Four Downs: Panthers 16, Texans 10

I had a feeling the Texans would lay a bit of an egg against Carolina’s defense. Remember the Buffalo game last season? Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott use very similar concepts, as McDermott joined Buffalo from the Panthers. I didn’t think they’d be as bad as they were on Sunday, because I expected individual talent to shine through. But it wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. I thought the Panthers offense would eat in this game, and instead they were abysmal.

Yes friends, this Texans loss was a meltdown. Kyle Allen’s start was honestly pretty bad, but the Panthers were able to overcome his three lost fumbles and make an entire offense out of Christian McCaffrey that was able to capitalize on some key errors and mistakes by Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien.

The Texans had a golden opportunity to take a lead in the division thanks to a similarly stunning Colts loss, but are now instead held up in the morass of the AFC South. Let’s dive deep:

1 — Bill O’Brien hasn’t gotten it corrected

I have watched Bill O’Brien’s five years as a head coach of the Houston Texans intently. In year six, he believed that calling this trick play was a good idea:

There is something of a political tinge to coverage of the O’Brien era at this point. I don’t mean that in the sense that there is a greater good or evil to O’Brien — I mean that the stakes have all been decided at this point, and minds don’t really change. We all know what we have, because we’re living it over and over again every Sunday and yelling at each other about it. The improvement O’Brien promises never happens, so we’re left with the question of “Is this enough?”

No, no it is not. It wasn’t today. It will not be at least a couple of other times this season. Inevitably, the Texans will always come back to Bill O’Brien not being a good enough head coach. The goalposts have moved several times over the last four seasons. He’s a good conservative coach. He’s calling the plays now. Puff stories appear here and there about him taking better control of games. I get that it is a very human reaction, as a fan, to want your team to do well. Part of being a fan is finding hope in situations that feel quite hopeless. I’m not upset with you as a fan if you like O’Brien — I find him likable in some situations too — but there is no reason to ever believe that he will improve.

Perhaps the capability of self-improvement is possible within O’Brien, and he discovers it when he gets to disconnect from this pesky “being a football coach” thing. But in this current set of situations, O’Brien has learned helplessness. The Texans desperately need him to be the brains of an entire franchise, and he desperately wants to be the brains of the entire franchise. But he doesn’t have an organized-enough plan for that, and he fires everybody who would come with a take that isn’t organically, at its core, an O’Brien Take. The thing he needs the most — help to cover his weaknesses — is exactly the thing he pushes away.

Let’s leave aside the Hopkins interception. Even without that, this was a horrific game from O’Brien. As he admitted in his post-game presser, the play calls were generally bad. The offense struggled to do anything but check the ball down. The Texans blew two timeouts in the second half on busted calls from the huddle. They blew a third to challenge a catch that was never going to be overturned:

So okay, let’s push all that aside. They get the ball back with 7:03 left, with one timeout. The Panthers have a three-point lead. The Texans call six plays, they gain 26 yards. They run the ball twice. In the span of those six plays, nearly three minutes burns off the block, then they use their last timeout because they’ve messed up something about the play call.

Where was the urgency? At this point, the Texans are almost committed to going for it on any fourth down. The second that they turn the ball over, they have nothing but the two-minute warning to stop the clock. If Carolina gets one first down, the game is all but over. It was made worse by Watson’s sack-fumble the play after the timeout, but even if they’d driven downfield, there was a high likelihood that they’d be forced to kick a field goal because all the time had bled off the clock.

Bill O’Brien is going to get this corrected. He’s going to win some other games, and then this game will not be fresh in your mind anymore. That is the entirety of the correction.

2 — Deshaun Watson also did not play well

Watson had two deep throws that were basically the game, and he missed them both. He was close on both of them — both this and the bomb to DeAndre Hopkins in the third quarter were within an arm’s length of each receiver. But, ultimately, they were short.

It did feel like there was some emotional quarterbacking from the young star today.

There were times in the second half where I think the game got away from him a bit, where he was trying to force a throw that wasn’t there. Where he was trying to just make something happen. A lot of credit goes to Carolina’s defense for bottling up Houston’s downfield plays and making them check it down underneath, but I think a more mature Watson in three or four years will be able to get past some of the issues the Texans had in the fourth quarter.

Watson was not helped by the game plan. There were a couple of times where two receivers were running in the same area of the throw point. In a game where blitzers should have created open throws to underneath receivers, Duke Johnson had three targets. Jordan Akins had four. Kenny Stills’ injury had an impact, but the Texans simply have to be better than this in all phases as an offense. The running game superficially looked good behind the big Duke Johnson carry and a Hyde “run” that was actually a backwards checkdown. Take those away and the running backs got three yards per carry.

And yet, it Watson hits those throws, the Texans probably win the game. That is the tough part to swallow.

3 — D.J. Reader is the best Texans defender

Whitney Mercilus got another sack and another forced fumble today, his fifth and fourth of the year, respectively.

I noted that the quarterback did not step up, but instead stepped back. A big reason for that was that Matt Paradis got pushed right into Kyle Allen’s face by D.J. Reader.

Reader again was a menace in this game, racking up multiple run stuffs and contributing to the overall pass rush by wrecking the pocket in a game where his teammates had three sacks and five hits.

It is true that Mercilus is having a big year, and when I posted that I thought Reader had been the best Texans defender this year, I got some pushback. But if you look back at Mercilus’ sacks on this season, I think a majority of them actually come because of Reader getting enough push that the quarterback can’t step up in the pocket.

Do you want to credit the guy who made the quarterback go backwards, or the one who wound up with the sack? What about if the one who made the quarterback go backwards was also a big part of the reason that the Panthers ran it 28 times and only got 94 yards?

4 — The offensive line … was fine.

Deshaun Watson was sacked six times and picked up 10 more quarterback hits. Don’t necessarily buy that a lot of that was on the offensive line.

The one player who I think clearly hurt the Texans was fill-in starter Greg Mancz, who only started because Zack Fulton appeared to be a last-minute scratch with a back injury.

Watson’s other sacks (outside of this and a later one where Mancz was also not up for the task) were mostly about him trying to buy time. This is not to say that the offensive line was flawless — Two Drafts Tunsil false started twice in key situations, Tytus Howard gave up some pressure here or there — but they generally played pretty well.

Watson’s sack issues, as I said at the time of the trade, are endemic to who he is as a quarterback. The Texans definitely needed a better left tackle, because there were several plays where Julien Davenport allowed a quick pressure that wrecked a play last year. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Houston traded two first-round picks and a second-round pick and have not yet made a dent in the problem of how you protect Watson. That is to take nothing away from Tunsil’s play — he’s obviously better than Davenport was last year and would have been this year.

If the Texans want to do a better job of protecting Watson, my belief is that they need to take two steps back from what they’re doing now and go back to more concepts from 2017’s offense. Watson still took quarterback hits at that point, but his rate of quarterback hits was at 9.4% instead of 13+%, where I suspect it will land after stats update this week and where it was in 2018.

The only game that Watson came out of with good hits numbers in — granted, with a rotating cast of linemen — was in Week 3, when the Chargers barely blitzed at all. I believe he will always be a quarterback who takes plenty of hits in every game. But that doesn’t mean that the Texans can’t scheme more to get him easier throws that don’t ask him to take the four or five extra hits a game that he’s taking now.

Week 4 Preview: Carolina @ Houston

Coming off a win that has a lot of good vibes going in Houston — taking out an elite quarterback, seeing visible improvement from a bad offensive line, and so on — Houston comes home to face a quarterback with two career starts.

You don’t need Admiral Akbar to tell you what kind of game this is. The Panthers were favored to make a lot of noise in the NFC South, and actually have played pretty well in most phases of the game. Week 2’s loss to the Bucs happened to coincide with their clearly-injured quarterback missing open throw after open throw. They also lost a nailbiter to a 3-0 team where their defense completely silenced an offense with good field position for most of the game. While this isn’t quite the game it looked like when the schedule was released, this isn’t exactly your average 1-2 team with a backup quarterback.

The last time these teams met was in 2015 — the famous Ryan Mallett start before he stopped checking his alarm clock. Houston’s last win against Carolina came in 2007, Steve Smith had 153 yards and three touchdowns. Andre Johnson had 120 and two.

Vegas agreed with the trap game and has placed the game anywhere from minus-4 to minus-4.5 for the Texans, entering the clearly established territory of throwing their hands up. Let’s dig a little deeper.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA numbers courtesy Football Outsiders

A very interesting side note to this game popped up on Wednesday during Bill O’Brien’s media interview, when he seemed to cast some aspersions on his team’s ability to run the ball against Carolina’s front.

“We definitely have to run it better, it was tough sledding. The Chargers did a good job with their game plan. I think in this game again it’s going to be tough sledding … it’s hard to run the ball in the NFL, it really is. …We got to get it more balanced than it was last week.”

That is the clear area of weakness the Panthers have created this year with their move for Gerald McCoy and utilizing their first-round selection on outside EDGE player Brian Burns. The Rams, Cardinals, and Bucs have all run for 100 yards on this Panthers front seven. They are overaggressive and that aggressiveness can be taken advantage of.

Houston’s running game has shown some competence this year, and I believe they need to do a lot more lifting in this game because as nice as that offensive line looked in Week 3, this game is a matchup against a more aggressive defense that can win one-on-one against any member of the offensive line. If the Texans get too pass-heavy, this will be another game where Deshaun Watson gets teed off on. Watson has the ability to play like he did in Week 3 and render all those concerns null. He also has the ability to play like he did in Week 2. The Panthers, for what it is worth, blitzed on 31.7% of their 2018 opponent dropbacks as compared to Los Angeles’ 14.3%. This is going to be a game where Watson and O’Brien are tested in handling the blitz.

Carolina’s most likely path to disrupting the pass is over right tackle Tytus Howard, who is going through ups and downs this season as he plays all over the offensive line. Lining over him will be Burns, who has set the league on fire to the tune of 10 pressures in his first three weeks. Howard is going to need to stalemate him — or get more help than he had last week — for the Texans to unlock the deep passing game.

The cornerback matchups will not lock on to DeAndre Hopkins like they have the last two games, so moving him around will create some easier matchups. Both Panthers cornerbacks are having pretty stellar years to this point. Sports Info Solutions lists Donte Jackson with an average of 7.2 yards per target, and James Bradberry with an average of 6.0. For comparison: Johnathan Joseph is at 9.4. I don’t think the Texans are afraid of Carolina’s corners or anything, but they’ll break up a few plays.

The only thing I can find that’s roundly in Houston’s favor is that Kawaan Short was a DNP on both Wednesday and Thursday and seems unlikely to play this week. That will at least make Dontari Poe play more on passing downs. Jackson also was down on Thursday.

Same as it ever was, this will be a week where the Texans are extremely reliant on Watson’s playmaking and (gulp) O’Brien’s ability to scheme them out of blitz problems.

When the Panthers have the ball

All DVOA numbers courtesy of Football Outsiders

As alluded to earlier this week, Houston’s defensive line came back in a big way in Week 3. They’ll have to do it again here, and they will likely get some help with Panthers guard Trai Turner missing the first two days of practice and appearing unlikely to play in Week 4. The plan appears to be to move left tackle and Shaq Barrett beat-em-up Darryl Williams to guard to take Turner’s spot, then give the tackle job to one of Houston’s draft crushes, Greg Little. Williams had nine blown blocks at left tackle over three weeks, so Little may not be a downgrade at all. It is (checks notes) yet another game where Whitney Mercilus is put into the best possible position. Aaron Reiss wrote him up this week as being deserving of a contract extension. Mercilus continues to find himself in plum spot after plum spot early in the season.

Willams and Taylor Moton will do most of the work on J.J. Watt. Matt Paradis has been somewhat of a turnstile in pass protection early this season, and D.J. Reader has to be licking his chops on that potential matchup. While Moton and Paradis have careers that say they’ll play better than they have this year, both of them haven’t played up to their high standards.

The Texans will need the pass rush, because the Panthers have a number of different things that can harm them. Kyle Allen’s first start this year was heavy on Norv Turner’s play-action and read-option style, and created a lot of open passes downfield.

Allen had a fairly quick trigger on most of his throws — his 2.84 average time to throw was dragged up by his scrambling when Carolina allowed pressure. While he hasn’t exactly had an extended trial yet, both of Allen’s starts have been successes to some extent. (He led the Panthers to a 33-14 win over the Saints in Week 17 last year.) One thing that I wonder about coming into play in this game will be Allen’s deep ball — his couple against New Orleans looked quite good, but the Panthers barely utilized it in Week 3. The Texans are a downhill defense, so a lot of how aggressive they can be will be dictated by how Allen is able to punish them. The best bet otherwise with Allen is to Gardner Minshew him — sack and fumble. He fumbled twice last week, losing one.

Across the board, Allen has mismatches. DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel have both engaged in breakout campaigns to some extent. A healthy Greg Olsen is more than a mismatch for anybody in man coverage. Christian McCaffrey is probably the preeminent pass-catching back in the NFL. The Texans are going to want to stay in zone coverage because I don’t know if they can check a single one of these receivers man-to-man — maybe whoever Bradley Roby has. From what I have seen Allen won’t have problems releasing into holes in zones, and in fact does so with some anticipation.

In addition, Houston’s run defense is a little bit vulnerable right now as well. 14th in run defense DVOA oversells it a bit — Justin Jackson had a touchdown run called back for holding, but the Chargers rushed for about four yards a carry. Still, on the aggregate, Texans opponents have rushed for 5.4 yards per carry this season and that’s not all in the New Orleans game. McCaffrey had a 73-yard touchdown run last week. That belies the fact that they haven’t run the ball all that well this year, but they were second in rush offense DVOA in 2018 and could just be having problems making the new offensive line parts fit.

Special Teams

All DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

Joey Slye has hit 7-of-8 field goals, including three from 50+ yards. The Panthers have not shown much hesitance with him. Most of the poor punt return ratings for the Panthers are a lost fumble by Ray Ray McCloud.

Last week’s poor showing by Fairbairn dipped him into negative numbers. It’s probably not a huge concern long-term as he has missed extra points and long field goals before. The changeover to a new holder might affect him in the short-term.

The read

I would dearly like to tell you that the Texans will get to 3-1, and I don’t think I would be surprised if they did. The clearly established formula at this point is Watson greatness + defensive turnovers. That can definitely happen in this game, with a quarterback making his third career start.

However, the more I reviewed this game, the more I found myself thinking that Carolina had matchup edges that the Texans just don’t. The Texans haven’t lost ugly in the O’Brien era while Watson was healthy — with the notable exception of the Colts playoff game — but I do think this is primed for a shocker. Give me Carolina 29, Houston 27. If I felt at all confident that Houston’s running game was going to work, I might choose differently. Either way, this team likes close games and they may be due to get bit for that again.

Houston’s 2018 defense re-appeared in Week 3

Through the first two games of the season, the Texans dabbled in impactful defense, but didn’t erase many plays.

Houston barely even harassed Drew Brees, leaving that game with three quarterback hits and one sack. They went all out on Gardner Minshew, sacking him four times and creating three fumbles, but doing it mainly via the blitz. The Jaguars had a run-focused game plan, so the fact that the Texans came at Minshew 15 times meant that it was a very high percentage of Minshew’s dropbacks.

Against Los Angeles, the Texans blitzed 12 times, but with Rivers dropping back 51 times. Rivers actually shredded Houston’s blitz schemes. By my count, he went 8-of-11 for 116 yards, a touchdown, six first downs, and one sack when Houston blitzed. A lot of his actual completions against the blitz look like witchcraft on tape:

But where the Texans won this game was their ability to go four-on-five with the Chargers’ offensive line and get pressure on Rivers from it. Rivers was constantly harassed by J.J. Watt (you expect this), Whitney Mercilus (you’re growing to expect this), as well as two relatively new sources of pressure: D.J. Reader and Charles Omenihu.

Reader, in particular, has taken his game to the next level this season. He’s always been an excellent nose tackle, but he’s been the one constant in getting pressure for the Texans in every game. He created a couple of Mercilus sacks by pushing the pocket back, he’s at 1.5 sacks of his own in three games, which means he’s a half-sack from reaching his career high after three (3) games.

If we look at Reader’s first three years, we get a very consistent rate of pressure. He finished 2016 with 11 Sports Info Solutions’ pass pressures. 2017: 12. 2018: 13. This year he is on pace for 26!

I don’t find what Reader is doing particularly unsustainable. He’s done it every game this season. He’s done it against tough interior lines and bad interior lines. His play passes the smell test and it’s clear that he’s winning often with handplay rather than just pure size and speed. That is actually a big step for the Texans, because they have not had to miss Jadeveon Clowney as much as perhaps they should.

(Quick aside: the idea of lining Mercilus, Reader, Watt, Clowney up as your defensive line every down this season and just letting them destroy offensive lines makes me real sad until I remember that their defensive coordinator would never put this on the field as more than a sub package to begin with. Moving on!)

I hemmed and hawed about Charles Omenihu’s PFF grade last week, but I thought he showed a lot more being lined up inside more this week:

One thing I think we were all treated to in Week 3 was the power of a position change. Omenihu has sub-optimal speed around the edge but good power and good pass rush moves. It always made sense that he would be better as an interior disruptor, but after a whole preseason of asking him to win on the edge, I needed to see the Texans use him like this to believe it.

So … what do we make of this going forward? Is Houston’s defensive front that we saw get dominated against the Saints fixed? One thing that football has taught me very clearly over the years is to not get too worked up by small samples of anything. At the same time, this is a ceiling I wasn’t sure the Texans would have as a defense this season, so it is extremely encouraging for their playoff chances to see their defensive line come in and dominate a game like they did on Sunday.

I still think there’s a lot of matchup issues baked in to what happened on Sunday. I don’t think Los Angeles’ offensive line is at all good, and I think Omenihu is going to have rougher games than he has over his last two at some point this season. A lot of early-season NFL analysis comes down to “hurry up and wait for more data.”

Still, it was good to see this gear out of the Texans. The Chargers are not the last team on their schedule with a bad offensive line. It will be downright imperative for the line to play this well for them to win their tougher matchups of the season. Now we know that it can happen.

Four Downs: Texans 27, Chargers 20

The Houston Texans survived a battle on the pitch, holding off the Chargers 27-20 after a barrage of Philip Rivers throws were negated by a holding penalty and a dropped Travis Benjamin throw into the end zone:

It is quite tempting to read this game as a big stepping stone for the Texans. It’s something I had already seen starting to go around on live postgame shows. To be certain, it’s awesome that they were able to hold up on Philip Rivers. But, as I noted in the preview, the Chargers were not playing well. Their offensive line was weak. They are dealing with an obscene amount of injuries. Could it be a step to them playing better against good teams? Maybe! Do I think there’s a chance we look back on this season and think the Chargers underwhelmed for a lot of reasons that will make this win less impressive in retrospect? I do.

It’s hard to understate how big of a win it is for Houston’s playoff chances. It’s a conference game, it’s a road game in a tough spot. This is a big win. I just don’t necessarily think it’s changing the direction of the franchise.

1 — Texans coverage continues to be soft and easily frazzled

Houston may have won the game, but the pass defense looked anything but solid. Keenan Allen got free releases all over the place and was able to go pretty much anywhere he wanted. Dontrelle Inman nearly was picked on a quick out that Johnathan Joseph read well, but other than that, there was practically no resistance from the secondary.

Allen wound up with 13 catches for 183 yards and two scores. His second score came on a blitz by Romeo Crennel, who played this game a little more aggressively than I thought he would as far as the heat:

While I won’t spend too much time lamenting Romeo on a down-to-down basis, I think one area that remains scary is how willing he was to just drop back the defensive backs and linebackers all the way into Siberia on fourth-and-13 for the game:

The Texans were able to get off the field in this game solely because of the negative plays they were able to create. Those plays happened against an immobile quarterback with a bad offensive line. Lonnie Johnson did not play well against Mike Williams. Johnathan Joseph was roasted multiple times. Even Bradley Roby gave up quite a few yards.

This is going to remain a problem unless the Texans make a move.

2 — The tight ends were actually involved

I died on the Jordan Akins hill last season down the stretch, totally perplexed as to how the Texans could not get him involved in the passing game when they were down to DeAndre Hopkins and practice squadders out wide. So it was nice to see the tight ends eat today against a depleted Chargers’ linebacker corps:

Per pro-football-reference, there’ve been only seven times where the Texans have targeted a tight end more than six times in a game since 2017. The major explosion there, Stephen Anderson’s 12-target day, happened in Tom Savage time as the Texans were winding down the 2017 season.

Darren Fells joined the guys at six targets (two other Anderson games, a Ryan Griffin game), adding a touchdown as well. Akins had five targets of his own, including being the recipient of a miracle Deshaun Watson play:

When I talk about setting up the middle of the field with options for Watson on blitzes, I think primarily of Akins and Duke Johnson. They can make things happen after the catch.

3 — D.J. Reader had himself a day

In this, the contract season of all contract seasons, D.J. Reader has been dominant. It was the exterior of the Chargers line that was playing poorly, remember. But it was the interior that got walloped by Reader. Reader finished with 1.5 sacks, pushed the pocket on a few other plays, and who has been a load for defenses all seasons. One of Whitney Mercilus’ sacks last week came only because Reader pushed the pocket back far enough that Mercilus’ bend ran right into Gardner Minshew.

The Texans finished with 12 quarterback hits and nine tackles for loss. Mercilus has obviously been good. Watt had a great game against the Chargers, including a final drive sack. Everyone’s talking about those guys.

I think Reader has been just as good as any of the Texans’ edge rushing stars this year. He looks noticeably quicker. He came to play in New Orleans when Watt was bottled up — nobody else can say that.

It’s nice to not have to confine our talk of how good he is to hushed whispers and run fits. Reader is in line to make himself a big payday in 2020, or, possibly, get traded off the franchise tag.

4 — Blitz pickups, Watson sacks, and the offensive line

Watson took only two sacks and six quarterback hits. It was a big improvement. It also was more about the defense than the offense in my opinion:

Gus Bradley just refused to blitz as much as the situation called for. He definitely upped his blitz rate overall on the season, but it was clear that he was not comfortable bringing the pain. As such, Watson finished the week with an average of 3.02 seconds per throw in the pocket, a top-5 rate through Sunday’s games.

It’s easy to say that the impromptu offensive line move that brought Max Scharping into the starting lineup and moved Tytus Howard over to right tackle worked because, initially, it did work!

I would hold off just a little bit before we get too deep into the weeds on the line playing like this every week. I think it was more about the amount of blitzing. I don’t think they were given much of a task on a down-to-down basis. The amount of three-man rushes they faced was pretty high, and as I remember pointing out against Detroit in the preseason, that doesn’t necessarily correlate when the heat is on.

Scharping did get beat by Joey Bosa on a stunt once. Tytus Howard has a runthrough or two. But, yes, they looked fairly clean.

What was more encouraging to me? This play:

What Watson can control is his ability to play better while blitzed, but sometimes that’s about the playcall giving him easy options. This is exactly what I want to see the Texans set up going forward for Watson when they smell blitz. Get Duke Johnson or Akins into space and let them go to work. It is encouraging to see it on the tape. Now, let’s all say a prayer it doesn’t disappear again next week.

Week 3 Preview: Texans @ Chargers

With a win in the bank in a sloggy game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Texans travel to Los Angeles to play football in a futbol stadium against the Los Angeles Chargers. This game looked quite intimidating when the schedule came out — the Chargers were coming off a 12-4 season where they finished third in DVOA. It looks a bit less so now, as Los Angeles has lost Derwin James, Russell Okung, and Hunter Henry to injury already. They haven’t played particularly well in their first two games, and also have had major special teams issues.

The line currently stands anywhere from LAC -3 to -4, it’s possible Vegas thinks the Chargers are a better team than that line implies and just gives them no homefield advantage. Which, fair.

The last time these two teams met, the Chargers steamrolled a limp Brock Osweiler team 21-13, allowing almost no offensive output. In 2013, they opened up the season together on Monday Night Football — one of two games the Texans won that year. And in 2010, Seyi Ajirotutu made Kareem Jackson look like a fool. History hurts!

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy Football Outsiders

The Chargers seem like they should have a threatening defense, but they don’t play that way most of the time. A lot of the reasoning is that, behind defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, the Chargers play an extremely conservative brand of defense. They are primarily a zone defense. More importantly, with James sidelined, they are not quite as versatile as they were last season, when they played more dime than any team in the NFL because James could hack it as a linebacker.

Last year the Chargers blitzed on a league-low 14.3% of passes. (Yes, Texans fans, there is someone more conservative than Romeo Crennel.) They have Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram — but they ask them to win and live with the results when they don’t. That means that this is a spotlight game for Laremy Tunsil. These are the scenarios the Texans wanted him for. Roderick Johnson is going to need help on Melvin Ingram. Ingram also gets stunted inside often. Tunsil will mostly be engaged with Joey Bosa on passing downs. If the Texans can do what other teams do to J.J. Watt with Ingram and have Tunsil battle Bosa to a standstill, it will make for a very small down payment against the obscene amount of draft capital it cost to bring Tunsil here.

It’s three shadow cornerbacks in three weeks for DeAndre Hopkins, who will match up against Casey Hayward this week. Despite shadowing last year, Hayward was often avoided altogether, with just 58 targets in his direction. It’s hard to call any matchup a worse matchup for Hopkins than Jalen Ramsey, but this is definitely right up there with Ramsey. Expect another stalemate game for Hopkins where he doesn’t blow up for 150 yards but is, obviously, no slouch.

With Trevor Williams on IR and Desmond King playing inside, the Texans will likely want to pick on Brandon Facyson, a 2018 UDFA with zero history of playing well. Facyson just got torched by Kenny Golladay last week for a score of catches and the game-winning touchdown. That means it could be a big game for Will Fuller outside, who will likely draw most of the snaps against Facyson and was one drop from 100 receiving yards last week:

Houston’s running attack has looked pretty good to start the season, and this is a nice spot for them as well. Denzel Perryman has still yet to play for the Chargers coming off offseason surgery, and that means a lot of snaps for Thomas Davis who, as great as he was in his prime, has looked quite washed so far this season.

The Chargers dropped to a 1.9% run defense DVOA in 2018 on runs up the middle — any positive rushing DVOA allowed on runs is real bad. Jerry Tillery may eventually be good, but he’s still learning the ropes and is a rotational guy at best on this line. Brandon Mebane (I can’t believe this guy is still in the NFL) is 35 years old and hasn’t been an impact player since 2016. The Colts and Lions both ran on this team with aplomb. This is not a particularly threatening matchup for the Texans interior line.

The name of the game for the Texans here will be avoiding costly mistakes. The Chargers have some great field-readers in their zone coverage. They have Bosa and Ingram. Those are the only ways at this point they have to make you pay.

When the Chargers have the ball

All DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

Los Angeles is one of the few teams that still runs a fullback out fairly often. Derek Watt — name rings a bell, but I’m not sure why — has 21 snaps and should see plenty of time in a game where both coaches will be heavy on establishing the run. This’ll be a big game for Brandon Dunn and Angelo Blackson up front, because the Chargers are one of the few teams that’ll ask Houston to get heavy.

Romeo Crennel’s game plan looms large here. I am anticipating that we are going to see less pressure than he brought against Gardner Minshew last week on the idea that Philip Rivers is no rookie. Another reason I expect a heavy dose of zone coverage is that I don’t think the Texans have a linebacker that can check Austin Ekeler one-on-one, and Ekeler is absolutely the kind of back that needs to be covered.

Yeah, they really have not missed Melvin Gordon at all. Good luck on that contract, Melvin.

Even with Henry hurt, both Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are major mismatches for the Houston secondary. Allen lines up in the slot about half the time, and figures to get checked by Bradley Roby after he moved inside to clean up the Aaron Colvin mess. This is a spotlight game for Roby. He doesn’t have to shut Allen down, but he does have to break up a couple of big passes.

Williams on Johnathan Joseph is a physicality mismatch. Williams on Lonnie Johnson is a technique mismatch. Either way, I expect that the Chargers won’t have much problem moving the ball through the air.

The best hope for the Texans will be exploiting a suspect offensive line. Dan Feeney has taken a step forward in the early going this year, and Mike Pouncey is solid. But the Chargers’ tackles are Sam Tevi and Trent Scott with Russell Okung on the non-football injury list. Scott is a second-year UDFA who Sports Info Solution has already charged with three blown blocks in pass protection. Whitney Mercilus’ renaissance season will continue as the Chargers will probably join the Jaguars and Saints in rolling extra linemen at J.J. Watt.

Virgil Green is a total non-factor, so you can expect to see a lot of three wideout sets with Travis Benjamin. I’ve always liked Benjamin, and I see this as kind of a sneaky spot for him. Particularly if he gets matched on Johnson, who I think he can successfully bait.

Special Teams

All DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

With Michael Badgley sidelined by injury, the Chargers missed two field-goal attempts to the Lions in a game they lost by three points. Badgley was limited in practice on Wednesday, but was upgraded to full on Thursday. Still, a kicker with a groin injury is not a gimme.

The Texans released Trevor Daniel for Bryan Anger. Even I can’t muster an opinion on that.

The read

Forecasting this game is weird because, in a lot of ways, these are the same team.

The Chargers and Texans both have overly conservative coaches, star wideouts, good quarterbacks, offensive lines with clear holes, and defenses that rely on star rushers to make everyone else look better. There are little nitpicks with the comparison here or there — the Chargers have two defensive backs better than what the Texans have, and the Texans have a faster receiving corps and a more dynamic quarterback. But by and large, they feel like very similar style teams.

This is the kind of game where I think game script winds up mattering a lot. 14 points will be a lot. Ultimately, because of how conservative Anthony Lynn is, and how often he is likely to settle for kicking a field goal even with their kicking situation, I’m thinking that will play a big factor in the final score.

I’ve hemmed and hawed on who to pick this game for. Ultimately, if I’m going to pick the Texans to make the playoffs in the preseason, I feel I’ve got to stick with that conviction in a close game. Give me Texans 22, Chargers 20. I don’t feel great about it and you could not get me to gamble on this game under any circumstances.

Romeo Crennel blitzed Gardner Minshew to the Stone Age … until the final drive

After last week’s soft defensive display against the Saints, the Texans were tasked with a rookie quarterback who had shown a lot of accuracy in his first start. They reacted by pumping up the blitz rate early on, and the blitzes created chaos for Gardner Minshew.

The Jaguars’ offensive line was banged up, starting backup Will Richardson at left tackle. While he’s expected to be good, it was right tackle Jawaan Taylor’s second start. There were plays where those offensive linemen sunk an otherwise well-designed pass. There were plays where a holding penalty ruined a big gain for the Jaguars. There were players where Minshew was his own worst enemy.

The overall chaos of what Crennel brought didn’t always come clean, by the way. These are plays where, if the quarterback is up to the task, the Texans give up a big gain. The secondary just isn’t good enough to go at someone man-to-man and win. Even the Jaguars had plenty of success downfield against Houston’s corners.

But … was it better than the alternative? Absolutely. My preview of the game figured that Crennel would continue to be passive or mix in more three-man rushes as he did against Brees. I think Minshew can hit a lot of throws against those kinds of coverages. He actually had one look early on against a three-man rush where he understood the coverage and pumped the ball rather than throwing to a drop linebacker.

When it was all counted, I had the Texans with 15 blitzes against the Jaguars. They had just seven last week against the Saints.

When it came down to crunch time though, and the Texans were defending a lead while Minshew drove them the field, they gave up blitzing. They blitzed just one time on Minshew’s 11 dropbacks on that drive, and that pass led to an open downfield throw for Minshew that he just couldn’t hit. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus did bring some pressure on that drive — Mercilus was unleashing the fire on Richardson all quarter — but Minshew was able to avoid it and march down the field. The extra cover men didn’t make a real difference.

As I said last week, this is going to be a tenuous balance for the course of the season — at least unless they trade for more help. They aren’t going to have Mercilus matched on that easy of a mark all season. The secondary isn’t good enough to cover anybody in man, and the zone coverage isn’t hard to beat.


What does having a good Pro Football Focus grade mean?

I assume you’ve all seen this:

I want to be clear with you here: I have a baby PFF subscription, and I find the numbers interesting. But one thing it’s important for you to understand when you’re using them is the context. Pro Football Focus numbers are descriptive, not prescriptive.

Kareem Jackson had one of the best PFF grades of any cornerback last year. He went into the playoff game against the Colts and got his ass kicked by Dontrelle Inman. Jackson had a really good year, but the context in which he accumulated his grade was mostly playing within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and punishing people in front of him downhill. When he started having to backpedal, he was toast. As he was in every game the Texans played against the Colts. The Texans did not even tender Jackson a contract offer. If he was the eighth-best cornerback in the NFL (or whatever it was), would they really just let him walk for no reason?

J.J. Watt’s PFF Grade as of this moment is 67.8. Is he worse than Charles Omenihu? Has the game entirely passed Watt by? Of course not. He’s been dealing with double teams on a regular basis because other teams don’t respect the rest of this edge-rusher group:

While Omenihu’s strip sack was obviously a good play, it doesn’t really speak well to his ability to play well in the future. He’s up against a second-round rookie, doesn’t beat him cleanly. I’d argue that he could have been called for hands to the face on the play. It’s heads-up, and is clearly a great play. It also doesn’t speak a lot to Omenihu as some sort of gamebreaker just yet. I’ll be happy to highlight him beating some people left and right when it happens — I must have missed those snaps if they happened this week.

PFF grades are what you want them to be, and they are promoted at you almost always from a positive angle because selling hope to people who want to see good things is one of the cheapest, easiest ways to build a following. We’re in an information overload world where nobody wants to question why the numbers are good, they just want to pre-agree with seeing their favorite team has a star young player brewing. Most fans want something positive to believe in more than they want to hear about the negatives. Trust me, I’ve inadvertently done the research for 10 years.


The one glaring question

Bill O’Brien tends to play close games on account of his devotion to the run and his offense’s conservative nature. That hasn’t always been the case this year — he’s been a lot more deep-ball focused over the first two games. But even with that deep ball focus, O’Brien has still played in two close games that came down to the last possession.

If Romeo Crennel doesn’t blitz at all on those final drives — and I would say that is clearly his nature — how many games will that cost the Texans? It was about six inches from costing them a win in game two. It did cost them a win in game one. We have concrete proof it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work against Drew Brees, and it doesn’t work against Gardner Minshew. It might work against Kyle Allen! But … how many quarterbacks are going to be able to carve that up in the fourth quarter?

A lot of the season could be riding on the answer to that question.

A Unified Theory of Blitzing and Deshaun Watson

The Houston offense ground to a halt on Sunday, scoring just 13 points against a Jaguars team that was besieged by Kansas City a week before. Jacksonville’s game plan on defense was not overly complex: They decided to blitz Watson early and often, put pressure on Houston’s offensive line, and live with the results. While Watson did complete a few downfield passes, what mostly ended up happening were incompletions and sacks.

My post-game, non-carefully-thought-out theory on this was that the Texans were having problems with careful aggression. Post-Week 2, Watson is third in the NFL in intended air yards via NFL Next Gen Stats, and third in Aggressiveness% — a stat that looks at how often a quarterback targets covered receivers. Last year, on the season, both of those statistics were much closer to middle of the pack. Watson was 26th in Aggressiveness%. He was 11th in intended air yards.

What you need to understand about Bill O’Brien’s design for this offense is, I think, spelled out in three acquisitions:
— He drafted Will Fuller in the first round despite wideout not being a glaring need for the franchise.
— He traded for Laremy Tunsil
— He traded for Kenny Stills

All three of these moves point to wanting to dominate defenses vertically. Fuller has been an amazing downfield receiver and was considered the preeminent deep threat of his draft class. Stills is one of the greatest deep threats of the last five years, especially with the Saints. Tunsil, in theory, provides protection to get Watson the time to get to those throws.

But where the rubber met the road on blitzes last week was pretty simple: O’Brien’s response to the blitz was to try to blow it out of the water deep. It didn’t work.

When Watson reads downfield on this play, both of his receivers to the left are going to be carrying all the way up the field. To the right, his two crossers are going to meet each other and make that throw difficult. And, of course, Johnson is getting covered. Watson has nowhere clean to go to, and the pressure applied to him is so intense that he was taking a shot anyway.

On this blitz, the Texans actually did have a short, quick, first read that is open quickly, but the one who is quickly open is Keke Coutee on the outside. Recall all the talk about Deshaun Watson having a slow ball at the NFL Combine? That hasn’t stopped him from being a good NFL quarterback. But I do think it costs him on throws like this. Watson’s throw appears to be on time, but by the time the ball actually gets there, Coutee is covered well.

The majority of the blitzes that I watched the Jaguars bring left Watson trying to buy time to deliver downfield.


Bill O’Brien and Deshaun Watson have been up-and-down from the start of the 2018 season on, and I think a lot of it has to do with the boundaries of Watson learning “NFL structure” from O’Brien versus O’Brien making Watson’s life easy. Too often, I think it’s fair to say, Watson hasn’t been given the tools to make his life easy like it was in 2017.

Watson has a clear and demonstrated split towards being better targeting the slot seam on blitzes. One of the few blitzes he easily beat last week was on his throw to Jordan Akins:

Look at how easy that looked. Yes, game situation dictated that the Jags were fine with a ball being caught short of the sticks on third-and-long, and Akins made the play to get the first down. But even setting up fourth-and-short situations with Watson is a big positive.

Remember when the Texans solved the slot blitz against the Jets last year? It came because they targeted the seam:

The plays where Watson was getting eaten alive were all about the hot reads. They were to the outside, or they were slow-developing.

Watson had a 71.1% DVOA throwing to the middle of the field in 2018. In layman’s terms: He was 71.1% better than the average quarterback on a per-play basis when targeting just the middle of the field. It was 54.0% in 2017. So far, in our small sample size of 2019, it is 154.1%. It is the area of the field he throws at best, and, I would wager to say, it’s the area he feels most comfortable throwing to.

So let’s go back to the blitzes for a second. I don’t have advanced charting data for 2019 yet. Let’s pull 2017 and 2018:

You’ll notice 2017 throwing wide looks notably better, but what it really shows is that it’s really hard to get consistent small-sample size results. If you take out 48 and 72-yard touchdown throws, it goes right in line with the YPA of 2018. The 48-yard touchdown came against Kansas City, where Watson completely evaded a blitzer to buy enough time to target downfield. The 72-yarder was a perfectly-blocked screen to Hopkins against the Seahawks.

I’m not here to tell you that Watson is a flawless angel. He didn’t have a great game last week, and he did look slow at times stepping up in the pocket. Watson is capable of riding the emotion of a game and sometimes that leads him to poor decisions still. He nearly got pick-sixed by Jalen Ramsey.

But I do think the majority of the “credit” for the success of the blitzes against the Texans has to go to O’Brien. The best offensive innovators in the NFL are able to scheme open receivers against teams like Jacksonville regularly. Kansas City just spent four quarters doing it in Week 1. Instead of reacting to blitzes by creating open receivers with ease, O’Brien wants to impose his will on the defense. He wants to punish defenses for daring to blitz his quarterback.

As long as he cares to do that instead of dial up some plays that naturally target vacated blitz areas, Watson will be the one that suffers for it.

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.