Four Downs: Texans 13, Jaguars 12

The Houston Texans survived. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t a fun game. There were no awesome Deshaun Watson comebacks. Neither team could stop themselves from getting sacked until the fourth quarter.

My major takeaway from this game is just that nothing has changed. After all the upheaval of these trades, after all the starting lineup changes the Texans made this week, this was a win born of the DNA of this team. That DNA is not changing.

Bill O’Brien is going to run the football. The pass rush did better when they weren’t facing Drew Brees and three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, but they still had no real response for Jacksonville’s hurry-up offense. Deshaun Watson versus blitzing is highly inconsistent and that can make the Texans a high-variance offense when he doesn’t have or misses hot reads.

The Houston Texans can trade every first-round pick they have from now until the end of time and get Patrick Peterson and a better interior rusher. So much of what they do still depends on how Bill O’Brien, Romeo Crennel, and Watson approach the games together. No amount of realistic personnel change is going to fix that.

Laremy Tunsil played well outside of a false start. There were flashes of brilliance on a couple of individual plays for Roderick Johnson and Tytus Howard. It didn’t matter. Watson took four sacks and got hit seven times. That is a game that O’Brien’s scheme and Watson have combined to create, and it’s not one that is likely to change any time soon. I’ll look at what we’ve seen in the first two weeks with that when we have All-22 released from this game.

The Texans are blessed to have this hard-fought win. It was not going to be quite as easy to pull out of a tailspin as it was last year.

***

1 — Bill O’Brien giveth, Bill O’Brien taketh away

First of all, let me give some actual praise to O’Brien for going for it on fourth-and-1, up 3, at the Jacksonville 2, with 11:35 to play. That’s not an NFL gimme. There are many coaches, including Bruce Arians on Thursday Night Football, who kick that field goal to go up six and get beat. It was the primary decision that O’Brien made that kept the Texans from losing this game.

If there is one element of NFL coaching management that I think O’Brien actually has a good sense for, it’s when to go for it on fourth down. He’s not perfect with it, but he does a better job than most.

Now … the hit:

The Texans have the ball just after the two-minute warning, and Watson hits Jordan Akins for a first down.

The sequence after goes like this:
— Carlos Hyde runs the ball for five yards. (1:25 — about 30 seconds ticked off before this play)
— Incomplete pass to Keke Coutee stops the clock at 46 seconds. The play went off at 51 seconds, so about 35 seconds ticked off here.
— A slant to DeAndre Hopkins gets the Texans a first down.
— Watson scrambles out of bounds for a four yard gain. The play was snapped at 0:22, so the Hopkins slant took 24 seconds off the block. The play concluded at 15 seconds. O’Brien called a timeout.

Somehow during that sequence of plays, O’Brien never thought to call a timeout even though
1) He has a quarterback who makes plays out of structure and often eats up large chunks of time in doing so, and…
2) He was never inside the opponent 30, making it at best a long field-goal attempt if you want to argue he was playing conservatively.

Here’s how he defended this call in his post-game presser:

I don’t know how to explain this response rationally, I’m sure he’ll do better tomorrow. Moving on…

2 — Romeo brought the heat … until he didn’t

One of the major suppositions of my preview was that the Texans would get carved up by a quick Jaguars passing offense. Instead, that offense was mostly sidelined until the fourth quarter because Romeo Crennel brought the heat.

Minshew fumbled three times, finally coughing up a ball that put the Texans deep in Jacksonville territory that led to their lone touchdown. He was good when he had time in the pocket, but he barely had it until the fourth quarter. He also missed a couple of throws that would have put Jacksonville in a driver’s seat as a result of the pressure he was feeling:

That’s the risk you take against a rookie quarterback — and it’s clear that Crennel felt more comfortable on that risk with Minshew than he did with Drew Brees.

The passive nature reappeared on the final drive of the game, as Minshew was able to weather three-man rushes and produce a couple of good run plays, as well as his touchdown pass:

The Texans are a team that wants you to beat yourself. That’s harder than ever in today’s NFL, and it shows every time they’re in a close game with time winding down. The Jaguars had several holding penalties and other plays that stalled their second half drives, and still were mere inches from the comeback.

3 — Carlos Hyde has been Houston’s best find through two weeks

There were many areas where the Texans could have improved the roster, but the one that looked to mostly have been ignored by the team was a true replacement for Alfred Blue. Of course, for most of camp that was slated to be Lamar Miller’s role anyway, but Miller hadn’t necessarily shown the kind of juice to make you think he’d needed an expanded role.

Then, at last cuts, the Texans picked up Carlos Hyde from the Chiefs. Hyde has looked phenomenal through two weeks, and he keyed a lot of the clock-killing for the Texans in this one:

There’s one play I grabbed but didn’t post where Tytus Howard lost to Calais Campbell, then Hyde casually brushed aside one of the best interior defenders in the NFL and went along his day. It was spectacular, but my brain was working on something else and I didn’t want to go back and ruin the flow of the game by posting it. I bet it will make a nice All-22 snag.

Hyde rushed for 90 yards on 4.5 a tote. He’s a been a big improvement for the Texans on Miller as an interior runner. He has good vision, but it’s more about the ability to keep balance through contact on plays where he is taking arm tackles.

Hyde was available for almost nothing at final cuts. Don’t trade draft picks for running backs, kids.

4 — Will Fuller and the edge of aggression

NFL Next Gen Stats keeps a stat it calls “aggressiveness” — it’s a stat that looks at how many throws a quarterback attempts into tight coverage.

Last week Deshaun Watson had a 16.7% aggressiveness rate, which tied him for eighth. In Week 2 against the Jaguars, Watson was at 24.1%, which ranked third through the early games.

In this particular game, the Texans tried to impress more on Fuller’s plate, and Fuller dropped a deep ball. He also caught a deep ball.

The Texans are always going to throw to DeAndre Hopkins in contested coverage — they had problems doing that today against Jalen Ramsey, who had one of his better games. But when you trust in a pass like this on second down, you wind up creating third-and-long and inviting the defense to blitz Watson.

The Texans didn’t really make an effort to attack the middle of the field against the Jaguars. They made Watson go get these tough throws outside the hashes, despite last week’s Jaguars game being all about easy plays over the middle and how depleted that area of the field is for them.

There’s a proper balance of aggression and ease that I think this offense is still trying to find. I’ve been saying that for a lot of the O’Brien era. Sometimes, I just think this team gets so caught up in how hard everything is supposed to be that they forget that there are some easy yards out there.

Week 2 Preview: Jaguars @ Texans

Coming off a somehow optimism-inducing 30-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football, the Texans roll back home in a get-right spot against a wounded Jaguars squad that has already seen starting quarterback Nick Foles sent to IR.

The line has been bet up to around -8.5 to -9.5 for the Texans, depending on the sports book you look at. Houston has not lost to the Jaguars in the Doug Marrone era outside of 2017. If you use the Men In Black mind-eraser on those 2017 memories, they have not lost to the Jaguars since 2013 — the year that got Gary Kubiak fired.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

The heavyweight matchup of any Jaguars-Texans game is DeAndre Hopkins versus Jalen Ramsey.

Last season, the Texans threw at Hopkins with Ramsey in coverage 16 times, and Watson was 8-of-16 for 131 yards, a touchdown, and five other first downs. (All numbers from Sports Info Solutions charting.) It was close to a stalemate, and I expect that to be the case again. The Jaguars do have Ramsey follow wideouts they perceive to be a big threat, and that appears to be the case with Hopkins.

The good news for the Texans is that they simply have a much deeper slate of options than they did last year. Will Fuller is healthy, Kenny Stills is another week into the playbook, Keke Coutee may be available. Jordan Akins and Duke Johnson are both solid pass catchers who can break a tackle underneath. The Jaguars spent Week 1 completely out of sorts over the interior of their defense, giving up a 77.7% VOA on passes over the short middle. (VOA doesn’t become defense-adjusted until Week 4.) Myles Jack was ejected from his first game as the main middle linebacker without Telvin Smith. Ronnie Harrison had a poor day in coverage. New starting safety Jarrod Wilson was adequate in the deep third. Jacksonville’s talent is better than they played, but this is a spot where the Texans could exploit things.

Houston runs into this game with the best rushing VOA in the NFL, and kicked around the Saints last week in a stunner to yours truly. Carlos Hyde led the charge with an 80 percent Success Rate on his carries, and the Texans were able to run on Jacksonville in both of their matchups last season.

Jacksonville’s best chance of dictating the defense is through forcing third-and-longs and winning one-on-one matchups against a Houston offensive line that should not be trusted at this point. We’re currently unsure if Senio Kelemete or Tytus Howard will start at left guard. The good news for the Texans is that, though they are expected to play, both Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue have missed some practice this week with injuries. Ngakoue was ruled out after Friday’s practice. Doug Marrone also declared it unlikely that A.J. Bouye will play — even if he did play, he looked hurt in Week 1.

This is, in my opinion, a good spot for the Texans to catch the Jaguars defense. They’re a little bit banged up, they haven’t really sorted out the linebacker position in a satisfactory way yet. Of course, it’s the NFL, and that can all change on a dime, but I expect the Texans to be able to pound the rock.

As usual, this will come down to just how up to the task Houston’s offensive line is. If they give Watson the time they gave him on Monday night, points should flow. If they become more of a liability, then the game will get interesting.

When the Jaguars have the ball

All DVOA courtesy of Football Outsiders

When the Jaguars turned from Nick Foles to Gardner Minshew on Sunday afternoon, a funny thing happened: Minshew was actually fairly competent.

The Jaguars gave him easy throws, ran the ball a lot, and contained him from making poor decisions. A lot of the credit for that should go to OC John DeFilippo, who was scapegoated in Minnesota despite making a 70% passer out of Kirk Cousins. DeFilippo versus Romeo Crennel is schematically interesting. Most of the concepts that DeFilippo likes are quick-hitters, most of the concepts that Crennel likes are passive. In theory, this should add up to a high-completion percentage game for Minshew if he can execute like he did last week. If the Texans tackle like they did last week — when they left 12 broken tackles on the tape per SIS — the Jaguars could get a little feisty. DeFilippo hasn’t coached a game against the Texans yet, but the Eagles system where he was weaned dropped 519 total yards on the Texans with Nick Foles in a down season.

The Texans should have more success baiting Minshew into turnovers on dropped rushers than they did against Drew Brees, since this is Minshew’s first NFL start. I have to say I expected much worse from Minshew, so he has already surpassed my expectations in accuracy, decision-making, and making plays on the run.

Something that got lost in how easy the Saints moved the ball against the Texans is how easily they ran on Houston. Last year’s No. 1 ranked DVOA run defense got shredded for 140 yards on 19 carries against non-Taysom Hill runs. The Jaguars, in theory, are well set up to control the clock in this game with a running game that can get push up front and a healthy Leonard Fournette. That is, assuming that Week 1 wasn’t a fluke. Houston bottled up T.J. Yeldon and Carlos Hyde last season, and you have to go back to 2017 to find Jacksonville running successfully on the Texans.

Quick strike offenses make for successful attacks against Houston (see last year’s New York Giants game for an example), but Cam Robinson being ruled out will hurt the Jacksonville run game. Will Richardson is not the same kind of player Robinson is in that aspect and that hurts their ceiling in this game. They don’t have to worry about Jadeveon Clowney blowing up plays and Houston will have to rely on another big game from Benardrick McKinney

When the Texans get it to third-and-long, they should have a big advantage. Minshew locked on to his first reads hard in Week 1, and the Texans should be able to get off the field without too much trouble if they can react to that. The best Texans teams have always been able to tee off against Jacksonville’s pass protectors. If J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus don’t leave this game with a few sacks, it will be concerning. I expect a lot of help on Watt as he projects to mostly line up over rookie right tackle Jawaan Taylor.

One last bit: Look out for second-year wideout DJ Chark, who had a big game against the Chiefs and got separation often on their undermanned cornerback corps. I could see a similar blowup spot here, against a group of cornerbacks that can’t match his physical talent, unless Lonnie Johnson comes off the bench and is excellent from his very first start.

Special Teams

All DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

Nothing of note happened to either of these teams last week in special teams unless you note Fairbairn’s missed extra point being called back.

The read

I expect the Jaguars to implement the same basic game plan the Titans did in their Week 2 upset of the Texans last year. Lots of motion, lots of play-action bootlegs to get Minshew clean pockets, and lots of quick throws. Note that this was a highly successful game plan for Tennessee, and that Blaine Gabbert is arguably worse than Minshew.

When you get down into the weeds of underdog tactics, a lot of the NFL is about establishing a game script advantage and riding it. If the Jaguars are able to do that, I can see them picking up an upset win. If they aren’t, the Vegas lines seem pretty fair to me.

I expect this game to be a little more offensive than most Jaguars-Texans games get. In the light of all of Jacksonville’s injuries, I don’t think I can rely on my initial take that Jacksonville will keep this close. Jaguars 20, Texans 30 is about where I settle in on. If my prediction looks dumb in the direction of a Texans blowout on Monday morning, I expect it to be based heavily on turnovers from the rookie quarterback.

How the Saints made a non-factor of J.J. Watt

J.J. Watt was shut out of the stat sheet for the first time in his career on Monday Night Football, in a narrow loss to the Saints in which the defense choked away leads for the entirety of the second half. The scapegoat was Aaron Colvin, who had a bad game in a number of ways and, if you read between the lines, I believe was the main target of a quote that Bill O’Brien let slip about players not “understanding the situation.”

But, as I alluded to in my post-game comments, I don’t think the Texans are in an enviable position here. The Jadeveon Clowney trade has damaged the defense significantly in the short term. Romeo Crennel’s defense over the past two seasons has generally tended to be passive. He prefers to play zone coverage. He wants quarterbacks to make mistakes, and he wants his players coming downhill to attack the ball and hopefully force some fumbles.

Not that Crennel’s defense had a sterling record against the Andrew Luck Colts last year — who were the only real octane passing offense they played — but they at least came up with enough big plays to make Luck have to change game plans here or there. With Clowney gone, it is that much harder for this unit to get pressure. And, more importantly, it’s going to be a lot harder for J.J. Watt to get honest shots at the quarterback.

For a large part of the first couple of quarters, the Texans played base, and played Watt straight up against Pro Bowler Ryan Ramczyk. The Saints were perfectly happy to let Terron Armstead take on Whitney Mercilus and play three-on-three against the other rushers. What happened for most of the resulting half was Saints right guard Larry Warford acting as help. He would help set Erik McCoy’s man, as the rookie center was starting his first game. He would then come over and help on Watt. This was hardly the only thing that happened to Watt — he also got chipped by tight ends and backs on plenty of plays.

The pressures that the Texans got with Watt involved him stunting through the middle. The interception that Mercilus got came on a three-man rush, where Watt was able to actually get on McCoy one-on-one and make Drew Brees reset a bit.

What happened when the Saints took Watt away? The pass rush crumbled. To be clear: this is a situation that isn’t necessarily repeatable. Most teams are not as blessed as New Orleans is, to have three fantastic linemen and one of the best pressure managers in the NFL at quarterback. But the quarterback who can read all this happening is a situation that will come up over and over again this season, even if not with the same qualify of offensive line. A lot of teams will roll their coverage to Watt and force Mercilus to win outside. That’s going to make Mercilus’ stats look good, but it’s a win to keep Watt contained at any cost.

Crennel’s blitz rate has declined precipitously over the last season-and-a-game. It was 31.9% in 2016 and 33% in 2017. (Mike Vrabel was technically defensive coordinator in 2017. He could own some of this.) It was down to 22.5% in 2018. My hand count of the number of blitzes they sent at Brees was seven, one of which was wiped away by penalty. Seven divided by 44 (not even giving them negative credit for other penalities) is 15.9%. They spent the plurality of the second half rushing three because they did not have the secondary rushers to create pressure. They also had a handful of huge plays narrowly avoided when they actually did blitz:

It was no mistake that Colvin got torched by Ted Ginn. Colvin isn’t all that great of a cornerback — a player that the personnel department missed on badly in the 2018 offseason. But his play was made worse by miscommunications and because of the pass rush coming up dry. Colvin’s touchdown pass allowed to TreQuan Smith is emblematic of his day:

Did Colvin look silly on this play? Absolutely. Did the Texans get any rush? Not really. By my count Brees releases the ball about 3.8 seconds into the play and could have held on and drifted longer if he’d needed to. Did Colvin have safety help? No, the safety vacated to play the other side of the field. Colvin should not be expected to cover this by himself, against a physically talented receiver and one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, for more than a couple seconds. That the defense was incapable of creating a scenario where Colvin only had to hold for a couple of seconds, to me, is a bigger problem than Colvin getting beat.

Crennel is up against it. Colvin was not the only player who was sonned yesterday. Tashaun Gipson allowed about 100 extra yards in dropped passes that he was cleanly beat on. The cornerback depth on this roster just isn’t strong enough at this moment for Crennel to feel safe blitzing. Against a quarterback like Brees, it is imperative that he feel pressured enough to make some bad throws to help move things around. NFL passing games are too efficient to rely on accuracy mistakes as a general concept in 2019. Passing games led by Brees and Sean Payton are the house in Vegas if you don’t blitz them: They’re always going to win. And, when you do blitz them, like Crennel did in setting up Ginn’s long strike over Colvin, you need to get a little lucky anyway.

It’s hard for me to even sit here and blame Crennel for playing as conservatively as he did. The Texans can give Johnathan Joseph extra money and praise Bradley Roby’s physicality all they want — these guys are not complete NFL outside corners in 2019. With Colvin gone, and Lonnie Johnson (reportedly) likely to see a lot more of the field, they’re probably going to repeat the Kareem Jackson 2010 season where a physically talented cornerback takes his licks while learning on the job.

Normally I would say there isn’t a way to solve the problem in the short-term, but who knows how many other draft picks can be packaged for other cornerbacks before the trade deadline? Bill O’Brien, general manager, is going to need to do more than excise Colvin to get this unit on last year’s track.

Four Downs: Saints 30, Texans 28

Ever watch something that was exactly what you expected to happen, but it was still so compelling in the way it played out that you started to believe you’d be wrong? That was my takeaway from this one. I knew the Texans were going to have to overcome conservative coaching at some point. But … I started to believe that it didn’t matter once Watson hit Kenny Stills for a go-ahead touchdown.

Watson has so much poise, so much ability under pressure, that I believe he can do just about anything he wants to. He won’t always accomplish it. But I will never count him out. I was basking in that moment. He is heart-wrenchingly good at reminding me just how good the Texans could be.

…and then Romeo Crennel decided to roll his defensive backs into Siberia on a play where the Saints needed to do nothing but get closer and fall down to guarantee a chance to win the game. Then the Saints kicked a long field goal and won. Then my heart hurt.

1 — The Idea of Laremy Tunsil

I posted this. John McClain retweeted it. (Thanks John.) It was popular, and not necessarily in the way I wanted it to be, though I understand why:

It goes along with its sister post, this one:

I’m used to getting buried for things on Twitter. In fact, my mindset is pretty much that whenever I post something, someone is going to bury me for (at the very least) some small part of it. It is part of the rage we are all stoked to feel when we stare at our phones. I’m also happy to admit when I’m wrong — I’m wrong fairly often, as most humans are. It sucks to be imperfect! But that’s fine.

At the same time, Wade Smith is very right here! He’s right to jump on me, and I see where he is coming from. Tunsil was very good in that game, in my opinion, those two plays notwithstanding. People I believe in, including Robert Mays, picked apart the second play I posted, noting that the player who got the sack was likely offsides. Also true!

I am kind of a sarcastic asshole — and by kind of, I mean mostly — so I’m not surprised when I get rebuked. I get that saying it’s a meme isn’t exactly telling people you don’t believe it, and — yeah, Twitter is a place where people go to get mad and not a place that really invests in the idea of context. It’s all guttural.

However, let me get at the kernel of truth that was left unsaid in this Tweet: The idea of Laremy Tunsil was that all of the sudden, the Texans would protect Deshaun Watson. A lot of the defense of this trade was built around the idea that Andrew Luck had literally just retired, as Booger McFarland went on to articulate before the game on the broadcast. You simply have to protect Deshaun Watson, the narrative went.

Watson spent time in the medical tent in New Orleans. He mentioned to a sideline reporter that he bruised his back. He didn’t get into it much in his post-game interview. The Saints had 11 quarterback hits and six sacks, per NFLGSIS, numbers that were right on par with what happened last season. Half of the people I follow on Twitter in a national sense spent the entire game worrying aloud about Watson’s health.

The idea of Tunsil is that he’s supposed to solve this. But he can’t! Because nobody can. Nobody can live up to the price tag he was traded for. He’s not an entire offensive line unto himself, and, even if he were, he wouldn’t be able to keep Watson from being hit because Watson’s scrambling, freelancing nature is part of why he is Deshaun Watson. When you help Watson by giving him more time, he’s going to take the time and likely still get licked. That’s who he is as a player. Every bit of statistical evidence we have is that quarterbacks own their sack rates more than their lines do. As we saw on that last drive, when Watson understood where the pressure was coming from and ate the hits, he is here to make plays:

Tunsil missed two blocks, one I think was rightfully argued to be offsides. He kicked ass in the run game (more on that in a bit), he kicked out wide on a screen that McFarland rightfully called out as an amazing get — anybody who makes a Bill O’Brien screen work has to be ridiculous. He was great already. Already, off the plane for five days in Houston.

The idea of him keeping Watson healthy, and the narrative construction of a way he is somehow worth two first-round picks, is going to be a thing that you, the fans of this franchise, are going to deal with for a long time. I was the first there, and I accept the jeers. I probably won’t lean very far into this field unless Tunsil falls apart in a glaringly obvious way.

But I won’t be the last person you hear talk about this.

***

2 — Romeo Crennel has no choice, but he has to know better than what happened on the last drive

The trade of Jadeveon Clowney wasn’t going to be solved easily. The Texans moved Whitney Mercilus into his place, and Mercilus had a nice game, picking off a pass. But at the end of the day, the figures for the pass rush were stark:

When the Texans had good defensive games last season against non-terrible quarterbacks, they were built on a balancing act. The secondary wasn’t that good, and Crennel needed to drop a lot of players into coverage. They finished third in the NFL in times rushing three or less players last year, per Sports Info Solutions. With Clowney gone, the team has two players with any experience rushing the passer. One of them is Watt. Watt spent his entire day dealing with double and triple-teams. He couldn’t do anything about New Orleans’ stellar offensive line. Nobody mounted a real threat to rookie Erik McCoy, and creative blitz designs were traded for varying ways of dropping eight in coverage and hoping this was the time Brees didn’t catch it.

Even if they are paid well, the corners Crennel has to work with in the secondary are varying degrees of old, busted, or projects. The Texans spent all offseason trying to rehabilitate Aaron Colvin. He got burnt so badly by Ted Ginn on the penultimate drive that he couldn’t have committed pass interference if he wanted to:

Zach Cunningham didn’t have a prayer at defending Alvin Kamara one-on-one. Nobody on this team did. Crennel’s defensive game plan without Clowney is basically like watching Tim Wakefield pitch in his prime. I sure hope that knuckleball flutters to the right spot and somebody gets fooled, because if it doesn’t, it’s getting tattooed. Brees threw for 370 yards, the Mercilus interception was the only play that fooled him.

I don’t know what the point of this is when there are six seconds left. Make the receivers get open. Maybe it takes them long enough that the clock expires. This defensive set was a gift to New Orleans. It was a long field goal, yes. It was also a long field goal in a dome, one that was not anywhere close to out of Wil Lutz’s range.

This unit will have better days. The Saints have a great offensive line. Watt will not finish the season with zero sacks, and Mercilus will find tackles he can exploit on the edge. The margin for error will remain almost impossibly thin against the better quarterbacks in the NFL, the ones who can erase pressure on their own.

Jacob Martin, of the Clowney trade, had one of the three quarterback hurries. Hope that becomes a trend.

***

3 — Suddenly, offensive depth is a real concept

Last year, the Texans finished 31st in the NFL in broken tackles, with 81. The only players that could reliably check someone in the open field were Lamar Miller, Watson and Hopkins.

The Texans, before the season, profiled as a team that was going to have to lean heavily into Will Fuller and Keke Coutee. On Monday in New Orleans, Watson averaged 8.9 yards per attempt, threw three touchdowns, and those players combined for three targets.

Duke Johnson took five targets, picking up a key third down in the second quarter by skirting a tackle. Jordan Akins, who I felt almost made the team by default after Jordan Thomas’ injury, had a big play on his own where he broke some tackles. Kenny Stills gives teams yet another reason to play two deep safeties and leave those underneath receivers open.

Sometimes change accumulates over time, and it doesn’t really hit you in the face until you see it like this. Duke Johnson wasn’t out there in the preseason. Akins barely was either. Now this team has so much open-field tackle breaking that checking it down on second-and-10 or third-and-six can actually create first downs. It’s jarring, after so many years of plodding O’Brien teams, to witness a team that had skill talent bursting at the seams. It’s one thing for me to say that the depth of the pass corps should be better. It’s another entirely for it to smack you in the face in a winnable game. There are no stories about how great a find Vyncint Smith is, or talk about Tyron Johnson’s separation — if only he was better at completing catches.

This skill position group has juice. It scares me to roster them in fantasy football just because I have no idea what to expect outside of DeAndre Hopkins inevitably being a badass on a weekly basis. It’s something where, in the hands of an adept play caller, you could see the Texans focus on enemy weaknesses on a week-to-week basis. Is a healthy Keke Coutee even grabbing targets in this offense?

It’s Week 1. Let’s not get carried away, because there is time for a pecking order to develop after Hopkins. But it would not surprise me at all if chaos becomes the order.

***

4 — A dominant run game

As I said, I am wrong about many things. Here’s one thing I was wrong about in the preview I wrote for this game:

Even with Sheldon Rankins coming off an Achilles tear and being ruled out, I don’t think the Texans have much of a chance to run and control the clock in this game at any point. The Saints allowed 3.79 yards per carry against zone runs last season, and Demario Davis has become an expert at shooting gaps. The Saints do have some turnover on the line with Malcom Brown taking over at nose tackle and David Onyemata serving a one-game suspension.

The Texans, folks, in the thing that is the most inspiring harbinger of confidence for the rest of their season, destroyed the Saints in the running game. They ran for 7.8 yards per carry. The non-Watson runners, Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson, ran for 8.3 and 6.8 yards per carry, respectively.

(Yes, you’re not the first person to bring up that it was only a read-option.) Watson chipped in four carries for 40 yards.

Hyde was like a bowling ball, shrugging off glancing contact as he got past the line of scrimmage. They used him off read-options with Watson effectively. The offensive line didn’t give him big holes, but he didn’t need them. After years of watching Alfred Blue, I need you to understand that this was the hardest thing for me to grasp, I wanted to give credit to the line. Hyde was genuinely awesome in this game. (I will shout out the pull on Hyde’s lone fourth-quarter carry by Zach Fulton — that was a great lead up block.)

Duke Johnson had a more uneven game. He slowed behind the line of scrimmage a few more times. Most of his yards came on one 32-yard carry in the fourth quarter. I think he’s a worse fit for this offensive line than Hyde is, but when Johnson gets to daylight, as we saw on that run, he’s quite dangerous.

The corollary to all my jabs about how bad O’Brien’s record is when he allows 22 or more points is that when the Texans run the ball well, Bill O’Brien wins. Conservative coaches that can actually hold on to the ball tend to win games.

O’Brien has had big games before in this regard — even last year — and certainly it’s worth asking just how much faith to have on this given how many backups the Saints played on the defensive line. But if you’re a Texans optimist, I’d cling to this performance as armor to shield the bruise that the lost left. When O’Brien’s teams run, they’re tough to stop. If they run like they did on Monday Night, they’re going to win a lot of games this season. Perhaps way more than I initially expected.

How the hell did they lose this game anyway? (Scrolls up.) Oh, right.

Week 1 Preview: Texans @ Saints

The Texans wander into Week 1 in a highly combustible spot against the Saints. The team is adding a couple of new faces in Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil that project to see playing time right away. This is one of their nightmare scenario games: Bill O’Brien has historically not done well in prime time or in a big spot, they’re on the road, and they’re playing one of the best passing offenses in the NFL.

Historically speaking, the Texans have only one real win under O’Brien in such a scenario, but it was against the Saints! It took J.J. Watt having the game of his life. But J.J. Watt is still on the roster! The frogurt contains potassium benzoate.

When the Texans Have the Ball

2018 DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

Cameron Jordan is New Orleans’ best pass rusher. Laremy Tunsil is Houston’s best pass protector. It’s very tempting to say that this is a matchup that will decide the game, except that a lot of Jordan’s snaps actually come with him over right tackle. The Texans did not trade for a right tackle, so they’ll be hoping that Seantrel Henderson can hold up and that Jordan’s new Johnny Depp look will create enough extra drag to slow Jordan down.

The mustache alone weighs 20 stone

New Orleans had the third-best rushing defense in the NFL last season by DVOA. Bill O’Brien likes to run the ball a lot, and the interior of his offensive line is, to be charitable, untested. The preseason snaps were unkind for basically every player who has a chance to start this game in the interior offensive line except for Zach Fulton, who is coming off turf toe and may not play. Even with Sheldon Rankins coming off an Achilles tear and being ruled out, I don’t think the Texans have much of a chance to run and control the clock in this game at any point. The Saints allowed 3.79 yards per carry against zone runs last season, and Demario Davis has become an expert at shooting gaps. The Saints do have some turnover on the line with Malcom Brown taking over at nose tackle and David Onyemata serving a one-game suspension. They also have a fully healthy Marcus Davenport, which could be exploitable in the run game.

Marshon Lattimore is one of the few NFL cornerbacks that gets used in shadow coverage. I would expect him on DeAndre Hopkins in this game. Lattimore had a bit of a down 2018, but is still talented enough to hold Hopkins to a draw. By that I mean I can envision a scenario where Hopkins only goes for like eight catches for 85 yards.

If the Texans come out with what is their norm under O’Brien of late — inside zone, little play-action because they’re scared of their offensive line — I think the key player in this game will be Darren Fells. Fells has earned a large percentage of snaps by virtue of being the one guy who can consistently block. He’s likely going to be chipping Jordan all game, if not outright helping on him.

I don’t see a reason to be worried about Deshaun Watson throwing the football. The Saints did noticeably improve as a pass defense after trading for Eli Apple last year, but half-season splits don’t scare me much in today’s NFL. Apple will hold and create a few first downs for the Texans via penalty — he got flagged for seven DPIs and three holds in just his 10 games in New Orleans. I would expect Keke Coutee to not play, and I would expect at least a couple of successful downfield throws for Watson. Perhaps more if the line plays well enough for him to get that far on his reads.

While this game has shootout vibes all over it, I think ultimately you have to be extremely concerned with the interior offensive line holding up their part of the bargain in making sure Watson isn’t running for his life. If Rankins was playing, he would shred this interior. As it is, the Saints are probably still going to get some pressure there.

When the Saints have the ball

2018 DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

This is the worst time to face Drew Brees. Brees has chilled down in December of each of the last few seasons — likely because he’s older and his arm doesn’t have the same pitch count it used to — and Brees also has a noticeable effectiveness split between home and road. This is at home in Game 1 of the season.

Michael Thomas, Jared Cook, and Alvin Kamara are a nightmare for how Romeo Crennel prefers to play defense. The strength of New Orleans’ passing offense is up the middle, where the Texans are generally very zone-heavy. Thomas ran most of his routes out of the slot last season, which is going to put heavy pressure on a suddenly-in-good-graces Aaron Colvin. Brees will carve out most of the zones the Texans want to play without issues. Crennel is going to have to get creative with his pressures to get Brees off the field. There’s no more Jadeveon Clowney to move around, but you could see a lot of defensive back blitzes. That’s one of the few ways the Texans were able to get to Andrew Luck on certain downs last year:

The other man on the spot for the Texans will be Whitney Mercilus, vacating a role that he didn’t really fit to play as a true edge player again. J.J. Watt will see more double teams with Clowney gone. Mercilus on the edge will mostly be up against All-Pro Terron Armstead. It’s a matchup where he has to flash a bit or the Texans won’t get a lot of headway against Brees without manufactured plays.

I’m also sure that Sean Payton will be thrilled with whatever tape he runs that winds up with Zach Cunningham on Kamara, which is a huge mismatch in favor of the Saints and something that they can use to get six-plus yards basically on demand. Justin Reid is likely to play and his role is going to be extremely interesting here. We don’t have much of an idea of how Crennel will use him yet. Perhaps he’s going to be blitzing in place of Clowney?

As far as the run game, it’s an area of strength for both teams but the Texans had one of the ten best run defense DVOAs of the DVOA era last season while the Saints were merely an above-average unit. The Colts ran on the Texans in the playoffs, so anything can happen, but I don’t think the run is going to be a major factor outside of perhaps getting some stops while New Orleans is trying to kill clock.

Mark Ingram was replaced by Latavius Murray and Max Unger retired and looks to be being replaced by rookie Erik McCoy. Houston’s best way to get pressure on New Orleans will be to find a way to pick on him.

Special teams

2018 DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

All four specialists for both teams remain the same from last year even though the Texans have been trying to bring in Trevor Daniel competition on a weekly basis. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference here outside of the Texans dominating on kickoffs last season and the Saints being essentially average.

The read

This is a tough ask for any team, let alone one coming into the game with almost no cohesion on the offensive line. I don’t think the Texans are going to get completely stomped, but I do think the line is fair and I would be surprised if they won this game.

31-26 Saints is about where I wind up. I think the game feels less close than that final score.

2019 NFL Predictions

The business of predictions is inherently stupid. Yet, everybody loves reacting to them. So, let’s get you riled up:

AFC East
Patriots
Bills
Jets
Dolphins

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Miami. I don’t think Buffalo or the Jets making it is particularly likely either, but they can swing a lot of wins out of the bottom of the division and you can’t completely rule out massive year two improvements from either of their starting quarterbacks.

AFC North
Ravens
Browns
Steelers
Bengals

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Cincinnati. If Zac Taylor makes that offense with that offensive line look 75% as effective as the one in Los Angeles, he deserves a 10-year extension.

Yes, I’m predicting every good AFC North team to make the playoffs. The hardest projected schedule any of them has is Baltimore at 0.1% DVOA.

AFC South
Texans
Colts
Titans
Jaguars

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: None. I apologize to the Texans haters that believe I am one of them for this pick, I really do. I think Jacksonville being a dominant defense is probably the most likely way for the Texans to miss the playoffs. I’ll take the Colts in second because I think they’re much more well-coached than any other team in the division. I could see any team winning it. Probably a race to nine wins.

AFC West
Chiefs
Chargers
Broncos
Raiders

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Oakland. Jon Gruden’s abstract art project continues.

A note on picking the Chargers to miss the playoffs: I think this division is quite tight. I am not a big fan of Anthony Lynn’s coaching. Derwin James being gone is a huge concern for me. Russell Okung starting on NFI concerns me. That offensive line is Mike Pouncey and four guys who have never played well.

If Melvin Gordon comes back my prediction does not change in the slightest.

NFC East
Eagles
Cowboys
Giants
Washington

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: New York or Washington. Both teams have massive talent deficits in this division. Both teams have rookie quarterbacks who I think will eventually start and make a lot of mistakes.

NFC North
Vikings
Bears
Packers
Lions

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: None. They’ve all got good cases to make the playoffs and this projects as a tight division. I would be most surprised if the Lions did it just because I think Matt Patricia’s offensive style is ultra-conservative and his defense isn’t good enough in my opinion to get away with that.

NFC South
Saints
Falcons
Panthers
Bucs

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Tampa. I think they can take a big leap on offense, but that defense with Gerald McCoy released was too complicated to solve in one offseason.

NFC West
Seahawks
Rams
49ers
Cardinals

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Arizona. It would take an amazing rookie season from Kyler Murray just to drag this team to .500 as currently constructed, and I suspect even the people who believe in Kliff Kingsbury would expect some NFL learning curve for him.

Wild Card Round
Browns over Texans
Chiefs over Steelers
Rams over Vikings
Cowboys over Seahawks

Divisional Round
Patriots over Browns
Ravens over Chiefs
Saints over Cowboys
Eagles over Rams

Championship Games
Patriots over Ravens
Eagles over Saints
Eagles over Patriots

Feel free to laugh about this post at any time, including the moment you first read it, the moment you think about it in Week 5 when one of the playoff teams I’ve projected is 1-4, the moment that the currently unsigned Antonio Brown signs with a bubble team and lifts them, or after the season when you’ve got 20-20 hindsight and I don’t. I am not going to get Mad Online at you. As I said: Predictions are inherently stupid.

5 things I learned from this Texans preseason

Most fans don’t care about the preseason, and I can’t blame them. There’s not a lot of evidence that the results matter. Most of the players that do play will not play meaningful NFL football. If you’re a Texans fan, it meant high exposure to Joe Webb at quarterback, which is something that has arguably never been a good idea for an NFL team. (Get well Joe.)

But if you’re a hardcore junkie, and you know what to watch for, I think there are a lot of small things you can take away from the preseason. I watched the first three games back a couple of times, and I took in the last preseason game with fresh eyes before we entered the Bill O’Brien Captured The News Cycle zone. If you didn’t watch the preseason, here’s what I’ve got for you:

My biggest misevaluation this offseason was in thinking that Martinas Rankin could be this team’s starting guard

Rankin struggled at tackle in 2018, but always seemed like more of a guard to me from an evaluation standpoint. When the Texans plugged him in at guard, it went passably well. I felt like perhaps this was one position the Texans could upgrade on from last year’s line.

There was almost no buzz about Rankin in training camp. While that’s not always a warning sign — nobody focuses on guards really — it was a bit of a red flag that the coaching staff wasn’t talking him up. Rankin never played with the ones, finished every game in the fourth quarter alongside guys like Rick Leonard and Malcolm Pridgeon, and was traded to the Chiefs for Carlos Hyde. Hyde fell behind both Darrell Williams (not even Damien!) and rookie Darwin Thompson in getting bounced from KC in a disappointing camp.

I’m not sure what happened to Rankin this offseason. I have to agree with the coaching staff that he looked shockingly bad in the preseason games I got to watch. I’m hoping for his sake he can put it together again in Kansas City, perhaps with some better coaching.

Buddy Howell should be taken a little more seriously as a running back than he was last year

Howell did not reinvent the wheel as a running back this preseason, but he did look much more decisive than any of his backup competition competitors. Put next to Devin Singletary at Florida Atlantic, Howell never actually got a chance to shine there either.

The Texans seemed very reticent to give Howell actual reps last season, even when injuries struck their running backs and Alfred Blue in particular looked lost. Now they’ve gone and blocked Howell with Hyde, so Howell probably won’t get a real look this year either without more fortune.

But I think Howell’s got enough juice that I’d like to see him get some snaps with the ones. He was held out of the last preseason game — something you don’t normally see from a guy who finished the fourth in another preseason game — and he offers a lot of special teams value. He might be able to have a bigger role than what Bill O’Brien has offered so far.

Tyron Johnson has the most upside of any of the bottom-of-the roster Texans receivers, but he had a ways to go

Nobody on the Texans roster bubble got as much separation and got open as quickly as former Oklahoma State receiver Tyron Johnson. Johnson got past guys deep often with Webb at quarterback, but he just couldn’t capitalize at the catch point. Much as I think Spencer Tillman is homeriffic, he made some very good points in-game about Johnson’s inability to go pluck the ball in the air. Even on the play I snagged here, the ball had to come down to him.

Johnson showed some as a kick returner as well, which is a situation the Texans would probably do well to address next to DeAndre Carter.

Overall, he’s got NFL traits, but I can understand why the Texans let him go. I think he might be a guy worth giving another year to, so he might be worth a practice squad invitation. The bottom of the Texans’ wideout depth chart got decimated with the trade for Kenny Stills. But of the guys I saw, Johnson is the one I’d be most excited about as a practice squadder. The Texans elected to go with Vyncint Smith and Steven Mitchell Jr instead, which makes some sense as they were on the actual roster at some point last year.

The offensive line was lackluster with the possible exception of Roderick Johnson

Houston’s offensive line played one good game, and that game was against the Lions who used a lot of three-man rushes and didn’t threaten the quarterback often. In preseason games 1 and 3, they were slaughtered. Trading for Laremy Tunsil is going to help the floor, but there are inconsistencies and bad reps for every other starter I can see.

— Tytus Howard was horrendous at left tackle when he was played there. Against Green Bay, he looked like he didn’t know half of his assignments. Against the Lions, at guard, he was solid. Then he sustained a finger injury and was shut down for the rest of the preseason.

— Max Scharping was the only Texans lineman who I thought looked solid against the Packers, but he had a ghastly game against Kerry Hyder and the Cowboys.

— Nick Martin only played against the Cowboys. He was bulldozed off the line several times and didn’t look like he understood how to play offensive line. Otherwise, everything was great!

— Roderick Johnson didn’t showcase all that much agility, but his ability to win hand games was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. Now that he won’t be forced to start at left tackle this season, I think that’s a big plus for him because he wasn’t ready for that kind of pressure. You could see him get some snaps at right tackle this year. I think the Texans are going to need to watch Seantrel Henderson fail at that for a little while before they get to him.

I don’t understand why the Texans don’t like Demarea Crockett more

Throughout the preseason, the Texans didn’t seem to think much of Demarea Crockett. He was often not spotlighted quite as often as Karan Higdon was. Crockett, to me, was a natural Alfred Blue replacement. He understands his reads, he’s got tackle-breaking ability, and he’s got some ability to make a guy miss in space. He struggled when asked to pass-protect, yes, but that’s not really his game.

Ultimately the Texans chose to keep Higdon over Crockett for their practice squad, and Crockett bolted to the Oakland squad. I would prefer Crockett to Hyde at this point based solely on the fact that one has upside and the other is Carlos Hyde. I don’t think the Texans are missing out on a generational talent or anything, but I wasn’t especially impressed with Higdon.

Other small notes
— Darren Fells’ blocking, I think, cemented him a big role in the early offense. The coaching staff seemed locked into using the preseason to get Jordan Thomas reps, and it almost backfired on them when it looked like Thomas got hurt in the fourth preseason game. This is a conservative head coach and he is going to like the idea of anybody being able to block well in the running game.

— The only player added on to the practice squad from a different team as of Sunday night was quarterback Alex McGough, who had a ghastly preseason with the Jaguars on a pure statistics standpoint, going 11-of-29 for 60 yards, one interception, and one sack. I made a short thread of some of his throws below:

McGough is a specimen at the position, and I think he’ll help the Texans practice well as part of the scout squad against players like Cam Newton this year. But I don’t really understand having to outbid teams for his services or giving him a premium, as Aaron Wilson reported they did. What you can say is that he very neatly fills the Joe Webb role as far as being an athletic marvel for the position. Maybe special teams are next?

— Charles Omenihu got plenty of preseason pressures, but none of them came against NFL-caliber tackles. That’s a step we never got to see him take this offseason, and while instant improvement is not out of the realm of possibility, I have low expectations for him being instant pass rush help this season. I’m at about the same place with practice-squadder Albert Huggins, who never actually had a chance to play at an elevated level this preseason. I know the people at PFF gave him a high grade, but until I see that high grade play out against non-NFL linemen, I can’t give it much of an endorsement for his future. Worth keeping, but don’t get carried away in the number.

— A.J. Hendy, thank you for this incredibly bizarre play: