Four Downs: Steelers 28, Texans 21

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You’ve probably gathered that I’m a bit of a King of the Hill fan, as I have a King of the Hill Twitter avatar. It’s one of my favorite shows on television. When thinking about this Texans loss today, here is a scene I came back to:

Hank is asked to a focus group about a new lawn mower, and spends the entire episode pointing out the flaws that are wrong with it. I have spent this entire offseason harping on flaws in the process of creating the 2020 Houston Texans.


There’s your $12 million running back!
There’s your new playcallers!
There’s your high-flying pass offense!

Three games in against the AFC royalty and the Texans have sputtered wildly in every way to provide a workable infrastructure around winning games with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Some of it is a lack of talent. Some of it is because the coaching staff steadfastly refuses to do what it takes to win games.

The Texans aren’t dead yet. The season isn’t over. There’s a lot of ballgame left. But there is little question that they have gotten worse as everyone else has gotten better this offseason. I know the trade you’re thinking of first, and it was bad — but even beyond that, the team just spent too much of its tough, smart, and dependable hours chasing their player type instead of talent. They don’t have the impact defensive players they need in the front seven right now despite four major contracts handed out to front seven players, including two over the last 12 months! They have invested three firsts, three seconds, and real money to a former second-round pick in Nick Martin and a solid chunk of change to Zach Fulton. They have allowed 33 quarterback hits in three games!

There’s your football czar!

1) The run defense is going to be a problem all season

The Steelers came into the game with the 30th-ranked rushing DVOA in the NFL. They proceeded to gash the Texans to the tune of 38 carries, 169 yards, and 4.4 a tote. I think that even understates how bad things were, because some of the stops the Texans made were third-and-short stacks on the line. The Steelers eventually adjusted off of that and started throwing screens in the second half.

I don’t buy the crap that’s being shoveled about the defense being forced on the field too much. They allowed 4.6 yards per carry in the first half. I was willing to give a pass to these guys against the Ravens, a historically good run offense. I was even willing to give a pass to these guys against a Chiefs team with a historically great quarterback — letting the Chiefs run on you is a choice. Ben Roethlisberger is certainly still a good quarterback, but if you can’t stop the run against the Steelers, let’s call it how it is: It’s a bad run defense.

This is something that, to use an O’Brien-ism, they have to get corrected quickly. The Vikings are coming to town next week for an 0-3 desperation bowl. The Vikings have Dalvin Cook and are here to run the ball. There’s no secret about that. If the Texans can’t stop the run, things will go from dire to … well, I’d say Dead Coach Walking if I seriously believed O’Brien answered to anybody. There’s a very real chance with how this run defense is playing that they lose to the Vikings. I can say in strict confidence that I always expected the Texans to struggle to begin the season against this schedule … but they can’t go 0-4 and have realistic playoff hopes, even in a seven-team playoff system.

Realistically speaking: Nothing would be off the table for me this week. Nobody is sacred on this run defense. If the Texans think someone is underperforming, they need to make a move to fix it. I don’t care what the contract amounts are. I know they won’t bench Zach Cunningham. I know they won’t bench J.J. But other than that, you know, solutions to problems like this require actual change.

2) Tim Kelly and Bill O’Brien stop Deshaun Watson

The Texans entered the third quarter up 21-17, they gave up a field-goal to get to 21-20. The last thing the Texans coaching staff had seen before they began the second half was this surgical drive from Deshaun Watson:

The Texans saw that, and immediately chose to run the ball instead with David Johnson. Johnson, over the course of the second half, would rack up four carries for three yards, all but one of those carries on first down. They helped set the script for the pass offense to not get going. Three three-and-outs on four first half drives, and those three-and-outs did the following: third-and-seven, third-and-four, third-and-26. The third-and-four was greeted by Zach Fulton:

Watson’s only checkdown on this throw was a flat outside route by David Johnson that was deep in the progression.

The other drive, Watson bailed them out of third-and-10 with a hellacious throw on the run out of empty:

He then threw a pick on third-and-15 that was set up by this play call:

It was so predictable that the Texans would try to hunker down and conservaball their lead that I said as much on Twitter. They dominated in the first half out of empty formations, all the offensive success in this game came from spreading out wide and asking the Steelers to defend it. They even got David Johnson involved deep:

So did the Texans operate like the successful thing would work? No! No they did not. They saw what they wanted to see, which was what O’Brien said earlier in the week on his radio show: They have a really good record when they get to 100 yards.

They did not get 100 yards rushing. They didn’t even get close. But they did run the ball 15 times in an attempt to stay balanced against DVOA’s No. 1 run defense. They gained 24 yards on 14 carries. Almost all of them predictable.

Post-game, Deshaun Watson dropped a line about getting more alert and involved with play calling that caught my eye:

That’s … not usually the kind of thing someone says if they are happy with what’s happening. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. I will let the quote stand as it does. But umprompted when talking about the consistency of the unit, that was a moment where we might have seen a little glimpse of frustration.

3) “Let’s not get cute.”

I don’t blame David Johnson for the run game not working. He’s just the latest back to try to confirm the fact that what O’Brien does as a base isn’t very successful. Bill O’Brien has this habit of saying very useful things to the game broadcasters and to absolutely nobody else. Here’s what he told the crew working this game about David Johnson:

This run offense only ever works when it’s “cute,” BOB. You literally have a gift that most playcallers would kill for: a golden goose at quarterback who run defenses have to account for! (I acknowledge that Tim Kelly is the Texans offensive play caller. It doesn’t matter, this is mostly the same stuff BOB has always done, and Kelly is beholden to him.) Almost all the success the Texans have had so far this year in the run game relies on Watson holding defenders and the splits working in their favor, as Matt Weston brought up the other day on Twitter:

The problem is, well, even that is better than the alternative of plowing into the line of scrimmage one yard at a time. Whether its basic inside zone or basic outside zone, nothing the Texans offensive line has shown you so far should make you confident in the fact that they are going to grab more than three yards a tote. David Johnson has two broken tackles this year per SIS, a number that is well on par with what we should expect from his last two seasons of runs.

There are many, many playcallers who would generate a dominant short scheme out of the gifts of Watson. That the Texans continue to struggle to do literally anything in the run game, to the point where they are getting blown out of the water by James Conner — by 140 yards! — should embarrass this coaching staff into finding different solutions.

It probably won’t, because hubris has a way of being the defining trait of what I’ve come to expect from the Texans under O’Brien. But it should.

4) When the line works, this offense works

I already posted the Fulton sack, it was one of five that Watson took today. He’s now at 33 quarterback hits on the season. The Texans have just 11 of their own. When the Steelers were kept off-balance, it was mostly because empty formations had Watson only seeing four rushers as would-be-blitzers were forced out wide to keep things honest:

The line has, well, outside of Laremy Tunsil, not been very good this year. I know that there’s a lot of time left on the Tytus Howard and Max Scharping trains so I am not going to destroy them for it, but it is striking to me that this team performed as well as it did the second it simplified everything for its offensive line. Two of the sacks were on Fulton and Howard via a chip from Darren Fells that T.J. Watt talked about here:

A couple of other sacks came as Watson struggled to deal with covered initial reads. Another on this broken play-action pass with zero easy underneath targets:

And, well, I figured empty would be great for the Texans because Watson is good at it. I also figured he’d take some sacks in this game, but I guess where I’m at is that it was so striking how much better the line played out of empty. It goes beyond the sort of typical “they can tee off on him as a pass rusher” thing and plays back into both quarterback comfort and defense comfort. Every defense the Texans have played this year is way too comfortable dealing with what Houston’s coaching staff thinks are the base plays because the base plays don’t tie any hands. Put this Watson-in-empty stuff out there, and all of the sudden you get 21 points in short order.

The scary thing is that I think the empty set could be much, much better than it was in this game. Use David Johnson on drag routes. Bring Johnson back into the formation when you see something exploitable in the front. Let Deshaun Watson run. Like, this was only scratching the surface of what is there.

Maybe that’s the kind of stuff the base offense should be made out of. I guess we’ll never know!


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