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.

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