Week 13 Preview: Texans vs. Patriots

Coming off an eventful, but ultimately somewhat uninspiring win over the Indianapolis Colts last Thursday, the Texans enter into another prime time showdown with the greatest (and longest-lasting) dynasty in NFL history, the New England Patriots. They are the team that Bill O’Brien wants to model the Texans after, and they are the team that has ended two of the three longest playoff runs in Texans history in the divisional round. Simply put: They are the measuring stick if you want this team to compete for a championship.

The Texans come in to this game with a few very real advantages. The extra rest after Thursday night football acts almost like a mini-bye week. (Please, together, let’s not remember what happened the last time the Texans had a bye week.) The Patriots have been decimated by the flu — five different starters missed time with illness this week and two of them missed multiple days — and are also in the position of having to replace kicker Nick Folk after an emergency operation.

History has not been kind to the Texans in this, er, “rivalry.” The only time Houston has won was in Week 17 of the 2009 season, a win that could have sealed them a playoff spot had the Cincinnati Bengals not let the Jets kick their asses on Sunday Night Football on purpose. The last two games — the game with Deshaun Watson — have been single-score affairs, though it’s worth noting that the Texans were down 24-6 in 2018 and only came back after a baffling Bill O’Brien punt decision was muffed by the Patriots. Watson had perhaps the worst start of his NFL career in that game, completing just 17-of-34 passes for 176 yards and taking three sacks. He missed Ryan Griffin in the end zone multiple times.

Vegas initially posted the game at Patriots by 4.5 points, but has dialed it back to 3 or 3.5 in most books. The over/under has climbed a bit as well, from a 44.5 open to about 45 or 45.5.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy of Football Outsiders

If you have been living under a rock, the Patriots are on a historically great pace, particularly as a pass defense. By DVOA’s standards, the Patriots are the third-best defense they’ve ever tracked through 11 games, behind only the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs and the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles. If you prefer more rudimentary statistics, let’s talk about how the Patriots have allowed four passing touchdowns in 11 games, and have intercepted 20 passes.

Needless to say, almost all receivers struggle against this unit, which is primarily a man-coverage unit. They are No. 1 in DVOA allowed to No. 1 wideouts (-39.9%), No. 2 wideouts (-66.8%), and Other wideouts (-47.2%) while holding tight ends and running backs in negative DVOA figures as well. There is something to be said for the individual talent that the Texans have in their receiving corps and can use to stretch the field, which is a game that they always want to play. But the Patriots aren’t rolling out the welcome mat — they are in the top-10 in blitz rate at 35.0%. The only other team the Texans have played with that sort of blitz rate is Baltimore. Houston did not exactly set up many pristine deep shots. My supposition is: Go to Duke Johnson underneath and let him force the Patriots into some less-aggressive sets.

I would be lying if I told you I expected that to happen. Instead, I think the Texans will be asking their wideouts to win convincingly early in routes. I don’t want to cap the upside that Will Fuller has had, because his mere presence changed the entire Texans-Colts game, but this has to be a good Will Fuller game if the Texans can win. Zero drops. The Patriots love to run shadow coverage, and though Bill Belichick has a history of using his No. 1 DB on the other teams’ No. 2 WR, then shading the safety towards the No. 1 WR, I would be surprised if we didn’t get a Hopkins versus Stephon Gilmore battle. That’s what happened in Week 1 of the 2018 season, and Gilmore held Hopkins to 57 yards on eight targets, five of which were completed.

Bill O’Brien has a primordial need to run the ball, and luckily for him, it actually is important that the Texans run well in this game anyway. The Patriots have an incredibly huge split in effectiveness between 11-personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers), allowing a 50% success rate (45% on pass, 54% on runs) to 12, but just a 35% success rate to 11. The Texans have had success running out of 12 in small bursts this year, but it’s been game-plan dependent. Since Week 8, the Texans have a 54% success rate running out of 11, and just a 46% success rate running out of 12.

The real problem isn’t the Pats run defense, which has been bullied at times this year, but the fact that Houston’s run offense has wildly declined in effectiveness. The Texans have been in double-digit negative run offense DVOA figures for three of their last four games. The other game, Jacksonville in London, came out to -8.2%. I don’t necessarily think this is a Carlos Hyde problem, as he’s still been running well. I just think Houston’s read-options haven’t been working well and that has made O’Brien want to run a ton of zone plays even though his team isn’t any good at blocking them. That is his base game plan.

Duron Harmon sort of tipped that the Texans will see a lot of Cover-2 in his press availability this week. Not surprising given how much they focused on how explosive the Texans are. I suspect you’ll see New England’s defense focus on limiting the big play.

Irrespective of the results of this game, let me at least float this at you: I think the Texans have the talent to give this defense a run for their money. Star left tackle. Young star quarterback. One of the best receivers in the NFL. Two deep threats. Akins and Johnson underneath. I don’t think this game should be embarrassing. If it is, well, you don’t have to read between the lines to understand that it’s a coaching problem in my eyes. To me, it is wild to watch the Patriots — a team with zero pass rushers of any real repute before this season — run hog wild on opposing offenses. If this defense were in the hands of Matt Patricia, or Gregg Williams, or someone in that range, I think we’d be talking about how the Texans can move the ball with ease on them. This game is, ultimately, all about the coaching. As it usually is.

When the Patriots have the ball

I have read many stats about how the Texans no longer get pass rush without J.J. Watt. Forget the pass rush — they barely do defense without Watt. They’ve allowed 7.4 yards per attempt and 5.4 yards per carry since Watt went down, and though the latter is skewed by the Ravens game, they also just got their asses kicked by Johnathan Williams for 175 rushing yards. They have not turned over a non-Gardner Minshew quarterback. I enjoy the little bursts of hope when I can, and I’m not going to shit on you for enjoying Jacob Martin’s sack last game, but let’s come into this with low expectations and hope they are met.

The good news is that things seem to be trending towards the Texans having almost an entire roster of healthy players. Bradley Roby reportedly will be back, and that sets up a scenario where the Texans have Roby, Gareon Conley, and Johnathan Joseph all healthy at the same time for the first time. I’m guessing Roby plays inside on those sets. We shall see how the trio works together.

Unfortunately, Tom Brady’s troops are also getting healthy. Isaiah Wynn’s return last game helped get New England’s worst starter most of the year, Marshall Newhouse, out of the lineup. Phillip Dorsett has cleared concussion protocol, and Mohamed Sanu appears to be on the right side of questionable after missing last week’s game with an ankle injury.

Brady has had well-documented problems with the blitz over the last couple of years, and that appears to be the case again this season with his QBR declining to 40.6 when he’s blitzed. Romeo Crennel sent only 10 blitzes in 41 dropbacks in their matchup in 2018, and since the bye has declined his usage of blitzes by quite a bit. Jacoby Brissett saw five in 26 dropbacks, and Lamar Jackson saw five in 25 dropbacks. While that could be a sign that Crennel is happier with where he’s at in coverage players now, it’s also not trending in the direction that would make this game fun for Texans fans. Brady can play against this pass defense in his sleep, and if they don’t make him throw off-balance or out-of-structure, the Texans aren’t going to offer a lot of resistance until the red zone.

New England has not had much success running the ball this year, though the return of Wynn appeared to boost that a bit last week. Sony Michel has just not broken many tackles this year — only Frank Gore has broken more among backs with a real workload this year per Sports Info Solutions. They miss fullback James Develin, and have gone as far as using linebacker Elandon Roberts at fullback recently to try to jump start something.

Ultimately there’s not a ton that’s impressive or electrifying about the New England offense sans Gronkowski — they’re just going to play turnover-free ball and let their defense win them the game. Against the 2018 Texans, I’d be up here raving about how they had a chance to take Brady down. But against the 2019 Texans, who basically only have coverage sacks and gap shots from Bernardrick McKinney as ways to force a negative play? It’s going to take some luck.

Special teams

The major difference in these two units is just the field-goal kickers — the Patriots are well above-average to great in the other areas. The Pats have cycled through a few kickers in Stephen Gostkowski’s absence, and with Folk down for this one again will have someone untrustworthy. That untrustworthy player was named on Friday when Kai Forbath was signed.

Ka’imi Fairbairn’s accuracy has declined in every area this year, and he’s now just 6-for-11 beyond 40 yards. Some of that is about the operation — I get it — neither team should have a lot of confidence in their kicker in this game. Dylan Cole’s ACL injury removes one of Houston’s best kick coverage players.

The read

I know they’ve had a historically good defense this year, but there’s a part of me that finds this Patriots team quite vulnerable. Their defense is awesome, but Lamar Jackson punctured it with ease, no matter what New England tried to do to change things around. The offense still has Tom Brady, but nobody on this team scares you in the open field. They don’t miss tackles. They are a short-passing team and I think they’re still looking for a real run identity.

However, there’s another, more subjective part of me, that listens to Bill O’Brien talk at pressers, and hears him talk about turnover ratio and how they have to be flawless and marvel at New England’s operation — and then ends that with “and if we get that, we’ll see what happens.”

The Patriots don’t have the booster jets to roll the Texans unless they add on some defensive scores, but I don’t have much confidence in the way the offense is being coached or the talent the defense has right now. To nobody’s surprise, I will take New England 19, Houston 13 — this is a game with a lot of running and a lot of stalls in the red zone.


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Duke Johnson is too important to Houston’s offense to get three targets in two weeks

Faced with a New England Patriots defense that has destroyed opposing passing games all season, my supposition is that Bill O’Brien will focus on the running game and trying to beat the Patriots there. I don’t think it’s impossible that the Texans get to 100 rushing yards — Washington, of all teams, got to 145 — and I think Houston definitely has the talent on paper to beat the Patriots with the run. Deshaun Watson is basically a cheat code for running the ball if he is part of the design of the play.

But a major problem with Houston’s post-bye games is that teams have caught up to their current TE drag RPO and limited it severely. The Texans haven’t run well out of 12-personnel against the Colts or Ravens, and so the defense has been able to focus more on stopping that stuff. Tight ends had 50 receiving yards against the Colts in Week 12, 33 against the Ravens in Week 11, and 44 against the Colts in Week 7.

That’s not going to cut it against the Patriots, because you really need a short-passing option against New England. The Patriots shut out wide receivers — even slot receivers, who they have a held to a -43.3% DVOA through 11 weeks. Stephon Gilmore’s placement will obviously dictate some of the short passing game. When the RPO game was going well, that would have been a fine option. I’m not sure O’Brien will revisit it or cares to lean into it further, because I don’t think he thinks it’s real football. Sure, he’s willing to go along with it when it’s part of whatever it takes to actually run on somebody. But nothing in O’Brien’s history says he’s going to go toe-to-toe with someone over them taking away an RPO — it isn’t a staple of his offense. It’s something to get him to the staple of his offense.

Where else can the Texans go? How about going after the Patriots with their own medicine?


The splits are stark, but they are very evident for the Texans. When Duke Johnson is a part of the offense, they win.

In the six games this season where Johnson is targeted three or fewer times, the Texans average 21.6 points per game. In the five games where Johnson is targeted four or more times, the Texans average 27 points per game. Even more importantly, the involvement of Johnson raises the consistency of the offense. Their lowest point total with him getting four or more targets is 23 points. (The first Colts game, where they squandered red zone opportunities left and right.) Meanwhile, the 21.6 points per game is highly inflated by a Falcons win in which Will Fuller made daddies of the entire Atlanta secondary. Houston’s four lowest scoring games of the season are: 7, 10, 13, and 20. In those four games, Duke Johnson had a combined seven targets.

With the dissolution of Keke Coutee to the O’Brien Doghouse, Houston no longer has a receiver that operates on quick-and-easy underneath separation. They have DeAndre Hopkins, who wins with catch radius, and Will Fuller, who creates deep separation and spillover underneath separation by virtue of respect of that deep separation. While the Texans have run Stills in Coutee’s place, and even given him some shuttle passes, that’s not exactly his game. He is someone to burn you deep before he’s someone who is going to get five yards horizontally on his corner.

Johnson can win in the short game. Johnson jukes tacklers left and right. He’s done it all season when called upon. He’s tied with Le’Veon Bell and Aaron Jones through Week 11’s games with nine broken tackles on receptions — all of them are tied for second-place behind Austin Ekeler.


Wanna know what drives me insane? O’Brien runs a lot of empty sets because it’s one of Watson’s most comfortable formations. On 80% of those empty sets, the running back does absolutely nothing but be a decoy. He goes out wide. He sits there, maybe runs up five yards to occupy a defender a little bit. Can you remember a time with Watson where a running back was targeted on a non-screen pass out of empty? (I can remember one, when Watson flung a ball up to a covered Lamar Miller in the end zone against the Giants last year.)

I wrote about this when the Texans traded for him, but Johnson could absolutely break defenses in this role. Wide short routes are one of Watson’s weakest throws, because he doesn’t have a cannon arm and you’re asking him to use all his arm strength on it. Watson operates — forgive this tortured analogy — more like a catapult: the more distance you have downfield, the better his throws outside will be. But if you want him to hit a quick out to a tight end or something like that, he’s gotta pull himself into position to load that ball, and the results are kinda slow.

But what if you ran Johnson on a drag route while you put the two receivers on his side with deeper routes? First of all, you can let Watson read those throws and decide if he wants them — you can Yankee concept (two crossing routes) out of that, or you can run a post-corner to get some safety conflict. Then, let’s say he doesn’t like them and heads back to Johnson.

  1. No linebacker on the planet can keep up with Duke Johnson on a drag route.
  2. With that much clear-out space in front of Johnson, you’re creating a wide-window throw.
  3. Once he does catch the ball, and all those receivers are down field, he now gets to operate in space against defensive backs.

This isn’t novel. I’m not suggesting anything new or breaking in the annals of football. In fact, the entire history of Texans-Patriots is flooded with running backs breaking the Texans. Whether it’s James White, Dion Lewis, or Shane Vereen, the Texans have been owned by concepts like this for the entirety of Bill O’Brien’s tenure in Houston. (And were owned for the entirety of Gary Kubiak’s tenure in Houston, too!)

Instead, what happens on plays like this? Duke Johnson (it’s Carlos Hyde on this example) goes wide, then sits.

Package something like the drag with some actual screens to Johnson — which have been lacking as well — and you have a game plan to get one of your most explosive players in space without him having to read run blocks to do it.

I’ve been watching a lot of Ravens football as they’ve piled up points left and right. They create better underneath routes for Mark Ingram than the Texans do for Duke Johnson. Mark Ingram had 24 receptions in his first three years. Duke had 188.


I don’t say this out loud expecting it to happen. I think the Texans max protect for Watson so much that New England’s blitz schemes all but assure that Johnson spends more time blocking than catching.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Texans spent a third-round pick on Johnson because he can create instant offense, and their evaluation of Johnson was not wrong in the slightest. He just needs to be given a role worthy of his talents. O’Brien needs to not fall into the same-old, same-old.

Alfred Blue isn’t on the team anymore — Johnson can fly. Let him.


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Four Downs: Texans 20, Colts 17

Backs to the wall, the Texans responded. That’s the kindest way I can put this game.

After the Colts rolled all over the Texans for what seemed like an emotionally-defeating, back-breaking, 11-play, 86-yard touchdown drive with 10 runs, the Texans responded. A 51-yard pass to Will Fuller set up a field goal to cut into the lead, and a 33-yard run out of a stagnant run game, where Carlos Hyde had a huge hole forged for him behind Nick Martin and Max Scharping, helped set up the go-ahead touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins.

This game was an odd one. The Texans had almost all of the big plays, created a huge lead in yards per play (7.2 to 4.6), and yet they trailed or were tied for much of the game. They ran a grand total of four plays inside the Indianapolis red zone — two of which were field-goal attempts. The offense never looked totally right on a down-by-down basis.


1 — A healthy Will Fuller opens up the deep game

The big reason that the Texans were able to win this game was Will Fuller’s comeback off a hamstring injury. Fuller described the injury as something that he didn’t even get much of a chance to test on the short week. He said he was taking it play-by-play:

Ho-hum, just a casual test run of torching the Indianapolis man coverage for two enormous gains, hauling in catches of 44 and 51 yards.

DeAndre Hopkins caught the two touchdowns — and he was great tonight — but Fuller gives this offense something that Hopkins can’t, and something that apparently Kenny Stills can’t do despite how skilled he is. He makes Bill O’Brien throw the ball deep.

The Texans, throwing 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, were 5/8 for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That’s more yardage on 20-plus yard throws than they had from Weeks 7 to 11, combined. I must admit that a big part of the reason I thought that the Texans would lose this game was because I saw little hope for the deep passing game. Fuller himself wasn’t even sure how his hamstring would hold up.

That was an enormous tide-turner for the Texans, and it couldn’t have happened at a more impactful time.

2 — T.Y. Hilton finally doesn’t destroy the Texans in NRG

Meanwhile, in a big reversal of fortune, the Colts couldn’t buy a deep throw. In their Week 7 matchup, Jacoby Brissett was 8-of-13 on targets deeper than 10 yards, for 170 yards and a touchdown. In the NRG re-match, with Hilton coming off his injury and on a snap count, Brissett went 1-of-7 for 14 yards against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.

While some of this was about a more zone-heavy defense, there were also some open shot plays where T.Y. Hilton just didn’t do his part:

It is true that Vernon Hargreaves (on the second one I’m about to post) and Johnathan Joseph both made plays on the ball. It is also true that a player like T.Y. Hilton is expected to catch those balls in tight coverage. He simply didn’t play up to his talent today:

Hilton admitted as much after the game, saying that he’d let the team down. I think Colts fans will probably take the balance of what he has done — you know, the playoff win, the constant deep ball torture, etc. But it was clear that he didn’t have it tonight. And it was clear that a big difference in this game was simply about how that impacted coverages for the other receivers. Zack Pascal isn’t dominating anybody. He’s a fine NFL wide receiver, but he makes his catches in a scheme.

As for the Colts passing offense, it seemed like they had good ideas as a whole but that they were having identity and drop issues. I’ll refer judgment on Brissett for the fans who have watched him more than I have this year, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have a lot extra after the first read to bring to the table. The Texans got a bit more pressure on him than I was expecting, as well, and I know that’s not a big area of strength for him.

3) Establishing the memes

Bill O’Brien will run the ball. It’s something he does on first down a lot, and it’s his preferred way to play the game. Thus, in any game where the Texans can’t run, they are a bit stifled. The Texans made it to 99 rushing yards while running out the clock, but that’s a little misleading because they had a gain of 19 from Duke Johnson and a gain of 33 from Hyde. As far as a consistent running game — the one that sets up third-and-short — it was non-existent today. That’s 22 other carries for a total of 47 yards.

Meanwhile, the Colts managed to dominate in the run game, churning out both their touchdowns and 4.5 yards per attempt despite a slow start.

But the funny thing about establishing that run is that once you establish it, and a defense is tired … well, the Texans held the Colts to 17 rushing yards on six attempts on their final, ill-fated drive. (Brissett scrambled for six more on the final play of the drive, but that clearly wasn’t a run attempt from the start.)

Meanwhile, the Texans do squat for three quarters and Hyde pops off that 33-yarder. The mythology of the running plays and the narratives we create around them is fascinating. Frank Reich burned down 4:28 and a timeout on that final drive because he decided he was going to bullyball his way to a score.

How much time would the Colts have had left to drive for a go-ahead score if he’d simply thrown it three times? How much confidence did he have in Brissett at that point, knowing how the game had been going? It all just felt a little too cute to do the one thing the Texans have shown any ability to stop this year — runs — while they were trailing.

4 — Alone

Sometimes the NFL is exhausting, (OK, all Thursday nights) and it comes down to very simple things. Things like “don’t leave the best receiver in the NFL wide open in the end zone by 20 yards.”

Erase this play, the Texans throw underneath. It’s third-and-six in the cusp of field-goal range. (Whatever that is when you employ Ka’imi Fairbairn.) The game goes in an entirely different direction all because Clayton Geathers remembers an assignment.

But the Colts left Hopkins alone, and now the Texans are alone in first place. Sometimes it becomes enough to just not lose, and on a Thursday night where both teams struggled mightily at times, one of them struggled in a way that provided way more magnitude to the game.

Fuller’s deep ball game notwithstanding, there wasn’t a whole lot to be excited about. There wasn’t anything here that made me think “these Texans are going to rest up and ram it down New England’s throat on Sunday night.” There weren’t a lot of interesting schematic changes. RPOs didn’t work all that well. Misdirection in the run game was minimal. Duke Johnson continues to spend more time out wide as a decoy than he does as an actual receiver. I don’t think the Texans will get pressure on Brady as easily as they did against Brissett.

But they outgained their main rival for the division title by 100 yards, bounced back from a big time of possession hole, and they won. It was a must-win game to keep the division in reach, and the hope that this team catches fire remains alive for another week.


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Week 12 Preview: Texans vs. Colts

Wounded both physically and spiritually after going through the wood chipper at M&T Bank Stadium, the Texans come home on a short week to face a game that will likely determine the rest of the course of the season. Win, and the fate of the division continues to roll through Houston, as they’d drop to lower tiebreakers, improve to 3-1 in the division, and gain a one-game lead on the Colts. Lose, and not only are they behind the Colts, they automatically lose any tiebreaker to the Colts. Win, and homefield in the first round looks plausible. Lose, and the Texans are looking at a dogfight to make the playoffs.

The first matchup between these two teams did not allay any concerns that the Colts simply had Houston’s number. The Colts allowed little separation, destroyed the short middle of the field, and overcame short fields to force the Texans into field-goal attempts.

And while Houston only lost by a touchdown in Indianapolis, they had J.J. Watt at that point. They came into the game having Will Fuller, who remains questionable for this game and — I suspect — would probably not be 100 percent if he did play. The season has taken a toll on Houston’s star power and asked Bill O’Brien to respond. The answers, too often, haven’t been satisfactory.

Vegas opened the Texans as 5.5-point favorites. That number has dropped dramatically, as it’s down as low as 3.5 points in some places and the over/under has been bet down a full point (to 45.5) as well.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

The Texans degraded themselves and Deshaun Watson in last week’s bloodbath against the Ravens. Watson dealt with containment principles that he hadn’t seen before. The Ravens brought heat and phenomenal coverage. The run game was non-existent until the fourth quarter. RPOs were mostly left on the table to rot. It was a tough game to watch.

Moreover, we have to be honest about where this offense has gone over the last month without Fuller. The Texans can’t complete anything downfield — they’re just 7-of-16 for 212 yards and an interception on balls that went 15 yards past the line of scrimmage since Week 7 started. Specifically against the Colts, the Texans completed just one deep ball during the Wild Card game last year, and one deep ball during Week 14. This team knows Bill O’Brien’s preferred route combinations — and various max-protect schemes — and sticks to them. It really caps the ceiling of this offense against this defense.

The Colts held the Texans to 100 total rushing yards in Week 7, their second-lowest total of the season. Houston could not run out of 12-personnel to save their lives (1.7 YPC on nine attempts), and found more success in 11. Even that success was bolstered by 32 yards of Watson scrambles. My belief is that the Colts watched the Ravens game and will be eager to see if Watson has learned how to deal with contain principles. At this point, out of O’Brien’s base offense, the Texans are less dynamic than they are when Watson is calling the shots on the run. Indianapolis sure sounded like they understood that in interviews:

Indianapolis’ defense has been pretty hot of late, not allowing 300 total passing yards as a defense since Week 3. They entirely shut down Leonard Fournette last week against the Jaguars, and have allowed fewer than 20 points to their last four opponents. (Six of Pittsburgh’s points came on a Brian Hoyer pick-six.)

The Colts actually did not blitz Deshaun Watson very much in the last meetup between these two teams, sending just seven on 37 dropbacks. What they did do is play tenacious underneath defense, allowing only Darren Fells more than the league-average amount of separation:

Source: NFL Next Gen Stats

I expect DeAndre Hopkins to again draw Pierre Desir shadow coverage, as has become the norm between these two teams. That doesn’t usually look bad for the Texans, as Hopkins had 12 targets and 106 yards in Week 7 — he barely missed a touchdown that was called back on a horrific in-the-grasp ruling as well.

Unlike the last time these two teams met, safety Malik Hooker is in the lineup. Indianapolis should be at relatively full strength on defense for this game, minus safety Khari Willis who has already been declared out. Rock-Ya Sin is also questionable. Hooker, along with Justin Houston and Darius Leonard, are the guys I consider the stars of this defense. Them all being healthy for this might tilt things.

When the Colts have the ball

Houston is having problems legitimately fielding a defense for this game. There are only three safeties that can play with Justin Reid being ruled out early: Tashaun Gipson, Jahleel Addae, and A.J. Moore. Moore has played a grand total of four defensive snaps this year. Gipson looked slow and like he wanted no part of tackling Lamar Jackson last week — can’t blame him there, but I can say I’m not sure I’m comfortable believing he’s going to play well in this spot. With Lonnie Johnson getting ruled out, there are three potential options for No. 3 cornerback: a return from Bradley Roby, Vernon Hargreaves in his first week with the team, or Keion Crossen. I think I like Crossen the most of those options, but I don’t know that I’m thrilled with any of them. A fully healthy Roby would really save the season, but he’s been limited forever.

We effectively buried the lede with this discussion, which is that the Texans get absolutely no pressure without J.J. Watt. They barely even tried last week, putting a laughable five blitzes out on 25 Lamar Jackson dropbacks. He was sacked once and hurried exactly one other time. It was an embarrassing performance considering they were trying to stop the run and got rolled over in that area too. Even Johnathan Joseph said they thought they made it too easy on Jackson:

The good news for the Texans is that the way they were able to effectively slow Brissett down in Indianapolis was with blitzing. They sent 21 blitzes — most of them in the second half — and got three three-and-outs and one four-play drive in four attempts. Brissett’s pocket presence is not sterling and that’s perhaps his biggest flaw as a starting quarterback. The bad news is that, sans Watt, the Texans’ rush is less Bulls on Parade and more Motley Crue — who is going to be able to win one-on-one and get the rush to hit home?

Indianapolis retains one of the best offensive lines in the league, and even without Marlon Mack (hand), the Colts have a stable of solid backs that I think can do damage in this game. None of Houston’s linebackers have been able to check Nyheim Hines in coverage, and Jordan Wilkins has zero breakaway speed but is a solid sustaining back between the tackles. Johnathan Williams has always had the talent to roll over some fools, as well. Houston’s run defense should remain solid, but I would not be surprised if they got punctured for a few big gains coming off a short week, especially with weak tacklers at safety and outside.

Indy is banged up at receiver and tight end, but most of their players are still making the trip. T.Y. Hilton targeting this game for his return was as subtle as White House correspondence. Eric Ebron and Mo-Alie Cox made the trip as well. The Colts will be in a good position to have Zach Pascal run wild on crossing routes again:

I expect this to be a real feast-or-famine game plan for the Texans. Very aggressive at the line of scrimmage, blitz-heavy, and they’ll try to ask Brissett to make deep throws to make them pay. I think that game plan will likely be boom-bust, as implied by the original tagline, mostly because I don’t know if the team has played tight enough coverage over the middle to get to the deep throws.

Ultimately, I have low expectations for the Texans defense right now. They can get lucky via turnovers, and the Colts will probably hang the Texans in the game by running a lot, but on a down-by-down basis, any competent quarterback is a real threat against them. Brissett fits the standard.

Special teams

Ka’imi Fairbairn continues to struggle, and his pushed kick last week murdered whatever momentum the Texans had out of the break. Bill O’Brien wasn’t even asked questions about him this week, which goes to show what an organization-wide belief in using the Men In Black memory ray for Week 11’s existence will do for you.

They face one of the few teams who had also been destroyed by their kicker, as Adam Vinatieri’s year has been dismal. In what could be a low-scoring game without many opportunities, this matchup looms as potentially devastating for someone.

The Texans continue to have good special teams outside of Fairbairn’s kicks, and the Colts are solid outside of kick returns as well.

The read

Listen, I am not trying to hide this fact at all: I don’t like the Texans in this game.

It’s a tough spot for a banged up defense, the offense has been dragging ass for four weeks, and I don’t know how much running they’ll get to do. This is the scene of the teenage drama where Bill O’Brien is awkwardly making puppy eyes at the kid who is completely bad for him and we want to shake him.

At the same time, I have to admit that there are scenarios where they win this game. They involve some urgent O’Brien offensive changes (urgency unseen as far as pressers) or a superlative Deshaun Watson game. Watson would have to be far and away the best player on the field — as he was in the Jaguars game — for me to feel confident in the Texans winning.

That will be the tastiest crow I ever eat if it happens. I was committed to picking the Texans to win the division early, but without Watt, my confidence level has changed in the defense doing enough. Give me Colts 22, Texans 19.


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Four Downs: Ravens 41, Texans 7

It’s hard to get away from the idea that this game felt like a turning point.

The Texans, as noted, came in to today with a great chance to snag a head-to-head win over another of their few real rivals in the AFC. They came in off a bye, rested, and they had the opportunity to watch multiple weeks of Ravens film and tailor their game plan. They knew that a loss would put them into danger, and, as a team, the Texans opted for the danger.

The game was 14-0 at halftime. It would have been 20-0 if not for a doink off the goalpost and an ambitious fake field-goal attempt by the Ravens. The Texans faced 11 Ravens drives and were only able to keep one of them — when they kneeled out the first half with six seconds left — from ending in Texans territory. On offense, the Texans generated 110 total passing yards after you took note of the seven sacks. They ran the ball decently — though the overall numbers looked better than they were after Carlos Hyde’s long touchdown run — but they couldn’t do anything as a passing offense. Most of that yardage came in the first few drives, when DeAndre Hopkins was targeted on slants.

With their tails between their legs, the Texans are headed back to NRG on Thursday night for another must-win with the Colts. They can’t exit this three-game stretch 0-3, and after what happened this week with an aggressive, blitz-happy defense, it’s hard to have a lot of confidence about them beating the Patriots — who live for that kind of aggressive man-to-man this season — without a much better game plan.

Gotta coach better, same as it ever was.

1 — A not-so-brief treatise on the officiating and its role in this game

The NFL’s pass interference rules are a disaster. Allowing the penalty to be a spot-foul puts a ton of impetus on NFL officiating to bat 100%, because one wrong penalty can shift a game. The NFL’s new rules to allow challenging pass interference penalties — an overreaction to one swing in the NFC Championship game — have been an even bigger disaster because officials refuse to overturn clear pass interference penalties. That happened on Houston’s first drive:

So, here’s the thing though: It’s your coaching staff’s job to understand that these calls do not get overturned. Bill O’Brien was throwing a timeout into the sea. There was no way this was ever getting overturned. We know this! We see it every week! These calls don’t get overturned on challenge.

I understand that it creates a lot of cognitive dissonance among fans when calls like this happen, and I understand that it undermines faith in the NFL product. Pardon my language, but it frankly — as a fan — fucking sucks! It sucks that we have to have this conversation every week because the NFL won’t fix this.

The referees did not lose the Texans this game. They didn’t make the Texans go 2-of-10 on third downs, they didn’t make the Ravens outgain the Texans by 3.3 yards per play. I am sympathetic to ideas about game script and yes, getting points on the board first for Houston would have made this game closer. But the tenor of these comments — the idea that something was taken from the Texans that they didn’t have a chance to do anything about — is rooted in quitter talk. The Texans had 57 total offensive plays. They were average-to-bad on most of them. The Texans had 64 total defensive plays. They were average-to-bad on most of them. They lost this game because they weren’t the best team on the field.

It is very convenient to dismiss the result of this game as one where the Texans lost because “XX points got handed to the Ravens” on “things that should have been called.” But, that’s literally part of home-field advantage in studies! Referees are never going to be flawless. A team can’t get rattled by them.

The Texans did not play well enough to win the game. That’s what it is.

2 — Bill O’Brien and urgency

Coming into the Kansas City game — a huge game that the Texans won — a lot of the tone of Bill O’Brien’s comments throughout the week came off as if he knew he was an underdog. As if he had to make changes to win.

One of my biggest complaints about O’Brien as a head coach — and something that is maddening as a fan — is that he’s so good at making adjustments when he actually puts in the effort. The Kansas City game was one where they unveiled the read-option and RPO game as a base concept, and it crushed in that game.

This week? Nothing. No urgency. The Ravens are a great team. We’ll have to play well, and that starts with a good practice today. We’ll have to play disciplined and assignment-sound football. We can’t rock the boat.

The Texans played their base game. They barely used the read-option or RPOs at all. Hell, they barely had any pass offense outside of DeAndre Hopkins.

Maybe their base game is good enough to take out the Jaguars. Maybe it’s good enough to take down some of the other teams left on their schedule. But to have two weeks to prepare for one game and come out with this — it’s a tough look for anybody who wants to praise O’Brien. It’s a tough look for the organization as a whole.

I want to preface this next point with the idea that I might be wrong — it occurs to me that when you spend a lot of time with anything, you start to ascribe meaning to it. And perhaps more meaning to it than you should. I have spent a ton of time making videos of press conferences this year, and listening to what the Texans and their opponents have to say.

Does it mean something that the Texans weren’t as shocked as the fans that they lost? Multiple players noted they weren’t shocked after the game. Whereas Earl Thomas, the Ravens safety, expressed that he was surprised they won like they did:

It could just be idle chatter. Tunsil has played on a lot of losing Dolphins teams and has certainly been through the wars. Reader’s dismissal of it was interesting because it looked like he had more on his mind than he actually said.

Does it mean anything? I don’t know and I’m not going to tell you I know for sure. But it definitely set off some alarms to hear a player say he wasn’t surprised that they got their asses kicked like this.

3 — The relentless Ravens pass rush

One thing that the Texans haven’t really had to deal with this year is an aggressive pass rush. They had played just one team in the top 10 in blitz rate. The highest team they had played, Jacksonville, was at 30.6% — 13th — and also did pretty well about putting pressure on Watson in Week 2.

The Ravens, at a league-leading 49.4%, were always going to bring the heat. They brought it, and there seemed to be little accounting for it.

This is something that I think it’s hard to understand based on the video that we have — the all-22 is imperative in dissecting why Watson didn’t feel comfortable throwing to his reads. My initial perspective is to give a lot of dap to the Ravens secondary, which is full of talented players and used to covering in man. That was certainly the case on the play-action sack:

Watson did not have a great day in the pocket, particularly after his ankle was rolled at the end of the first half. He was short on a few throws, and he appeared to be a little less mobile afterwards.

But a lot of the sacks and hurries didn’t feel like Watson trying to freelance so much as they felt like a quarterback’s first reads getting taken away. That comes down to coaching.

Either way, obviously, hard to win a football game when the quarterback takes seven sacks and 10 quarterback hits.

4 — A defense laid bare

Houston’s defensive strength is in stopping the run. But Baltimore is one of the most unique and harmful run offenses in the NFL, and they enforced their will on the Texans. The Texans hung on for about a quarter — after the first quarter, Houston had allowed 34 rushing yards on seven attempts — and 18 of them came on one Lamar Jackson scramble past Jacob Martin.

But once Baltimore got on track with their running game, there really wasn’t much the Texans could do about anything.

The Texans had no answer for Lamar Jackson, who had 86 rushing yards. They had one sack — on a read-option where Brennan Scarlett jumped the entire play — and two total quarterback hits. As predicted, Romeo Crennel settled into comfortable zones and Jackson made them pay after a wobbly first quarter.

The Texans weren’t able to get a turnover. Jackson’s ability to change arm angles kept them from winning some of the coverage downs. And, obviously, they gave up 229 rushing yards in the final three quarters.

Many defenses are going to look foolish in front of this Ravens offense, which is well-designed, firing on all cylinders, and able to gain so, so many easy yards. This is very much to me a tale of a team that I think you’d have to be deep in the lab to stop.

But it was an eye-opener about how stark things are for the Texans without Watt and Clowney that there was nary a shred of resistance after the first quarter. If there were adjustments, they didn’t matter. The Texans were routed without mercy, and when they can’t stop the run, there’s almost zero upside as a defense here. It’s all rooting for self-inflicted mistakes from one of the best offenses in the NFL.

We saw how that went.


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Week 11 Preview: Texans @ Ravens

Folks, this is an enormous game in a season-defining stretch for the Texans. Obviously it begins with the subplot of matching two of the NFL’s better young quarterbacks against each other — though I think you might be surprised at just how little those quarterbacks throw in this game — but playoff implications are dripping off this stretch for the Texans.

The Texans are currently the third seed in the AFC at 6-3, Baltimore, at 7-2, is ahead of them. New England, at 8-1, is ahead of both of them and has such a cake December teed up that it is very difficult to see them losing more than three more games. If the Texans lose this game, and fall two games behind the Ravens while giving Baltimore a head-to-head tiebreaker, it will be effectively improbable that there is a path to a first-round bye.

To put that in a more alarmist perspective: The last team to make the Super Bowl without hosting a playoff game during the divisional round is the 2012 Ravens. Not one of 48 teams to try since has made it. The bye week to rest and plan is enormous. When you combine that with all the win-now trades that general manager Bill O’Brien has dug in on, the stakes of this particular regular season game could not possibly be any higher.

These teams last met in 2017, and the quarterbacks in that game were Tom Savage and Joe Flacco. Depressing! The Texans beat Baltimore in 2014, in Flacco’s best season. The Ravens handed the Texans the first of their 14 consecutive losses in 2013, and, famously, ended the best season in Texans franchise history (my opinion) by nearly picking off T.J. Yates seventeen times in the AFC Divisional round.

The line opened at Baltimore minus-5 and the general trend has moved the line down to 4 or 4.5 while moving the over/under up anywhere from a point to a half-point. Let’s look at the why:

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy Football Outsiders

Let’s get right to the juice: The Texans are going to need to be able to run the ball to win this game. The Ravens have undergone a ton of turnover at middle linebacker, shedding Kenny Young and winding up with Josh Bynes next to Patrick Onwausor. They also literally just brought in Kenrick Ellis and Domata Peko off the street this week, with Michael Pierce likely to miss this game. The way you attack this team is with the run — they gave up 157 yards to a sad sack Bengals team last week and have gotten rolled by running games as weak as Kansas City (140 yards).

The Texans are as well-positioned as any team right now to be able to deliver on the run game, and I personally believe that — hilarious as this is in a vaunted quarterback matchup — both teams will want to establish the run and run to limit the time of possession. The Ravens average more time of possession per drive on offense than any other team. The Texans are sixth.

Houston’s running game has been one of the league’s best, boosted by their quarterback’s legs and multiple RPO concepts. Carlos Hyde is having a fantastic year, and I think how well things go will depend a lot on how healthy the offensive line is. I’m a bit concerned that Laremy Tunsil is still putting up limited practices after a bye week. Baltimore’s got a lot of veteran talent along this line that — while not playing excellent football every down — will be able to spill a play or two and set up some bad situations. Brandon Williams is still a War Daddy.

Houston’s passing game is running into a buzzsaw that has been lights out since acquiring Marcus Peters. Baltimore held the Seahawks to 241 passing yards, then held the Patriots to 268. Meanwhile, they’ve created seven turnovers in their last three games. Baltimore’s weakest point is deep passes, where they’ve allowed a 33.0% DVOA (22nd), but when you say that out loud and realize that you’re throwing at Earl Thomas … well, that’s not really so easy, is it? The Ravens do have one of the biggest differences in yards per play allowed on play-action (9.4 yards) compared to non-play action (6.2).

Under Don Martindale, the Ravens have run the most aggressive, blitz-happy scheme of the last two seasons. They led the NFL in blitz percentage in 2018, and are narrowly holding on over Tampa Bay this year at 49.4%. This a) helps disguise the fact that they don’t have a true No. 1 edge rusher and b) helps make every down’s decision-making very fast. The Ravens have used shadow coverage often this year with Marlon Humphrey, and you should not be surprised if he pesters DeAndre Hopkins. It should be noted that Humphrey has not exactly been terrific empirically while shadowing, but that doesn’t make him any less talented.

Deshaun Watson has played excellent ball this year when dealing with the blitz, and I think he will hold his own in this game. However, I would not at all be surprised if he took a more 2018-level of sacks in this game. I don’t think he or the Texans have faced a team yet this season that brings the heat like these Ravens do. That means that Max Scharping and Tytus Howard are going to have to hold up one-on-one often — something that they both have struggled with in pass protection at times as rookies.

This is going to be a spotlight game for the offensive line and the offensive coaching staff — Bill O’Brien can’t dial up hot reads to the flat on third-and-9 and expect to win this game. The Ravens ask you to risk it against a secondary full of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. The Texans need to find a way to win that fight with cautious aggression.

When the Ravens have the ball

If you want to get a sense of how this offense is being viewed in Baltimore right now, someone asked Jim Harbaugh in his Wednesday presser if the team was “unstoppable.” So, yeah, they’ve been having some good times.

On paper, Baltimore’s run offense versus Houston’s run defense is strength-on-strength. In actuality, Baltimore is a huge anomaly for all run defenses to deal with. They haven’t been held under 23 points or 136 rushing yards as a team all season, and their serious wheels quarterback, army of tight ends and drawer of option plays (Marshal Yanda said on Wednesday that Greg Roman has the thickest playbook he’s ever seen) are incredibly problematic for any team to play against.

The Texans mostly talked about Baltimore’s run offense in incredibly simplistic terms, and don’t appear to be going out of their way to schematically change. They’re also coming off their worst run defense DVOA game of the season, with no J.J. Watt around to create negative plays. I would wager a lot of money against the prospect of Houston’s seven-game streak of holding their opponent under 100 rushing yards surviving Sunday.

Speaking of surviving, I think the Houston secondary got quite a few breaks against Gardner Minshew in London. Gareon Conley broke up a lot of balls, but he also let those balls get to his assignments in the first place. Minshew had terrible short accuracy, perhaps the worst game of his career to this point. I don’t think the Texans played bad, but I just think they lack impact talent that can affect a passing play at this point. D.J. Reader and Houston’s linebackers are playing excellent ball.

Lamar Jackson is not a superstar just yet — he’s definitely got the talent to be one, but he’s still refining what all he can and can’t do on a football field. One area he has improved on a lot is his work against the blitz, where he’s thrown seven touchdowns this year. Jackson passing is interesting simply because you expect someone with his physical traits to have a rocket arm — and he does have a great arm — but he’s also capable of spinning it, throwing from weird arm angles. In that specific sense he kind of reminds me of Matthew Stafford.

I expect that the Texans will probably not blitz quite as much as they have to this point in the season — I think you will see a lot of zone coverage in this game from them, and I think they will try to make Jackson march down the field methodically and hope to capitalize on a mistake or two. Romeo Crennel’s defense has been fairly good coming off byes and I think the Texans are going to try to run a lot of what they did against Minshew against Jackson. The only difference is that Minshew’s scrambles are effective, but lack danger. Jackson is liable to leave the entire secondary on their asses if he gets there.

Even though Jackson isn’t Drew Brees, and the receiving corps the Ravens have isn’t Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, I expect Crennel to use a lot of the concepts he used against New Orleans. Bend-don’t-break and find an intermediate pass that can be pounced on to get off the field.

Special teams

No reprieve here either, as the Ravens have the best kicker in the NFL and a slew of solid/average special teamers to back him up. The Texans continue to botch kicks left and right, getting one blocked against the Jaguars and then having Kai Fairbairn miss a 57-yarder way short.

Baltimore’s main punt returner, Cyrus Jones, was waived before this game. Maybe that’s something that goes in Houston’s favor? I’m grasping.

The read

Who is the player who I am most confident is great in this game? The answer is Deshaun Watson.

But I don’t know how to look at this game and believe the Texans will win it outside of a transcendent performance by Watson or Kansas City-esque ass-kicking in the run game. I don’t know that the Texans have a way to slow down the Baltimore offense. It’s a bad matchup — I don’t think they cut into the run offense much, and the Ravens know how to pound the middle of the field with their receivers and that’s the area that the Texans are terrible at defending this year.

I also believe in the analytics, and the Ravens believe in the analytics. As much credit as I’ve given O’Brien this year coming out of some of his games, and as much as the bye week will help the Texans, I just think Baltimore’s got them outflanked. I think this Ravens team is a purer expression of what the future of football looks like than what O’Brien’s Texans are. If BOB proves me wrong on this one, man, I’d love to eat that crow.

I will keep this prediction within one score almost entirely out of respect for Watson, but there is a part of my gut that believes this will be a blowout and a return to smaller ambitions like winning the division and hoping to play the Bills in the first round. Baltimore 30, Houston 22.


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Bye Week Texans Rookie Report Cards

We did this column for The Athletic this past year, I’ll write it again this year since we’ve got a bye week to play with.

I’m going to give players grades. The grades are not reflective of how I feel about the player’s long-term future — just how well they’ve played this year. I’ll talk plenty about long-term future of each as well. Now that I’ve written this you will promptly ignore it, but at least I can tap the top of the post like a good bus driver when you do.

Tytus Howard — 1-23, T, Alabama State
Did I write about this pick at the time: I sure did, here you go.

The context of drafting Tytus Howard changed completely when the Texans pulled off the Laremy Tunsil trade. My strong opinion that Howard is not the same sort of pass-protecting prospect that Andre Dillard is influenced a lot of how I felt about the pick at the time, because I didn’t think he could hack NFL left tackle. Now he won’t have to.

Howard’s preseason was … an adventure. The team played him at both left guard and left tackle. I’m not a fan of the decision to try to get a rookie to learn multiple spots in his first season, which is a philosophy that I think the Texans are really on an island with across the NFL. (BOB also stans the island of platooning tackles.) Howard looked downright lost in the Green Bay game at times — his first start.

He got two weeks at left guard before being moved outside, with Seantrel Henderson going to the bench. It’s plain as day that he’s a better athlete than Henderson, but that caused some initial struggles in chemistry.

Howard’s biggest strength to me right now is one-on-one run blocking. He’s got the power and speed, and doesn’t miss too many guys in a phone booth. It gets a little more questionable when he moves up to the second level, where he has missed some guys. But overall I’m on board with the idea that he has improved a little bit each time he played, exempting the two weeks he missed with a sprained MCL.

I don’t think there’s a lot to be worried about just yet as a future right tackle. His hand play could be better, and I could see that costing the Texans in a tight game down the stretch. His second-level blocking could be better. But he definitely has all the tools to stick at the position. He just needs time and experience.

Grade: B-minus

Lonnie Johnson Jr — 2-54, CB, Kentucky
Did I write about the pick at the time? Yes, I did

Johnson’s career arc is a little reversed, though I’m not all that surprised. Johnson got to play a lot of preseason ball against b-teams in vanilla coverages. He played very well given that context.

But I think it’s pretty clear that most NFL cornerbacks are not great in their rookie season, and Johnson, raw out of Kentucky, was never a good bet to break that mold. The Texans, of course, saw fit to bring their rookie cornerback along slowly by immediately releasing their starting nickelback, Aaron Colvin, after Week 1. That forced Johnson into the starting lineup. I think he’s improved a bit in man-coverage since his disastrous first few weeks.

His best snap of the year, like Howard’s, probably came in Kansas City when he had man coverage on the outside, Patrick Mahomes was the opposing quarterback, and he was up to the task against Demarcus Robinson:

He missed the London game with a concussion. Hopefully the bye week clears that up — concussions aren’t all the same.

I don’t think I expected more than this out of Johnson this season, so I’m not all that surprised that it’s been up-and-down. My mental comparison to him as Kareem Jackson at least looks to be a bit off, because he’s not getting torched in the same way, (Kareem struggled with the deep ball, not crossers.) Ultimately I think that’s about what the Texans are looking at here. I don’t think Johnson’s zone play or tackling will enable him to become a star without a lot more improvement than I’ve seen so far, leaving him looking to grow up into the same kind of solid-average corner Jackson is with better deep speed.

Grade: C

Max Scharping, 2-55, T, Northern Illinois
Did I write about this pick at the time?: Yes, I did.

My outside belief was that Scharping was a better tackle prospect than Howard was as far as actual play, and if the tools played, he would be a better pro. I don’t think we’ll ever know how that supposition would have turned out, because I don’t think the Texans will ever put Scharping outside. Scharping’s insertion at guard really helps his athletic tools play up though, so I doubt anyone is all that bothered.

Scharping’s preseason was, like the two guys ahead of him on this list, not exactly an auspicious start:

Scharping has added some real heft to the line since taking over in Week 3, I think Houston’s combo blocking has definitely improved with him at guard. Scharping is a max-effort kind of player who, without necessarily pancaking guys left and right, plays with a good amount of edge.

Pass blocking is a bit rough for Scharping right now, and I think a lot of that has to do with not being used to squaring up targets at the position. Some of his blocks, especially this one in Indianapolis, look a bit out of place:

Again, like with Howard, I see no reason the physical tools can’t make Scharping a good guard. I am not altogether unsure that he can’t play right tackle, though there should be no need for that. So far, the technique needs further refinement. I am optimistic that we can eventually look at Scharping as an upper-tier guard. How far he goes is up to him, but I think he has the raw talent and effort to be very, very good in a few years.

Grade: C-plus

Kahale Warring, 3-86, TE, San Diego State
Did I write about this pick at the time? I did, yes.

Warring has been on PUP or IR for almost the entirety of training camp and the regular season, and there has been zero rush to get him back onto the field with Darren Fells playing well and Jordan Akins capitalizing on his receiving snaps.

The long-term future could be real interesting here. Fells is a fine receiver in his role, but he is not dynamic in the slightest. If Warring who can block like Fells and break tackles like someone else is … well, that potential should at least excite the Texans enough to see where everybody is at next year.

Fells’ future is an interesting one. I think the Texans really like him. At the same time, they would have to admit that between Akins, Warring, and Thomas, they have drafted this position to be cheap and productive, and reeling back Fells might cost a little more after the kind of season he’s had.

I’d just say — I think Warring can still be just about anything, from All-Pro to washout, at this point.

Grade: Incomplete

Charles Omenihu, 5-161, DE, Texas
Did I write about this pick at the time? No.

I probably should have written about Omenihu’s college play. Maybe that can be a fun offseason project.

Instead, my first real glimpse of Omenihu was watching him in preseason, where he performed well, but always against B-teams. If you haven’t gleaned this from the Lonnie Johnson part of this post yet: I’m very reluctant to call someone a success because of preseason success unless they’re showing up against the starters. Omenihu showed, just not against the starters.

Omenihu has had a very impactful season to date, though not exactly in a way that I think suggests he’s a star. A building block, yes. He’s been fairly good at executing his run responsibilities, and he’s had two of the biggest strip sacks the team has created all season — one against Jacksonville, and one against Kansas City.

Omenihu has had an interesting season as far as playing time — not active for the first game, and the coaching staff essentially platooned him with Carlos Watkins when both were on the active roster until Week 9. Week 9, of course, is Houston’s first game without J.J. Watt. Omenihu did not become a full-time starter, but did grab the bulk of the snaps that Watt vacated.

Omenihu has played quite well within his role, but to me he’s a better fit as an interior rusher long-term. He’s a tick slow to the edge and I think his hand moves will play better against guards than they will against tackles. Best-case scenario here is you’ve got something in the five-to-seven sack range who mostly does it with smart reads. Worst-case at this point is probably a situational rusher.

Grade: B

Xavier Crawford, 6-195, CB, Central Michigan
Did I write about this pick at the time? No.

Crawford played no preseason snaps until Week 3, made the roster, played three defensive snaps when literally every other cornerback was hurt against Indianapolis, then was released and claimed by the Dolphins on waivers. Nothing I saw of his preseason work really made me think this guy had to stick, and as I did no work on him before training camp, I wasn’t super invested in him. Apparently other teams liked him though, so — you know, I doubt that it’s coming back to haunt the Texans with Conley on the roster but it’d be kind of funny if it did.

Grade: D-minus

Cullen Gillaspia, 7-220, FB/Special Teams, Texas A&M
Did I write about this pick at the time? No.

Let’s be honest, there hasn’t really been much of a reason for Gillapsia to be a fullback. When he has played, well, it hasn’t been great:

Evaluating good special teams play is beyond the scope of what I have time to do while paying bills — gotta make sacrifices somewhere — but I don’t think Gillapsia has been a superstar on them and I think you kind of have to be one if you’re going to contribute this little on offense. Rooting for him to get better looks, maybe get someone on his ass on a goal-line run, but I’m not rioting if he gets cut.

Grade: D-plus


I’m happily writing this article free of charge — this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Four Downs: Texans 26, Jaguars 3

The Houston Texans came out with a statement against the Jacksonville Jaguars: We have Deshaun Watson, and you do not.

Staked with the ball first, the Texans established the tempo of the game with a 6:40 drive that only stalled out early because of multiple penalties. The Jaguars managed just four first-half drives, one of which was a kneelout. With Watson’s contributions in the running game, the Jaguars just never were fully able to get a bead on Carlos Hyde, and his 48-yard run towards the end of the third quarter led to the knockout touchdown.

The Jaguars were put in a multiple-score deficit after Houston scored a touchdown, and a Texans defense that played sound, disciplined football pounced all over some poor Gardner Minshew throws to end the game with four turnovers.

Credit where it’s due: This was an excellent game plan from the Texans, and they were able to overcome a lot of injuries to make a laugher out of a team that’s been pretty quality this year and gave them a scare at NRG.

Going to 6-3, with every other team in the division losing and Jacoby Brissett’s status up in the air, the Texans just pounced into prime playoff position as they head into their bye week. They’re two games up on most of the rest of the wild card hunt and division, and they’ve got every chance to control their own destiny against a schedule that only gets tougher after the bye.

1 –Watson deflates defenses

Doug Marrone was asked about the defense not finishing sack attempts after the game, and his answer is pretty revealing about the obvious advantages of having Deshaun Watson as your starting quarterback:

If we’re continuing our Michael Jordan comparisons that Jon Gruden gave us last week, Watson put a number of high-profile dunks on his beleaguered defensive opponents this week. He escaped a sack with an improvised dumpoff to Carlos Hyde that turned a potential third-and-long into a first down:

The defense thought they had him on second-and-20 in the second quarter, and instead he flipped a perfect ball out to Duke Johnson without even having a base under him to throw from, as both his legs were in the air:

And of course, the most iconic moment even as it didn’t go for six, Watson almost found a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter by jumping over Ronnie Harrison entirely:

What the Texans are doing right now is so simple. They’re using Watson as a rusher to get the box advantage, they have mostly gone away from deep throws the last few weeks against teams that tend to play a lot of deep safeties. They’re running a lot of read-option and run-pass options, and they’re telling defenses to solve it.

The reason this plan is so effective isn’t the plan itself — these plays are staples of many NFL offenses — it’s because Watson’s skill set is so extra deadly in them. You can’t have your defensive force player ignore Watson, so the Texans are always running with a numbers advantage. You can’t let tight ends sneak out, because that’s generally about 5-8 free yards, so when Watson rolls out, you can’t leave the tight end. You also have a player who can run for first downs outside. This was demonstrated well on Houston’s fourth-down conversion on their first touchdown drive:

You account for Akins, you account for Watson. Watson can still just make a perfect touch pass on the run and it looks childishly easy.

Watson is miserable to play against.

I will forever be grateful, after 15 years of above-average to poor quarterbacks, that we get to watch this every week.

2 — Game script defense

The Texans finished this game with four turnovers, four sacks, and five quarterback hits.

They had none of them before the score was 19-3.

I think if you’re trying to extrapolate how well this defense will play against better quarterbacks from this team, it’s probably about where we thought it was. Don’t be fooled by the scoreline. This was a perfect matchup for the Texans, one where Gardner Minshew rarely targeted the middle of the field, the Jaguars played right into Houston’s hand by running often, and Minshew was green enough to get fooled by Romeo Crennel’s late adjustments.

You’re going to hear a lot of crowing this week about this defense. Don’t fall for it. This will not become the norm. But I do think there are positives to take from how tightly they contested some balls and how disciplined the played as a whole.

3 — Laremy Tunsil’s absence was barely felt

This is my dead horse to ride on.

Against a team with three vicious pass rushers in Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen, the Jaguars managed one sack and seven quarterback hits. If Laremy Tunsil plays, I think you are looking at probably four quarterback hits instead of seven — this is, again, with some horrific tackle play from Chris Clark, who continued to rate as a rotation player in Bill O’Brien’s eyes for reasons I cannot even begin to comprehend:

This was always about the quarterback and what O’Brien was asking him to do. I give every bit of props to O’Brien for remaking the offense to challenge defenses earlier in the down, and I’m sure some of the wrinkles to this game plan would not work exclusively against every team with a bad left tackle all season. Laremy Tunsil has been extremely good when he’s played.

But part of the reason I was so adamant about that trade being an overpay is because I thought games like this were a reality with or without Tunsil. This is a real tough and nasty front, and Deshaun Watson’s passing chart showed that, with almost nothing super deep:

To me, the end game of this offense was always that the short would open the deep, not the other way around. I think there’s still plenty of ways for the trade to unfold where the Texans will have gotten their worth — particularly if Tunsil is able to stonewall some big pass rushers in playoff games to come — but when we are talking about how the Texans need to rebuild their pass rush next offseason, and the only thing I can talk about is free agency and weighing who needs to be re-signed versus who doesn’t … well, the Tunsil trade is going to continue to cast a big shadow over the future of this franchise. For better or for worse.

4 — Duke Johnson, WR1

With Keke Coutee apparently completely indisposed from the Houston game plan, and the short passing game being an emphasis the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of recentering around Duke Johnson. Johnson had five targets last week against the Raiders and found a touchdown out of them, and had five more against the Colts in Week 7.

Johnson, of course, was always going to deliver on these passes. He’s been an empirically amazing running back for several years, and I’m a big fan of any play that gets him into space. The only problem with Johnson right now is that he almost seems to telegraph that it’s going to be a pass play with his presence, which is why the Texans tried to get him going a little bit with a goal line carry:

I have generally been in favor of Carlos Hyde getting the carries between the tackles because to me there is a noticeable difference between the two in reading blocks. Johnson again didn’t have a great day with that, though he’s so dynamic that sometimes it just doesn’t matter. It might be worth setting up some more runs with Johnson solely to keep a defense on their toes. Especially if they can be designed in low-impact plays like second-and-short.

Duke Johnson was all about solidifying this offense’s floor, and he’s delivered on that. These targets would have gone to Alfred Blue or someone like Vyncint Smith last year. We saw what happened when Steven Mitchell was given a chance in the first quarter, when Watson led him perfectly and Mitchell couldn’t catch up to the ball. Johnson is one of the players that will probably keep me from ever predicting less than 20 points for the Texans all season. He’s just that dynamic.


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Week 9 Preview: Texans @ London (vs. Jaguars)

With a Deshaun Watson Houdini win in their back pocket from last week’s season-altering clash with the Raiders, the Houston Texans enter this week’s game in a precarious situation in a few ways. For one thing, the defense will have to operate without J.J. Watt, ending almost all of the pass rush they’ve received this season. For another, Lonnie Johnson’s concussion further exacerbates a cornerback unit that has been besieged by injury.

At the same time, even though this game is taking place at 8:30 central time, it has a ton of meaning for the Texans. A win would improve their playoff odds per ESPN’s calculations by 22%, Getting to 6-3 in this weakened AFC would mean a ton for the Texans.

Houston won Week 2’s matchup with the Jaguars by … one point. As I wrote then, there were reasons to believe Gardner Minshew had some promise, and he has mostly fulfilled that promise so far. The Jaguars, surprisingly, have a better pass offense DVOA than the Texans. Jacksonville has not beaten Houston since 2017. Houston is favored to win this game by … one point. It opened with the Texans as three-point favorites and got bet down.

The Jaguars have played in London every season since 2013. If you deeply care about the lore of London games, the Jaguars are 3-3 in these games. Both the Texans and Jaguars flew in on the same day, so thankfully we won’t be hearing much about the travel adjustment time in a competitive advantage sense.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

The major issue in this game is the return of Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue did not play in Week 2, but already has four sacks and 16 hurries per Sports Info Solutions. The health of Roderick Johnson and Tytus Howard remains an open question mark, though both practiced in full on Thursday. Backup tackle Chris Clark was a disaster in Week 8, and if he happens to get a full complement of playing time again I think it will significantly hurt Houston’s chances of getting much going downfield against the Jaguars.

With a healthy Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen, I expect to see the Texans doing a lot of what they did in the fourth quarter last week: rolling Watson out of the pocket to avoid pressures and set up their RPO quick pass game. The Jaguars are third in the NFL in sacks. Even if Howard is healthy, both he and Max Scharping have had their rookie-year issues in one-on-one pass pro, and the Jaguars blitz a fair amount.

Jacksonville is 24th in the NFL in DVOA allowed on passes over the middle, at 33.8%. Myles Jack has rebounded a bit from his rough start against Kansas City in Week 1, but Jacksonville’s cheap dreams at linebacker have been a disaster. Both Leon Jacobs and Quincy Williams have been sidelined with injuries in practices this week, and it seems likely that the Texans will draw Austin Calitro as a starter. The Texans will probably want to target him in RPOs.

I don’t know how else to say it: I am flummoxed by replacing Keke Coutee with DeAndre Carter last weekend. Carter is more elusive than speedy, and one of his downfield targets last week was more akin to watching a hockey goalie than a receiver. Coutee may have made mental errors, but he is head-and-shoulders above Carter as a receiver — and his elusiveness makes him a good fit for this game in particular. The Jaguars have allowed more yards after the catch than any team besides the Texans. I’m really hoping this was a one-week blip, because I think highly of Coutee’s on-field talent.

I’m sad the DeAndre Hopkins-Jalen Ramsey matchup is gone. It was always one of the biggest draws in the AFC South. The Jaguars are actually pretty banged up at cornerback as well, with DJ Hayden missing the first two days of practice this week and Josh Robinson suddenly retiring. Tre Herndon and A.J. Bouye look to be the outside corners, with Breon Borders next man up as the third guy. Hayden is listed as questionable. I think you could still see someone shadowing Hopkins, as that’s a power/length matchup and the Jaguars have traditionally showed Hopkins with Ramsey. The Jaguars did shadow Robby Anderson with Tre Herndon last week. Personally I think Bouye is a better fit for Hopkins since that’s power on power, but I’m not an NFL head coach.

The most important thing in this game for Houston’s sake is for them to be able to run the ball. The odds look good there in my opinion. The Jaguars have a positive run defense DVOA (bad), and allowed 126 rushing yards the last time these two teams met. They are coming off back-to-back weeks of 33 and 46 rushing yards allowed, but those were against two completely incompetent offenses in Cincinnati and the Jets.

When the Jaguars have the ball

Gardner Minshew has been pretty good this season, but the Jaguars maintain an offensive identity that is more about running the football. They are seventh in the NFL in rushing attempts even though a ton of the value they get from them are just the big randomly long Leonard Fournette runs. Per SportsRadar numbers, no NFL team gets more yards after contact than the Jaguars on their runs — 3.1 per attempt, and they lead the NFL on a counting stat level by more than 100 yards. This is a spotlight game for Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney — they’re going to be moving up in the pecking order for the Jaguars to block with Watt gone. Easiest way to hold down this offense is to keep them throwing in on third-and-long.

Jacksonville’s offensive line has received an upgrade in the form of a healthy Cam Robinson, who is much better than Will Richardson. You’ll recall that a lot of Houston’s pressure in Week 2 involved Whitney Mercilus dominating Richardson. Robinson is a much more fair matchup for the Jaguars. Not having to help Jawaan Taylor outside will also mean a lot in pass protection, as you’ll recall that they mostly kept Watt contained with double teams in Week 2.

The other thing that happened in Week 2 is that Romeo Crennel blitzed the hell out of Gardner Minshew. SportsRadar has Minshew with 20 blitzes taken in 37 dropbacks, and most of the non-blitz dropbacks were on the final drive. Minshew shows some pretty big splits between blitzed and non-blitzed games. The Saints brought 13 blitzes in holding him to 163 yards in Week 6. The Jaguars were held down through most of the game against the Broncos with 12 blitzes. Even the Bengals had early success with blitzes. I expect the Texans will make that a thematic part of the game plan again, especially because they have no other choice if they want to get pressure. It should be noted that Minshew has great success as a scrambler this year: No team has scrambled more than the Jaguars through Week 8, and their 7.9 yards per scramble are more than the Texans get from Watson as a scrambler.

I would classify the Jaguars as more of a short-passing offense than a deep-passing offense, but interestingly, most of those plays are away from the middle of the field. Minshew threw just one ball between the hashes in Week 8, and only eight passes qualified as “short middle” in the play-by-play. More interestingly, they only had two passes listed as “short middle” against the Texans in Week 2. This is a big positive to me as far as a matchup trend because the Texans, as I noted earlier this week, have been absolutely atrocious defending passes over the middle this past month:

The Texans will not have Tashaun Gipson or Lonnie Johnson for this game, with neither player making the trip across the pond. It looks like the starting cornerback trio will be Johnathan Joseph, Gareon Conley, and Keion Crossen. I expect the Jaguars to try to get DJ Chark on Johnathan Joseph as often as possible, as that’s a physical mismatch and something that worked in Week 2. Chris Conley also had a nice game outside in Week 2. Fill-in safety Jahleel Addae won’t be asked to do anything too big, with the Jaguars not working their tight ends often in the passing game. Mike Adams will take Addae’s role as dime safety.

There’s a lot of pressure on Houston’s defensive front seven to remain stout without Watt, but they did a fairly good job holding up against Josh Jacobs in the second half last week against Oakland’s run-heavy game plan. The Jaguars are primarily an 11-personnel team, so that’s asking a lot of D.J. Reader. But Reader has been great in almost every game this season, even when asked to play against Quenton Nelson.

Special teams

With field goals trending in the right direction, the Texans don’t have a real weakness as a special teams unit at this point.

The Jaguars have gotten excellent accuracy from Josh Lambo, but have just 73 yards from Dede Westbrook on 14 punt returns. He may be stretched a little thin between his role on offense and returns.

The read

As much as I think that the Texans will eventually be hurt by J.J. Watt’s absence, I think what they do as a defense is a fairly good fit for how the Jaguars play. They can stop the run. They already have proven they’ll send the heat at Gardner Minshew. Minshew may beat them deep a couple of times — that’s kind of how things have crumbled now. The Texans need those negative plays too badly.

I expect Bill O’Brien to play a heavily conservative game plan with a lot of runs. I think he knows how banged up his team is and is trying to get to the bye week with as little stress as possible. That could backfire if the Jaguars get off to a quick start, or it could be part of a positive game script.

After looking at the gritty details, I’m a little more encouraged by this matchup. I agree that the game will be close, and I think it will be less offensive than most of Houston’s last four games if only because both teams love to run. Texans 22, Jaguars 21 is the call here. I don’t feel very confident about this because I think Watt’s injury opens up a lot of different ways the Jaguars can win that we may not know about until they’re exposed on the field.


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