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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