I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest this is an enormous game for this year’s Houston Texans. While I haven’t written the preview yet, I think we all know that there is an extremely high likelihood of Patrick Mahomes destroying Houston’s secondary next week. This Texans team has not proven that it can conclusively put away anybody yet — this is not a team that can afford to fall two games under .500. Yet, if they lose this game, that’s about where they are headed.
If you saw last week’s Falcons 10-spot and laughed, well, the Falcons are this weird mix of snake-bit and laughable that I find utterly charming from afar. Keep in mind that they missed a field goal and had three separate fourth-and-short conversions go wrong against the Titans in Tennessee territory. 10 points understates the work that was happening — they remain a fairly dangerous offense. And, as a quarterback, Matt Ryan is accurate enough to exploit the Houston secondary to the exact same extent that Philip Rivers was.
The last time these teams met was in 2015, and Bill O’Brien got steamrolled. The Falcons won 48-21, and all 21 Texans points came in the fourth quarter. Prior to that, the TJ Yates Texans won 17-10 in 2011. Bobby Petrino’s Falcons won in 2007 in Matt Schaub’s return to Atlanta. To Joey Harrington. Are all these games embarrassing for one of these teams? You better believe it.
Vegas has the Texans as anywhere from 4.5 to five-point favorites, so we’re right back into the same danger zone that produced last week’s Panthers upset.
When the Texans have the ball
The Titans were able to jump on Atlanta by taking full advantage of a major weakness: their inability to do much about play-action passes. The Falcons allow 5.8 yards per play on regular pass plays, but 9.8 yards per play against play-action. That’s one of the seven biggest swings of any team, and teams run a ton of play-action against Atlanta because they tend to be zone-heavy.
Unfortunately, the Texans aren’t really the team that is going to exploit that weakness. Houston runs a below-average amount of play-action and averages just 5.5 yards per play-action pass, one of the five lowest numbers in the NFL. The Texans have been good at play-action before, but it hasn’t really been much of an emphasis for them this season. Perhaps seeing what the Titans did last week will embolden them a bit.
I say that the Falcons are zone-heavy because most of their cornerbacks haven’t been targeted much. Desmond Trufant has been targeted just 11 times. Isaiah Oliver, at 23, has the most targets in the secondary by far. He’s been boom or bust, giving up 8.1 yards per pass and a 56 percent completion rate, but also three touchdowns.
This is a get-right game for both DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. The Falcons allow a 56.9% DVOA to No. 1 wideouts and an 87.4% DVOA to No. 2 wideouts, both bottom-three numbers in the NFL. No. 1 wideouts are averaging 83 yards per game against the Falcons. The possible absence of Kenny Stills won’t hurt too bad here, as the Falcons have mostly silenced interior receivers anyway.
Atlanta’s pass rush isn’t too intimidating, with a 5.0% adjusted sack rate that is good for 26th in the NFL. Vic Beasley is going on year three of being a completely pedestrian edge rusher. Takkarist McKinney is probably the biggest threat on the outside. On the inside, Grady Jarrett is going to be the first real test for Nick Martin this season. Time to earn your money, Nick. It should be noted that the Falcons still come away with a mid-table level of quarterback hits, so don’t expect Watson to be clean in the pocket for years.
However, one area where the Falcons have gotten much better this year is run defense. Even if DVOA isn’t your cup of tea, they’re allowing just 3.7 yards per carry. They shut Derrick Henry up pretty good for most of a game that they were trailing. The return of Deion Jones has really elevated that part of the unit.
The one thing that jumps out at me about this game in a concerning way is that the Falcons are pretty solid deep. They’re allowing a 36.2% DVOA on deep passes, barely above the league-average. For reference, Jacksonville is slightly worse than that on deep passes, and Carolina is doing better in defending them than any team in the NFL right now. If O’Brien continues to build so much of the offense towards the deep ball, he simply has to hit more in this game. The Texans can’t go 0- or 2-for-8 on deep balls unless both of them are touchdowns or something.
When the Falcons have the ball
The Falcons are a weird offensive team that matches up really well with the Texans because Atlanta has understood that the concept of running the football is stupid, so they just gave up on it.
The Falcons have just 71 rushing attempts on the year — only three teams are below them, and the Dolphins and Jets barely count as football teams at this point. When they do run, Devonta Freeman has been so east-west that he’s not been getting much generally. He’s talented as far as breaking tackles, and I think he’s been a beast in the past, but I’m not sure he’s playing like one this year.
The Atlanta offensive line has not done great things this year, though Alex Mack and Jake Matthews are obviously good players in a grander sense. This is the first time all season that Whitney Mercilus will face somebody worth his time. I do like J.J. Watt’s chances of swimming past rookie Kaleb McGary on a few downs. Because the Falcons have been so depleted at guard without IR’ed first-round pick Chris Lindstrom, I think it is extremely important that D.J. Reader continue to dominate:
Charles Omenihu’s potential return from a lost week looms large as well. James Carpenter and Wes Schweitzer played most of the guard snaps for the Falcons in Week 4 and they let Jurrell Casey eat them alive. Jamon Brown was the nominal starting guard this year, but is questionable with a concussion. While Ryan has mostly been well-protected this year, the line really sprung a lot of leaks, allowing 12 quarterback hits to the Titans.
How do the Texans deal with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley? This is something that they didn’t really have to do against the Chargers, where Mike Williams was injury-limited and the rest of the receiver corps was bad. They let Keenan Allen torch them, but smothered the rest of the brushfire. The Falcons will try to get both in Cover-3 posts for easy change against this secondary, which hasn’t really proven it can cover anybody one-on-one. Lonnie Johnson will be on the spot here. Jones has been about a 50% slot player, so Bradley Roby will get some chance to contain the damage that will obviously be happening.
The Ryan Falcons have been uncharacteristically mistake-prone this year. Ryan has thrown six picks this year. He threw seven all last season. I would expect them to play safer than usual given Houston’s myriad zone coverage schemes.
The Falcons have been held hostage by Matt Bosher, who has been on the injury report all season and has winced his way through a ton of punts. The ancient Matt Bryant has taken over on field goals. He’s been surprisingly accurate on longer field goals even at his advanced age. (17 of 19 from beyond 40 in 2017, 11-12 from beyond 40 in 2018.) His usage rate and the fact that he was released before the season may be telling you that range has decreased.
Kai Fairbairn earned the dreaded vote of confidence from O’Brien, but nobody has exactly been dialed up to take his place just yet. Otherwise, the Texans have an edge on special teams.
My gut instinct, before I started breaking down this game, was that the Texans would win. I don’t think they’ll make it easy on you, and I don’t think it will always be pretty, but I think Deshaun Watson will have a major bounce-back game and play well against a defense that doesn’t have much in the way of sure things that can stop him. He might take plenty of hits in the process.
The more I dove into the research, the more I wondered if this feeling was a trap. It’s hard to see “42-0” in Atlanta, no matter who the quarterbacks were, and feel confident that the head coach can hang. Atlanta definitely is the most complete offense the Texans have faced this year to this point.
Once again, I’m back to “I picked this team to make the playoffs, and they better win this game if they’re going to make the playoffs.” I like a high-scoring affair here. Give me Texans 29, Falcons 27