Four Downs: Texans 13, Seahawks 33

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The Texans come away from a 20-point loss to the Seahawks without much to be optimistic about beyond playing the Jaguars next week. They continued to not be able to run, as has been a season-long ordeal for the worst DVOA (standard link to DVOA explainer) run offense of all-time:

This time, at least they managed to have an excuse of losing David Johnson to the COVID-19 list. (Well, I guess that’s an excuse, it’s not like he’s run well.) But to have 22 carries with Royce Freeman and Rex Burkhead and manage just 55 yards … it’s status quo stuff for this team. Stuff that goes down to the studs, from the players (trying, but mostly not good at run blocking or breaking tackles) to the play calls. The good news is that David Culley said that it was on him.

Ah, finally, I had missed that phrase over the years! “It’s on me” conveys quite clearly that the coach wishes to do no further introspection about the state of the team in the media. It conveys that the coach knows that he’s doing a bad. It conveys that he doesn’t even want to put out a line of hope for the fans who are still putting up with the product. There’s not many of them at the stadium these days, as today they were mostly replaced by Seahawks fans. Here’s Culley’s laughable comment on that:

You can create a montage of David Culley denying basic reality about how much the fans are engaged that would be surprising if this wasn’t the same person who just wants to shut out all the noise. Well, the noise from the Seahawks fans speaking louder than the home crowd signals loudly about where we’re at there.

1) Davis Mills’ performance didn’t do a lot for me, and I realize the box score scouts are going to seize this and run with it and call me a hater

331 yards! How can you do anything but call it a massive success, Rivers!?!? Well, I think it was a massive success, but a massive success of the Texans game plan as developed by Tim Kelly and David Culley in the early game. When you start tapping the bones of these 331 yards and checking for meat, it gets awfully skinny. The chart above his Next Gen Stats chart. There are zero completions with a pass distance of more than 20 yards. Of the ones that are close to that, well, they weren’t all that impressive.

Was Mills hurried on this pass? No. Was Mills tasked to make an accurate throw? Not really. Did Nico Collins need to jump for it anyway? He did.

How about the one touchdown pass that Mills had? Was that a highlight reel play?

Not really, no. I guess it was accurate on the run, you have to give Mills that! But … this again was not all that hard.

This was the first time all year that Tim Kelly’s screen passes were a) almost always working and b) almost always open.

I think the most telling fact of all is that Royce Freeman finished with 51 receiving yards. Royce Freeman was targeted eight times! The Seahawks started retreating into deep carpet zones and the Texans piled up 98 total yards in their last two drives with the Seahawks up 20. As it was during the Rams game, I don’t think this production augurs well for a “Davis Mills Actually Is Better Than Justin Fields Because of Numbers” take. (It might be up to a “Davis Mills Actually Is Better Than Zach Wilson” take.)

Does that mean everything Davis Mills did in this game sucked? No. I liked this back shoulder ball to Brandin Cooks that got waived off on a dubious OPI:

That is the level of anticipation that I think Mills is going to have to work with to actually be a successful quarterback in the long run. Blitz is dialed up, Mills doesn’t have the cannon to beat the blitz in most spots. (He has struggled against the blitz this year for a reason.) But he’s able to sense it and punish the defense at a known weak point.

Was yesterday a step forward for Mills? Inarguably. It’s good to see him hit the easy throws, because his accuracy still matters quite a bit as that was a bugaboo coming out. Did it do anything to change my opinion that he should start next year? It did not. I think he’d have to beat out a real quarterback — acquisition or draft — if I were in charge of things. Of course, I’m not the Texans, and I expect them to just let him be the quarterback, so from their perspective, this game is a handy validation tool.

2) The meat thresher that is the last five games of the season

One of the looming things that sucks about the way this team was put together is that they’re full of one-year contracts for older players with no security. I believe the news since it happened has looked fairly good, but seeing this happen to Kamu Grugier-Hill in light of what he’s meant to the team this year is diabolical:

Non-contact knee injuries (look to the left of where this target goes) are scary things. They’re especially ugly when they are focused on a guy who has no long-term security with a team. And, in this case, someone who is literally playing for pride and some small contract incentives at this point.

I’m not going to tell you I Learned A Big Lesson Today or preach at you about the product — these players accept the consequences of their jobs. This is just the absolute worst-case scenario for so many of these guys, your Maliek Collinses, Desmond Kings, and so on. There’s no security and there’s not a lot to play for but putting good stuff on tape for your future employer, whoever that might be. Four games left that mean little, but where you can get hurt in a meaningful enough way to change your upcoming bottom line.

Anyway, I hated to see that. I hated to see Justin Reid’s concussion, too. Rex Burkhead’s (Rex Burkheart’s?) groin. David Johnson’s COVID listing, Kamu’s COVID-listing Monday, and so on. The tenuousness of their future makes me pull for these guys.

3) The stark difference between turnover Lovie and non-turnover Lovie

Lovie Smith has outperformed my expectations for him this year. The unit has played pretty well without a lot of non-Jon Greenard impact-level contributors. On the other hand, a ton of their value is currently tied up in turnovers. Through Week 12, they had five games with negative DVOA as a team. In those games they had 16 turnovers. They have five turnovers in their other seven (now eight) games.

In many ways I felt like Russell Wilson was the worst possible quarterback for this unit to face. The Texans without Lonnie Johnson at safety have been very good at limiting the deep pass. Carson Wentz didn’t attempt a ball over 20 yards last week. Zach Wilson had one in Week 12. Tannehill had a couple in Week 11 but only because he threw 52 times. What Wilson did was buy enough time with his feet to make the Texans lose control of their zones, and he picked on Terrance Mitchell quite a bit.

Lovie’s unit has been pretty bad as a run defense this year, but that hasn’t mattered all that much because a) they were worse at it in 2020 and b) they’re still getting enough TFLs and penetration to make enough plays to get off the field.

It also means they are, as this offense is, married to game script. They can’t fall behind by enough to just let the opponent run on them, because that opponent will have a good chance to bust a tackle like Rashaad Penny did twice.

I was ready to write Lovie off entirely after the first month of the season, but he’s really committed to changing up schemes and throwing more curveballs here. It’s been a welcome change. Unfortunately for him, this unit can’t win a game like this without creating more turnovers. The only non-rookies that fell into the negative DVOA trap is Tannehill, who played in a monsoon without any good receivers, and Jacoby Brissett, who is at best a serviceable backup. It’s been fun to watch what Lovie has done without much investment, but this unit sure could use more good players.

4) Garrett Wallow’s intro to the lineup, thoughts on the other rookies

Wallow did the up-and-down rookie thing. He had a key stop on Houston’s first defensive drive when he got off a block and got to Rashaad Penny on the edge, which is something that this team has really struggled with this year:

He also got welcomed to zone coverage by Tyler Lockett:

It’s okay, it’s not like Zach Cunningham would have done it any better. (No sarcasm, I realize I should add in case one of my many admirers tries to interpret some.)

While Nico Collins had a big box score and target game, I didn’t think most of what he did was noteworthy beyond the one garbage time catch that Mills actually pushed downfield:

I’d really like to see him get more featured down the stretch. I think Brevin Jordan is solid but without an NFL-wow-level physical trait as a receiver — when he wins, it’s going to be with smarts. Collins’ size is an entry point to a lot of balls, and not just short one-on-one outside balls. (This Texans offense is remarkably boring because they’re just exceptionally conservative outside of the script.) First-and-goal and they target Collins twice and come away with no points … that hurts.

If Nico’s going to play the big boy game, this is a target he’s got to be able to at least stand up on. I don’t know if the ball was good enough to connect on either way, but you can’t just fall down and hope you draw the laundry.

Roy Lopez … well, he had a rough game. Get ’em next time.

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