Four Downs: Bengals 37, Texans 31

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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The Texans were seven-point favorites to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team starting a backup quarterback that sports records like the ones I put in the post’s header picture. They had a massive talent edge at starting quarterback. And, as this season has taught us, it’s not worth anything if you don’t use it correctly.

This is a story of a defense that broke. The only good news you can really share for the defense is that, midway through yet another dwindling finish to a close game, the FOX guys casually mentioned that J.J. Watt told them he intends to be back next season:

That’s great news because, even if he isn’t who he was in 2014, Watt is still the best player the Texans have and would do a lot in different schemes. Schemes that actually try. What the Texans did as a defense today — and I’m not even putting this on the players — was put together a plan to roll over and die. There’s nothing any player could do about it.

I wouldn’t call this one of Deshaun Watson’s best games, because he missed a few deep throws as the half was closing. But he was still plenty, plenty good enough to win — evaded some key rushes, made some great plays on the run. Typical Watson stuff that has us spoiled. He got some help from a running attack that hasn’t existed all season.

The Texans somehow managed to feel like they were tanking without having a first- or second-round pick. That’s special, and not in a good way.

1) Where has this stuff been all season?

The Texans ran a play-action pass with Brandin Cooks in the first quarter. Cooks shook his man. Watson uncorked a throw under pressure.

Houston’s play-action attack has been lacking for the entirety of the season, married into Bill O’Briens defective “I’m going to run Yankee concept (double crossers) max protect” stuff. Look at how easy this became. They let the fast man … run fast. On his own. And he won. Wow. Who could have foreseen such an event?

The Texans made it to the goal line in the third quarter and had David Johnson lined up wide. They ran dual slants to that side of the formation. They threw to Johnson. He caught it. Touchdown.

Johnson had a big day receiving against the Colts, but the majority of that came out of structure, with Watson scrambling or just dumping the ball off against aggressively deep drops by zone defenders. This was an intentional usage of him out wide. It worked, as it should work when he’s as accomplished a receiving back as he is.

I hate that it feels like a revelation that two very simple things would work, but that’s kind of how things have been with the Texans this year. They can’t get out of their galaxybrain 4d chess ways to just use players the way they have successfully been used in the past. And what I will remember about this game in a positive way, as the season began turning to ashes, is that suddenly they realized they could use David Johnson as a receiver in a structured way and have it work.

2) Brandon Allen throws for 371 yards … what the fuck is going on out there?

Sorry, it feels unprofessional to curse like that. But also: I can’t think of a better way to state this. Allen is a career backup. He has six career starts to this point and has gone over 217 passing yards in one of those starts. His career yards per attempt before this game was 6.08. Cincinnati’s offense as a whole had not gone over 309 total offensive yards in a game since Joe Burrow’s injury. And the Texans turned that into this:

Lemme put aside the Crossen stuff for next segment and focus on that large clustering of dots on the left side of the line of scrimmage. Plays like this were routine in the course of this game:

The Bengals screened the Texans to death on these, almost always getting 5+ yards as the linebackers bit and then tried to recover.

The Texans have sold out so hard to try to stop the run by shifting to a 4-3 that none of their linebackers knows how to drop to a correct depth. They’re little yo-yos that even junior level programmers like Zac Taylor and Matt Nagy have been able to own, working on the *mocking Boris from Goldeneye voice* guidance system.

Watt’s big speech after the game got the highlights, but just as importantly I think you can read how exasperated he was from his answers about how the defense played:

There’s nothing he can do, no way to win a down fast enough, to make this defense work schematically. The Texans had no sacks on Sunday. They had one in Week 15. Three in Week 14 when they actually got Trubisky to process blitzes from Eric Murray. But when an offense is just throwing on the air to these flats, there’s nothing Watt can do about it.

I would only be speculating about who he could be trying to reach — Steph Stradley pointed out that this was theoretical, but he’s done it before this season at other times — it feels like Watt has been trying to tell someone on this team to wake up for the entirety of this season via the media. I appreciate how much Watt understands about the media today — it’s a rare level of self-awareness that lets an athlete go on one like this and connect with the fans. I just wish whoever he was calling out had that same level of awareness.

3) Crossen Corner

The only person who was competitive in any real sense today on defense was Texans cornerback Keion Crossen, in his third career start. When the Texans did play man coverage, the Bengals saw his 5-foot-10 frame against their big wideouts and went right to work on it. Crossen made some good plays:

I think he had a hit-or-miss game in this position. I don’t think he often got good initial position outside of a few throws, like this one:

But he also had a few where it was clear he wasn’t up to the NFL-sized task of outside corner:

Here’s the thing about this: It doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t care that Keion Crossen got burned. I respect that he came close on some of those plays. I don’t care that John Reid got burned deep for a touchdown by Tee Higgins, someone who has probably a half-foot of height on him at the very least. I want to see these guys play and if they line up and get beat, that’s perfectly fine. We’re learning more about what the Texans need to think about for the future. I don’t think Crossen is a future superstar cornerback because he made a play or two on about 11 or 12 man-coverage targets as the Bengals went after him. But he a) sure as hell did a lot better with them than Phillip Gaines ever did and b) didn’t embarrass himself.

It turns out when you put pressure on receivers and quarterbacks to actually make tight throws, you see, they actually miss them. I’m not saying the Texans should never run zone. I’m saying that the amount of zone they’ve run these last two games has been downright cowardly. The building is on fire all around them and they’re reacting not with the desperation that deserves, but with a display that turns a journeyman third-string quarterback into a superstar. Your guys are probably going to get beat if you play honestly, sure. Some of them may not be ready to play every down, sure. But line up and fight for it, man. Make them earn it.

4) Did you miss Laremy Tunsil?

I don’t want this to sound trolly. I realize that I’m fighting an uphill battle on that because I see how hard some sections of this fanbase lionize over this. So I will lead with why I’m wrong: Laremy Tunsil is a much better tackle than Charlie Heck is. He would have made the difference on a number of key plays, including the one that got Watson hurt and eventually turned into a game-winner for the Bengals:

But Tunsil went out somewhere in the middle of the second quarter and the Texans didn’t really seem to miss him all that much on a grand scale picture. David Johnson had his best rushing game of the season and almost all of the big runs came post-Tunsil’s injury:

Roderick Johnson did a great job clearing the left side hole on this enormous run. He did a great job sealing the inside on this other enormous run:

I wanna be clear: I’m not coming after Tunsil’s money. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve the accolades. It is very clear that he’s one of the best tackles in the game and if the Texans had a must-win game on Sunday, I want him healthy and available.

But to me it is also clear that the offense barely suffered at all for his absence. And that is a trend, my friends. He missed the Patriots game, the Texans won 27-20 and Watson had one of his best games of the season. He missed the London game last year, the Texans won 26-3 and Watson was barely pressured. It’s a small sample size against bad defenses, yes. But just the utter lack of any real change in production … when you look at how much the Texans gave up as they’re stumbling into securing a top-10 pick for the Miami Dolphins … is gutting.

And a quick side note on David Johnson actually getting going: After watching his presser, I wanted to give David Johnson a hug.

None of this is worth that kind of self-doubt, man. All the bullshit of us critiquing his every move. All the fan hate I’m sure he’s taken as splashback for something he never asked for. It’s terrible. I don’t want him to suit up here next year and nothing will change that because it’s not about him at all — but I’m glad he got a little moment in a lost season that maybe he can take and rebuild his confidence with.

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