The stakes of this game are pretty simple for the Texans. Winning means clinching the division title. Winning means that they are able to retain their extremely tiny chance to have a first-round bye, as well as their more believable chance at being the AFC’s third seed and avoiding the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round. While I am not expecting Tennessee to triumph against the Saints, stranger upsets have happened. A loss would either lock Houston into the fourth seed or force a winner-take-all showdown for the AFC South next Sunday. In short: There is plenty to play for!
Just like last week, the Texans are traveling to face a red-hot Bucs team that has won four in a row. A lot of the talk this week has been consumed with Jameis Winston’s back-to-back 400-yard games, but I think what has gone relatively unnoticed is the job that Todd Bowles has done with Tampa’s defense. It is wildly aggressive, and that kind of defense destroyed Houston in Baltimore earlier this year.
Tampa and Houston have not played since 2015, a dreary game in which rookie Winston kept putting the Bucs into a position to succeed only for kicker Kyle Brindza to choke it away. Brindza attempted one extra point and four field goals, missing all of them but one field goal (naturally, the 58-yarder), in a game the Texans won by 10. Brindza missed two more field goals in his next game and never played an NFL down again.
Vegas’ reaction to this game has been quite interesting, like last week. The Texans opened as one-point underdogs, but were bet up all the way to three-point favorites. That’s an enormous line shift. The over/under has also gone from 53 to 49.5 or 50, suggesting a game that may not be as high-scoring as you’d expect based on Winston’s recent offensive output.
When the Texans have the ball
Coming off a performance that was more clutch than dominant, the Texans will have their will to run the football tested severely by Tampa Bay’s No. 1 run defense DVOA. Vita Vea, off an injury-plagued rookie season, is devastating interior lines. Ndamukong Suh has also been quite effective against the run. The Bucs have held their last four opponents to 66 total rushing yards or less. They have allowed only the Seahawks to run for over 112 on them as a team. This is definitely a potential trap for Bill O’Brien’s clock control brain to run into on Saturday. As good as the Texans were the past two weeks, and as good as their run offense can be when Watson is involved, I doubt simple inside zone gets it done here.
Tampa Bay has one of the more unique coverage profiles of any NFL team: They’re going to blitz the hell out of you and see what happens. Only Baltimore has blitzed more than Tampa’s 44.1% rate this season, and that makes proper quarterback dissection extremely important for O’Brien and Deshaun Watson in this game. Baltimore tested Watson with an extremely varied game plan and I’m not sure that’s in Tampa’s playbook, but they will ask him to beat man coverage.
Shaq Barrett is essentially the only dominant rusher the Bucs have. Second place on the team in sacks is Carl Nassib, with five. Barrett added to his pass rush arsenal and exploded on to the scene with a dominant display of taking advantage of weak tackles like Carolina’s Darryl Williams. The good news for the Texans is that they have Laremy Tunsil. The bad news for the Texans is that the Bucs tend to line Barrett up on the weaker tackle, and the Texans continue to employ Chris Clark for reasons that I have only been able to ascertain as good teammate adjacent. (Roderick Johnson would also struggle to contain Barrett.) In every game Watson has been blitzed more than 10 times this season, he’s eaten at least three sacks. The Ravens blitzed 18 times and got six sacks. Just be prepared for that.
The Bucs have been most vulnerable to No. 1 wideouts (22nd in DVOA allowed, league-high average of 9.7 targets per game), No. 2 wideouts (20th in DVOA allowed, league-high average of 7.8 targets per game, league high 79 yards per game), and tight ends (27th in DVOA allowed, top-five with 8.2 targets allowed per game). This is a game where I think DeAndre Hopkins is set to blow up and take the Texans to the playoffs all on his own. This is not a Duke Johnson game, as former All-Pro Lavonte David has been smothering people in coverage all season.
One interesting split from Tampa’s defense: When asked to defend 11-personnel, they have 27 sacks in 444 dropbacks. When asked to defend 12-personnel, they have just 2 sacks in 82 dropbacks. That may be Houston’s best way of beating them, and that’s good news considering how much that formation got used in Week 15 (43% of the snaps).
The Bucs have lost safety Jordan Whitehead for the season, and will likely be fitting rookie safety Mike Edwards into the vacated hole. Communication has improved for Tampa this year, but I like the odds of some of O’Brien’s patented two-receiver play-action passes paying off against a team this young in the secondary. The important question will simply be just how much time O’Brien spends running into a box he will never defeat.
When the Buccaneers have the ball
Over their last four games, Jameis Winston has combined for a 44.4% passing DVOA on 161 dropbacks. The most important statistic to me is actually how his sack rate has lowered. Since Week 11, he’s taken just nine sacks in 199 dropbacks, cutting his sack rate from the first 10 weeks nearly in half. The Texans, with Jacob Martin out and no real pass rush, figure to not be able to do anything about this in particular.
The only major complicating factor for the Bucs figures to be exactly how they attack Houston without Mike Evans or Chris Godwin, who was formally ruled out on Thursday. Tampa’s main options in the receiving game are Week 15 hero Breshad Perriman (three touchdowns) and their tight ends, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. The Texans also give up 29.4% DVOA on a league-high 7.8 targets a game at running backs, so Ronald Jones might see a bit of a workload increase there as well. Tampa had to sign a fourth receiver from the Dallas practice squad, so it seems unlikely that someone will come out of nowhere to grab the workload — the question is merely where they choose to make the focal point.
Houston played about as well as they could play as a pass defense in Week 15’s win over Tennessee. By that I mean they were gashed routinely, but used a blocked kick and a goal-line turnover to make things seem more respectable than they really were. The Titans scored 21 points, but outgained the Texans in yardage and yard per play handily. They were bailed out by the turnover, Gareon Conley’s clutch break up on third-and-10 that forced a punt in no man’s land, and Tennessee’s inability to run play-action down 14-0.
Romeo Crennel blitzed the hell out of Ryan Tannehill last week — 38 dropbacks saw 18 blitzes. Drew Lock saw 10 in 28 dropbacks. Since the New England game, Crennel has been upping the pressure, knowing he doesn’t have much choice given who is on the roster right now. That leads to more man coverage, which in turn makes the matchups at receiver matter more. Bradley Roby played 100% of the snaps after being rotated in Week 14. I’m curious who comes out of the cornerback sorting hat this week. I’d roll with more Lonnie Johnson given how aggressive the coverage needs to be right now — Johnson got zero snaps last week.
Tampa Bay has not actually been much of a rushing team this year, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Tampa’s held an average lead of 0.34 points per offensive possession this season, but has attempted 367 rushes (13th in the NFL) despite averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Normally we’d laugh and say good, let that happen, but I think the Houston defense may not be quite the same with Benardrick McKinney (concussion) on the sideline. Zach Cunningham has gotten more press this year for his good play, but McKinney is the man who is usually on the right spot, leading the defense, and setting up the run fits. His absence does cause me some minor concern that the Bucs will be able to run the ball.
Tampa Bay is above-average in their percentage of 11-personnel used (64% to 60% league-average), with 12-personnel being the major change-up. I suspect more 12-personnel than normal this week without Godwin. It’s kind of hard to project how Houston’s defense will react without McKinney, because that puts Peter Kalambayi in a spot with Dylan Cole down. McKinney, unfortunately, is one player the Texans could ill-afford to lose for a game they have to win. Houston has traditionally been better against 12-personnel this year … but that’s a key cog removed out of it.
Tampa’s punting situation will give the Texans some free yardage, and Houston’s blocked kick last week is one of those plays that is awesome but uncounted in DVOA because of how random they are. Big ups to Angelo Blackson for that one.
Tampa, somehow, has had a good year kicking field goals. You’d think that ancient curse planted on them would have taken root by now, but that’s where we’re at.
There’s a big part of me that thinks that Tampa will give the Texans a real game here. The blitzing is concerning. The run defense should mean a lot of second- and third-and-longs from the Texans, which should lead to blitzes. At the same time, I think if both Hopkins and Fuller play, this game is really about them beating up on a bunch of kids. I like those odds. If the Texans do lose this game, I expect it to be an offensive breakdown and I expect Todd Bowles to be in the prayers of Titans fans.
Winston will create some turnovers for the Texans. I expect a bushel of “complimentary football” references after the game, and it’s one that I expect to be close and high-scoring. Give me Houston 31, Tampa 29.
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