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This game should be a wake-up call. Not a wake-up call to the players, but a wake-up call to upper management.
On Thursday Night Football, hosting their only prime time game of the season against the 2-0 Panthers, the Texans were entirely irrelevant to the proceedings. The Panthers — a team that is barely relevant nationally in their own right — commanded every pre-game feature. Commanded 80% of the player cut-ins and discussions among the pre-game show. The stands looked like this at kickoff:
Post-game, the Texans were barely even mentioned beyond some regard for Davis Mills’ health after some of the shots he took. They talked about how the Panthers injury situation with Jaycee Horn and Christian McCaffrey would impact the team, and their role in the playoff race. And Panthers fans mobbed the area by the post-game booth. There is no conversation around this team as a national entity. They are dead to the NFL world beyond their role in the Deshaun Watson situation and a few minor side notes.
It’s not that covering this team hasn’t shown me elements of all of these things before tonight, but it was sobering to see the entirety of it come to life on the screen. This team can cry “no respect” and talk about developing culture all they want. They very well may have points in those areas by the end of the season! Hopefully this game is just rock bottom for the franchise and we can look back on it in as a badge of character someday, ala the Carlos Lee-era Astros. But without Tyrod Taylor the offense was hopeless and the most notable thing the defense did besides get a bit of pressure on Sam Darnold was have Troy Aikman point out all the throws Darnold was leaving on the field.
It was not unexpected that the storm to create these events could come together like it did, but it was hard to watch. It’s not just that the team has no young blossoming studs or star players on the major line beyond some Brandin Cooks is underrated talk. It’s that they have nothing to even begin to build around as a national positive talking point. They were trying to make things other coaches said about David Culley’s character stick as an in-game thing. That’s what we’ve got. No talk about the front office, not much talk about Watson’s scenario because there’s not a lot new to say about it, just a hollowed-out stadium where football used to be played that hosted a Sam Darnold revival into relevancy event for one night.
I’m sick to my stomach. Anyway, the game;
1) Davis Mills’ first start was about what should have been expected
Mills completed 19-of-28 passes for 168 yards, taking four sacks and one “incomplete pass” sack, and talked up his play with the hurry-up offense after the game. If that is what he’s comfortable doing, perhaps the Texans should consider running more of it. It’s not like what happened to Mills in the two-minute drill was without moments to praise, but the major downfield throw was an easy zone coverage lob that didn’t take much arm talent, and Mills’ touchdown pass to Anthony Miller was essentially uncovered:
I have been fairly optimistic about the Mills selection, but after the preseason I wasn’t much of a believer in him coming out and performing right away based on what I saw. This is about what I expected: There are some good plays, because of course there are good plays, those plays are why he was drafted. But the down-to-down consistency is lacking and there’s still a lot of adjustments to make. The Panthers had a ton of success when they blitzed, and Mills went 1-of-9 on third downs. Which means when Mills has a clean pocket, he absolutely has to hit the throw:
From a long-term mindset, it’s easy to talk about how Mills has plenty of time to grow and he’s on a four-year rookie deal. But from a Face of the Franchise perspective, he’s not going to have a lot of time. The average third-round drafted quarterback from 1994-2016 had 685 career attempts. Statistically speaking, this is Mills’ shot. So regardless of the fact that he’s entirely too young for this and didn’t look ready in the preseason, these next few games without Tyrod Taylor are going to have a lot of bearing on the direction of Mills’ future. He needs to at the very least show some development against the Bills, some better play in the pocket when he’s moved off his initial spot, and some better process when his initial read is covered.
This game won’t fly as face of the franchise-caliber play. I hate to be so serious about a rookie, but statistically speaking, there needs to be more shown in a hurry or he is going to be the backup of the future rather than have any real say in how this franchise goes forward. The NFL is not a league of long-term development if you’re not a first-round pick. It’s a patently unfair thing to ask of a guy with 14 career college games played. The indictment for that is not on Mills, but the front office that didn’t really anticipate a world where Tyrod Taylor would get hurt. #SelectiveCompetition
2) The young pass rushers played, and actually played fairly well! Interesting!
The biggest pre-game news of the week was that the Texans would emphasize Jacob Martin and Jon Greenard — Greenard was essentially a healthy scratch early in the season — and make Jordan Jenkins a healthy inactive and decrease Whitney Mercilus’ role in the game. The results? Sam Darnold took three sacks and I don’t recall a time in the last few years that the Texans have put as much pressure on a non-Jake Luton quarterback as they did here:
Blacklock got the first sack of his career and developed the pressure on Mercilus’ sack, while Greenard came up with a strip sack of his own. In a game where the Texans desperately needed a turnover, neither strip sack bounced their way. It was a tough break, but one that should statistically not be surprising.
Now, did Jacob Martin get abused a bit in the run game as the edge player in the red zone? He sure did, that was kind of a known weakness of his game even going back to the Chiefs playoff game, and the Panthers went after it with aplomb. But you know what? Mercilus also gets abused in the run game, and it was refreshing to have mistakes made by young players instead of old veterans who are supposed to know better.
It is screaming into the void at this point. Martin’s in the final year of his rookie deal. Greenard and Blacklock can’t magically get those snaps back from the end of a 4-12 season. But it never made any sense that the Texans were blocking playing time from either of them. It was pointless to the long-term goal of building a winner to block any player who could be a rookie contract value from getting on the field. The way that Greenard won his sack — against a tight end — was also not wildly impressive. The Panthers don’t have a great offensive line. But at least you can say that they gave the kids a chance and they performed, and that’s a damn sight better than we’ve seen over the last 18 games this team has played.
3) The running game was dead on arrival
The Texans have repeatedly emphasized that they need to run the ball very well. I wrote in my season preview that despite the enthusiasm around the new offensive line coach and running backs, I wasn’t very optimistic that the Texans would be up to that consistently. It’s Week 3 and the longest carry the Texans had against the Panthers was a seven-yard run by David Johnson on a third-and-16 give-up draw. As a team, they compiled 17 carries for 42 yards, some of the carries went more to nowhere than others:
The Texans continue to try to feature zone runs that they have no prayer of hitting with an offensive line that has almost no track record of working together, and they did not involve Mills in the read-option game in a material way. They were eaten up by Carolina’s tite fronts.
The way this run game works is the way it worked in Week 1: Mark Ingram runs into a crowded box using gap schemes and power. For all the deserved praise Tim Kelly was getting for creating open receivers for Taylor, his work in the run game has continued to not be imaginative or interesting beyond the early script. He is a zone devotee, and the Texans have proven conclusively for the last 19 games that they can’t do it.
4) Lovie’s defense is just solved in such an obvious way that it’s dispiriting
When Darnold wasn’t getting pressure or hassled into stepping up into the pocket, this back seven had no prayer. DJ Moore had 100 yards in the first quarter alone, and other than a few outside one-on-ones, the majority of what happened was him finding a nice happy soft spot in the pillowy-soft Lovie Smith zone and waiting for Darnold to wake up and see him:
Perhaps exchanging Zach Cunningham with a linebacker who has ever had any natural feel for coverage against play-action would help, and perhaps the scheme is just too out of date to matter. As I said in the opening bit, Aikman was detailing throughout the first half in excruciatingly bare terms just how open some of these throws were and that there were throws Darnold was missing. In the end, Darnold hit 304 yards and probably left another 50-60 on the field with misreads or poor throws. This is against a team that lost it’s best offensive weapon, McCaffrey, before the first quarter had ended.
It turns out that when Lovie Smith doesn’t create 2-3 turnovers his defenses don’t look quite as hot. This game? They didn’t create any.
I was always pretty low on Lovie, but it’s funny that we started the talking points around his scheme way back when he was hired as a) him laying out that he plays much more than Cover-2 and b) the idea that he would have more time as a defensive mind without head coaching responsibilities would perhaps give him more time to create change-ups. Neither of those things have happened, this team runs more Cover-2 than it can afford to play, and the results are that even a hurried Sam Darnold has no reason to fear.
And the cherry on top of it was this Culley quote:
Here’s my thought: If your scheme makes Justin Reid as irrelevant as it makes Lonnie Johnson, maybe … the scheme should be better. And for a team that boosts its culture so much, it was a glaring off-note to me that one of the few players nationally regarded as good missing the game was described as having had no effect. Culley generally plays a pretty good Generic Question Answer game but “the guy who forced two turnovers who missed this game where we had no turnovers had no real effect” felt tonally awkward.
The Texans have 10 days to get ready for the defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills. Hopefully they can regroup into something better than this, because the effort they put out here tonight is going to get them waxed again.
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