Four Downs: Texans 20, Colts 27

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The Texans have had two chances this season to take a game from the Colts (or at least tie it) on the final drive. They have two fumbles in the Indianapolis red zone to show for it. Keke Coutee had the ball punched out from behind and the result was an agonizing loss in a year where the close losses have tended to be that way.

I feel bad for Coutee, and I think it’s very telling that the Texans are again going to be in a position where they’re forced to make a small-sample size decision on him. He has three fumbles lost this year — one on a punt return — and had an additional fumble in 2019 in the asskicking against the Broncos.

I think Coutee’s explosiveness has been on display. You saw that he could at times get open in man-coverage against Kenny Moore. You saw him win a touchdown on an RPO in this game. He’s a good player trying to make a good football move and not carrying the ball close enough to his person at a bad time. We have almost a full-season of Keke Coutee targets. The seven today made 105. He’s at four touchdowns, 72 catches, and 797 yards. The catch rate is very good. His drops in this one — and honestly all year — have been him coming up a little short (no pun intended) downfield. Four fumbles is a lot, sure, but it’s not a lot in the grand scheme of regression until we get a larger sample size. It’s just that three of the four of them have been absolute gut-punches.

Me? I like what I’ve seen from Coutee and Chad Hansen down the stretch. I’d be very comfortable with those two vying it out for the No. 3 receiver role in camp in 2021. I think they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses in an interesting way as well. But we can’t know for sure how much of what Coutee has shown us negatively is something he’s going to get better at with playing time because instead the Texans signed Randall Cobb. And Cobb is still on the roster, uncuttable, Cobbing it up.

I think we’ll forget about the loss outside of it becoming trivia. But what bothers me is that this team has young players on the roster that I still don’t think we have a good handle on who they ultimately are. That’s all on the upstairs and the people who were in positions they weren’t qualified. Or in one person’s case, still are unqualified for.

1) The offensive line has been destroyed for the last three games.

It is factual that the Houston Texans were going up against their toughest stretch of the season from a defensive line standpoint. The Colts have DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry, and Justin Houston. The Bears have Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, and Akiem Hicks. Those are not easy matchups for any team to deal with. But the Texans did not fail to deal with them so much as get completely embarrassed by them.

Deshaun Watson took 16 quarterbacks in two games against the Colts. He took 11 against the Bears. He took 16 in the four games before those three combined. And yes, he does make some of it worse by trying to create off-the-cuff, sure, but he also had an entire red zone possession in the first half that was essentially all throwaways. I think the level of risk he’s played with this year has been well below what some of our more fervent “latent ingrained thoughts about black quarterbacks” fans are at on the scale of who is to blame here.

The simple fact of the matter is that when you invest two first-round picks and a second-round pick (along with some other minor picks) and a $22M a year contract on Laremy Tunsil, a first-round pick on Tytus Howard, a second-round pick on Max Scharping, top-10 center money on Nick Martin, you need to see returns on it. You team them with one of the best pocket movement quarterbacks in the entire NFL right now. An eight-quarterback hit game is unacceptable. I don’t care that the narrative is that they improved later. I don’t even say this from a basic tenet of you have to protect the franchise quarterback. I say it from a pure talent standpoint: these results are unacceptable. To do it three games in a row is a dereliction of duty.

Things will improve, I’m sure. But the very fact that we have the lingering question in our minds of “what happens when this unit is well-coached?” — that is extremely telling about what the Texans have done this year and every year under Mike Devlin, whose public appearances have come off as if he barely understands what is going on. Get these line rotations out of my life, and get someone who can teach a guard to pick up a stunt. Thank you.

2) David Johnson and the infinite sadness

I came into this game expecting to come out of it with a big missive about the Texans continuing to obliterate themselves by using David Johnson. But what I ended up feeling was just … pity for David Johnson.

Listen to Johnson talk and you see a guy who I think is almost hyper-critical of himself. He’s telling you that he thinks he could do things better in literally every game. He’s saying that he thinks he needs to do more to help Deshaun Watson out. He’s saying, unprompted, that you never know when your last play in the NFL will be. This guy is so far in his own head that he’s costing himself plays his God-given talent should be able to make. That’s what it feels like.

So, yeah, look, involving Johnson to the extent that he was — it was a giant waste of everybody’s time and we all learned nothing from it. He had eight carries for 27 yards. He caught 11 balls for a game-high 106 yards, but two major plays were made downfield as Watson bought time and outside of those it was more like nine catches for 39 yards. Including plays like this, which he self-critiqued as he should have been able to make a move here:

Buddy Howell looked like he had more want carrying the rock. Scottie Phillips got involved a minimal amount and I thought also acquitted himself well. There’s nothing the Texans could ever do in my eyes that would make using David Johnson this much worth it at this point. He has no future on this roster.

But on Sunday, when David Johnson said that he felt bad for Deshaun Watson because he can tell that he cares, I learned that I could feel bad for David Johnson, because I know he also cares. He just, for whatever reason, can’t do what his body wants him to anymore.

3) Red zone issues: Can’t run, nobody can win one-on-one

When you run the ball with your running backs 15 times and get 58 yards — sadly that qualifies as pretty solid this season — it’s hard to not be one-dimensional. But with seven carries for 19 yards with your main ballcarrier outside of an opening eight-yard plunge, you hamstring this offense when the field gets constricted. Since Will Fuller went out, the Texans do not have a single wide receiver that can reliably win a contested ball in press-man coverage. That’s not Brandin Cooks’ game. It’s not Chad Hansen’s game. If anything it’s closest to Jordan Akins’ game but he can’t get involved in this offense for reasons I won’t understand as an outsider.

That has made the red zone a disaster for the Texans. The Texans had an 0.5% DVOA on red zone plays through Week 14’s games. When they targeted Fuller in the red zone, he’s four-of-eight with three touchdowns, a first down, and the bobbled out of bounds Vikings play. That even undersells him because one of his incompletions was from Randall Cobb.

But over the past two weeks prior to this game, that number had declined to minus-20.8% DVOA. The Texans lost this game mainly because as soon as they got the ball at first-and-goal at the Indianapolis 10, they gained zero yards on three incompletions. Then, when they got the ball on their opening possession of the third quarter, they false started on third-and-1 and this happened:

If you can explain how that route combination would ever work, you are a better football analyst than I am. On those two drives, the Texans took 10 snaps inside the Indianapolis red zone and gained 14 yards. This play didn’t even count but I want to show you one of the many throwaways:

There’s not really a lot to say about this at this point. The DeAndre Hopkins trade ripped this team’s heart out in the red zone. Removing Fuller is like removing another limb. There aren’t a lot of potential answers this team has for man-coverage in the red zone right now outside of the tight ends. Coutee won on one touchdown on an RPO, yes, but other than that, this is going to be a dark place for the remainder of the season. Thankfully it barely matters anyway.

4) Run defense pilloried yet again

To the extent that the Texans were able to hang in this game as a defense, I didn’t really see a lot of reasons outside of the Colts simply losing interest in running the football. 23 carries for 127 yards in a game that you’re winning most of the way feels wonky. One of those was a kneel by Rivers, and another was an important-but-predetermined quarterback sneak by Jacoby Brissett. That means the other 21 carries — by Nyheim Hines and Jonathan Taylor — went for 125 yards all on their own. The Colts did this despite a long carry of just 23 yards. That means that, more often than not, the Texans were getting gashed. Right up the middle.

Missed tackles were here. Multiple defensive linemen getting knocked four-to-five yards off the ball any time they were doubled was a fixture. As well as linemen just hanging out on their knees in the backfield:

To the extent that the Texans were able to “hold” the Colts to 27 points, a lot of it was just unforced mistakes. Charles Omenihu’s sack was probably held a beat too long by Philip Rivers. The punt before the two-minute warning came because Rivers slightly overthrew a wide-open Trey Burton. The first Colts field goal came when they passed the ball three times in a row despite the fact that they were running as you saw above.

There’s not a positive spin to put on this. I’m not saying there aren’t some positive individual performances to be taken, but largely this defense played like we thought it would on Sunday. It had to play soft without Justin Reid and Bradley Roby. Just when it had a chance to be the hero, it let T.Y. Hilton steal the scene yet again:

It sucks. But, you know, it is what it is at this point, as Bill O’Brien liked to say. It is what it is. This defense just isn’t very talented, and the parts of it that have some potential are largely raw. It’s J.J. Watt, a good Zach Cunningham stuff or two a game — hopefully without him also adding a bad miss on a long run — and that’s about it. Lonnie Johnson is learning safety on the spot while Eric Murray plays corner in a Petey Faggins cover band. Ross Blacklock spent a lot of today learning how far back a good block can push him. Charles Omenihu is an interior pass-rusher on passing downs to me. Tyrell Adams has good hits but the things that kept him from seeing the field before this year aren’t hard to see. It’s just a bunch of limited players right now with nobody to cover for them.

I don’t understand how anybody can watch this game and believe that this defense is one or two pieces away. I will be stunned if it is good next year. Average? Maybe, with the right coach. But there are so many holes to fill before we even get into what happens if Watt decides he wants out that it’s hard to gussy them all up in one offseason. Particularly one in which the Dolphins have your likely top-10 draft pick.

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