When I was pitching things at The Athletic Houston there were very few pieces I wrote that I felt were left on the vine, so to speak. The one that I deeply remember, and I would bet was held back because the tone of the piece wound up being so negative, was looking back at the causes of Bill O’Brien’s record when winning at halftime.
O’Brien’s Texans are 32-2 when leading at halftime. Sounds like the Texans are closers, right? But really it was more an expression of the teams they played and O’Brien’s run-heavy program actually working. They’d jump on bad teams with bad quarterback play and run them out of the building. The average lead over the course of those games at halftime was 13.5 points, and the average offensive DVOA of the teams they faced in those games was 21.9th. Here are four of the five times they played an offense that was top 10 in DVOA: Week 16, 2014 against the Ravens (Joe Flacco, ninth). Week 4, 2016 against the Titans (Marcus Mariota, ninth). Wild Card round, 2016 against the Raiders (Connor Cook, so this shouldn’t actually count, ninth). Week 4, 2018, against the Colts (Andrew Luck, tenth).
The data for that article didn’t support a conclusion that was fun and happy. It supported a conclusion that the Texans bullied bad quarterbacks for their lunch money. Hell, Zach Mettenberger and Blake Bortles account for 10 of those wins all on their own!
But rather than re-creating that article and skewering O’Brien, I wanted to look at the one time the Texans actually did hold down a top quarterback and how that happened. First, for context for the non-Texans fans: Houston’s record against AFC royalty quarterbacks is abysmal. They beat Tom Brady in 2010 with the “2009 playoffs” on the line in Week 17, only to have the Bengals lay down and let the Jets win since Cincinnati had nothing to play for. Brady is 7-1 against the Texans. They beat Peyton Manning twice as Colts quarterback — once when Arian Foster ran for 230 yards, and a second time when Ron Dayne ran for 150 yards. Manning went 17-3 against the Texans. Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers are 4-1 against the Texans. Heck, if you want to expand it to Philip Rivers, he’s 3-1 against the Texans. That’s 31-6 combined between the four teams, or about as awe-inspiring a stat as O’Brien’s halftime record when winning.
But the one time in the O’Brien era that the team showed some mettle and shut down a top quarterback is in 2015, when Drew Brees’ Saints came to town in Week 11 and scored six points. Six!
The Saints were 4-6 and still the Texans only received the customary three-point home favorite checkmark to say that they were essentially even teams. New Orleans was going through the defensive nightmare portion of their rollercoaster with Brees, this was year two of the Jairus Byrd all-in disappointment era, with Stephone Anthony at middle linebacker. The Saints were last in defensive DVOA by almost 15%, at 26.1% compared to Chicago’s 11.3%. Chicago was closer to 11th-place Pittsburgh (-3.8%) than they were to New Orleans.
But they still had a vaunted pass offense. And J.J. Watt destroyed it. The Saints had just 5.18 yards per attempt, and Watt had eight quarterback hits by himself. Brees targeted Mark Ingram seven times on dumpoffs or screens, and C.J. Spiller one additional time, just trying to slow the pass rush a little bit.
New Orleans went 2-of-6 throwing the ball deep in this game, one of them was a back-shoulder ball on Cover-4 in front of Kevin Johnson, where Brees had to freeze Watt with a pump-fake to not get the ball tipped at the line.
Down 24-6 with 13 minutes in the fourth quarter, the Saints threw downfield three straight times. Brees’ first ball went at Eddie Pleasant, not Andre Hal like my dumb face wrote on Twitter, who was just a little too late recognizing a ball that would probably have been interceptable if he’d read it
Then on the next play, Watt got payback on the Saints. He disrupted the play by beating Jahri Evans inside, forcing Brees to move out of the pocket and throw the ball away.
On second-and-10, the Texans send a blitz, Kareem Jackson jumped a post to Brandin Cooks, intercepting the ball and ending the game for all intents and purposes.
Watt has had better games statistically in his career. In fact, he had another game that same month with 10 quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. But it was against Mettenberger. I would argue that this game was Watt at his absolute peak, and he had to be a complete monster to run with this offensive line against this quarterback and do as much as he did. Look at what Brees and the Saints had to do to get anything going downfield against him.
I would also argue that it says a lot about the quality of this defense scheme against great quarterbacks that it took this kind of game to beat one.