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.

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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.

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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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