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?

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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.

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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.

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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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