Four Downs: Texans 22, Bills 19

I’ll take it.

Bamboozled, down 13-0 only because Buffalo’s offense got conservative near the goal line, the Texans looked dead in the water in the third quarter when J.J. Watt woke up the crowd with a sack to force a field-goal and keep it a two-score game.

From there, Houston’s offense came alive, and Josh Allen proved himself woefully unable to win from structure when it counted in his first playoff game. When the Bills did get big plays to set them up in go-ahead territory, Allen couldn’t deliver. He overthrew a number of open receivers. He was nearly pick-sixed by Bradley Roby twice. He took a back-breaking intentional grounding penalty and a sack to take the Bills from long field-goal range to miracle territory. Only a long screen against a deep zone put the Bills in position to take the game to overtime. Towards the end of the fourth quarter, this happened:

The game felt drunk. It was a gutty comeback — it proved a lot about the locker room culture that Bill O’Brien has praised all season to come back down from 16-0 against a defense as good as the one that Buffalo has. I liked O’Brien’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 towards the end of the fourth quarter, the playcall was just bad.

If the game was drunk, overtime was two fighters taking turns falling asleep on each other until Duke Johnson managed to turn a third-and-18 into a first down:

From there, the madness started, and Deshaun Watson got his first playoff win after miraculously spinning out of two different Buffalo rushers, hitting an open Taiwan Jones — of all people — for a catch-and-run that essentially ended the game:

From the standpoint of what this win means to the franchise: It’s a monkey off Houston’s back. Watson had never won a playoff game before, O’Brien hadn’t won one against a quarterback with more of a pulse than Connor Cook. That matters for the culture as you try to build a long-term success.

For the short-term? Boy, the Texans were kind of lucky to win this game. Kinda really lucky. O’Brien’s slow starts continued in the playoffs. They are not taking this kind of game to Kansas City and advancing. It’s going to have to be a lot better than this if the Texans want to fashion themselves an actual contender.

1 — This is Deshaun Watson’s Franchise

Towards the middle of the third quarter there existed some real outrage about Deshaun Watson, but to me it was pretty clear that the Bills were all over his initial reads. This happened time and time again, and then I posted this one and a section of “open receiver on the screen” Twitter exploded.

Friends, quarterbacking isn’t as easy as “see open receiver on screen, hit open receiver on screen.” I turn to Watson’s quarterback coach for more analysis:

There are things to be improved on — there are always things to be improved on — but Watson is the only reason this team won this game. Every player in the locker room knows it, J.J. Watt knows it:

And saving Bill O’Brien’s bacon, as Watson did today after that limp plan from the first half, is a lot of Watson’s job description at this point. The Texans are extremely lucky to have Watson. In a past life, this was the Kansas City shutout. This was the game where Brock Osweiler coughed up three interceptions to the Patriots. Watson’s individual talent stood out on the biggest stage. Without him, all of the talk about J.J. Watt’s sack being the turning point is for naught.

The final numbers reflect a quarterback who did damn well when he was given a chance to win in the structure of the play.

Let’s head back to Watson’s sacks in a few paragraphs, because that’s certainly what jumped out to me most about this game going forward.

2 — J.J. Watt’s Comeback was a best-case scenario

I don’t have an in-game snap tracker, but J.J. Watt balled out to keep this game as low-scoring as it was. He was the primary reason Houston was able to hold the Bills to field goals on at least two drives. One, of course, was the highlight reel sack he got past Cody Ford that was credited as the turning point:

He had another hurry here near the end of regulation to help set up Allen’s two huge sacks:

The Texans finished the game with three sacks and 11 quarterback hits, as well as five different tackles for loss. Not only are those numbers enormous compared to recent games — they were the most that Houston had in any game since playing Tom Brady’s Patriots in Week 13.

More miraculously, Watt survived and thrived. He said in his post-game presser that there was a play where he felt like he could’ve been hurt, but wasn’t, and all he could do was shrug at the doctor. I don’t know how his snap count is increasing in Week 19, but it’s obviously enormous for the team that he’s back. The negative plays he creates — both with his attention and from his own moves — is about all Houston can count on as a defense right now.

3 — They must work on getting the ball out of Watson’s hands on blitzes

As I noted in my Football Outsiders game preview, the Texans have been a broken team when blitzed:

Much has been made about how Josh Allen struggles against the blitz, but in lowkey hushed whispers, let’s discuss Deshaun Watson against the blitz. Houston beat Tampa Bay to clinch the division in Week 16, but their offense was abominable as Watson took 19 blitzes per SportsRadar charting. In the seven games in which Watson was blitzed 10 or more times per SportsRadar charting this year, the Texans have a -7.6% passing DVOA and 16 turnovers. Both Baltimore and Tampa were able to chew up the Texans with their aggressive play calling; New England and New Orleans were not. Hey, I wonder which games Will Fuller played in of those four?

The Texans gave up seven sacks today and a lot of it was about the blitz. Here’s a blitz in overtime where Watson escapes the pressure, but Darren Fells drops the ball:

This was a constant issue, and it’s been a constant issue since 2018. Bill O’Brien’s offense just doesn’t have an easy hot read. A lot of them head off to the left, in an area where they can easily get intercepted. There are even some plays in this game where Watson’s hot reads are covered and taking the sack is a good idea:

Bill O’Brien needs to scrap his entire system for dealing with blitzes to the ground and start over again. Blitzes are making his offense look mentally overwhelmed.

It should not be this hard. Fake a block and send the guy on a route. Come up with a quick drag that puts a ball in space early when rushers vacate their spots. It shouldn’t be something that takes two quarters to figure out — it should in fact be something you expect.

It’s incredible just how many yards get left on the turf because the Texans just don’t do anything about this.

4 — The defense can’t get juked out of their shoes like they did in this game

Devin Singletary put together an And1 mixtape today on Houston’s underneath tacklers:

The defense immediately got lost on trick plays and was unable to deal with the mere fact that Buffalo ran jet motion on the first series:

The defense gave up 172 rushing yards. They were able to hold Buffalo to field goals, but the other AFC teams remaining do not have quarterbacks quite as green. Romeo Crennel emptied the entire sink today, up to and including rushing two guys in the last four minutes of the game. He has to play aggressive with this defense, which goes against his conservative nature, and that nature is biting the Texans.

The play-to-play work by the Bills, when they weren’t giving up tackles for loss or sacks, was just chewing up Houston. It goes without saying that they are a bit undermanned, everyone is a bit new — I get all that. But all they have left is the ability to challenge their opponents and they have to stay locked in to that philosophy and tackle when beaten. The defense was lucky today. They’re not going to be lucky against the AFC’s elites.

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