Week 15 Preview: Texans @ Titans

The Houston Texans come into Tennessee for a game that will define the rest of their season. It is by no means do or die, but a loss would effectively confine the Texans to the fourth or sixth seeds in the playoffs, and force the return match against the Titans in Week 17 to be a must-win. A win would allow them to all but clinch the division. Their magic number with Tennessee would be one and, if Indianapolis wins to stay alive, their magic number with the Colts would also be one. It would also keep the Texans in contention for the No. 3 seed with a tiebreaker with the Chiefs that could come into play, as well as the vague possibility of a No. 2 seed should they manage their way to a tie with New England or Kansas City for that spot. It will also set the terms by which we see the entirety of Houston’s win-now moves — no pressure!

Unfortunately, the Titans are red-hot. Since Ryan Tannehill took over, Tennessee has had the second-best offensive DVOA in the NFL. There is something to the notion that Tannehill will regress long-term, but Houston’s defense allowed Drew Lock to bake up 31 offensive points for the Broncos with the EZ Bake oven. That is the dark shadow hanging over this game.

Recent history of these games have been mixed for the Texans. Houston’s 97-yard Lamar Miller touchdown run came against the Titans last year, and that keyed a 34-17 win. But in Week 2, the Texans suffered one of the bleakest losses of the Deshaun Watson era when they were felled by Blaine Gabbert. The Titans have historically been whipped by O’Brien’s Texans — they’ve lost seven of the 10 meetings since O’Brien took over in 2014 — but those were mostly Zach Mettenberger-aided cupcake games. It’s been 3-3 since Mariota actually started playing against the Texans in 2016.

Vegas has installed the Titans as three-point favorites, and that has raised from an initial line of 1.5, essentially saying the game is even. It’s an interesting line because I think the Titans, on recent run of play, probably deserve to be favored by even more. The over/under has raised 2.5-3.5 points since it was posted from its original 47 as well, meaning the initial Vegas lean didn’t quite believe in the Titans. That is an interesting development on its own.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy of Football Outsiders

While Tennessee’s offense has been soaring, their defense has been average at best since Tannehill took over. They’ve got a 2.9% DVOA since Week 7 and have given up 355 total yards or more in each game since then. Mostly it has been the pass defense not holding its weight — the Titans have allowed a 20.1% passing DVOA since Week 7. The run defense has been stellar all season.

In that way, this game presents as a bit of a trap for the Texans, who have a run-first identity — they’re 12th in rushing attempts despite an average lead of -3.17 per offensive possession. The Texans did not run the ball much in last week’s game despite good per-attempt numbers, and are likely going to see that and be tempted to run more. Particularly when you pair that with how Houston beat the Titans in 2018 with Miller’s big carry.

As self-depreciating as Vrabel is, he definitely knows that O’Brien wants to run. If I were Dean Pees, I’d welcome those runs. The Titans are a much-improved rushing defense (up from -9.4% in 2018) and have only allowed two major blemishes (against Carolina and Indianapolis). This isn’t to say that the Texans couldn’t run on the Titans — they absolutely have enough talent to — but it will be inconsistent at best as long as O’Brien stays with the inside zone as he is wont to do.

Passing is a different story. I worked on a post about the play-action pass game and how it’s been broken. The Titans actually did quite well against play-action from Houston last year as well, holding Watson to 7-of-13 for 88 yards and one touchdown in their two meetings. Adding to the reasons to abandon max-protect: the Titans have quarterback knockdowns on just 5.1% of their defensive dropbacks this year, second-lowest in the NFL. The Titans have some players with good prestige in Harold Landry and Jurrell Casey, but neither of them is tearing up offensive lines this season.

The Titans are one of the few teams that run almost zero shadow coverage, so the Texans should be moving DeAndre Hopkins into the slot to dominate. Throwing to the slot last year against the Titans, Watson was 12-of-14 for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Hopkins only had one of those targets. With Adoree Jackson out with a foot injury (two DNPs) and Malcolm Butler on IR, the Titans ran with Tye Smith, Logan Ryan, and waiver claim Tramaine Brock as starters last week against the Raiders. Tennessee’s got great safeties between Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro, but the short passing game should favor the Texans.

This is a game where I think the absence of Will Fuller won’t be too bad if the Texans actually pass out of 12-personnel. The Titans have allowed 9.6 yards per attempt and a 60% success rate on passes out of 12 this year, along with five touchdowns and zero interceptions in 80 dropbacks. Of course, if Fuller plays, he scorched the Titans in his first game of 2018 for 100 yards and he’s obviously got the talent to do that in any given week.

Finally, I am using this paragraph to protest Chris Clark’s existence on the roster. I don’t get it. I’m sure Chris Clark is a perfectly nice man and he’s had a fine career. But he’s 35 fucking years old and moves like he’s had a hip injury all year — and hey, speaking of, who popped up on the injury report this week with a hip injury? So … yeah, please don’t make me watch Chris Clark anymore. Thanks.

When the Titans have the ball

The accolades have mostly been about play-action and Tannehill, but let’s also take a moment to recognize that the Titans have a 14.8% run DVOA since Tannehill has been starting. They’re getting good offensive line play pretty much up and down the board, outside of reserve guard Nate Davis. They’ve integrated Tannehill into the run game with some success, and their tight ends and wideouts — particularly rookie A.J. Brown — have been excellent blockers as well. The gliding style of Derrick Henry is a lot of fun to watch when he’s going.

While Houston’s rush defense is good on the season, they are at 1.3% rushing DVOA allowed since their bye week. They miss the negative plays that J.J. Watt provided, and without having to key on him, offenses can treat the Texans as a lot more predictable. Houston’s run defense especially suffers when playing against 11-personnel, where they have allowed 5.2 yards per carry and a 56% success rate on 75 carries since Watt went down. Tennessee does lean on 12-personnel a bit more than average since Week 7, so perhaps that is a ray of hope in what is otherwise kind of a grim matchup. The Texans only allow 3.4 yards per carry to 12-personnel since Watt went down. Of course, the last time we started looking for rays of hope, the Ravens deathmarched the Texans down the field. The Titans probably aren’t quite the Ravens from a schematic standpoint, but they’re as good as the rest of the league has to offer.

I’m not going to lie to you — the prospect of Tannehill raining death and destruction on the Texans over the air is something that may be somewhat inevitable. Since Week 7, Houston has the absolute worst passing DVOA allowed in the NFL at 41.2%. Houston’s linebackers are very good, but the push-pull between Henry and their underneath assignments is likely to pull them out of position considering how much of Tennessee’s play-action game targets the middle of the field with slants.

The one thing that has limited Tannehill — yes, despite the hype, he has been limited at times — is that he takes a ton of sacks. He’s taken 24 in seven starts, at a 10.6% rate of his dropbacks. To put that in perspective: Deshaun Watson, who still takes too many sacks according to many that I hear, is at 8.0%. That’s why, despite the fact that the Titans have been crushing it, they’ve been held under 200 net passing yards in three of their last six games. Houston should be trying to emulate Indianapolis’ game plan from Week 12, where they sacked Tannehill six times.

The problem with that is that Tannehill has mostly been blitz-proof with how effective the running game has been. He’s been blitzed on fewer than 10 dropbacks in each of his last five starts. Tampa sent 19 blitzes at him and and held him to 5.6 completed air yards per completion. If you can get Tannehill to third-and-long, you’ve got to bring the heat. Houston’s base pass rush has all but disappeared. Teams aren’t needing to even double Whitney Mercilus. Jacob Martin is the only player the Texans have who has a sack since the bye, and he only plays on passing downs.

Romeo Crennel said that the cornerback rotation the Texans used last week was part of the plan. Let me say right now: the cornerback rotation for this game should not include Johnathan Joseph in my opinion. This is not the kind of game he’s built for at 35 — physical pounding and with a lot of necessary man-coverage against big receivers. Gareon Conley needs to be a full-time player with Bradley Roby, and I’d actually lean towards Lonnie Johnson as another corner here given his power. I suspect Crennel will play this a little more passive than I’d like, though.

Special teams

Tennessee’s kicking game has been abominable all season. Ryan Succop has missed time and, currently, has not hit a field goal longer than 40 yards on the season. In contrast, the Texans aren’t doing so bad!

Both teams have good punt coverage units. The Texans have lost a little bit of oomph recently without Dylan Cole — they allowed a 33-yard kickoff return to start the second half against the Broncos.

The read

It’s true that the Texans have ground out wins in big games this season. It’s true that the defense has been better coming off a game where they got their butt kicked. I regard that as mostly noise.

I would not be completely, knock-me-over-with-a-feather shocked if the Texans won. I expect it to be a low-possession game with two teams that like to run, and if Will Fuller plays, the Texans have so much juice that they can’t be counted out. All it would take is a few big plays on defense.

I do not trust this defense to successfully stop Derrick Henry or the play-action pass game. Titans 29, Texans 27. Prove me wrong kids, prove me wrong.

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Houston runs too much max-protect play-action

Deshaun Watson and play-action passes are a natural marriage. Watson has the ability to loft the ball deep over man coverage, he has the ability to scramble to buy time. Bootlegs give him the ability to use his natural athleticism in space if nothing is immediately open. He reads the field well enough to get to his checkdowns with extra time. Bill O’Brien runs the ball a lot out of heavier formations — these are things that, in theory, should make play-action amazing for the Texans.

But that marriage remains a fit only on paper with how the Texans run play-action most of the time. It’s one of the weakest parts of the Houston offense, and is especially galling as they go into a tilt with the Titans. The Titans have dominated in play-action under new coordinator Arthur Smith — even when Marcus Mariota was starting — and the Texans have been comparatively awful.

The key point of difference for me is simple: The Texans use too many blockers on their most-used play-action sets.

In 2018, the Texans ran max-protect play-action (seven or more blockers) 61 times and averaged just 6.9 yards per play. When they used six or fewer blockers (89 times), they averaged 9.1 yards per play. Now, nothing I have at this moment lets me split out the numbers like that for this season — FO does not rebuild it’s database for this sort of thing until the playoffs typically — but anecdotally I think the Texans have used more max-protect play-action than ever this year and it’s just not effective.

The Broncos roll out with two deep safeties on this play. I started from the end zone angle so you can see the progressions — Watson looks to his right, then to his left on the step up, then back to the right again. This doesn’t have a prayer. In fact, given that it has become easier and easier to target the middle of the field for offenses, it’s flagrantly dumb that the Texans don’t even have a receiver in that area.

The Hopkins touchdown catch at least threatened the middle of the field in max-protect — it’s the Yankee double-crosser route that O’Brien loves — but it still takes forever and a day to develop. Watson has to hold for routes to clear, and it relies on the defense taking the bait. That’s a key implication: When you run max protect play-action, you are relying on the defense to take a bait. You are relying on them to play poorly rather than your players to draw it up and make a play. This is something you see over and over again on play-action tape from the Texans.

Remember that the biggest play-action games for the Texans tend to come against the weakest defenses. Miami in 2018. Atlanta in 2019. These schemes don’t work as well against disciplined schemes that understand how to deal with crossers. They pick on the weak teams.

Contrast this to the Titans — when they run play-action, they almost always have an immediate throw: Even when they were starting Mariota, this was a successful part of their offense.

With Tannehill, they’ve become dominant in play-action, and they do mix in max protect still:

But they also have a variety of depths of target for Tannehill to get after. Look at how many of these wind up as underneath crossers. Notice how often the middle of the field gets targeted. Notice that Tannehill doesn’t often have to buy extra time to make the plays work. They’ll roll Tannehill out and get him some space to operate. They are in-rhythm throws unless Tannehill has to wait for an underneath clear, and even that doesn’t take very long most of the time.

When the Texans run play-action right now, it is all or nothing. Either the play gets open deep, or it doesn’t and they gain almost nothing. That’s why the Texans run play-action just 22% of the time. That’s why the offense is only explosive on an inconsistent basis and is heavily reliant on Will Fuller, who is — pardon my language — a fucking unicorn as far as his combination of speed and route-running. So much of the passing game is built on winning deep and late, and even the few checkdown options that do get integrated feel like afterthoughts.

It’s okay to run play-action and only get a slant across the middle. That’ll win a lot of games, as the Titans are showing. Houston’s play-action game, by contrast, is constipated.

Maybe it works against Tennessee and maybe it doesn’t — that defense is not playing particularly well right now — but with how big of a weapon play-action should be for this team, it’s obviously not living up to what it could be because of how slow it is. Nothing shows that more than matching up against a Titans team that, on paper, doesn’t have the skill position talent to max the Texans on offense. But the plays they run are more effective, and that’s all that matters.

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Four Downs: Broncos 38, Texans 24

Well! That was degrading for everybody involved.

The Texans, coming off one of the best wins in franchise history, flopped and surrendered on Sunday. Rookie quarterback Drew Lock, in his second start, destroyed the Romeo Crennel game plan, and Kareem Jackson’s fumble-six return game-scripted the Texans to a hell that they were never able to climb out of.

It is a crushing loss, and one that carries with it a bevy of questions. Why isn’t a team that is able to seemingly bottle up Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady unable to do the same against a rookie quarterback? How did the Texans get behind so quickly?

I’m going to run out of space because we’ve got a lot of little things to talk about, but I want to quickly mention the fourth-and-1 go the Texans did in their own territory. I loved this call:

I don’t like moving the running back out, but that seems to be a comfy thing for Watson so I understand it. The score is 24-3. The game is effectively over if you punt it, and you have to chase at that point. They dialed up a play that had not one, but two open receivers. The ball was tipped. A lot of my timeline was up in arms about how Hopkins was open — well, the pick play action was supposed to free up Coutee, it was the primary read, and it was also open. It’s poor execution — and a play that I think Watson has more problems throwing than over the middle — but not a play I think was bad in general. It was a poor result rather than a poor process to me.

And, well, that’s how I feel about a lot of what the offense did today. But first:

1 — Houston’s defense was thrashed repeatedly

Here’s the real problem the Houston Texans face: They have no negative plays. Drew Lock took one sack — from Jacob Martin in the fourth quarter when the game was already in hand — and took a bunch of quarterback hits late in the play. So when you do that, you have to have tight coverage.

They did not have tight coverage. Lock’s first touchdown throw? Incredibly well defensed by Jahleel Addae, great throw and it still took a great catch from the tight end.

Everything else the Broncos did? Wide the hell open. Just play after play of open receivers with nobody next to them. A sonning by Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello.

Denver torched Houston’s play-action defense — which actually started the day allowing only 6.5 yards per pass — by making sure that everything was headed towards the first action. That’s a natural order for Crennel’s units and something I’m surprised doesn’t get exploited as often as it should.

So yes, Lock’s first touchdown throw? Excellent. The other two? Receivers went in essentially untouched. Guys were flying open on slants. This was a case of a unit that got flat-out outcoached. And when you have no room for error and get outcoached, you can give up 31 points as an offense.

Simply put: The Texans can’t afford for Romeo Crennel to give up that much space to anybody right now. They’ve got to game plan better. Oh, and Tennessee loves play-action, so — get on that right quick, right?

2 — The offense … actually wasn’t that bad until they crossed the 50.

Houston’s first four series gained 135 yards. That’s not too shabby. But when they crossed the Denver 50-yard-line in the first half, they turned into pumpkins.

The Texans were haunted by a pair of crucial false starts by penalty league-leader Laremy Tunsil, who has been a walking false start violation this season. That forced plays that were third-and-5 and third-and-10 to third-and-10 and third-and-15, respectively. But more importantly, they gained negative-1 yards on 13 plays. There were a mix of woeful plays by both Deshaun Watson, his receivers, and the coaches in those drives — I want to talk about play-action passing later this week so I’ll save it for that — but when the Texans threw on first down they threw into crowds. The Broncos seemed to be waiting on curls. Watson often had to go past his first few options to find someone open.

You can see Watson reading the field on this throwaway. Doesn’t like it to the right, doesn’t like it in the middle, has to get going:

Simply put — it’s very hard to score when you can’t produce in this area. The Texans got a long field-goal attempt out of it, punted twice, and had the fumble-six. They moved the ball fairly well. But, well, the execution matters.

3 — Kareem Jackson was a man on a mission

Jackson walked from Houston to Denver without even a contract offer after nine years here as a first-round pick. He was one of the major reasons the Texans won the game against the Broncos in Denver last season. And, here, he was one of the main reasons that the Texans were whomped. Jackson returned the fumble for a score, intercepted a ball late off a deflection, and thumped DeAndre Hopkins bad enough to send him to the medical tent:

I wrote a big piece about Jackson’s history in Houston before the season when it became clear he wouldn’t come back. Obviously, when you cover players, you aren’t supposed to let your personal feelings get in the way about them. It makes some sense to let 31-year-old safeties head off. I get it. But I always admired that Kareem was able to come back from his dreadful first couple of years and become a contributor. Even though it was Texans ass he was kicking today, it was still fun to watch him play:

Say what you will about Jackson’s coverage — and boy have I ever over the years — but he could always come downhill and thump you. Still can, as the Texans learned on Sunday.

4 — The rotations fell apart

Johnathan Joseph isn’t a man-coverage cornerback in 2019. He’s just not. I think he’s objectively the best cornerback in Texans history, and I respect the hell out of him. He’s just not physical enough to hang on horizontal crossing routes anymore:

The idea of bringing in all these other corners was that the Texans needed to play more physical coverage, but the Texans rotated cornerbacks around wildly, to the point where even Bradley Roby was getting taken off the field, and it didn’t seem to help anybody.

Chris Clark is still bad. That was a rotation that nobody needed and I still have no idea why he gets to play over Roderick Johnson. (And no, “he’s a good teammate” is not a good answer.)

It felt like we saw a lot less Jacob Martin with the return of Brennan Scarlett, and as much as I think Scarlett’s good at what he does, what he does is not pass rusher. Martin had the lone sack of the game:

Scarlett, playing hurt (I assume) and being shook up later in the game, was the victim of an easy touchdown throw off motions from the Broncos play-action:

I don’t think any of the players I named aren’t NFL-caliber players. I just think the Texans didn’t really understand how to use them best in this game at this time. They don’t know who they want to start at corner or in what situation they want to play them all. They don’t know if pass rush is more important than run stuffing. So it felt very much like a game where the Texans just threw some shit at the wall to see what stuck:

Unfortunately, this is something that kind of comes with the territory of bringing in new players. It’s one of those things that happens when you are as aggressive as O’Brien has been about bringing in new guys.

Here’s how I’d play it: Start Roby and Conley, put Hargreaves in on third downs. Martin’s pass rush is too important for him to not be taking most of the snaps opposite Mercilus. Let Lonnie Johnson play fourth corner in dime situations. Let the defense play as aggressively as they can in coverage.

It’s not ideal, but it’s where the Texans are at right now on that side of the ball. They need to take some bold steps to be competitive. The Titans are bringing a high-flying play-action attack to the Texans next week. Houston better be prepared to cover for as long as they can.

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Week 14 Preview: Texans vs. Broncos

Huge win over the Patriots in their pockets, the Texans will look to topple the Broncos to complete a 3-for-3 homestand and firmly solidify a playoff spot. I would not call this game huge by an objective measurement compared to what the Texans have been up against all year only because they are two games behind a first-round bye and (effectively, assuming they can beat the Titans once in two games), two games ahead of the AFC South race. All that is imminently turnable in one week is the race for the 3-4 seed with Kansas City, who play the Patriots. Obviously, of course, if the Texans have real designs on the playoffs rather than just wanting a participation trophy, they’ll want this one in pocket as well.

This is sort of a weird game to call because so much has changed for these two teams this season. Deshaun Watson is around and is consistent, but every other position group on these two teams — including every great edge player each team has — can’t really be counted on for one reason or another. Last year, when the Texans went to Denver, Watson hung on to a win that J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney mostly generated by dominating the Denver line and Case Keenum.

These two teams share a very linked history, with Houston importing Gary Kubiak from Denver after the 2005 season and importing Brock Osweiler after the 2016 season. And, of course, Kubiak linking up with Peyton Manning after it was rumored that Manning wanted that to happen when he was originally released after 2011. Prior to beating up on Keenum last year, the last two games the teams played were Broncos asswhippings — one in Osweiler’s return to Denver, and one with Manning at the trigger in his record-breaking season.

Opening at 7.5-point favorites, the Texans quickly ballooned to 8.5 or even 9-point favorites in some books. That reflects the reality of the Broncos starting a regressed rookie quarterback who didn’t exactly look stellar in the second half of his debut. But is that initial view of Lock what we should count on against the Texans?

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

Let’s start with where Denver is at as Kareem Jackson re-visits NRG: The big news is that Von Miller has been dealing with an MCL injury and may not play in the game, telling reporters that “when you take away exotic movements that make me who I am it changes the type of player I am.” Bradley Chubb is on IR. Derek Wolfe is on IR. That might give you the thought that this defense will pack it in — don’t get suckered in. The Broncos have a ton of depth and experience over the middle of the field. I’ve long been a fan of Todd Davis. Shelby Harris is having his typical solid season with four sacks at off-tackle, and Justin Simmons appears to be this team’s next star in the making at safety. Jackson, of course, remains a stellar box safety as well.

All of which is to say: Bill O’Brien made a big point of how he wants to run, and I don’t think he’s going to have a lot of success with it. The Broncos have gotten spilled by the Jaguars and Bills this year to the tune of 200+ yards on the ground, but have tended to be fairly solid over the course of the season. The Broncos are a YAC allowing ground defense: They gave up 151 yards after contact to the Bills and 159 after contact to the Jaguars. Carlos Hyde is an arm tackle breaker, but not really the back who is going to leave someone in the dust after getting past them. If the Texans go into the lab and get RPOs working as a staple play again, I’d totally get it. But simple inside zone with Hyde is not going to get the job done in my estimation.

The Broncos show a pronounced split in how well they do against 11-personnel versus how well they do against other groupings. They’ve held 11-personnel to a 40% success rate against the pass, and a 43% success rate against the run. Only New England, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh have done better. The Texans have been moving towards more 12-personnel with Jordan Thomas back, even mixing in more 13-personnel last week, and that would seem to be an easier area of attack with teams succeeding on 54% of their dropbacks in 12 against the Broncos.

The big letdown spot for the Broncos have been the non-Chris Harris corners. Bryce Callahan, big free-agent signee, has never gotten on the field. That’s left the Broncos rotating through corners and, as the Texans did last year, shifting Jackson back-and-forth between corner and safety. Last week, Jackson took one spot with Will Parks playing safety, and Isaac Yiadom took over and allowed 114 yards on seven targets, with two missed tackles.

Harris had shadowed against several big-name wideouts this year and has played quite well when doing so, holding Stefon Diggs catchless and Keenan Allen to 16 yards last week. That’ll likely be this week’s DeAndre Hopkins challenge. Note that No. 1 wideouts have been quite good against the Broncos empirically, as they’ve averaged a 27.1% DVOA that ranks 29th in DVOA allowed to No. 1 wideouts.

I don’t have a lot of doubt that the Texans can throw on the Broncos. For one thing, the Broncos are not frequent blitzers under Fangio. They sent seven blitzes at Philip Rivers in 32 dropbacks, and have blitzed on just 26.2% of opposing dropbacks this year, a middle-of-the pack amount. With the big pass rushers down or at least hampered, I don’t foresee a reason that Watson should be especially harried outside of excessive Chris Clark play. (Please, please, don’t make me watch Chris Clark.)

But the Fangio Broncos are impressive overall as a defense — they aren’t going to make things easy for the Texans unless Yiadom and Jackson simply can’t hold up in deep coverage.

When the Broncos have the ball

Both coordinators on this side of the ball — Rich Scangarello for Denver and Romeo Crennel for the Texans — commented on how hard this game is going to be because they simply don’t have a lot of tape on how each side plays with new additions. So if I am wildly wrong somewhere, please keep in mind that even the coordinators are not entirely sure what to make of the matchup.

The Broncos had one of the best run offenses in the NFL last year, but haven’t really been able to do as much inside as they did last year with Matt Paradis off to Carolina and Ron Leary ineffective away from the Dallas dream team line. Phillip Lindsay averaged 5.9 yards per attempt on inside runs in 2018, and is down at 3.3 in 2019. The group as a whole just doesn’t get as much push as they did in 2018.

The good news for Denver is that Houston has been woeful over the last three weeks against the run. Each of the last three opponents are over 145 yards, and with J.J. Watt done the Texans generate very little in the way of negative plays. They have just 10 run stuffs since Week 9. They had 28 in the first eight weeks. The Texans only allowed 54 yards after contact to the Patriots and 71 yards to the Colts too — they were getting whipped up front, it wasn’t just poor tackling.

Denver actually uses a lot of 21-personnel — two backs, one tight end — they’re at 14% of plays out of that set, fourth to only Minnesota, San Francisco, and New Orleans. They are built to run the ball because, outside of Courtland Sutton, they don’t have much in the way of scary receiving threats. DaeSean Hamilton dropped an open slant that might have gone for 30 yards last week. Even Noah Fant, though he’s come on of late, has had a lot of inconsistency as a rookie.

Houston’s new big strength with all its healthy cornerbacks, as you saw against New England, is the ability to cover traditional mismatches with more adept cover players. That doesn’t deeply matter against Denver — the Broncos are going to find a way to throw to Sutton and they don’t have a deeply impressive receiving option.

Drew Lock’s first start showed a lot of what we already knew about him coming into the season. He made a rookie mistake on his pick. He has a ton of arm strength and an uncommon ability to create out of structure. I think it’s probably a good thing for the Broncos in this particular game that there’s not a lot of tendency tape out there for the Texans to study, because he strikes me as someone who can succeed right away but struggles more as the little things pile up against them.

One thing that I think bodes well for the Texans is that the Broncos don’t attack the middle of the field all that often — even with some improvement against the Patriots, the Texans are still allowing a league-worst 65.6% DVOA on passes over the short middle.

Special teams

Is this the week the Texans actually get a return going? Denver’s coverage teams have been abysmal all season. The Broncos have allowed 28.43 yards per kickoff return — second-highest in the league — and are one of three teams to have allowed a punt return touchdown this year. DeAndre Carter hive, this could be your week.

The read

High point spreads in the Bill O’Brien era … the Texans have won every single game that they’ve been favored by more than 6.5 — but that’s often been them getting matched up against ghastly teams. I don’t think the Broncos are ghastly, and I don’t know if Houston is going to be able to run the ball effectively enough to salt leads away.

I do think there is some blowout potential for the Texans, both because of Watson and because Lock’s potentially combustible. But I think the more likely scenario is one where two conservative coaches take turns trying to out-conservative each other. I will be taking the points and going Broncos 16, Texans 20.

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Negative plays, the concept of first-down runs, and Bill O’Brien’s Texans

Your Houston Texans are having, compared to 2018, a highly effective season running the football. They’re averaging 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, which puts them fourth in the NFL. In 2018, that number was 4.3. Both numbers see a Deshaun Watson boost (Watson averages 5.7 yards per attempt for his career), but the Texans have clearly improved from 2018, where they struggled to run out of base formations for whole games at a time at the end of the season.

However, because of the shape of what running the football looks like for most teams, how much Houston cares about the running game — and in particular on first down — anchors their offense. The Texans improved from 15th to eighth in DVOA this week on the heels of Watson’s four touchdowns against a Patriots defense that was playing historically well. The ceiling of the pass offense has been improved by all the additional weapons that they’ve brought in. With a 30.3% pass DVOA, the Texans are seventh-place and not far out of the top five.

The Texans are one of two teams with a top-8 offensive DVOA that has a negative run offense DVOA. The other, Kansas City, has run the ball 269 times to Houston’s 326. Critics of Bill O’Brien tend to revert to the idea that he plays too simple of a pattern: run, run, slant. That’s not necessarily true. The Texans did run-run-pass last year only 18 percent of the time — a high amount, but not outlier high like Seattle was.

But this was a massive problem against New England, where Carlos Hyde had just 10 carries for 17 yards. Often, the concept of “staying on schedule” is invoked in NFL circles. For O’Brien, he most often harps in press conferences about the idea of avoiding negative plays and mistakes. “We don’t have a play for first-and-30,” to paraphrase something he said about the Jaguars game in London. Where we have a ways to go in the analytics world is finding a way to make coaches understand that failed rushes in a non-clock killing situation are mistakes.

Last week Bill Belichick posted up eight in the box 30% of the time for Hyde, a much higher number than he was used to seeing. (Over the full season, that number is 14.1%.) He played to keep the Texans from running on first down because it is fairly evident to anyone who watches games that this is what O’Brien likes to do. O’Brien changed nothing, barely ran anything that would occupy a defender like a read-option, and the run offense died on the table. It was only for the grace of Watson and Duke Johnson that Houston’s pass offense was able to save the fact that it was handed the ball on second down with an average of 8.75 yards to go for the entirety of the game.

The top five teams in terms of running the ball on first down are Baltimore, Oakland, Dallas, Houston, and San Francisco. Baltimore and San Francisco have unique, well-documented run games — one has Lamar Jackson and a pile full of Greg Roman schemes, while the other has Baby Shanahan’s impressive set of tactical advantages. The Raiders have Derek Carr at quarterback, so they have little choice but to run the ball. The Cowboys … well, I hope if you’re reading this you know that as an organization they have decided to prove that signing Ezekiel Elliott to a huge contract was worth it even though it wasn’t.

The other thing those four teams have in common: they actually run for positive DVOA on those first downs. That is something the Texans don’t do, and something that gets even more extreme when you split out recent games:

It’s also something that is borne out in multiple years of data. The Texans ran 278 times on first down in 2018 and had a -25.2% DVOA on those carries. (The only teams that ran more were Seattle and Baltimore, and each only by two rushes.) The Texans ran 267 times on first down in 2017 and had a -14.1% DVOA. (The only team ahead of them that year was Minnesota, at 276.)

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I am not quite as anti-run as a lot of my fellow analytics disciples. At the end of the day, what you are trying to do in a football game is play to where defenders aren’t and play to where your strengths are. Sometimes, as it was against Kansas City’s woeful run defense, that will mean you run the ball a lot more.

But the Texans have been donating downs away under O’Brien’s watch for seasons, and since we just spoke Duke Johnson targets into existence last week, let’s speak this one into existence too: Those donated carries don’t always have as much negative yardage as a sack does, but they continue to put the passing offense in situations that are trickier than they should be. Worst of all, the runs themselves are not particularly interesting. I make it a point to pick out O’Brien’s exotic designs with Watson and satellite receivers and praise them. They were a big part of the Kansas City game plan. Whereas the Ravens and 49ers are running on first downs with a big schematic advantage, a lot of the donated downs Houston runs are just simple inside zone.

Red zone stalls are often part and parcel with donated plays. Houston’s first field goal drive against the Colts in Week 7 started out with a failed run and a false start. Their second? Failed run on first down. We focus in on Watson’s sacks because they are loud. Comparatively, these little runs for no gain are silent killers that set up the sacks.

With coaching, it’s always the little things. If O’Brien ran the ball four or five times less on first down a game, this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s all it really amounts to. But the more stagnant and easy to read an offense is, the easier they are to defend. Right now, everybody knows what is coming on first down. Even the fans.

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Four Downs: Texans 28, Patriots 22

The AFC glass ceiling shattered on Sunday night, and Texans fans were free to envision something more for the first time.

Houston bullywhipped the New England Patriots, long-time Texans tormentors, in a way that the final scoreline doesn’t even completely address. Houston achieved a 95% win probability (per ESPN’s in-house metric) towards the end of the third quarter, and turned the tables on the Patriots by decisively winning the battle of the game plans, getting around tight coverage with annoying short completions, and frustrating the opposing quarterback into a series of annoying passes. They Patriots’ed the Patriots. And you can tell this game meant a lot more to the Texans than they’d ever let on this week.

Summing up what this game meant to the collective fanbase is weird in the same way that any thing that destroys self-perception is. This game is the moment you dropped below 200 pounds for the first time in eight years. This game is the first time you asked someone out and they said yes. There are plenty of Toro-colored glasses out in Texans Internet land, and they did go to Arrowhead Stadium earlier this year and win, but the Texans have been Little Brother to the Patriots ever since they became relevant, especially since O’Brien has been in town. Big Brother finally stumbled.

My pragmatic side wants to tell you that this does not necessarily mean much. It wants to tell you that the Patriots are still heavy favorites to host a return meeting between these two teams if it happens. It wants to tell you that Bill O’Brien has often come up with amazing play designs and has called good game plans before, but that it’s usually a tease rather than a trend. It wants to tell you that New England’s passing attack has looked broken since Week 5 and that this played into that. It wants to tell you that the real threat is roughly 400 miles west of Foxboro, where the Texans got spanked 41-7.

But it does matter. It matters because we were able to see it. The vision that Bill O’Brien has sold his bosses as Patriots South has always been a fraudulent-ass one that relied on closing your eyes any time the Texans played a real team. They haven’t closed the deed on this season yet, and they’re still not likely to grab a first-round bye. But when you watch this game, and the Kansas City game, you are able to see it.

1 — Deshaun Watson, Duke Johnson, and short game dominance

The mantra all week from the Texans was about avoiding turnovers and playing mistake-free football. They didn’t always do that as a team — they had penalties that set back the cause, and two of Watson’s three sacks taken were from almost entirely unaccounted for rushes:

But what we’ve seen when the Texans have cruised this season hasn’t been that they need to reinvent the wheel on offense, it’s that they have so much skill position depth that all they need to do is have Watson get the ball out and go on with their day. Watson took three sacks, but only four total quarterback hits on those sacks. He was 14-of-18 for 135 yards and two touchdowns on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If you go through the ones that weren’t caught — one was defensive pass interference, one was a dropped Kenny Stills slant — they’re not exactly plays that show poorly on Watson.

It’s me, I’m that idiot who said that Duke Johnson was the important player that needed to be involved. I get to be right about things sometimes.

When Watson is operating the short-area game well, the Texans feel unstoppable and inevitable. They were so inevitable in this game that they donated 10 Carlos Hyde rushes to charity (1.7 yards per carry, long of four yards) and still averaged 7.7 yards per pass.

The play where Watson avoided a Kyle Van Noy sack on first down, throwing the ball away, and then found Jordan Akins on a tackle-breaking run after catch to get out of second-and-10 on the second scoring drive exemplifies what’s going on here. The Texans aren’t necessarily avoiding hurting themselves with penalties or bad plays — because every team does this to some extent — but when you throw for 7.7 yards per attempt it doesn’t really matter if you mix in a negative play or two.

2 — The emergence of Jacob Martin

Not only did the Patriots look limited as a passing offense, they looked limited in a way that relied on Tom Brady buying time. I don’t think any of their older receivers besides Edelman looked 100%, and I don’t think either of their younger receivers showed themselves capable in this game. There is no tight end play.

But the Texans also did this by bringing heat — they sacked Brady three times, but they hit him 12 total times. Brady was constantly being harassed. His average time-to-throw was a startling 3.4 seconds, which points to both the trouble his receivers had getting open and how often he had to reset his throwing point.

Nobody sent Brady fleeing as often as Jacob Martin on the edge — the Patriots simply couldn’t give Marcus Cannon enough help on the outside, and Cannon was watching Martin go by him on nearly a by-drive basis.

Brennan Scarlett and Angelo Blackson were missed in the base run game — more on that in a moment — but those extra snaps that Martin got showed us some flashes of how the Texans might possibly be able to recoup a little value on the Jadeveon Clowney trade. I don’t think Martin is some sort of burgeoning superstar — he’s not leaving guys in the dust snap-after-snap or anything like that — but I do think he has enough speed on the edge to be an effective complementary rusher. Like Whitney Mercilus, he does a lot of his living on the initial get-off. Cannon couldn’t deal.

3 — The defensive game plan that the Patriots couldn’t counter off of

The Texans — Romeo Crennel — came into this game with a game-specific plan that actually worked. They decided to force New England’s non-Julian Edelman and James White receivers to beat them in man coverage, and those receivers simply couldn’t do it.

On 24 targets to non-Edelman and White receivers, Brady completed 10 balls for 122 yards and no scores. A vast majority of those balls came on New England’s final three drives of the game, after they were down 21-3.

The Texans were able to create pressure off of guarding White with a DB, and they were able to halt Edelman’s routes to the inside with doubles. Edelman’s 44-yard catch came on a deep in with a picked-up blitz that happened roughly six seconds into the down. Outside of that catch, he had almost nothing happening deep.

When the stakes were their highest, the Patriots went to Mohamed Sanu to try to convert on fourth-and-short. The Texans smartly(!!!) stacked the line, forcing Brady away from the sneak. It was Sanu on Johnathan Joseph, and Joseph was able to break the ball up even if he couldn’t quite hang with Sanu on the initial play:

The amount of situational things that the Texans accounted for in this game that they normally don’t was staggering to me. Maybe it goes blind and unaccounted for and we see it brightly here because it was such a big game, but I’m positive I’ve seen Brady sneak past the Texans for first downs on a regular basis. It was wonderful to see some actual opponent-based game planning that worked. If that sticks throughout the season, it’s cause to praise the coaching staff.

4 — Bradley Roby’s game-script shattering interception and the ensuing touchdown

So of course, Roby’s interception (and near pick-six) was enormous. The Patriots were up 3-0 at the time, and the Texans pounced on that to turn it into seven points when they hit Duke Johnson on third-and-3.

But even more than that, against a Patriots offense that had major issues but could absolutely run the ball in this game, it forced a negative game script from the very beginning. Look at Joseph in run defense on this play:

The Patriots wound up running for 145 yards in the game even though they were always behind. With Scarlett and Blackson out, and the defense up front stocked with guys like Joel Heath, Barkevious Mingo, and Eddie Vanderdoes who had seen very little in the way of playing time, the Patriots were able to pick and choose their way to success in the run game.

You can easily imagine a scenario where the Texans play field position with the Patriots for another couple of plays, then the Pats hit a big run or two, and go up 10, and time is a big ally for the Patriots. That’s why the Roby interception was so big — it wasn’t just the specific purposes of points off turnovers, winning the turnover battle, the short field — it was that it kept the Patriots from executing from a positive game script. If they could have banged away with Sony Michel all game, we might have been looking at a very different final score.

Roby’s pick was, quite frankly, one of the most important plays of the season. It might wind up being one of the most important plays in Texans history if this season continues an optimistic trek. So much hinged on him reading N’Keal Harry’s route and running it for Harry. Even down starting center Ted Karras, the Pats were able to bang away on the Texans.

But because of Roby, they were never able to use the run game as a true weapon — it was a change of pace for three-fourths of the game.

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Week 13 Preview: Texans vs. Patriots

Coming off an eventful, but ultimately somewhat uninspiring win over the Indianapolis Colts last Thursday, the Texans enter into another prime time showdown with the greatest (and longest-lasting) dynasty in NFL history, the New England Patriots. They are the team that Bill O’Brien wants to model the Texans after, and they are the team that has ended two of the three longest playoff runs in Texans history in the divisional round. Simply put: They are the measuring stick if you want this team to compete for a championship.

The Texans come in to this game with a few very real advantages. The extra rest after Thursday night football acts almost like a mini-bye week. (Please, together, let’s not remember what happened the last time the Texans had a bye week.) The Patriots have been decimated by the flu — five different starters missed time with illness this week and two of them missed multiple days — and are also in the position of having to replace kicker Nick Folk after an emergency operation.

History has not been kind to the Texans in this, er, “rivalry.” The only time Houston has won was in Week 17 of the 2009 season, a win that could have sealed them a playoff spot had the Cincinnati Bengals not let the Jets kick their asses on Sunday Night Football on purpose. The last two games — the game with Deshaun Watson — have been single-score affairs, though it’s worth noting that the Texans were down 24-6 in 2018 and only came back after a baffling Bill O’Brien punt decision was muffed by the Patriots. Watson had perhaps the worst start of his NFL career in that game, completing just 17-of-34 passes for 176 yards and taking three sacks. He missed Ryan Griffin in the end zone multiple times.

Vegas initially posted the game at Patriots by 4.5 points, but has dialed it back to 3 or 3.5 in most books. The over/under has climbed a bit as well, from a 44.5 open to about 45 or 45.5.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy of Football Outsiders

If you have been living under a rock, the Patriots are on a historically great pace, particularly as a pass defense. By DVOA’s standards, the Patriots are the third-best defense they’ve ever tracked through 11 games, behind only the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs and the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles. If you prefer more rudimentary statistics, let’s talk about how the Patriots have allowed four passing touchdowns in 11 games, and have intercepted 20 passes.

Needless to say, almost all receivers struggle against this unit, which is primarily a man-coverage unit. They are No. 1 in DVOA allowed to No. 1 wideouts (-39.9%), No. 2 wideouts (-66.8%), and Other wideouts (-47.2%) while holding tight ends and running backs in negative DVOA figures as well. There is something to be said for the individual talent that the Texans have in their receiving corps and can use to stretch the field, which is a game that they always want to play. But the Patriots aren’t rolling out the welcome mat — they are in the top-10 in blitz rate at 35.0%. The only other team the Texans have played with that sort of blitz rate is Baltimore. Houston did not exactly set up many pristine deep shots. My supposition is: Go to Duke Johnson underneath and let him force the Patriots into some less-aggressive sets.

I would be lying if I told you I expected that to happen. Instead, I think the Texans will be asking their wideouts to win convincingly early in routes. I don’t want to cap the upside that Will Fuller has had, because his mere presence changed the entire Texans-Colts game, but this has to be a good Will Fuller game if the Texans can win. Zero drops. The Patriots love to run shadow coverage, and though Bill Belichick has a history of using his No. 1 DB on the other teams’ No. 2 WR, then shading the safety towards the No. 1 WR, I would be surprised if we didn’t get a Hopkins versus Stephon Gilmore battle. That’s what happened in Week 1 of the 2018 season, and Gilmore held Hopkins to 57 yards on eight targets, five of which were completed.

Bill O’Brien has a primordial need to run the ball, and luckily for him, it actually is important that the Texans run well in this game anyway. The Patriots have an incredibly huge split in effectiveness between 11-personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers), allowing a 50% success rate (45% on pass, 54% on runs) to 12, but just a 35% success rate to 11. The Texans have had success running out of 12 in small bursts this year, but it’s been game-plan dependent. Since Week 8, the Texans have a 54% success rate running out of 11, and just a 46% success rate running out of 12.

The real problem isn’t the Pats run defense, which has been bullied at times this year, but the fact that Houston’s run offense has wildly declined in effectiveness. The Texans have been in double-digit negative run offense DVOA figures for three of their last four games. The other game, Jacksonville in London, came out to -8.2%. I don’t necessarily think this is a Carlos Hyde problem, as he’s still been running well. I just think Houston’s read-options haven’t been working well and that has made O’Brien want to run a ton of zone plays even though his team isn’t any good at blocking them. That is his base game plan.

Duron Harmon sort of tipped that the Texans will see a lot of Cover-2 in his press availability this week. Not surprising given how much they focused on how explosive the Texans are. I suspect you’ll see New England’s defense focus on limiting the big play.

Irrespective of the results of this game, let me at least float this at you: I think the Texans have the talent to give this defense a run for their money. Star left tackle. Young star quarterback. One of the best receivers in the NFL. Two deep threats. Akins and Johnson underneath. I don’t think this game should be embarrassing. If it is, well, you don’t have to read between the lines to understand that it’s a coaching problem in my eyes. To me, it is wild to watch the Patriots — a team with zero pass rushers of any real repute before this season — run hog wild on opposing offenses. If this defense were in the hands of Matt Patricia, or Gregg Williams, or someone in that range, I think we’d be talking about how the Texans can move the ball with ease on them. This game is, ultimately, all about the coaching. As it usually is.

When the Patriots have the ball

I have read many stats about how the Texans no longer get pass rush without J.J. Watt. Forget the pass rush — they barely do defense without Watt. They’ve allowed 7.4 yards per attempt and 5.4 yards per carry since Watt went down, and though the latter is skewed by the Ravens game, they also just got their asses kicked by Johnathan Williams for 175 rushing yards. They have not turned over a non-Gardner Minshew quarterback. I enjoy the little bursts of hope when I can, and I’m not going to shit on you for enjoying Jacob Martin’s sack last game, but let’s come into this with low expectations and hope they are met.

The good news is that things seem to be trending towards the Texans having almost an entire roster of healthy players. Bradley Roby reportedly will be back, and that sets up a scenario where the Texans have Roby, Gareon Conley, and Johnathan Joseph all healthy at the same time for the first time. I’m guessing Roby plays inside on those sets. We shall see how the trio works together.

Unfortunately, Tom Brady’s troops are also getting healthy. Isaiah Wynn’s return last game helped get New England’s worst starter most of the year, Marshall Newhouse, out of the lineup. Phillip Dorsett has cleared concussion protocol, and Mohamed Sanu appears to be on the right side of questionable after missing last week’s game with an ankle injury.

Brady has had well-documented problems with the blitz over the last couple of years, and that appears to be the case again this season with his QBR declining to 40.6 when he’s blitzed. Romeo Crennel sent only 10 blitzes in 41 dropbacks in their matchup in 2018, and since the bye has declined his usage of blitzes by quite a bit. Jacoby Brissett saw five in 26 dropbacks, and Lamar Jackson saw five in 25 dropbacks. While that could be a sign that Crennel is happier with where he’s at in coverage players now, it’s also not trending in the direction that would make this game fun for Texans fans. Brady can play against this pass defense in his sleep, and if they don’t make him throw off-balance or out-of-structure, the Texans aren’t going to offer a lot of resistance until the red zone.

New England has not had much success running the ball this year, though the return of Wynn appeared to boost that a bit last week. Sony Michel has just not broken many tackles this year — only Frank Gore has broken more among backs with a real workload this year per Sports Info Solutions. They miss fullback James Develin, and have gone as far as using linebacker Elandon Roberts at fullback recently to try to jump start something.

Ultimately there’s not a ton that’s impressive or electrifying about the New England offense sans Gronkowski — they’re just going to play turnover-free ball and let their defense win them the game. Against the 2018 Texans, I’d be up here raving about how they had a chance to take Brady down. But against the 2019 Texans, who basically only have coverage sacks and gap shots from Bernardrick McKinney as ways to force a negative play? It’s going to take some luck.

Special teams

The major difference in these two units is just the field-goal kickers — the Patriots are well above-average to great in the other areas. The Pats have cycled through a few kickers in Stephen Gostkowski’s absence, and with Folk down for this one again will have someone untrustworthy. That untrustworthy player was named on Friday when Kai Forbath was signed.

Ka’imi Fairbairn’s accuracy has declined in every area this year, and he’s now just 6-for-11 beyond 40 yards. Some of that is about the operation — I get it — neither team should have a lot of confidence in their kicker in this game. Dylan Cole’s ACL injury removes one of Houston’s best kick coverage players.

The read

I know they’ve had a historically good defense this year, but there’s a part of me that finds this Patriots team quite vulnerable. Their defense is awesome, but Lamar Jackson punctured it with ease, no matter what New England tried to do to change things around. The offense still has Tom Brady, but nobody on this team scares you in the open field. They don’t miss tackles. They are a short-passing team and I think they’re still looking for a real run identity.

However, there’s another, more subjective part of me, that listens to Bill O’Brien talk at pressers, and hears him talk about turnover ratio and how they have to be flawless and marvel at New England’s operation — and then ends that with “and if we get that, we’ll see what happens.”

The Patriots don’t have the booster jets to roll the Texans unless they add on some defensive scores, but I don’t have much confidence in the way the offense is being coached or the talent the defense has right now. To nobody’s surprise, I will take New England 19, Houston 13 — this is a game with a lot of running and a lot of stalls in the red zone.

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Duke Johnson is too important to Houston’s offense to get three targets in two weeks

Faced with a New England Patriots defense that has destroyed opposing passing games all season, my supposition is that Bill O’Brien will focus on the running game and trying to beat the Patriots there. I don’t think it’s impossible that the Texans get to 100 rushing yards — Washington, of all teams, got to 145 — and I think Houston definitely has the talent on paper to beat the Patriots with the run. Deshaun Watson is basically a cheat code for running the ball if he is part of the design of the play.

But a major problem with Houston’s post-bye games is that teams have caught up to their current TE drag RPO and limited it severely. The Texans haven’t run well out of 12-personnel against the Colts or Ravens, and so the defense has been able to focus more on stopping that stuff. Tight ends had 50 receiving yards against the Colts in Week 12, 33 against the Ravens in Week 11, and 44 against the Colts in Week 7.

That’s not going to cut it against the Patriots, because you really need a short-passing option against New England. The Patriots shut out wide receivers — even slot receivers, who they have a held to a -43.3% DVOA through 11 weeks. Stephon Gilmore’s placement will obviously dictate some of the short passing game. When the RPO game was going well, that would have been a fine option. I’m not sure O’Brien will revisit it or cares to lean into it further, because I don’t think he thinks it’s real football. Sure, he’s willing to go along with it when it’s part of whatever it takes to actually run on somebody. But nothing in O’Brien’s history says he’s going to go toe-to-toe with someone over them taking away an RPO — it isn’t a staple of his offense. It’s something to get him to the staple of his offense.

Where else can the Texans go? How about going after the Patriots with their own medicine?

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The splits are stark, but they are very evident for the Texans. When Duke Johnson is a part of the offense, they win.

In the six games this season where Johnson is targeted three or fewer times, the Texans average 21.6 points per game. In the five games where Johnson is targeted four or more times, the Texans average 27 points per game. Even more importantly, the involvement of Johnson raises the consistency of the offense. Their lowest point total with him getting four or more targets is 23 points. (The first Colts game, where they squandered red zone opportunities left and right.) Meanwhile, the 21.6 points per game is highly inflated by a Falcons win in which Will Fuller made daddies of the entire Atlanta secondary. Houston’s four lowest scoring games of the season are: 7, 10, 13, and 20. In those four games, Duke Johnson had a combined seven targets.

With the dissolution of Keke Coutee to the O’Brien Doghouse, Houston no longer has a receiver that operates on quick-and-easy underneath separation. They have DeAndre Hopkins, who wins with catch radius, and Will Fuller, who creates deep separation and spillover underneath separation by virtue of respect of that deep separation. While the Texans have run Stills in Coutee’s place, and even given him some shuttle passes, that’s not exactly his game. He is someone to burn you deep before he’s someone who is going to get five yards horizontally on his corner.

Johnson can win in the short game. Johnson jukes tacklers left and right. He’s done it all season when called upon. He’s tied with Le’Veon Bell and Aaron Jones through Week 11’s games with nine broken tackles on receptions — all of them are tied for second-place behind Austin Ekeler.

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Wanna know what drives me insane? O’Brien runs a lot of empty sets because it’s one of Watson’s most comfortable formations. On 80% of those empty sets, the running back does absolutely nothing but be a decoy. He goes out wide. He sits there, maybe runs up five yards to occupy a defender a little bit. Can you remember a time with Watson where a running back was targeted on a non-screen pass out of empty? (I can remember one, when Watson flung a ball up to a covered Lamar Miller in the end zone against the Giants last year.)

I wrote about this when the Texans traded for him, but Johnson could absolutely break defenses in this role. Wide short routes are one of Watson’s weakest throws, because he doesn’t have a cannon arm and you’re asking him to use all his arm strength on it. Watson operates — forgive this tortured analogy — more like a catapult: the more distance you have downfield, the better his throws outside will be. But if you want him to hit a quick out to a tight end or something like that, he’s gotta pull himself into position to load that ball, and the results are kinda slow.

But what if you ran Johnson on a drag route while you put the two receivers on his side with deeper routes? First of all, you can let Watson read those throws and decide if he wants them — you can Yankee concept (two crossing routes) out of that, or you can run a post-corner to get some safety conflict. Then, let’s say he doesn’t like them and heads back to Johnson.

  1. No linebacker on the planet can keep up with Duke Johnson on a drag route.
  2. With that much clear-out space in front of Johnson, you’re creating a wide-window throw.
  3. Once he does catch the ball, and all those receivers are down field, he now gets to operate in space against defensive backs.

This isn’t novel. I’m not suggesting anything new or breaking in the annals of football. In fact, the entire history of Texans-Patriots is flooded with running backs breaking the Texans. Whether it’s James White, Dion Lewis, or Shane Vereen, the Texans have been owned by concepts like this for the entirety of Bill O’Brien’s tenure in Houston. (And were owned for the entirety of Gary Kubiak’s tenure in Houston, too!)

Instead, what happens on plays like this? Duke Johnson (it’s Carlos Hyde on this example) goes wide, then sits.

Package something like the drag with some actual screens to Johnson — which have been lacking as well — and you have a game plan to get one of your most explosive players in space without him having to read run blocks to do it.

I’ve been watching a lot of Ravens football as they’ve piled up points left and right. They create better underneath routes for Mark Ingram than the Texans do for Duke Johnson. Mark Ingram had 24 receptions in his first three years. Duke had 188.

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I don’t say this out loud expecting it to happen. I think the Texans max protect for Watson so much that New England’s blitz schemes all but assure that Johnson spends more time blocking than catching.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Texans spent a third-round pick on Johnson because he can create instant offense, and their evaluation of Johnson was not wrong in the slightest. He just needs to be given a role worthy of his talents. O’Brien needs to not fall into the same-old, same-old.

Alfred Blue isn’t on the team anymore — Johnson can fly. Let him.

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

Four Downs: Texans 20, Colts 17

Backs to the wall, the Texans responded. That’s the kindest way I can put this game.

After the Colts rolled all over the Texans for what seemed like an emotionally-defeating, back-breaking, 11-play, 86-yard touchdown drive with 10 runs, the Texans responded. A 51-yard pass to Will Fuller set up a field goal to cut into the lead, and a 33-yard run out of a stagnant run game, where Carlos Hyde had a huge hole forged for him behind Nick Martin and Max Scharping, helped set up the go-ahead touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins.

This game was an odd one. The Texans had almost all of the big plays, created a huge lead in yards per play (7.2 to 4.6), and yet they trailed or were tied for much of the game. They ran a grand total of four plays inside the Indianapolis red zone — two of which were field-goal attempts. The offense never looked totally right on a down-by-down basis.

But…

1 — A healthy Will Fuller opens up the deep game

The big reason that the Texans were able to win this game was Will Fuller’s comeback off a hamstring injury. Fuller described the injury as something that he didn’t even get much of a chance to test on the short week. He said he was taking it play-by-play:

Ho-hum, just a casual test run of torching the Indianapolis man coverage for two enormous gains, hauling in catches of 44 and 51 yards.

DeAndre Hopkins caught the two touchdowns — and he was great tonight — but Fuller gives this offense something that Hopkins can’t, and something that apparently Kenny Stills can’t do despite how skilled he is. He makes Bill O’Brien throw the ball deep.

The Texans, throwing 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, were 5/8 for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That’s more yardage on 20-plus yard throws than they had from Weeks 7 to 11, combined. I must admit that a big part of the reason I thought that the Texans would lose this game was because I saw little hope for the deep passing game. Fuller himself wasn’t even sure how his hamstring would hold up.

That was an enormous tide-turner for the Texans, and it couldn’t have happened at a more impactful time.

2 — T.Y. Hilton finally doesn’t destroy the Texans in NRG

Meanwhile, in a big reversal of fortune, the Colts couldn’t buy a deep throw. In their Week 7 matchup, Jacoby Brissett was 8-of-13 on targets deeper than 10 yards, for 170 yards and a touchdown. In the NRG re-match, with Hilton coming off his injury and on a snap count, Brissett went 1-of-7 for 14 yards against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.

While some of this was about a more zone-heavy defense, there were also some open shot plays where T.Y. Hilton just didn’t do his part:

It is true that Vernon Hargreaves (on the second one I’m about to post) and Johnathan Joseph both made plays on the ball. It is also true that a player like T.Y. Hilton is expected to catch those balls in tight coverage. He simply didn’t play up to his talent today:

Hilton admitted as much after the game, saying that he’d let the team down. I think Colts fans will probably take the balance of what he has done — you know, the playoff win, the constant deep ball torture, etc. But it was clear that he didn’t have it tonight. And it was clear that a big difference in this game was simply about how that impacted coverages for the other receivers. Zack Pascal isn’t dominating anybody. He’s a fine NFL wide receiver, but he makes his catches in a scheme.

As for the Colts passing offense, it seemed like they had good ideas as a whole but that they were having identity and drop issues. I’ll refer judgment on Brissett for the fans who have watched him more than I have this year, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have a lot extra after the first read to bring to the table. The Texans got a bit more pressure on him than I was expecting, as well, and I know that’s not a big area of strength for him.

3) Establishing the memes

Bill O’Brien will run the ball. It’s something he does on first down a lot, and it’s his preferred way to play the game. Thus, in any game where the Texans can’t run, they are a bit stifled. The Texans made it to 99 rushing yards while running out the clock, but that’s a little misleading because they had a gain of 19 from Duke Johnson and a gain of 33 from Hyde. As far as a consistent running game — the one that sets up third-and-short — it was non-existent today. That’s 22 other carries for a total of 47 yards.

Meanwhile, the Colts managed to dominate in the run game, churning out both their touchdowns and 4.5 yards per attempt despite a slow start.

But the funny thing about establishing that run is that once you establish it, and a defense is tired … well, the Texans held the Colts to 17 rushing yards on six attempts on their final, ill-fated drive. (Brissett scrambled for six more on the final play of the drive, but that clearly wasn’t a run attempt from the start.)

Meanwhile, the Texans do squat for three quarters and Hyde pops off that 33-yarder. The mythology of the running plays and the narratives we create around them is fascinating. Frank Reich burned down 4:28 and a timeout on that final drive because he decided he was going to bullyball his way to a score.

How much time would the Colts have had left to drive for a go-ahead score if he’d simply thrown it three times? How much confidence did he have in Brissett at that point, knowing how the game had been going? It all just felt a little too cute to do the one thing the Texans have shown any ability to stop this year — runs — while they were trailing.

4 — Alone

Sometimes the NFL is exhausting, (OK, all Thursday nights) and it comes down to very simple things. Things like “don’t leave the best receiver in the NFL wide open in the end zone by 20 yards.”

Erase this play, the Texans throw underneath. It’s third-and-six in the cusp of field-goal range. (Whatever that is when you employ Ka’imi Fairbairn.) The game goes in an entirely different direction all because Clayton Geathers remembers an assignment.

But the Colts left Hopkins alone, and now the Texans are alone in first place. Sometimes it becomes enough to just not lose, and on a Thursday night where both teams struggled mightily at times, one of them struggled in a way that provided way more magnitude to the game.

Fuller’s deep ball game notwithstanding, there wasn’t a whole lot to be excited about. There wasn’t anything here that made me think “these Texans are going to rest up and ram it down New England’s throat on Sunday night.” There weren’t a lot of interesting schematic changes. RPOs didn’t work all that well. Misdirection in the run game was minimal. Duke Johnson continues to spend more time out wide as a decoy than he does as an actual receiver. I don’t think the Texans will get pressure on Brady as easily as they did against Brissett.

But they outgained their main rival for the division title by 100 yards, bounced back from a big time of possession hole, and they won. It was a must-win game to keep the division in reach, and the hope that this team catches fire remains alive for another week.

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Week 12 Preview: Texans vs. Colts

Wounded both physically and spiritually after going through the wood chipper at M&T Bank Stadium, the Texans come home on a short week to face a game that will likely determine the rest of the course of the season. Win, and the fate of the division continues to roll through Houston, as they’d drop to lower tiebreakers, improve to 3-1 in the division, and gain a one-game lead on the Colts. Lose, and not only are they behind the Colts, they automatically lose any tiebreaker to the Colts. Win, and homefield in the first round looks plausible. Lose, and the Texans are looking at a dogfight to make the playoffs.

The first matchup between these two teams did not allay any concerns that the Colts simply had Houston’s number. The Colts allowed little separation, destroyed the short middle of the field, and overcame short fields to force the Texans into field-goal attempts.

And while Houston only lost by a touchdown in Indianapolis, they had J.J. Watt at that point. They came into the game having Will Fuller, who remains questionable for this game and — I suspect — would probably not be 100 percent if he did play. The season has taken a toll on Houston’s star power and asked Bill O’Brien to respond. The answers, too often, haven’t been satisfactory.

Vegas opened the Texans as 5.5-point favorites. That number has dropped dramatically, as it’s down as low as 3.5 points in some places and the over/under has been bet down a full point (to 45.5) as well.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

The Texans degraded themselves and Deshaun Watson in last week’s bloodbath against the Ravens. Watson dealt with containment principles that he hadn’t seen before. The Ravens brought heat and phenomenal coverage. The run game was non-existent until the fourth quarter. RPOs were mostly left on the table to rot. It was a tough game to watch.

Moreover, we have to be honest about where this offense has gone over the last month without Fuller. The Texans can’t complete anything downfield — they’re just 7-of-16 for 212 yards and an interception on balls that went 15 yards past the line of scrimmage since Week 7 started. Specifically against the Colts, the Texans completed just one deep ball during the Wild Card game last year, and one deep ball during Week 14. This team knows Bill O’Brien’s preferred route combinations — and various max-protect schemes — and sticks to them. It really caps the ceiling of this offense against this defense.

The Colts held the Texans to 100 total rushing yards in Week 7, their second-lowest total of the season. Houston could not run out of 12-personnel to save their lives (1.7 YPC on nine attempts), and found more success in 11. Even that success was bolstered by 32 yards of Watson scrambles. My belief is that the Colts watched the Ravens game and will be eager to see if Watson has learned how to deal with contain principles. At this point, out of O’Brien’s base offense, the Texans are less dynamic than they are when Watson is calling the shots on the run. Indianapolis sure sounded like they understood that in interviews:

Indianapolis’ defense has been pretty hot of late, not allowing 300 total passing yards as a defense since Week 3. They entirely shut down Leonard Fournette last week against the Jaguars, and have allowed fewer than 20 points to their last four opponents. (Six of Pittsburgh’s points came on a Brian Hoyer pick-six.)

The Colts actually did not blitz Deshaun Watson very much in the last meetup between these two teams, sending just seven on 37 dropbacks. What they did do is play tenacious underneath defense, allowing only Darren Fells more than the league-average amount of separation:

Source: NFL Next Gen Stats

I expect DeAndre Hopkins to again draw Pierre Desir shadow coverage, as has become the norm between these two teams. That doesn’t usually look bad for the Texans, as Hopkins had 12 targets and 106 yards in Week 7 — he barely missed a touchdown that was called back on a horrific in-the-grasp ruling as well.

Unlike the last time these two teams met, safety Malik Hooker is in the lineup. Indianapolis should be at relatively full strength on defense for this game, minus safety Khari Willis who has already been declared out. Rock-Ya Sin is also questionable. Hooker, along with Justin Houston and Darius Leonard, are the guys I consider the stars of this defense. Them all being healthy for this might tilt things.

When the Colts have the ball

Houston is having problems legitimately fielding a defense for this game. There are only three safeties that can play with Justin Reid being ruled out early: Tashaun Gipson, Jahleel Addae, and A.J. Moore. Moore has played a grand total of four defensive snaps this year. Gipson looked slow and like he wanted no part of tackling Lamar Jackson last week — can’t blame him there, but I can say I’m not sure I’m comfortable believing he’s going to play well in this spot. With Lonnie Johnson getting ruled out, there are three potential options for No. 3 cornerback: a return from Bradley Roby, Vernon Hargreaves in his first week with the team, or Keion Crossen. I think I like Crossen the most of those options, but I don’t know that I’m thrilled with any of them. A fully healthy Roby would really save the season, but he’s been limited forever.

We effectively buried the lede with this discussion, which is that the Texans get absolutely no pressure without J.J. Watt. They barely even tried last week, putting a laughable five blitzes out on 25 Lamar Jackson dropbacks. He was sacked once and hurried exactly one other time. It was an embarrassing performance considering they were trying to stop the run and got rolled over in that area too. Even Johnathan Joseph said they thought they made it too easy on Jackson:

The good news for the Texans is that the way they were able to effectively slow Brissett down in Indianapolis was with blitzing. They sent 21 blitzes — most of them in the second half — and got three three-and-outs and one four-play drive in four attempts. Brissett’s pocket presence is not sterling and that’s perhaps his biggest flaw as a starting quarterback. The bad news is that, sans Watt, the Texans’ rush is less Bulls on Parade and more Motley Crue — who is going to be able to win one-on-one and get the rush to hit home?

Indianapolis retains one of the best offensive lines in the league, and even without Marlon Mack (hand), the Colts have a stable of solid backs that I think can do damage in this game. None of Houston’s linebackers have been able to check Nyheim Hines in coverage, and Jordan Wilkins has zero breakaway speed but is a solid sustaining back between the tackles. Johnathan Williams has always had the talent to roll over some fools, as well. Houston’s run defense should remain solid, but I would not be surprised if they got punctured for a few big gains coming off a short week, especially with weak tacklers at safety and outside.

Indy is banged up at receiver and tight end, but most of their players are still making the trip. T.Y. Hilton targeting this game for his return was as subtle as White House correspondence. Eric Ebron and Mo-Alie Cox made the trip as well. The Colts will be in a good position to have Zach Pascal run wild on crossing routes again:

I expect this to be a real feast-or-famine game plan for the Texans. Very aggressive at the line of scrimmage, blitz-heavy, and they’ll try to ask Brissett to make deep throws to make them pay. I think that game plan will likely be boom-bust, as implied by the original tagline, mostly because I don’t know if the team has played tight enough coverage over the middle to get to the deep throws.

Ultimately, I have low expectations for the Texans defense right now. They can get lucky via turnovers, and the Colts will probably hang the Texans in the game by running a lot, but on a down-by-down basis, any competent quarterback is a real threat against them. Brissett fits the standard.

Special teams

Ka’imi Fairbairn continues to struggle, and his pushed kick last week murdered whatever momentum the Texans had out of the break. Bill O’Brien wasn’t even asked questions about him this week, which goes to show what an organization-wide belief in using the Men In Black memory ray for Week 11’s existence will do for you.

They face one of the few teams who had also been destroyed by their kicker, as Adam Vinatieri’s year has been dismal. In what could be a low-scoring game without many opportunities, this matchup looms as potentially devastating for someone.

The Texans continue to have good special teams outside of Fairbairn’s kicks, and the Colts are solid outside of kick returns as well.

The read

Listen, I am not trying to hide this fact at all: I don’t like the Texans in this game.

It’s a tough spot for a banged up defense, the offense has been dragging ass for four weeks, and I don’t know how much running they’ll get to do. This is the scene of the teenage drama where Bill O’Brien is awkwardly making puppy eyes at the kid who is completely bad for him and we want to shake him.

At the same time, I have to admit that there are scenarios where they win this game. They involve some urgent O’Brien offensive changes (urgency unseen as far as pressers) or a superlative Deshaun Watson game. Watson would have to be far and away the best player on the field — as he was in the Jaguars game — for me to feel confident in the Texans winning.

That will be the tastiest crow I ever eat if it happens. I was committed to picking the Texans to win the division early, but without Watt, my confidence level has changed in the defense doing enough. Give me Colts 22, Texans 19.

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