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
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.
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.
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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