Four Downs: Panthers 16, Texans 10

I had a feeling the Texans would lay a bit of an egg against Carolina’s defense. Remember the Buffalo game last season? Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott use very similar concepts, as McDermott joined Buffalo from the Panthers. I didn’t think they’d be as bad as they were on Sunday, because I expected individual talent to shine through. But it wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. I thought the Panthers offense would eat in this game, and instead they were abysmal.

Yes friends, this Texans loss was a meltdown. Kyle Allen’s start was honestly pretty bad, but the Panthers were able to overcome his three lost fumbles and make an entire offense out of Christian McCaffrey that was able to capitalize on some key errors and mistakes by Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien.

The Texans had a golden opportunity to take a lead in the division thanks to a similarly stunning Colts loss, but are now instead held up in the morass of the AFC South. Let’s dive deep:

1 — Bill O’Brien hasn’t gotten it corrected

I have watched Bill O’Brien’s five years as a head coach of the Houston Texans intently. In year six, he believed that calling this trick play was a good idea:

There is something of a political tinge to coverage of the O’Brien era at this point. I don’t mean that in the sense that there is a greater good or evil to O’Brien — I mean that the stakes have all been decided at this point, and minds don’t really change. We all know what we have, because we’re living it over and over again every Sunday and yelling at each other about it. The improvement O’Brien promises never happens, so we’re left with the question of “Is this enough?”

No, no it is not. It wasn’t today. It will not be at least a couple of other times this season. Inevitably, the Texans will always come back to Bill O’Brien not being a good enough head coach. The goalposts have moved several times over the last four seasons. He’s a good conservative coach. He’s calling the plays now. Puff stories appear here and there about him taking better control of games. I get that it is a very human reaction, as a fan, to want your team to do well. Part of being a fan is finding hope in situations that feel quite hopeless. I’m not upset with you as a fan if you like O’Brien — I find him likable in some situations too — but there is no reason to ever believe that he will improve.

Perhaps the capability of self-improvement is possible within O’Brien, and he discovers it when he gets to disconnect from this pesky “being a football coach” thing. But in this current set of situations, O’Brien has learned helplessness. The Texans desperately need him to be the brains of an entire franchise, and he desperately wants to be the brains of the entire franchise. But he doesn’t have an organized-enough plan for that, and he fires everybody who would come with a take that isn’t organically, at its core, an O’Brien Take. The thing he needs the most — help to cover his weaknesses — is exactly the thing he pushes away.

Let’s leave aside the Hopkins interception. Even without that, this was a horrific game from O’Brien. As he admitted in his post-game presser, the play calls were generally bad. The offense struggled to do anything but check the ball down. The Texans blew two timeouts in the second half on busted calls from the huddle. They blew a third to challenge a catch that was never going to be overturned:

So okay, let’s push all that aside. They get the ball back with 7:03 left, with one timeout. The Panthers have a three-point lead. The Texans call six plays, they gain 26 yards. They run the ball twice. In the span of those six plays, nearly three minutes burns off the block, then they use their last timeout because they’ve messed up something about the play call.

Where was the urgency? At this point, the Texans are almost committed to going for it on any fourth down. The second that they turn the ball over, they have nothing but the two-minute warning to stop the clock. If Carolina gets one first down, the game is all but over. It was made worse by Watson’s sack-fumble the play after the timeout, but even if they’d driven downfield, there was a high likelihood that they’d be forced to kick a field goal because all the time had bled off the clock.

Bill O’Brien is going to get this corrected. He’s going to win some other games, and then this game will not be fresh in your mind anymore. That is the entirety of the correction.

2 — Deshaun Watson also did not play well

Watson had two deep throws that were basically the game, and he missed them both. He was close on both of them — both this and the bomb to DeAndre Hopkins in the third quarter were within an arm’s length of each receiver. But, ultimately, they were short.

It did feel like there was some emotional quarterbacking from the young star today.

There were times in the second half where I think the game got away from him a bit, where he was trying to force a throw that wasn’t there. Where he was trying to just make something happen. A lot of credit goes to Carolina’s defense for bottling up Houston’s downfield plays and making them check it down underneath, but I think a more mature Watson in three or four years will be able to get past some of the issues the Texans had in the fourth quarter.

Watson was not helped by the game plan. There were a couple of times where two receivers were running in the same area of the throw point. In a game where blitzers should have created open throws to underneath receivers, Duke Johnson had three targets. Jordan Akins had four. Kenny Stills’ injury had an impact, but the Texans simply have to be better than this in all phases as an offense. The running game superficially looked good behind the big Duke Johnson carry and a Hyde “run” that was actually a backwards checkdown. Take those away and the running backs got three yards per carry.

And yet, it Watson hits those throws, the Texans probably win the game. That is the tough part to swallow.

3 — D.J. Reader is the best Texans defender

Whitney Mercilus got another sack and another forced fumble today, his fifth and fourth of the year, respectively.

I noted that the quarterback did not step up, but instead stepped back. A big reason for that was that Matt Paradis got pushed right into Kyle Allen’s face by D.J. Reader.

Reader again was a menace in this game, racking up multiple run stuffs and contributing to the overall pass rush by wrecking the pocket in a game where his teammates had three sacks and five hits.

It is true that Mercilus is having a big year, and when I posted that I thought Reader had been the best Texans defender this year, I got some pushback. But if you look back at Mercilus’ sacks on this season, I think a majority of them actually come because of Reader getting enough push that the quarterback can’t step up in the pocket.

Do you want to credit the guy who made the quarterback go backwards, or the one who wound up with the sack? What about if the one who made the quarterback go backwards was also a big part of the reason that the Panthers ran it 28 times and only got 94 yards?

4 — The offensive line … was fine.

Deshaun Watson was sacked six times and picked up 10 more quarterback hits. Don’t necessarily buy that a lot of that was on the offensive line.

The one player who I think clearly hurt the Texans was fill-in starter Greg Mancz, who only started because Zack Fulton appeared to be a last-minute scratch with a back injury.

Watson’s other sacks (outside of this and a later one where Mancz was also not up for the task) were mostly about him trying to buy time. This is not to say that the offensive line was flawless — Two Drafts Tunsil false started twice in key situations, Tytus Howard gave up some pressure here or there — but they generally played pretty well.

Watson’s sack issues, as I said at the time of the trade, are endemic to who he is as a quarterback. The Texans definitely needed a better left tackle, because there were several plays where Julien Davenport allowed a quick pressure that wrecked a play last year. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Houston traded two first-round picks and a second-round pick and have not yet made a dent in the problem of how you protect Watson. That is to take nothing away from Tunsil’s play — he’s obviously better than Davenport was last year and would have been this year.

If the Texans want to do a better job of protecting Watson, my belief is that they need to take two steps back from what they’re doing now and go back to more concepts from 2017’s offense. Watson still took quarterback hits at that point, but his rate of quarterback hits was at 9.4% instead of 13+%, where I suspect it will land after stats update this week and where it was in 2018.

The only game that Watson came out of with good hits numbers in — granted, with a rotating cast of linemen — was in Week 3, when the Chargers barely blitzed at all. I believe he will always be a quarterback who takes plenty of hits in every game. But that doesn’t mean that the Texans can’t scheme more to get him easier throws that don’t ask him to take the four or five extra hits a game that he’s taking now.

2 Replies to “Four Downs: Panthers 16, Texans 10”

  1. Great point about moving back to the 2017 offense. They had a worse o-line back then and still managed to be electric and efficient. The offense in 2019 is very feast or famine. This year and last season, there’s been too much reliance on routes to develop downfield. This puts way too much pressure on the o-line and Watson. I truly think O’Brien needs someone to keep him in check whether he likes to admit or not. Rick smith despite his previous mistakes arguably made him a better coach by forcing him to adapt to various situations and personnel

    1. The saddest thing about it is that he could absolutely be the head coach of a good team with a little extra help. He just doesn’t want that help.

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