Week 2 Preview: Texans vs. Baltimore

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Well, I’d like to say this gets easier after the Super Bowl champs. But it doesn’t.

The Texans do have three extra days of rest on a Ravens team headed to NRG for the first time in the Lamar Jackson era, but that’s about the only edge I see them having on the Ravens. And last year, with a full bye week at their disposal, they went into M&T Bank Stadium and got cornholed by the Ravens 41-7. Here’s my recap of that game at the time. Here’s what the preview looked like for that game. I’ve done a preview podcast with Ken McKusick if that’s more to your style of previews:

Ken kept trying to bring me back from being too down on the Texans throughout the show, but the truth is that not only is Baltimore the better team, they are a nightmare matchup for this current incarnation of the Texans. If you take out DeAndre Hopkins’ contributions, the Texans’ leading receiver against Baltimore last year was Kenny Stills, who caught four balls for 27 yards. Oh, also, there’s no homefield advantage and everything is quiet, and Lamar Jackson is coming off a three-touchdown depantsing of the Cleveland Browns pass defense. Other than literally everything about this game, the game sets up well for the Texans.

Thus, despite the homefield and the rest, the Ravens come into this game minus-7, and the over/under currently stands at just 50 points. It opened at Ravens minus-6, and the over/under at 54.5. That speaks a lot to how gambling experts expect this game to go: more in favor of Baltimore, more game-scripted away from the Texans.

Well, you’re still here. So let’s talk about it.

When the Texans have the ball

All stats courtesy of Football Outsiders

The Texans were lost as a passing offense in Week 1, with Deshaun Watson and Will Fuller having the only real fungible chemistry and the Chiefs big-blitzing at will to take Watson down. The Chiefs brought the heat on 32.5% of Watson’s passing snaps per SportsRadar/PREF data, and Watson was sacked four times and pressured on an astonishing 37.5% of his dropbacks. Some offensive lines produce those results without costing a metric ton of draft capital, but that’s a little unfair. The real culprit, as always, continues to be the lack of any real easy hot route or passing-game design.

I wrote at length about this last year, but the Texans under O’Brien simply don’t have easy checkdowns for Watson as a default state of the offense. Sometimes they come as first-15 designs off the script, and sometimes they get adjusted to. But generally, the Texans have been content to let this sort of thing happen since 2018. When they play big blitzing teams, it gets Watson killed. That’s why he threw for just 169 yards against the Ravens last year when he was blitzed 18 times, and why he managed only 184 against the Bucs last season when they blitzed him 19 times. The Ravens and Bucs were 1-2 in blitz rate in the regular season last year.

The Ravens actually didn’t have much in the way of success in sacking Baker Mayfield in Week 1, but they definitely impacted him heavily. They sent the heat at Baker on 22 of his 39 dropbacks, and even though Mayfield only was pressured seven times, he panicked and played very poorly.

Throw in constant pressures with bad hot routes and I think Watson will probably take at least three sacks this week, if not more, without major adjustments. The funny thing is it would be incredibly easy to go in and change this stuff — having someone drag across the line of scrimmage is actually wildly simple. But until I see a devotion to this beyond the beginning of the script, I won’t believe it’s happening.

For what it’s worth: I don’t think Watson played poorly at all last week. I think he was hurt by some timely drops, and I don’t think he had the kind of signature Houdini play we all expect from him. But on a dropback-to-dropback basis, he made good throws and was on-point with his reads.

The best way for the Texans to move the ball will probably be between the tackles with what looked like a rejuvenated David Johnson in Week 1. Johnson’s cuts were crisp and he was able to thrive even on plays where the best blocking was not available:

The Ravens beefed up their defensive front this offseason by signing Calais Campbell and Derrick Wolfe, among others. Given the uh, “run blocking prowess” that this line showed through most of Week 1, Johnson is going to have to squeeze through a lot of tight creases to make that impact. But, it’s worth noting the Browns were able to run for five yards a carry, and Baltimore’s run defense was shaky out of the start last year. If there’s ever a time to catch them, it’s probably now.

Brandin Cooks continued to be limited on the injury report with his quad injury. Stills had two of the big drops last week, but I think he’s still probably the best bet to create production of those two. Randall Cobb admitted that he thought he looked like he was playing in a preseason game on tape last week, and I barely even noticed he was on the field throughout my own re-watch of the game. Can you be a decoy slot receiver, or does that just mean you’re occupying space? Baltimore didn’t do much shadow coverage down the stretch last year and projects to just roll out Marlon Humphrey in the slot on Cobb, Marcus Peters on Fuller, and Jimmy Smith on Cooks. Earl Thomas’ release has left a little more hope on deep balls as the main deep safety in Week 1 was former sixth-rounder DeShon Elliott, who has under 500 career defensive snaps.

When the Ravens have the ball

Well, you pray. Anthony Weaver told reporters on Friday that his first instinct was to take care of the running attack first:

The last team that did that got scraped off the turf to the tune of a 146.1% DVOA allowed even if they did keep the run attack handled. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, there’s not anything inherently surprising with getting your ass kicked by Lamar Jackson. All Weaver could focus on in that press conference was the turnovers. Other than that, it’s been the same “keep it simple, let them be aggressive” rah rah stuff the Texans passed around last time they played the Ravens.

Weaver’s defense in the first game was actually fairly aggressive against the Chiefs. They blitzed Mahomes 13 times in 32 dropbacks. They just didn’t generate much in the way of pressure. The major changes from last year schematically had A.J. Moore seeing more of a role as a linebacker on dime downs, J.J. Watt playing well inside and even standing up inside on a few plays, and an emphasis on the overload and amoeba looks on third down. I actually didn’t think the pass defense looked all that bad in Week 1. There were always going to be easy scheme wins on a few plays by Andy Reid, but the Texans bottled up a lot of stuff underneath and kept Tyreek Hill from generating any big plays by shadowing him with Bradley Roby. I don’t think Roby shadows again this week, but if he does, it’s almost certainly on Hollywood Brown.

The run defense, unfortunately, I can’t say the same for. They were handily overmatched by a Chiefs line and run game that hadn’t been this devastating since Jamaal Charles was ruling the roost:

I think Brandon Dunn had a poor first week replacing D.J. Reader at nose, and honestly I wouldn’t say anybody on the run defense had an outright good game in Week 1. Zach Cunningham was guessing wrong gaps all day, quite uncharacteristically so. Benardrick McKinney missed a few tackles. The team rotated through a few guys — P.J. Hall, Charles Omenihu, Ross Blacklock, even a few snaps of Brennan Scarlett — inside as they tried to replace Angelo Blackson on run downs. I think their best hope is that Blacklock is ready to start as soon as possible, and that Hall can eventually spell Dunn in power matchups. Anyway, the Chiefs ran for 166 yards and the Baltimore Ravens have run game conflicts that would make Kansas City’s RPO’s blush. The Texans gave up a cool 70 yards on RPOs last week, with the Chiefs running 14 of them, tied for second-most in the league. The Ravens — this may not surprise you — are going to have some RPO looks.

I think Baltimore has upgraded its secondary receivers around Mark Andrews and Brown this offseason, and in particular Devin Duvernay has a chance to make some noise this season. Miles Boykin has the exact kind of physical style that I think could give the Texans lower-rung corner options some problems. Houston last week benched Lonnie Johnson for the better part of the first half, then puzzlingly O’Brien pointed to the injury report in pressers about that decision. That was neither a great sign for the coaching staff’s confidence in Johnson nor a good look for Johnson’s ability to seize the CB2 role. That said, I don’t know who else would take it. Vernon Hargreaves was beaten whenever thrown at, and John Reid just played his first NFL game. This has all the makings of one of those position groups that looks nice in the offseason when you have the rose-colored glasses on but falls apart the second any real pressure is put on it.

The last time I did one of these previews I thought Lamar Jackson wasn’t a superstar just yet. Well, he definitely is one now. He threw the ball with confidence last week, he took throws that you rarely see attempted. It’s obvious that he has had few physical peers as a running quarterback outside of Michael Vick, but the throws in and of themselves are starting to grow. Don’t buy into the narrative that the Ravens lost in the playoffs because Lamar couldn’t throw — they were aggressive and lost a few too many fourth downs. Jackson is electric and if the Texans try to follow the Browns and shut down the run game by leaving stuff open deep, they will likely also get hot fire rained on them.

Special teams

Both teams played pretty well last week outside of Kai’imi Fairbairn’s missed field goal, a poor stay-away decision by Ravens returner James Proche, and three DeAndre Carter kickoff returns that went nowhere. Justin Tucker is one of the few kickers that I feel like single-handedly sways a matchup. So it goes, in a game where the Texans don’t have a lot of edge in my estimation.

The read

I would be astonished if the Texans won this game. It would buck every trend and gut instinct in my body. I don’t often get to say something like this since Deshaun Watson took over, but it so happens that two of the times are just stacked back-to-back to start the season.

The big question to me isn’t if the Texans can stop the Ravens, because even with the addition of J.J. Watt from last year’s team, I think that unit is overmatched. The question is just how badly the offense will react to the blitzing. If they come out with a brand new game plan, I will be pleasantly surprised and shower them with praise. This does happen from time-to-time.

But with all this talk about simplifying, personal responsibility, and trying to do what they were trained to do in the first place, I will put my chip on the Texans not understanding the normal that they need to create to win this game. Baltimore 32, Houston 14.

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