Four Downs: Texans 7, 49ers 23

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The dog days of seasons like this are always difficult, because a lot of the narrative of the offseason is already established. There’s also not a whole lot new we can discover about established players at this point. Pharaoh Brown, like Darren Fells before him, is going to get called for a ton of penalties when you ask him to block across the line of scrimmage constantly. Christian Kirksey is a pretty solid little linebacker, but that’s about all he is. And so on.

Losing to the 49ers was mostly a return to normalcy for this team after their stunning win against the Chargers last weekend. They’re not a horrific team at this point of the season, with Davis Mills giving them a little bit more execution on third downs than they were getting out of Tyrod Taylor post-hamstring injury. But they’re also not very good. They don’t have non-Brandin Cooks playmakers on offense, and they have almost nobody who can win in space. They are a splash-only run defense that has trouble whenever they can’t get someone in the backfield. When they manage to be well-designed enough as an offense to actually counteract those issues, as they were against Los Angeles, life can go pretty well for them! In games like this, it’s right back to praying you find something horizontal.

The screen game just hasn’t been very consistent for the Texans this year — nor should it, if we’re being honest, because screen passes are amongst the worst play calls in the NFL. They are conservative plays that are built to keep the ball moving, but the NFL is a league without the same physical mismatches you can hunt in college football on plays like this.

The ultimate philosophical goal of David Culley’s offense is to drain clock and conservative its way down the field with third-and-short execution, ala the 2019 Ravens if they replaced Lamar Jackson’s running with even more horizontal stretch plays and their good backs with Rex Burkhead. It’s not a stunning surprise when this team can’t run the football (3.2 yards per carry felt downright above-average for them!), nor is it that the only drives that got anywhere happened when Mills consistently executed on third downs and the Texans got about 50 yards of Brandin Cooks DPIs.

And, well, seven points. So much youth, but seven points. Their seventh game of the year where they finished with a single-digit point total.

1) David Culley gives up

David Culley sure seems like he’ll be coming back next year. It’s not a decision I’ve spent a lot of energy on because there’s not really a lot of upside in firing him right now in my estimation. But because this has become more of a layup, and because this team ostensibly is trying to not waste our collective time, it’s time to treat Culley like we’d treat the coach of a real football team. And that coach simply can’t look at the situation the Texans were given at the end of the fourth quarter and punt.

There was no way the Texans had two extra scoring drives left based on any consideration of how they’d been playing, and no guarantee that when they went on those drives, they’d ever do better than fourth-and-8 at the San Francisco 41. Maybe they’d luck into a long touchdown pass. But down 10, you really don’t have much of a choice. And David Culley coward-punted, as he mostly has all season.

It’s one thing to manage an offense conservatively — and I am not even saying that can’t be the optimal strategy for a Texans team that needs a lot of things to go right — but you have to do it in a way that makes logical and consistent sense. If the team is bad enough that they need to be managed as conservatively as they do as far as running the ball often despite no chance of a big play, well, they also need to be aggressive when they actually get chances. Culley is 28th in the EdjSports rankings that measure only in-game decisions. I personally think these undersell how poor he’s been a bit because there is a pre-built bias into Edj’s rankings that gives Culley an out: They don’t think the Texans are very good, so many marginal calls actually don’t gain or lose much win probability because the Texans aren’t expected to win often when down 10 anyway.

I continue to have little hope for Culley as a game manager, but the Texans job was never going to be something that attracted big-time candidates, so it is what it is at this point. The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported that the team is expected to keep Culley after the game.

I think he’s a really fun and energetic person, and I’d love to listen to his Horror Movies podcast, but no amount of people on the headset with him can keep Culley from mainlining 1970s and early 1980s NFL game theory and it’s going to be a problem in 2022.

2) Davis Mills’ encouraging deep throws

Davis Mills’ numbers don’t look great. 21-of-32 for 163 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. But I was encouraged by his tendency to push the ball. First, there’s the play that a Pharaoh Brown holding call ruined, but was our first real example of Mills hitting Brandin Cooks on a deep pass against a normal defensive structure:

There’s also this play that Mills would say he checked to based on a pre-snap look, a pretty loft ball in Cooks’ direction:

I found it very interesting that Mills noted after the game that the 49ers continually had him checking to shorter plays. It didn’t seem like they were blitzing very much until the fourth quarter — always harder to react without hard data — but it feels like the identity of the Texans essentially is that Mills should only throw deep when he’s positive he has something schemed. They had a few plays where Mills was waiting longer than usual early in the game — including one where he seemed to force the ball at a well-covered Cooks — and then they seemed to lean more into checkdowns.

Other than his turnover — which, much to David Culley’s chagrin, I’m going to tell you that turnovers happen — I don’t think Mills played all that poorly. Towards the end of the game with the threat of the run removed, the 49ers began sending more blitzes and teeing off on him, and the offensive line couldn’t quite hold up anymore:

What Arik Armstrong did to Justin McCray on that play is illegal in 23 states.

And I think at that point Mills got flustered and started leaving some throws short, and the emotion of the game got a little big for him. And that’s fine, it’s a rookie quarterback learning on the job. I’m more encouraged than discouraged by this start, if only because we finally got a deep completion that didn’t feel like a fluke of circumstance or Cover-0 blitz.

3) The Texans get their first major ref screwjob of the year

The Texans have had bad calls against them this year, as they do every year, because every year there are several bad calls in the NFL. But none of them were as potentially game-altering as what happened when Davis Mills was picked off in the third quarter and the refs ruled that a defensive players forward progress was stopped before Rex Burkhead got him to fumble:

The fact that it was followed up immediately with a weak DPI call on Terrance Mitchell did not help things:

Generally I try to give officials the benefit of the doubt. I can remember the 2019 game against the Ravens when DeAndre Hopkins didn’t get a clear DPI call and how upset the fanbase was about that … even as the Ravens romped all over the Texans. That didn’t really matter. I don’t think anybody is trying to screw the Texans — why would they, who actually cares about the Texans? — these are just hard-working officials who make very public mistakes. But given the 7-3 scoreline when this happens, and the fact that these two calls directly lead to a 49ers lead in a game where Trey Lance looked shaky throwing the ball without the help of play-action, it’s hard to not believe that these calls didn’t completely alter the course of the game. They were devastating for the Texans.

4) I could see it with Brevin Jordan last week, why can’t I see it with Nico Collins?

Nico Collins did have a nice toe-tap catch in this game, so let’s show that off before we get too down on him:

But the one thing I have had problems with all year is that Collins is an extremely tall, physically skilled player — but he doesn’t always play like it.

He barely generates any force at all on Ambry Thomas on this throw. In fact, Thomas boxes him out. Notice how little movement back to the ball there is for Collins. He puts his hands in there, but he’s locked on the spot. Let’s go to the fourth-down play that ended the game:

Quick slant to the outside, Collins doesn’t do a great job of getting off initial jam, but the ball is already coming his way. But notice he is able to create the space off that, and then … the ball comes his way and there’s just no way for him to fight through this contact to get the ball. Inside of five yards of the line of scrimmage, even! He’s clearly bigger than the SF corner. He’s got the body to box him out decisively. But what he needs to do to win that ball from that spot isn’t clicking with him yet.

It’s very clear that they want Nico Collins to be a red zone, big box-out threat. Because they throw to him there, often. No wideout on the team has more goal-to-go targets than Collins, and he hasn’t caught a single one of them. Could you argue one or two of them should have been interference? Yeah. Does he look impressive after he actually catches the ball and gets in to space? I think so. But I’m a little concerned about how he’s not performing well up to the limited box that the Texans have put him in so far. He’s got the lowest catch rate of anyone on the team with more than 15 targets. A lot of that has been the Texans forecasting him to win the physical matchup and him struggling to execute.

There’s a lot to dream on and it’d be extremely stupid to give up on Collins in Game 16 of his rookie season. But I think there needs to be a big step forward next season, and it’s these kind of plays that make me want another high-round rookie wideout added to this mix — preferably a tackle-breaker — in the 2022 draft.

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