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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.