Four Downs: Texans 21, Browns 31

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If you are an optimistic type of fan, it’s nice to see the fight and the hustle that the Texans showed today. They brought tenacity in the first half, forcing more turnovers and stifling the Cleveland rushing attack early. Regardless of what you think about Tyrod Taylor’s value to this team long-term, Tim Kelly has put him in a position to succeed this year and it showed with the game plan today. The Texans generally look prepared to play against their opponents on Sunday, which is a welcome change of pace from the weekly Bill O’Brien first quarter hibernation.

It was all going to plan for another weekend talking optimistically about the Houston Texans … right up until Taylor got hurt and left the game, leaving Davis Mills as the only quarterback on the roster. I’m not going to tell you that Mills was the worst quarterback I’ve ever seen in my life, but he was appreciably not ready yet.

Mills completed just 8-of-18 passes, and was lucky to get into the red zone on account of a DPI that Brandin Cooks forced on a ball that was nowhere close to him. On multiple occasions the team seemed to be running different plays from the one Mills was running from the snap. It was not altogether surprising to see this in the wake of his last preseason start, Mills is extremely mistake-prone right now and doesn’t seem to get to his second read without a lot of pocket movement. It was capped by a sack that Mills never saw coming:

With a short week ahead against the Panthers in Houston’s only prime-time game of the season, the fun and dynamic Taylor offense will now have to be rebooted around a much more-limited quarterback. Were I directing things at NRG … well, a lot would be different … but specifically about this, I’d be inclined to give Jeff Driskel the start. I don’t want Mills’ developmental momentum stalled this early. I don’t think anything he showed us in the past month would lead you to believe he’s ready to play in the NFL. Revisit it later in the season? Sure. To put this on national television?

I think the Texans can be more competitive using Driskel in the run game and playing option football than they can with whatever Mills can be spoonfed in two days. That’s not a shot at Mills because it’s not fair to expect him to be a good quarterback right away, especially for a player with that few college games played. But if the Texans aren’t out-and-out tanking — and they aren’t, sorry — I don’t see how that’s a better option for them.

I am not going to pretend that Taylor’s dead or something, but hamstring injuries are annoying at best and can linger for a full season. You may remember them from careers such as Will Fuller’s. As someone who is invested in these players putting the best versions of themselves they can out there, this sucks. Taylor had overcome my low expectations by quite a bit, and I was having fun watching him play in this offense. His injury has kind of downshifted expectations quite a bit here. (It is kind of the story of Taylor’s career that he gets hurt and overcomes it over and over again. That’s part of the reason he was available for as little as he was.)

If Tim Kelly can turn this version of Davis Mills into a productive quarterback he deserves head coaching interviews. The Texans can talk about how confident they are in Mills, and they can talk about how he has a next play mentality and turns the page quickly; that’s all well and good. The problem is that there are an awful lot of pages that need to be turned right now.

1) The injury epidemic

This was a tough one. @TexansPR was busy as not only was Taylor injured, but Nico Collins was ruled out with a shoulder injury, Danny Amendola was ruled out with a hamstring injury, Anthony Auclair was out with an eye injury, Terrance Mitchell was questionable to return with a concussion, and Justin Reid was questionable to return with a knee injury. That’s just guys who actually left the game for good at some point! Laremy Tunsil was dinged, Charles Omenihu was dinged. Kamu Grugier-Hill had a stint on the ground, as did Roy Lopez. Eric Murray needed a concussion evaluation. It was carnage for the Texans.

And I guess this is just part of growing up now as I have dealt with my own health issues and all that, and I understand how the system works, but it frankly is terrible to watch so many guys on one-year prove-it contracts get hurt with no real recourse. Reid missed a tackle here or there but he was having the game of his life in a return to the scene of one of his worst games of 2020 with a forced fumble and a pick right up until…

Reid would try to play through that but would go to the ground again later. I feel like I’m stopping short of organizing for greater athlete worker’s rights or something here, but the thing about the competition mindset is that there are going to be a lot of discarded stories along the way. There are a lot of football players who just get hurt and we’ll never hear from them again. Next man up isn’t just a mentality for players, it’s a mentality for the grander machinations of football.

This team is built to be churned. That’s how it operates. It just sucks to see so much of it happening due to injury. It’s hard to build a connection to a fanbase when you can’t even get acquainted with the players before they’re hurt or gone.

2) David Culley declined an offsides, declined a fourth-and-1 go, and it was weird

There haven’t really been many peeks inside the David Culley game management curtain, but this was a big one. Third-and-15, they complete a ball to get to fourth-and-2, and the response to a penalty for a free shot at third-and-10 was to decline it (good!) but then punt it (what?!?). Here’s how Culley answered questions about it:

If you know what David Culley was trying to say here beyond “we wanted to pin them deep,” let me know, because I have no idea what the response to just taking the penalty was about. To be fair, the Texans have somewhat of a rich tradition of nonsensical answers to these kinds of things, and this is no different than what Bill O’Brien would have done in the past. But, boy, was that a shaky sequence. They were bailed out via the turnover on that call. They didn’t go for it on fourth down at all this game or last game, and those sorts of conservative calls are not actually a good fit for the current state of the team for reasons I will get into in about 500 words.

If this were a team I fully believed in being competitive, this would be the kind of sequence that I would rip into someone for. As it is, it’s kind of just a signpost that says to me that the Texans lean a little conservative on that side of things — it’s Week 2, too early to say an identity is established, lot of time to do some cool fourth-down stuff. But I do think that a staff this old school will likely lean old school. I would read more into the end of first half clock runout on this if we had a clearer read on just how healthy they thought Taylor was at that point.

3) Tim Kelly’s 2021 mixtape keeps the Texans in it early

The Texans largely were able to stay in this game early via the pass and their ability to create open receivers. Tyrod Taylor didn’t really hit a ton of difficult throws, but he also didn’t really have to. Look at our one glimpse of Nico Collins:

The throw didn’t have to be rocketed in there. It was a very generous window. There was a catch that Cooks had early on the sideline where he was wide-open. The Texans did this despite not running the ball well at all. If you take out Taylor’s touchdown scramble and David Johnson’s five carries protecting the clock at the end of the half, the Texans ran the ball 20 times for 48 yards. Not many of those were goal-line totes.

The deep balls to Brandin Cooks last week all but disappeared outside of one wayward Mills miss. The Texans struggled to get vertical against the Cleveland zone. But I think the game plan in and of itself was sound, and, well, once you’re left starting a third-round rookie, you’re left starting a third-round rookie. I’d love to believe the offensive line will do better than this, but (gestures at last two years of Texans football) it’s not exactly like this line is built to pound the rock. They aren’t going to be able to spill 150 even with a bad first half like they’re the Browns. Kelly has his work cut out for him every week, and through the first six quarters with Taylor, had been doing a stellar job. He’s a Chopped chef working with the Alton Brown diabolical baskets.

4) The defense generates turnovers, but that’s about it

Baker Mayfield’s pass chart:

Do you think, maybe, they had an area of the field they figured they could attack? The interception came on this play which appears to be a mistake by a rookie wideout:

And the Jaguars passing game that the Texans held to a mere (checks notes) 332 passing yards last week were able to put up just 118 yards on a much better Denver secondary in Week 2.

I don’t think Lovie’s defensive concepts are hard to grasp. I don’t think there’s been much in the way of change-ups. If you make mistakes against the coverages, you’ll pay. If you don’t, well, Mayfield’s stat line isn’t all that out of place with what happened last year towards the end of the season. This simply isn’t a complex puzzle to solve.

The Texans have now given up 4.6 yards per carry on the season. They gave up 5.2 last year, so that’s still — somehow — an improvement. But this defense is what it has preached it is since day one: They’re out here to force turnovers. By any measure other than that one? It’s below-average. There was another huge play for the Browns (second-and-19 touchdown) to get out of a huge hole. There aren’t enough playmakers on this unit to win down-to-down. This is the kind of unit you have to be aggressive with, and where you hope the turnovers keep coming in bunches. I would argue it’s not very well-suited to playing field position games with.


If you listened to the Texans after the game, there was an abundance of talk in the vague direction of “this sucks, but we believe in the guys in the building.”

It was downright defiant. I don’t think by any means it’s time to close the book on this team’s competitive chances for the AFC South — it’s just looked too bad this year — but the ranks were closed around this team’s culture in the press and that’s … an interesting reaction to a loss. Not saying it’s bad, not saying it’s good, but I can’t remember a Bill O’Brien team being quite this performative and loud about the team culture.

Especially to bring it up on a question as innocuous as that one. Cunningham’s benching for “disciplinary reasons” that are “internal”? Similarly interesting to me.


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