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


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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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