Four Downs: Texans 23, Buccaneers 20

If there were a game to sum up the popular Texans fan meme of “Division champs, Brian!” — it was this one.

Because, minus four interceptions in a game where they could have had about eight under the expert tutelage of Jameis Winston’s belief in his receivers, the Texans got outright trashed on Sunday. The defense allowed 6.0 yards per play, including allowing 9-of-17 third downs to be converted. The offense was anchored behind a non-functioning run game that was stupidly sledgehammered against one of the best run defenses in the NFL. Special teams played well, but they were the only unit that came to play in Tampa.

More importantly, injuries devastated the Texans. Will Fuller was ruled out early with a groin injury, Laremy Tunsil walked off after a crucial third-down with around two minutes left, and Deshaun Watson clearly played poorly and looked at his heel multiple times over the duration of the game.

This was not an encouraging tune-up. But … it was a win. Division champs, Brian!

1 — Deshaun Watson’s health is imperative to any hopes the Texans have

Watson played probably his worst game of the season, clearly favoring his heel as you can see on this scramble:

He looked clearly bothered while passing, overthrowing a number of open receivers and otherwise not playing up to the standard you expect of him:

He spent some time in the medical tent in the third quarter but stayed in to finish the game. Watson was asked multiple times by assembled press if he was healthy, and Bill O’Brien noted that it did affect his decision-making on a key fourth-down play that I’ll save for a few paragraphs. O’Brien put it as Watson was “dealing with some things there.”

As much as Will Fuller matters, this team has no offense at all without Watson, and any kind of limitations for him are absolutely devastating for this team’s chances. The Texans are not going to tell you what’s happening — beyond what is required by the injury reports — because every NFL team likes to pretend that they are winning some sort of super-spy battle with information as if it isn’t obvious on the field.

The Texans still have a chance at the AFC’s No. 3 seed — and a longshot chance at the No. 2 as I’m writing this — but I don’t know how you can put him out there against the Titans if any rest at all will help. The Texans have no chance to win a playoff game without a healthy Watson. When asked, O’Brien said they’d try to win every game they could.

Watson has to be 100% for this team to win games. I think that Tampa’s blitzing, aggressive defense forced problems for Watson as well — five sacks is some 2018 vintage stuff — but a lot of it boiled down to him being unable to complete easy passes.

2 — Bill O’Brien’s worst-coached game of the season

Let’s break this down into four things.

–As I pointed out in the preview, O’Brien kept trying to run the ball on Tampa despite the fact that Tampa came into the game with the NFL’s best run defense by DVOA. O’Brien’s two backs combined for 31 yards on 19 carries.

Some of that came as the Texans were trying to run the clock out, but that’s a disastrous result and the only empirically good play they got from the run game was fourth-and-1 when, FOR THE FIRST TIME ALL DAY, they ran with Watson:

Why can the running game not make the entire box out of the one thing that works? I don’t know, but maybe if the Texans run inside zone 300 more times everything will be properly established.

If only, after five years, I could believe that saying that would change anything.

— Bill O’Brien’s Texans got the ball at the two-minute warning of the second quarter, up seven. They immediately ran the ball, taking 27 seconds off the clock, then Watson was sacked in scramble on first-and-10, with the ball going out of bounds. In three plays, the Texans had lost a minute. Every time they set up, it took them forever to go anywhere.

Then, Watson threw this pick:

Tampa scored seven at the end of the half.

We talk a ton about Houston’s poor starts to games, but their hurry-up offense when marshaled by O’Brien is just dreadful. It’s way too slow, it has no idea what to do for 20 seconds. I bet if Watson handled the whole thing on his own, they’d be a lot better.

— With third-and-6 at the Houston 44, O’Brien watched DeAndre Carter catch this ball to create fourth-and-1 at the Houston 49:

There were two acceptable ideas at this point: challenge the ball, or go for it. As O’Brien laid out in his press conference, injuries made him choose to not go for it:

I … actually respect that reasoning more than I thought I would, especially after he said he might go for it looking back at it. He also explained why he didn’t challenge, saying he thought New York had already decided it. I understand, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a correct move. You’ve got to make New York make that call with how little your timeouts are worth at that point. You’ve also simply got to go for it there, the mathematical benefits are obvious:

— Finally, there was something that went totally unasked at the post-game presser: Why on Earth did this team run actual plays after Winston’s final interception. Tampa Bay had one timeout left, and the Texans got the ball left with 1:27 to play. That’s three kneels and the game is over.

The Texans ran a play, were flagged for holding in perhaps the least situationally-aware block I’ve ever seen by Zach Fulton, and actually gave the Bucs a chance to come back with 21 seconds left.

It didn’t matter for this game, but that’s a phenomenally bad error by O’Brien. He has to know that you can kneel out there. What would we be saying if Tampa scrimped together their equivalent of a Hail Mary lateral-fest or the Glover Quin Fail Mary? Get it together.

(I guess the fourth down I linked earlier was a nice decision, but holy hell, this was a stinker of a game from O’Brien. Sean Pendergast called it a D+ — I think that’s being very kind. This was some Jason Garrett stuff.

3 — The defense got bailed out by Jameis Winston

Romeo Crennel’s charge simply did not play good enough deep coverage most of the time to win this game. They got bailed out because Winston and Winston’s receivers could not complete open throws.

They got bailed out when the Bucs went for it on fourth down because Cameron Brate dropped the ball:

They have two gears: Rush everyone at the passer and hope someone gets lucky, or play Crennel’s red carpet zones on third-and-long and make things as easy as humanly possible and pray for mistakes:

I’m not going to tell you that there were no good snaps. Vernon Hargreaves’ run stuff on third-and-1 was incredible, Gareon Conley had a few nice plays in grabby coverage, Whitney Mercilus got two sacks, one of which came on a play where he actually beat somebody.

But for the most part, things stayed the same, if not worse. The Tampa run offense averaged five yards per carry thanks to a big 49-yard gash by Ronald Jones. Winston was sacked three times in 51 dropbacks, the Texans added only two more quarterback hits to that.

The secondary has some talent, but the lack of pass rush and Crennel’s inability to be aggressive on second- and third-and-long are killing this team. If bad luck happened to strike on a few more of the balls that hit them directly in the hands, we’d have a completely different result.

4 — Let’s praise the special teams

In two consecutive three-point wins, Angelo Blackson has blocked a long field-goal attempt. That isn’t something that’s mathematically stable to rely on every week, but it obviously made a difference.

The Texans have been one of the best teams in the NFL all season on kickoff coverage and this was their magnum opus. With Kai Fairbairn trying to pop up kicks near the goal line, Tampa had the following field positions after kickoffs: TB 17, TB 12, TB 15, TB 25, TB 20, TB 17. Five grabs of yardage that really mattered in so much as every extra time Winston had to drop back, the Texans had a chance to create a turnover.

Bryan Anger pinned Tampa at the TB 4, the TB 10, the TB 32, the TB 19, and the TB 30. No short fields.

They’ve done this despite losing Dylan Cole, one of their best tacklers, for the season to a torn ACL. Special teams has been extremely strong, and it’s one of those small and obvious reasons they’ve been able to wrest the division crown away from the Titans these last two weeks.


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