Four Downs: Broncos 38, Texans 24

Well! That was degrading for everybody involved.

The Texans, coming off one of the best wins in franchise history, flopped and surrendered on Sunday. Rookie quarterback Drew Lock, in his second start, destroyed the Romeo Crennel game plan, and Kareem Jackson’s fumble-six return game-scripted the Texans to a hell that they were never able to climb out of.

It is a crushing loss, and one that carries with it a bevy of questions. Why isn’t a team that is able to seemingly bottle up Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady unable to do the same against a rookie quarterback? How did the Texans get behind so quickly?

I’m going to run out of space because we’ve got a lot of little things to talk about, but I want to quickly mention the fourth-and-1 go the Texans did in their own territory. I loved this call:

I don’t like moving the running back out, but that seems to be a comfy thing for Watson so I understand it. The score is 24-3. The game is effectively over if you punt it, and you have to chase at that point. They dialed up a play that had not one, but two open receivers. The ball was tipped. A lot of my timeline was up in arms about how Hopkins was open — well, the pick play action was supposed to free up Coutee, it was the primary read, and it was also open. It’s poor execution — and a play that I think Watson has more problems throwing than over the middle — but not a play I think was bad in general. It was a poor result rather than a poor process to me.

And, well, that’s how I feel about a lot of what the offense did today. But first:

1 — Houston’s defense was thrashed repeatedly

Here’s the real problem the Houston Texans face: They have no negative plays. Drew Lock took one sack — from Jacob Martin in the fourth quarter when the game was already in hand — and took a bunch of quarterback hits late in the play. So when you do that, you have to have tight coverage.

They did not have tight coverage. Lock’s first touchdown throw? Incredibly well defensed by Jahleel Addae, great throw and it still took a great catch from the tight end.

Everything else the Broncos did? Wide the hell open. Just play after play of open receivers with nobody next to them. A sonning by Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello.

Denver torched Houston’s play-action defense — which actually started the day allowing only 6.5 yards per pass — by making sure that everything was headed towards the first action. That’s a natural order for Crennel’s units and something I’m surprised doesn’t get exploited as often as it should.

So yes, Lock’s first touchdown throw? Excellent. The other two? Receivers went in essentially untouched. Guys were flying open on slants. This was a case of a unit that got flat-out outcoached. And when you have no room for error and get outcoached, you can give up 31 points as an offense.

Simply put: The Texans can’t afford for Romeo Crennel to give up that much space to anybody right now. They’ve got to game plan better. Oh, and Tennessee loves play-action, so — get on that right quick, right?

2 — The offense … actually wasn’t that bad until they crossed the 50.

Houston’s first four series gained 135 yards. That’s not too shabby. But when they crossed the Denver 50-yard-line in the first half, they turned into pumpkins.

The Texans were haunted by a pair of crucial false starts by penalty league-leader Laremy Tunsil, who has been a walking false start violation this season. That forced plays that were third-and-5 and third-and-10 to third-and-10 and third-and-15, respectively. But more importantly, they gained negative-1 yards on 13 plays. There were a mix of woeful plays by both Deshaun Watson, his receivers, and the coaches in those drives — I want to talk about play-action passing later this week so I’ll save it for that — but when the Texans threw on first down they threw into crowds. The Broncos seemed to be waiting on curls. Watson often had to go past his first few options to find someone open.

You can see Watson reading the field on this throwaway. Doesn’t like it to the right, doesn’t like it in the middle, has to get going:

Simply put — it’s very hard to score when you can’t produce in this area. The Texans got a long field-goal attempt out of it, punted twice, and had the fumble-six. They moved the ball fairly well. But, well, the execution matters.

3 — Kareem Jackson was a man on a mission

Jackson walked from Houston to Denver without even a contract offer after nine years here as a first-round pick. He was one of the major reasons the Texans won the game against the Broncos in Denver last season. And, here, he was one of the main reasons that the Texans were whomped. Jackson returned the fumble for a score, intercepted a ball late off a deflection, and thumped DeAndre Hopkins bad enough to send him to the medical tent:

I wrote a big piece about Jackson’s history in Houston before the season when it became clear he wouldn’t come back. Obviously, when you cover players, you aren’t supposed to let your personal feelings get in the way about them. It makes some sense to let 31-year-old safeties head off. I get it. But I always admired that Kareem was able to come back from his dreadful first couple of years and become a contributor. Even though it was Texans ass he was kicking today, it was still fun to watch him play:

Say what you will about Jackson’s coverage — and boy have I ever over the years — but he could always come downhill and thump you. Still can, as the Texans learned on Sunday.

4 — The rotations fell apart

Johnathan Joseph isn’t a man-coverage cornerback in 2019. He’s just not. I think he’s objectively the best cornerback in Texans history, and I respect the hell out of him. He’s just not physical enough to hang on horizontal crossing routes anymore:

The idea of bringing in all these other corners was that the Texans needed to play more physical coverage, but the Texans rotated cornerbacks around wildly, to the point where even Bradley Roby was getting taken off the field, and it didn’t seem to help anybody.

Chris Clark is still bad. That was a rotation that nobody needed and I still have no idea why he gets to play over Roderick Johnson. (And no, “he’s a good teammate” is not a good answer.)

It felt like we saw a lot less Jacob Martin with the return of Brennan Scarlett, and as much as I think Scarlett’s good at what he does, what he does is not pass rusher. Martin had the lone sack of the game:

Scarlett, playing hurt (I assume) and being shook up later in the game, was the victim of an easy touchdown throw off motions from the Broncos play-action:

I don’t think any of the players I named aren’t NFL-caliber players. I just think the Texans didn’t really understand how to use them best in this game at this time. They don’t know who they want to start at corner or in what situation they want to play them all. They don’t know if pass rush is more important than run stuffing. So it felt very much like a game where the Texans just threw some shit at the wall to see what stuck:

Unfortunately, this is something that kind of comes with the territory of bringing in new players. It’s one of those things that happens when you are as aggressive as O’Brien has been about bringing in new guys.

Here’s how I’d play it: Start Roby and Conley, put Hargreaves in on third downs. Martin’s pass rush is too important for him to not be taking most of the snaps opposite Mercilus. Let Lonnie Johnson play fourth corner in dime situations. Let the defense play as aggressively as they can in coverage.

It’s not ideal, but it’s where the Texans are at right now on that side of the ball. They need to take some bold steps to be competitive. The Titans are bringing a high-flying play-action attack to the Texans next week. Houston better be prepared to cover for as long as they can.

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