Preview: Texans @ Ravens

Folks, this is an enormous game in a season-defining stretch for the Texans. Obviously it begins with the subplot of matching two of the NFL’s better young quarterbacks against each other — though I think you might be surprised at just how little those quarterbacks throw in this game — but playoff implications are dripping off this stretch for the Texans.

The Texans are currently the third seed in the AFC at 6-3, Baltimore, at 7-2, is ahead of them. New England, at 8-1, is ahead of both of them and has such a cake December teed up that it is very difficult to see them losing more than three more games. If the Texans lose this game, and fall two games behind the Ravens while giving Baltimore a head-to-head tiebreaker, it will be effectively improbable that there is a path to a first-round bye.

To put that in a more alarmist perspective: The last team to make the Super Bowl without hosting a playoff game during the divisional round is the 2012 Ravens. Not one of 48 teams to try since has made it. The bye week to rest and plan is enormous. When you combine that with all the win-now trades that general manager Bill O’Brien has dug in on, the stakes of this particular regular season game could not possibly be any higher.

These teams last met in 2017, and the quarterbacks in that game were Tom Savage and Joe Flacco. Depressing! The Texans beat Baltimore in 2014, in Flacco’s best season. The Ravens handed the Texans the first of their 14 consecutive losses in 2013, and, famously, ended the best season in Texans franchise history (my opinion) by nearly picking off T.J. Yates seventeen times in the AFC Divisional round.

The line opened at Baltimore minus-5 and the general trend has moved the line down to 4 or 4.5 while moving the over/under up anywhere from a point to a half-point. Let’s look at the why:

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy Football Outsiders

Let’s get right to the juice: The Texans are going to need to be able to run the ball to win this game. The Ravens have undergone a ton of turnover at middle linebacker, shedding Kenny Young and winding up with Josh Bynes next to Patrick Onwausor. They also literally just brought in Kenrick Ellis and Domata Peko off the street this week, with Michael Pierce likely to miss this game. The way you attack this team is with the run — they gave up 157 yards to a sad sack Bengals team last week and have gotten rolled by running games as weak as Kansas City (140 yards).

The Texans are as well-positioned as any team right now to be able to deliver on the run game, and I personally believe that — hilarious as this is in a vaunted quarterback matchup — both teams will want to establish the run and run to limit the time of possession. The Ravens average more time of possession per drive on offense than any other team. The Texans are sixth.

Houston’s running game has been one of the league’s best, boosted by their quarterback’s legs and multiple RPO concepts. Carlos Hyde is having a fantastic year, and I think how well things go will depend a lot on how healthy the offensive line is. I’m a bit concerned that Laremy Tunsil is still putting up limited practices after a bye week. Baltimore’s got a lot of veteran talent along this line that — while not playing excellent football every down — will be able to spill a play or two and set up some bad situations. Brandon Williams is still a War Daddy.

Houston’s passing game is running into a buzzsaw that has been lights out since acquiring Marcus Peters. Baltimore held the Seahawks to 241 passing yards, then held the Patriots to 268. Meanwhile, they’ve created seven turnovers in their last three games. Baltimore’s weakest point is deep passes, where they’ve allowed a 33.0% DVOA (22nd), but when you say that out loud and realize that you’re throwing at Earl Thomas … well, that’s not really so easy, is it? The Ravens do have one of the biggest differences in yards per play allowed on play-action (9.4 yards) compared to non-play action (6.2).

Under Don Martindale, the Ravens have run the most aggressive, blitz-happy scheme of the last two seasons. They led the NFL in blitz percentage in 2018, and are narrowly holding on over Tampa Bay this year at 49.4%. This a) helps disguise the fact that they don’t have a true No. 1 edge rusher and b) helps make every down’s decision-making very fast. The Ravens have used shadow coverage often this year with Marlon Humphrey, and you should not be surprised if he pesters DeAndre Hopkins. It should be noted that Humphrey has not exactly been terrific empirically while shadowing, but that doesn’t make him any less talented.

Deshaun Watson has played excellent ball this year when dealing with the blitz, and I think he will hold his own in this game. However, I would not at all be surprised if he took a more 2018-level of sacks in this game. I don’t think he or the Texans have faced a team yet this season that brings the heat like these Ravens do. That means that Max Scharping and Tytus Howard are going to have to hold up one-on-one often — something that they both have struggled with in pass protection at times as rookies.

This is going to be a spotlight game for the offensive line and the offensive coaching staff — Bill O’Brien can’t dial up hot reads to the flat on third-and-9 and expect to win this game. The Ravens ask you to risk it against a secondary full of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. The Texans need to find a way to win that fight with cautious aggression.

When the Ravens have the ball

If you want to get a sense of how this offense is being viewed in Baltimore right now, someone asked Jim Harbaugh in his Wednesday presser if the team was “unstoppable.” So, yeah, they’ve been having some good times.

On paper, Baltimore’s run offense versus Houston’s run defense is strength-on-strength. In actuality, Baltimore is a huge anomaly for all run defenses to deal with. They haven’t been held under 23 points or 136 rushing yards as a team all season, and their serious wheels quarterback, army of tight ends and drawer of option plays (Marshal Yanda said on Wednesday that Greg Roman has the thickest playbook he’s ever seen) are incredibly problematic for any team to play against.

The Texans mostly talked about Baltimore’s run offense in incredibly simplistic terms, and don’t appear to be going out of their way to schematically change. They’re also coming off their worst run defense DVOA game of the season, with no J.J. Watt around to create negative plays. I would wager a lot of money against the prospect of Houston’s seven-game streak of holding their opponent under 100 rushing yards surviving Sunday.

Speaking of surviving, I think the Houston secondary got quite a few breaks against Gardner Minshew in London. Gareon Conley broke up a lot of balls, but he also let those balls get to his assignments in the first place. Minshew had terrible short accuracy, perhaps the worst game of his career to this point. I don’t think the Texans played bad, but I just think they lack impact talent that can affect a passing play at this point. D.J. Reader and Houston’s linebackers are playing excellent ball.

Lamar Jackson is not a superstar just yet — he’s definitely got the talent to be one, but he’s still refining what all he can and can’t do on a football field. One area he has improved on a lot is his work against the blitz, where he’s thrown seven touchdowns this year. Jackson passing is interesting simply because you expect someone with his physical traits to have a rocket arm — and he does have a great arm — but he’s also capable of spinning it, throwing from weird arm angles. In that specific sense he kind of reminds me of Matthew Stafford.

I expect that the Texans will probably not blitz quite as much as they have to this point in the season — I think you will see a lot of zone coverage in this game from them, and I think they will try to make Jackson march down the field methodically and hope to capitalize on a mistake or two. Romeo Crennel’s defense has been fairly good coming off byes and I think the Texans are going to try to run a lot of what they did against Minshew against Jackson. The only difference is that Minshew’s scrambles are effective, but lack danger. Jackson is liable to leave the entire secondary on their asses if he gets there.

Even though Jackson isn’t Drew Brees, and the receiving corps the Ravens have isn’t Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, I expect Crennel to use a lot of the concepts he used against New Orleans. Bend-don’t-break and find an intermediate pass that can be pounced on to get off the field.

Special teams

No reprieve here either, as the Ravens have the best kicker in the NFL and a slew of solid/average special teamers to back him up. The Texans continue to botch kicks left and right, getting one blocked against the Jaguars and then having Kai Fairbairn miss a 57-yarder way short.

Baltimore’s main punt returner, Cyrus Jones, was waived before this game. Maybe that’s something that goes in Houston’s favor? I’m grasping.

The read

Who is the player who I am most confident is great in this game? The answer is Deshaun Watson.

But I don’t know how to look at this game and believe the Texans will win it outside of a transcendent performance by Watson or Kansas City-esque ass-kicking in the run game. I don’t know that the Texans have a way to slow down the Baltimore offense. It’s a bad matchup — I don’t think they cut into the run offense much, and the Ravens know how to pound the middle of the field with their receivers and that’s the area that the Texans are terrible at defending this year.

I also believe in the analytics, and the Ravens believe in the analytics. As much credit as I’ve given O’Brien this year coming out of some of his games, and as much as the bye week will help the Texans, I just think Baltimore’s got them outflanked. I think this Ravens team is a purer expression of what the future of football looks like than what O’Brien’s Texans are. If BOB proves me wrong on this one, man, I’d love to eat that crow.

I will keep this prediction within one score almost entirely out of respect for Watson, but there is a part of my gut that believes this will be a blowout and a return to smaller ambitions like winning the division and hoping to play the Bills in the first round. Baltimore 30, Houston 22.

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Iā€™m happily writing this article free of charge ā€” this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Bye Week Texans Rookie Report Cards

We did this column for The Athletic this past year, I’ll write it again this year since we’ve got a bye week to play with.

I’m going to give players grades. The grades are not reflective of how I feel about the player’s long-term future — just how well they’ve played this year. I’ll talk plenty about long-term future of each as well. Now that I’ve written this you will promptly ignore it, but at least I can tap the top of the post like a good bus driver when you do.

Tytus Howard — 1-23, T, Alabama State
Did I write about this pick at the time: I sure did, here you go.

The context of drafting Tytus Howard changed completely when the Texans pulled off the Laremy Tunsil trade. My strong opinion that Howard is not the same sort of pass-protecting prospect that Andre Dillard is influenced a lot of how I felt about the pick at the time, because I didn’t think he could hack NFL left tackle. Now he won’t have to.

Howard’s preseason was … an adventure. The team played him at both left guard and left tackle. I’m not a fan of the decision to try to get a rookie to learn multiple spots in his first season, which is a philosophy that I think the Texans are really on an island with across the NFL. (BOB also stans the island of platooning tackles.) Howard looked downright lost in the Green Bay game at times — his first start.

He got two weeks at left guard before being moved outside, with Seantrel Henderson going to the bench. It’s plain as day that he’s a better athlete than Henderson, but that caused some initial struggles in chemistry.

Howard’s biggest strength to me right now is one-on-one run blocking. He’s got the power and speed, and doesn’t miss too many guys in a phone booth. It gets a little more questionable when he moves up to the second level, where he has missed some guys. But overall I’m on board with the idea that he has improved a little bit each time he played, exempting the two weeks he missed with a sprained MCL.

I don’t think there’s a lot to be worried about just yet as a future right tackle. His hand play could be better, and I could see that costing the Texans in a tight game down the stretch. His second-level blocking could be better. But he definitely has all the tools to stick at the position. He just needs time and experience.

Grade: B-minus

Lonnie Johnson Jr — 2-54, CB, Kentucky
Did I write about the pick at the time? Yes, I did

Johnson’s career arc is a little reversed, though I’m not all that surprised. Johnson got to play a lot of preseason ball against b-teams in vanilla coverages. He played very well given that context.

But I think it’s pretty clear that most NFL cornerbacks are not great in their rookie season, and Johnson, raw out of Kentucky, was never a good bet to break that mold. The Texans, of course, saw fit to bring their rookie cornerback along slowly by immediately releasing their starting nickelback, Aaron Colvin, after Week 1. That forced Johnson into the starting lineup. I think he’s improved a bit in man-coverage since his disastrous first few weeks.

His best snap of the year, like Howard’s, probably came in Kansas City when he had man coverage on the outside, Patrick Mahomes was the opposing quarterback, and he was up to the task against Demarcus Robinson:

He missed the London game with a concussion. Hopefully the bye week clears that up — concussions aren’t all the same.

I don’t think I expected more than this out of Johnson this season, so I’m not all that surprised that it’s been up-and-down. My mental comparison to him as Kareem Jackson at least looks to be a bit off, because he’s not getting torched in the same way, (Kareem struggled with the deep ball, not crossers.) Ultimately I think that’s about what the Texans are looking at here. I don’t think Johnson’s zone play or tackling will enable him to become a star without a lot more improvement than I’ve seen so far, leaving him looking to grow up into the same kind of solid-average corner Jackson is with better deep speed.

Grade: C

Max Scharping, 2-55, T, Northern Illinois
Did I write about this pick at the time?: Yes, I did.

My outside belief was that Scharping was a better tackle prospect than Howard was as far as actual play, and if the tools played, he would be a better pro. I don’t think we’ll ever know how that supposition would have turned out, because I don’t think the Texans will ever put Scharping outside. Scharping’s insertion at guard really helps his athletic tools play up though, so I doubt anyone is all that bothered.

Scharping’s preseason was, like the two guys ahead of him on this list, not exactly an auspicious start:

Scharping has added some real heft to the line since taking over in Week 3, I think Houston’s combo blocking has definitely improved with him at guard. Scharping is a max-effort kind of player who, without necessarily pancaking guys left and right, plays with a good amount of edge.

Pass blocking is a bit rough for Scharping right now, and I think a lot of that has to do with not being used to squaring up targets at the position. Some of his blocks, especially this one in Indianapolis, look a bit out of place:

Again, like with Howard, I see no reason the physical tools can’t make Scharping a good guard. I am not altogether unsure that he can’t play right tackle, though there should be no need for that. So far, the technique needs further refinement. I am optimistic that we can eventually look at Scharping as an upper-tier guard. How far he goes is up to him, but I think he has the raw talent and effort to be very, very good in a few years.

Grade: C-plus

Kahale Warring, 3-86, TE, San Diego State
Did I write about this pick at the time? I did, yes.

Warring has been on PUP or IR for almost the entirety of training camp and the regular season, and there has been zero rush to get him back onto the field with Darren Fells playing well and Jordan Akins capitalizing on his receiving snaps.

The long-term future could be real interesting here. Fells is a fine receiver in his role, but he is not dynamic in the slightest. If Warring who can block like Fells and break tackles like someone else is … well, that potential should at least excite the Texans enough to see where everybody is at next year.

Fells’ future is an interesting one. I think the Texans really like him. At the same time, they would have to admit that between Akins, Warring, and Thomas, they have drafted this position to be cheap and productive, and reeling back Fells might cost a little more after the kind of season he’s had.

I’d just say — I think Warring can still be just about anything, from All-Pro to washout, at this point.

Grade: Incomplete

Charles Omenihu, 5-161, DE, Texas
Did I write about this pick at the time? No.

I probably should have written about Omenihu’s college play. Maybe that can be a fun offseason project.

Instead, my first real glimpse of Omenihu was watching him in preseason, where he performed well, but always against B-teams. If you haven’t gleaned this from the Lonnie Johnson part of this post yet: I’m very reluctant to call someone a success because of preseason success unless they’re showing up against the starters. Omenihu showed, just not against the starters.

Omenihu has had a very impactful season to date, though not exactly in a way that I think suggests he’s a star. A building block, yes. He’s been fairly good at executing his run responsibilities, and he’s had two of the biggest strip sacks the team has created all season — one against Jacksonville, and one against Kansas City.

Omenihu has had an interesting season as far as playing time — not active for the first game, and the coaching staff essentially platooned him with Carlos Watkins when both were on the active roster until Week 9. Week 9, of course, is Houston’s first game without J.J. Watt. Omenihu did not become a full-time starter, but did grab the bulk of the snaps that Watt vacated.

Omenihu has played quite well within his role, but to me he’s a better fit as an interior rusher long-term. He’s a tick slow to the edge and I think his hand moves will play better against guards than they will against tackles. Best-case scenario here is you’ve got something in the five-to-seven sack range who mostly does it with smart reads. Worst-case at this point is probably a situational rusher.

Grade: B

Xavier Crawford, 6-195, CB, Central Michigan
Did I write about this pick at the time? No.

Crawford played no preseason snaps until Week 3, made the roster, played three defensive snaps when literally every other cornerback was hurt against Indianapolis, then was released and claimed by the Dolphins on waivers. Nothing I saw of his preseason work really made me think this guy had to stick, and as I did no work on him before training camp, I wasn’t super invested in him. Apparently other teams liked him though, so — you know, I doubt that it’s coming back to haunt the Texans with Conley on the roster but it’d be kind of funny if it did.

Grade: D-minus

Cullen Gillaspia, 7-220, FB/Special Teams, Texas A&M
Did I write about this pick at the time? No.

Let’s be honest, there hasn’t really been much of a reason for Gillapsia to be a fullback. When he has played, well, it hasn’t been great:

Evaluating good special teams play is beyond the scope of what I have time to do while paying bills — gotta make sacrifices somewhere — but I don’t think Gillapsia has been a superstar on them and I think you kind of have to be one if you’re going to contribute this little on offense. Rooting for him to get better looks, maybe get someone on his ass on a goal-line run, but I’m not rioting if he gets cut.

Grade: D-plus

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Iā€™m happily writing this article free of charge ā€” this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Four Downs: Texans 26, Jaguars 3

The Houston Texans came out with a statement against the Jacksonville Jaguars: We have Deshaun Watson, and you do not.

Staked with the ball first, the Texans established the tempo of the game with a 6:40 drive that only stalled out early because of multiple penalties. The Jaguars managed just four first-half drives, one of which was a kneelout. With Watson’s contributions in the running game, the Jaguars just never were fully able to get a bead on Carlos Hyde, and his 48-yard run towards the end of the third quarter led to the knockout touchdown.

The Jaguars were put in a multiple-score deficit after Houston scored a touchdown, and a Texans defense that played sound, disciplined football pounced all over some poor Gardner Minshew throws to end the game with four turnovers.

Credit where it’s due: This was an excellent game plan from the Texans, and they were able to overcome a lot of injuries to make a laugher out of a team that’s been pretty quality this year and gave them a scare at NRG.

Going to 6-3, with every other team in the division losing and Jacoby Brissett’s status up in the air, the Texans just pounced into prime playoff position as they head into their bye week. They’re two games up on most of the rest of the wild card hunt and division, and they’ve got every chance to control their own destiny against a schedule that only gets tougher after the bye.

1 –Watson deflates defenses

Doug Marrone was asked about the defense not finishing sack attempts after the game, and his answer is pretty revealing about the obvious advantages of having Deshaun Watson as your starting quarterback:

If we’re continuing our Michael Jordan comparisons that Jon Gruden gave us last week, Watson put a number of high-profile dunks on his beleaguered defensive opponents this week. He escaped a sack with an improvised dumpoff to Carlos Hyde that turned a potential third-and-long into a first down:

The defense thought they had him on second-and-20 in the second quarter, and instead he flipped a perfect ball out to Duke Johnson without even having a base under him to throw from, as both his legs were in the air:

And of course, the most iconic moment even as it didn’t go for six, Watson almost found a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter by jumping over Ronnie Harrison entirely:

What the Texans are doing right now is so simple. They’re using Watson as a rusher to get the box advantage, they have mostly gone away from deep throws the last few weeks against teams that tend to play a lot of deep safeties. They’re running a lot of read-option and run-pass options, and they’re telling defenses to solve it.

The reason this plan is so effective isn’t the plan itself — these plays are staples of many NFL offenses — it’s because Watson’s skill set is so extra deadly in them. You can’t have your defensive force player ignore Watson, so the Texans are always running with a numbers advantage. You can’t let tight ends sneak out, because that’s generally about 5-8 free yards, so when Watson rolls out, you can’t leave the tight end. You also have a player who can run for first downs outside. This was demonstrated well on Houston’s fourth-down conversion on their first touchdown drive:

You account for Akins, you account for Watson. Watson can still just make a perfect touch pass on the run and it looks childishly easy.

Watson is miserable to play against.

I will forever be grateful, after 15 years of above-average to poor quarterbacks, that we get to watch this every week.

2 — Game script defense

The Texans finished this game with four turnovers, four sacks, and five quarterback hits.

They had none of them before the score was 19-3.

I think if you’re trying to extrapolate how well this defense will play against better quarterbacks from this team, it’s probably about where we thought it was. Don’t be fooled by the scoreline. This was a perfect matchup for the Texans, one where Gardner Minshew rarely targeted the middle of the field, the Jaguars played right into Houston’s hand by running often, and Minshew was green enough to get fooled by Romeo Crennel’s late adjustments.

You’re going to hear a lot of crowing this week about this defense. Don’t fall for it. This will not become the norm. But I do think there are positives to take from how tightly they contested some balls and how disciplined the played as a whole.

3 — Laremy Tunsil’s absence was barely felt

This is my dead horse to ride on.

Against a team with three vicious pass rushers in Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen, the Jaguars managed one sack and seven quarterback hits. If Laremy Tunsil plays, I think you are looking at probably four quarterback hits instead of seven — this is, again, with some horrific tackle play from Chris Clark, who continued to rate as a rotation player in Bill O’Brien’s eyes for reasons I cannot even begin to comprehend:

This was always about the quarterback and what O’Brien was asking him to do. I give every bit of props to O’Brien for remaking the offense to challenge defenses earlier in the down, and I’m sure some of the wrinkles to this game plan would not work exclusively against every team with a bad left tackle all season. Laremy Tunsil has been extremely good when he’s played.

But part of the reason I was so adamant about that trade being an overpay is because I thought games like this were a reality with or without Tunsil. This is a real tough and nasty front, and Deshaun Watson’s passing chart showed that, with almost nothing super deep:

To me, the end game of this offense was always that the short would open the deep, not the other way around. I think there’s still plenty of ways for the trade to unfold where the Texans will have gotten their worth — particularly if Tunsil is able to stonewall some big pass rushers in playoff games to come — but when we are talking about how the Texans need to rebuild their pass rush next offseason, and the only thing I can talk about is free agency and weighing who needs to be re-signed versus who doesn’t … well, the Tunsil trade is going to continue to cast a big shadow over the future of this franchise. For better or for worse.

4 — Duke Johnson, WR1

With Keke Coutee apparently completely indisposed from the Houston game plan, and the short passing game being an emphasis the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of recentering around Duke Johnson. Johnson had five targets last week against the Raiders and found a touchdown out of them, and had five more against the Colts in Week 7.

Johnson, of course, was always going to deliver on these passes. He’s been an empirically amazing running back for several years, and I’m a big fan of any play that gets him into space. The only problem with Johnson right now is that he almost seems to telegraph that it’s going to be a pass play with his presence, which is why the Texans tried to get him going a little bit with a goal line carry:

I have generally been in favor of Carlos Hyde getting the carries between the tackles because to me there is a noticeable difference between the two in reading blocks. Johnson again didn’t have a great day with that, though he’s so dynamic that sometimes it just doesn’t matter. It might be worth setting up some more runs with Johnson solely to keep a defense on their toes. Especially if they can be designed in low-impact plays like second-and-short.

Duke Johnson was all about solidifying this offense’s floor, and he’s delivered on that. These targets would have gone to Alfred Blue or someone like Vyncint Smith last year. We saw what happened when Steven Mitchell was given a chance in the first quarter, when Watson led him perfectly and Mitchell couldn’t catch up to the ball. Johnson is one of the players that will probably keep me from ever predicting less than 20 points for the Texans all season. He’s just that dynamic.

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Week 9 Preview: Texans @ London (vs. Jaguars)

With a Deshaun Watson Houdini win in their back pocket from last week’s season-altering clash with the Raiders, the Houston Texans enter this week’s game in a precarious situation in a few ways. For one thing, the defense will have to operate without J.J. Watt, ending almost all of the pass rush they’ve received this season. For another, Lonnie Johnson’s concussion further exacerbates a cornerback unit that has been besieged by injury.

At the same time, even though this game is taking place at 8:30 central time, it has a ton of meaning for the Texans. A win would improve their playoff odds per ESPN’s calculations by 22%, Getting to 6-3 in this weakened AFC would mean a ton for the Texans.

Houston won Week 2’s matchup with the Jaguars by … one point. As I wrote then, there were reasons to believe Gardner Minshew had some promise, and he has mostly fulfilled that promise so far. The Jaguars, surprisingly, have a better pass offense DVOA than the Texans. Jacksonville has not beaten Houston since 2017. Houston is favored to win this game by … one point. It opened with the Texans as three-point favorites and got bet down.

The Jaguars have played in London every season since 2013. If you deeply care about the lore of London games, the Jaguars are 3-3 in these games. Both the Texans and Jaguars flew in on the same day, so thankfully we won’t be hearing much about the travel adjustment time in a competitive advantage sense.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

The major issue in this game is the return of Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue did not play in Week 2, but already has four sacks and 16 hurries per Sports Info Solutions. The health of Roderick Johnson and Tytus Howard remains an open question mark, though both practiced in full on Thursday. Backup tackle Chris Clark was a disaster in Week 8, and if he happens to get a full complement of playing time again I think it will significantly hurt Houston’s chances of getting much going downfield against the Jaguars.

With a healthy Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen, I expect to see the Texans doing a lot of what they did in the fourth quarter last week: rolling Watson out of the pocket to avoid pressures and set up their RPO quick pass game. The Jaguars are third in the NFL in sacks. Even if Howard is healthy, both he and Max Scharping have had their rookie-year issues in one-on-one pass pro, and the Jaguars blitz a fair amount.

Jacksonville is 24th in the NFL in DVOA allowed on passes over the middle, at 33.8%. Myles Jack has rebounded a bit from his rough start against Kansas City in Week 1, but Jacksonville’s cheap dreams at linebacker have been a disaster. Both Leon Jacobs and Quincy Williams have been sidelined with injuries in practices this week, and it seems likely that the Texans will draw Austin Calitro as a starter. The Texans will probably want to target him in RPOs.

I don’t know how else to say it: I am flummoxed by replacing Keke Coutee with DeAndre Carter last weekend. Carter is more elusive than speedy, and one of his downfield targets last week was more akin to watching a hockey goalie than a receiver. Coutee may have made mental errors, but he is head-and-shoulders above Carter as a receiver — and his elusiveness makes him a good fit for this game in particular. The Jaguars have allowed more yards after the catch than any team besides the Texans. I’m really hoping this was a one-week blip, because I think highly of Coutee’s on-field talent.

I’m sad the DeAndre Hopkins-Jalen Ramsey matchup is gone. It was always one of the biggest draws in the AFC South. The Jaguars are actually pretty banged up at cornerback as well, with DJ Hayden missing the first two days of practice this week and Josh Robinson suddenly retiring. Tre Herndon and A.J. Bouye look to be the outside corners, with Breon Borders next man up as the third guy. Hayden is listed as questionable. I think you could still see someone shadowing Hopkins, as that’s a power/length matchup and the Jaguars have traditionally showed Hopkins with Ramsey. The Jaguars did shadow Robby Anderson with Tre Herndon last week. Personally I think Bouye is a better fit for Hopkins since that’s power on power, but I’m not an NFL head coach.

The most important thing in this game for Houston’s sake is for them to be able to run the ball. The odds look good there in my opinion. The Jaguars have a positive run defense DVOA (bad), and allowed 126 rushing yards the last time these two teams met. They are coming off back-to-back weeks of 33 and 46 rushing yards allowed, but those were against two completely incompetent offenses in Cincinnati and the Jets.

When the Jaguars have the ball

Gardner Minshew has been pretty good this season, but the Jaguars maintain an offensive identity that is more about running the football. They are seventh in the NFL in rushing attempts even though a ton of the value they get from them are just the big randomly long Leonard Fournette runs. Per SportsRadar numbers, no NFL team gets more yards after contact than the Jaguars on their runs — 3.1 per attempt, and they lead the NFL on a counting stat level by more than 100 yards. This is a spotlight game for Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney — they’re going to be moving up in the pecking order for the Jaguars to block with Watt gone. Easiest way to hold down this offense is to keep them throwing in on third-and-long.

Jacksonville’s offensive line has received an upgrade in the form of a healthy Cam Robinson, who is much better than Will Richardson. You’ll recall that a lot of Houston’s pressure in Week 2 involved Whitney Mercilus dominating Richardson. Robinson is a much more fair matchup for the Jaguars. Not having to help Jawaan Taylor outside will also mean a lot in pass protection, as you’ll recall that they mostly kept Watt contained with double teams in Week 2.

The other thing that happened in Week 2 is that Romeo Crennel blitzed the hell out of Gardner Minshew. SportsRadar has Minshew with 20 blitzes taken in 37 dropbacks, and most of the non-blitz dropbacks were on the final drive. Minshew shows some pretty big splits between blitzed and non-blitzed games. The Saints brought 13 blitzes in holding him to 163 yards in Week 6. The Jaguars were held down through most of the game against the Broncos with 12 blitzes. Even the Bengals had early success with blitzes. I expect the Texans will make that a thematic part of the game plan again, especially because they have no other choice if they want to get pressure. It should be noted that Minshew has great success as a scrambler this year: No team has scrambled more than the Jaguars through Week 8, and their 7.9 yards per scramble are more than the Texans get from Watson as a scrambler.

I would classify the Jaguars as more of a short-passing offense than a deep-passing offense, but interestingly, most of those plays are away from the middle of the field. Minshew threw just one ball between the hashes in Week 8, and only eight passes qualified as “short middle” in the play-by-play. More interestingly, they only had two passes listed as “short middle” against the Texans in Week 2. This is a big positive to me as far as a matchup trend because the Texans, as I noted earlier this week, have been absolutely atrocious defending passes over the middle this past month:

The Texans will not have Tashaun Gipson or Lonnie Johnson for this game, with neither player making the trip across the pond. It looks like the starting cornerback trio will be Johnathan Joseph, Gareon Conley, and Keion Crossen. I expect the Jaguars to try to get DJ Chark on Johnathan Joseph as often as possible, as that’s a physical mismatch and something that worked in Week 2. Chris Conley also had a nice game outside in Week 2. Fill-in safety Jahleel Addae won’t be asked to do anything too big, with the Jaguars not working their tight ends often in the passing game. Mike Adams will take Addae’s role as dime safety.

There’s a lot of pressure on Houston’s defensive front seven to remain stout without Watt, but they did a fairly good job holding up against Josh Jacobs in the second half last week against Oakland’s run-heavy game plan. The Jaguars are primarily an 11-personnel team, so that’s asking a lot of D.J. Reader. But Reader has been great in almost every game this season, even when asked to play against Quenton Nelson.

Special teams

With field goals trending in the right direction, the Texans don’t have a real weakness as a special teams unit at this point.

The Jaguars have gotten excellent accuracy from Josh Lambo, but have just 73 yards from Dede Westbrook on 14 punt returns. He may be stretched a little thin between his role on offense and returns.

The read

As much as I think that the Texans will eventually be hurt by J.J. Watt’s absence, I think what they do as a defense is a fairly good fit for how the Jaguars play. They can stop the run. They already have proven they’ll send the heat at Gardner Minshew. Minshew may beat them deep a couple of times — that’s kind of how things have crumbled now. The Texans need those negative plays too badly.

I expect Bill O’Brien to play a heavily conservative game plan with a lot of runs. I think he knows how banged up his team is and is trying to get to the bye week with as little stress as possible. That could backfire if the Jaguars get off to a quick start, or it could be part of a positive game script.

After looking at the gritty details, I’m a little more encouraged by this matchup. I agree that the game will be close, and I think it will be less offensive than most of Houston’s last four games if only because both teams love to run. Texans 22, Jaguars 21 is the call here. I don’t feel very confident about this because I think Watt’s injury opens up a lot of different ways the Jaguars can win that we may not know about until they’re exposed on the field.

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What will Houston’s defense be without J.J. Watt?

You would probably have to go back to Romeo Crennel’s time with the Cleveland Browns to find a Crennel unit as unable to rush the passer as what Houston is left with after J.J. Watt’s injury this season.

In 2007, the Browns went 10-6. They did this despite not having a single player with more than five sacks. The ancient Willie McGinest started 11 games at Age 36. An 11-sack rookie year for Kamerion Wimbley quickly proved to be something he couldn’t live up to again. Robaire Smith was around. (Of course he was.) The team finished 30th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and was below-average in essentially every area on defense.

We don’t have a ton of advanced game charting stats from that time period, but the ones we do have back up the idea that this unit wasn’t driving quarterbacks off the field with hurries. Wimbley led the team with 17 hurries per Pro Football Prospectus 2008, and second was Antwan Peek, who would never play another NFL down.

That team gave up 350 or more yards in every single game it played until Week 12, when it held a second-year Gary Kubiak offense under Matt Schaub to 314. The Browns followed up with two highly questionable games against a couple of opponents that were under 300 yards: the Trent Edwards Bills and the Chris Weinke 49ers. In the offseason, they would heavily revamp the defensive line by bringing in an in-his-prime Shaun Rogers.

This is a history lesson, but it’s also a warning sign not to get your hopes up after the Gareon Conley trade. Crennel has always had a good pass rusher in Houston, even when that rusher was just a 23-year-old Jadeveon Clowney in 2016, the last season Watt missed most of where Crennel was the defensive coordinator.

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What the Houston defense has going for it right now is that they have an excellent run-stuffing unit. You’d think Watt would change that a bit. His absence will open up teams to run more directions, as Texans opponents have run at right tackle and right end a grand total of 16% of their runs all season as compared to the NFL average of 23%.

However, Watt was not necessarily racking up tackles for loss — he’s currently fourth on the team behind Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, and D.J. Reader. A lot of Houston’s negative plays come from shooting the gap, and I believe there’s still reason to think they can do that. Reader can still control his gap in a way that can win a play.

This won’t work against every team — many teams are built to throw. But the Texans do have one settled trump card that is better than most teams have, even without Watt.

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If you want to think of a way to contextualize superstar pass rushers, think of them this way: They are capable of erasing about five plays from a defense’s ledger. They aren’t going to win every down. They can be double-teamed. They mean a ton in the aggregate, but on a down-to-down basis they matter a lot less.

Many NFL teams — smart ones — have moved away from impact defensive linemen and instead invested in coverage players. PFF released a study noting that coverage grades have more reliability in predicting wins than defensive line play. The Patriots traded away Chandler Jones, one of the best defensive EDGEs of his era, on purpose. They let Trey Flowers walk for $90 million from Detroit. Someone named “Adam Butler” has 4.5 sacks for them this year. Jamie Collins, who was cut by the Browns, has six.

The problem with Houston’s pass defense, and something that we have seen exploited week after week without Jadeveon Clowney, is that teams can throw crossing routes over the middle of it with impunity. Teams targeting the middle of the field against Houston have an 89.4% DVOA on the season. Let me unpack that in non-statistical terms: Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL with a 38.8% passing DVOA. Throwing the ball to the short middle against the Texans is like employing someone twice as good as Patrick Mahomes on every snap.

Crennel was already trying to blitz to mask a lack of non-Watt pass rush. But — and I think this is something worth giving Crennel some credit on because this is very new to him — I don’t think his blitzes have been all that creative on a down-to-down basis. When you dabble in the world of film study enough to see rushes where players fake and take a lineman, then drop in to coverage, and compare that to what the Texans have … it feels quite remedial. They run stunts, and they run straight ahead into gaps — sometimes they get gaps that are wide open.

I hate comparing the Texans to the Patriots because a) as much as they want to become Patriots south, I don’t think they’ve really earned the comparison, b) nobody looks good compared to the Patriots and c) it feels like such a Dunning-Kruger syndrome thing to just say aloud “Why isn’t every NFL team copying the smart team?” But I’m doing it here because the Texans are heading into the realm of a team that needs to play a different game plan. They’re going to need to change whatever the hell this is:

Ultimately, the Texans are blitzing about as much as the Patriots are. The Texans don’t have Stephon Gilmore, but they have put significant investments into the cornerback position and do just fine for themselves when throws head deep and the completion percentage ground isn’t easy.

Listen, nobody thinks the Texans can cover on an individual level the same way that the Patriots can. Nobody is going to be upset if Zach Cunningham or Bernardrick McKinney get played in man coverage — that’s something we’ve seen tens of times by now. But the Texans need the wins they are going to get out of that aggressive coverage right now. They need to play some coverage that is going to be feast-or-famine, because right now, it’s all feast.

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Crennel has had to change a lot of his game plan from last year already, and I feel for him because this isn’t what he signed up for. I think a lot of what the Texans are doing now plays against the way he would prefer to call defense.

At the same time, this is now a completely desperate situation in pass coverage. It’s not going to be enough to keep doing the same things. Telling Jacob Martin to go be Watt isn’t going to work. How quickly Crennel figures that out — and how quickly he can figure out something that works — is going to be a big question. Given what Watt means to the organization in the face of getting rid of Clowney, and with Mercilus an impending free agent, this may be a transition point for the entire franchise.

Watt doesn’t have to be the deathblow to this season. It does make every play a lot less fun to watch. Deshaun Watson can erase a lot. But the Texans absolutely must figure out how to limit easy yards over the middle. The bye week could not be coming at a better time.

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Four Downs: Texans 27, Raiders 24

Michael Jordan comparisons were coming out of the mouth of Raiders head coach Jon Gruden after the Texans narrowly turned away the Raiders on a Sunday afternoon matinee at NRG.

No argument here.

On a day where the Texans offense seemed listless, and where the Raiders seemed to have opportunity to exploit a broken Houston defense with aplomb, the Texans were able to will out a win with Deshaun Watson. On a day where the rest of the AFC South also won, all but cementing the fact that the top two teams in this division are in line for playoff spots, the Texans kept pace in a game where they never seemed like they had much control.

Deshaun Watson kept them in the game.

1 — We are all eyewitnesses

This was not Watson’s sexiest game.

He didn’t throw a great deep ball all game, as Kenny Stills seemed unable to shake Oakland’s deep coverage. (What do Oakland, Carolina, and Jacksonville have in common? Let’s file that away as a post idea.) All Watson did was cooly take the Texans from a 21-13 hole to two consecutive touchdown drives. He bailed the Texans out of a pair of clutch situations with his legs, converting a fourth down deep in Texans territory (an incredibly ballsy call by Bill O’Brien) with his legs, and converting a third-and-1 in the red zone with his legs when nothing was open on a rollout.

Then we come to the play that’s going to be remembered for a long time:

Bill O’Brien said he thought they had a good play, but that it wasn’t open initially. Watson got kicked in the eye in the middle of the play. His eye was swollen, and he was down on the field for several minutes after it was over.

There is nothing that speaks more to the phrase “willing a team to victory” than what Watson did today. There are quarterbacks who would take that hit to the face and leave the game. Houston’s franchise quarterback took the kick, rolled out as if it’d barely happened, and fired a bullet to a well-covered Darren Fells for a go-ahead touchdown.

In a city that is spoiled for incredible talent right now: Altuve, Harden, Watt, Westbrook, Bregman, Cole, Verlander, Watson is still somehow the most compelling player to watch.

There have been better running quarterbacks, and there have been quarterbacks with better arms. But what Watson does with his own intuition and his own drive makes him a combination to where I can’t even compare him to anybody else I’ve seen play this game. He’s so watchable because he’s completely, utterly, one-of-a-kind.

Watson said he couldn’t even see when he let the ball go:

Preposterous.

2 — Goodbye, pass rush

The Texans got one quarterback hit all day, and it came on a play where Jacob Martin came late on a reset by Derek Carr:

And, of course, we learned as soon as the game was over that J.J. Watt would be out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Ian Rapoport reported it first, and Watt followed up with his own post about it:

As I brought up last week, the Texans have been bereft of pressure outside of Watt, who had 12 quarterback hits compared to his teammates’ six over the last three weeks. This only exacerbates the issue. Whitney Mercilus’ hot start was something everyone got excited about, but was really driven a lot by D.J. Reader’s hot start up the middle. With Reader cooling down as a pass rusher the last few weeks, it’s been nothing but Watt.

A secondary that already had problems covering is now about to see how they do with just about zero negative plays, barring yet another trade to fill the ranks. Even if the Texans do find somebody, they’re probably not going to find somebody like J.J. Watt. It’s, unfortunately, a devastating injury for this team’s chances of winning this season. There’s not much of a way to sugarcoat it. Deshaun Watson is going to have to ball out every week from here on out, and the defense is going to have to take advantage of it’s turnover chances.

3 — Gareon Conley’s revenge game

Conley’s first game in a Texans uniform wasn’t bad. He was burnt once, but on a route that you rarely see that happened only because the Raiders had extra time to dial it up:

It’s easy to look at him trailing on the touchdown and get upset and make a snap judgement about who won a trade. But, as I was saying to Avery Duncan on Twitter, I think Tyreek Hill beat Chris Harris on a similar route last week. Most cornerbacks don’t play to stop routes like that.

That’s not to say that Conley’s first game was great. He had another completion allowed at the top of a route after he slipped. Another deep ball that they targeted Conley on early was simply overthrown by Derek Carr:

But when the chips were down, in the biggest defensive play the Texans faced, Conley broke up what would have been a first-down throw to Tyrell Williams. It was a game-changer:

No big statements from me after this game. Conley played alright, I think he can do better. I just want to point out that the touchdown, even when it goes on his record here, isn’t really something you can expect most cornerbacks to do anything about.

You can really feel the deep passion flowing off those words. I don’t know if Conley will ever get over this.

4 — 2017 throwbacks nobody asked for

The Texans had Roderick Johnson active, but instead started Chris Clark at right tackle. Nobody asked Bill O’Brien to clarify Johnson’s status after the game so we’ll have to have that clarified at some other point, but if this was a straight benching, it made no sense.

Clark was quickly pushed around by an Oakland front that was in the bottom five in sacks created coming into the game. Benson Mayowa rolled right over him:

This was hardly the last time that Clark was rolled in this game, including being the root cause of a second sack:

The Texans lost Laremy Tunsil towards the end of the game, forcing Clark to left tackle with recent practice squad signee Dan Skipper at right tackle. The team was mum on Tunsil’s status, but that’s a good sign at least in so much as we know it’s not a season-ender. What was a position of strength as recently as the Kansas City game is now a position, once again, manned by guys who are going to start fires in the backfield and ask Watson to put them out.

A big part of the problem the Texans had in the early going was that they were allowing pressure, four-on-five, versus a Raiders front that couldn’t get pressure against anyone. If that trend continues, Watson is going to be ending every game looking like a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out profile photo.

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Week 8 Preview: Oakland @ Houston

Well, after blowing last week’s game against Indianapolis, the Texans come back to the comfy confines of NRG in what I think most people are projecting as a bounce-back spot. After all, the Raiders just traded one of their starting cornerbacks to the Texans for a third-round pick, they must be throwing in the towel on the season!

I don’t necessarily buy that hype. I don’t know that I’d call the Raiders an out-and-out dangerous team, but I think they present enough challenges to the Houston defense that they can hang close. This is another huge game for the Texans (aren’t they all?) because the Raiders are a hanger-on in the AFC wild card race, and an Oakland win would do a lot for their ability to stick around as well as any tiebreaks.

The Texans are favored anywhere between six and seven points from the numbers I’ve seen, without much budging. One thing that has moved is the over/under, which opened at 48 and is now straddling 51.5 in most spots. Points are a good expectation right now given how both defenses have been struggling.

The last time the Raiders and Texans met, Connor Cook gifted Bill O’Brien his first (and only, to this point) playoff win. They’d actually met in the regular season that year as well, in Mexico City — a game you might remember best for a horrific spot call by an official in Oakland’s favor that helped them score 14 points in the fourth quarter to win. In 2014, the Texans won 30-14 in a mostly-forgettable game in Oakland where Arian Foster rushed for 138 yards.

When the offense has the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

Few teams currently have as horrific of a defense as the Raiders have created under the watch of former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. The pass defense has been one of the worst in the NFL for two years running, following the trade of Khalil Mack. (It’s honestly been bad for longer than that, too.)

Oakland has just 10 sacks in six games. They have a league-worst 11 hurries. They rarely blitz (18.9%, 29th in the NFL), have allowed 16 passing touchdowns, and their averaged depth of target allowed is the third-highest in the NFL at 10.9. Their cornerbacks and safeties have not played well this year. To this point, they have checked just about every box you can check for a bad pass defense.

On an individual level, Gareon Conley’s trade would appear to open up snaps for Trayvon Mullen, their second-round pick out of Clemson. Mullen has played reasonably well in limited playing time, but as a rookie, could be a source of big plays. He’s already allowed one passing touchdown in six targets. The players with the most pass pressures on this team — I swear to God I am not making this up — are nose tackle Johnathan Hankins and journeyman end Benson Mayowa. I would call Maurice Hurst their most talented rusher, but he is not a full-time player.

After reviewing the All-22 from last week’s loss, I don’t think there are long-term concerns for the offense. They did seem to abandon 12-personnel very early to me, but the Colts also played the read-option stuff that worked against Kansas City pretty well. Ultimately, if they hammer in a few of their red zone opportunities, I think we might be talking about this team in a different light this week.

Oakland has allowed 9.3 yards per attempt and 16 passing touchdowns against 11-personnel, while collecting just eight sacks in 165 dropbacks. Even if Bill O’Brien’s offense takes things back to deep play designs, I’m struggling to find a lot to be worried about with this defense besides the random turnover luck inherent in any game.

Will Fuller has not practiced and is expected to be out for a while, so expect Kenny Stills to take over as the main deep threat this week. I think that’s a fantasy football play with some upside. Roderick Johnson has been limited in practice with Tytus Howard still down, and Johnson did not put together a great game against the Colts last week. That’s one spot where I think the Raiders could generate some pressure.

When the Raiders have the ball

This is the part of the game that is very hard to write about in-depth only because the state of both of these units are so in-flux. The following players have had limited practices or no practices through Thursday night and have signaled they might play anyway this week: Josh Jacobs, Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson, Trent Brown, Tyrell Williams, Tashaun Gipson, Johnathan Joseph, Bradley Roby

Let’s start with the general scope of things. The Raiders are a good style matchup for a Texans team that spent last week getting coverage busted all over the field. The offense Jon Gruden has built around Derek Carr relies mostly on safe, short throws — their 6.6 average target distance is tied for third-shortest in the NFL. Per the SportsRadar definitions of a “Bad Throw,” Carr has fewer of them than any quarterback in the NFL. Teams have essentially given up on trying to blitz them — they have taken fewer blitzes than any NFL team.

With J.J. Watt essentially neutralized by game plan — if you think I’m kidding, the Broncos had a healthy Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and got nothing against Oakland — this will become about execution for the back seven. Jon Gruden probably has several ideas about exactly where to stuff the ball at Gareon Conley. Lonnie Johnson had a devil of a time with man-beaters last week. Even the normally reliable tight-end defense cratered with Tashaun Gipson mostly sidelined, allowing a combined seven catches for 91 yards and a score to Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle.

That last part is of interest with the only for-sure healthy Raiders receiving stud being Darren Waller, who lit up the Packers for 126 yards and two touchdowns. So, really, Gipson’s health is a big ex-factor for this game.

The Texans responded to Indianapolis’ short passing game by bringing a lot more heat in the second half and playing an even more aggressive game plan than their initial stab in the first half, which was primarily a man-to-man style with one deep safety. They finished the game blitzing Jacoby Brissett on 21 of 39 dropbacks. That this rarely happens to the Raiders leaves the question of what happens when a blitz is sent up for grabs. Carr has traditionally not been very good with pressure in his face, but the Raiders have been good at keeping that from happening.

Oakland has a great offensive line if everyone is healthy, and Josh Jacobs has been stellar in his first six games. So the nagging question of health hovering over it all is pretty interesting. The Texans beefed up for dealing with Marlon Mack last week, using Brandon Dunn on 34 snaps — nine more than he’d seen in any other game — and holding Mack to 1.2 yards before contact per attempt. Rodney Hudson and Richie Incognito have both been excellent in creating space in the interior. This will be a terrific clash of strength-on-strength up front if Oakland’s line suits up. (All of them suited up last week except Brown.)

The Raiders use 11-personnel less than 51% of the time, as compared to the NFL average of 61%. Like the Colts, they are practitioners of 13-personnel. They also have a foothold in 22-personnel with an actual fullback in Alec Ingold. Think of this offense kind of like Gary Kubiak’s old Texans offense and you’ll get the gist of it. Carr has been much less effective out of 11-personnel, and if the Texans establish a game script where they are leading and running clock, that will make a comeback harder.

Special teams

Kai Fairbairn had a lot of practice ironing things out last week, so that’s good news except for the part where the Texans lost. That remains the only gaping hole on their unit on a seasonal basis.

Trevor Davis has killed it since the Raiders traded a low-round pick for him in the return game. Dwayne Harris combos to create a great kickoff return unit. A.J. Cole (the former Nationals pitcher?) hasn’t been helped out by his coverage unit.

The read

I would be very surprised if the Raiders out-and-out blew the Texans out. That hasn’t happened since Deshaun Watson took the field. Oakland’s run defense DVOA is good and will probably prevent them from being pushed off the field like Kansas City was. (Though I will note, it’s always harder to assume that when Watson is a real part of the run threat.)

Trying to get off of my own slump here after two straight picks losses, I think the Raiders keep this closer than most fans will be comfortable with, but ultimately succumb to the Texans, 31-29.

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Gareon Conley’s flashes are worth buying in on

It is weird to believe that Bill O’Brien could buy low on anybody, just as it’s weird to believe that you can say that about someone who cost a third-round pick.

Green Bay’s decimation of the Raiders showed Conley at the nadir of his value. He was eaten up at times as a run defender. He gave up a tough catch to Jake Kumerow where the rookie ate him up on a curl route. He was in coverage on a deep ball to Marquez Valdes-Scantling that went late in the route once his safety cut inside and left the rest of the field open.

Jon Gruden has always been an aggressive coach, and he has yet to actually field a good defense in Oakland under Paul Guenther. Oakland is 30th in defensive DVOA this year, and was 30th last year. (They were 29th the year before!) The Raiders have zero pass rush and everybody involved in this secondary has to cover forever to make up for it. Didn’t they have some “Mack” guy at some point? Anyway…

So you’ve got two of the most impulsive NFL head coaches teaming up to make a deal that, on the surface, I think is actually pretty fair for both sides. It reminds me a lot of the Eli Apple trade last season. Apple got dealt for a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder, and I think we can probably say Apple doesn’t have Conley’s ceiling.

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Conley’s Raiders career

Conley missed most of his first season with a shin injury that sent him to IR after a couple starts. The start of his second season was kind of colored with a lot of easy Case Keenum targets, but he wasn’t quite up to par on a few of the deep balls.

Conley had 15 single-coverage targets in his first two starts in 2018 per Sports Info Solutions. His snaps were down significantly after those two games, hitting their low point in Week 5 against the Chargers where he had just 12 defensive snaps. Gruden carrot-and-sticked his secondary hard in 2018. Conley had seven games with 89% or higher of the defensive snaps, and then also six games with between 46 and 73% of the snaps. Gruden also fought similar battles with Rashaan Melvin.

Towards the end of the season — I’d say his turnaround started in around the Indianapolis game in Week 8 — Conley started playing a lot better. He was tighter in his man coverage, and even when he was beat, he was still putting himself in good positions. I saw multiple examples of him learning on the field and even within a game.

Conley, I think, became a much more complete player towards the end of last season. I don’t necessarily buy the very common trope that I’ve had lobbed on me on Twitter that he’s a better man player. Towards the end of last year, he was doing well in man:

But, he was also making some well-thought out reads in zone:

Conley’s end of 2018 play was impressive — he was rightfully considered one of the two or three most valuable players on the Raiders this offseason. The Texans probably aren’t able to make this play before the season, or even two weeks ago. I think they may have been a bit lucky that this Packers game happened in the long run.

While he wasn’t playing as well in 2019, I think anybody with the kind of flashes that Conley showed in 2018 is worth a real investment. I also don’t think Conley was playing all that poorly outside of the Green Bay game.

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The weaknesses

Conley’s weaknesses have a lot to do with one of the things you saw on that Packers tape: tackling on the outer third. That was not the first touchdown I saw him give up on that kind of play. He also was roasted in single-coverage on Melvin Gordon last year on the same sort of play.

I think the other clear weakness he has — and I think this is something that the Texans have stacked a lot of similar guys on — is in-breaking routes. Not specifically slants, but longer-developing plays where he has to cross the field horizontally. He had a lot of trouble keeping up with them early on in his career.

Again, to emphasize: I don’t think his zone defense is all that bad. I think he has some punch in off-man:

But when you ask him to move horizontally — think about the reception Bradley Roby allowed late in the Falcons game where he sort of slipped and fell late in a route — I think Conley has a lot of problems with those kinds of balls as well.

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Long-term versus short-term

The Texans weren’t ever going to get into the Marcus Peters or Jalen Ramsey discussions. They didn’t have that kind of draft-pick firepower available. So when you thinned the market a bit, and you realized the Texans were in it after injuries continued to hammer the secondary, I think it mostly came down to Gareon Conley versus Chris Harris. (Maybe you could throw in William Jackson, but I think he would have cost more than Conley because the Bengals are super old school.)

Harris is, in my opinion, the better player today. But Harris is a pure rental, and is turning 31 next season.

Conley comes with an additional year of cost control, and probably two years of cost control as I can’t imagine the Texans not picking up his fifth-year option unless he’s an utter disaster or suffers a career-ending injury.

I loathe Bill O’Brien tossing draft picks away like candy, but I’m almost starting to wonder if it’s a methodical madness. Deshaun Watson will always keep this team afloat as long as he’s healthy. If Watson isn’t healthy, the team was going to fall apart anyway. The funny thing about future draft picks is that there are always more of them to trade.

At any rate, without the Tunsil trade, I don’t think anyone is concerned about the Conley trade. The concern is that the future gets shakier than ever, but the price for the player feels right to me.


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Four Downs: Colts 30, Texans 23

I mean, it is what it is.

There’s not much new to be said. The Texans have been owned by Frank Reich’s Colts. Outcoached. In Bill O’Brien’s words, “they did a good job.” They have a lot of “good players.” They do a lot of “good things.”

The Texans didn’t answer the bell. O’Brien’s team made a number of on-field mistakes. Most notably, they gave the Colts a free set of downs in the red zone when Bernardrick McKinney hit Eric Ebron away from the play, drawing a flag. The Colts scored touchdowns on four of their first seven possessions, and the three possessions that didn’t score were an end-of-half kneelout, an aggressive fourth-down go that got stopped, and a fumble that set the Texans up with great field position.

There were a number of highlights for Jacoby Brissett which were just way, way, too easy.

Instead of stomping down on Indy’s throat while they had an injured secondary, the Texans slid right back to the pack, putting the division up for grabs and making the season much tenser than it had to be.

I wish I could say I was surprised.

1 — RPNo

After tearing up the Chiefs with misdirection runs, the Texans leaned mostly away from that outside of their touchdown run with Keke Coutee and maybe a few other plays:

Now, I understand that football teams can sometimes wax and wane on concepts in a game. Maybe the Texans didn’t think the Colts would bite so hard. But leaning so far away from what was so successful is, in my opinion, a little overly cute. Make the Colts prove they can stop it. This was highlighted by the bizarre idea to mostly go with Duke Johnson on the opening drive, one where he ran for six yards on three carries.

Houston eventually got to 100 yards on the ground, but it took 24 carries, and they had just one rushing first down in a first half that mostly set the terms of engagement for the rest of the game. That came on this cleverly designed O’Brien run where Deshaun Watson was under pressure and did whatever the hell he wanted:

Bill O’Brien, I’m sure, has a reason that he leaned so far away from what worked last week. All I can tell you right now is that nobody asked about it at his post-game presser as far as I could hear. Not much was said about it. Maybe we’ll get something on Monday.

One of O’Brien’s biggest weaknesses is his adherence to the run game while trailing. When it all looks good, and the play-action passes are hitting, his offense looks unstoppable. But when what should be part of the base offense is instead a wrinkle, and he can’t decisively win the ground game, well, nothing comes easy. You can’t have that in today’s NFL, especially with how easy things looked for Indianapolis with much less talent.

2 — Bill O’Brien’s fourth-quarter drive and safety

I have been nice to Bill O’Brien this week, and even applauded him for (correctly) going for it on fourth down a few times in this game. So let’s bury him together.

The Texans get the ball in the fourth quarter with 4:09 left. They are down five points. They have all their timeouts. Here is the sequence of plays:

— First-and-10 pass to Hopkins, incomplete. OK, makes sense. Colts saw the play coming.
— Second-and-10 run with Duke Johnson for three yards. Inexcusable play call this backed up if you’re not going for it on fourth down, then, somehow, it was made worse by the fact that the Texans then let 41 seconds run off the clock before their next snap at 3:23.
— Third-and-7 sack taken by Watson. Then, a carnival of indecision before the Texans called a timeout with 2:44 left. They let more time run off the clock trying to decide what to do.
— Then they take an intentional safety. Let’s throw it to BOB:

Per the folks at EdjSports, where I do some work and am privvy to some information, here’s what the splits look like on that fourth-and-9 play.

–Decision to punt puts the game-winning chance at 7.5%.
–Decision to go for it puts the game-winning chance at 14.5%
–Decision to take a safety puts the game-winning chance at 4.3%.

Now, some of that comes down to the actual idea of winning the game. It’s hard to win the game when you put yourself down seven without overtime. But the Colts on a punt are more likely to run the clock out or attempt a field goal than they are to get a touchdown, and that means that the Texans could still catch them in any scenario where they got the ball back.

This was a masterpiece of overthinking. I feel like I talk about O’Brien’s clock management in every loss the Texans have. But removing the opportunity to win the game with a touchdown in a one-score game is special even for O’Brien. It’s not like Adam Vinatieri has been lighting it up this year — I think the Colts were more likely to go for it than attempt the field goal on fourth-and-short at, say, the 38.

3 — Injuries on injuries on injuries

This is why the Texans went out and got Kenny Stills. The perception is that Will Fuller isn’t healthy often, and when he’s not, it takes Houston’s offense with it. Well, here we go. Fuller was taken out in the first quarter, ruled out at halftime, and the Texans attempted exactly one pass deeper than 20 yards before halftime.

Stills lived up to his end of the bargain when targeted:

The Texans continued to deal with injuries to the secondary, where Johnathan Joseph exited and can, if we’re being honest, not really be counted on to finish any game he plays in at this point. Phillip Gaines left later and appeared in the locker room on crutches. Jon Weeks has a bum ankle. Roderick Johnson took a stinger, per Texans PR.

It’s convenient and cathartic to blame injuries for this loss, but just like it is with the officiating, that’s not really the scope of the game. Houston had backup playmakers and backup defensive backs that shouldn’t have been much of a dropoff from the starters, in theory.

They had more than enough firepower to win the game. They out-performed the Colts on a yards per play basis. They had only one more turnover, and that came on the final drive of the game while trying to tie the game.

I think, as usual with these kinds of things, a lot combined to go wrong to sink the Texans. But the galling thing about it is that, even when given proper replacements, the offense didn’t seem to run any smoother. They ran their smoothest when they were just going hurry-up, two-minute drill ball. The defense ran their smoothest when they’d lost Joseph.

The worst feeling of all is when it feels like all this attention and coaching for a divisional game is less effective than just letting guys roll out there and play basic concepts on their own.

4 — A one-man defense

J.J. Watt had an incredible day. He batted down one pass, had six quarterback hits, and was the only consistent pressure that the Texans got against Jacoby Brissett all day. He also drew two different holding flags.

via NFL Next Gen Stats

When Brissett had a clean pocket, he was able to pick and choose exactly what he wanted from the Texans defense. Brissett finished 22-for-26 for 266 yards and four touchdowns from a clean pocket. He was just 4-of-13 for 60 yards under pressure.

The Texans came away with just one sack. Whitney Mercilus got a fumble recovery off of a bobbled snap, and got half of the sack with Brennan Scarlett, but was otherwise empty. I can’t remember D.J. Reader making any splash plays in this game. All the other rushers got just about nothing.

Watt is a hell of a player, a Hall of Famer, and it’s awesome to know that he hasn’t declined much. It would be even nicer if he had some actual help. The Texans were able to shut down Brissett with better blitz schemes and more aggressive coverages in the fourth quarter, but were otherwise just completely lost.

Watt has 12 quarterback hits over the last three games. Nobody else on the team has more than two.

It was a day to miss Jadeveon Clowney, even if he would have jumped offsides once or twice.

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Iā€™m happily writing this article free of charge ā€” this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.