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.

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