Four Downs: Houston 53, Atlanta 32

There’s a reason I am so hard on Bill O’Brien all the time, and it’s that we saw how good this offense could be in 2017 and he simply had been unable to recapture that magic. For the last 22 games of Texans football, Deshaun Watson was shackled by a structure that didn’t seem to do enough to help him out. He held the ball a long time. The offensive line wasn’t good enough to protect him.

This is what it was supposed to be like after 2017. This is that 59-point drubbing of the Tennessee Titans all over again. Because when you make things easy for Deshaun Watson, he makes them look easy.

Only Kirk Cousins had a better day than Watson as far as Next Gen Stats’ accuracy against expected completion percentage. Watson completed 14% more throws than expected to by the raw data.

To say that Watson torched Atlanta would be understating things. The Texans punted once all day — happy birthday Bryan Anger, enjoy the time off — and on every drive they took seriously they seemed a threat to score. One field-goal attempt happened when Houston ran a screen for Fuller on third-and-long, and even that screen arguably worked.

This was a master class in something I haven’t seen a lot of from O’Brien, and it’s a reason I want to circle back to his press conference to give him credit:

“He runs the show out there.” The best leaders are quick to give credit to their players. I’ve often felt that O’Brien has made his offense about what he has preferred. With the game plan he picked today, and with Watson running the show as well as he did, he recognized he didn’t need to go back. That’s a huge step.

1 — Can this offensive output be replicated on a weekly basis?

Not only were the throws that Watson took today often not happening as far downfield, they were also easier. The best offense in the world is the offense that makes eight yards on second-and-10 feel like this:

There were several examples of the offense doing this. They were 10-of-13 on third down because they kept generating shorter third downs. The fact that they kept creating X-and-short meant that play-action burned Atlanta, and Atlanta was quick to react to those fakes:

While there will, obviously, be bigger challenges than the Atlanta personnel and coverage scheme, the grander question is if this philosophy can continue. I think it can.

I think the chart is instructive here:

Notice there were only a few throws over 20 yards. One of them being the play-action pass that was wide open for a touchdown. This was a short, focused passing game. This is the sort of stuff that Tom Brady is able to pull out in most games.

It could be Houston’s thing, too.

2 — The best offensive line is throwing fast

That says it all, doesn’t it? The Falcons have a bad pass rush by sacks, but they were getting pressures coming into the game. SIS had them with a 32.8 percent pressure rate in 2019, the sixth-highest in the NFL.

Matt Weston’s counterpoint to this was that the Falcons don’t run many games or stunts, which is what Houston tends to struggle with. Fair enough. But a lot of these balls were out so fast that the Falcons didn’t have much time to pressure Watson. Again:

There will be bigger tests for the line, and I think this is going to be a week where we look at the line and everything looks great — like Week 3 — when the story is a little more complex than that.

But if the Texans continue to get the ball out as quickly as they did in this game, negative plays disappear. When negative plays disappear, and you pair them with a still-explosive offense and consistent gains, you get a top-5 offense.

3 — J.J. Watt picked a hell of a time to have his best game of the year

While the Houston offense kept looking good, the Falcons were able to move the ball pretty easily.

The Texans as a defense right now are incredibly reliant on the pass rush to make things happen. Today, they did that. Watt keyed the charge, and D.J. Reader’s sack came because of Watt pressure in a nice change of pace:

Houston found eight quarterback hits and two sacks. Watt had five of the hits. It was not a dominant performance given the 46 dropbacks, but it was enough. When your offense plays as well as it did today, this performance becomes enough.

Very quiet game from Whitney Mercilus, but he did show some good discipline on this screen pass:

Negative plays are all this defense has going for them. Anything else is going to be too much. Thankfully, between the pick-six and a couple of key third-down stops, they were able to keep Atlanta from making the game tightly contested in the fourth quarter. Romeo Crennel deserves some credit for the blitz looks he came up with to get two of those third-down stops, which generated free rushers at the quarterback:

When the offense plays like they play today, it doesn’t matter too much. But in tighter games, ones where Watson will presumably not hit all but four of his throws, the Texans are going to need every negative play they can cobble together.

4 — The nagging concerns

Coverage continues to remain quite loose. Lonnie Johnson was playing hurt and is a rookie asked to move across the line of scrimmage on this snap, but you simply can’t let a receiver get this free of a release in this coverage:

Some of Ryan’s throws were just flat-out off, rather than well-defensed. Obviously, hard to tell entirely from the tape, but I didn’t see many throws that the Texans negatively impacted outside of the one Julio Jones slant that Johnathan Joseph and Zach Cunningham sandwiched Jones on. Take this pass on second-and-20:

I don’t know that we’re going to see a team with a good quarterback held under 250 yards this year. Pace and tempo matter a lot to that statement, but the Texans don’t have an emerging corner or defensive back that is fixing to come on and save them. They have Mike Adams. They have Keion Crossen. There’s not a lot of hope that the coverage will be able to do much but stay passive and mix in the occasional change-of-pace press play. When they do, they have to have better from Johnson than he showed on that play.

Special teams continues to be a concern. Kaimi Fairbairn has missed a season’s worth of kicks for some kickers in the last three weeks. DeAndre Carter’s fumble nearly imploded the Texans before Watson brought them back from brink with a flawless closeout drive.

The Chiefs are looming, and the Texans have picked up the pace just in time. Could we have a shootout to rival the Rams-Chiefs on Monday Night Football last year? Or, was this a one week flash-in-the-pan?

It’s going to be an interesting week.

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