Week 7 Preview: Texans vs. Packers

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We’ve reached the end of these previews meaning much, unfortunately. I’m not saying the Texans are quitting — in fact, after Deshaun Watson’s “we’re not trading anybody” presser on Wednesday, they seem to be even more enthusiastic than ever that they’re going down fighting. Football Outsiders — an outlet that actually thinks pretty highly of the Texans relative to their record — gives the Texans just a 6.6% chance of making the playoffs. Almost all of it through a wild card.

In my experience a lot of fans do not much care for losing football. Things will get more apathetic and I expect the amount of fans tuning in will dwindle barring the miraculous. To those fans I would say: This might be losing football, but it is arguably the most exciting brand of losing football in the league. Watson’s pass offense has been unleashed and the only thing that can slow it down is David Johnson carries up the middle. I am prepared for a majority of Texans weeks over the rest of the season to be pinball games. And, honestly, given how little I thought we might have football at times this year, life could be a lot worse.

The Packers and Texans have faced each other just four times. I personally had no recollection of Houston’s win in 2008 — Matt Schaub threw for 414 yards. I do remember the Sunday night fiasco in 2012 where Rodgers torched the Texans for six touchdowns. The last time they faced off was in 2016, the year of Brockspringa, and it generated one of the worst Bob McNair quotes of all-time. (OK, OK, in a football sense.)

Vegas opened with some pretty spot-on lines, by which I mean they have barely been nudged at all. The Texans are giving 3.5 points as home dogs, and the over/under opened at 56 and ticked up just a bit to 57. It is the highest over/under of the Sunday slate.

When the Texans have the ball

Green Bay’s defense had a real lean last season: they were a pass-first defense. In 2020, they have been without premiere nose tackle Kenny Clark for most of the year. It’s led to one of the more disastrous defenses in the NFL. Yes, folks, we’ve found one of the five defenses DVOA thinks is worse than Houston’s. The only defense they’ve stopped in any sense of the word is Atlanta in a game where the Falcons went 2-for-4 on fourth-down conversions and 3-for-12 on third-down conversions, including a 10-minute drive that netted three points. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley were both so injured that they probably shouldn’t have been in that game.

That isn’t to say that the Packers don’t have the raw elements of a good defense, but they have suffered across the board this year to get those elements humming in tune. ZaDarius Smith is frightening (five sacks in five games) and will line up wherever he wants and get mismatches. Against the Texans, that probably means more snaps in the middle of the line. Preston Smith, on the other hand, has had a disastrous year — he has a pressure rate of just 1.9% per Sports Info Solutions. That makes Whitney Mercilus look like Aaron Donald.

Green Bay has one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in Jaire Alexander — mostly an outside guy on the year, but he also shadows. Do they put him on Will Fuller or on Brandin Cooks? Most of the speculation has been on Fuller. Strength-on-strength if that’s the case, I’d expect Fuller to still get some looks on RPO looks and maybe a deep play-action ball or two, but don’t expect him to go entirely off. He’s more touchdown-or-bust in fantasy football leagues in my opinion here. With Clark back and with his feet wet against Tampa, we seem to be looking at a situation where there will be no unexpected absences of note for the Packers beyond Tyler Lancaster.

One major hole has been at linebacker, where ex-Brown Christian Kirksey’s injury has just left the entire second line in chaos. Krys Barnes played the majority of the snaps inside last game. This could be yet another game where Darren Fells does more damage than you’d expect, especially in light of Jordan Akins picking up back-to-back DNPs on Wednesday and Thursday.

In the two games since Bill O’Brien was fired, Deshaun Watson has been allowed more freedom at the line of scrimmage, more of the snaps have come with players in motion, and the results have been stupendous. The Texans have skyrocketed in passing DVOA, and neither the Titans nor Jaguars have blitzed much. The Packers also figure to keep things low-key — they have blitzed on just 23.1% of their opponents dropbacks this year, eighth-fewest in the NFL.

This is yet another matchup where the Texans should be able to make hay on the ground but likely won’t as long as they rely on David Johnson interior runs. Tim Kelly noted the lack of production on those runs, but would only really say that “he’s doing what we ask him to do.” The Texans are asking Johnson to do the impossible for his skill set, and every interior carry they run with him that isn’t off a highly-vacated box or other favorable matchup is a waste of a down. Lancaster is Green Bay’s highest-graded run defender per PFF, but even with him absent, I don’t know that I can predict Johnson to have a big game until I see it at this point.

Of interest to Phararoh Brown fans: The Packers have been decimated by 12-personnel sets this year. They’ve allowed 16-of-19 passes to be completed for a 7.9 YPA, with just one sack. They’ve also allowed 6.3 yards per carry against 12-personnel. Even with Akins out, the Texans ran 33% of their snaps last week out of 12, and averaged 11.1 yards per attempt out of it.

When the Packers have the ball

Well, uh, hm. Here’s another side of the ball that the Texans technically play. Let’s look blindly around for optimism!

J.J. Watt had a big strip sack last game and the pass rush in general had one of the best games against Ryan Tannehill that anyone has had this season, sacking him twice and pressuring him 10 times. Houston actually has a -34.1% DVOA on third or fourth-and-long this season, but the problem as things stand is that they can’t get there.

Fresh off allowing one of the worst rushing defense performances in NFL history, the Texans have offered little but excuses. They have to play better, they have to tackle better, they have to stop getting out of their gaps. The only real change offered the past few weeks has been more snaps for rookie end Ross Blacklock which — well, finally. DC Anthony Weaver seemed to say this was an elevation that would stick in a radio interview on Monday. Other than that, though, the Texans have major problems: Zach Cunningham’s run radar is malfunctioning and their front doesn’t have a two-gap plugger without D.J. Reader. Brandon Dunn hasn’t done well in extended time, Charles Omenihu was asked to put on weight and hasn’t been a factor in the run game, and, of course, the team has zero edge presence.

All of this runs into Green Bay’s well above-average run game with a dynamic back in former UTEP standout Aaron Jones as the main back. I’ll be honest: Before the season I was pretty down about Green Bay’s offense and a large part of it is because I don’t understand why Jones doesn’t get the rock more. I was never a big driver of the “Aaron Rodgers is now terrible” bandwagon, but when they spent a first-round pick on a quarterback this offseason that was certainly eye-opening. Instead, Green Bay’s offense has rebounded and rebranded, and Rodgers has set the world on fire as the Rodgers of old would.

Tampa Bay was able to be a real speed bump in the Green Bay offense hype train last week, but I don’t think there’s a lot of cause for concern. Two big interceptions by Tampa, one a pick-six, flipped the script on the game. Green Bay ran for more yards on the Bucs than any team had so far this year (granted some of that is likely the loss of Vita Vea), and were able to discombobulate Rodgers with a blitz-heavy game plan that caused four sacks and 12 pressures. The Texans haven’t hit either 12 pressures or four sacks in a single game this year, let alone both. David Bahktiari appears to be trending towards not playing, which might help a bit.

Bradley Roby has shadowed in every game this season and will suffer with that decision against Davante Adams — on the short list of potential answers for best receiver in the NFL — coming off a six-catch, 61-yard clunker in Tampa. I’m very impressed with Adams’ approach to the game and I think this is a matchup where Roby is at a bit of a disadvantage.

Even despite a massive negative game script, the Packers ran just 51% of their snaps in 11-personnel last week. They are primarily a 12 and 21-jumbo team that relies on the play-action pass as well as sweep actions. They have run the 11th-most play-action passes in the NFL despite a bye week. With Robert Tonyan (ankle) running back-to-back DNPs, we might get a Jace Sternberger homecoming as well as more Marcedes Lewis than you can remember being in your life since the early 2010s.

The Texans have been downright abysmal against both of those sets and against play-action as a whole, as you might have guessed by their performances against the Titans and Vikings. The Texans have allowed 7.0 yards per carry to backs in 12-personnel, and against 21-personnel they’ve allowed 8.4 yards per pass attempt. Lonnie Johnson is essentially learning the finer points of safety on the fly, and forcing the Texans into base sets where Eric Murray is a primary coverage player has been a successful plan for many opponents already this year.

The Texans showed they could play better run defense against the Jaguars. If they happen to find a way to corral it in this game, I think that’s a big step for them winning this game. The Packers have posted a negative rush DVOA in each of their last three games. Unfortunately there is not a lot of reason to believe they make it four. Houston’s front seven needs personnel changes in the worst way, as well as someone to straighten out Cunningham.

Special teams

A good year for Mason Crosby! The Packers have had some good returns with Tyler Ervin (remember Tyler Ervin?) and otherwise that’s about it for them as far as notable items here. Ervin may not make it to the field this week after a couple of practice DNPs.

Tough, smart, and dependable special teamers Kai Faibairn and DeAndre Carter have struggled. You know this, you watch Texans football and can count.

The read

It sure would be nice if the Texans could stop the bleeding. I don’t think it’s completely out of the realm of possibility. They’ve been unlucky this year in close games. The passing game has been on the up over the past two weeks and nothing we’ve seen from the Packers in the last few weeks projects to give the Texans any trouble.

But between a defense that is waving the white flag and David Johnson carries that are a white flag, I think the smart bet is probably for the Packers to outlast the Texans as they limp into the bye week. I’ll make it close: Texans 35, Packers 37. Houston has the ability to win this game and it will crush me if they don’t do it, but as I said after last week’s game, this is a team that is so addicted to its bad habits that it just can’t help itself right now. My only hope is that I have given up on them turning it around a week too soon.

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