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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Week 14 Preview: Texans vs. Broncos

Huge win over the Patriots in their pockets, the Texans will look to topple the Broncos to complete a 3-for-3 homestand and firmly solidify a playoff spot. I would not call this game huge by an objective measurement compared to what the Texans have been up against all year only because they are two games behind a first-round bye and (effectively, assuming they can beat the Titans once in two games), two games ahead of the AFC South race. All that is imminently turnable in one week is the race for the 3-4 seed with Kansas City, who play the Patriots. Obviously, of course, if the Texans have real designs on the playoffs rather than just wanting a participation trophy, they’ll want this one in pocket as well.

This is sort of a weird game to call because so much has changed for these two teams this season. Deshaun Watson is around and is consistent, but every other position group on these two teams — including every great edge player each team has — can’t really be counted on for one reason or another. Last year, when the Texans went to Denver, Watson hung on to a win that J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney mostly generated by dominating the Denver line and Case Keenum.

These two teams share a very linked history, with Houston importing Gary Kubiak from Denver after the 2005 season and importing Brock Osweiler after the 2016 season. And, of course, Kubiak linking up with Peyton Manning after it was rumored that Manning wanted that to happen when he was originally released after 2011. Prior to beating up on Keenum last year, the last two games the teams played were Broncos asswhippings — one in Osweiler’s return to Denver, and one with Manning at the trigger in his record-breaking season.

Opening at 7.5-point favorites, the Texans quickly ballooned to 8.5 or even 9-point favorites in some books. That reflects the reality of the Broncos starting a regressed rookie quarterback who didn’t exactly look stellar in the second half of his debut. But is that initial view of Lock what we should count on against the Texans?

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

Let’s start with where Denver is at as Kareem Jackson re-visits NRG: The big news is that Von Miller has been dealing with an MCL injury and may not play in the game, telling reporters that “when you take away exotic movements that make me who I am it changes the type of player I am.” Bradley Chubb is on IR. Derek Wolfe is on IR. That might give you the thought that this defense will pack it in — don’t get suckered in. The Broncos have a ton of depth and experience over the middle of the field. I’ve long been a fan of Todd Davis. Shelby Harris is having his typical solid season with four sacks at off-tackle, and Justin Simmons appears to be this team’s next star in the making at safety. Jackson, of course, remains a stellar box safety as well.

All of which is to say: Bill O’Brien made a big point of how he wants to run, and I don’t think he’s going to have a lot of success with it. The Broncos have gotten spilled by the Jaguars and Bills this year to the tune of 200+ yards on the ground, but have tended to be fairly solid over the course of the season. The Broncos are a YAC allowing ground defense: They gave up 151 yards after contact to the Bills and 159 after contact to the Jaguars. Carlos Hyde is an arm tackle breaker, but not really the back who is going to leave someone in the dust after getting past them. If the Texans go into the lab and get RPOs working as a staple play again, I’d totally get it. But simple inside zone with Hyde is not going to get the job done in my estimation.

The Broncos show a pronounced split in how well they do against 11-personnel versus how well they do against other groupings. They’ve held 11-personnel to a 40% success rate against the pass, and a 43% success rate against the run. Only New England, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh have done better. The Texans have been moving towards more 12-personnel with Jordan Thomas back, even mixing in more 13-personnel last week, and that would seem to be an easier area of attack with teams succeeding on 54% of their dropbacks in 12 against the Broncos.

The big letdown spot for the Broncos have been the non-Chris Harris corners. Bryce Callahan, big free-agent signee, has never gotten on the field. That’s left the Broncos rotating through corners and, as the Texans did last year, shifting Jackson back-and-forth between corner and safety. Last week, Jackson took one spot with Will Parks playing safety, and Isaac Yiadom took over and allowed 114 yards on seven targets, with two missed tackles.

Harris had shadowed against several big-name wideouts this year and has played quite well when doing so, holding Stefon Diggs catchless and Keenan Allen to 16 yards last week. That’ll likely be this week’s DeAndre Hopkins challenge. Note that No. 1 wideouts have been quite good against the Broncos empirically, as they’ve averaged a 27.1% DVOA that ranks 29th in DVOA allowed to No. 1 wideouts.

I don’t have a lot of doubt that the Texans can throw on the Broncos. For one thing, the Broncos are not frequent blitzers under Fangio. They sent seven blitzes at Philip Rivers in 32 dropbacks, and have blitzed on just 26.2% of opposing dropbacks this year, a middle-of-the pack amount. With the big pass rushers down or at least hampered, I don’t foresee a reason that Watson should be especially harried outside of excessive Chris Clark play. (Please, please, don’t make me watch Chris Clark.)

But the Fangio Broncos are impressive overall as a defense — they aren’t going to make things easy for the Texans unless Yiadom and Jackson simply can’t hold up in deep coverage.

When the Broncos have the ball

Both coordinators on this side of the ball — Rich Scangarello for Denver and Romeo Crennel for the Texans — commented on how hard this game is going to be because they simply don’t have a lot of tape on how each side plays with new additions. So if I am wildly wrong somewhere, please keep in mind that even the coordinators are not entirely sure what to make of the matchup.

The Broncos had one of the best run offenses in the NFL last year, but haven’t really been able to do as much inside as they did last year with Matt Paradis off to Carolina and Ron Leary ineffective away from the Dallas dream team line. Phillip Lindsay averaged 5.9 yards per attempt on inside runs in 2018, and is down at 3.3 in 2019. The group as a whole just doesn’t get as much push as they did in 2018.

The good news for Denver is that Houston has been woeful over the last three weeks against the run. Each of the last three opponents are over 145 yards, and with J.J. Watt done the Texans generate very little in the way of negative plays. They have just 10 run stuffs since Week 9. They had 28 in the first eight weeks. The Texans only allowed 54 yards after contact to the Patriots and 71 yards to the Colts too — they were getting whipped up front, it wasn’t just poor tackling.

Denver actually uses a lot of 21-personnel — two backs, one tight end — they’re at 14% of plays out of that set, fourth to only Minnesota, San Francisco, and New Orleans. They are built to run the ball because, outside of Courtland Sutton, they don’t have much in the way of scary receiving threats. DaeSean Hamilton dropped an open slant that might have gone for 30 yards last week. Even Noah Fant, though he’s come on of late, has had a lot of inconsistency as a rookie.

Houston’s new big strength with all its healthy cornerbacks, as you saw against New England, is the ability to cover traditional mismatches with more adept cover players. That doesn’t deeply matter against Denver — the Broncos are going to find a way to throw to Sutton and they don’t have a deeply impressive receiving option.

Drew Lock’s first start showed a lot of what we already knew about him coming into the season. He made a rookie mistake on his pick. He has a ton of arm strength and an uncommon ability to create out of structure. I think it’s probably a good thing for the Broncos in this particular game that there’s not a lot of tendency tape out there for the Texans to study, because he strikes me as someone who can succeed right away but struggles more as the little things pile up against them.

One thing that I think bodes well for the Texans is that the Broncos don’t attack the middle of the field all that often — even with some improvement against the Patriots, the Texans are still allowing a league-worst 65.6% DVOA on passes over the short middle.

Special teams

Is this the week the Texans actually get a return going? Denver’s coverage teams have been abysmal all season. The Broncos have allowed 28.43 yards per kickoff return — second-highest in the league — and are one of three teams to have allowed a punt return touchdown this year. DeAndre Carter hive, this could be your week.

The read

High point spreads in the Bill O’Brien era … the Texans have won every single game that they’ve been favored by more than 6.5 — but that’s often been them getting matched up against ghastly teams. I don’t think the Broncos are ghastly, and I don’t know if Houston is going to be able to run the ball effectively enough to salt leads away.

I do think there is some blowout potential for the Texans, both because of Watson and because Lock’s potentially combustible. But I think the more likely scenario is one where two conservative coaches take turns trying to out-conservative each other. I will be taking the points and going Broncos 16, Texans 20.


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Negative plays, the concept of first-down runs, and Bill O’Brien’s Texans

Your Houston Texans are having, compared to 2018, a highly effective season running the football. They’re averaging 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, which puts them fourth in the NFL. In 2018, that number was 4.3. Both numbers see a Deshaun Watson boost (Watson averages 5.7 yards per attempt for his career), but the Texans have clearly improved from 2018, where they struggled to run out of base formations for whole games at a time at the end of the season.

However, because of the shape of what running the football looks like for most teams, how much Houston cares about the running game — and in particular on first down — anchors their offense. The Texans improved from 15th to eighth in DVOA this week on the heels of Watson’s four touchdowns against a Patriots defense that was playing historically well. The ceiling of the pass offense has been improved by all the additional weapons that they’ve brought in. With a 30.3% pass DVOA, the Texans are seventh-place and not far out of the top five.

The Texans are one of two teams with a top-8 offensive DVOA that has a negative run offense DVOA. The other, Kansas City, has run the ball 269 times to Houston’s 326. Critics of Bill O’Brien tend to revert to the idea that he plays too simple of a pattern: run, run, slant. That’s not necessarily true. The Texans did run-run-pass last year only 18 percent of the time — a high amount, but not outlier high like Seattle was.

But this was a massive problem against New England, where Carlos Hyde had just 10 carries for 17 yards. Often, the concept of “staying on schedule” is invoked in NFL circles. For O’Brien, he most often harps in press conferences about the idea of avoiding negative plays and mistakes. “We don’t have a play for first-and-30,” to paraphrase something he said about the Jaguars game in London. Where we have a ways to go in the analytics world is finding a way to make coaches understand that failed rushes in a non-clock killing situation are mistakes.

Last week Bill Belichick posted up eight in the box 30% of the time for Hyde, a much higher number than he was used to seeing. (Over the full season, that number is 14.1%.) He played to keep the Texans from running on first down because it is fairly evident to anyone who watches games that this is what O’Brien likes to do. O’Brien changed nothing, barely ran anything that would occupy a defender like a read-option, and the run offense died on the table. It was only for the grace of Watson and Duke Johnson that Houston’s pass offense was able to save the fact that it was handed the ball on second down with an average of 8.75 yards to go for the entirety of the game.

The top five teams in terms of running the ball on first down are Baltimore, Oakland, Dallas, Houston, and San Francisco. Baltimore and San Francisco have unique, well-documented run games — one has Lamar Jackson and a pile full of Greg Roman schemes, while the other has Baby Shanahan’s impressive set of tactical advantages. The Raiders have Derek Carr at quarterback, so they have little choice but to run the ball. The Cowboys … well, I hope if you’re reading this you know that as an organization they have decided to prove that signing Ezekiel Elliott to a huge contract was worth it even though it wasn’t.

The other thing those four teams have in common: they actually run for positive DVOA on those first downs. That is something the Texans don’t do, and something that gets even more extreme when you split out recent games:

It’s also something that is borne out in multiple years of data. The Texans ran 278 times on first down in 2018 and had a -25.2% DVOA on those carries. (The only teams that ran more were Seattle and Baltimore, and each only by two rushes.) The Texans ran 267 times on first down in 2017 and had a -14.1% DVOA. (The only team ahead of them that year was Minnesota, at 276.)


I am not quite as anti-run as a lot of my fellow analytics disciples. At the end of the day, what you are trying to do in a football game is play to where defenders aren’t and play to where your strengths are. Sometimes, as it was against Kansas City’s woeful run defense, that will mean you run the ball a lot more.

But the Texans have been donating downs away under O’Brien’s watch for seasons, and since we just spoke Duke Johnson targets into existence last week, let’s speak this one into existence too: Those donated carries don’t always have as much negative yardage as a sack does, but they continue to put the passing offense in situations that are trickier than they should be. Worst of all, the runs themselves are not particularly interesting. I make it a point to pick out O’Brien’s exotic designs with Watson and satellite receivers and praise them. They were a big part of the Kansas City game plan. Whereas the Ravens and 49ers are running on first downs with a big schematic advantage, a lot of the donated downs Houston runs are just simple inside zone.

Red zone stalls are often part and parcel with donated plays. Houston’s first field goal drive against the Colts in Week 7 started out with a failed run and a false start. Their second? Failed run on first down. We focus in on Watson’s sacks because they are loud. Comparatively, these little runs for no gain are silent killers that set up the sacks.

With coaching, it’s always the little things. If O’Brien ran the ball four or five times less on first down a game, this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s all it really amounts to. But the more stagnant and easy to read an offense is, the easier they are to defend. Right now, everybody knows what is coming on first down. Even the fans.


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Four Downs: Texans 28, Patriots 22

The AFC glass ceiling shattered on Sunday night, and Texans fans were free to envision something more for the first time.

Houston bullywhipped the New England Patriots, long-time Texans tormentors, in a way that the final scoreline doesn’t even completely address. Houston achieved a 95% win probability (per ESPN’s in-house metric) towards the end of the third quarter, and turned the tables on the Patriots by decisively winning the battle of the game plans, getting around tight coverage with annoying short completions, and frustrating the opposing quarterback into a series of annoying passes. They Patriots’ed the Patriots. And you can tell this game meant a lot more to the Texans than they’d ever let on this week.

Summing up what this game meant to the collective fanbase is weird in the same way that any thing that destroys self-perception is. This game is the moment you dropped below 200 pounds for the first time in eight years. This game is the first time you asked someone out and they said yes. There are plenty of Toro-colored glasses out in Texans Internet land, and they did go to Arrowhead Stadium earlier this year and win, but the Texans have been Little Brother to the Patriots ever since they became relevant, especially since O’Brien has been in town. Big Brother finally stumbled.

My pragmatic side wants to tell you that this does not necessarily mean much. It wants to tell you that the Patriots are still heavy favorites to host a return meeting between these two teams if it happens. It wants to tell you that Bill O’Brien has often come up with amazing play designs and has called good game plans before, but that it’s usually a tease rather than a trend. It wants to tell you that New England’s passing attack has looked broken since Week 5 and that this played into that. It wants to tell you that the real threat is roughly 400 miles west of Foxboro, where the Texans got spanked 41-7.

But it does matter. It matters because we were able to see it. The vision that Bill O’Brien has sold his bosses as Patriots South has always been a fraudulent-ass one that relied on closing your eyes any time the Texans played a real team. They haven’t closed the deed on this season yet, and they’re still not likely to grab a first-round bye. But when you watch this game, and the Kansas City game, you are able to see it.

1 — Deshaun Watson, Duke Johnson, and short game dominance

The mantra all week from the Texans was about avoiding turnovers and playing mistake-free football. They didn’t always do that as a team — they had penalties that set back the cause, and two of Watson’s three sacks taken were from almost entirely unaccounted for rushes:

But what we’ve seen when the Texans have cruised this season hasn’t been that they need to reinvent the wheel on offense, it’s that they have so much skill position depth that all they need to do is have Watson get the ball out and go on with their day. Watson took three sacks, but only four total quarterback hits on those sacks. He was 14-of-18 for 135 yards and two touchdowns on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If you go through the ones that weren’t caught — one was defensive pass interference, one was a dropped Kenny Stills slant — they’re not exactly plays that show poorly on Watson.

It’s me, I’m that idiot who said that Duke Johnson was the important player that needed to be involved. I get to be right about things sometimes.

When Watson is operating the short-area game well, the Texans feel unstoppable and inevitable. They were so inevitable in this game that they donated 10 Carlos Hyde rushes to charity (1.7 yards per carry, long of four yards) and still averaged 7.7 yards per pass.

The play where Watson avoided a Kyle Van Noy sack on first down, throwing the ball away, and then found Jordan Akins on a tackle-breaking run after catch to get out of second-and-10 on the second scoring drive exemplifies what’s going on here. The Texans aren’t necessarily avoiding hurting themselves with penalties or bad plays — because every team does this to some extent — but when you throw for 7.7 yards per attempt it doesn’t really matter if you mix in a negative play or two.

2 — The emergence of Jacob Martin

Not only did the Patriots look limited as a passing offense, they looked limited in a way that relied on Tom Brady buying time. I don’t think any of their older receivers besides Edelman looked 100%, and I don’t think either of their younger receivers showed themselves capable in this game. There is no tight end play.

But the Texans also did this by bringing heat — they sacked Brady three times, but they hit him 12 total times. Brady was constantly being harassed. His average time-to-throw was a startling 3.4 seconds, which points to both the trouble his receivers had getting open and how often he had to reset his throwing point.

Nobody sent Brady fleeing as often as Jacob Martin on the edge — the Patriots simply couldn’t give Marcus Cannon enough help on the outside, and Cannon was watching Martin go by him on nearly a by-drive basis.

Brennan Scarlett and Angelo Blackson were missed in the base run game — more on that in a moment — but those extra snaps that Martin got showed us some flashes of how the Texans might possibly be able to recoup a little value on the Jadeveon Clowney trade. I don’t think Martin is some sort of burgeoning superstar — he’s not leaving guys in the dust snap-after-snap or anything like that — but I do think he has enough speed on the edge to be an effective complementary rusher. Like Whitney Mercilus, he does a lot of his living on the initial get-off. Cannon couldn’t deal.

3 — The defensive game plan that the Patriots couldn’t counter off of

The Texans — Romeo Crennel — came into this game with a game-specific plan that actually worked. They decided to force New England’s non-Julian Edelman and James White receivers to beat them in man coverage, and those receivers simply couldn’t do it.

On 24 targets to non-Edelman and White receivers, Brady completed 10 balls for 122 yards and no scores. A vast majority of those balls came on New England’s final three drives of the game, after they were down 21-3.

The Texans were able to create pressure off of guarding White with a DB, and they were able to halt Edelman’s routes to the inside with doubles. Edelman’s 44-yard catch came on a deep in with a picked-up blitz that happened roughly six seconds into the down. Outside of that catch, he had almost nothing happening deep.

When the stakes were their highest, the Patriots went to Mohamed Sanu to try to convert on fourth-and-short. The Texans smartly(!!!) stacked the line, forcing Brady away from the sneak. It was Sanu on Johnathan Joseph, and Joseph was able to break the ball up even if he couldn’t quite hang with Sanu on the initial play:

The amount of situational things that the Texans accounted for in this game that they normally don’t was staggering to me. Maybe it goes blind and unaccounted for and we see it brightly here because it was such a big game, but I’m positive I’ve seen Brady sneak past the Texans for first downs on a regular basis. It was wonderful to see some actual opponent-based game planning that worked. If that sticks throughout the season, it’s cause to praise the coaching staff.

4 — Bradley Roby’s game-script shattering interception and the ensuing touchdown

So of course, Roby’s interception (and near pick-six) was enormous. The Patriots were up 3-0 at the time, and the Texans pounced on that to turn it into seven points when they hit Duke Johnson on third-and-3.

But even more than that, against a Patriots offense that had major issues but could absolutely run the ball in this game, it forced a negative game script from the very beginning. Look at Joseph in run defense on this play:

The Patriots wound up running for 145 yards in the game even though they were always behind. With Scarlett and Blackson out, and the defense up front stocked with guys like Joel Heath, Barkevious Mingo, and Eddie Vanderdoes who had seen very little in the way of playing time, the Patriots were able to pick and choose their way to success in the run game.

You can easily imagine a scenario where the Texans play field position with the Patriots for another couple of plays, then the Pats hit a big run or two, and go up 10, and time is a big ally for the Patriots. That’s why the Roby interception was so big — it wasn’t just the specific purposes of points off turnovers, winning the turnover battle, the short field — it was that it kept the Patriots from executing from a positive game script. If they could have banged away with Sony Michel all game, we might have been looking at a very different final score.

Roby’s pick was, quite frankly, one of the most important plays of the season. It might wind up being one of the most important plays in Texans history if this season continues an optimistic trek. So much hinged on him reading N’Keal Harry’s route and running it for Harry. Even down starting center Ted Karras, the Pats were able to bang away on the Texans.

But because of Roby, they were never able to use the run game as a true weapon — it was a change of pace for three-fourths of the game.


I’m happily writing this article free of charge — this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.