Four Downs: Titans 35, Texans 14

No deep storylines this week at NRG, and thankfully the Texans looked to get off the field mostly unscathed as Bill O’Brien’s “we’re going to play to win” mantra was drowned out by the reality of not playing Deshaun Watson, Laremy Tunsil, DJ Reader, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Benardrick McKinney, Bradley Roby, etc. This became mostly a game about three things: A.J. McCarron, the state of belief the Texans have in the back end of their roster, and the stodgy nature of “we’re going to play to win.”

So listen, NFL teams have to do some PR with every speech. NFL teams have to say that they’re playing to win the game, and they have to pass that message along for appearances. You, CBS, don’t. You don’t have to repeat what was said to you unfailingly. The Texans weren’t playing to win — they weren’t playing to win and that was both smart and fine! I praise Bill O’Brien for not attempting to win this game. He had nothing to gain from it.

Now, on to what happened on the field. The Texans hung with the Titans for a half before eventually resting more and more of their players and remembering that they didn’t have a lot of high-quality depth on the roster. The depth that did come to play kept them in it, and perhaps reminded us that they should be utilized more heavily than they are. Fellow connoisseurs of mostly meaningless football, let’s discuss further:

1 — A.J. McCarron played a solid backup quarterback game

McCarron had a keeper touchdown on the ground and scrambled a lot more than I had seen of him in the past. One of my big critiques of signing him was that he took a lot of sacks — and he did in this game as well — but he also showed some jets and functional mobility that I hadn’t seen from him in his recent preseason work.

He also was able to sniff out this disguise. He wasn’t able to step up and deliver a strike — if he was, he wouldn’t be a backup — but this was good, conservative work. The first drive was his best drive, and I’d nominate this as his best throw:

McCarron simply isn’t my style of backup quarterback because I don’t think he can impact the game so much as survive it, but he is BOB’s style and is a good fit for that. I was impressed relative to expectations.

2 — Duke Johnson and Jordan Akins proved they could do the heavy lifting

Akins and Johnson have both been mostly second-rung options for a Texans team that has become too preoccupied with running the ball of late, but both of them had standout games and showed how they can generate easy yards for the Texans if they were empowered:

Johnson had six targets, mostly underneath, catching five for 45 yards. He broke tackles in space and remained a tough matchup. Just like in the New England game, I felt he made the game a lot easier. I spent a lot of my early afternoon watching the Chargers target Austin Ekeler 11 times and I don’t understand why the Texans aren’t automatically making Johnson underneath in space a thing versus deep zones any time they see them.

Akins had five for 54 yards of his own, on seven targets. Akins doesn’t really get targeted deep, but he doesn’t need to be. Whenever Watson finds him with space he’s able to make guys miss: a surprisingly rare quality for a tight end. That showed again today.

Of McCarron’s 225 passing yards, they barely got 100 from the starting wideouts. But between Akins and Johnson, the Texans established a high floor as an offense.

3 — Defensive depth only flashed on a play-by-play basis

Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown combined for some sick catches, particularly this bonkers throw into double coverage that Brown somehow came out with:

The Texans gave up 10.6 yards per pass, 6.3 yards per rush on 39 attempts, and did nothing all that well. Some things I want to point out:

— This Lonnie Johnson coverage:

I don’t care that it was complete, that ball was inches away from being picked. Johnson has some physical attributes that are tantalizing and I think as we look forward to the 2020 roster, Johnson is going to be pushing Vernon Hargreaves for playing time if he puts more plays like this on tape.

— The Texans had just two quarterback hits on 21 dropbacks, both from Barkevious Mingo. That means almost none of the young crew that were healthy made an impact in extended snaps in pass pressure. The only play I can actually remember successful pressure getting through was this, which was also done with Jahleel Addae:

The Texans are in a position where J.J. Watt has to come back and save them. Maybe they’ll get a spare sack from Whitney Mercilus or a healthy Jacob Martin, but Watt is going to be all they have for down-to-down consistent pressure and that’s relying on his pectoral to hold up.

It’s a pretty dark scenario as we head into a playoff game. Someone has to beat Buffalo’s line.

4 — Lowering the flag on Keke Coutee

In a game where backups ran roughshod, the Texans barely used Keke Coutee at all. He had just three targets all game, dropped one of them, and was the target on the fourth-down throw that ended Houston’s offensive drives. He was out-targeted by Steven Mitchell, he was out-targeted by DeAndre Carter. They clearly don’t trust Coutee to the same extent they trust those two.

Obviously the offseason will come, and we’ll see how that goes, but it was an enormous disappointment that Coutee delivered nothing this season. This was the guy they were counting on to win underneath, and when given a chance he did little to stake a claim to the job. The Texans didn’t think highly of his practice habits. It made Houston into a more up-and-down vertical offense than I think they’d ideally want to be. Depending on how they feel about Will Fuller and Kenny Stills at their respective cap figures, it may even make a slot receiver a free-agent priority for the Texans.

As someone who rode hard for his talent and was blown away by what he did when he hit the scene against the Colts in Week 4, 2018, it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy. It’s hard to believe the Texans can’t scheme up offensive sets that take advantage of his open-field talent. It’s hard to believe that when he gets playing time he has dropped as many balls and ran routes that looked off from an outside observer’s perspective.

At this point, I think it’s truly a debate if he’ll make the 2020 squad or even get out of the offseason on the Texans roster. Remember D’Onta Foreman? Same sort of scenario could be coming to fruition here.

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