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As I argued towards the end of the preview, I thought that the game script would be wildly important in this one. I wasn’t scared of Minnesota’s passing offense, but the more they were able to run, the more dangerous it would be. The Texans snowballed a 17-3 lead behind, fittingly, a tough, smart, and dependable fumble from special teams sieve DeAndre Carter. He always seems to show up in big moments!
What a fixture. Let’s remember what Bill O’Brien said about him this offseason:
That’s the part of free agency I think is good: handicapping my team because I fell for a waiver-wire kick returner who practices hard.
Anyway, the Texans fell behind 17-3 and that was about the gist of it. The offense mounted a comeback, but they were hardwired to a system of coaching that won’t work, can’t work, and will never work in the NFL in 2020. Even as the Deshaun Watson comeback engines were rebooted away from the structure of O’Brien’s failing offense, O’Brien couldn’t help but make things worse. The run defense only had a prayer if they were put in an advantageous position and instead spent the afternoon helping Dalvin Cook create his NFL 100 highlight reel. This is, to emphasize, against a team that had such a bad COVID-19 scare that they couldn’t even practice for most of the week.
At 0-4, the Texans enter what, for most NFL franchises, would be a soul-searching mode. The team’s offseason has made things worse. The talent level on defense isn’t up to NFL caliber at this point. The offense is basically Deshaun Watson but running Madden 05’s Patriots playbook. Neither the head coach nor general manager have held up their end of the bargain. In this case, the same person has both jobs. The same person has hired two first-time coordinators, one of which got publicly thrown under the bus this week. It’s very hard for an organization to soul-search when there is just one person with any power. The soul-searching is working harder. The soul-searching is grinding tape and probably sacrificing whatever he can to turn this season around according to an outdated set of beliefs.
This is what happens when you give one person too much power.
1) Bill O’Brien was entrusted with Deshaun Watson, and that is where the vitriol comes from
From the very beginning of the game, FOX’s announcing team of Chris Myers, Brock Huard, and Greg Jennings were right up Bill O’Brien’s ass:
Just about every run to nowhere was greeted with outright condescension, barely-disguised loathing.
Now, some people are going to make this about the Texans being disrespected or something like that. I don’t think that’s the case here. What is happening is very simple: Watson is one of the NFL’s most marketable and incredible stars. The offense that O’Brien wants to run is a disservice to his talent. It is turning the golden goose into someone who hands off to David Johnson. The NFL is invested in Watson reaching that peak. If he can’t reach that peak under O’Brien, the NFL is going to clap back as hard as it can.
NFL-wide, it is not a secret that Watson has helped O’Brien’s career rather than the other way around. There’s no confusing what happened in 2017 when Watson’s offense was used to transition him into the pros with what is happening today. One of those offenses was successful. The other one wasn’t. Asked about O’Brien’s offense maybe being a little easy to read today, I think Watson delivered one of the most congenial sidesteps of his career:
The players are trying so hard to make this work. You haven’t seen Watson or J.J. Watt badmouth the coaching staff or undermine them in a material way. But I think the fact that Watson has had to dodge questions about the offense is pretty revealing all on its own.
The NFL wants Watson to be a star. Watson puts in the work to be a star. If Bill O’Brien can’t recognize that he is in the way of that, I hope this broadcast crew on replay was a wake up call to him. He’s not helping any of this happen and his offensive designs are weak. If the Texans went back to Clemson’s offense tomorrow, they will drop 35 on the Jaguars easily. (I’ve seen that defense.)
The ego attachment to what got O’Brien here, rather than what got Watson here, is holding this franchise back. I read your Tweets, you want O’Brien fired. I understand. There’s literally nothing I can do about that but let the chips fall where they may. I don’t think he’s done enough to keep his job and it’s not up to me. Texans ownership is pretty slow. I think he’s got some time to figure this out. I just don’t have any faith he will.
2) Dalvin Cook destroys the Texans run defense
After all the talk all week about how the Texans weren’t a good run defense in the fourth quarter, they set out to make sure that everyone knew the truth: they aren’t a good run defense in any quarter.
Dalvin Cook is a superstar running back having a superstar season. (For an example of a superstar running back not having a superstar season, please see Ezekiel Elliott.) The Texans coming into this game was a unit that had trouble tackling. Dalvin Cook ran right the hell over anybody he wanted. P.J. Hall, Benardrick McKinney, four guys on one play. Whatever weak tackle attempt the Texans brought, Cook wrecked it.
Most concerning of all is that the Vikings had zero problems getting to the edge. Cook had 17 carries outside of the tackle box and those gained 91 yards per Next Gen Stats. Whitney Mercilus and Brennan Scarlett left multiple plays on the field where they just couldn’t get off blocks to set it and spill the run back inside:
A frustrated Watt left pretty much everything unsaid in his press conference except the changes he would make, saying the story of the defense is that they have to stop the run:
As I said last week, there appear to be no easy answers for this. People making money have not been good at holding their gaps or getting the tacklers down. O’Brien has seemed wildly reticent to use the younger players. I don’t think I saw any Jon Greenard in his first active game of the year. I might have seen a few Ross Blacklock plays. The edge can’t hold if Mercilus and Scarlett can’t get off blocks.
The Jaguars are probably a little bit easier of a running attack to play against than Dalvin Cook, but James Robinson is just waiting to add a bunch of Texans to his highlight reel, licking his chops. And why wouldn’t he be? This unit has been awful in every game.
3) One of these teams knows how to run play-action. The other pretends they know.
The most divisive thing I posted all week was about offensive coordinator Tim Kelly’s view of play-action. Essentially, Kelly believes you must Establish The Run.
Gary Kubiak snickered and decided that was an interesting answer, and that he’d just go ahead and show the Texans what it meant to do play-action. Kirk Cousins dominated this game on play-action, I think three of Justin Jefferson’s four completions were on play-action reads, and often they were able to isolate Jefferson on the overmatched Vernon Hargreaves and that was pretty much that:
On the flipside, let’s take a look at the best play-action play in Houston’s playbook, the one where Watson stands there for a million years while nobody is ever open because everybody knows exactly how Houston runs this play.
Kirk Cousins is not as good as Deshaun Watson, but you don’t have to be as good of a dropback passer as Watson is if you are put in an offense that maximizes your strengths. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings ran more play-action passes in this game than they did all season up until this point. It was a major reason why they won. Houston’s play-action passing game is execrable and, considering the talent that Watson has is tailor-made to a good play-action game, absolutely inexcusable.
4) Bill O’Brien’s belief in Houston’s ability to run fails us all again
O’Brien tried very hard to get those 100 yards. He tried extremely hard for David Johnson’s fantasy football owners first, and for his ego second.
The Texans ran the ball nine times before trailing 17-3. That means that with a double-digit lead stacked on them for two quarters and change, the Texans continued to run the ball 15 more times to add to the nothing that already was David Johnson straight up the damn middle for little gain:
While trailing 31-16, O’Brien ran the ball four times with 10:50 to play on a drive, until he got to first-and-20 and couldn’t do it anymore:
Managing a team to try to run for 100 yards when it’s trailing is a bad idea. David Johnson doesn’t need more reps. The team isn’t going to work harder their way into making this a good fit. It’s not a good fit! He’s an outside runner who catches the ball well. If your offense can’t fit what he does well, and you’re not willing to adjust your offense to him, maybe don’t make it a focal point of your offseason to acquire and pay a running back an exorbitant contract when Duke Johnson was already around to fail the O’Brien offense in the exact same ways.
As the Texans hit goal-to-go for the last time in this game, as time began to expire, they ran the ball three straight times with David Johnson and got three yards, including one play where Johnson should have had a one-on-one with a safety to score:
This was a botched sequence. The third play, even though Johnson doesn’t catch it, at least utilizes Deshaun Watson. But you have Watson, one of the best players in the NFL, and you give him one shot to tie the game at the goal line. That’s criminal.
The devotion to this cost the Texans a metric boatload of time. I only measured that one drive at 104 seconds. Other drives would only rack the count up further. It cost the Texans more chances to let Deshaun Watson make a play. It was, in a close loss against a bad secondary that blew several coverages, a liability.
That’s what O’Brien is right now. Call it like it is. He’s a liability.
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