Four Downs: Texans 27, Patriots 20

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The Patriots came to town with a win over the Jets and a win over the Ravens in a monsoon in their pockets, looking to get back into the fringes of the AFC playoff race. But your Houston Texans, now 3-7, speedbumped them using the formula that should have them in the playoff race: great quarterback play and an aggressive defense.

Houston’s defense allowed 365 passing yards. But after an opening drive that looked like it would be more of the same on run defense, they allowed just 60 rushing yards over the course of the rest of the game. The Josh McDaniels gimmick offense was able to step up and attack Houston’s corners to generate some second-half momentum, but it wasn’t enough. The run defense started coming downhill. The Texans started to play with the understanding that they just needed to read and attack, and they did:

The Texans have a quick turnaround with a date coming up against the Lions on the early Thanksgiving slate, so they’ll have yet another chance to play spoiler. Detroit was shut out by a Panthers team starting P.J. Walker, so they’re going to have something to prove as they look to stay in the NFC races.

If they do what they did today, and hide their weak points a little more than they have in the first half of the season, the Texans could suddenly … convey a lower draft pick to the Dolphins. OK, no, really, they could get a little feisty. There’s still no telling how COVID-19 is going to affect the very end of the playoff picture. There’s already a rule written in allowing an eighth playoff team in the event of cancelled games. All the Texans can do is keep winning games to put themselves in position to take advantage of such a break.

1) Deshaun Watson’s best half of the season carried Houston’s offense

With Laremy Tunsil out, there were some legitimate fears that the Texans would give up a ton of pressure in this game. The Patriots were third in the NFL in pressure rate coming into the game. But what they mostly chose to do against Watson was drop eight into coverage and make him read the room. He devoured it, getting to his third or fourth read at times, and devastated New England’s coverage with a series of excellent throws.

Jordan Akins, Will Fuller, and Brandin Cooks all had big first-half catches as the Texans completely walloped a pass defense that has not been very good this season but that often gave Watson rough throwing angles. They did manage to get some pressure on Watson in the game, but when they did, it was erased by great pocket play:

Finally, Watson capped the half with one of his most impressive individual plays of the season, a run where he bulldozed Devin McCourty on his way to the end zone that had offense and defensive players alike gawking:

The list of quarterbacks who I would take for the next five years over Deshaun Watson is one player long. He’s been having great games this season that have been lost in the shuffle because the results haven’t gone his way. But what he put on in the first half against the Patriots was mesmerizing. Even the plays called back by penalty were wildly impressive. The only mistake I can remember him making is the audible he went to in the second half on third-and-2 in NE territory didn’t work out for him. Other than that, a few drives wound up in the wrong column because of penalties or runs, and then the trip on Jordan Akins that should have been called DPI ended the Texans chances of running out the game on their own:

Tremendous game for Deshaun Watson. The Texans ran the ball just six times in the first half with running backs. They didn’t use Watson on any designed runs that I can remember. It didn’t matter. He just kept torching looks all day.

2) Justin Reid’s best game of the season kept Houston’s defense from collapsing

Fired up with his haters, which I guess includes me even though I didn’t set out to hate(?), Justin Reid had a major impact on the Texans game in a few different ways. He picked up his first sack of the season, he was around the ball constantly, and most importantly I think he trusted his instincts. This is the kind of play where if Jamal Adams makes it, NFL front office guys debate how much money he’s going to get:

What has been missing from this pass defense all season? There’s been a lot of talk about the idea of exotic blitzes, but the Texans haven’t really run many of them. With their corners getting gashed, the Texans finally threw caution to the wind, as they should have a while ago, and decided to blitz that exotic Patriots play-action package into the Stone Age. They brought the same double safety blitz to stop both of the last two real Patriots drives in their tracks. Reid’s first career sack came with it at first-and-10 in the red zone:

They followed that up with the exact same blitz on third-and-17, both rushers came free into a screen that got decent yardage. But by then the damage had already been done — the Texans held the Patriots to a field goal. On the last drive, New England had a third-and-4 just outside the red zone. That blitz popped up again, and this time it wound up with a pass break up that either Watt or Reid probably could have had if the other wasn’t in the picture:

And on fourth-and-4, the exact same play call. That blitz got to Newton and all he could do was throw the ball away and hope it worked. Houston’s defense finally found something that worked:

The Texans finished this game with eight quarterback hits, and those hits were indicative of the extra pressure dialed up pretty much constantly after the first drive. But nothing they did gave them looks as clean as this. Here’s what Reid had to say about those blitzes after the game:

It’s been mind-boggling as an outside observer why it’s taken so long for the coaching staff to understand that this back seven simply can’t hold up in pass coverage and that they need to blitz more. Had they established something like this sooner, they might have won games in Tennessee and against Minnesota.

Having never been part of the story (even as I fight the idea that I was) of a player doing well in a game, this was a weird experience to live through. It gives you a lot of empathy for what players are going through, as I’m sure they get tagged and see much nastier things than that one play I posted. There was one guy who just spammed out into the void a couple of times something like “fuck @riversmccown if it makes the @HoustonTexans play better!” — anyway, as I lay out in that little pastebin, I’m happy that Reid delivered a big game and I take zero credit for that. Seeing yourself become part of the story is really awkward and I don’t recommend it to anybody who doesn’t have narcissistic tendencies. Thankfully I have been handed many stressful situations in my life.

3) J.J. Watt had a throwback performance with four passes broken up

One thing that I think has kind of flown under the radar post-trade deadline is that J.J. Watt’s demeanor in press conferences has changed to be a little less team-focused. In the early weeks of the season, you saw him talking about things like the connection to the fanbase, last year this was a guy who came back from a torn pec in midseason to play in the playoffs. He was desperate to do what he could for this organization. Now there just seems to be a little more … distance, maybe, is the right term here? You listen to him and he’s here but you get quotes like this and it almost feels like he’s talking to you as a past Texan:

I have no idea how much toll this season has taken on him. I’m sure it’s just as unfun for him as it is for Reid, as it is for the fans, and so on. I also have no idea where his head is at regarding playing for this team next year. But it was good to see him flash some big plays in this game, breaking up four different passes:

Whether it comes to next season as a Texans end or elsewhere, Watt’s pass rush production has slipped noticeably. He has four sacks in 293 pass rushes, but Sports Info Solutions has him with just 29 pressures coming into today’s game, a rate of less than one pressure per 10 pass-rush snaps. So even though he didn’t dominate this game as a rusher either, it was good to see him making impact plays. Somehow, four PBUs is a career high for Watt — I would never have guessed that. Maybe they were more aware of him earlier in his career, or maybe the gimmick defense helped.

Either way, those pass break ups were massive plays for a defense that generates almost no negative plays in coverage without a bad throw. I believe Bradley Roby skimmed a near-pick in the first quarter, but other than that, most of Newton’s misses were misplaced throws or pressured throwaways. It was big for the Texans to have a vintage Watt game as they figure out together how their future intersects.

4) The run game continues to flounder

The smarter defenses in the NFL have constantly destroyed Houston’s base run schemes for years now. The Patriots held the Texans to 19 carries for 53 yards in their meeting last year. 13 of those came on one Duke Johnson run, and almost all of Johnson’s 36 yards came after contact. When the Texans don’t involve Deshaun Watson in the run game, the run game shrivels up and dies. The final tally today: 13 carries for the running backs, 19 yards.

I don’t know that there’s a way to go install a brand new run game in-season. There’s definitely not enough time to install one before Thursday. But the base concepts have struggled for the Texans all season. They are too predictable by half, and teams innately understand how to handle them schematically. It’s the one legacy of Bill O’Brien that just keeps keeping on with this team.

The good news? The Texans figured out that their run game sucked and stopped using it. 13 running back carries isn’t a lot, and it’s particularly not a lot for a team that led or was tied for almost the entirety of the game. The Patriots had more rushes than the Texans. On the final drive that the Texans took deep into New England territory with 7:39 left, trying to run the clock out, they ran the ball just twice. On their four drives that ended in punts, the Texans ran the ball eight of their 13 attempts. That means that, for the rest of the game, it was essentially all Deshaun Watson.

Even under O’Brien, it made no sense that this line produced like this considering the investment. I’m excited to see someone else get a crack at it. What they are doing right now is so bad that it’s asking Watson to win the game on his own.

Luckily, he has that ability sometimes.

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