Well, we made it. A terrible, pandemic-ravaged year and an offseason that I would charitably call shaky are left in the past. The schedule has taken the Texans right back to the doorstep of one of their biggest meltdowns of all-time, a 24-0 lead blown to the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs spent the offseason doing just about everything they could to run it back. They re-upped Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Chris Jones. They were hurt by opt-outs of Damien Williams and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff in light of COVID-19. But in replacing them with Kelechi Osemele and first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire, I don’t think they’re much worse for the wear. Every defensive player that started in the Super Bowl except Reggie Ragland is back, though Bashaud Breeland will be suspended for the opener.
My previews for last year’s Chiefs-Texans games are here and here. Suffice to say, the Chiefs remain a major Super Bowl contender and this is a tough task for any team. Defending champions receiving their rings in the opener are 4-1 since 2013, with the loss coming in Kansas City’s thrashing of New England in 2017. Joe Flacco’s Ravens and Eli Manning’s Giants did lose consecutive games to lead off the 2012 and 2013 seasons, but, well, they weren’t empirically great champions to begin with.
The line on this game opened at Chiefs -10, but has been bet down to -9. The over/under has gone down by almost two points, from a 56.5 total to a 54.5 total. Brandin Cooks’ health is in jeopardy after he did not practice much leading up to the game. He drew a questionable tag on Wednesday. He’s likely to be on a snap count if he does play, which puts a lot of emphasis on the Texans to keep up their side of the line.
When the Texans have the ball
There are a number of new factors that the Texans are introducing to this matchup from last year, the first of which is the absence of DeAndre Hopkins. My expectation is that Will Fuller will be a target sponge in this game with Cooks limited. The Chiefs are missing Breeland and Charvarius Ward is probably cornerback No. 1 at this point. Fuller memorably just missed three deep touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week 6:
But because it is extremely early in the season and we have — let’s be honest — no idea if the Texans offense will change much under Tim Kelly’s play calling, I think there are a couple different ways this could play out.
What was successful for the Texans in their Week 6 upset win last year was the TE drag option game. They were able to grind out yards on the ground by the bushel and overcome an early burying.
The Texans were harassed often by the Chiefs in the playoff win — 24-0 sounds like a lot of work put in by the offense. But one of those scores was a special-teams touchdown, special teams recovered a muffed punt inside the KC 10, and the Kenny Stills touchdown was essentially an entirely blown coverage. The Chiefs blitzed 11 times and Deshaun Watson was pressured 16 times. Without the threat of the option game, the Chiefs had a lot easier time dialing in on their blitzes and rushes. The O’Brien offense had a hard time dealing with blitzes because the hot reads were not quick enough. Has Kelly changed that?
Then there’s the addition of David Johnson and how he and Duke Johnson change this offense in Kelly’s eyes. Those two are tied hand-and-hand to me because the easy adjustment to blitzes is “well, are you covering these two guys over the middle?” Randall Cobb will pick up some of the slack too, but I would not rely on him to make the kind of plays the two backs can in space.
The Chiefs largely solved the Texans run game without the read-option, holding the Texans to just 94 rushing yards on 4.4 yards per attempt and, most importantly, bottling up Carlos Hyde to 3.38 yards per attempt on 13 carries. It’s going to be very hard to know what level David Johnson is at coming into this game — we can talk about how good he looks in the pads, but we’re not going to see the speed until game time. I think he’ll probably have a hard time dealing with inside zone on this front seven unless he busts a lot of tackles.
The sticking point there is that the playoff game came with only four of the five starters from last year. Tytus Howard was already out for the season at that point. Howard had a tremendous game against the Chiefs in Week 6 — probably one of his finest of the season. It remains a possibility that the Texans line could take a step forward as a unit. Given how O’Brien coaches games, that would be massive both for this game and for the season.
I have a lot less conviction on these picks early in the season and, given we have no preseason games this year, even less conviction than normal. But I think it’s fair to say that downgrading DeAndre Hopkins to Randall Cobb is a big deal and that the Texans will need to manage the passing game carefully to turn something good out of it.
When the Chiefs have the ball
Well, the Chiefs are a phenomenal test for what Anthony Weaver’s defense will attempt to do. Problem No. 1 is that J.J. Watt, in his regular end role, is matched up against one of the best tackles in the NFL in Mitchell Schwartz. Will Weaver move Watt around? The Kansas City line reads as a lot easier to dent up the middle, where Austin Reiter and Andrew Wylie seem likely to start the season. Watt was held to three quarterback hurries in the divisional round. Whitney Mercilus seems to need easy pickings to work against to play well and Eric Fisher probably doesn’t qualify. If I had to bet on one player getting a sack in this game, it’s Charles Omenihu against the KC interior line. One of the things we remain uncertain about is how much moving around Watt will do and how exotic the blitz schemes will get. Patrick Mahomes is unlikely to get fooled. He took one sacks in just over 70 dropbacks against the Texans last year: The one Omenihu got that opened up the floodgates in Week 6.
Pressure is key in this matchup because the Texans secondary, on paper, is probably worse than it is last year without major jumps from second-year players or rookies. Lonnie Johnson played competently as an outside corner in the Week 6 win, but he had major Travis Kelce responsibilities in the divisional round and was punished. How much has he grown? Without Gareon Conley, my suspicion is that Vernon Hargreaves III will be the third corner. He hasn’t shown many indications of being a successful corner at this point and I would not be surprised if John Reid got some snaps in this game given how quick of a hook O’Brien has had. We could also see Phillip Gaines get involved, though I’d certainly hope not.
Hargreaves did somehow have the best pass coverage numbers per Spotrac tracking data in the divisional round last year. Mahomes was only 3-of-7 for 30 yards targeting him, and almost all of that was in the air.
Edwards-Helaire and Darrell Williams look to be the two backs that will get extended time as Edwards-Helaire tries to shake the idea early that he should be a committee back. The Chiefs run a ton of elaborate screen set ups with pre-snap motion and I think the No. 1 concern in this game for the Texans is dealing with those. The linebackers are going to have to have a lot of awareness to not get picked like Jacob Martin did on Damien Williams’ touchdown in the divisional round:
Beyond that, the question I think has fallen under the radar a bit is how the Texans will deal with the run game now that star nose tackle D.J. Reader is a Cincinnati Bengal. Reader and Watt combined were usually able to hold the fort on first and second down last season. The run defense got gashed a bit without Watt last year, though pretty much any team is going to get gashed by the Ravens. The Titans had no issues and neither did the Colts. The Bucs were held to a -16.8% rush DVOA, but also had an enormous 49-yard carry by Ronald Jones that meant he wound up averaging 5.5 per tote. Brandon Dunn and Watt will be joined by either Omenhiu or Ross Blacklock. I think this is a situation that could develop in a negative way for the Texans, though I’m not sure the Chiefs are necessarily the team that’s going to ball control offense Houston. There just hasn’t been a lot of attention given to the run this offseason, and probably rightfully so given how poor the pass defense was.
I expect the 2020 game plan for dealing with Mahomes to be a lot different from the divisional round one. The Texans played predominantly man coverage in the divisional round and the Chiefs were able to exploit it pretty easily. Most of the trouble they had getting started was about drops by the receiving corps.
I think Weaver is a little too tricky for that. What I don’t know is how much difference it makes. Trying to beat Patrick Mahomes, or any elite quarterback in their prime, is all about trying to stay three steps ahead of their processing. You have to absolutely master the mental game and you have to, if we’re being honest, guess right. A lot. Especially if you don’t have any other advantages, and I don’t know how we should expect the Texans to have real advantages in this matchup. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are terrifying. Sammy Watkins pops up whenever those two are blanketed to remind you he’s real talented.
The Texans remain talent-deficient on this side of the ball barring immediate big-boy games from Martin, Omenihu, and Johnson. They may or may not be better schematically. It’s hard to say incremental improvements will matter in either of their first two games, unfortunately. But hopefully there’ll at least be some good splash plays.
Since Brad Seeley took over for the Texans, these two teams have been excellent at special teams. The Texans have added another ace in Michael Thomas this offseason, and the Chiefs haven’t lost anyone of real importance. There were multiple game-changing specials teams plays in the first half of the divisional round, as both sides made impact plays.
I am still a little surprised Kai’mi Fairbairn got a huge extension because the way he is used and the kicks he has missed have led me to believe he’s seen in-house as more of a solid kicker than a great one. He must be the best teammate ever. I think the Texans are behind the Chiefs there, and pretty much even on the other segments of special teams as long as DeAndre Carter doesn’t drop the ball again.
I’ve laid out a number of reasons why I think the Texans could surprise or change the way they do things. I have no idea which of these will become preseason talking points we forget about by October and which of these will become the new normal. I don’t see the Chiefs as a team that needs to change a lot — what they do works and most of the team is in place.
I think there are avenues where the Texans win this game, but it relies on a lot of those changes I’ve discussed earlier hitting at once. They have to call the right game plan, they have to get Watson involved in the run game, they have to have big defensive plays. Ultimately, I’m going to have them cautiously cover the spread because I believe in Watson’s abilities and if they surprise me, well, nothing will really surprise me this year. Chiefs 36, Texans 30.
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