Week 4 Preview: Texans vs. Vikings

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Saddled with an 0-3 start for the second time in three seasons, the Houston Texans come home to lick their wounds against family. Former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is Minnesota’s offensive coordinator, and former Texans head coach Dom Capers is a Vikings defensive assistant.

Remembering Some Texans Head Coaches isn’t really a brand that brings a lot to the table, but I suppose it’s better than thinking about the present. Houston’s quarterback is good enough to win games and the coaching isn’t allowing him to do it.

The Vikings, also 0-3, bring a run-heavy style, Dalvin Cook, and Kirk Cousins to the table in a year where they’re still finding their footing on both sides of the ball. That’s not to say the Vikings are pushovers or are in any way an opponent the Texans can look down on, but they’ve had their struggles this year. The Texans have actually never beaten the Vikings — they’ve played only four times since the Texans were founded. The last meetup in 2016 involved the Vikings creating a 24-0 lead with 8:46 left in the second quarter. Brock Osweiler completed 19-of-42 passes.

Houston opened as four-point favorites, yet another true Vegas zone game, and the over/under that opened at 49.5 has been bet up to 53.5 in most places, with a few 54s around. Yes, folks, bettors expect some points in this matchup. Both teams should be desperate — 0-4 teams do not make the playoffs, generally speaking — so this is essentially a playoff game for both of them.

When the Texans have the ball

The tone and tenor on the Texans side of things this week has been that they simply have to be able to run the ball better and, interestingly, that they need to scheme the run better:

I think this is probably a week that the running game gets on track if they actually focus attention on the problem. I don’t think David Johnson is a particularly good fit for the scheme, but as long as there is actually a good-faith effort into making the run game different, they should at least be able to do a little more than they’ve managed the last two weeks.

The Vikings have given up at least 134 rushing yards in each of their three games this season, but they’ve also played the VOA No. 4, No. 20, and No. 21 run offenses. They’ve also been game-scripted in a few of their games this year, trailing by at least 10 points in their first two games by the second quarter. The Vikings were a respectable DVOA rush defense in 2019 so I don’t think this is by any means a cakewalk, but they’re also missing Anthony Barr after he tore his pectoral muscle in Week 2. Special teamer Eric Wilson, who had less than 700 career defensive snaps coming into this year, is suddenly an every-down linebacker. I could easily see it becoming David Johnson with 45 rushing yards instead of 25 because a) I don’t know that the scheme getting changed is necessarily going to be done in the most forward-thinking and b) Johnson hasn’t really shown a lot of ability to break tackles yet. But even that in and of itself is a big step as far as this team’s last two games are concerned.

I have to think the Texans will want to start the game using 12-personnel sets (two tight ends) to try to get third linebacker Hardy Nickerson (not his father) on the field. How they run out of that set (they’ve averaged just 3.0 yards per carry this year to date) will probably determine a lot about how the early game goes. Minnesota has allowed 4.5 yards per carry to 12-personnel sets this year, with a 68% success rate on 34 attempts. That’s a fairly big sample for so early in the season. Todd Davis was also recently signed and could be involved in three-linebacker sets, but that’s still plugging in a street free agent even if I grant that Davis has always seemed pretty good to me.

Minnesota blitzed Ryan Tannehill on 14 of his 38 dropbacks last week and are carrying a 33.3% blitz rate on the season that puts them just out of the top 10. That’s actually much higher than they blitzed in 2019 — 24.8% — but also probably is prone to some game-scripting issues and the fact that Zimmer’s pass rush hasn’t been all that effective. The Vikings have just 23 quarterback pressures on the season per SportsRadar — that’s three more than the Texans have. Let’s not take a Deshaun Watson victory lap just yet because Baltimore hasn’t gotten much pressure in their other two games either, but on paper this doesn’t seem like an especially challenging front for the big Houston weakness so far this year.

The big key for the Texans will be staying on schedule. The Vikings improve a lot when they get to x-and-long. Minnesota’s third-and-long defensive VOA is -109.5%, third-best in the NFL. Their second-and-long defense is -35.4% — seventh-best. Minnesota’s VOA allowed on passes targeting the middle of the field is a league-worst 70.8%, and over the deep middle it’s an astonishing 262.8%. Play-action passing would probably work well against this team as per what the Titans did to them, so maybe Tim Kelly will consider calling it without establishing the run!

Welp, nevermind.

Houston’s wide receivers should be able to win their individual matchups. Minnesota’s two starting wide corners are UDFA Holton Hill and 2020 first-rounder Jeff Gladney, neither of whom have shown a ton in the early going. Mike Hughes would probably start outside but has a neck injury and did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday. There is nothing in this matchup that would scare me off using a Texans receiver in fantasy football. Now, Will Fuller did pop up on the injury report with a hamstring injury on Thursday night … so that’s not great. But Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb shouldn’t have major road blocks to production in this game barring a real out-of-nowhere performance by someone on the Vikings defense.

When the Vikings have the ball

The thing that initially drew my eyes about this matchup is that the Vikings are the team with the longest average target depth in the NFL right now — 10.4 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, the Texans have not allowed a single completion targeted more than 20 yards downfield on the season and are currently sitting at a -63.3% VOA on deep balls, second-best in the NFL. A classic matchup of something has to give. I do think the Vikings will be able to break that for the Texans — Justin Jefferson looked very impressive last week in demolishing the Titans secondary and Bradley Roby has been good but not exactly flawless this year. Whoever draws Vernon Hargreaves III between Adam Thielen and Jefferson will probably get safety shades on most plays.

The Texans, of course, have had problems dealing with pressure. So have the Vikings. While the Texans rank No. 1 in pressure rate allowed as an offense, the Vikings are No. 2. Minnesota almost cut Riley Reiff before the season and that’s one of the good offensive linemen. Dru Samia at right guard has been a complete dumpster fire by almost any publicly available metric you can look at. Sports Info Solutions has him blowing 8 blocks — 7 of them pass block attempts — in 62 snaps. That’s an obscenely bad 11.5% blown block rate. To elucidate just how bad that is, there were only two NFL linemen all last year with 300 pass protection snaps that even had an 8% blown block rate: J’Marcus Webb and Cam Erving.

Dakota Dozier is no great shakes either. The interior of the line is succeptible to stunts, and what I’m really hoping we see from Anthony Weaver is quite a few snaps with J.J. Watt inside, especially on passing downs. We’ve seen handfuls here or there so far, but this is a spot where the right matchup could really get the Houston pass rush going. Hell, they might even get their first turnover of the season! The Vikings are a horrendous second-and-long or third-and-long offense. They’ve got a -64.6% VOA on second-and-long and a -120.1% VOA on third-and-long. Of course, to get them to ???-and-long, you first have to do a good job on first down. And that’s where the crux of this matchup is really laid out:

The Texans spent a lot of this week fielding questions about their run offense, but their run defense got relegated to “oh, this is only a fourth quarter concern.” Houston still let the Steelers run for 4.6 yards per carry against them last week in the first half for 79 yards and a 59% success rate. They’ve allowed more rushing yards than any other team in the NFL. And they’re going up against an offense run by Dalvin Cook, one of the best backs in the NFL, and a Gary Kubiak run game that is clicking even as the pass isn’t.

It’s very easy to say “Kubiak loves to run zone,” but that’s not actually true. The Vikings are pretty varied in their sets. They do power. They do pin/pulls. This team isn’t one-dimensional as a run offense and center Garrett Bradbury has shown a lot of improvement this year from the limited viewings of this offense I’ve had time to watch. They lead the NFL in yards per carry. Backup runner Alexander Mattison is no slouch at all — there’s no real dropoff. This would be a real challenge for any run defense, and the Texans have a gaping wound at linebacker that hasn’t really been solved. Nobody offered any real explanations this week other than saying they needed to play a four-quarter game. I don’t know that they have the personnel on this roster to set the edge properly as they are currently distributing playing time. I will say, after doing this for a year: I don’t like to get too fatalistic on run defense or offense one way or the other. I think that’s a lot easier to catch a good matchup on. But … I don’t think the Vikings run game is a good matchup for the Texans.

Minnesota runs less 11-personnel than most NFL teams, using it only 49% of their offensive snaps so far. They are the NFL’s fourth-most frequent user of 21-personnel (two backs), and have 17 carries with an average of 7.8 yards per carry in it. Meanwhile, in 12-personnel, they’ve run 12 times for merely 5.7 yards per attempt. This team will go big on you and that is a matchup problem for this Texans front sans D.J. Reader.

One last thing I want to focus on is how stagnant the shape of the Minnesota offense is. Kirk Cousins hasn’t actually targeted Houston’s real weakness, the short middle of the field, much this year. The Texans have allowed a 55.3% VOA on passes targeting the short middle. The Vikings really haven’t focused on this area at all as a passing unit. They have just 13 targets to the short middle all season, and eight of the 13 came in absolute garbage time in the first two weeks — fourth quarters and down by at least 17 points. With safety A.J. Moore down and Earl Thomas (checks notes) not a Texan as of the writing of this post, Houston seems likely to have someone inexperienced checking tight ends. This would be an area I would expect teams to exploit, but that just might not be a part of Minnesota’s footprint.

Special teams

In 2019, the Vikings were terrible at punt returns and kick returns, but an average or better unit on just about everything else. In 2020, they’ve been good at returns, but are bad at everything else. Interesting trade.

The Texans got gashed on a few kick returns last week, but the main source of poor special teams here continues to be Kai Fairbairn adding nothing more than the average kicker and Deandre Carter’s self-confidence.

The read

With two conservative coaches and two run defenses that have been bad on paper, I think this is a game that owes a lot to establishing the game script. If either team gets off to a 10-0 lead, I think that’s going to be tough to overcome. I would advise the Texans to receive in the first half for that reason.

I think there are absolutely paths to a Minnesota victory. This is going to be a trench battle with some downfield shots thrown in and two of Houston’s three main corners are Eric Murray and Vernon Hargreaves III. They’ve got a pass rush with some talented players and it’s not like other teams have found it hard to rush Deshaun Watson. If there’s no real change in the passing offense — and we sure didn’t hear much about that — then this team will continue to be vulnerable.

However, I like the Texans to crawl out of the hole on Sunday because I think they’re just a little bit better on pass offense and pass defense than the Vikings. Minnesota will be the first team to hit some shots, but I think the conservative nature of the Houston pass defense will work a lot better against Kirk Cousins than it did against Mssrs Jackson, Mahomes, and Roethlisberger. I will give you a Houston 27, Minnesota 25 prediction. But I want it on the record that if Minnesota wins this game, that total goes well under.

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