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.

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