Four Downs: Texans 22, Rams 38

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Down 38-0, and with Matthew Stafford pulled, the Texans mounted a comeback on the Rams backups. They scored 22 points in a row, destroying parlays. (And what a hilarious counter-twist to go for two on the third touchdown — eschewing their normal way of head-in-sand thinking — in a hopeful coincidence that just happened to damage a bunch of 16.5-point lines!) In a way, they regained some hope in themselves, or at least that was the drumbeat after the game from the coaches and players.

I don’t necessarily disagree that it’s something to build on, mostly because it was the only thing that happened outside of a Jon Greenard sack and some decent enough plays to set up fourth-and-goal, but you can only build on it if you see what happened and act on that. Davis Mills is not a guy who usually says a lot, but I want to point to how this was brought up without a question being asked about it:

Dating back to the third game of the season, Mills mentioned doing more in the hurry-up offense. The Texans saw how well they looked doing that there and promptly never did it again. It doesn’t fit the team’s identity, which has been run-heavy even though the team cannot run, and which is actively hurting their chances of winning games.

So even though it was against backups, and even though Mills is not flawless running it, it remains a surprise that they can see results like that and not really act on them. The only things that work in their base offense right now are the play-action shots they take on first down, and that’s because they’re a massive tendency breaker. Then you watch Mills slinging it over the field and an offense that is able to generate time for him with the hurry-up, and you realize that it doesn’t need to be this hard.

It is, yet again, a trap that the Texans have invented for themselves that this team has to be run-heavy and deliberate. It’s an identity, but not a useful one. I’m not going to tell you they’re a good team or anything, but if they can mix in three or four hurry-up series a game and put up 10-14 points with them, they do have some winnable games left on the schedule. That includes next week’s matchup with the 1-7 Dolphins.

1) Houston’s run defense was absolutely crushed by the Rams, which is why they were impossible to stop

Houston’s run defense was disastrous, allowing 165 yards on 5.3 a tote. Their defensive backs — outside of Justin Reid, maybe — all joined together to have a brutal game in box defense. Lonnie Johnson missed several tackles, including whiffing on the first play of the game. Each starting corner had instances of problems on the edge. Or, to give you a more pure Xs-and-Os view of what’s going on, let’s talk to Jon Greenard:

I think that’s more detailed than any answer that a Texans coach has given this year. Anyway, Houston doesn’t run many fronts, and teams have the answers to those fronts. It’s yet another example of a Lovie Smith simple design that can get exploited pretty easily by a coach in the know. It doesn’t help when your best run defense corner, Desmond King, is suspended and held out for disciplinary reasons.

You can’t let a team as good as the Rams run on you, because that feeds the rest of the playbook. The play-action pass game was devastating against zones and eventually it led to Lonnie getting picked on again by Van Jefferson:

And, well, that’s how the Rams pile up 38 points in three quarters and barely look challenged. They punted just once. Every other drive through three quarters made it at least into the red zone. There were no turnovers for the Texans, and if Lovie’s defense doesn’t generate turnovers, it doesn’t do a lot.

Miami should be a much more fair test for the Texans. If they can’t hold down that RPO-fest, then it will be time for major changes. I kind of think the ship has sailed on Lonnie Johnson at safety, as much as I advocated for playing him — but that’s the thing about youth, they’re not always going to be good. Removing the question means that it can be targeted deeper in free agency and the draft. I would love to have seen how a less tumultuous organization tried to develop Johnson — cornerback? dimebacker? — but we’ll never get to see that now.

2) Rex Burkhead? Rex Burkhead.

With Mark Ingram traded at his behest, and the Texans needing a new running back to step up into snaps, of course the answer was … Rex Burkhead, who had one carry all season before today.

Burkhead had 28 snaps, Scottie Phillips 15, David Johnson 11, and Phillip Lindsay 8. Johnson and Lindsay were used most in the first drive, but that gave way to garbage time and garbage time was Burkhead time.

I don’t necessarily think Burkhead’s a bad little role player — I think he’d be a fine bit guy on a good team, ala Gio Bernard’s role for Tampa — but it was very funny to watch this team be unable to run the ball with it’s best guys for three quarters and then stumble on no-huddle Burkhead as their best rushing option. He was the only player who got a carry to break the three yards per carry barrier.

Do I think he’s a solution? Probably not. It was backups. But it speaks something to the existential dread that this team’s running game has hooked on to that suddenly one quarter of garbage time sweeps, or one third-and-long draw, or one Davis Mills broken run, is the only thing that looks good. It’s so bad that it needs passable yards that don’t matter to look even borderline acceptable. Other Texans backs picked up 23 yards on 10 carries.

3) The scant flashes of hope for the youth

Brevin Jordan, active for the first time all season, caught 3-of-4 balls for 41 yards and a touchdown. He did not look out of place as a receiver at all. To compare that to other Texans tight ends, Jordan Akins has not cleared 41 yards all year, and Pharaoh Brown hasn’t done it since Week 1. It was a wildly different offense, yes. It was still essentially one quarter of production that was as good as anything the Texans have gotten all season. David Culley gave him some support as a guy who’d been practicing hard in the post-game presser. Maybe this can be something the Texans build on over the second half of the season.

Jon Greenard continued his recent run of great play with another sack. The Texans weren’t able to generate much pass rush around him, but that spin move was devastatingly effective. They finished the game with just two quarterback hits despite no Andrew Whitworth.

I’m really trying here, guys. The blowouts are accumulating. I’m trying to find positive things to point to or talk about. Nico Collins had another couple of good catches, including one in play-action. Scottie Phillips did nothing, but the same nothing that Johnson and Lindsay did. Youth is slowly fighting its way on to the field. Hopefully the Texans can take what I expect to be 2-8 at best after the Tennessee game post-bye and start getting some more answers on the youth — yes, as they did on Lonnie Johnson. No, I know nobody’s happy about how that is turning out, but that’s what rebuilding teams do. They are open to being surprised by young players.

4) Blinders on

My kudos to Brandon Scott, who is on the ground, cares, and is asking questions. He specifically targeted the culture with questions to both David Culley and Brandin Cooks. And he got answers that amounted to “there’s nothing we can do but believe in what we’re doing.”

I don’t have a lot to tell you that I haven’t already said about this team’s culture at this point. There’s nothing surprising about closing ranks around it. That is part of the player pride and ego, and I think Brandin Cooks acknowledged that in a big way in his first answer on the podium:

“All I know is work, and most of these guys all we know is work hard and keep fighting … it hurts in the moment, when you go to sleep and wake up and you’ve got to do it again, because quite frankly that’s our job.” That’s a dark picture of a man who is struggling through a season he has no real control over. Cooks, out of nowhere, has become the most relatable person the Texans have right now because of his breadth of experience and willingness to speak up when things aren’t going well instead of reiterating the company line and moving on to the next question.

At the end of the day, there’s not a lot that the players can do to change what’s happening here, so I get it. It’s not their fault that the team was depleted of assets, and it’s not their fault that Deshaun Watson isn’t here. That falls on Watson’s own decisions and leadership. These guys are, to Jack Easterby-ism them, embracing their greatest struggles as well as anyone can.

What’s left here is a broken team and a fanbase that is either tuned out or fighting over who is to blame the most for the struggles. I’m of the mind that things turned the second that Easterby got in the building and started making trades. Other people have put out the idea that Cal McNair is such a bad owner that it doesn’t matter. My position has largely been that I’d like to see McNair — who can’t be fired — operate without Easterby before jumping on that wagon. Because if nothing else, McNair will actually spend money. And that means quite a bit.

But it doesn’t really matter who you blame. This is a disaster. Getting outscored 100-8 over the course of 11 quarters can’t be erased by 22 garbage time points. This is something we’re all suffering through. This isn’t a process that’s working. It’s a process that, in a world wherein Easterby didn’t just stabilize his power by linking up with Caserio, deserves a clean sweep. Coaches, management, ownership. Knock it all down and start over again with a fresh football mind. End of the day, I don’t care who is in the front office if they’re gathering good players and winning. This team isn’t doing that.

The Warriors, by the way, bottomed out after the 1997-1998 season when they traded away Latrell Sprewell after he choked P.J. Carlesimo. They won 78 games over their next four seasons, and didn’t check into the second round of the playoffs again until 2006. They also got obscenely lucky to ever become great, because the teams directly in front of them drafted Johnny Flynn instead of Stephen Curry and Jimmer Fredette over Klay Thompson. That’s not a process you should want to emulate.


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