Four Downs: Texans 36, Titans 42

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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As J.J. Watt succinctly put it after the game: This one really hurts.

It hurts because you got the cosmic breaks to align for you that you needed to win the game. The pick by Bradley Roby downfield because Tannehill carried the ball a little too far outside the numbers. The strip sack and fumble deep in Titans territory that Watt caused and that the Texans capitalized on. The blocked field goal by Justin Reid. A second missed field goal by Gostkowski! The big plays were there.

And on the same line of thought, it hurts because the offense delivered. 335 passing yards from Deshaun Watson despite a quiet day from Randall Cobb. The Texans punted on just four drives and when they did punt, they often pinned Tennessee deep. They answered back-breaking plays like the 94-yard Derrick Henry run with great plays of their own.

But most importantly, it hurts because the Texans are running out of time. They’re not a shitty team. They’re a 1 -5 team primarily because of the schedule that got nailed to them, a defense moved past prime that they never fixed, and a devotion to a few franchise-crippling addictions that they just can’t shake about how football is played.

Even despite all of that, this game was there on a platter for them if they held the Titans to not scoring a touchdown from their own 24, in 1:50 with one timeout. Win the game, you’re 2-4, you’re 2-0 in the division, life goes on. They couldn’t get it done.

1-5? It’s realistically over. You’re at run the table territory. And if it gets to 1-6 after playing the Packers on Sunday, you’d be foolish not to listen to offers on anything that isn’t nailed down.

The Texans are a victim of their own hubris. Nobody should feel bad for them in general. They created what they’ve become. But it’s terrible to suffer through as a fan. Watching Watson get anchored to things that are clearly not working is wildly entertaining, but ultimately unfulfilling in the way that things with known endings are. And, of course, it’s not great for business either! Turns out most people do not care about the stories of 1-5 teams.

But, you’re still reading, so let’s dance.

1) One of the worst defensive performances in modern NFL history

There have been, per Stathead, 21 times in NFL history since 1979 prior to today where an offense has totaled 600 or more yards. There have been, per Stathead, four times in NFL history prior to today where a rushing offense has run for 9.7 YPC on 25 or more carries. The Texans are lucky No. 5:

Literally the only thing the Texans showed any aptitude for stopping today was screen passes, and even that has a corollary in that Lonnie Johnson gave every inch of his body to keep Derrick Henry from rumbling a checkdown pass all the way down to the end zone on the first play of overtime. Look at Tannehill’s completion chart — this is insane:

Name me a play that worked for the Texans that the Titans had any ambitions on — you basically can’t! On just about every play I can show you where someone got pushed out of their gap, got suckered, or was otherwise owned. The Texans were lucky to hold the Titans to 42 points. The three possessions the Titans had that didn’t end via turnover only ended because of penalties. Holding that created first-and-20 at the HOU 39 on the blocked field goal drive, holding that created first-and-20 at the HOU 36 on the missed field goal drive, and a false start that created first-and-15 on the opening drive.

Heads won’t roll, because there are no heads left to roll outside of Easterby and Cal McNair needs a tough, smart, and dependable golf buddy, but I think there has been a clear shift towards Romeo’s defensive strategies in the last few games and what the Texans do is rely on an offense to beat itself at a time where offenses are more efficient than they’ve ever been in NFL history. I think there’s something indirectly telling about this J.J. Watt quote:

The thing about people not doing their job is that your team is only good as your ability to hold someone accountable for that. The Texans either don’t have a lot of depth or act like a team that doesn’t have a lot of depth. I’ll let you decide — I tend to think the coaches are pretty decent talent evaluators.

I predicted a win against the Titans today and many, many breaks went Houston’s way. But you can’t win games with a defense like this. Wholesale changes in scheme or personnel are needed. Good players aren’t playing smart. (Zach Cunningham.) Bad players are being put in a losing position too often.

Arthur Smith hung this defense on the door by the back of its coat like the Wet Bandits in Home Alone and instead of trying to get off the hook, they just flailed around uselessly.

2) The sunk cost fallacy, or what David Johnson is teaching us everyday

There continues to be an amazing irony haunting the Texans via the David Johnson trade: for a team that wants to be balanced and run the ball, and a team willing to pay a premium for that, the Texans are terrible at it! Every other team they’ve faced this year outside of maybe Kansas City is somehow better than they are at running the ball. But … let’s hear both sides:

When the announcers say something like that, you can guarantee that it usually has backing behind the scenes. But let me be clear: There isn’t going to be a David Johnson resurgence on a type of play he was never good at. Stop trying to make David Johnson carries inside, isolated from Watson, happen. The Texans went for it on fourth down a lot in this game — three times. The reason they had to go for it is because they spent snaps on trying to make Johnson matter. Johnson was stuffed for no gain on back-to-back plays at the goal line on Houston’s last real drive of regulation. He got exactly one yard on fourth-and-1 — barely — to keep that drive alive to begin with. The call to put him up the middle on third-and-1 is what made them go for it on their first fourth down.

This isn’t even counting this hilarious play:

Friends, we all have bad habits we’re in to. I eat too much when I’m depressed — it’s something that ties back to being incredibly alone when both of my parents passed away. I don’t try to bottle up a lot of rage. I don’t vent a lot. But I do just have a sad little moment where I throw down a full personal pizza from time-to-time.

These David Johnson carries are the bad habits that keep the Texans from winning. This trade wasn’t justifiable from the moment it was made. Ross Blacklock could turn into J.J. Watt tomorrow and it was still an incredible waste of a great player on a contract that could have been kept satisfied.

Does this sound like a quarterback who is excited to hand it off? Especially in light of the fact that when he gets involved in the run game, it actually functions? I know you don’t want Deshaun Watson getting hurt in what is quickly becoming a fairly meaningless season, but like, it’s pretty evident what happens when he gets involved, right?

We’d all love to be the best versions of ourselves. I’d love to wear size 32 pants and the Texans would love David Johnson to get 100 yards on the ground. Neither of those things are happening this season. The sooner the Texans move on from the mindset that created this trade and this circumstance, the better.

3) The two-point attempt, the math behind it, and why nobody should care what Rich Gannon thinks

The Texans, up seven with 1:50 to go, attempted to go for a two-point try that would have essentially won the game. I’ll let Deshaun Watson tell you about the play:

Here’s how it looked as they ran it:

They wanted to go to Duke Johnson, you can see he gets held at the line pretty quickly. Tytus Howard gets beaten around the edge and forces a step up. but as Watson moves up Randall Cobb flashes open on a Cooks pick. It worked out well right up until the part where the ball deflects off an underneath defender.

Now, the inherent math behind that actually is not in favor of going for two:

But I’m going to tell you why I don’t care: Refer to point one. The Texans defense was an utter shitshow for this entire game. Romeo’s a defense-first guy, I think he knows a little something about how things are trending on that side of the ball. Do you think he had any faith in the unit at that point? Because I can’t see a single reason he would. The slaughter was almost a foregone conclusion. The question would simply be if the Titans could be stopped on the two-point attempt. So: Do you trust Watson playing out of his mind, or a defense playing like it has no mind?

Not a very hard decision to me. I respect the call even though it didn’t work out. Rich Gannon had an aneurysm about this because he was born at a time where football teams played defense. That time is not now.

4) Tough, smart, and dependable

So the Texans have this mantra of tough, smart, and dependable. It’s another one of those cringy things Jack Easterby brought to the organization that feels like it was designed by a multi-level marketing scheme creator:

The Texans have this whole “glue guy” idea floating around the organization, and think they can spot a character that makes a player great. They have evaluated personality as much as they’ve evaluated football talent.

The one thing that came out of post-game interviews that was extremely interesting to me was Romeo Crennel’s description of what happened on Derrick Henry’s walkoff wildcat touchdown run. Let’s start with the run:

You can see certain players don’t get a good quick read of this. Mostly they are the ones who weren’t sure why nobody called timeout.

And then here’s what Romeo said after the play about it as someone asked about calling timeout because of confusion:

“That play was run in practice,” is dagger one. “They should have been prepared,” is No. 2.

Are these the kinds of things you have to say about players that are smart, tough, and dependable? This isn’t a new phenomenon. What happened at the end of the Texans game today is the same thing that has happened at the end of halves to them for years under Bill O’Brien. Even dating back to the 2017 Seahawks and Patriots games, this defense often acts like its head has been chopped off every time things get dire and the clock is flying.

So when a coach says something like that about his defense … what does that tell us? Does it tell us that they’re smart, tough, and dependable? He won’t baby his team and give them a timeout.

Maybe, just, maybe, “smart, tough, and dependable” is something that has to be earned on the field. You can’t just pretend a guy showed up for his practice reps so he’s ready. The real job is to be there on Sunday, with the game on the line, and play cool under pressure. Something that this defense — and, indeed, many players under the greater protection of the TSD mantra with O’Brien — has never done.

“Tough, smart, dependable” just means “our guy.” He’s our guy. Own it. If being tough, smart, and dependable means you’re allowed to suck on any Sunday — or, taking this to general managers, any trade — you want, then there’s no culture of accountability. It’s just a set of words that means a player is our guy.

Maybe some of these players shouldn’t be your guys. Maybe some of these team architects shouldn’t be getting to decide who is smart, tough, and dependable, when there’s no reason to believe they would know a player like that from a hole in the ground.

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Week 6 Preview: Texans @ Titans

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

This is going to be a weird thing to say about a game involving a 1-4 Texans team, but there are true, real stakes here for the rest of the season. Beat the Titans and you’re 2-4, you’ve got two division games in hand, and you can’t really look at the rest of the AFC South and say you can’t compete. After all, you just went and beat the undefeated team on the road. Lose, and you’re four games back in the division, you’ve got a real chance to backpedal into the bye 1-6, and at that point you hit the trade deadline looking very hard at what you can part with to jumpstart the plans for 2021.

When you fire the head coach at 0-4, you aren’t firing him because you think the season’s over. You’re firing him because you think he is actively a detriment to your players, and there’s still a lot of season left. The version of the 2020 Texans that was supposed to be a playoff team, a true contender? That squad is still fighting to project its real image on to the NFL.

The Texans defeated the Titans last year in Nashville, a Week 15 affair that mostly turned on a red zone pick that Justin Reid forced and Whitney Mercilus brought back inside the Titans 20. I wrote about that game here. It’s funny to think about what a thorn in the side that game was for a Titans team that would eventually overwhelm the Patriots, upset the Ravens, and lose to the Super Bowl champions in Kansas City in the AFC Title game. The Texans also started A.J. McCarron against the Titans in Week 17, a game nobody should spend even five minutes thinking about. In case you are also a sadist, I wrote about that game here.

The Titans were favored by 5.5 points at open, and that line has already been bet down to just 3.5. It’s an interesting turn of events from Vegas to say that an undefeated 4-0 Titans team coming off an impressive win on Tuesday is barely home-field better than a 1-4 Texans team. Of course, one of those teams has a full week’s rest, one of them doesn’t. And, you know, all the weirdness of the coaching change requires a more dynamic set of analysis and energy than the glazed-over look you could approach the O’Brien Texans with.

When the Texans have the ball

Running on the Titans is something that sounds appealing if you look at box scores. Tennessee has allowed a league-worst 5.5 yards per carry, and every single one of their opponents has racked up at least 123 rushing yards. At the same time, the advanced stats see them as only a slightly-below average run defense.

They’ve played two of the best 10 DVOA run offenses in Minnesota and Denver. They’re also one of the teams that would seem to struggle with the one thing David Johnson does well: get outside. In their first three games of the season, the Titans allowed 6.5 yards per carry on 23 runs at left end or right end. Some of those are scrambles, yes. But the Vikings repeatedly were able to gash them. If there is to be any kind of coalescing around David Johnson’s Texans tenure as more than a meme, it has to start in this game. He barely got going at all against the Jaguars and his stats were padded by two big end-game runs. The Texans have made some good noise this week about avoiding areas that aren’t productive for them. That starts with keeping Johnson away from the middle of the field against a Titans defense that can whiff on the edges. DaQuan Jones destroyed Nick Martin on power moves a couple of times last year. They will need to use the interior run game as a change-up, in my opinion.

While Deshaun Watson has been humming well enough this season, we haven’t really seen a transcendent performance from him yet. That needs to change this week. The Titans were able to come away with two Watson interceptions last year in Week 15 — one tipped, one a coverage disguise — and Watson didn’t seize control of that game like you’d expect a $40 million player to. Watson mentioned in his press availability after their win against Jacksonville that he’s been very hard on himself this year. I think Romeo Crennel’s energy will let him be more comfortable ripping it as we continue the season, and I’m expecting bigger and better things from him than we’ve seen so far.

The Tennessee pass defense is not very imposing on paper. They may be 11th in pass defense DVOA, but they were shredded by Josh Allen for most of last week’s game. They happened to bait him into a few big interceptions — they have nine turnovers this season compared to just one giveaway for their offense. But they didn’t generate those turnovers because of the pass rush or anything like that — the Titans have just 34 SportsRadar pressures this season, third-fewest in the NFL — and only five sacks. The Texans have 14 sacks as a team, if you want to compare. Jadeveon Clowney is still a monster player, but the rest of this pass rush simply hasn’t developed as everyone thought they would yet. Harold Landry has no sacks and just a 9.5% pressure rate through 74 rushes. Jeffery Simmons has been up to the task of replacing Jurrell Casey, but otherwise it’s been tough sledding. The Titans last year under Dean Pees did not believe in blitzing Watson at all, sending just one blitz at him in the entirety of the Week 15 game. I’ll be curious to see how they feel after watching the Jaguars game last week.

And while Kevin Byard is a star, the Texans should feel reasonably confident they can win every wideout/corner matchup on the board. Adoree Jackson is on IR. Malcolm Butler hasn’t been good for years. Johnathan Joseph is smart and heady but not fast — absolutely not the guy you want guarding Brandin Cooks. Chris Jackson took back-to-back DNPs on the practice report (the Titans had no actual practice on Wednesday) and carries a toasty 28.9 PFF rating this year. As long as the Texans offense doesn’t fall into bad habits, I’m not really seeing a lot to be concerned about here. Tennessee will make you march the long way — Josh Allen had just one 20-plus yard completion, Kirk Cousins three.

The Titans defense is well-coached and well-oiled. They have some very good pieces. The sum of the parts … I don’t think it’s quite come together yet. Opponents are converting a league-high 60% of third-down attempts against them. They’ve allowed 10 of 12 red zone trips against them to turn into touchdowns. I think they miss Jackson a lot and are being held together by the obscene amount of turnovers, which I would say is likely to regress.

When the Titans have the ball

So, remember last year when the Titans ran all over everybody with Derrick Henry? That’s not exactly what’s happening this year. He’s got some great highlights, of course:

And he’s still a very good back. But the Titans are averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, and they are relying on positive game scripts to boost their rushing attack. They averaged a 9-point lead throughout the Bills game and 7.7-point lead throughout the Jaguars game. They haven’t been out-right boat raced in any game so far. Derrick Henry actually has a negative DVOA on his carries this year: -0.5%. Now, he still carries a great success rate, and the Titans are still a dangerous run attack that are liable to blow up on the Texans … but they haven’t really dominated a game yet this year.

Meanwhile, the Texans actually stepped up as a run defense and stopped the Jaguars after their first two drives last week. A lot of that was driven by the fresh eyes and fast legs of Tyrell Adams, who steps into the starting lineup following a season-ending injury to Benardrick McKinney. Does that mean that the Texans run defense is completely turned around? Great question! I have no idea. But unlike this time last week, when I would have told you the Texans had zero chance at even keeping a Henry outside zone contained, I believe that there is a chance they can contain things.

No, this week’s real problem is a play-action defense that was heavily flammable against the Vikings and how that figures to play out against Ryan Tannehill and Arthur Smith’s bag of tricks. Smith has been a wildly successful coordinator since taking over last season and the Texans absolutely showed little aptitude in stopping it last year in a game where they were outgained by nearly half a yard per play.

So what’s changed from last year? One is that Bradley Roby is very much shadowing everyone in sight and doing a credible job of it, and he figures to be stapled to A.J. Brown’s hips after Brown torched the Texans in both games last season. Then there’s the COVID complications: Both Corey Davis and Adam Humphries missed Week 5’s game. Neither of them have passed the protocol to get back on the field as I’m writing this. Not a single Titans receiver not named Brown had more than two targets against the Bills. Davis had an impressive beginning to the season, him playing would be a big deal if the Titans could bring him up against Vernon Hargreaves.

Those targets mostly got redirected to Texans killer Jonnu Smith, who caught all five of his targets in Week 15’s game for 60 yards. Smith has built on his late year breakout last season and has a 24.6% DVOA on 27 targets this year. The Texans have not exactly been devastated by tight ends this year, and their best bet to stop Smith might actually be to try to keep him blocking.

Ryan Tannehill’s biggest weakness in his career has been his predilection to getting sacked. Predicted by everybody with a calculator to take a step back this year on the mountain of regression evidence, what Tannehill has done instead is simply stop taking sacks. He took 31 sacks in 10 starts last year. In 2020, he has taken only three sacks in four starts. The Bills are one of the most aggressive blitzing teams of the year 2020, but Minnesota, Denver, and Jacksonville are more selective blitzers. Tannehill didn’t take a single sack against the Bills and scrambled for 39 yards to boot.

Houston’s game plan last year, and one I expect them to replicate this year — especially if Brown is the only Titans receiver that features — is to blitz the daylights out of Tannehill. They sent 18 blitzes on 36 dropbacks at Tannehill last year and sacked him twice. If this new-found pocket presence on Tannehill is legit, well, there’s really not a lot anybody can do to stop him at this point. He was a good quarterback in a good system for him last year. If he’s erasing sacks, it might just be time to throw some respect on his name.

Special teams

Brett Kern is probably the best punter in the NFL over the last three years. The Titans had a hilarious first game with Stephen Gostkowski but he seems to have turned the corner, sadly. Kickoffs have also gone well for the Titans this year.

The Texans don’t seem to have come together quite as well as they were under Brad Seely. It’s been five weeks and DeAndre Carter is still bad while the coverage units are not as otherworldly as they have been the last couple of seasons. Also, the main coverage players keep getting stuck playing on the real defense.

The read

Listen, if you want to throw your hands up and wash this season down the drain, I get it. The coach got fired. It’s not fun to have the preseason-built dream be dead so early.

But I think the Texans might just be beginning to congeal into something good. The offense showed a lot of firepower in Week 5 and not just in a “ha ha the Jaguars defense is bad” kind of way. Watson started hitting a rhythm in the game and Tim Kelly has said the right things this week to make me think he understands a little about how to take this offense up a notch. Maybe it’s too late to save the season — I have no idea — but what O’Brien left behind was less shipwreck and more a team that was the victim of a bad schedule that kept shooting itself in the foot.

One way or another, I think we will have a better idea of exactly what the Texans are at 3:30 on Sunday. I believe in Deshaun Watson’s ability to elevate his game to the next level. I think that begins this week. I am picking the Texans to win outright in Tennessee, 29-28. I think Watson will prove himself to be the best player on the field, and I don’t know that this Titans defense is situated to stop him unless they are just able to keep winning the turnover battle by an obscene margin every game.

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Four Downs: Texans 30, Jaguars 14

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

Old reliable for the Texans is the Jacksonville Jaguars. Since the 2010s started, the Texans have been able to mostly count on the Jaguars to be a get-right game. And with Jacksonville’s best two defensive players out, it would have been a major upset if the Texans weren’t able to cook them on offense today. For two quarters, some doubt lingered. It was closer than it should have been. The Jaguars missed some field goals. Deshaun Watson threw a pick on a tipped pass and another on a play-action ball to Will Fuller that he didn’t get close enough to the sideline.

But eventually what won out was the fact that Jacksonville’s depleted defense couldn’t keep up with Deshaun Watson or the Texans. The Jacksonville offense never materialized and were held up with a miraculously hilarious fourth-down go. I’m not going to celebrate this win as a return to the AFC South champion normal — I think the Texans showcased plenty of flaws here. But it is, ultimately, important to string together as many ugly wins as you can over the course of the season and for three quarters that was exactly what this game was. Then ol’ Romeo threw the rope-a-dope out, went for it on fourth down, and Watson torched the Jaguars on an all-out blitz:

Green Bay will tell us a lot more about where this team is in the post-Bill O’Brien era. (I have no idea if Tennessee will field a team next week.) Brandin Cooks had a big game. Randall Cobb, under the radar, had a very efficient game. The passing offense delivered. For now, let’s just celebrate the fact that the team isn’t winless and they mostly took care of business.

1) Romeo Crennel, the energy creator

One thing that was unanimous in the post-game comments, whether from Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, Brandin Cooks, or even David Johnson, was that the energy and mood of this team changed with Bill O’Brien gone. Watson referenced in his post-game presser that he’s always very hard on himself, and even O’Brien had told him he needed to lighten up on his self-criticism.

I don’t know how much to buy into the narrative that O’Brien’s absence made a huge difference with this team. They still threw away some downs on offense. If this was the typical 30-point allowed game the Texans have caught this season, it would have been a dogfight at the very worst and could have been another loss. Then the extra added layer of it is that the Jaguars came into this game with the worst pass defense in the NFL and even some of the good portions of that were not available. I certainly don’t think that O’Brien would be incapable of winning the game with this set of numbers.

But there was something more elemental and emotional to all this. The players, I think, needed someone that they believed in. The non-OB coaching staff needed an ability to just do their jobs:

People have talked a lot about how GM BOB got head coach BOB fired, but I think after absorbing a week of fallout content — arguments everywhere, culture of walking on eggshells, and so on — I think GM BOB got head coach BOB tight. BOB’s controversial decisions made him extra-focused on trying to prove them right, and what unfolded from there was just a man who had his hands on a little too much of everything.

Switching to Romeo was like letting the foot off the pedal a little bit after you swerve out of control on something slick. The team just recomposed themselves, remembered they had Deshaun Watson, Laremy Tunsil, and J.J. Watt, and they played like it. That doesn’t mean that the car hasn’t been stripped for parts. It does mean the car still runs.

2) David Johnson had his best running game of the season — also, the Texans need to use David Johnson much, much less

One thing that transcends coaching is the fact that Johnson just doesn’t cut it as a lead back for an NFL team at this point of his career. It’s not only about the vision, it’s about how slow he is re-directing in traffic and how uncomfortable he looks doing it. Johnson busted off a 29-yard run that basically ended the game, but he continues to be almost exclusively an outside-only runner:

It became clear that in the first few drives of the game, Johnson was part of the reason this team stalled out. Giving him the ball on the second offensive play of the game on first down — for no gain — ended the drive. When the Texans crossed midfield in a 0-0 game on their second drive, Johnson took the ball on first down and lost a yard. After Watson bailed them out of that, he took another first-down carry for three yards. Deshaun Watson had to scramble them out of that. On third-and-12, they dialed up a screen for him and he did this:

This is supposed to be Johnson’s strength: His versatility as a receiver. But he hasn’t been especially great at that, either. His balance is not good. This play might have set the Texans up to go for it on fourth down had it succeeded. Instead, they were basically forced into a field goal.

Second-and-4 in the red zone:

Another field goal after Watson’s third-down play goes incomplete to Johnson.

The story of football’s modern environment is that if you run the ball, you need to be efficient about it. Right now, on inside carries, the offensive line has to absolutely wreck the line of scrimmage to get David Johnson yards. It’s just not sustainable on any level. It was okay in this game, because Deshaun Watson bailed the Texans out. Against an NFL defense that isn’t missing its two best players and has a pass rush? Hoo boy.

I hope David Johnson’s back is great tomorrow and he comes out and rolls 300 rushing yards on the Packers/Titans if they actually are able to play. But listen, everything I’ve seen so far is of a running back who just can’t cut it on what the Texans are asking him to do. Even the receiving plays feel like they’d be better with Duke Johnson involved. I don’t know if a lower role is going to sit well with him. I don’t know what they need to do here. But … this isn’t working. It can’t work the way he’s playing right now.

3) Massive run defense improvements or massive Jaguars coaching idiocy?

The Jaguars started hot on run offense, coming out with four James Robinson carries for 33 yards.

From then on out, the Jaguars had nine carries for 15 yards. The Texans successfully run blitzed some of those downs. Others, they just won on pure numbers in the box:

In general, I think Crennel’s hands were on the defensive game plan in a way that surprised the Jaguars. Crennel played a lot of zone, rushed three fairly often, and he asked Gardner Minshew to hit the throws he often has problems hitting. Minshew was compiling a lot of completions underneath, but they were failed completions. They were four yards on second-and-10, or six yards on third-and-10. He wasn’t able to get to his comfort zone. When Jacksonville did have success, it was off play-action or otherwise scheming up deeper balls that actually worked.

I think that kind of caught the Jaguars off-guard because it’s the opposite of the way the Texans played their first four games of the season under Weaver’s charge — they played two deep safeties and gave up plenty of short stuff. Crennel decided that he wanted to make the Jaguars beat him deep, and often they couldn’t. Here’s what Doug Marrone had to say about that in his post game:

I think there’s some push-pull here — the defense the Texans played took Jacksonville into that mindset just as much as their defensive injuries probably did. But to me, this game plan had Crennel’s fingerprints all over it. I think it’s one that can be used against a lot of defenses the Texans play going forward. The Packers, looking suddenly rejuvenated with Aaron Rodgers making deep balls rain all over the field? Maybe not.

4) What in the name of Chris Brown?

The major turning point in this game. Fourth-and-1, the Jaguars are still in the game despite the fact that their kicker has proven to be terrible. Deshaun Watson’s interception popped up by Sidney Jones is returned to the Jacksonville 25. The run game starts pushing. Robinson gets 3, 6, and 2 on three carries to set up a third-and-2, down 6. On third down, Justin Reid comes up with a huge stop short of the sticks on a pass where only he could stop Tyler Eifert from converting the third down:

Then, on fourth down, the Jaguars decide to roll Minshew out and let Robinson take a direct snap to … throw the ball? Yes, to throw the ball. That is what they did:

Nobody bought on the fake. It was fourth-and-1 and they had numbers and a gap on Whitney Mercilus’ side. Instead, Robinson fumbled and the Texans got their first turnover of the season. It was catastrophic for the Jaguars. Marrone’s defense of the play was simply that they practiced it all week:

Against what, coming in to today, was a terrible run defense — one of the four worst in the NFL easy. I don’t get it. I get why you’d install the play to begin with, maybe, but calling it in that spot on a drive that was critical just smacks of the kind of too-cutery the collective Texans fanbase shanked Bill O’Brien for. That took the wind out of Jacksonville’s sails.

Eight plays later, Deshaun Watson hits Will Fuller for a touchdown, the Texans are up multiple scores, and they never look back.

I don’t want to harp too much on this play because to me the story was that Houston’s pass offense was clicking and they probably would have gone on to score more points even after the turnover on downs. But it’s hard to look at the course of this game, look at that play, and not marvel at how idiotic this call was. Particularly as it pertains to Jacksonville’s running attack that was grounded afterwards.

They had one more designed run for the rest of the game.

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Week 5 Preview: Texans vs. Jaguars

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

Well, a lot has happened since we last did a preview.

After a week including the firing of a man who has coached the Texans since before I had even met my wife, the takeover of power by a TED talk disguised as a person, the ascension of Romeo Crennel to head coach, and ownership talking loudly about not being able to afford DeAndre Hopkins only for Hopkins to pwn them on Twitter, the Houston Texans will now … play a football game again.

The Jaguars come into this game 1-3 and licking their wounds after letting some preventable losses slip out of their hands. Chris Conley drops destroyed them in Miami, they lost a three-point heartbreaker in Nashville to the COVID-19s, and a third-quarter blitzkrieg from the Bengals run game buried them last weekend. They’ve got a feisty, scrappy offense that has created some good things this year. Their defense … they field eleven players as well.

The Texans swept the Jaguars last year, as well as in 2018, and have taken 23 of 39 games against them in franchise history. You can literally say that the Texans have built an entire identity around beating the Jaguars. They’re the only divisional opponent Houston has a winning record against.

The Texans opened as 6.5-point favorites — 0-4, fired their head coach, 6.5-point favorites — over Jacksonville. Since that line opened, the Texans are down to 6-point favorites, but the over/under has skyrocketed from 47 to 54.5. That aligns a lot with how I see this game playing out.

When the Texans have the ball

All stats courtesy of Football Outsiders

The firing of Bill O’Brien opens up a lot of improvement areas for this offense. The hot reads and offensive design around them can get better. The blocking can get better. Max Scharping might be able to play a football game without being dragged into the basement. But no improvement area matters quite as much as how bad this Jaguars defense has been.

Jacksonville comes into this game with DVOA’s worst defense in the NFL, they’re 32nd in the NFL in pass defense DVOA. The first four teams that the Texans played are all in the top 14. (Yes, even with the Vikings’ downfield burnings.) Joe Burrow’s pass chart from last week shows that he completed all but three of his 29 passes at a distance of less than 20 yards. Burrow’s deep ball struggles this year are something that astute Bengals minds have been talking about a lot. In Week 3, Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t even need to attack this defense because they made Miami a good run offense:

Now, the Jaguars have had good individual players. Myles Jack rates as Pro Football Focus’ best linebacker and best coverage linebacker this year. Josh Allen off the edge has plenty of juice. Problem: Both of those players missed Wednesday practice with new injuries, and Allen missed Thursday’s practice as well. (He did do an interview though, which is a good sign for his availability.) Most of Jacksonville’s young players are either already flops or have been up-and-down at best at this point of the season. First-rounder C.J. Henderson had a nifty interception against Phil Rivers in a coverage disguise, but has taken some lumps. K’Lavon Chaisson has one sack and a 4.2% pressure rate in 71 pass rushes — those are Whitney Mercilus numbers, for my Texans fans.

Jacksonville has blitzed on just 21.0% of quarterback dropbacks this year, the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL. Heavy blitzers have given Watson problems. The Jaguars have just four sacks this season, tied for the second-fewest in the NFL. Jacksonville’s allowed a 32.2% DVOA to tight ends, 29th in the NFL, and a 27.0% DVOA to running backs, 27th in the NFL. Good short passing games have shredded them — they have a short pass DVOA of 10.2%, 28th in the NFL.

On the injury front in Houston, Jordan Akins got in a limited practice so that should give him a chance to be cleared on concussion protocol. However, Darren Fells has shown enough for me to believe he’ll do enough against this defense if he has to. He struggles against tight coverage, but the Jaguars haven’t offered a lot of that this season.

While their run defense numbers are a little better, the Jaguars aren’t exactly dominant at that either. They’ve allowed 5.0 yards per carry to teams running out of 11-personnel (one back, one tight end), which is Houston’s main set. They’ve allowed 5.6 yards per carry to teams running out of 12-personnel, which is the main Texans changeup. Joe Schobert got a huge deal in free agency and yet has seamlessly filled the Paul Posluszny role of “highly paid linebacker who doesn’t seem to be making a ton of difference.”

It’s really hard to know what to expect from the Texans offense coming out of the wreckage. I know that both Deshaun Watson and his quarterback coach Quincy Avery are high on Tim Kelly’s ability to coordinate a good offense. We have no evidence one way or the other at this point, because I think you have to consider everything that happened in the first four weeks as tainted by O’Brien. Because the run game was so robotic and the pass game was so broken, I land on the Texans making some strides this week. I expect there’ll still be some things to complain about on Sunday, but hopefully there’ll also be some gains.

David Johnson, I believe, can get 60 yards against this defense on the ground. But I think at this point we need to acknowledge that he’s just not a good between-the-tackles back. That part of the offense has struggled with predictability, but it also has struggled because he’s just not good at this. It was part of the reason bringing him in was kind of problematic, and nothing that we’ve seen this year should dissuade that. He’s slow to his lanes and doesn’t see them well. Even the Texans own in-house people called him out by omission:

As long as David Johnson has a huge role in this offense that doesn’t involve him running outside or catching passes, the Texans are going to be shackling themselves a bit.

When the Jaguars have the ball

Jacksonville has made a pretty impressive short game in Jay Gruden’s scheme out of Gardner Minshew and a couple of good wideouts: third-year player D.J. Chark and rookie Leviska Shenault Jr. Minshew has maximized his tools in Gruden’s system. He doesn’t have an impressive deep ball. He fumbles a bit too often when he’s hit, and is the kind of quarterback who will hold on to the ball that extra beat.

But otherwise, Minshew has good short area accuracy, he reads a defense well, and the Jaguars will nickel-and-dime you up the field and mix in some play-action shots off their run game. Mistake-free football is imperative. Minshew will latch on to any coverage busts. He’s also a heady scrambler, which is something he did to the tune of 90 total rushing yards over two games against the Texans last year.

Romeo Crennel did limit the Jaguars passing attack last year — they sacked Minshew four times in his first start against them and three in the second in London. They also mixed in two interceptions in London. The major difference between then and now I can show you from some Next Gen Stats charts:

These are Minshew’s last two games worth of attempts. Notice how he is peppering the middle of the field. Last year against the Texans in London, Minshew only targeted the middle of the field 11 times in 47 attempts. He completed 8-of-13 there for 108 yards and a pick — and was 6-of-6 for 65 yards on throws under 10 yards. The Texans retain a 46.2% DVOA allowed on passes over the short middle, and have the league’s worst short pass defense overall at 22.9% DVOA. That plays right into what the Jaguars do. Houston is going to need to not miss tackles, play their assignments better than we’ve seen this year, and generally play like they’ve never played this year to make hay of this passing game. They might bait Minshew a time or two, but I think on the whole he’s a pretty consistent player and he will take what’s open underneath.

Next man up against Houston’s execrable run defense is undrafted rookie James Robinson, who has taken the league (and your fantasy league) by storm early in his career:

Simply put, I’m expecting more of the same. I don’t think Jacksonville’s defense is good enough to shut down the Texans, so I don’t think there’s a huge risk of the Texans getting game scripted (massive time of possession win for the Jaguars that forces the Texans into full catchup mode), but without major personnel changes I would be surprised if the Jaguars didn’t have full reign to run over this team and create play-action mismatches on Vernon Hargreaves.

Cam Robinson and Tyler Eifert are on the injury report, and the Jaguars seem likely to get Brandon Linder back from a knee injury after he practiced in full on Thursday. That should be yet another reason to believe in Robinson’s ability to rev it up against a bad defense this week.

The other major subplot this week, speaking of those personnel changes, is what it’s going to take for the Texans to get more rookies involved on defense for guys who aren’t pulling their weight. Here’s what Anthony Weaver had to say about that at Thursday’s presser:

Romeo Crennel, even dating back to last year, hasn’t seemed to have much esteem for rookies. During Friday’s presser with the media he indicated that they were playing a totally different game. Well, without those rookies, it’s hard to see how much changes on this defense beyond simply correcting mistakes. That has been the tone and tenor of everything they’ve put out there. I believe this defense can play better than they’ve been playing, but not that much better.

Special teams

In a vacuum, the best thing about Jacksonville special teams the last two years has been Josh Lambo, who is now on IR. They did have great punt coverage teams last year as well, but that has not held up through the first four weeks of this season.

The Texans haven’t played up to their talent in this area either, particularly one tough, dependable, and smart returner who may or may not have fumbled last week.

The read

High-flying shootout. The Texans and Jaguars have two of the worst defenses in the NFL. I believe that the absence of Bill O’Brien will galvanize an offense that seemed constipated and that they will be mostly great when David Johnson isn’t taking handoffs up the middle.

At home, with a big spread in their favor, I’m going to ride with the Texans to take the game. I do think the Jaguars are going to keep the game close, mostly because I don’t see a reason they shouldn’t if the defense stays as it was and Anthony Weaver’s comments to the press on Thursday indicated that was the case. Give me Houston 36, Jacksonville 32. Start everybody involved in this game for fantasy purposes, IMO.

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Led by an inability to set the edge, the Texans defense has finally collapsed

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***

In 2018, it was accurate to say that the Texans were a defense-first team. They finished fifth in defensive DVOA and were not only a great run defense, but one of the best run defenses in NFL history by that metric. They feasted a bit on an easy quarterback schedule, which made the pass defense look better than it was, but they also had a tenacious pass rush between J.J. Watt’s only fully-healthy year in recent memory and Jadeveon Clowney being used as a stand-up rusher over the middle.

Of the 13 players that played the most defensive snaps for the Texans in 2018, only five of them are still on the team. Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson got huge free-agent deals that offseason. Clowney was traded to the Seahawks. D.J. Reader signed with the Bengals last offseason. Johnathan Joseph and Shareece Wright were already old and had limited utility to the Texans. Of the players that the Texans have kept around, only two of them are younger than 28 as of January 1, 2021: Justin Reid and Zach Cunningham.

That talent drain began to show in 2019. While the Texans brought in Bradley Roby in free agency and eventually signed him to a relatively big contract, the rest of the replacements have either been short-term or have not cracked the lineup in a meaningful way. It’s pushed depth players like Brandon Dunn and Phillip Gaines — reasonable role players but not guys you want on the spot every play — up the depth chart and into meaningful snaps this season.

The Texans finished 2019 22nd in defensive DVOA. The vast majority of that dropoff came from falling from league-best to 19th against the run. They became extremely blitz-heavy at the end of the season after J.J. Watt was hurt, and while that improved the unit overall on short stuff, it made it very difficult for them to hold up on third down, especially third-and-long where they struggled to rush the passer:

This offseason, with Reader departed for Cincinnati, management decided to take stock of what they have and bring in absolutely nothing beyond Eric Murray, a journeyman hybrid defensive back. That’s it. They responded to the unit falling apart in 2019 by adding one safety and drafting defense heavy with the few picks they retained from the Laremy Tunsil and DeAndre Hopkins picks. Those rookies have barely made it onto the field:

This year, every one of the four players remaining from 2018’s top-ranked run defense outside of Reid has collapsed in the first four weeks of the season. J.J. Watt is well off his seasonal norms statistically (two sacks — three if you count BOB’s job, and a pressure rate of 8.2% that would be his lowest in four seasons.) And as Matt Weston pointed out, he’s not exactly playing the same way he used to either:

Both Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham have struggled to help deal with edge defense that is almost non-existent. Dalvin Cook called them out on this after last week’s game when he said they have two of the biggest linebackers in the NFL and (paraphrasing) they can’t really reach the edge that easily. Cunningham’s PFF pass coverage grade is 29.0 — lower than any non-rookie middle linebacker who has played four games. McKinney has missed six tackles in four games — he missed five in 14 last year. At 28 in November, heading into his age 29 season, at a position where players tend to get old pretty quickly, McKinney is not a lock to be with the team in 2021.

Then there’s Whitney Mercilus, “one of our outside linebackers” who got blocked by a wide receiver last week on a Kirk Cousins’ fourth-down sweep:

The Texans edge play has been cataclysmically bad so far this year. On runs marked to “right edge” or “left edge” in the NFL PBP — basically just runs as far as outside as can be — they’re doing this:

Mercilus is carrying the worst PFF run-stop grade of any edge defender. By a significant amount. He finally saw a snap cut last week — he was on for under 70% of the snaps for the first time since Week 16 of 2018 — and has recorded pressure on just 5.6% of his pass rush snaps per SIS. That’s the second-worst rate of any linebacker with more than 70 pass rush snaps. As much as I like Mercilus the person, this four-year, $54 million deal he signed at the end of 2019 entering his age-30 season is already a disaster. They can’t even gain cap space by cutting him until the 2022 league year!

The Texans DVOA allowed on runs to left or right end since Week 2 is 34.7%. To put into perspective how bad that is, the worst run defense in the NFL in 2019 was the Carolina Panthers at 15.9%. And Carolina was one of only two teams below 1.9% DVOA allowed on runs! They are more than twice as bad on defending those runs as an already huge outlier as the worst run defense in the NFL was last year!

It was always clear that this wasn’t going to be an easy fix for Anthony Weaver as a first-time coordinator, and he’s done a good job of making the Texans solid on the back end when play-action doesn’t draw them away — they’ve still only allowed two passes of a depth longer than 20 yards to be completed. But the lack of talent on this defense as things stand right now is harrowing for this team’s prospects.

They have buffered their highly-drafted young players with JAGs. It’s time to throw those shackles off and let the youth succeed or fail. No more blocking Jon Greenard with Brennan Scarlett. Ross Blacklock needs a regular role. Jacob Martin needs a regular role. Lonnie Johnson needs an honest chance to fail at outside corner or safety, whichever position the team thinks he’s best at.

But right now, with most of the 2018 impact talent growing long in the tooth and none of the youth stepping up, this unit is an unequivocal disaster. It’s been masked a lot by people focusing on the offensive struggles and saying “they get put on the field too much!” — but this is a bigger problem than that rhetoric lets on. This is absolutely worse than the offense is as far as talent.

The Texans enter Week 5 27th in defensive DVOA. 29th in run stop DVOA. The only guys I have any hope for based on what we’ve seen on the field in 2020 are Cunningham and Watt. Cunningham because I think he’s overthinking things on the field. Watt because he’s been a special player for so long I’m not willing to kick him out of the circle of trust on four games.

They haven’t turned the ball over in a single game this season, and coming into the week are threatening an NFL post-merger (since 1972) record that the 2018 49ers hold: no turnovers in six straight regular season games. The 2019-2020 Texans are the only defense in post-merger history to not get a turnover or hold an opponent under 350 total yards in five straight games:

With no high draft picks, an uncertain future as far as the direction of the unit’s coaching, aging players, and little money to play with in free agency, it’s going to be a struggle to get this side of the ball battle-ready until 2022. They’ll be better than they’ve been so far this year — I don’t know if I could take it if they got worse, and the schedule is somewhat of a factor — but the Texans are in for a lot of shootouts unless the youth on this roster comes around in a major way with more playing time. That’s a lot of faith to place on a section of the roster that hasn’t delivered much yet.

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Bill O’Brien’s exit from Houston is an opportunity the Texans need to ace

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

About six months after this blog first called for the outright ousting of Bill O’Brien in the wake of the DeAndre Hopkins trade, an 0-4 start and a lot of discord ended with the surprise termination of O’Brien on Monday afternoon. Ironically, the record coming out in the press appears to read that premiere front-office politics man O’Brien was backstabbed by his lieutenant, Jack Easterby.

Now, there’s a lot of dirt flowing out from under the carpet. You’re going to read the stories everybody has been holding in. O’Brien yelled a lot. O’Brien played mind games with the players. O’Brien wasn’t nice. None of that actually matters to me: I only want the team to be good on the field and do good off the field. If O’Brien goes 14-2, nobody cares how many f-bombs he drops when someone else gets fired.

The reality of the Bill O’Brien situation, and one that I think most Texans fans had embraced for a long time, is that the results never matched the words. O’Brien’s offensive system could not be propped up by Deshaun Watson. O’Brien had a hand in the Jadeveon Clowney, Laremy Tunsil, and DeAndre Hopkins trades, and the talent depletion wasn’t something that the team’s few stars could hide anymore.

He was an overmatched general manager. He was an overmatched head coach by the end of his tenure. He was constantly re-inventing things to give himself new job titles that he couldn’t live up to. Bill O’Brien’s post-Rick Smith time in Houston was him squandering an embarrassment of riches and constantly acting in a reactionary way.

It’s good that the Texans fired him, except for one little thing…

***

This guy is Jack Easterby. Easterby was the New England Patriots team chaplain. He somehow became a central and enduring figure in Houston’s front office as everything else around Bill O’Brien fell apart. Now, the most important decision that this franchise has ever made is going to be in the hands of a guy who has literally zero relevant football experience on any level, ever, beyond helping Bill O’Brien burn this roster to the ground:

Now, not to get too political on you, but in a golden age of grifters, we’ve got a guy who somehow catches Cal McNair’s ear enough to not only survive this brutal start and his boss being fired, but also was seemingly part of the decision-making apparatus that took the team where it was. And somehow comes out of it … being able to choose the new head coach? What sense does that make?

Easterby is very forward-facing with his Christianity and is kind of a charmer. I would be lying if I told you I expected good things to come out of this, but I’m also trying to be open to the possibility. Maybe O’Brien is the key face to all these moves that scorched the team and Easterby was preaching the right words. I kind of doubt it based on all available evidence, but I’m going to run with this hypothetical for a second.

Here’s the major problem with firing Bill O’Brien, and it was something I laid out in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 preview of the team: Once O’Brien’s gone, the power vacuum is open. Cal McNair didn’t buy the Texans. It was never his dream to grow a football team. He shouldn’t be making football decisions. Neither should Easterby. But nobody in this front office really should be at this point, and because O’Brien took on as many roles as he did, there’s just not a lot of people in the building who know what they’re doing.

So if the search firm is Easterby, and the people Easterby knows are Patriots, well, I think we’re right back where we started from, right? Josh McDaniels and Nick Caserio. Case closd.

Everybody’s all excited about what kind of head coach the Texans will get — and I’ll make an optimistic list of candidates at some point in the next few weeks, don’t get me wrong — but the truth of the matter is that the Texans are relying on two people with no experience in this field to absolutely nail the coaching hire instead of falling back on who they are close with. That’s a terrifying situation.

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Deshaun Watson is the Houston Texans franchise right now. I know he didn’t ask for this, but he essentially has more power than any player in the NFL. If he speaks, people listen. If he leaves, this franchise is some jumbotron transformers sword fights and Laremy Tunsil blocking for a 3-13 team in two years.

I know traditionalists aren’t going to like this. I know it’s not going to look good. But if Deshaun has opinions on this team right now, they matter more than anything the people above him think.

The problem is that if you don’t ace this hire, if you threaten to waste Watson’s career, he is going to have options. There are football teams with ownership and leadership situations that are a lot more appealing than what he has in Houston right now. Places where he could win 10 games annually without having to deal with this noise. The only thing O’Brien did right before getting fired was getting Watson to sign on the dotted line.

So, as I say, this is why this is such an important situation for the Texans. They need to hit a home run with this hire. Somebody (or somebodies) who are immersed in modern football, know how to get good value, and can rebuild this team’s broken parts around Watson into the contender that it should be.

I really wish I could tell you that I believed that the right people were going to make that call. Ownership is an incredibly important part of football. McNair has done a great job of actually spending money this offseason. But I don’t know what exactly Easterby has done that would suggest he should be involved in this. And an aura of uncertainty is going to linger over Kirby Drive as long as the remnants of this failed regime are still comfortably in pocket.

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Four Downs: Vikings 31, Texans 23

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

As I argued towards the end of the preview, I thought that the game script would be wildly important in this one. I wasn’t scared of Minnesota’s passing offense, but the more they were able to run, the more dangerous it would be. The Texans snowballed a 17-3 lead behind, fittingly, a tough, smart, and dependable fumble from special teams sieve DeAndre Carter. He always seems to show up in big moments!

What a fixture. Let’s remember what Bill O’Brien said about him this offseason:

That’s the part of free agency I think is good: handicapping my team because I fell for a waiver-wire kick returner who practices hard.

Anyway, the Texans fell behind 17-3 and that was about the gist of it. The offense mounted a comeback, but they were hardwired to a system of coaching that won’t work, can’t work, and will never work in the NFL in 2020. Even as the Deshaun Watson comeback engines were rebooted away from the structure of O’Brien’s failing offense, O’Brien couldn’t help but make things worse. The run defense only had a prayer if they were put in an advantageous position and instead spent the afternoon helping Dalvin Cook create his NFL 100 highlight reel. This is, to emphasize, against a team that had such a bad COVID-19 scare that they couldn’t even practice for most of the week.

At 0-4, the Texans enter what, for most NFL franchises, would be a soul-searching mode. The team’s offseason has made things worse. The talent level on defense isn’t up to NFL caliber at this point. The offense is basically Deshaun Watson but running Madden 05’s Patriots playbook. Neither the head coach nor general manager have held up their end of the bargain. In this case, the same person has both jobs. The same person has hired two first-time coordinators, one of which got publicly thrown under the bus this week. It’s very hard for an organization to soul-search when there is just one person with any power. The soul-searching is working harder. The soul-searching is grinding tape and probably sacrificing whatever he can to turn this season around according to an outdated set of beliefs.

This is what happens when you give one person too much power.

1) Bill O’Brien was entrusted with Deshaun Watson, and that is where the vitriol comes from

From the very beginning of the game, FOX’s announcing team of Chris Myers, Brock Huard, and Greg Jennings were right up Bill O’Brien’s ass:

Just about every run to nowhere was greeted with outright condescension, barely-disguised loathing.

Now, some people are going to make this about the Texans being disrespected or something like that. I don’t think that’s the case here. What is happening is very simple: Watson is one of the NFL’s most marketable and incredible stars. The offense that O’Brien wants to run is a disservice to his talent. It is turning the golden goose into someone who hands off to David Johnson. The NFL is invested in Watson reaching that peak. If he can’t reach that peak under O’Brien, the NFL is going to clap back as hard as it can.

NFL-wide, it is not a secret that Watson has helped O’Brien’s career rather than the other way around. There’s no confusing what happened in 2017 when Watson’s offense was used to transition him into the pros with what is happening today. One of those offenses was successful. The other one wasn’t. Asked about O’Brien’s offense maybe being a little easy to read today, I think Watson delivered one of the most congenial sidesteps of his career:

The players are trying so hard to make this work. You haven’t seen Watson or J.J. Watt badmouth the coaching staff or undermine them in a material way. But I think the fact that Watson has had to dodge questions about the offense is pretty revealing all on its own.

The NFL wants Watson to be a star. Watson puts in the work to be a star. If Bill O’Brien can’t recognize that he is in the way of that, I hope this broadcast crew on replay was a wake up call to him. He’s not helping any of this happen and his offensive designs are weak. If the Texans went back to Clemson’s offense tomorrow, they will drop 35 on the Jaguars easily. (I’ve seen that defense.)

The ego attachment to what got O’Brien here, rather than what got Watson here, is holding this franchise back. I read your Tweets, you want O’Brien fired. I understand. There’s literally nothing I can do about that but let the chips fall where they may. I don’t think he’s done enough to keep his job and it’s not up to me. Texans ownership is pretty slow. I think he’s got some time to figure this out. I just don’t have any faith he will.

2) Dalvin Cook destroys the Texans run defense

After all the talk all week about how the Texans weren’t a good run defense in the fourth quarter, they set out to make sure that everyone knew the truth: they aren’t a good run defense in any quarter.

Dalvin Cook is a superstar running back having a superstar season. (For an example of a superstar running back not having a superstar season, please see Ezekiel Elliott.) The Texans coming into this game was a unit that had trouble tackling. Dalvin Cook ran right the hell over anybody he wanted. P.J. Hall, Benardrick McKinney, four guys on one play. Whatever weak tackle attempt the Texans brought, Cook wrecked it.

Most concerning of all is that the Vikings had zero problems getting to the edge. Cook had 17 carries outside of the tackle box and those gained 91 yards per Next Gen Stats. Whitney Mercilus and Brennan Scarlett left multiple plays on the field where they just couldn’t get off blocks to set it and spill the run back inside:

A frustrated Watt left pretty much everything unsaid in his press conference except the changes he would make, saying the story of the defense is that they have to stop the run:

As I said last week, there appear to be no easy answers for this. People making money have not been good at holding their gaps or getting the tacklers down. O’Brien has seemed wildly reticent to use the younger players. I don’t think I saw any Jon Greenard in his first active game of the year. I might have seen a few Ross Blacklock plays. The edge can’t hold if Mercilus and Scarlett can’t get off blocks.

The Jaguars are probably a little bit easier of a running attack to play against than Dalvin Cook, but James Robinson is just waiting to add a bunch of Texans to his highlight reel, licking his chops. And why wouldn’t he be? This unit has been awful in every game.

3) One of these teams knows how to run play-action. The other pretends they know.

The most divisive thing I posted all week was about offensive coordinator Tim Kelly’s view of play-action. Essentially, Kelly believes you must Establish The Run.

Gary Kubiak snickered and decided that was an interesting answer, and that he’d just go ahead and show the Texans what it meant to do play-action. Kirk Cousins dominated this game on play-action, I think three of Justin Jefferson’s four completions were on play-action reads, and often they were able to isolate Jefferson on the overmatched Vernon Hargreaves and that was pretty much that:

On the flipside, let’s take a look at the best play-action play in Houston’s playbook, the one where Watson stands there for a million years while nobody is ever open because everybody knows exactly how Houston runs this play.

Kirk Cousins is not as good as Deshaun Watson, but you don’t have to be as good of a dropback passer as Watson is if you are put in an offense that maximizes your strengths. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings ran more play-action passes in this game than they did all season up until this point. It was a major reason why they won. Houston’s play-action passing game is execrable and, considering the talent that Watson has is tailor-made to a good play-action game, absolutely inexcusable.

4) Bill O’Brien’s belief in Houston’s ability to run fails us all again

O’Brien tried very hard to get those 100 yards. He tried extremely hard for David Johnson’s fantasy football owners first, and for his ego second.

The Texans ran the ball nine times before trailing 17-3. That means that with a double-digit lead stacked on them for two quarters and change, the Texans continued to run the ball 15 more times to add to the nothing that already was David Johnson straight up the damn middle for little gain:

While trailing 31-16, O’Brien ran the ball four times with 10:50 to play on a drive, until he got to first-and-20 and couldn’t do it anymore:

Managing a team to try to run for 100 yards when it’s trailing is a bad idea. David Johnson doesn’t need more reps. The team isn’t going to work harder their way into making this a good fit. It’s not a good fit! He’s an outside runner who catches the ball well. If your offense can’t fit what he does well, and you’re not willing to adjust your offense to him, maybe don’t make it a focal point of your offseason to acquire and pay a running back an exorbitant contract when Duke Johnson was already around to fail the O’Brien offense in the exact same ways.

As the Texans hit goal-to-go for the last time in this game, as time began to expire, they ran the ball three straight times with David Johnson and got three yards, including one play where Johnson should have had a one-on-one with a safety to score:

This was a botched sequence. The third play, even though Johnson doesn’t catch it, at least utilizes Deshaun Watson. But you have Watson, one of the best players in the NFL, and you give him one shot to tie the game at the goal line. That’s criminal.

The devotion to this cost the Texans a metric boatload of time. I only measured that one drive at 104 seconds. Other drives would only rack the count up further. It cost the Texans more chances to let Deshaun Watson make a play. It was, in a close loss against a bad secondary that blew several coverages, a liability.

That’s what O’Brien is right now. Call it like it is. He’s a liability.

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Week 4 Preview: Texans vs. Vikings

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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Saddled with an 0-3 start for the second time in three seasons, the Houston Texans come home to lick their wounds against family. Former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is Minnesota’s offensive coordinator, and former Texans head coach Dom Capers is a Vikings defensive assistant.

Remembering Some Texans Head Coaches isn’t really a brand that brings a lot to the table, but I suppose it’s better than thinking about the present. Houston’s quarterback is good enough to win games and the coaching isn’t allowing him to do it.

The Vikings, also 0-3, bring a run-heavy style, Dalvin Cook, and Kirk Cousins to the table in a year where they’re still finding their footing on both sides of the ball. That’s not to say the Vikings are pushovers or are in any way an opponent the Texans can look down on, but they’ve had their struggles this year. The Texans have actually never beaten the Vikings — they’ve played only four times since the Texans were founded. The last meetup in 2016 involved the Vikings creating a 24-0 lead with 8:46 left in the second quarter. Brock Osweiler completed 19-of-42 passes.

Houston opened as four-point favorites, yet another true Vegas zone game, and the over/under that opened at 49.5 has been bet up to 53.5 in most places, with a few 54s around. Yes, folks, bettors expect some points in this matchup. Both teams should be desperate — 0-4 teams do not make the playoffs, generally speaking — so this is essentially a playoff game for both of them.

When the Texans have the ball

The tone and tenor on the Texans side of things this week has been that they simply have to be able to run the ball better and, interestingly, that they need to scheme the run better:

I think this is probably a week that the running game gets on track if they actually focus attention on the problem. I don’t think David Johnson is a particularly good fit for the scheme, but as long as there is actually a good-faith effort into making the run game different, they should at least be able to do a little more than they’ve managed the last two weeks.

The Vikings have given up at least 134 rushing yards in each of their three games this season, but they’ve also played the VOA No. 4, No. 20, and No. 21 run offenses. They’ve also been game-scripted in a few of their games this year, trailing by at least 10 points in their first two games by the second quarter. The Vikings were a respectable DVOA rush defense in 2019 so I don’t think this is by any means a cakewalk, but they’re also missing Anthony Barr after he tore his pectoral muscle in Week 2. Special teamer Eric Wilson, who had less than 700 career defensive snaps coming into this year, is suddenly an every-down linebacker. I could easily see it becoming David Johnson with 45 rushing yards instead of 25 because a) I don’t know that the scheme getting changed is necessarily going to be done in the most forward-thinking and b) Johnson hasn’t really shown a lot of ability to break tackles yet. But even that in and of itself is a big step as far as this team’s last two games are concerned.

I have to think the Texans will want to start the game using 12-personnel sets (two tight ends) to try to get third linebacker Hardy Nickerson (not his father) on the field. How they run out of that set (they’ve averaged just 3.0 yards per carry this year to date) will probably determine a lot about how the early game goes. Minnesota has allowed 4.5 yards per carry to 12-personnel sets this year, with a 68% success rate on 34 attempts. That’s a fairly big sample for so early in the season. Todd Davis was also recently signed and could be involved in three-linebacker sets, but that’s still plugging in a street free agent even if I grant that Davis has always seemed pretty good to me.

Minnesota blitzed Ryan Tannehill on 14 of his 38 dropbacks last week and are carrying a 33.3% blitz rate on the season that puts them just out of the top 10. That’s actually much higher than they blitzed in 2019 — 24.8% — but also probably is prone to some game-scripting issues and the fact that Zimmer’s pass rush hasn’t been all that effective. The Vikings have just 23 quarterback pressures on the season per SportsRadar — that’s three more than the Texans have. Let’s not take a Deshaun Watson victory lap just yet because Baltimore hasn’t gotten much pressure in their other two games either, but on paper this doesn’t seem like an especially challenging front for the big Houston weakness so far this year.

The big key for the Texans will be staying on schedule. The Vikings improve a lot when they get to x-and-long. Minnesota’s third-and-long defensive VOA is -109.5%, third-best in the NFL. Their second-and-long defense is -35.4% — seventh-best. Minnesota’s VOA allowed on passes targeting the middle of the field is a league-worst 70.8%, and over the deep middle it’s an astonishing 262.8%. Play-action passing would probably work well against this team as per what the Titans did to them, so maybe Tim Kelly will consider calling it without establishing the run!

Welp, nevermind.

Houston’s wide receivers should be able to win their individual matchups. Minnesota’s two starting wide corners are UDFA Holton Hill and 2020 first-rounder Jeff Gladney, neither of whom have shown a ton in the early going. Mike Hughes would probably start outside but has a neck injury and did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday. There is nothing in this matchup that would scare me off using a Texans receiver in fantasy football. Now, Will Fuller did pop up on the injury report with a hamstring injury on Thursday night … so that’s not great. But Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb shouldn’t have major road blocks to production in this game barring a real out-of-nowhere performance by someone on the Vikings defense.

When the Vikings have the ball

The thing that initially drew my eyes about this matchup is that the Vikings are the team with the longest average target depth in the NFL right now — 10.4 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, the Texans have not allowed a single completion targeted more than 20 yards downfield on the season and are currently sitting at a -63.3% VOA on deep balls, second-best in the NFL. A classic matchup of something has to give. I do think the Vikings will be able to break that for the Texans — Justin Jefferson looked very impressive last week in demolishing the Titans secondary and Bradley Roby has been good but not exactly flawless this year. Whoever draws Vernon Hargreaves III between Adam Thielen and Jefferson will probably get safety shades on most plays.

The Texans, of course, have had problems dealing with pressure. So have the Vikings. While the Texans rank No. 1 in pressure rate allowed as an offense, the Vikings are No. 2. Minnesota almost cut Riley Reiff before the season and that’s one of the good offensive linemen. Dru Samia at right guard has been a complete dumpster fire by almost any publicly available metric you can look at. Sports Info Solutions has him blowing 8 blocks — 7 of them pass block attempts — in 62 snaps. That’s an obscenely bad 11.5% blown block rate. To elucidate just how bad that is, there were only two NFL linemen all last year with 300 pass protection snaps that even had an 8% blown block rate: J’Marcus Webb and Cam Erving.

Dakota Dozier is no great shakes either. The interior of the line is succeptible to stunts, and what I’m really hoping we see from Anthony Weaver is quite a few snaps with J.J. Watt inside, especially on passing downs. We’ve seen handfuls here or there so far, but this is a spot where the right matchup could really get the Houston pass rush going. Hell, they might even get their first turnover of the season! The Vikings are a horrendous second-and-long or third-and-long offense. They’ve got a -64.6% VOA on second-and-long and a -120.1% VOA on third-and-long. Of course, to get them to ???-and-long, you first have to do a good job on first down. And that’s where the crux of this matchup is really laid out:

The Texans spent a lot of this week fielding questions about their run offense, but their run defense got relegated to “oh, this is only a fourth quarter concern.” Houston still let the Steelers run for 4.6 yards per carry against them last week in the first half for 79 yards and a 59% success rate. They’ve allowed more rushing yards than any other team in the NFL. And they’re going up against an offense run by Dalvin Cook, one of the best backs in the NFL, and a Gary Kubiak run game that is clicking even as the pass isn’t.

It’s very easy to say “Kubiak loves to run zone,” but that’s not actually true. The Vikings are pretty varied in their sets. They do power. They do pin/pulls. This team isn’t one-dimensional as a run offense and center Garrett Bradbury has shown a lot of improvement this year from the limited viewings of this offense I’ve had time to watch. They lead the NFL in yards per carry. Backup runner Alexander Mattison is no slouch at all — there’s no real dropoff. This would be a real challenge for any run defense, and the Texans have a gaping wound at linebacker that hasn’t really been solved. Nobody offered any real explanations this week other than saying they needed to play a four-quarter game. I don’t know that they have the personnel on this roster to set the edge properly as they are currently distributing playing time. I will say, after doing this for a year: I don’t like to get too fatalistic on run defense or offense one way or the other. I think that’s a lot easier to catch a good matchup on. But … I don’t think the Vikings run game is a good matchup for the Texans.

Minnesota runs less 11-personnel than most NFL teams, using it only 49% of their offensive snaps so far. They are the NFL’s fourth-most frequent user of 21-personnel (two backs), and have 17 carries with an average of 7.8 yards per carry in it. Meanwhile, in 12-personnel, they’ve run 12 times for merely 5.7 yards per attempt. This team will go big on you and that is a matchup problem for this Texans front sans D.J. Reader.

One last thing I want to focus on is how stagnant the shape of the Minnesota offense is. Kirk Cousins hasn’t actually targeted Houston’s real weakness, the short middle of the field, much this year. The Texans have allowed a 55.3% VOA on passes targeting the short middle. The Vikings really haven’t focused on this area at all as a passing unit. They have just 13 targets to the short middle all season, and eight of the 13 came in absolute garbage time in the first two weeks — fourth quarters and down by at least 17 points. With safety A.J. Moore down and Earl Thomas (checks notes) not a Texan as of the writing of this post, Houston seems likely to have someone inexperienced checking tight ends. This would be an area I would expect teams to exploit, but that just might not be a part of Minnesota’s footprint.

Special teams

In 2019, the Vikings were terrible at punt returns and kick returns, but an average or better unit on just about everything else. In 2020, they’ve been good at returns, but are bad at everything else. Interesting trade.

The Texans got gashed on a few kick returns last week, but the main source of poor special teams here continues to be Kai Fairbairn adding nothing more than the average kicker and Deandre Carter’s self-confidence.

The read

With two conservative coaches and two run defenses that have been bad on paper, I think this is a game that owes a lot to establishing the game script. If either team gets off to a 10-0 lead, I think that’s going to be tough to overcome. I would advise the Texans to receive in the first half for that reason.

I think there are absolutely paths to a Minnesota victory. This is going to be a trench battle with some downfield shots thrown in and two of Houston’s three main corners are Eric Murray and Vernon Hargreaves III. They’ve got a pass rush with some talented players and it’s not like other teams have found it hard to rush Deshaun Watson. If there’s no real change in the passing offense — and we sure didn’t hear much about that — then this team will continue to be vulnerable.

However, I like the Texans to crawl out of the hole on Sunday because I think they’re just a little bit better on pass offense and pass defense than the Vikings. Minnesota will be the first team to hit some shots, but I think the conservative nature of the Houston pass defense will work a lot better against Kirk Cousins than it did against Mssrs Jackson, Mahomes, and Roethlisberger. I will give you a Houston 27, Minnesota 25 prediction. But I want it on the record that if Minnesota wins this game, that total goes well under.

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A Tale of Two Offensive Lines

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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As with any Texans post this year, we can’t avoid talking about what’s happening to the Arizona Cardinals. Don’t worry, not about that.

When Kliff Kingsbury took over the Arizona Cardinals, he brought his version of the Air Raid offense with him. He also brought his version of offensive line play with him: The Air Raid tends to use wide splits.

Arizona’s offensive line last year, on talent, was pretty suspect. D.J. Humphries is a first-rounder, but one that had never really played a great season. Justin Pugh hadn’t been a star since 2016. They lost right tackle Justin Gilbert before the season even started and had to resort to backups. A.Q. Shipley just follows around Bruce Arians until he gets to play. J.R. Sweezy caught a nice contract but hasn’t ever really justified it. 2019’s preseason was full of people wondering aloud if Kyler Murray would get David Carr’d behind that offensive line. Here’s how Football Outsiders’ Ben Muth characterized the line in preparing to write about it last year:

The scheme will be interesting. I watched a good bit of Texas Tech the last few years because their games are typically entertaining, but I don’t have a great feel for what run schemes Kingsbury will bring with him to the NFL. In college, Kingsbury’s offensive lines would take much wider splits than you typically see at the NFL level. I’m not sure if that will come with him (it’s definitely something they’ve experimented with this offseason). Even the snap count (Kingsbury seems to prefer a clapping count as opposed to a verbal one) has been a source of confusion as they’ve been flagged often for quarterback false starts in the preseason.

We’re just about done with Arizona’s preview and we haven’t mentioned a single offensive lineman, but frankly that’s because it’s not a super interesting unit outside of the scheme. D.J. Humphries is a recent first-round pick who has been banged up and ineffective in his first three years in the league. Left guard Justin Pugh was a big free-agent acquisition and he’s a solid player when he’s healthy, but has played in just 15 games over the last two years. At center, A.Q. Shipley is a 33-year-old who has bounced around the NFL a bit and is coming off a season-ending injury last year. The other guard, J.R. Sweezy, is another offseason acquisition who happens to be on his third team in three years. Rounding out the unit is yet another new face who has dealt with recent injury issues in right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who comes over from Pittsburgh.

So I think we’d call that line mediocre — at best — if it was healthy. If you want to look at some line splits for fun, here they are as compared to what the Texans ran last week:

The major difference is more in the stance. Arizona’s guards aren’t in three-point stances. But the Cardinals do look a bit more fanned out — particularly between the center and the right guard.

Now, I can’t find anybody who will write about the Arizona Cardinals line and call it impressive or good. Muth even said in his last column about them that “It was much better than I thought it would be from an offensive line standpoint, but a little more boring than I hoped it could be.” Pro Football Focus named them the 21st-best unit in the league entering this season, centering them mostly on good pass protection. Brandon Thorn of The Athletic and Establish The Run named the Cardinals his 17th-best unit in the league coming into the year, saying this:

Here’s the thing: Arizona’s line might not be talented, but they were wildly effective in 2019 at running the ball. They finished second in the NFL in rushing DVOA. On a team advanced level, they were at 3.3 yards before contact per rush attempt, which led the entire NFL per Sports Radar stats. Through Week 3’s games, the Cardinals are second in the NFL in YBC/rush attempt this year at 3.7. They’re seventh in rushing VOA. (We don’t adjust for defenses early in the season.)

I clipped this from Brandon Thorn’s podcast where he talks to Justin Pugh:

“I think a lot of teams, I almost can guarantee this, almost every team installs the exact same run plays,” Pugh said. “Once you get into the season and see what you do well, it’s up to the coaches to keep calling those things. A lot of times … I’ve seen throughout my career that we try to fit a square peg into a round hole.”

Kingsbury came to the NFL with the Air Raid reputation, but his most successful stuff to date has actually been his work in the run game. (An offense that had almost no use for David Johnson, incidentally.) They make misdirection an art form, utilize the rules of coverage in space and pre-snap motion to dictate gaps, and that is what makes the run game successful. This is something that also has roots in Baltimore, Kansas City, and San Francisco, among other places.

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Meanwhile, in Houston, the Texans are averaging 1.9 yards before contact per attempt — worse than they did last year — with a line that is completely healthy and supposedly full of young, talented players. Against the Steelers, David Johnson averaged 1.2 yards before contact per attempt. So of course, the offensive line is probably terr–

Well, okay, okay, but that’s just a flash. Just one game, right? I’m sure if I go pull up ESPN’s blocking rankings that the Texans will be terr–

Let’s not get too cute with our offense, Bill O’Brien told the CBS broadcasters. Instead the Texans can let the Pittsburgh Steelers tee off on Johnson runs for the entire half because they’re so predictable that everybody sees it coming:

Let’s run up the middle on 80% of our running plays! Let’s make sure to involve Jordan Akins as an arc blocker even though he can barely handle an outside assignment! Let’s use Brandin Cooks on an end around even though we’ve rarely had him be a decoy!

It’s very easy to pile on Bill O’Brien and Bill O’Brien’s Inevitably Easy First Boss Form, Tim Kelly. There is so much ammunition. I want to take this moment to note that inevitably O’Brien will figure out just enough to make things look better. He’s mentioned multiple times this week that he needs to scheme the run offense better. I promise you that he is going to figure something out for this run offense and it will look better than it did. We will praise it when it happens. And, inevitably, as the new thing gets figured out a little and leads to a few bad plays, he will revert back into the safety of the offense he has trusted all along, forgetting entirely why he had to change off of it in the first place.

I think the most telling thing about O’Brien’s first three weeks running the show this season in Houston was actually how he responded to an Aaron Wilson question about the vision of this offense:

Now some people will watch that clip and tell you he looks defeated. I think, as goes back to the Shredder post, that O’Brien has already won the battles he wanted to win, and now he’s realizing that this is what it was for and can’t believe it. The feisty O’Brien we saw in the first couple years of his tenure that would clapback at Brian T. Smith and tell John McClain about his contract never makes it through a full season with the Texans anymore. This man built up the idea of sole control of the Texans as a panacea to his problems so hard that he forgot that it means he’s running five full-time jobs at once. Fix the run game? How can he do that when he has five tryouts to arrange, COVID-19 protocol from the league to read, and an ownership fee-fees workshop? The Texans ran as many play-action fakes on the idea of Earl Thomas joining the team as they ran in last week’s game.

Ultimately, it’s hard to get away from the fact that the Texans have invested all that they have on this year’s line and still have demonstrably terrible results. This is a table we ran in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020:

Through three weeks, the adjusted sack rate for Watson is 12.4%. While FO no longer has access to Sports Info Solutions entire team-by-team database, we have SportsRadar saying that Watson has been pressured on 37.3% of his dropbacks. Both of those numbers are the worst in the NFL. They have Laremy Tunsil, one of the best tackles in the NFL. They have two young linemen they really like, and a center they paid big money to. And it just doesn’t matter! Not a single bit! Because they have no plan for what happens when a blitz comes.

Now, to be clear since a lot of fans read something like this and their big takeaway is that “rivers thinks o’brien sux, he probably h8s mah team” let me say: I hope I’m wrong and I hope O’Brien prints this post out and reads it out loud during the Super Bowl parade while I have to smile sheepishly at the monitor since I won’t be invited and don’t have a COVID-19 wish anyway. I’ll take it in stride.

But the flashes of O’Brien scooting the offense forward that are good aren’t flashes in good coaches. They’re philosophies. They’re game plans. They’re ideas that settle in and become what the team is about. Other coaches study the best teams in the NFL to see what they want to steal, pick the brains of the people they want to emulate. The Buffalo Bills suddenly have an offense with all the bells and whistles that has Josh Allen playing like a superstar, because they spent all offseason adding new things to the playbook.

Here’s what O’Brien did:

By his own choice, O’Brien has chosen to be the guy that Pugh talked about who tries to fit square pegs into round holes. My charitable read of the situation is that O’Brien loves the idea of being Texans head coach, but has instead created a job persona for himself that is so far removed from actually thinking about ways to coach the team that he doesn’t even know where to begin. And since there are exactly zero football people in the building that aren’t beholden to him for a job at some point, let alone a playcaller on either side of the ball with experience, he’s created a situation that requires a hands-on version of Bill O’Brien for every single face of the organization.

The non-charitable read? Bill O’Brien is bored. He’s got everything he wants. He’s in no danger of being fired. He’s assumed a life where he has to be the singular point of failure because he thought it would make him feel important. Instead, it turns out, everybody dislikes him and everybody’s yelling and fine, fine, he’ll do an RPO play this week just please stop asking questions about trades.

It is very evident that one of these offensive lines is more talented than the other. It’s just not evident that it will ever matter as long as the coaching of it is handled as a chore rather than a calling.

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Four Downs: Steelers 28, Texans 21

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

You’ve probably gathered that I’m a bit of a King of the Hill fan, as I have a King of the Hill Twitter avatar. It’s one of my favorite shows on television. When thinking about this Texans loss today, here is a scene I came back to:

Hank is asked to a focus group about a new lawn mower, and spends the entire episode pointing out the flaws that are wrong with it. I have spent this entire offseason harping on flaws in the process of creating the 2020 Houston Texans.

Well…

There’s your $12 million running back!
There’s your new playcallers!
There’s your high-flying pass offense!

Three games in against the AFC royalty and the Texans have sputtered wildly in every way to provide a workable infrastructure around winning games with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Some of it is a lack of talent. Some of it is because the coaching staff steadfastly refuses to do what it takes to win games.

The Texans aren’t dead yet. The season isn’t over. There’s a lot of ballgame left. But there is little question that they have gotten worse as everyone else has gotten better this offseason. I know the trade you’re thinking of first, and it was bad — but even beyond that, the team just spent too much of its tough, smart, and dependable hours chasing their player type instead of talent. They don’t have the impact defensive players they need in the front seven right now despite four major contracts handed out to front seven players, including two over the last 12 months! They have invested three firsts, three seconds, and real money to a former second-round pick in Nick Martin and a solid chunk of change to Zach Fulton. They have allowed 33 quarterback hits in three games!

There’s your football czar!

1) The run defense is going to be a problem all season

The Steelers came into the game with the 30th-ranked rushing DVOA in the NFL. They proceeded to gash the Texans to the tune of 38 carries, 169 yards, and 4.4 a tote. I think that even understates how bad things were, because some of the stops the Texans made were third-and-short stacks on the line. The Steelers eventually adjusted off of that and started throwing screens in the second half.

I don’t buy the crap that’s being shoveled about the defense being forced on the field too much. They allowed 4.6 yards per carry in the first half. I was willing to give a pass to these guys against the Ravens, a historically good run offense. I was even willing to give a pass to these guys against a Chiefs team with a historically great quarterback — letting the Chiefs run on you is a choice. Ben Roethlisberger is certainly still a good quarterback, but if you can’t stop the run against the Steelers, let’s call it how it is: It’s a bad run defense.

This is something that, to use an O’Brien-ism, they have to get corrected quickly. The Vikings are coming to town next week for an 0-3 desperation bowl. The Vikings have Dalvin Cook and are here to run the ball. There’s no secret about that. If the Texans can’t stop the run, things will go from dire to … well, I’d say Dead Coach Walking if I seriously believed O’Brien answered to anybody. There’s a very real chance with how this run defense is playing that they lose to the Vikings. I can say in strict confidence that I always expected the Texans to struggle to begin the season against this schedule … but they can’t go 0-4 and have realistic playoff hopes, even in a seven-team playoff system.

Realistically speaking: Nothing would be off the table for me this week. Nobody is sacred on this run defense. If the Texans think someone is underperforming, they need to make a move to fix it. I don’t care what the contract amounts are. I know they won’t bench Zach Cunningham. I know they won’t bench J.J. But other than that, you know, solutions to problems like this require actual change.

2) Tim Kelly and Bill O’Brien stop Deshaun Watson

The Texans entered the third quarter up 21-17, they gave up a field-goal to get to 21-20. The last thing the Texans coaching staff had seen before they began the second half was this surgical drive from Deshaun Watson:

The Texans saw that, and immediately chose to run the ball instead with David Johnson. Johnson, over the course of the second half, would rack up four carries for three yards, all but one of those carries on first down. They helped set the script for the pass offense to not get going. Three three-and-outs on four first half drives, and those three-and-outs did the following: third-and-seven, third-and-four, third-and-26. The third-and-four was greeted by Zach Fulton:

Watson’s only checkdown on this throw was a flat outside route by David Johnson that was deep in the progression.

The other drive, Watson bailed them out of third-and-10 with a hellacious throw on the run out of empty:

He then threw a pick on third-and-15 that was set up by this play call:

It was so predictable that the Texans would try to hunker down and conservaball their lead that I said as much on Twitter. They dominated in the first half out of empty formations, all the offensive success in this game came from spreading out wide and asking the Steelers to defend it. They even got David Johnson involved deep:

So did the Texans operate like the successful thing would work? No! No they did not. They saw what they wanted to see, which was what O’Brien said earlier in the week on his radio show: They have a really good record when they get to 100 yards.

They did not get 100 yards rushing. They didn’t even get close. But they did run the ball 15 times in an attempt to stay balanced against DVOA’s No. 1 run defense. They gained 24 yards on 14 carries. Almost all of them predictable.

Post-game, Deshaun Watson dropped a line about getting more alert and involved with play calling that caught my eye:

That’s … not usually the kind of thing someone says if they are happy with what’s happening. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. I will let the quote stand as it does. But umprompted when talking about the consistency of the unit, that was a moment where we might have seen a little glimpse of frustration.

3) “Let’s not get cute.”

I don’t blame David Johnson for the run game not working. He’s just the latest back to try to confirm the fact that what O’Brien does as a base isn’t very successful. Bill O’Brien has this habit of saying very useful things to the game broadcasters and to absolutely nobody else. Here’s what he told the crew working this game about David Johnson:

This run offense only ever works when it’s “cute,” BOB. You literally have a gift that most playcallers would kill for: a golden goose at quarterback who run defenses have to account for! (I acknowledge that Tim Kelly is the Texans offensive play caller. It doesn’t matter, this is mostly the same stuff BOB has always done, and Kelly is beholden to him.) Almost all the success the Texans have had so far this year in the run game relies on Watson holding defenders and the splits working in their favor, as Matt Weston brought up the other day on Twitter:

The problem is, well, even that is better than the alternative of plowing into the line of scrimmage one yard at a time. Whether its basic inside zone or basic outside zone, nothing the Texans offensive line has shown you so far should make you confident in the fact that they are going to grab more than three yards a tote. David Johnson has two broken tackles this year per SIS, a number that is well on par with what we should expect from his last two seasons of runs.

There are many, many playcallers who would generate a dominant short scheme out of the gifts of Watson. That the Texans continue to struggle to do literally anything in the run game, to the point where they are getting blown out of the water by James Conner — by 140 yards! — should embarrass this coaching staff into finding different solutions.

It probably won’t, because hubris has a way of being the defining trait of what I’ve come to expect from the Texans under O’Brien. But it should.

4) When the line works, this offense works

I already posted the Fulton sack, it was one of five that Watson took today. He’s now at 33 quarterback hits on the season. The Texans have just 11 of their own. When the Steelers were kept off-balance, it was mostly because empty formations had Watson only seeing four rushers as would-be-blitzers were forced out wide to keep things honest:

The line has, well, outside of Laremy Tunsil, not been very good this year. I know that there’s a lot of time left on the Tytus Howard and Max Scharping trains so I am not going to destroy them for it, but it is striking to me that this team performed as well as it did the second it simplified everything for its offensive line. Two of the sacks were on Fulton and Howard via a chip from Darren Fells that T.J. Watt talked about here:

A couple of other sacks came as Watson struggled to deal with covered initial reads. Another on this broken play-action pass with zero easy underneath targets:

And, well, I figured empty would be great for the Texans because Watson is good at it. I also figured he’d take some sacks in this game, but I guess where I’m at is that it was so striking how much better the line played out of empty. It goes beyond the sort of typical “they can tee off on him as a pass rusher” thing and plays back into both quarterback comfort and defense comfort. Every defense the Texans have played this year is way too comfortable dealing with what Houston’s coaching staff thinks are the base plays because the base plays don’t tie any hands. Put this Watson-in-empty stuff out there, and all of the sudden you get 21 points in short order.

The scary thing is that I think the empty set could be much, much better than it was in this game. Use David Johnson on drag routes. Bring Johnson back into the formation when you see something exploitable in the front. Let Deshaun Watson run. Like, this was only scratching the surface of what is there.

Maybe that’s the kind of stuff the base offense should be made out of. I guess we’ll never know!

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