Four Downs: Texans 5, Cardinals 31

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I think the biggest story of this game for the long-term interests of the Texans was the play of Davis Mills. The Cardinals had no qualms about stacking the line of scrimmage and asking him to figure out who was coming and who wasn’t. He only took two sacks, but it shattered pretty much every third- or fourth-and-short the team had, sans the one that Brandin Cooks dropped in the flat.

Tim Kelly does not ask Davis Mills to throw deep because the results have been pretty disastrous outside of the Patriots game, and even those throws happened outside of structure and — I think we have to admit at this point — were pretty fortunate. And when the Cardinals blitz, and Mills heads to a checkdown, Houston has absolutely no way to punish that. Cooks doesn’t win press as easily as he does against man. Nobody else on the team beats man quickly. And so it leads to checkdowns or sailed passes at best, sacks at worst. It created this ghastly set of splits:

26 of 32 passes coming within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The ones that were deep throws were not even remotely close to completions. If Mills isn’t able to do better than this against the Rams or Dolphins (I am assuming he starts these games and not Tyrod Taylor because the Texans seem wildly non-committal on Taylor’s status, happy to be proven wrong) in these same kinds of looks, then he’ll have stagnated.

It isn’t all on him, because the talent around him isn’t good and there is no running game. But the fact that the small sample of results we have point to him not throwing deep, and then pair that with the fact that nothing I’ve heard in any presser seems to directly give a reason for not doing that … they are consciously avoiding it because they know what they see everyday.

As I said after the Patriots game, there will be highs and there will be lows with Mills. I am hoping that we get a rebound and some more growth. I don’t think that’s out of the question. But this is, well, this is why you don’t want to start him. This was non-competitive from the jump, and even when the offense got good field position, they barely moved the ball at all. Not all of that is on Mills, but he’s got no kind of superlative talent that is going to erase that. And, well, you can say that about many quarterbacks in the NFL. None of them are franchise guys.

1) The Texans could have easily been the Cardinals, and that’s the most annoying thing of all

Permit me a little escape from the actual events of the game because it was a dark four hours of my life that I’ll never get back.

The most annoying thing about this entire situation — Hopkins and Watt on the other sideline — is that the Arizona Cardinals are doing exactly what the Texans should have done in 2019 and 2020. I’m not saying the Cardinals are nailing every personnel evaluation. I’m not saying they’re nailing every draft pick. But they selectively went hard after available difference-makers in trades and in free agency to supplement their star rookie quarterback. That is the stuff that me and, to give some credit for the shouting from the rooftops, Matt Weston, have been all about for the entirety of the Deshaun Watson era. To have a rookie quarterback on a value contract playing well is the most valuable commodity in sports. You have to exploit it to build a great team.

Steve Keim has not been my favorite general manager in the NFL by a longshot. I think he’s botched a ton of things. He also has shown aggression. He shows that he knows that every NFL player is on a limited timetable, and that your job is to win now. It’s something that Bill O’Brien, Rick Smith, Jack Easterby, and I’ll even say Brian Gaine (even though I liked his program-building) just showed no aptitude for. There was no grand ambition. There was no ethos to get better talent in the door as quickly as possible. With Smith and Gaine, it was patience to a fault — an inability to trust anybody but the guys they cleared for the program. With O’Brien and Easterby when they were given personnel control, they just wildly flailed in the dark trying to solve any problem they saw with as much capital as possible — especially when they weren’t real problems — then blamed the players that were actually good when that didn’t work.

It hurts a lot to watch the Cardinals be what the Texans could have been in an alternate universe. And then to have your completely unserious team come to town — and I’ll even say I didn’t think the Cardinals came close to playing their best game — and it didn’t even matter in the slightest. Outside of the defensive line, the Texans and Cardinals weren’t even playing the same sport. Our best assets were devalued and pilfered, then used to build what could have been right here, and even when misused as badly as they have been this year, they crushed a Texans team that had almost nothing steering it towards winning football. Ghastly.

2) The youth movement and other clever hypotheses

When the Texans assembled media met with David Culley, they kept trying to push him in the direction of rationality by asking about a youth movement, about playing younger players:

The grand youth movement runs into a major problem every time they talk about it: They aren’t actually going to do that, and have never considered doing that, because this team isn’t rational about what they are. They’ve never been that way under Easterby. They arguably were never that way under O’Brien, but at least they were able to parlay their star-level talent into better results then.

This team has 21 players under 25 years old on its 53-man roster. The ones that play the most are: Justin Reid (impending FA), Tytus Howard (bad at guard all year after being moved), Max Scharping (benched today), Roy Lopez, Charles Omenihu (inactive from the Bills game until today), Charlie Heck (would not be playing without injuries), Jon Greenard, Davis Mills (would not be playing without injuries), Ross Blacklock (rotational role), and Nico Collins (rotational role). Outside of Greenard and Lopez, I don’t think I can point you to a young player on the team who has a runway for starter-level playing time on purpose, and both of them play on the only group on the team that rotates constantly. That’s not something this team is built to do, because doing so would mean recognizing that accumulating layers of C-to-C-minus culture veterans doesn’t actually do anything to help it.

Culley has continued to be nothing but upbeat about the culture and staying the course, it’s the same tact he took after this game. Nothing is changing about the message or the vibe because that was never what this season was about.

There will be no tanking. Thankfully for the fans that want some tanking, this team is so poorly-managed philosophically that it can be mistaken for intentionally tanking when they do things like this:

And therein lies the true conflict of the 2021 Texans: They aren’t tanking, but they’re managed so poorly they kind of actually are.

3) The defensive line actually created some havoc on Kyler Murray

Both Greenard and Omenihu, as well as Maliek Collins in the midst of his best game of the season, were able to take advantage of a Cardinals offensive line missing Rodney Hudson and create some real pressure on Kyler Murray. Greenard had his second two-sack game in a row, and while they weren’t dominant sacks where he was rolling past a guy, he’s flashed plenty of that along the way. Collins had the sickest rip of the day with this spin past Arizona’s right guard:

Ultimately the Texans wound up with four sacks and four quarterback hits, while both Greenard and Jacob Martin were able to bat passes down at the line against Murray. DeMarcus Walker and Greenard each had two tackles for loss as well.

It was the only level the defense really looked good at — they had to win early or they wouldn’t win at all. They were shredded by Arizona’s RPOs in the third quarter, and when the Cardinals just focused on running the ball they gained yards by the bushel — an average of 4.6 with a ton of garbage time play and kneels mixed in to it. It was closer to six yards per pop at halftime. The defensive back play in zone coverage was godawful and culminated in this abomination on third-and-24:

I guess what I’m saying is that — I know they probably didn’t play the run all that well — at least the defensive line was able to keep the pass pressured enough to make it feel like there was one unit on the defense that was actually in the game. The defensive line and punt returns are the only two units I’d say played at an acceptable level today.

4) The effort versus the results

The only real interesting message I caught from the post-game interviews was from Greenard, let’s hear him talk:

This jives a lot with what Chris Moore said on Monday, which is something I’ve been thinking about all week:

I feel awful for the players that are on this team, first of all, because while they are blessed to play NFL football, I’m sure nobody asked for this. This is the epitome of showing up and trying to block out noise and pushing through all this to do your job. But here’s the thing: This team is not being outworked. If anything, the constant number of penalties kind of show that they’re pressing. They’re getting crushed by their head coach for them, but this is the kind of team that needs to hold because Davis Mills is slow at processing. It’s the kind of team that false starts because it needs an extra step. It chop blocks on third down because it’s asking Jordan Akins, who is not really a good blocker anyway, to come across the line of scrimmage to grab someone.

These guys do play hard. They play their asses off every week. They don’t quit when they’re down 20 in the fourth quarter. Nobody is knocking the effort.

But, you can’t make a football team out of that if you do everything as stupidly as the Texans are managed. You can’t make a football team that is scared to throw downfield with their quarterback better by run-game managing them into third-and-7 or third-and-9 with your terrible run game. You can’t make the running game better by “sticking with it.” You can’t make Cover-2 work against good quarterbacks without a great pass rush every down, especially as undisguised as it is. You can’t run into nine in the box and expect that to work.

This isn’t a championship football team. Nobody’s surprised by that. But this team also puts its players in terrible situations on a weekly basis because it is coached and managed in an indescribably stupid way. And the answer to that, whenever there’s pushback, is that “that’s the system.”

Want some run plays to work? Run some read-option. Try Scottie Phillips. Use orbit motion. Try to get eyes going and create space to run to. Want some defensive plays to work on big downs? Change things up. Disguise coverages. Don’t be so passive. The Texans haven’t had many winnable games this year, but the eagerness of the coaching staff to just hum along as if they’ve established everything they’ve needed in the face of these results is malpractice to the value they’re trying to establish for these veterans. Let alone the culture.

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4 Replies to “Four Downs: Texans 5, Cardinals 31”

  1. Saw your comment on FO.com and agree with your analysis but very happy with the outcome given that I’m a Cardinals fan.

    It’s amazing to see what has become of the Texans since their meltdown against the Chiefs two years ago.

    Even if/when they trade Watson, what is their plan going forward? What is the rebuild going to look like?

  2. This team is a joke. They should be ran out of town. Texans fans are some of the most loyal, and this is the return on our investment. We get a directionless, delusional, and sad excuse of a football club. They aren’t in the business of winning. They’re in the business of selling tickets to middle class white people. I wholeheartedly hate this team.

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