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
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
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.
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.
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.