What will Houston’s defense be without J.J. Watt?

You would probably have to go back to Romeo Crennel’s time with the Cleveland Browns to find a Crennel unit as unable to rush the passer as what Houston is left with after J.J. Watt’s injury this season.

In 2007, the Browns went 10-6. They did this despite not having a single player with more than five sacks. The ancient Willie McGinest started 11 games at Age 36. An 11-sack rookie year for Kamerion Wimbley quickly proved to be something he couldn’t live up to again. Robaire Smith was around. (Of course he was.) The team finished 30th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and was below-average in essentially every area on defense.

We don’t have a ton of advanced game charting stats from that time period, but the ones we do have back up the idea that this unit wasn’t driving quarterbacks off the field with hurries. Wimbley led the team with 17 hurries per Pro Football Prospectus 2008, and second was Antwan Peek, who would never play another NFL down.

That team gave up 350 or more yards in every single game it played until Week 12, when it held a second-year Gary Kubiak offense under Matt Schaub to 314. The Browns followed up with two highly questionable games against a couple of opponents that were under 300 yards: the Trent Edwards Bills and the Chris Weinke 49ers. In the offseason, they would heavily revamp the defensive line by bringing in an in-his-prime Shaun Rogers.

This is a history lesson, but it’s also a warning sign not to get your hopes up after the Gareon Conley trade. Crennel has always had a good pass rusher in Houston, even when that rusher was just a 23-year-old Jadeveon Clowney in 2016, the last season Watt missed most of where Crennel was the defensive coordinator.


What the Houston defense has going for it right now is that they have an excellent run-stuffing unit. You’d think Watt would change that a bit. His absence will open up teams to run more directions, as Texans opponents have run at right tackle and right end a grand total of 16% of their runs all season as compared to the NFL average of 23%.

However, Watt was not necessarily racking up tackles for loss — he’s currently fourth on the team behind Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, and D.J. Reader. A lot of Houston’s negative plays come from shooting the gap, and I believe there’s still reason to think they can do that. Reader can still control his gap in a way that can win a play.

This won’t work against every team — many teams are built to throw. But the Texans do have one settled trump card that is better than most teams have, even without Watt.


If you want to think of a way to contextualize superstar pass rushers, think of them this way: They are capable of erasing about five plays from a defense’s ledger. They aren’t going to win every down. They can be double-teamed. They mean a ton in the aggregate, but on a down-to-down basis they matter a lot less.

Many NFL teams — smart ones — have moved away from impact defensive linemen and instead invested in coverage players. PFF released a study noting that coverage grades have more reliability in predicting wins than defensive line play. The Patriots traded away Chandler Jones, one of the best defensive EDGEs of his era, on purpose. They let Trey Flowers walk for $90 million from Detroit. Someone named “Adam Butler” has 4.5 sacks for them this year. Jamie Collins, who was cut by the Browns, has six.

The problem with Houston’s pass defense, and something that we have seen exploited week after week without Jadeveon Clowney, is that teams can throw crossing routes over the middle of it with impunity. Teams targeting the middle of the field against Houston have an 89.4% DVOA on the season. Let me unpack that in non-statistical terms: Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL with a 38.8% passing DVOA. Throwing the ball to the short middle against the Texans is like employing someone twice as good as Patrick Mahomes on every snap.

Crennel was already trying to blitz to mask a lack of non-Watt pass rush. But — and I think this is something worth giving Crennel some credit on because this is very new to him — I don’t think his blitzes have been all that creative on a down-to-down basis. When you dabble in the world of film study enough to see rushes where players fake and take a lineman, then drop in to coverage, and compare that to what the Texans have … it feels quite remedial. They run stunts, and they run straight ahead into gaps — sometimes they get gaps that are wide open.

I hate comparing the Texans to the Patriots because a) as much as they want to become Patriots south, I don’t think they’ve really earned the comparison, b) nobody looks good compared to the Patriots and c) it feels like such a Dunning-Kruger syndrome thing to just say aloud “Why isn’t every NFL team copying the smart team?” But I’m doing it here because the Texans are heading into the realm of a team that needs to play a different game plan. They’re going to need to change whatever the hell this is:

Ultimately, the Texans are blitzing about as much as the Patriots are. The Texans don’t have Stephon Gilmore, but they have put significant investments into the cornerback position and do just fine for themselves when throws head deep and the completion percentage ground isn’t easy.

Listen, nobody thinks the Texans can cover on an individual level the same way that the Patriots can. Nobody is going to be upset if Zach Cunningham or Bernardrick McKinney get played in man coverage — that’s something we’ve seen tens of times by now. But the Texans need the wins they are going to get out of that aggressive coverage right now. They need to play some coverage that is going to be feast-or-famine, because right now, it’s all feast.


Crennel has had to change a lot of his game plan from last year already, and I feel for him because this isn’t what he signed up for. I think a lot of what the Texans are doing now plays against the way he would prefer to call defense.

At the same time, this is now a completely desperate situation in pass coverage. It’s not going to be enough to keep doing the same things. Telling Jacob Martin to go be Watt isn’t going to work. How quickly Crennel figures that out — and how quickly he can figure out something that works — is going to be a big question. Given what Watt means to the organization in the face of getting rid of Clowney, and with Mercilus an impending free agent, this may be a transition point for the entire franchise.

Watt doesn’t have to be the deathblow to this season. It does make every play a lot less fun to watch. Deshaun Watson can erase a lot. But the Texans absolutely must figure out how to limit easy yards over the middle. The bye week could not be coming at a better time.


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Four Downs: Texans 27, Raiders 24

Michael Jordan comparisons were coming out of the mouth of Raiders head coach Jon Gruden after the Texans narrowly turned away the Raiders on a Sunday afternoon matinee at NRG.

No argument here.

On a day where the Texans offense seemed listless, and where the Raiders seemed to have opportunity to exploit a broken Houston defense with aplomb, the Texans were able to will out a win with Deshaun Watson. On a day where the rest of the AFC South also won, all but cementing the fact that the top two teams in this division are in line for playoff spots, the Texans kept pace in a game where they never seemed like they had much control.

Deshaun Watson kept them in the game.

1 — We are all eyewitnesses

This was not Watson’s sexiest game.

He didn’t throw a great deep ball all game, as Kenny Stills seemed unable to shake Oakland’s deep coverage. (What do Oakland, Carolina, and Jacksonville have in common? Let’s file that away as a post idea.) All Watson did was cooly take the Texans from a 21-13 hole to two consecutive touchdown drives. He bailed the Texans out of a pair of clutch situations with his legs, converting a fourth down deep in Texans territory (an incredibly ballsy call by Bill O’Brien) with his legs, and converting a third-and-1 in the red zone with his legs when nothing was open on a rollout.

Then we come to the play that’s going to be remembered for a long time:

Bill O’Brien said he thought they had a good play, but that it wasn’t open initially. Watson got kicked in the eye in the middle of the play. His eye was swollen, and he was down on the field for several minutes after it was over.

There is nothing that speaks more to the phrase “willing a team to victory” than what Watson did today. There are quarterbacks who would take that hit to the face and leave the game. Houston’s franchise quarterback took the kick, rolled out as if it’d barely happened, and fired a bullet to a well-covered Darren Fells for a go-ahead touchdown.

In a city that is spoiled for incredible talent right now: Altuve, Harden, Watt, Westbrook, Bregman, Cole, Verlander, Watson is still somehow the most compelling player to watch.

There have been better running quarterbacks, and there have been quarterbacks with better arms. But what Watson does with his own intuition and his own drive makes him a combination to where I can’t even compare him to anybody else I’ve seen play this game. He’s so watchable because he’s completely, utterly, one-of-a-kind.

Watson said he couldn’t even see when he let the ball go:


2 — Goodbye, pass rush

The Texans got one quarterback hit all day, and it came on a play where Jacob Martin came late on a reset by Derek Carr:

And, of course, we learned as soon as the game was over that J.J. Watt would be out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Ian Rapoport reported it first, and Watt followed up with his own post about it:

As I brought up last week, the Texans have been bereft of pressure outside of Watt, who had 12 quarterback hits compared to his teammates’ six over the last three weeks. This only exacerbates the issue. Whitney Mercilus’ hot start was something everyone got excited about, but was really driven a lot by D.J. Reader’s hot start up the middle. With Reader cooling down as a pass rusher the last few weeks, it’s been nothing but Watt.

A secondary that already had problems covering is now about to see how they do with just about zero negative plays, barring yet another trade to fill the ranks. Even if the Texans do find somebody, they’re probably not going to find somebody like J.J. Watt. It’s, unfortunately, a devastating injury for this team’s chances of winning this season. There’s not much of a way to sugarcoat it. Deshaun Watson is going to have to ball out every week from here on out, and the defense is going to have to take advantage of it’s turnover chances.

3 — Gareon Conley’s revenge game

Conley’s first game in a Texans uniform wasn’t bad. He was burnt once, but on a route that you rarely see that happened only because the Raiders had extra time to dial it up:

It’s easy to look at him trailing on the touchdown and get upset and make a snap judgement about who won a trade. But, as I was saying to Avery Duncan on Twitter, I think Tyreek Hill beat Chris Harris on a similar route last week. Most cornerbacks don’t play to stop routes like that.

That’s not to say that Conley’s first game was great. He had another completion allowed at the top of a route after he slipped. Another deep ball that they targeted Conley on early was simply overthrown by Derek Carr:

But when the chips were down, in the biggest defensive play the Texans faced, Conley broke up what would have been a first-down throw to Tyrell Williams. It was a game-changer:

No big statements from me after this game. Conley played alright, I think he can do better. I just want to point out that the touchdown, even when it goes on his record here, isn’t really something you can expect most cornerbacks to do anything about.

You can really feel the deep passion flowing off those words. I don’t know if Conley will ever get over this.

4 — 2017 throwbacks nobody asked for

The Texans had Roderick Johnson active, but instead started Chris Clark at right tackle. Nobody asked Bill O’Brien to clarify Johnson’s status after the game so we’ll have to have that clarified at some other point, but if this was a straight benching, it made no sense.

Clark was quickly pushed around by an Oakland front that was in the bottom five in sacks created coming into the game. Benson Mayowa rolled right over him:

This was hardly the last time that Clark was rolled in this game, including being the root cause of a second sack:

The Texans lost Laremy Tunsil towards the end of the game, forcing Clark to left tackle with recent practice squad signee Dan Skipper at right tackle. The team was mum on Tunsil’s status, but that’s a good sign at least in so much as we know it’s not a season-ender. What was a position of strength as recently as the Kansas City game is now a position, once again, manned by guys who are going to start fires in the backfield and ask Watson to put them out.

A big part of the problem the Texans had in the early going was that they were allowing pressure, four-on-five, versus a Raiders front that couldn’t get pressure against anyone. If that trend continues, Watson is going to be ending every game looking like a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out profile photo.


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Week 8 Preview: Oakland @ Houston

Well, after blowing last week’s game against Indianapolis, the Texans come back to the comfy confines of NRG in what I think most people are projecting as a bounce-back spot. After all, the Raiders just traded one of their starting cornerbacks to the Texans for a third-round pick, they must be throwing in the towel on the season!

I don’t necessarily buy that hype. I don’t know that I’d call the Raiders an out-and-out dangerous team, but I think they present enough challenges to the Houston defense that they can hang close. This is another huge game for the Texans (aren’t they all?) because the Raiders are a hanger-on in the AFC wild card race, and an Oakland win would do a lot for their ability to stick around as well as any tiebreaks.

The Texans are favored anywhere between six and seven points from the numbers I’ve seen, without much budging. One thing that has moved is the over/under, which opened at 48 and is now straddling 51.5 in most spots. Points are a good expectation right now given how both defenses have been struggling.

The last time the Raiders and Texans met, Connor Cook gifted Bill O’Brien his first (and only, to this point) playoff win. They’d actually met in the regular season that year as well, in Mexico City — a game you might remember best for a horrific spot call by an official in Oakland’s favor that helped them score 14 points in the fourth quarter to win. In 2014, the Texans won 30-14 in a mostly-forgettable game in Oakland where Arian Foster rushed for 138 yards.

When the offense has the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

Few teams currently have as horrific of a defense as the Raiders have created under the watch of former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. The pass defense has been one of the worst in the NFL for two years running, following the trade of Khalil Mack. (It’s honestly been bad for longer than that, too.)

Oakland has just 10 sacks in six games. They have a league-worst 11 hurries. They rarely blitz (18.9%, 29th in the NFL), have allowed 16 passing touchdowns, and their averaged depth of target allowed is the third-highest in the NFL at 10.9. Their cornerbacks and safeties have not played well this year. To this point, they have checked just about every box you can check for a bad pass defense.

On an individual level, Gareon Conley’s trade would appear to open up snaps for Trayvon Mullen, their second-round pick out of Clemson. Mullen has played reasonably well in limited playing time, but as a rookie, could be a source of big plays. He’s already allowed one passing touchdown in six targets. The players with the most pass pressures on this team — I swear to God I am not making this up — are nose tackle Johnathan Hankins and journeyman end Benson Mayowa. I would call Maurice Hurst their most talented rusher, but he is not a full-time player.

After reviewing the All-22 from last week’s loss, I don’t think there are long-term concerns for the offense. They did seem to abandon 12-personnel very early to me, but the Colts also played the read-option stuff that worked against Kansas City pretty well. Ultimately, if they hammer in a few of their red zone opportunities, I think we might be talking about this team in a different light this week.

Oakland has allowed 9.3 yards per attempt and 16 passing touchdowns against 11-personnel, while collecting just eight sacks in 165 dropbacks. Even if Bill O’Brien’s offense takes things back to deep play designs, I’m struggling to find a lot to be worried about with this defense besides the random turnover luck inherent in any game.

Will Fuller has not practiced and is expected to be out for a while, so expect Kenny Stills to take over as the main deep threat this week. I think that’s a fantasy football play with some upside. Roderick Johnson has been limited in practice with Tytus Howard still down, and Johnson did not put together a great game against the Colts last week. That’s one spot where I think the Raiders could generate some pressure.

When the Raiders have the ball

This is the part of the game that is very hard to write about in-depth only because the state of both of these units are so in-flux. The following players have had limited practices or no practices through Thursday night and have signaled they might play anyway this week: Josh Jacobs, Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson, Trent Brown, Tyrell Williams, Tashaun Gipson, Johnathan Joseph, Bradley Roby

Let’s start with the general scope of things. The Raiders are a good style matchup for a Texans team that spent last week getting coverage busted all over the field. The offense Jon Gruden has built around Derek Carr relies mostly on safe, short throws — their 6.6 average target distance is tied for third-shortest in the NFL. Per the SportsRadar definitions of a “Bad Throw,” Carr has fewer of them than any quarterback in the NFL. Teams have essentially given up on trying to blitz them — they have taken fewer blitzes than any NFL team.

With J.J. Watt essentially neutralized by game plan — if you think I’m kidding, the Broncos had a healthy Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and got nothing against Oakland — this will become about execution for the back seven. Jon Gruden probably has several ideas about exactly where to stuff the ball at Gareon Conley. Lonnie Johnson had a devil of a time with man-beaters last week. Even the normally reliable tight-end defense cratered with Tashaun Gipson mostly sidelined, allowing a combined seven catches for 91 yards and a score to Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle.

That last part is of interest with the only for-sure healthy Raiders receiving stud being Darren Waller, who lit up the Packers for 126 yards and two touchdowns. So, really, Gipson’s health is a big ex-factor for this game.

The Texans responded to Indianapolis’ short passing game by bringing a lot more heat in the second half and playing an even more aggressive game plan than their initial stab in the first half, which was primarily a man-to-man style with one deep safety. They finished the game blitzing Jacoby Brissett on 21 of 39 dropbacks. That this rarely happens to the Raiders leaves the question of what happens when a blitz is sent up for grabs. Carr has traditionally not been very good with pressure in his face, but the Raiders have been good at keeping that from happening.

Oakland has a great offensive line if everyone is healthy, and Josh Jacobs has been stellar in his first six games. So the nagging question of health hovering over it all is pretty interesting. The Texans beefed up for dealing with Marlon Mack last week, using Brandon Dunn on 34 snaps — nine more than he’d seen in any other game — and holding Mack to 1.2 yards before contact per attempt. Rodney Hudson and Richie Incognito have both been excellent in creating space in the interior. This will be a terrific clash of strength-on-strength up front if Oakland’s line suits up. (All of them suited up last week except Brown.)

The Raiders use 11-personnel less than 51% of the time, as compared to the NFL average of 61%. Like the Colts, they are practitioners of 13-personnel. They also have a foothold in 22-personnel with an actual fullback in Alec Ingold. Think of this offense kind of like Gary Kubiak’s old Texans offense and you’ll get the gist of it. Carr has been much less effective out of 11-personnel, and if the Texans establish a game script where they are leading and running clock, that will make a comeback harder.

Special teams

Kai Fairbairn had a lot of practice ironing things out last week, so that’s good news except for the part where the Texans lost. That remains the only gaping hole on their unit on a seasonal basis.

Trevor Davis has killed it since the Raiders traded a low-round pick for him in the return game. Dwayne Harris combos to create a great kickoff return unit. A.J. Cole (the former Nationals pitcher?) hasn’t been helped out by his coverage unit.

The read

I would be very surprised if the Raiders out-and-out blew the Texans out. That hasn’t happened since Deshaun Watson took the field. Oakland’s run defense DVOA is good and will probably prevent them from being pushed off the field like Kansas City was. (Though I will note, it’s always harder to assume that when Watson is a real part of the run threat.)

Trying to get off of my own slump here after two straight picks losses, I think the Raiders keep this closer than most fans will be comfortable with, but ultimately succumb to the Texans, 31-29.


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Gareon Conley’s flashes are worth buying in on

It is weird to believe that Bill O’Brien could buy low on anybody, just as it’s weird to believe that you can say that about someone who cost a third-round pick.

Green Bay’s decimation of the Raiders showed Conley at the nadir of his value. He was eaten up at times as a run defender. He gave up a tough catch to Jake Kumerow where the rookie ate him up on a curl route. He was in coverage on a deep ball to Marquez Valdes-Scantling that went late in the route once his safety cut inside and left the rest of the field open.

Jon Gruden has always been an aggressive coach, and he has yet to actually field a good defense in Oakland under Paul Guenther. Oakland is 30th in defensive DVOA this year, and was 30th last year. (They were 29th the year before!) The Raiders have zero pass rush and everybody involved in this secondary has to cover forever to make up for it. Didn’t they have some “Mack” guy at some point? Anyway…

So you’ve got two of the most impulsive NFL head coaches teaming up to make a deal that, on the surface, I think is actually pretty fair for both sides. It reminds me a lot of the Eli Apple trade last season. Apple got dealt for a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder, and I think we can probably say Apple doesn’t have Conley’s ceiling.


Conley’s Raiders career

Conley missed most of his first season with a shin injury that sent him to IR after a couple starts. The start of his second season was kind of colored with a lot of easy Case Keenum targets, but he wasn’t quite up to par on a few of the deep balls.

Conley had 15 single-coverage targets in his first two starts in 2018 per Sports Info Solutions. His snaps were down significantly after those two games, hitting their low point in Week 5 against the Chargers where he had just 12 defensive snaps. Gruden carrot-and-sticked his secondary hard in 2018. Conley had seven games with 89% or higher of the defensive snaps, and then also six games with between 46 and 73% of the snaps. Gruden also fought similar battles with Rashaan Melvin.

Towards the end of the season — I’d say his turnaround started in around the Indianapolis game in Week 8 — Conley started playing a lot better. He was tighter in his man coverage, and even when he was beat, he was still putting himself in good positions. I saw multiple examples of him learning on the field and even within a game.

Conley, I think, became a much more complete player towards the end of last season. I don’t necessarily buy the very common trope that I’ve had lobbed on me on Twitter that he’s a better man player. Towards the end of last year, he was doing well in man:

But, he was also making some well-thought out reads in zone:

Conley’s end of 2018 play was impressive — he was rightfully considered one of the two or three most valuable players on the Raiders this offseason. The Texans probably aren’t able to make this play before the season, or even two weeks ago. I think they may have been a bit lucky that this Packers game happened in the long run.

While he wasn’t playing as well in 2019, I think anybody with the kind of flashes that Conley showed in 2018 is worth a real investment. I also don’t think Conley was playing all that poorly outside of the Green Bay game.


The weaknesses

Conley’s weaknesses have a lot to do with one of the things you saw on that Packers tape: tackling on the outer third. That was not the first touchdown I saw him give up on that kind of play. He also was roasted in single-coverage on Melvin Gordon last year on the same sort of play.

I think the other clear weakness he has — and I think this is something that the Texans have stacked a lot of similar guys on — is in-breaking routes. Not specifically slants, but longer-developing plays where he has to cross the field horizontally. He had a lot of trouble keeping up with them early on in his career.

Again, to emphasize: I don’t think his zone defense is all that bad. I think he has some punch in off-man:

But when you ask him to move horizontally — think about the reception Bradley Roby allowed late in the Falcons game where he sort of slipped and fell late in a route — I think Conley has a lot of problems with those kinds of balls as well.


Long-term versus short-term

The Texans weren’t ever going to get into the Marcus Peters or Jalen Ramsey discussions. They didn’t have that kind of draft-pick firepower available. So when you thinned the market a bit, and you realized the Texans were in it after injuries continued to hammer the secondary, I think it mostly came down to Gareon Conley versus Chris Harris. (Maybe you could throw in William Jackson, but I think he would have cost more than Conley because the Bengals are super old school.)

Harris is, in my opinion, the better player today. But Harris is a pure rental, and is turning 31 next season.

Conley comes with an additional year of cost control, and probably two years of cost control as I can’t imagine the Texans not picking up his fifth-year option unless he’s an utter disaster or suffers a career-ending injury.

I loathe Bill O’Brien tossing draft picks away like candy, but I’m almost starting to wonder if it’s a methodical madness. Deshaun Watson will always keep this team afloat as long as he’s healthy. If Watson isn’t healthy, the team was going to fall apart anyway. The funny thing about future draft picks is that there are always more of them to trade.

At any rate, without the Tunsil trade, I don’t think anyone is concerned about the Conley trade. The concern is that the future gets shakier than ever, but the price for the player feels right to me.


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Four Downs: Colts 30, Texans 23

I mean, it is what it is.

There’s not much new to be said. The Texans have been owned by Frank Reich’s Colts. Outcoached. In Bill O’Brien’s words, “they did a good job.” They have a lot of “good players.” They do a lot of “good things.”

The Texans didn’t answer the bell. O’Brien’s team made a number of on-field mistakes. Most notably, they gave the Colts a free set of downs in the red zone when Bernardrick McKinney hit Eric Ebron away from the play, drawing a flag. The Colts scored touchdowns on four of their first seven possessions, and the three possessions that didn’t score were an end-of-half kneelout, an aggressive fourth-down go that got stopped, and a fumble that set the Texans up with great field position.

There were a number of highlights for Jacoby Brissett which were just way, way, too easy.

Instead of stomping down on Indy’s throat while they had an injured secondary, the Texans slid right back to the pack, putting the division up for grabs and making the season much tenser than it had to be.

I wish I could say I was surprised.

1 — RPNo

After tearing up the Chiefs with misdirection runs, the Texans leaned mostly away from that outside of their touchdown run with Keke Coutee and maybe a few other plays:

Now, I understand that football teams can sometimes wax and wane on concepts in a game. Maybe the Texans didn’t think the Colts would bite so hard. But leaning so far away from what was so successful is, in my opinion, a little overly cute. Make the Colts prove they can stop it. This was highlighted by the bizarre idea to mostly go with Duke Johnson on the opening drive, one where he ran for six yards on three carries.

Houston eventually got to 100 yards on the ground, but it took 24 carries, and they had just one rushing first down in a first half that mostly set the terms of engagement for the rest of the game. That came on this cleverly designed O’Brien run where Deshaun Watson was under pressure and did whatever the hell he wanted:

Bill O’Brien, I’m sure, has a reason that he leaned so far away from what worked last week. All I can tell you right now is that nobody asked about it at his post-game presser as far as I could hear. Not much was said about it. Maybe we’ll get something on Monday.

One of O’Brien’s biggest weaknesses is his adherence to the run game while trailing. When it all looks good, and the play-action passes are hitting, his offense looks unstoppable. But when what should be part of the base offense is instead a wrinkle, and he can’t decisively win the ground game, well, nothing comes easy. You can’t have that in today’s NFL, especially with how easy things looked for Indianapolis with much less talent.

2 — Bill O’Brien’s fourth-quarter drive and safety

I have been nice to Bill O’Brien this week, and even applauded him for (correctly) going for it on fourth down a few times in this game. So let’s bury him together.

The Texans get the ball in the fourth quarter with 4:09 left. They are down five points. They have all their timeouts. Here is the sequence of plays:

— First-and-10 pass to Hopkins, incomplete. OK, makes sense. Colts saw the play coming.
— Second-and-10 run with Duke Johnson for three yards. Inexcusable play call this backed up if you’re not going for it on fourth down, then, somehow, it was made worse by the fact that the Texans then let 41 seconds run off the clock before their next snap at 3:23.
— Third-and-7 sack taken by Watson. Then, a carnival of indecision before the Texans called a timeout with 2:44 left. They let more time run off the clock trying to decide what to do.
— Then they take an intentional safety. Let’s throw it to BOB:

Per the folks at EdjSports, where I do some work and am privvy to some information, here’s what the splits look like on that fourth-and-9 play.

–Decision to punt puts the game-winning chance at 7.5%.
–Decision to go for it puts the game-winning chance at 14.5%
–Decision to take a safety puts the game-winning chance at 4.3%.

Now, some of that comes down to the actual idea of winning the game. It’s hard to win the game when you put yourself down seven without overtime. But the Colts on a punt are more likely to run the clock out or attempt a field goal than they are to get a touchdown, and that means that the Texans could still catch them in any scenario where they got the ball back.

This was a masterpiece of overthinking. I feel like I talk about O’Brien’s clock management in every loss the Texans have. But removing the opportunity to win the game with a touchdown in a one-score game is special even for O’Brien. It’s not like Adam Vinatieri has been lighting it up this year — I think the Colts were more likely to go for it than attempt the field goal on fourth-and-short at, say, the 38.

3 — Injuries on injuries on injuries

This is why the Texans went out and got Kenny Stills. The perception is that Will Fuller isn’t healthy often, and when he’s not, it takes Houston’s offense with it. Well, here we go. Fuller was taken out in the first quarter, ruled out at halftime, and the Texans attempted exactly one pass deeper than 20 yards before halftime.

Stills lived up to his end of the bargain when targeted:

The Texans continued to deal with injuries to the secondary, where Johnathan Joseph exited and can, if we’re being honest, not really be counted on to finish any game he plays in at this point. Phillip Gaines left later and appeared in the locker room on crutches. Jon Weeks has a bum ankle. Roderick Johnson took a stinger, per Texans PR.

It’s convenient and cathartic to blame injuries for this loss, but just like it is with the officiating, that’s not really the scope of the game. Houston had backup playmakers and backup defensive backs that shouldn’t have been much of a dropoff from the starters, in theory.

They had more than enough firepower to win the game. They out-performed the Colts on a yards per play basis. They had only one more turnover, and that came on the final drive of the game while trying to tie the game.

I think, as usual with these kinds of things, a lot combined to go wrong to sink the Texans. But the galling thing about it is that, even when given proper replacements, the offense didn’t seem to run any smoother. They ran their smoothest when they were just going hurry-up, two-minute drill ball. The defense ran their smoothest when they’d lost Joseph.

The worst feeling of all is when it feels like all this attention and coaching for a divisional game is less effective than just letting guys roll out there and play basic concepts on their own.

4 — A one-man defense

J.J. Watt had an incredible day. He batted down one pass, had six quarterback hits, and was the only consistent pressure that the Texans got against Jacoby Brissett all day. He also drew two different holding flags.

via NFL Next Gen Stats

When Brissett had a clean pocket, he was able to pick and choose exactly what he wanted from the Texans defense. Brissett finished 22-for-26 for 266 yards and four touchdowns from a clean pocket. He was just 4-of-13 for 60 yards under pressure.

The Texans came away with just one sack. Whitney Mercilus got a fumble recovery off of a bobbled snap, and got half of the sack with Brennan Scarlett, but was otherwise empty. I can’t remember D.J. Reader making any splash plays in this game. All the other rushers got just about nothing.

Watt is a hell of a player, a Hall of Famer, and it’s awesome to know that he hasn’t declined much. It would be even nicer if he had some actual help. The Texans were able to shut down Brissett with better blitz schemes and more aggressive coverages in the fourth quarter, but were otherwise just completely lost.

Watt has 12 quarterback hits over the last three games. Nobody else on the team has more than two.

It was a day to miss Jadeveon Clowney, even if he would have jumped offsides once or twice.


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Week 7 Preview: Houston @ Indianapolis

Unlike the last couple of weeks, the Texans will be coming into Indianapolis at a bit of a disadvantage. The Colts just had their bye week, are coming off their own rousing win in Arrowhead, and they’re getting healthy at the right time. T.Y. Hilton isn’t on the injury report at all, and star linebacker Darius Leonard has cleared concussion protocol. Indy’s banged up secondary still exists, but that was never going to be fixed in a day.

If Houston can win this game — and that’s a big if — they will cinch a real advantage over the rest of the division. Going to three games over .500 while the rest of the division is at .500 or worse, plus having two division wins in pocket for tiebreaker purposes, is quite a big deal.

The Colts opened as 2.5-point home favorites, and that has been driven all the way down to just one-point in some places. The Texans are clearly seen as the more talented team and are being given respect by virtue of the typical three points for homefield virtue.

The Colts have won four of the last five times these teams have played, and the time they lost, in Indianapolis last year during Week 4, is at least somewhat marred by the game going to overtime and Frank Reich going for it on fourth down to try to win the game rather than just taking a tie by punting. Of course, a lot of that recent past is of questionable value now with Andrew Luck retired.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

The biggest difference between this season and last season is the stunning lack of run defense played by the Colts in 2019. Even when Darius Leonard was healthy, this team got pushed back by the Chargers and Titans. Indianapolis’ defense has one of the worst power success rates in the NFL, allowing 89% of carries on third or fourth-down and less than two yards to go to become first downs or touchdowns. Runs at right tackle tend to give them the most trouble, and that’s fortuitous for the Texans because that’s exactly where they spent a lot of the second half against Kansas City.

The Colts have also generated almost no pass rush this year, with just 12 hurries to join their 13 sacks. They have one of the lowest pressure rates in the NFL, and blitzing appears to be mostly a game plan thing for them. Patrick Mahomes got blitzed 16 times. They blitzed Watson 19 times in the AFC Wild Card game, 11 last December, and nine times in Week 4. I expect the number to be closer to 19 than nine in this game — the depleted DB corps (No Malik Hooker, likely no Kenny Moore or Pierre Desir) doesn’t give them much of a choice as far as avoiding big plays. They sort of have to just put pressure on Watson and hope it works out.

The Titans and Chargers both had a lot of luck throwing out of 12-personnel, completing 16-of-16 passes for 7.6 yards per attempt, and running at 7.1 yards per carry. For the season, the Colts are one of 12 teams giving up more than a 50% success rate against 12-personnel, at 54%. As long as that remains Houston’s base game plan, I expect they’ll get a lot done against the Colts. It won’t be completely free, but they should be able to steadily move the ball along even if the Colts are able to bottle up the concepts that gave the Chiefs a lot of trouble on Sunday.

However, potentially a big wrench in these plans is the expected return of Kenny Stills off of his hamstring injury. Was a big part of the desire to shift to 12-personnel the loss of Stills, or was it an organic reaction the pressure Watson was taking? That’s the sort of question that doesn’t get answered in the media and only really plays out on the field. Indy’s best trait as a defense is their success rate as a pass defense against 11-personnel, which has been what the Texans have generally played as a base offense throughout Bill O’Brien’s tenure. Indianapolis has allowed a 23.4% DVOA to “other” wideouts, so both Stills and Coutee could be in line for a big play or two.

Is this finally the week that DeAndre Hopkins goes back to the good fantasy football numbers we’re expecting? Hopkins has been having a bit of a weird season. His average targeted air yards in the Kansas City game was just 6.2 — that follows 7.4 against Atlanta. For reference, it was 11.9 last year and it’s 9.5 on the balance of the 2019 season. If the Texans continue to run their offense like this, I think it caps Hopkins’ yardage total a bit barring broken tackles. You’ll obviously keep starting him, so it doesn’t really matter. But there has definitely been a shift the last few weeks to shorter targets as a whole and — especially for Hopkins — shorter targets on third down.

Play-action pushes the pace towards Will Fuller. On the season, the Colts have actually defended play-action passes pretty well. They’re averaging 7.2 yards per attempt against, essentially unchanged from their normal average allowed on a pass play. However, teams have run play-action against the Colts 30% of the time, so my guess is you’ll still see plenty of shots at Fuller. If Fuller had caught in even two of the three balls that hit him last week, he’d have been a top fantasy football player last week. I imagine he’ll get at least one more shot deep this week.

When the Colts have the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

What the Colts did to the Chiefs has become almost a default game plan for them as they have struggled with inconsistency from Jacoby Brissett. Brissett has generally played mistake-free football because the Colts have generally been able to use the game script in their favor this year. They aren’t asking Brissett to make a lot of dangerous throws, and the run game has made teams a little more reluctant to blitz him. His season-high blitzes taken was from Atlanta, at 13. Every other team has kept it under 10. The Chargers blitzed him only twice. Brissett has also been hurt by his receiving corps. No Checkdowns has Brissett being hit with 13 receiver errors, one of the highest numbers in the NFL.

The Texans have one of the strongest play-action defenses in the NFL, giving up only 5.9 yards per dropback against play-action passes — third lowest in the NFL. They’ll need that, because the Colts run more play-action than any team in the NFL per Sports Info Solutions — 33% of their dropbacks are play-action. The Colts are only getting .6.6 yards per play on those dropbacks, though. They’re not connecting deep very often so far this year.

This is an on-the-spot game for Houston’s run defense, which has been good, if not as historically dominant as they were in the 2018 season. The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and they run more plays out of 13-personnel (three tight ends, one wideout) than any team in the NFL this season. They average 5.4 yards per carry out of that formation.

The Texans have almost no looks against that formation this year, but were impressively successful against it in 2018, holding runs out of 3-TE sets to just 1.7 yards per carry. (Most of those were goal line carries.) The Colts have some great blockers at tight end though — Mo-Alie Cox has been huge, and Jack Doyle can also bring some thunder.

Where I suspect we’ll see the Texans tested the most — and where I think the Colts will absolutely generate yardage — is getting the ball to the edge. They took advantage of Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt’s aggressiveness to get upfield by running past them in the Wild Card round, and I suspect that will play out again this year. Whtiney Mercilus is not quite as much of a chaser as Clowney was, but Watt can absolutely be schemed past like that.

T.Y. Hilton’s deep ball skills are cited often and they have been a big deal throughout the history of Colts-Texans matchups. However, this year, T.Y. Hilton’s average target distance is 7.8 yards. He’s behind many tight ends. He’s behind Jason Witten. Jason “I retired from the NFL to talk poorly about football, then came back” Witten. The Colts have been using Hilton heavily on screens and mostly connecting with him on curl routes.

Coming out of their bye week, I think the big question mark for the Colts is if Deon Cain and Parris Campbell can give them more. Oftentimes, a bye is what is needed to straighten out lagging areas of a team, and I think both receivers have a lot of promise even if they haven’t been great in small sample sizes so far. As things stand so far this season, this is a prefectly acceptable matchup for Houston’s banged up cornerback corps, which has no Bradley Roby and may or may not have Johnathan Joseph back at full strength.

Special teams

Two struggling kicking units trending in opposite directions. Adam Vinatieri imploded in his first two weeks, to the point where it became assumed he might retire. Kai Faibairn and the Texans have struggled over the last three weeks.

Otherwise, both special teams units have been fairly pedestrian to this point. Faibairn and Bryan Anger give the Texans a bit of an edge in field position.

The read

I have a ton of respect for Frank Reich and the job the Colts do. I have so much respect that I expect them to come out and fix a lot of lagging problems the team has had this year. I expect better play from the run defense and the pass game than I’ve seen to this point. Home field matters, and the bye week matters a lot here.

At the same time, I think had there been no bye week, and they were meeting in London or some other neutral site, I’d probably have favored the Texans by five or six on the merits of how each team is playing this season — and I do think there’s a blowout chance for the Texans if the Colts aren’t better than they have been this year.

Usually, when I see a home favorite being given very little respect, I shudder about the points. I do think there’s a chance the Colts win this game. But the way the Texans are playing offense and defense right now emboldens me, and I don’t think statistical systems are giving them enough credit for the way they played in Kansas City because of a few Fuller drops. I’ll take Texans 29, Colts 26.


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Houston’s post-Jadeveon Clowney defense asked Kansas City to beat it deep

I want to talk briefly about the scene of Houston’s defense, and I know it’s going to upset some of the audience that is sick of Jadeveon Clowney. Move on from Jadeveon Clowney already! Yes, I’ve heard you. I’m sorry, trading Clowney before the season changed a lot about how this defense has had to play.

These numbers are all from SportsRadar. While the number of sacks has been stagnant, the actual amount of pressure has gone way down. To compensate, Romeo Crennel has had to use a lot more blitzes, bringing the overall volume of the pressure up even if he hasn’t been able to get clean hurries on a quarterback as often as he’d like.

Clowney and Watt were on the same team last year. It made the defense pick its poison. This year, apart, both are getting picked on more. Watt has not been playing worse even though his hurries are down — he’s as good as he’s ever been.

He simply is getting more doubles and less help. As good a season as Whitney Mercilus has had in terms of pure sacks and forced fumbles and all that, hurries are simply not happening at the same rate Clowney produced them last year.

Keep in mind that this 34.7% blitz rate comes with the caveat that the Texans blitzed almost never against Drew Brees in Week 1. SportsRadar had just eight blitzes charted against Brees in New Orleans, Since that game, the lowest blitz count the Texans have had was against Carolina, at 14. Every other quarterback had taken 20 blitzes at least.

The 2018 Texans blitzed more than 14 times in a game exactly thrice: against Case Keenum in Denver, in the first game against Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler in Jacksonville, and against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football.

What happened against the Chiefs? Well, for one thing, when an offense holds the ball for 2/3rds of the game, you embrace small sample size as a defense. It’s a lot easier to get an offense to mess up a few plays here or there than it is to get them to mess up when they have 80 plays and understand exactly where they want to attack you.

But another, more interesting development, was that the Texans gave Patrick Mahomes some throws that would beat them deep.


This is single-high safety, one of the primary coverages the Texans rolled out last week. I saw a lot of Cover-3, a lot of single-high, a bit of single-high with a robber concept (one safety free to read quarterback’s eyes), and the occasional off-coverage mixed in. It’s something that I campaigned hard for them to use more of last year. Lonnie Johnson on Demarcus Robinson. Johnson wins the down handily.

Phillip Gaines was pressed into action in this game and mostly came out unscathed deep outside of a few penalty flags. He kept most things in front of him outside, and reacted. Here he gets Robinson again.

I didn’t video a lot of the defensive plays for the Texans because, honestly, a lot of them were not objectively great plays by the Texans. What I saw was an injured quarterback who was missing some excellent shots deep. The Kansas City offense generated a lot of easy yards against these coverages — there was underneath stuff all game that was protected by vertical receivers. Patrick Mahomes attacked the Cover-3 curls the Texans gave him well.

But when the Chiefs were able to single-up, say LeSean McCoy on Zach Cunningham deep in the end zone, the timing was just a bit off. I don’t watch a lot of Chiefs games so I can’t say if that’s a typical thing or if it’s Mahomes ankle or the receiving depth not living up to Sammy Watkins. What I can tell you is that Mahomes went 2-of-11 beyond 10 yards, and the usual problem was that the throws weren’t on-target. The Texans broke up a few, there were a few plays where someone fell. But generally, it was about the throw.


As a consequence of what Houston is doing, there’s one number I haven’t harped on yet:

2018 average depth of target: 8.4 (23rd)
2019 average depth of target: 9.7 (5th)

The New England Patriots have the best pass defense in the NFL. They’ve picked off 14 passes and allowed one passing touchdown. They also have made the average depth of target 11.0, the second-highest in the NFL behind only the Lions — the team that employs former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

If there’s one thing that Bill O’Brien has first-hand experience with the last two years, it’s the idea that it’s way harder to create offense downfield than it is to create it underneath. The logical application of this is simple: ask quarterbacks to hit passes further downfield, and most of them aren’t good enough to do it consistently. Even the ones who are can have an off-game, as Mahomes did on Sunday.

The Texans squandered a big opportunity to have Clowney, Watt, Mercilus, and this year’s D.J. Reader all play together. But in doing that, Crennel may have inadvertently stumbled on a more sustainable defense than he had last year anyway.


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The return of 2017

A reason that I was so down on the Texans before this season, and then only kinda dragged against my will into thinking they’d win the division, was because a core belief of mine is that Bill O’Brien wasn’t a very good head coach last year. He showed the ability to make adjustments at opportune times — I’ve used the Watson read-option stuff in the Jags Week 17 game as my go-to for this all offseason — but he went right back into the long-developing garbage chute for the Colts playoff game.

So it’s worth pointing out that the reason the Texans have looked so good the last few weeks isn’t just the growth of Deshaun Watson — it’s because the head coach made an adjustment that has worked on every level, and righted one of the wrongs of the past. For that, O’Brien is getting a lot of credit from me.

2017 Deshaun Watson was never actually stopped

Deshaun Watson finished seventh in DVOA in his rookie season, 2017. He did this not in the offense that the Texans ran in 2018, but in the offense they molded to a lot of his college concepts. While he was not perfect, he showed a lot of promise. I will hand this over to Charles McDonald because his piece on it for Football Outsiders is the first one I thought of:

We’re only in the early stages of Deshaun Watson’s career, but it should be noted that he has improved every time he has stepped on the field through the first three weeks of the season. Some people might say that his day only came because the Texans were playing a poor pass defense, but good players routinely take advantage of inferior matchups on the football field. The Texans have to be very, very pleased with the early progress their young quarterback has made so far.

Watson only got better from there. In Weeks 4-8, before Watson tore his ACL in practice after the Seahawks game, the Texans had a positive pass offense DVOA in every single week. It was as high as 84.7% against the Chiefs in Week 5, and as low 21.4% against the Browns in Week 6. The Texans weren’t always able to mesh it with a good running game because their line was so bad at this point, but Watson’s ability to play off RPO and read-option games gave them a lot of extra space.

If you dropped that play into last week’s Kansas City tape, it would have been essentially in place. That’s what a lot of Watson’s best 2017 stuff was about, because he wasn’t as good then as he is now. There were a lot of schemed quick throws that were empirically successful.

Bill O’Brien removed the easy plays from the playbook in 2018

I wrote about the beginnings of the 2018 season and the sense of what had changed for Houston for The Athletic.

The short of it is that O’Brien preferred longer route combinations to the offense’s detriment in 2018. In researching for Football Outsiders Almanac 2018, I could only find a handful of actual, legitimate option plays that Houston ran. When they did run them, they worked. The one game in which they used more of them than in any other game I charted was when they went to Indianapolis, scored 38 points around a bunch of interesting Keke Coutee stuff, and won.

And remember, this wasn’t with O’Brien having seen a lot of tape about Watson getting owned while teams sniffed out the read-option dressing or anything. They were dominant offensively using that in 2017. He chose to keep that out of the offense as a base look.

The start of 2019 was more of the same

My theory is that a lot of the reason behind trading for Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil was about running the O’Brien 2018 offense.

Houston’s adjusted sack rate actually got worse through four weeks despite empirically better line play. Houston’s quarterback hit rate declined, but only by a tiny amount.

While O’Brien did introduce more RPO elements into his offense than he did the year before, the focus of the team continued to rely on Watson to create out of structure to make offense happen. Too many of Houston’s big plays were “Watson buys time for receivers to get open.” It remained a big problem even in games like Week 3 against the Chargers, where Watson wasn’t pressured all that much. There were still plays where he had to buy a lot of time.

Watson is an aggressive quarterback, O’Brien is an aggressive head coach. It always made sense for them to aim downfield, but they never seemed to have a plan B for that in 2018 or the beginning of 2019. If they missed the deep throws, we would sometimes be watching a team with a ridiculous amount of talent struggle to hit 20 points.

What happened to the Falcons and (especially) the Chiefs

While Houston’s turn to 12-personnel in Week 5 opened up the play-action game, Week 6 was a full-on embrace of 2017’s principles, and with better talent and smarter ancillary designs than we saw in 2017. They didn’t hit a single deep ball and they owned the Kansas City defense so bad that they never punted. The Texans have punted once in the last two weeks.

Here’s them utilizing Darren Fells as a drag player in a read-option play:

I understand that it’s a very NFL fan thing to look at option plays and be like “well, that won’t work in the NFL for long.” Well, the NFL isn’t that much different than college football. The main difference isn’t the strategy, it’s the speed of the players. I know we can get way deep into the weeds about how this play had Akins as a wheel route guy on this play, and I could talk over everyone’s heads for about two paragraphs. Let’s just try to keep things simple:

Option plays and play-action plays share a common principle: Making a defender guess. If the defender corrects, and is one step behind, that’s a big hole in NFL terms. One step behind is a crease Carlos Hyde can run through. One step behind is a mostly-open receiver. If you build an offense around this stuff, and a defense can’t figure it out, it’s free. That throw to Fells was 10 free yards. And then you’re in their head:

Carlos Hyde starts to benefit. Tight ends blocking defensive ends start to benefit. Every player gets that little extra bit of help, and all of the sudden you’re running an offense that is overwhelmingly successful. That’s why I was such a stick in the mud about O’Brien abandoning this stuff in 2018. It never made any sense when your quarterback is one of the five best athletic marvels in the league — defenses actually have to play him honestly. Nobody has to play Jared Goff honestly as a run threat. They barely play Carson Wentz as a run threat, and he can actually run. The stuff Lamar Jackson is doing in Baltimore is terrifying to defenses.

Then you involve Keke Coutee, and now the defense is literally trying to read four different players out of the backfield, all of which are either blocking, eligible receivers, or running threats. (Well, Fells probably isn’t a running threat, and Watson probably isn’t blocking, but you get the picture.) You’re putting a lot of mental pressure on the defense to read things correctly, with lots of cheap yards in front of you if they can’t.

It never made any sense for this to not be the way forward for this offense. It was loaded with playmakers at the skill positions, and this offseason brought a fresh batch of tackle breakers (Duke Johnson) and deep threats (Will Fuller’s return to health, Stills) that would make play-action dangerous. More to the point, Watson gets hit less running this offense than he ever did in 2018 — involving him in run-action is less dangerous for him long-term than what we saw early this season.

It’s also worth noting that this doesn’t have to express itself solely as read-option/RPO principles. A lot of what is important is giving Watson early quick reads that let the offense do the work they’re supposed to do. There were more quick curls in that Falcons game than I can remember seeing O’Brien run in a long time.

Over the last two weeks, Watson leads all quarterbacks in DYAR and has a 56.6% DVOA. He understands the field better than he did in 2017. He’s less turnover-prone, and, as O’Brien noted in his Monday presser, making smarter reads.

The Texans didn’t even play that well against the Kansas City defense. They left meat on the bone on a few running plays. Fuller got open deep three times and caught none of them on his person. Hopkins alligator-armed a ball on the goal line. And they still scored 31 points and marched that defense down the field until it was depleted. Then they stuffed fourth-and-3 right down Kansas City’s craw:


Listen, it’s too soon to say whether these changes will stick as a base game plan. Stills could come back and we could be right back in 11-personnel blitz-to-the-flat ball. The Cowboys had two great games of play-action to lead off the 2019 season and Jason Garrett dragged them right back to the gutter. The Rams have never completely figured out how to adjust off Goff’s play-action being taken away. I’m not saying that as an insult to O’Brien — I just think it’s important to note that head coaches change game plans on a weekly basis and they aren’t flawless reasoners. There’s also the fact that everything is figureoutable in the NFL to some extent, and somebody is going to figure out how to defeat this stuff against the Texans someday, even though it hasn’t happened yet.

But we now know two things, two very good things, that we didn’t know in Week 1.

— Bill O’Brien is aware that basing a lot of the offense off options will kick ass for him.
— Bill O’Brien saw enough on tape to understand that trading for a left tackle alone wasn’t going to fix where Watson was at in dealing with this offense circa 2018.

Those are both objectively good things and reasons why O’Brien deserves a lot of credit for this change. It takes a lot to make a midseason change like that, and I can only hope it isn’t an underdog tactic and instead becomes a base part of the game plan.


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Four Downs: Houston 31, Kansas City 24

I like to pat myself on the back sometimes, and I’m now 5-1 at picking Texans games this year after picking this exact score, but in favor of Kansas City, in my preview post.

I don’t know if there’s a better way to describe this win besides: franchise-altering. The Texans don’t win games like this under Bill O’Brien. Well, they didn’t. Yes, the Chiefs are banged up a bit on the offensive line and defensive front seven. But they had a semi-healthy Patrick Mahomes, a healthy Tyreek Hill, and a healthy Travis Kelce. This is the biggest win of the O’Brien era.

And it came in spite of a lot going against the Texans. Injuries to Tytus Howard and Bradley Roby. Losing the turnover battle. Going down 10-0 in the first two offensive drives of the game. A drop-fest from Will Fuller. Four lost points to Ka’imi Fairbairn’s mojo.

Franchise-altering. And I think we need to start with how O’Brien made this game work:

1 — Going for it

The Texans went for it on fourth down on three separate occasions.

— Fourth-and-1 on the Kansas City 24, down 8 with 4:46 to play in the first half. The Texans converted and eventually got a touchdown.
— Fourth-and-1 on the Kansas City 40, down 1. The play was eventually an interception because it looked like two receivers ran the same route, but it was a ballsy playcall.
— Fourth-and-3 on the Kansas City 27 to put the Chiefs away after the two-minute warning.

I’ve been critical of O’Brien in a lot of areas this year, but one thing he’s earned consistent praise from me for is his fourth-down playcalling. The Texans didn’t punt the entire game. They did not piss away any points on purpose. This was playcalling to win the game. You’ve simply got to give that applause, particularly when stacked up next to Andy Reid’s last drive where he got the Chiefs into a terrible position.

2 — The short passing game is humming for the second straight week.

Deshaun Watson has not been sacked since Week 4.

When you take what Watson does well, make sure that his short reads are always going to work better for him, and then craft a really well-founded run game around him, what you’ve done is erase most of the negative plays that defined this team for the last 20 games.

Most of the deep shots that the Texans took on Kansas City’s secondary wound up not working out. Will Fuller had three touchdowns on his body that went incomplete. Another throw to Hopkins deep was basically a throwaway. Watson completed just two passes over 10 yards on nine attempts, garnering 43 yards and both of his picks. In fact, Watson’s average completion came just 3.2 yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s a practically Bridgewater-ian rate.

It didn’t matter. Houston’s build up of depth at the skill positions carried the day. Tackles were missed left and right, and Duke Johnson, Jordan Akins, and Darren Fells all had huge catches left open underneath.

This was not the sexiest Deshaun Watson game, though it could have looked that way if Fuller catches all three of those balls. All it was? A wildly effective one. Particularly considering that the Chiefs had put up a negative DVOA against short passes and ranked as the fifth-best unit against those passes coming into the game.

3 — The development of the run game

Carlos Hyde ran between the tackles 17 times, garnering 84 yards and a touchdown.

Hyde has been a revelation, as we’ve talked about before, but what was extremely impressive about this game is all the little wrinkles that O’Brien and the staff added to these run plays. They went RPO at times. The tight end dragged across at times. And, oh by the way, Watson is so good that he doesn’t need a lot of help. Two rushing touchdowns from him, each on plays where the Chiefs read the play right but couldn’t bear down on Watson.

It was easy to see how the Colts were able to drive the Chiefs off the field in the second half to take the lead — Kansas City simply couldn’t stop the run. The Texans rolled into Arrowhead and did the exact same thing, putting down 192 rushing yards and showing a ton of window dressing between Keke Coutee and the tight ends.

The Texans held the ball for nearly 2/3rds of the game. 39:48. The Chiefs had only three second-half drives.

It was a pre-game nugget that O’Brien was pumping a lot of Rocky music this week, playing up the role of the underdog. This is right out of the underdog playbook and it worked to perfection.

4 — The defense … it existed

OK, that’s a little unfair in the second half. But seriously, I don’t think the Chiefs had much of a problem moving the ball. Mahomes was rarely hurried and had just one sack and one quarterback hit. But what they did do is get the ball on the ground at the most opportune time:

Charles Omenihu’s strip sack got the Texans the ball on the goal line right when it looked like they were about to be trailing going into the half. That was a huge emotional boost for the team. They got some help from the referees in the second half, when they didn’t rule an incomplete pass to Travis Kelce as defensive pass interference. Then they got some help from Reid with a two-play sequence where he ran a screen Houston sniffed out so easily that two defensive linemen were waiting for the running back:

Reid followed that up by running on second-and-14, forcing a third-and-long. Mahomes didn’t convert, and the Chiefs never got the ball back.

Small sample size extreme shifts bailed the Texans out on this one — they did not look like they had a prayer of stopping the Chiefs for most of the game. It will be an area that will continue to force the team to play like this against top quarterbacks. I, personally, am not sold that Houston’s defense will be able to get a stop when it matters without outside help. If Bradley Roby is out for any long-term period of time, that concern only grows.

But it is worth noting the shift towards blitzing and man-to-man that Romeo Crennel has had to go with this year without a lot of talent at cornerback. It’s almost like he’s being dragged into playing a more aggressive defense that, ironically, is a better fit for the current state of the NFL. Johnson showed some flashes in this game of getting it. That’s about the upside of it all at this point.

4-2, heading into Indianapolis to play a team coming off a bye that has a power run game of its own. This is going to be an interesting spot for the defense.

Week 6 Preview: Houston @ Kansas City

Well, here we are after another rousing week on the hype train. The Texans took out another team with a good quarterback that appears to be going nowhere, and have run into AFC Royalty at perhaps the best possible time.

Patrick Mahomes is nursing an ankle injury. Sammy Watkins has not practiced this week. (As of Thursday night when I write this.) Chris Jones has not practiced this week. Eric Fisher has not practiced this week. Starting guard Andrew Wylie has not practiced this week. Tyreek Hill has been limited, but appears to be trending towards playing.

The initials odds on this game were the Chiefs by 8.5, but that has been bet down heavily again, to the points where Kansas City is only four-point favorites, in that weird Vegas zone where all Texans games seem to appear in.

There’s a lot of recent history between these teams. Watson’s second career loss game to the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football, where he had a furious rally to get the team within eight. They played in 2016 and kicked off the first oar of hope in the failed Brock Osweiler Era. They played twice in 2015 and met in the playoffs that year, where Brian Hoyer was pantsed and the Texans did not score. I never said it was great history for the Texans.

If Houston were to win this game, even with the injuries, it would be an enormous leap for the theory that this Atlanta game was an actual liftoff point. Let’s feast on the details:

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy of Football Outsiders

The Chiefs went on a huge spending spree this offseason, and that spending spree has turned around … not much. They’re a bit better as a pass defense, but even with Derrick Nnadi anchoring well up front, they have almost no run defense. The Colts steamrolled them for 180 yards. All of the last three teams they’ve played have been able to get at least 180 rushing yards. Of the teams that didn’t, the Jaguars were in a negative game script almost at the very offset of the game, and the Raiders got merely 129 yards.

It is very easy for me to imagine the Texans riding the 12-personnel that worked so well last week against this team. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens is on the injury report and hasn’t been all that good when healthy. There simply isn’t much healthy depth, with UDFA Ben Neimann playing snaps last week. Making them go big is only going to expose more depth without real experience. The Chiefs have just one sack against 12 personnel this year.

In the passing game, the Chiefs have shadowed with Bashaud Breeland at times against true No. 1 threats, and I’d wager they’re likely to do that against DeAndre Hopkins as well. When shadowing Tyrell Williams and T.Y. Hilton, Breeland allowed just 44 receiving yards on five targets. (Source: PFF.) I’m not sure the Chiefs will be willing to double Hopkins as much as Atlanta was, but I don’t think it’s out of the question. I’m sorry, fantasy football owners, I’m right there struggling with you.

The most disappointing player for Kansas City so far is probably Frank Clark, who has just one sack and five pressures (Source: SIS) through five starts with his new team. He’s getting out-produced by buy-low ex-Browns second-rounder Emmanuel Ogbah. The Chiefs are getting pressure on just 23.0% of their passing downs as a defense, one of the four lowest rates in the game. I expect they’ll probably play a pretty aggressive game plan with Deshaun Watson and bring plenty of run blitzes as well to try to score some negative plays. Houston’s offensive line has played moderately well the last few weeks, but this is a loud environment and I don’t think they will be played quite as straight-up as they were in Atlanta. In other words: I expect Watson will actually get hit in this game.

The big strength of Kansas City’s defense is actually short passes — they’ve allowed negative DVOA on all directions of short passes this year, and are fifth in DVOA against short passes. Do not expect the passive Falcons defense you watched last week to bully their way into this game. The Texans will make plenty of plays, but they won’t be quite that easy.

Tyrann Mathieu will be a big factor in this game. 8.4 targets per game go to tight ends against Kansas City, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. Last year saw the Texans watch Mathieu get picked on by bigger tight ends. Darren Fells has a good eight inches on Mathieu, and Jordan Akins isn’t much worse at 6-foot-4. It’s not at all inconceivable that this game will come down to a test of Mathieu’s man coverage ability against taller targets.

When the Chiefs have the ball

I can think of no greater compliment to Patrick Mahomes than to note that with his offense down to Travis Kelce and a pile of nobody receivers, and his offensive line down to two regular starters from last season, he just casually threw for 320 yards and a touchdown, turnover-free.

A lot about this week is going to depend on whether Tyreek Hill, who has been limited in two practices this week, actually plays. He’s probably a game-time decision, but I am writing this as if I expect him to play.

If Hill does play, this above chart is a little less relevant. Hill’s speed is something that forces safeties to play him honestly, and forces zone coverage on to the field. Even just on posts or corners, safeties can’t be counted on to keep up with the play speed that Hill demonstrates.

The Texans run a lot of zone, of course, but showed a little bit more man than they have in a while last week against the Falcons. I think they’re likely to change it up.

The big mismatch the Texans have going for them here is the defensive line versus a banged up Kansas City unit. J.J. Watt is coming off his best week in a while, but will primarily be up against Mitchell Schwartz, who is one of the best right tackles in the NFL. Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff has had somewhat of a down season, but shouldn’t be too overmatched by Watt inside either. Where blood can be found is with D.J. Reader inside and Whitney Mercilus outside. Reader will be up against center Austin Reiter, a first-year starter who has been far from dominant, and Wylie’s replacement, possibly Stefen Wisniewski? It could also be Martinas Rankin! Memories!

Anyway, Cam Erving plays outside and here’s how he did against a blitzing cornerback last week:

So, probably good things for Whitney Mercilus’ hurry numbers this week.

Now I can tell you all these things, and I can tell you that the Chiefs haven’t had much of a run game, and I can tell you the non-Kelce/Hill receivers shouldn’t scare you. But they are going to move the ball, and they are going to score points. Andy Reid’s offense scored 42 on the Texans the last time they played, and that was when he had the limited Alex Smith.

The Texans have talked all week about how much respect they have for Mahomes. Mahomes is the only quarterback who I think can do the things that Deshaun Watson can do and more. He is banged up, yes, but he’s also still phenomenal. The Texans can play great defense and still give up 28 here.

Special teams

The Chiefs have been gashed in coverage so far, giving up 192 yards in kickoff returns and racking up 18 different special teams penalties for 173 yards. This is not how the Chiefs usually play.

The Texans have also continued to tank on behalf of their struggling kicker, Kai Faibairn, who has missed an extra point or field goal in three consecutive weeks since holder Trevor Daniel was let go.

The read

I can definitely see a way that the Texans win this game, and I think it’s on the ground, taking advantage of everything they can do against this Chiefs front seven. I know everyone is excited about last week. The Texans have shown us this kind of offensive performance before under O’Brien and went right back to normal the next week. If the Texans turn in another dominant offensive performance, I am all about it. I will not be the one betting on it to happen in Arrowhead.

Mahomes is not human. Houston’s defense will get pressures but not anywhere near the same amount of sacks the Colts had last week.

This is a game I put in pen as a loss for the Texans when the schedule came out. It feels like everything based on “momentum” rolls that in to question. But I think a logical look at the actors involved leaves us thinking that this game is closer, but still leaves Houston unsatisfied. Give me Kansas City 31, Houston 24. If Hill and Watkins both sit, I would probably take that total down four points for Kansas City, but not change my overall prediction.

Enjoy this game. It has two of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.