Four Downs: Texans 41, Lions 25

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The Detroit Lions lost to 20-0 to the Panthers on Sunday and on Thursday they left no doubt that they were hapless, nearly doubling Houston’s turnover total on the season as well as supplying a J.J. Watt pick-six. The Lions became the first non-Jaguars team to lose to the Texans by multiple scores since the Falcons did in Week 5 of the 2019 season.

It’s hard to not garner a little optimism for the Texans with the way that Deshaun Watson is playing and that continued again on Thursday as he firebombed the Lions in a way that I would call uniquely Texans. The offense scored 34 points, but somehow still found themselves kicking two field goals after rashes of penalties, sacks, and negative plays wrecked them. As Will Fuller would say after the game: They scored 41 and it feels like they left points on the board. However, the highs were high and the Texans produced some memorably great plays as the nation was re-introduced to Deshaun Watson playing at a high level:

At 4-7, the Texans would realistically need to win out to make the playoffs in a seven-team format. They were at 0.4% in last week’s Football Outsiders odds. They would need 2-4 finishes from their division rivals to catch either Indy or Tennessee. Even to catch a 6-4 team like Miami, who has only a 50/50 shot at making the playoffs, they’d need a 3-3 finish and tiebreakers.

However, eyes on Baltimore as the NFL has said that cancelled games could lead to an expansion of the playoffs. There’s no reason you should believe that the Texans could waltz into Kansas City as a No. 8 seed and win the game. No reason except that they have Deshaun Watson.

1) Special quarterbacks dominate bad teams. Deshaun Watson is a special quarterback.

There have been many throws in Deshaun Watson’s season that have been ridiculous, contested, and showcased a lot of his ability. While the bombs to Fuller and Duke Johnson on the sideline were beautiful throws, for the most part the degree of difficulty that Watson had to deal with in this game was low. Most throws looked more like this:

For sure the rusher was a problem to get past, but once Watson settled, the zone was wide and the throws was relatively easy. I lead with this to say: The Lions down a starting cornerback and with Desmond Trufant injured for a lot of the game were mostly easy pickings for the Texans. Deshaun Watson did not have a single “aggressive” throw into tight coverage per NFL Next Gen Stats charting.

The only things that really got in Watson’s way were his offensive line, which had some issues on the first two drives, and his running game, which improved to mediocre in today’s effort.

The tear that Watson has gone on since being freed from O’Brien is Mahomes-esque. That’s the only way I can put it. Sacks have gone way down. Turnovers? None of them since Week 5. It is worth noting that his schedule has gotten easier since the first four starts — The Jaguars, Patriots, Titans, and Lions are all in the bottom eight in defensive DVOA coming into this week, and Cleveland is 16th. But the mark of a great quarterback is that they crush defenses like that. The only defense that has even come close to Watson since the coaching change had 30 miles per hour winds on their side.

And oh yeah, by the way, after becoming the first quarterback with four touchdown throws and a 150+ QB rating since Tom Brady, he remembers each and every miss and knows he can do better. He’s going to call audibles mid-play for easy touchdowns.

And that’s just going to be how it is from now on. All the Texans need to do is avoid what Bill O’Brien did: They need to find someone who is not going to screw up having a figurative golden goose fall into their laps.

2) The defense has increased its pressure rate massively in the past two games

There was a very revealing press answer by J.J. Watt when he was asked if Anthony Weaver changed things or if it’s been about execution over the past two weeks:

The writing that has been on the wall to me for the better part of 10 days looks like this — and I want to be clear that this is speculation and unsourced:

Anthony Weaver really went off in the pressers after the Cleveland game, which was a rare bit of emotion from someone who I would regard as generally well-measured. All of the sudden, the Texans started bringing a lot more heat than we’re used to seeing against the Patriots. They blitzed 18 times in that game per SportsRadar, a season high, and pressured Cam Newton on 44% of his dropbacks, also a season high. That sort of revealing stumble into “…yeah” that’s here hints to me at a difference of opinion among Weaver and Romeo Crennel.

Once Crennel took over, I think you saw the defense play a little more muted and blandly — it was Weaver’s defense, but I would speculate that he was dialing some things back at the behest of a boss who wanted the simple to work. The simple did not work. Weaver was pissed off. The defense has gotten more aggressive, and while it hasn’t solved some of the underlying problems — because nothing is going to save this secondary this season in my opinion — it has absolutely created more negative plays.

Houston finished last week’s game with 6.5 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits, and two sacks. It was the first time they’d won the quarterback hit and sack battle in a game since Week 4. This week: four tackles for loss, four sacks, eight quarterback hits. They won each of those battles again. (It should be mentioned that Nate Hall won the battle almost single-handedly but, hey, you gotta create obvious pass-rush situations in the first place to get there.) Justin Reid, it must be mentioned, was flying around and had a sack for the second straight game and a key fourth-down stuff.

This is the defense that I think we were sold in the preseason, the one that would be flying around. They’re never going to overcome a lack of talent in some spots — they just don’t have enough good defensive backs or linebackers in coverage right now with Gareon Conley on IR and Lonnie Johnson learning safety on the fly — but the actual negative plays mean a lot for this defense. The NFL is in a spot right now — and the Texans in particular — where offensive levels are so high all you need to do to be a good defense is force some turnovers, not strangle an offense to death.

The Texans of the last two weeks can do that.

3) Will Fuller’s always been a star; he’s finally been healthy enough to show the world

There has been no doubt in my mind for years that Will Fuller was a star receiver. It was evident in how he played from the jump, and the soft-tissue injuries and torn ACLs along the way have impacted the Texans in the way that it has because … he’s ridiculous. While the flea flicker catch was wildly easy, he put on a show on his other routes:

The throw that jumped to me was the completion he had in the middle of the third quarter. Blanketed early in the route, Fuller shook his man, read the defensive back’s leverage, and created a humongous catch that set the Texans up just outside of the red zone:

The Lions refused to play this game — even with their injury situation at DB — without pressing Fuller often. It just didn’t matter.

I know there’s a lot of hemming and hawwing every time the contract situation gets brought up because Fuller has been hurt a lot. He spoke a little to that in his presser and about how having Brandin Cooks here has helped him learn ways to take care of his body. There’s also speculation that he may not get a monster deal this year because of the falling salary cap and the wide array of talented options hitting the market.

But listen, Fuller’s special. Always has been. He’s taken on a bigger role with DeAndre Hopkins gone and proved that he can handle extra volume.

Take it from the guy who is always right: Fuller is a star, and the Texans had two of them last year. It just all got lost in Bill O’Brien’s pathetic offense.

4) What happens when the run offense is not total garbage

OK, yes, you remember the fumble, but asides from that, the Texans ran the ball with their backs 14 times for 49 yards. That’s 3.5 yards per carry, which is — astoundingly — the fifth-best yards per carry average the Texans have left a game with this year. More importantly, some of the carries were still productive from an on-schedule stand point, and the Texans had just one carry lose yards: C.J. Prosise’s tote on first-and-goal from the nine.

It is sad that we have to start here, but just actively not destroying drives is the goal for Houston’s running game. There was a run for no gain on the first drive, there was the Prosise run, and otherwise, the run game was almost competent:

Of course, even in a game like this, the Texans had to turn to wacky run plays to get defenses off balance, and thus comes Jordan Akins down the pipe on third-and-1:

To some extent the penalties that the Texans seem plagued with are about Deshaun Watson holding the ball too long on certain option plays that need to be quicker decisions. But between his sack rate, the team’s penalty rate, and the run game’s “greatest hits,” the Texans created a situation where they go backwards on way, way, too many plays at the start of the season.

Watson has cut his sack rate immensely. He’s taken more than two sacks in a game just once since O’Brien got fired. The run game did their job for the most part today. What makes the Texans offense so stop-start is their propensity for negative plays. If they won’t use Watson in that role asides from special situations, then they need to continue to be creative with these plays like Akins at fullback or Coutee catching pitches.

When the Texans don’t create many negative plays, they’re scary.


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