Four Downs: Browns 10, Texans 7

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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Have you had enough of watching a bad, stupid team pretend that it is actually unlucky and unfortunate?

After a 30-minute weather delay, the Texans went out and nearly got shut out by the Cleveland Browns — a defense that has generally only been good through turnovers — despite the Texans not turning it over once. They didn’t decisively lose time of possession. They didn’t even lose a lot of ground on terrible carries as Duke Johnson provided a little more burst than we’ve seen so far. They just managed to play bad situational football in key spots time and time again. Even the one touchdown they threw in this game came with two receivers basically running the same route:

Falling to 2-7, the Texans will somehow put on their game faces and pretend that this is good and that everything is fine and they’ll learn from this. They may even dig deep and turn some things around — I can’t believe I’m writing this — because there were some hidden positives in this game. They rode the topsy-turvy too aggressive-too passive thing between their fourth-and-goal go and their field-goal attempt. They had situational breakdowns every time the offense got into Cleveland territory.

But, as has been a theme of this season: This team just doesn’t play smart football. It has overestimated its talent in some key areas. It is continuing to pay for those two things. The Texans talk over and over again about going back and watching the tape to see what went wrong, but every week they come into the game new again, with almost zero anticipation of what the other team will do, and act as if what they stand for alone is enough. In a league where your identity suddenly matters a whole bunch, Houston’s identity is hubris at the idea that they’d ever need to worry about what the other team does.

1) Third-and-18.

So OK, you play your gaps right. You get a penalty to help you out. You reach third-and-18, and this is what happens:

The Texans just lay out the red carpet for the Browns to complete any kind of pass here by starting everybody at the depth that they do. Baker Mayfield happens to find Rashard Higgins on the sideline and makes a nice throw, but if you look at the dots on this play, well, he had many open receivers:

12 has a pocket over the middle of the field if you can throw over 50. 81 on the checkdown is going to get at least 13 yards if not more. 22 is wide open for half the play. 80 is the only receiver I’d call “well covered” and if there was a timing route on him or something, he probably gets there too. Cunningham gets chipped on his rush and doesn’t do anything. J.J. Watt gets chipped by the back. Whitney Mercilus is easily stood up.

Here’s Michael Thomas talking about that play after the game:

“Everybody was where they needed to be.” Were they? Was that the design of the play? Because the play designer messed up royally if so. That was extraordinarily easy. All day in the pocket, receivers had plenty of time to make up the ground and were essentially unchallenged. This is a play that a bad defense calls because it is scared of getting burned by doing anything clever, and it does that despite the fact that the play itself is going to get them burned anyway.

I expected the Texans to get gashed on the ground, and despite the difference between the first and second halves being real, they did about the norm there. But I was annoyed at how the Texans played against a quarterback who continually was making throws behind his targets and who has a history of playing poorly when pressured. They decided that the way to win the chess game was to drop into coverage more often than not. Despite the low numbers and all that, the Texans started one drive in this game beyond their own 37 — and one drive beyond their 33 that they didn’t try to kneel out the half on. In a field position game, their inability to create negative plays made a big difference. Speaking of that…

2) I.O.U. one pass rush

The official play-by-play has the Texans with two quarterback hits and one sack. Baker Mayfield dropped back to pass just 21 times with both teams clearly worried about the high winds. The one sack came as Corey Liuget got past Wyatt Teller on a play-action attempt:

The rest of the pass rush? Well, they didn’t even get close to Baker Mayfield. NFL Next Gen Stats keeps a chart of how close to the quarterback each pass rusher is, on average, over the course of the game. The Texans were not in Mayfield’s area code:

On the biggest play of the game up to that point for the Texans, the Browns went for it on fourth-and-4. They had an open receiver downfield. The only reason Mayfield was hurried was because he hurried himself by drifting right. He could have had all day on this throw if he wanted it:

It used to be that J.J. Watt was all this team had. This year, I think it’s fair to say, he has declined further. Lost in all the talk about what this team could get for Watt is that the window back to his ceiling may be closing — he may need a more complementary role to get the numbers he is accustomed to. Nobody else the Texans have on this team can rush the passer outside of Jacob Martin, who has COVID. Dud games from Whitney Mercilus are the norm. P.J. Hall and Carlos Watkins are fine players but not guys who should be anybody’s third or fourth-best pass rusher. We talk a lot about the run defense playing terribly, so this kind of skates under the radar, but I don’t know if I would bet on a single Texan on this roster to have five sacks in 2022. It is somehow one of the bleakest long-term problems on the roster and, at the same time, something that only pops up occasionally on this 2020 team. That’s a testament to how much this defense has underwhelmed.

3) Deshaun Watson as a runner suddenly reappears, but gets stuffed at the worst time

One thing I tweeted out Tuesday, expecting nothing to change — as that has been the normal — is that Deshaun Watson had only carried the ball twice since Week 4 on actual designed runs. Maybe this was a special situation brought on by the winds. Maybe it was finally realizing that the real running game sucks because the interior can’t block. Either way, the Texans actually ran Watson four times intentionally on Sunday, more than tripling his season total.

Three of those plays worked out very well: The Texans got nine yards on the play above, nine yards on a run that started the second drive of the second half, and four more on that same drive on a third-and-1. Two first downs, one nine yard run on third down. As I feel like I’ve been saying since 2018 — it is always monumentally stupid that the Texans can’t seem to understand that their run offense is terrible whenever Watson isn’t involved. It has always been stupid. I understand that he is the franchise and that if he gets hurt the season’s over, but he’s smart about these runs and does not take a lot of undue risks.

Unfortunately, the other designed run was a fourth-and-goal QB draw that cost the Texans big time when the Browns snuffed it out:

Zach Fulton got his meathooks established and created the seal that should have gotten Watson the touchdown, but Myles Garrett read the play and Tytus Howard simply had no way to get back in front of him after Watson chose that gap. Both Howard and Laremy Tunsil blocked this play like a draw — that meant they had to pass set. That meant it was reliant on the interior line to win fast and … well, have you watched this interior line? Yeah. The whole operation felt uncomfortable. And that was a major turning point in this game as the Texans continued to trail and never fully caught up.

I know a lot of people are blaming the offense entirely for this loss because the point total is bad — those people are the same ones that are going to whine that three of my four points are about the defense — but it’s not really the offense’s fault that they called a bad play on fourth-and-goal and Kai Fairbairn missed a field goal. The wind clearly played a role in the game, and I thought they did a decent job adapting their running attack to have a chance to move the ball. Penalties and sacks undid them on the drive where they got ball at the CLE 49, the big sack was on Max Scharping:

They only had three real first-half drives because the Browns were able to shorten the game with their running game. I don’t think the operation of Watson’s incompletion to Cobb on third-and-5 on their penultimate drive was bad, Cobb just dropped the ball.

When you play a low-possession ballgame, the pressure is amplified to nail your opportunities. The Texans didn’t do that, and they got what they deserved. Even as someone who is a big fan of aggressive play, I would have understood taking three when they went for it. If you don’t come into the game aware that it’s likely going to be a low-possession game, well, that’s on you.

4) The theory of Vernon Hargreaves

It’s third-and-8 with 10 seconds left in the third quarter. The Texans desperately need to get off the field. The ball that Baker Mayfield throws is terrible. But it doesn’t matter, because Vernon Hargreaves III is in coverage and gets got:

Now, I wanna lead this off by saying I’ve got nothing against Hargreaves. He is simply an NFL player trying to play up to a starting outside corner job that he has never proven up to the task for — there is no shame in that. But the fact that the Texans seem almost defiant in their evaluation that he can do this job is baffling to me. Take it back to the bye week:

The Texans believe in this guy. I have no idea why they believe in this guy. Something in his attitude? It certainly shouldn’t be anything in his play. He gets toasted every game by anybody with a pulse. And yet he just continues to be given a pass for this while rookie John Reid gets shoehorned into a blitzing(?) role:

Hargreaves, Phillip Gaines … up until he got hurt, Brennan Scarlett — it’s not that the team employs players who aren’t dominant at their roles, every team does that. It’s that the team is so, so stubborn about fitting these players out week after week to get rolled when nothing they’ve shown all season should give us any confidence in it happening any other way.

The problem with this season isn’t merely that it’s a lost cause — it’s that it’s a lost cause in service of an initial failed evaluation. Play your rookies! You’re 2-7! Hargreaves gets lit up like a Christmas tree every week and this team stands around and acts like it never saw anything. No, even worse than that, they outright have the gall to stand up there and tell you they think he’s doing a very good job.

Anyway DeAndre Hopkins just caught a Hail Mary to win the Cardinals a game and this season is dwindling so let’s cut it there and get into the sadness chocolate. This is a trainwreck of a season and the Texans are a six-year old in the driver’s cab, stood over the controls of the smoldering, on-fire engine, pretending it still runs.


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