Four Downs: Ravens 33, Texans 16

Well, it isn’t necessarily a surprise that the Texans are 0-2. The defending Super Bowl champs and the AFC’s 14-2 No. 1 seed were the first two teams on their schedule this year. The problem with these two losses is that the Texans faded quickly into the distance in both games. Here, a fumble-six by Keke Coutee and a failed aggressive fourth-and-1 go at the Houston 34 set the Ravens up with 14 points. What was once an impressive answer by the Texans had to get it to 10-7 was immediately turned into a two possession game.

While there are parts of this team functioning well, as two units, they just haven’t gelled enough yet. I think the offense is having major identity struggles — which isn’t that out-of-line considering their identity last year was “DeAndre Hopkins is good and here are some run plays for you” — and I think the defense just lacks top-of-the-line talent. But let’s start with the defense because I think that is a more optimistic place to come from today and, well, I need some optimism:

1) Anthony Weaver’s unit provided a game for three quarters

They certainly weren’t helped by the offense much with short fields, but the Texans defense came out with a game plan that seemed to limit Baltimore’s rushing attack. The first half bell rung with the Ravens at 10 carries for 44 yards. There are plays that jump out at you where they attack the read-option quite well:

After the game, John Harbaugh praised Anthony Weaver’s game plan:

And I think they were 90th-percentile successful as far as what I would’ve expected coming into this game holding down Lamar Jackson. They sacked Lamar Jackson four times! He threw for only 204 yards, and seemed a little more uncomfortable in the pocket than usual. He missed Hollywood Brown in the end zone on a target where a better throw absolutely gets it done:

And yeah, they didn’t get a turnover. OK, do you know how hard it is to get a Lamar Jackson turnover? He fumbled nine times last year in about 600 dropbacks and runs. He threw six interceptions all season. The guy is just … amazingly good at football. Turnovers are random to some extent, but Jackson limits them as well as anybody in the game. I don’t think that’s a demerit on the Houston defense. I think they were somewhat lucky on the Brown throw, which Jackson mentioned as a self-mistake twice in his post-game presser, but otherwise they did a hell of a job.

Anyway, I said a lot of nice things so let’s get back on brand. They melted down at the end of the fourth quarter and ended the game with 230 rushing yards allowed.

I am not a football coach, but when I see a line that has eight guys on it, five of them to the left of the center. And the fullback is to the left of the center … I dunno, that might be the side of the ball I want more than six players on. Might be the play! Maybe! Just thinkin here.

The quit was strong after that, and this defense fell apart as the run chewed them up and spat them out.

2) The hot reads and blitz protections continued to be a humongous problem.

Deshaun Watson did not hit every throw tonight, but the degree of difficulty on some of the throws that he was asked to hit was insane. Post-game when asked about not converting on third down he went directly to this throw to Brandin Cooks:

So, okay, it’s a throw we know Watson can make. But at the same time, it has a looping blitzer coming free that forces a step-up. It has a short-area linebacker waiting for that step-up. So as Watson is coming up, his angle is poor. He could have hit the throw, and he did put the blame on himself on that throw. But a perfect strike as a linebacker steps into your lane is a big ask.

Likewise, the offense continually struggled dealing with Baltimore’s pressure looks. Watson was also sacked four times. He was hit eleven times. And some of the sacks he didn’t take looked like this:

The bottom line is that the Ravens teed off on Watson, as we knew they would. Bill O’Brien/Tim Kelly’s only real answer to this kind of pressure-based approach that Watson has struggled with has been to bench guys. Max Scharping, who in my eyes is one of the two best players on the line, got benched after some rough pressures allowed. The Ravens that only pressured Baker Mayfield seven times on their big blitzes got to Watson on … we don’t know the number yet but I’m assuming it’ll be right in line with the Chiefs games.

This is killing the offense. I’m not sure if it’s something that can be audibled out of or what, but the complete lack of a real checkdown game for blitzes is destroying this offense. The offensive line — which, I think if we’re being honest with ourselves, hasn’t played well this year — is put in an awful position. Deshaun is put in an awful position. The receivers are forced to win quickly. The third-and-11 that led directly to the quitting field goal from O’Brien was a play that was almost unbelievable:

So it’s third-and-11, they run a variant of a mesh concept with a lot of intersecting underneath routes. The Ravens not only have a lineman jump it, but they get a rusher completely untouched. So … you’re throwing short on third-and-11 … and Watson STILL gets crushed … and STILL nobody is open. Maddening.

I think this is a situation that calls for a lot of urgency, and it’s about something that we’ll talk about in our third section as well. Other teams have had a full offseason to prepare for this stuff. It’s not that surprising anymore! They are going to come after Deshaun Watson. They are going to ask Bill O’Brien to counter that. Houston just has no game plan for this. I wouldn’t be surprised if it stays a festering wound this offense wears until they come up with real plans. They barely run screens, they barely throw over the middle. It felt like a miracle that Randall Cobb got involved in the third quarter, then he immediately disappeared. They need to put something different on film or this is going to be a “same shit, different day” situation every Sunday. And hey, the Steelers? They’re going to blitz Deshaun. FYI. All that offensive line talent doesn’t mean a lick if Watson is still getting his ass beat every Sunday. You’ve protected nothing.

3) I liked the fourth-and-1 go. I think it showed some awareness. I don’t think O’Brien followed through with what that actually meant.

So in a 3-0 game near the end of the first quarter, the Texans come out on fourth-and-1 at their own 34 and went for it. Let me tell you what I liked about that: It was a) aggressive and b) showed that Bill O’Brien knew his opponent well enough to know that he needed to be aggressive. Game script matters a lot to the Texans the way they are currently set up on offense. It was an acknowledgement that the Texans needed to play this game with some risk.

The play itself, was terrible. It was a variation of the same play they’d just run on third down to set up the fourth down. They got Baltimore to call a timeout, so that was nice. But then they out-thought themselves. Randall Cobb literally said they “might’ve been ready for that one.”

And then after he failed, O’Brien turtled right back up. He may come to the analytical side of fourth downs well as a theory, but as soon as he touches the hot stove and gets burned, O’Brien is back on DoorDash ordering empty field goals. The Texans had a drive cooking in the third quarter, down 13, sputtered out on the aforementioned throw to Cooks, then turtled up so that they could turn a two-score game into … still a two-score game. On a reasonable fourth-and-6.

After going down 30-13, in a game where with Baltimore’s run offense you can’t reasonably expect three possessions, they settled for another field goal. Fourth-and-15 makes that a little more presentable as a casual call, but with 8:13 left in the game, you have to figure there’s little chance you’re seeing the ball two more times. You need points in a hurry. Dial up Ka’imi Fairbairn. The Texans didn’t get the ball back until there was only 3:44 left. Was that their biggest sin? No. The first one was. But it was a mopey mentality.

Bill O’Brien’s Houston tombstone is going to read that he had some genuinely good ideas at times, and when he cared, he was able to scheme it up pretty well too. But the consistency, the logical connection of the steps … they were never there. What it adds up to without that edited and arbited train of thought is that things feel random. Why does Max Scharping get benched but not Zach Fulton? Why does Vernon Hargreaves get benched but not Brandon Dunn? It all begins to feel like management by rolling dice.

4) Speaking of logical connections: Do the Texans have a deep passing offense?

Deshaun Watson threw three balls of a depth of more than 20 yards, completing two of them for 62 yards. The one he missed was the one play I’d been wondering if we’d ever see: David Johnson in man coverage. This is the throw that you have to believe can play if you ever want any chance of seeing a rationale in the Hopkins trade:

Another harried throw, another one just barely missed.

In game one, Watson threw just three balls deep as well. That was with a healthy Will Fuller. Last year, Watson attempted 76 throws of 20 or more yards, an average of a little over five per game since he sat Week 17. In the games that Fuller played last year, they threw 5.36 20-yard throws per game.

Now, is some of this locked behind whatever happened to Fuller’s leg in this game? Yes. Is it about the defenses they’ve faced? Maybe Baltimore, but you shouldn’t be scared of attempting deep balls on Kansas City’s cornerbacks. Is some of it to do with getting new chemistry with receivers? Maybe a bit. But that shouldn’t stop teams from attempting deep balls. The fact of the matter is that all the expensive design of this team with Watson has been aimed at deep balls. Will Fuller is supposed to get them. Brandin Cooks is supposed to get them. Laremy Tunsil is supposed to buy time at them.

The fact that this team has only attempted six of them in two games is a major commentary of where this offense is right now. What this team is supposed to be isn’t happening. This is … well, this is long look in the mirror territory. The Texans need big plays to win games on offense, because they can’t rely on their defense to play as well as it did this weekend. What is stopping this team from hitting deep balls? What about their philosophy is failing? If you took Watson off this team right now, I believe we’d be talking about this offense in the same vein we talk about like, the Jets. There’s not a lot of time to get this corrected, as a certain head coach would say. There’s a lot of improving that needs to get done to get this team back in a playoff driver’s seat. These two losses won’t bury them, but they sure as hell have clarified many issues the team needs to address before they’re ready to be in the same breath as the real contenders of the AFC.

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Week 2 Preview: Texans vs. Baltimore

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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Well, I’d like to say this gets easier after the Super Bowl champs. But it doesn’t.

The Texans do have three extra days of rest on a Ravens team headed to NRG for the first time in the Lamar Jackson era, but that’s about the only edge I see them having on the Ravens. And last year, with a full bye week at their disposal, they went into M&T Bank Stadium and got cornholed by the Ravens 41-7. Here’s my recap of that game at the time. Here’s what the preview looked like for that game. I’ve done a preview podcast with Ken McKusick if that’s more to your style of previews:

Ken kept trying to bring me back from being too down on the Texans throughout the show, but the truth is that not only is Baltimore the better team, they are a nightmare matchup for this current incarnation of the Texans. If you take out DeAndre Hopkins’ contributions, the Texans’ leading receiver against Baltimore last year was Kenny Stills, who caught four balls for 27 yards. Oh, also, there’s no homefield advantage and everything is quiet, and Lamar Jackson is coming off a three-touchdown depantsing of the Cleveland Browns pass defense. Other than literally everything about this game, the game sets up well for the Texans.

Thus, despite the homefield and the rest, the Ravens come into this game minus-7, and the over/under currently stands at just 50 points. It opened at Ravens minus-6, and the over/under at 54.5. That speaks a lot to how gambling experts expect this game to go: more in favor of Baltimore, more game-scripted away from the Texans.

Well, you’re still here. So let’s talk about it.

When the Texans have the ball

All stats courtesy of Football Outsiders

The Texans were lost as a passing offense in Week 1, with Deshaun Watson and Will Fuller having the only real fungible chemistry and the Chiefs big-blitzing at will to take Watson down. The Chiefs brought the heat on 32.5% of Watson’s passing snaps per SportsRadar/PREF data, and Watson was sacked four times and pressured on an astonishing 37.5% of his dropbacks. Some offensive lines produce those results without costing a metric ton of draft capital, but that’s a little unfair. The real culprit, as always, continues to be the lack of any real easy hot route or passing-game design.

I wrote at length about this last year, but the Texans under O’Brien simply don’t have easy checkdowns for Watson as a default state of the offense. Sometimes they come as first-15 designs off the script, and sometimes they get adjusted to. But generally, the Texans have been content to let this sort of thing happen since 2018. When they play big blitzing teams, it gets Watson killed. That’s why he threw for just 169 yards against the Ravens last year when he was blitzed 18 times, and why he managed only 184 against the Bucs last season when they blitzed him 19 times. The Ravens and Bucs were 1-2 in blitz rate in the regular season last year.

The Ravens actually didn’t have much in the way of success in sacking Baker Mayfield in Week 1, but they definitely impacted him heavily. They sent the heat at Baker on 22 of his 39 dropbacks, and even though Mayfield only was pressured seven times, he panicked and played very poorly.

Throw in constant pressures with bad hot routes and I think Watson will probably take at least three sacks this week, if not more, without major adjustments. The funny thing is it would be incredibly easy to go in and change this stuff — having someone drag across the line of scrimmage is actually wildly simple. But until I see a devotion to this beyond the beginning of the script, I won’t believe it’s happening.

For what it’s worth: I don’t think Watson played poorly at all last week. I think he was hurt by some timely drops, and I don’t think he had the kind of signature Houdini play we all expect from him. But on a dropback-to-dropback basis, he made good throws and was on-point with his reads.

The best way for the Texans to move the ball will probably be between the tackles with what looked like a rejuvenated David Johnson in Week 1. Johnson’s cuts were crisp and he was able to thrive even on plays where the best blocking was not available:

The Ravens beefed up their defensive front this offseason by signing Calais Campbell and Derrick Wolfe, among others. Given the uh, “run blocking prowess” that this line showed through most of Week 1, Johnson is going to have to squeeze through a lot of tight creases to make that impact. But, it’s worth noting the Browns were able to run for five yards a carry, and Baltimore’s run defense was shaky out of the start last year. If there’s ever a time to catch them, it’s probably now.

Brandin Cooks continued to be limited on the injury report with his quad injury. Stills had two of the big drops last week, but I think he’s still probably the best bet to create production of those two. Randall Cobb admitted that he thought he looked like he was playing in a preseason game on tape last week, and I barely even noticed he was on the field throughout my own re-watch of the game. Can you be a decoy slot receiver, or does that just mean you’re occupying space? Baltimore didn’t do much shadow coverage down the stretch last year and projects to just roll out Marlon Humphrey in the slot on Cobb, Marcus Peters on Fuller, and Jimmy Smith on Cooks. Earl Thomas’ release has left a little more hope on deep balls as the main deep safety in Week 1 was former sixth-rounder DeShon Elliott, who has under 500 career defensive snaps.

When the Ravens have the ball

Well, you pray. Anthony Weaver told reporters on Friday that his first instinct was to take care of the running attack first:

The last team that did that got scraped off the turf to the tune of a 146.1% DVOA allowed even if they did keep the run attack handled. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, there’s not anything inherently surprising with getting your ass kicked by Lamar Jackson. All Weaver could focus on in that press conference was the turnovers. Other than that, it’s been the same “keep it simple, let them be aggressive” rah rah stuff the Texans passed around last time they played the Ravens.

Weaver’s defense in the first game was actually fairly aggressive against the Chiefs. They blitzed Mahomes 13 times in 32 dropbacks. They just didn’t generate much in the way of pressure. The major changes from last year schematically had A.J. Moore seeing more of a role as a linebacker on dime downs, J.J. Watt playing well inside and even standing up inside on a few plays, and an emphasis on the overload and amoeba looks on third down. I actually didn’t think the pass defense looked all that bad in Week 1. There were always going to be easy scheme wins on a few plays by Andy Reid, but the Texans bottled up a lot of stuff underneath and kept Tyreek Hill from generating any big plays by shadowing him with Bradley Roby. I don’t think Roby shadows again this week, but if he does, it’s almost certainly on Hollywood Brown.

The run defense, unfortunately, I can’t say the same for. They were handily overmatched by a Chiefs line and run game that hadn’t been this devastating since Jamaal Charles was ruling the roost:

I think Brandon Dunn had a poor first week replacing D.J. Reader at nose, and honestly I wouldn’t say anybody on the run defense had an outright good game in Week 1. Zach Cunningham was guessing wrong gaps all day, quite uncharacteristically so. Benardrick McKinney missed a few tackles. The team rotated through a few guys — P.J. Hall, Charles Omenihu, Ross Blacklock, even a few snaps of Brennan Scarlett — inside as they tried to replace Angelo Blackson on run downs. I think their best hope is that Blacklock is ready to start as soon as possible, and that Hall can eventually spell Dunn in power matchups. Anyway, the Chiefs ran for 166 yards and the Baltimore Ravens have run game conflicts that would make Kansas City’s RPO’s blush. The Texans gave up a cool 70 yards on RPOs last week, with the Chiefs running 14 of them, tied for second-most in the league. The Ravens — this may not surprise you — are going to have some RPO looks.

I think Baltimore has upgraded its secondary receivers around Mark Andrews and Brown this offseason, and in particular Devin Duvernay has a chance to make some noise this season. Miles Boykin has the exact kind of physical style that I think could give the Texans lower-rung corner options some problems. Houston last week benched Lonnie Johnson for the better part of the first half, then puzzlingly O’Brien pointed to the injury report in pressers about that decision. That was neither a great sign for the coaching staff’s confidence in Johnson nor a good look for Johnson’s ability to seize the CB2 role. That said, I don’t know who else would take it. Vernon Hargreaves was beaten whenever thrown at, and John Reid just played his first NFL game. This has all the makings of one of those position groups that looks nice in the offseason when you have the rose-colored glasses on but falls apart the second any real pressure is put on it.

The last time I did one of these previews I thought Lamar Jackson wasn’t a superstar just yet. Well, he definitely is one now. He threw the ball with confidence last week, he took throws that you rarely see attempted. It’s obvious that he has had few physical peers as a running quarterback outside of Michael Vick, but the throws in and of themselves are starting to grow. Don’t buy into the narrative that the Ravens lost in the playoffs because Lamar couldn’t throw — they were aggressive and lost a few too many fourth downs. Jackson is electric and if the Texans try to follow the Browns and shut down the run game by leaving stuff open deep, they will likely also get hot fire rained on them.

Special teams

Both teams played pretty well last week outside of Kai’imi Fairbairn’s missed field goal, a poor stay-away decision by Ravens returner James Proche, and three DeAndre Carter kickoff returns that went nowhere. Justin Tucker is one of the few kickers that I feel like single-handedly sways a matchup. So it goes, in a game where the Texans don’t have a lot of edge in my estimation.

The read

I would be astonished if the Texans won this game. It would buck every trend and gut instinct in my body. I don’t often get to say something like this since Deshaun Watson took over, but it so happens that two of the times are just stacked back-to-back to start the season.

The big question to me isn’t if the Texans can stop the Ravens, because even with the addition of J.J. Watt from last year’s team, I think that unit is overmatched. The question is just how badly the offense will react to the blitzing. If they come out with a brand new game plan, I will be pleasantly surprised and shower them with praise. This does happen from time-to-time.

But with all this talk about simplifying, personal responsibility, and trying to do what they were trained to do in the first place, I will put my chip on the Texans not understanding the normal that they need to create to win this game. Baltimore 32, Houston 14.

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Getting rid of DeAndre Hopkins was a football decision

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

This is going to be the last post we write about DeAndre Hopkins on this website. He’s gone. We all know he’s gone. We all have strong feelings about the trade. The only reason I want to talk about DeAndre Hopkins today is that I have to combat a particular strain of argument that I’ve seen pop up lately. I am not shaming the below Tweets or Tweeters, just pointing out that this is a slant I see a lot and that has become prevalent amongst Texans Twitter as they try to grapple with the aftermath of the trade.

I know this is going to feel overly semantical to some of you. I know this post is going to have people upset with me. But I need to combat this talking point that has risen out of DeAndre Hopkins finally getting a big extension last week.

The Texans absolutely could have paid DeAndre Hopkins. The objections to paying him come from a place of abstract theory where the team has decided not to re-do deals with three years left on the contract. Or from a place where the team doesn’t want to tie up all its money in three players long term, which is one that was offered very early in the process by O’Brien.

Now, the numbers that have come in about DeAndre Hopkins’ deal are enormous. He basically got a two-year extension with a bunch of guaranteed money to make him happy, receiving more guaranteed money on the contract than anyone but Julio Jones. His cap hits remain reasonable for 2020 and 2021, and then spike to tough decision territory:

Source: OverTheCap via Joel Corry

If I may, let’s look at the players that the Texans have under contract that matter besides Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil for 2020, 2021, and 2022:

From 2022 on, assuming the cap bounces back from COVID, Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil are going to combine to take up about $61 million of the Texans cap that OTC currently projects at $227 million, or 26%. However, there is really nobody else on the roster who couldn’t be cut at that point — most of the guaranteed money on these other contracts is out at this point. Whitney Mercilus cuts with $11.5 million in cap savings at an advanced age, Nick Martin for $8 million, Brandin Cooks for the full $13 million, Benardrick McKinney for $9.5 million, Randall Cobb for $8.25 million. Even Zach Cunningham, should he age poorly, saves $5.7 million. Along the way, J.J. Watt’s deal runs out, Will Fuller’s deal runs out, David Johnson’s deal runs out.

Had there been no COVID-19 pandemic, there would really have been little in the way of the Texans keeping Hopkins via extension. Even with that temporary short fall, the pain to remedy the fix could have been as easy as “don’t sign Whitney Mercilus.” Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that Mercilus got paid because I like him the person. But he’s not a star edge rusher, and he was valued like one because he has the personality traits the Texans covet.

So there’s all this kerfluffle about cap hits but the difference between what the Texans are signed on to with Cooks and Cobb and what the Texans would be signed up to with Hopkins is so minimal that you could fill it up with just the cap hit of Brandon Dunn.

Now, there are obviously other factors in play. Hopkins is pretty much uncuttable in 2022 outside of a post-June 1 cut for any real savings, while Cooks and Cobb are not. The Saints have proven again and again that manipulating the salary cap around to keep who you want at a fair price is really not hard: the question is just who do you want?

Listen, the Texans devote a large amount of salary cap space to players who aren’t really all that great. I’ve grown up enough to not see players as numbers on a screen. I enjoy pulling for Darren Fells. He seems like a good guy and I love anyone who enjoys a good bath. But the Texans found him as a veteran free agent who came in to camp for $1.5 million. He did not play beyond that contract in any way besides his playing time. He blew the most blocks in the NFL among tight ends and he is, at best, an adequate receiver who scored a lot of touchdowns on option looks. From a pure salary cap perspective, the money that was spent on him is pointless to me — Jordan Akins catches better, and falling in love with Fells cost the team Jordan Thomas. A.J. McCarron seems to be a favorite of O’Brien and Watson. Awesome! Sign him up as a coach, because as a player, he is not taking you anywhere and on merit probably wouldn’t crack the top 30 backups in the NFL. Coaching staff money won’t count against the cap. You can fit $7.5 million in cap space between these two players, which is enough to massively upgrade a position.

I’m not going to cherry pick up and down the roster because this is not really news — most rosters in the NFL spend a little more than they need to on the fringes for guys that they like. But most NFL teams do not trade a top-five receiver for pennies on the dollar — including for a running back with an exorbitant contract who was essentially a rehab project . Teams in such a situation would generally cut at the fringes rather than let the star go if they liked him. The Steelers ran into a real issue with franchising Bud Dupree this offseason and it cost them a few guys they liked: Javon Hargrave, B.J. Finney, and Anthony Chickillo. But they … like Bud Dupree more.

What we saw from the Texans post-O’Brien takeover was a massive swing of rewards to his tough, smart, and dependable guys. I’m not going to eviscerate Mercilus in this post, I’m not going to sling poo at Nick Martin for getting a contract. Good for those guys. But if you think either of them had as much to do with the Texans winning as Hopkins did over the past two years, you’re living in a fantasy world. Those contracts are the little building blocks that lead to things like “well gee, I dunno if we can keep this top receiver happy.” Those are football decisions. Now, obviously, I hope the football decisions turn out to be good ones! Early returns aren’t great, but there’s a lot of season left. But … I can’t stand by and let this poverty talk take over the timeline. They absolutely could have paid Hopkins.

So, okay, quick Q&A with the imaginary guy in my head I always think reads and complains about my posts:

Q: But Rivers, what if they didn’t want to pay three signing bonuses that big in the span of three months?

A: As I said, don’t sign Martin and Mercilus and it’s right there. Football decision.

Q: Rivers, you don’t know the real relationship between Hopkins and O’Brien! There was no way they were ever reconciling!

A: I think that speaks pretty poorly about the person who is paid to manage personalities and egos!

OK, for real, I understand that Hopkins didn’t practice enough for O’Brien’s good graces. I can understand that Hopkins is not a perfect, flawless angel. I get it. But at the same time, properly valuing what Hopkins brings to the table is priority No. 1 when you are the general manager. I don’t think there’s any way you can exit a view of the 2018-2019 seasons with an objective eye and not note that Hopkins was one of the four best players on the team. A guy like that is someone who gets preferential treatment in today’s NFL. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. If Deshaun Watson wanted to stop practicing on Wednesdays, I bet he’d get his way too.

Q: Why do you hate Bill O’Brien!!!!

A: Not a question, but I don’t hate Bill O’Brien. I hate his decisions. I don’t think his valuation of character over talent is going to end well for the Houston Texans, who I want to succeed.

Q: OK Rivers, but surely having 40% of your cap tied up in three players isn’t ideal!

A: I agree. Show me who else they should have spent the Hopkins money on from a talent standpoint. We’re not living in an ideal fantasy land. Everybody with a new quarterback contract is playing this game. The Chiefs are going to have roughly $100 million tied up between Frank Clark, Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, and Patrick Mahomes in 2022. The Titans are going to have $78.2 million between Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, and Kevin Byard. Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews will hit for over $102 million. No matter who you pair with Watson’s contract, the number is going to look obscene compared to where things were 10 years ago. But that’s hardly a Texans-only phenomenon and it hasn’t kept those teams from keeping their other stars.

Q: But they have to save money for extensions, don’t they?

A: Like I said, the only guys I think are must-keeps in the core at this point are Watson and Tunsil. Frankly, a lot of the players that you would think about extending or keeping are so old that there’s no way you can project they’ll be good in two years. The few young guys who I think are promising enough to really warrant an extension still have a lot of career left to reach the point where they’re extended. Justin Reid is probably the closest, but franchising Reid in 2022 is not going to leave much of a cap hold and safeties aren’t generally expensive. Maybe you think about extending Tytus Howard or Max Scharping, but I don’t think either of them have played so well at this point that it should be in the game plan in pen. This also ignores the fact that there’s still a lot of money to shift around.

Q: But what about free agency?

A: O’Brien’s two best priority free-agent signings are Bradley Roby and Tyrann Mathieu, one-year prove-it deals. Everyone else he has been involved in signing to a real free-agent deal has underwhelmed at best. Zach Fulton, Aaron Colvin, Jeff Allen, Vince Wilfork, Rahim Moore, Brock Osweiler, These are not the kind of guys and contract values good teams get hung up on making sure you can create in the future.

I hope this has left you better prepared to deal with this talking point. It is, to me, not something worth spending time on. The Texans moved on from DeAndre Hopkins because they didn’t want to keep him. Hopefully that plays out better than it did in Week 1. Don’t let the money become the talking point it has been, because it never mattered.

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Four Downs: Chiefs 34, Texans 20

Another bold first quarter in Kansas City was dashed under an avalanche of Chiefs points as the Texans jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead on the David Johnson rejuvenation machine. The problem was that they forgot to turn it off, and new playcaller Tim Kelly called the game like Johnson was on his fantasy team. They featured David Johnson heavily on all downs, and Duke Johnson’s injury (a knee that O’Brien wouldn’t say much about in the post-game report) shelved a lot of the creative two-back stuff the team had planned.

Unfortunately because we’ve had no build up, this game was a little like taking a drink from a fire hose. Or trying to defend against Patrick Mahomes. We have a lot to cover because there was almost nothing to cover in the build-up. I’m typing this right now because there are going to be players that splashed here or there that aren’t going to get mentioned. I’m sorry. There’s a lot to deal with here!

This was a disappointing game for me on a few levels that we’ll get to, some surprising, some mostly unsurprising at this point. I never thought the Texans were going to win this game, but I did think they had a little bit more than they showed. Ultimately, what I’m saying is that we have to start with the head coach and general manager again, because his fingerprints were heavy on this one:

1. Bill O’Brien’s situational awareness was in midseason form.

There were about 3-4 separate things you could complain about with O’Brien here, but the main flashpoint was not going for it on fourth-and-4 at the 50-yard line in a tie game in the second quarter. O’Brien would reveal in his presser that he was not necessarily aware of the length of that fourth down:

It is, well, it’s about what we’ve come to expect with O’Brien. He ran the hell out of the ball in this one. Down 14-7, with 2:26 to play in the half, they started with a RPO to Darren Fells and two running plays. With 1:26 left, they could grab only enough yards to set up a long field goal, which Kai’mi Fairbairn shanked to the right.

On their initial possession of the third quarter, the Texans ran on five of eight plays, gained 27 yards, punted, and got the ball back with 1:12 left in the third quarter. They somehow ran the clock out on their own chance to win the game.

There’s a lack of urgency that seems tantamount to whatever O’Brien is and does that … well, I’d call it something that needs to be corrected. But let’s be honest: It won’t be. This is who he is. As he said about David Johnson’s contract, it is what it is. The head coach does not believe, as a general rule, that the team should ever play fast. That’s a problem! Not one that a team can’t overcome, but a pretty big one!

2) Deshaun and the disappearing deep ball

Remember the line that all those speedy receivers would help open up things for the Texans? Well, about that…

The offense got off to a great start by almost running more screens for their backs than they had all of last year. But it was mostly about a power run game making big in-roads and some great vision from David Johnson on his early carries:

While Johnson was a bright spot and showed a lot more burst than I personally expected him to have, that was about it for the offense in this one. Some easy drops by Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, and the new guys were complete non-factors. Brandin Cooks had two catches for 20 yards on five targets, and Randall Cobb had two catches for 23 yards — both in garbage time. I don’t think anyone expected the timing to be gangbusters in Week 1, but that was pretty disappointing.

Moreover, it didn’t seem like the Texans really had much in the way of deep balls all game. Watson talked about it at the podium:

Watson was sacked four times and hit in motion by Tyrann Mathieu during his one interception. I don’t have a good hurries source immediately post game but he was hit seven times in 36 dropbacks. This is a team where every member of the offensive line either cost a first- or second-round pick, was signed as a premium free agent, or was given a humongous extension. Against a team that, despite a good finish, was projected as an average defense this year. That is inexcusable.

I’m not going to linger on the lack of DeAndre Hopkins stuff much but it turns out that grabbing four fast receivers together doesn’t mean you just dominate the entire vertical passing game, huh? Who’da thunk?

3) Whither D.J. Reader?

I raised the suspicion in my preview that the Texans would have trouble dealing with the run games without D.J. Reader this season. That turned out to be spot on. With the Texans mostly playing two-deep and giving a lot of extra attention to Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs ran all over them.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire glided past Benardrick McKinney and Justin Reid on the touchdown that turned the game into a 21-7 laugher. Houston had problems at the point of attack all game, and mostly wound up using Charles Omenihu as a third defensive end. As much weight as he gained this offseason, run downs are a new role for him and I’m not completely surprised.

Schematically? I don’t think it was all bad for the Texans. I think there were multiple times where a secondary player was able to scheme their way past a pick and that communication was an upgrade on last year. The tackling was lackluster, but you kind of expect that against this team and with this little of a preseason.

The Chiefs are … well, they’re the Chiefs. They were always going to pants Houston’s pass defense. It’s just not good enough. Bradley Roby’s touchdown allowed to Tyreek Hill was all Hill’s speed. The screens work against every team in the NFL. I think the Texans did a good job of dealing with the dink-and-dunk game plan. I don’t think that Mahomes is ever going to make the mistakes to make that strategy work unless the Houston offense is also pushing the pedal to the floor.

Hey, you know what’s great? Taking this run defense to host Baltimore next week.

4) Playing time thoughts

The lone sack of Patrick Mahomes came from Jacob Martin, beating Mitchell Schwartz on the outside:

The Texans went on to play Martin … 17 snaps. The entire game. Let me point out that per NFL Next Gen Stats, Whitney Mercilus got one pressure the entire game and got pressure on … 3.7% of his snaps. The Texans can love Mercilus the person. I love Mercilus the person. The Texans paid him a ton of money and he’s not as good of a pass rusher as Jacob Martin is. That’s a pretty sad fact! And the contract is going to get Mercilus the lion’s share of the playing time unless they figure out a more-defined role for Martin. That would be priority No. 1 for me if I were defensive coordinator.

Lonnie Johnson played one snap the entire first half, and his role was mostly usurped by fourth-round rookie John Reid. Tough scene for footwork king offszn fiends. I think Johnson is one of the best corners the Texans have in terms of physicality but if they were playing to keep the ball in front of them I can squint and kind of see this as a play to stay disciplined? I don’t think Johnson fans are going to be happy with that one. But … that’s the best I got for you. Reid played 31 snaps, Johnson played 29, and Hargreaves played 43. A.J. Moore played a lot, and Justin Reid also played some man coverage including on the near-touchdown to Damarcus Robinson that he broke up.

The Texans wideouts mostly wound up as a true platoon, although Cooks being limited probably influenced that a bit:

Bless Bill O’Brien’s heart, always finding a way to reward DeAndre Carter.

As I said on Twitter, I don’t believe if you picked the Texans to make the playoffs this season, that this game should hold an inordinate amount of sway on you. This is who O’Brien is. He gets pantsed often by the NFL’s best. It so happens that a lot of the NFL’s best are lined up against him in the first four weeks. So, you know, maybe a little urgency for once, Bill?

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Week 1 Preview: Texans @ Chiefs

Well, we made it. A terrible, pandemic-ravaged year and an offseason that I would charitably call shaky are left in the past. The schedule has taken the Texans right back to the doorstep of one of their biggest meltdowns of all-time, a 24-0 lead blown to the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs spent the offseason doing just about everything they could to run it back. They re-upped Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Chris Jones. They were hurt by opt-outs of Damien Williams and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff in light of COVID-19. But in replacing them with Kelechi Osemele and first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire, I don’t think they’re much worse for the wear. Every defensive player that started in the Super Bowl except Reggie Ragland is back, though Bashaud Breeland will be suspended for the opener.

My previews for last year’s Chiefs-Texans games are here and here. Suffice to say, the Chiefs remain a major Super Bowl contender and this is a tough task for any team. Defending champions receiving their rings in the opener are 4-1 since 2013, with the loss coming in Kansas City’s thrashing of New England in 2017. Joe Flacco’s Ravens and Eli Manning’s Giants did lose consecutive games to lead off the 2012 and 2013 seasons, but, well, they weren’t empirically great champions to begin with.

The line on this game opened at Chiefs -10, but has been bet down to -9. The over/under has gone down by almost two points, from a 56.5 total to a 54.5 total. Brandin Cooks’ health is in jeopardy after he did not practice much leading up to the game. He drew a questionable tag on Wednesday. He’s likely to be on a snap count if he does play, which puts a lot of emphasis on the Texans to keep up their side of the line.

When the Texans have the ball

All stats courtesy of Football Outsiders

There are a number of new factors that the Texans are introducing to this matchup from last year, the first of which is the absence of DeAndre Hopkins. My expectation is that Will Fuller will be a target sponge in this game with Cooks limited. The Chiefs are missing Breeland and Charvarius Ward is probably cornerback No. 1 at this point. Fuller memorably just missed three deep touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week 6:

But because it is extremely early in the season and we have — let’s be honest — no idea if the Texans offense will change much under Tim Kelly’s play calling, I think there are a couple different ways this could play out.

What was successful for the Texans in their Week 6 upset win last year was the TE drag option game. They were able to grind out yards on the ground by the bushel and overcome an early burying.

The Texans were harassed often by the Chiefs in the playoff win — 24-0 sounds like a lot of work put in by the offense. But one of those scores was a special-teams touchdown, special teams recovered a muffed punt inside the KC 10, and the Kenny Stills touchdown was essentially an entirely blown coverage. The Chiefs blitzed 11 times and Deshaun Watson was pressured 16 times. Without the threat of the option game, the Chiefs had a lot easier time dialing in on their blitzes and rushes. The O’Brien offense had a hard time dealing with blitzes because the hot reads were not quick enough. Has Kelly changed that?

Then there’s the addition of David Johnson and how he and Duke Johnson change this offense in Kelly’s eyes. Those two are tied hand-and-hand to me because the easy adjustment to blitzes is “well, are you covering these two guys over the middle?” Randall Cobb will pick up some of the slack too, but I would not rely on him to make the kind of plays the two backs can in space.

The Chiefs largely solved the Texans run game without the read-option, holding the Texans to just 94 rushing yards on 4.4 yards per attempt and, most importantly, bottling up Carlos Hyde to 3.38 yards per attempt on 13 carries. It’s going to be very hard to know what level David Johnson is at coming into this game — we can talk about how good he looks in the pads, but we’re not going to see the speed until game time. I think he’ll probably have a hard time dealing with inside zone on this front seven unless he busts a lot of tackles.

The sticking point there is that the playoff game came with only four of the five starters from last year. Tytus Howard was already out for the season at that point. Howard had a tremendous game against the Chiefs in Week 6 — probably one of his finest of the season. It remains a possibility that the Texans line could take a step forward as a unit. Given how O’Brien coaches games, that would be massive both for this game and for the season.

I have a lot less conviction on these picks early in the season and, given we have no preseason games this year, even less conviction than normal. But I think it’s fair to say that downgrading DeAndre Hopkins to Randall Cobb is a big deal and that the Texans will need to manage the passing game carefully to turn something good out of it.

When the Chiefs have the ball

Well, the Chiefs are a phenomenal test for what Anthony Weaver’s defense will attempt to do. Problem No. 1 is that J.J. Watt, in his regular end role, is matched up against one of the best tackles in the NFL in Mitchell Schwartz. Will Weaver move Watt around? The Kansas City line reads as a lot easier to dent up the middle, where Austin Reiter and Andrew Wylie seem likely to start the season. Watt was held to three quarterback hurries in the divisional round. Whitney Mercilus seems to need easy pickings to work against to play well and Eric Fisher probably doesn’t qualify. If I had to bet on one player getting a sack in this game, it’s Charles Omenihu against the KC interior line. One of the things we remain uncertain about is how much moving around Watt will do and how exotic the blitz schemes will get. Patrick Mahomes is unlikely to get fooled. He took one sacks in just over 70 dropbacks against the Texans last year: The one Omenihu got that opened up the floodgates in Week 6.

Pressure is key in this matchup because the Texans secondary, on paper, is probably worse than it is last year without major jumps from second-year players or rookies. Lonnie Johnson played competently as an outside corner in the Week 6 win, but he had major Travis Kelce responsibilities in the divisional round and was punished. How much has he grown? Without Gareon Conley, my suspicion is that Vernon Hargreaves III will be the third corner. He hasn’t shown many indications of being a successful corner at this point and I would not be surprised if John Reid got some snaps in this game given how quick of a hook O’Brien has had. We could also see Phillip Gaines get involved, though I’d certainly hope not.

Hargreaves did somehow have the best pass coverage numbers per Spotrac tracking data in the divisional round last year. Mahomes was only 3-of-7 for 30 yards targeting him, and almost all of that was in the air.

Edwards-Helaire and Darrell Williams look to be the two backs that will get extended time as Edwards-Helaire tries to shake the idea early that he should be a committee back. The Chiefs run a ton of elaborate screen set ups with pre-snap motion and I think the No. 1 concern in this game for the Texans is dealing with those. The linebackers are going to have to have a lot of awareness to not get picked like Jacob Martin did on Damien Williams’ touchdown in the divisional round:

Beyond that, the question I think has fallen under the radar a bit is how the Texans will deal with the run game now that star nose tackle D.J. Reader is a Cincinnati Bengal. Reader and Watt combined were usually able to hold the fort on first and second down last season. The run defense got gashed a bit without Watt last year, though pretty much any team is going to get gashed by the Ravens. The Titans had no issues and neither did the Colts. The Bucs were held to a -16.8% rush DVOA, but also had an enormous 49-yard carry by Ronald Jones that meant he wound up averaging 5.5 per tote. Brandon Dunn and Watt will be joined by either Omenhiu or Ross Blacklock. I think this is a situation that could develop in a negative way for the Texans, though I’m not sure the Chiefs are necessarily the team that’s going to ball control offense Houston. There just hasn’t been a lot of attention given to the run this offseason, and probably rightfully so given how poor the pass defense was.

I expect the 2020 game plan for dealing with Mahomes to be a lot different from the divisional round one. The Texans played predominantly man coverage in the divisional round and the Chiefs were able to exploit it pretty easily. Most of the trouble they had getting started was about drops by the receiving corps.

I think Weaver is a little too tricky for that. What I don’t know is how much difference it makes. Trying to beat Patrick Mahomes, or any elite quarterback in their prime, is all about trying to stay three steps ahead of their processing. You have to absolutely master the mental game and you have to, if we’re being honest, guess right. A lot. Especially if you don’t have any other advantages, and I don’t know how we should expect the Texans to have real advantages in this matchup. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are terrifying. Sammy Watkins pops up whenever those two are blanketed to remind you he’s real talented.

The Texans remain talent-deficient on this side of the ball barring immediate big-boy games from Martin, Omenihu, and Johnson. They may or may not be better schematically. It’s hard to say incremental improvements will matter in either of their first two games, unfortunately. But hopefully there’ll at least be some good splash plays.

Special teams

Since Brad Seeley took over for the Texans, these two teams have been excellent at special teams. The Texans have added another ace in Michael Thomas this offseason, and the Chiefs haven’t lost anyone of real importance. There were multiple game-changing specials teams plays in the first half of the divisional round, as both sides made impact plays.

I am still a little surprised Kai’mi Fairbairn got a huge extension because the way he is used and the kicks he has missed have led me to believe he’s seen in-house as more of a solid kicker than a great one. He must be the best teammate ever. I think the Texans are behind the Chiefs there, and pretty much even on the other segments of special teams as long as DeAndre Carter doesn’t drop the ball again.

The read

I’ve laid out a number of reasons why I think the Texans could surprise or change the way they do things. I have no idea which of these will become preseason talking points we forget about by October and which of these will become the new normal. I don’t see the Chiefs as a team that needs to change a lot — what they do works and most of the team is in place.

I think there are avenues where the Texans win this game, but it relies on a lot of those changes I’ve discussed earlier hitting at once. They have to call the right game plan, they have to get Watson involved in the run game, they have to have big defensive plays. Ultimately, I’m going to have them cautiously cover the spread because I believe in Watson’s abilities and if they surprise me, well, nothing will really surprise me this year. Chiefs 36, Texans 30.

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2020 NFL Predictions

The business of predictions is inherently stupid. This year, because of COVID-19, that is especially so. Yet, everybody loves reacting to them and reading them. So, let’s get you riled up. Here are my 2019 predictions, if you’re curious.

AFC East

Patriots
Bills
Dolphins
Jets

I will eat my metaphorical hat if _____ makes the playoffs: New York. I think Adam Gase has been revealed as a fraudulent head coach, I don’t trust Darnold to make the leap with the skill position talent around him. They somehow have had two top-10 picks in the last two seasons and still don’t have any good edge rushers. I would be mildly surprised about Miami but I do think they’ve got the groundwork to be a good team and I wouldn’t be shocked if this turned out to be a bad division.

AFC North

Ravens
Steelers*
Browns
Bengals

I will eat my metaphorical hat if _____ makes the playoffs: Actually, I wouldn’t be stunned if the Bengals made a run, so nobody. I think there’s clear upside for the Browns in making Baker Mayfield a run-first/Kubiak-style quarterback with Nick Chubb, I think the Steelers are an easy wild card pick, and the Ravens are obviously in everyone’s top tier. The Bengals would have a long road to climb and it would involve Joe Burrow being historically good for a rookie quarterback, but he was historically good in college so … not ruling it out.

AFC South

Titans
Texans*
Colts*
Jaguars

I will eat my metaphorical hat if _____ makes the playoffs: The Jaguars. I think at this point they’re everyone’s prohibitive favorite for the No. 1 overall pick. I think all three other AFC South teams could win 10 games, I will predict they all finish at 9-7.

AFC West

Chiefs
Broncos
Chargers
Raiders

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Raiders. I dogged them last year, they came out with a great ball-control game plan and won seven games. They also lost zero one-score games. I don’t think that’ll continue. I can see scenarios where either of the other two non-Chiefs teams charge for the playoffs, but I trust those quarterback situations a lot less than I trust the ones in the AFC South.

NFC East

Cowboys
Eagles
“Football Team”
Giants

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Giants. I don’t trust Daniel Jones as a future franchise quarterback and will go down with that ship if I have to. Would be mildly surprised if Washington made it but I think Haskins at least showed something in his last few games.

NFC North

Vikings
Packers
Lions
Bears

I will eat my metaphorical hat if _____ makes the playoffs: The Bears, which says a lot about how I feel about Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles given how bad I think this division is on paper. They’ve also done almost nothing to improve the offensive line. I think this division could have an 8-8 winner, and I trust Mike Zimmer much more than I trust Matt Patricia or Matt LaFleur.

NFC South

Saints
Buccaneers*
Falcons
Panthers

I will eat my metaphorical hat if _____ makes the playoffs: Carolina. But it’s a solid-looking rebuild to me, that defense is just way, way too raw. This is a growth year for them. I’m kind of over Atlanta but they should be a fun shootout team. I think the Bucs offense will underperform optimistic expectations but there’s enough skill position talent to make them a contender with competent quarterback play and expect that with Brady.

NFC West

Seahawks
49ers*
Cardinals*
Rams

I will eat my metaphorical hat if _____ makes the playoffs: None of the above. Honestly feel like I’m underrating Sean McVay with a fourth-place finish but I think three of these teams are extremely well-managed tactically and the other has Russell Wilson.

Wild Card Round

Ravens over Colts
Steelers over Titans
Patriots over Texans
Cowboys over Cardinals
49ers over Seahawks
Bucs over Vikings

Divisional Round

Chiefs over Steelers
Ravens over Patriots
Cowboys over Bucs
49ers over Saints

Championship Games

Cowboys over 49ers
Ravens over Chiefs
Ravens over Cowboys

Feel free to laugh about this post at any time, including the moment you first read it, the moment you think about it in Week 5 when one of the playoff teams I’ve projected is 1-4, the moment that that COVID makes one of these teams play a 14-game schedule, or after the season when you’ve got 20-20 hindsight and I don’t. I am not going to get Mad Online at you. As I said: Predictions are inherently stupid.

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My 53-man/69-man roster predictions

I was asked specifically to do this by a couple of readers last year, I get that it draws a lot of attention. But I want to be clear that I am doing this with no inside information, and that I expect to be wrong about many things in light of that. A lot of what we’re doing here is reading tea leaves.

This year’s changes

Practice squads have ballooned to 16-deep after COVID-19 CBA changes, two of which can be active on gamedays (previous 2020 CBA change) if the team wishes it to be so. However, if a practice squad player is on the active roster for more than two weeks they have to be placed there permanently for the rest of the season. In other words: I don’t expect this to be used all that much. It will likely be a rotation if it is used. Anyone who is not signed to the active roster is probably not a good bet to be with the team.

Active on gamedays has a very weird clause where if you have eight active players who are offensive linemen, you can have 48 active players. If you don’t have eight offensive linemen, you can only have 47 active players. What does this mean in actuality? Pretty much every team will carry at least eight linemen on the 53-man roster.

The final major change from the COVID-19 agreement is that teams are allowed to have six players on their practice squad with no experience limit. That means you could see more than a few real vets pop down to the practice squad this year.

Because the Texans are starting from 80 players, and they’re basically cutting down to 69 (nice!), there really aren’t that many cuts that get to be made. Because teams don’t have preseason tape to grind, I expect there probably won’t be much movement as we’re used to on cut day either. The roster changes have, as a whole, made this process a little more boring.

The most important thing for the Texans will simply be: how many players are healthy on roster cuts day? I expect to not see many more than seven or eight players let go when it’s all said and done just because of injuries.

53-man roster (53):

QB (2): Deshaun Watson (24), A.J. McCarron (29)
RB (4): David Johnson (28), Duke Johnson (26), Buddy Howell (24), Cullen Gillaspia (25)
WR (5): Will Fuller (26), Brandin Cooks (26), Kenny Stills (28), Randall Cobb (30), DeAndre Carter (27)
TE (4): Darren Fells (34), Jordan Akins (28), Jordan Thomas (24), Kahale Warring (23)
OL (9): Laremy Tunsil (26), Max Scharping (24), Nick Martin (27), Tytus Howard (24), Zach Fulton (28), Roderick Johnson (24), Senio Kelemete (30), Brent Qvale (29), Charlie Heck (23)
DL (7): J.J. Watt (31), Brandon Dunn (27), Charles Omenihu (23), Ross Blacklock (22), Angelo Blackson (27), Carlos Watkins (26), P.J. Hall (25)
LB (8): Whitney Mercilus (30), Jacob Martin (24), Brennan Scarlett (27), Zach Cunningham (25), Benardrick McKinney (27), Dylan Cole (26), Peter Kalmbayi (25), Jonathan Greenard (23)
CB (7): Bradley Roby (28), Lonnie Johnson (24), Gareon Conley (25), Vernon Hargreaves (25), John Reid (24), Keion Crossen (24), Jaylen Watkins (28)
S (4): Justin Reid (23), Eric Murray (26), A.J. Moore (24), Michael Thomas (30)
Specialists (3): Bryan Anger (31), Ka’imi Fairbairn (26), Jon Weeks (34)
My last five on the roster: Jonathan Greenard, P.J. Hall, Kahale Warring, Charlie Heck, Cullen Gillaspia

I really don’t think Kahale Warring deserves this spot. But they carried him last year, they opened with five tight ends last year, and have opened with at least four tight ends every year since Rick Smith left. I think he carries much more chance of being waiver claimed on account of the fact that he was a high-ranked prospect on more than a few boards. I would see him probably as a healthy inactive for most of this year unless he out-and-out hits IR.

I don’t think Greenard or Heck has shown a whole lot this August, and Greenard has recently been sitting out a slate of practices. But they both have four-year contracts and I think that carries them on here given that nobody has really been able to out-and-out impress the Texans with play in games. I think Gillaspia just isn’t getting pushed by anybody else — Karan Higdon doesn’t offer the same special teams ability and Gillaspia did ultimately bring good blocking when asked to play last year.

Giving the final spot to Hall is a nod to two things: Anthony Weaver’s ultimate influence as a line coach and how he probably felt about Hall to go get him after he didn’t pass a physical with the Vikings. I think there’ll be more emphasis on the defensive line room this year.

The hardest cut is Tyrell Adams — I think he’s been a pretty good special teamer for the Texans but they’ve let him walk before, he’s already 28, and they filled out the special teams unit in a big way this offseason.

What about Keke Coutee?

I could see the Texans carrying him as a sixth receiver but I don’t think he has any value to them without an injury in front of him. My read of the situation is that he got sat with a minor injury to avoid ruining his trade value. I believe he’ll either be traded or released at cuts, with an outside chance he winds up on the roster or on IR. I also think that Isaiah Coulter is another factor in keeping Coutee — I definitely don’t think the Texans want to keep seven wideouts. Six feels like the max. I’m gonna go with five.

Practice Squad (16)

QB: Alex McGough (24)
RB: Karan Higdon (24), Scottie Phillips (22)
WR: Steven Mitchell (26), Isaiah Coulter (21)
TE: Dylan Stapleton (22)
OL: Greg Mancz (28), Elijah Nkansah (25)
DL: Albert Huggins (23), Auzoyah Alulohai (23)
LB: Davin Bellamy (25), Nate Hall (24), Daren Bates (29)
DB: Cornell Armstrong (24), Jonathan Owens (25)
Specialist: Anthony Kukwa (27) — long snapper

Experience or upside? The hardest thing for me as an outside observer to measure is what they think of the older players versus the younger players. The two big names in that pool are newly-signed Daren Bates and incumbent corner Phillip Gaines. Gaines has missed a lot of practice, but Gareon Conley doesn’t look right yet to me either so that might tilt you to keeping another experienced corner. I think if you read between the lines of the Bates signing that there’s a short-term opportunity for him. Maybe he’s on the roster as an early elevation guy as the team figures out Dylan Cole’s return from a torn ACL. I could also see Tyrell Adams hanging on here, though I think they don’t sign Bates if they think Adams can handle what he handles. Maybe Nate Hall goes instead, since Hall was only signed before the Bills playoff game last year.

The third relatively old player I threw down here was Greg Mancz, who I think is a solid O’Brien life preserver but probably not as versatile as Qvale.

They’re keeping a long snapper? Well, I think it’s silly too, but think about it this way: they valued having a second long-snapper enough to put it on the early wish list. Didn’t work that way for kickers or punters. I think this is some upper-level strategery but I wouldn’t be surprised if he made an expanded practice squad as Jon Weeks insurance in COVID times.

The other player I could be wrong on is Scottie Phillips — I may like him more than the coaches do and there hasn’t been much made of him gaining ground on Higdon publicly.

Last year’s practice squad and how it informs this one: Let’s take the offensive line battle between Kyle Murphy, Rick Leonard, and Elijah Nkansah — all three of them spent a lot of time on the practice squad last year. Nkansah is the only one that got elevated to the roster in Week 17. That’s the kind of tiny nod that you can pick up on without actually being in their heads. I have no idea if it matters or not, but I’ll run with that. Likewise, Nate Hall and Anthony Chesley were both on last year’s quad, but they were late additions. I have Hall just barely hanging on over Adams. I expect to be wrong about a lot of these lower-level roster battles because we have no preseason games and I don’t get to watch practices.

I followed the money with this year’s UDFAs: Since they didn’t get much of a chance to impress, unless I heard someone explicitly praised by O’Brien I’ve mostly kept it to the guys who got bigger bonuses. Their two biggest bonuses were Alufohai ($65,000) and Tyler Simmons ($75,000) — I’ll talk about Simmons in a second.

Who heads to IR? Tyler Simmons and Chad Hansen are a couple of guys who I believe might wind up there. Neither have played all that much recently. It feels weird to stash players beyond 69 of them but this is a COVID-19 season and who really knows? I think Hansen’s big training camp has been more carrot-and-stick than actual flash, but that’s just the impression I get and he’s certainly got practice squad experience. Simmons has future punt returner written all over him but just hasn’t played much this month. Duke Ejiofor is already there.

Who does that leave without a job?

By my track: Isaac Whitney, Rick Leonard, Kyle Murphy, Cordel Iwuagwu, Jerald Hawkins, Chad Hansen, Phillip Gaines, Keke Coutee, Tyrell Adams, Anthony Chesley

The headlines there are probably Coutee, Gaines, Adams, and Hansen. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them actually did make the roster, either. We’re simply at a point where there’s so many available spots that nothing truly is surprising anymore and the injuries will matter a lot. If they put Greenard on IR that opens a door for Adams. If they’re going to keep Conley inactive early they might keep Gaines. If Coulter goes on IR, that opens up a spot for Hansen, etc. etc. etc.

It’s a situation where there’s simply a lot of ways to get down to the final amount of chairs, and the IR situation means a lot in the final calculus. Let’s enjoy the chaos and pull for all the Texans who don’t make the roster to catch on elsewhere.

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What can Rex Ryan’s defenses teach us about what might change for the Texans under Anthony Weaver?

New Texans defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver made no bones about it all offseason: creativity is a key. He has a strong foundation in Rex Ryan’s theory as Ryan was one of the first head coaches he worked under in Buffalo and was an instrumental part of Weaver’s career as a player. What the Ryans are most popular for are amoeba looks. Amoeba looks, if you’re trying to visualize, are just plays where a big crowd of players head near the line together. Some rush, some drop. They try to ask the quarterback to identify the rushers and droppers, and are hoping to confuse the quarterback at the line of scrimmage.

I don’t have a lot of particular thoughts about this as a worldview. I think it’s obviously a good thing to surprise quarterbacks, but amoeba looks are only as versatile as the players you use them with. The Texans don’t really have a ton of players that qualify in this vein and barely have enough players that are good at rushing the passer to begin with. The best-case scenario is that you simulate a pressure to the point the offensive line is directed to block somewhere you aren’t coming from. This “sim pressure” look is something that — wait for it — Romeo Crennel did really well last year. Here’s an example of how it looks courtesy of Coty Alexander.

The idea of making it impossible to understand where pressure is coming from is one of the most-utilized ways of creating cheap pressure at the college level, where most of the testing happens that matters schematically in football. LSU DC and now Baylor HC Dave Aranda used it a ton last season en route to a national title.

“That’s the thing these simulated pressures do,” Aranda told X&O Lab. “You’re not overloading a protection, you’re stressing it. You’re getting the right one-on-one’s … You get the pressure with the guy that you want for the guy you want it against.”

This is something that Rex Ryan did plenty of with the Jets, and thus, something that I think the Texans really need to cling to as they try to rebuild their defense. Romeo Crennel did this last year, and it was wildly successful when he did it, but he didn’t do it very often. I think there is mounting evidence that the Texans will be implementing more of these. There is plenty of talk from the players themselves about the versatility they will employ:

And then, when I ran a big table of how the Houston defense compared to the Jets/Bills units Ryan ran, one of my big takeaways was the DB Blitz rate:

(Click through to expand.)

Whenever the Jets and Bills were having issues with pass pressure, you reliably saw that DB Blitz rate spike. The Texans were running it 9% of the time each of the last two years. Ryan ran it 15% of the time in 2015, and 22% of the time in 2012, years where the Bills and Jets couldn’t buy pressure off the edge.

Given the likelihood that the Texans will not have high-quality one-on-one play from anybody but J.J. Watt — assuming he survives the season — I think a lot of the third-down turnaround is going to revolve around Weaver creating successful sim pressures. This team simply does not have enough talent to lay back on third-and-10, which they proved by allowing a 110.5% DVOA on third-and-long last year. On talent, while they have some youth that will be served and likely get better, pretty much the entire hopes of the unit revolves around players who have not performed yet doing so. They lost Tashaun Gipson and replaced him with Eric Murray, a move I think is a clear downgrade.

Watching back some of the Texans last game against Rex Ryan, in 2015 in Buffalo, Brian Hoyer actually did a good job in that game of quick-setting the defense. Here’s what it looks like when the defense plans to make life complex for you and then you just go so fast that you don’t give them time to make threats:

I don’t know that I’m particularly encouraged by the numbers. Even if you want to throw out the 2014 Jets as a true tank job, the Ryan discipline as a whole didn’t work very well from 2012 on. His philosophy quickly destroyed a Bills defense that had been excellent under current Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

But I also think the lack of established talent that the Texans have means that there’s really not a lot bad to shake up. My ultimate read on this is that I don’t think much of what Weaver is promising is necessarily different — it just is probably a little more dialed up than how Romeo Crennel liked to play. Both Crennel and Ryan had high numbers of three-man rushes, but Ryan has tended to prefer the big blitz when he comes.

I have a bit of faith that Weaver can transform a few elements of this defense. I believe he’ll be less passive than Romeo was on third downs and play less zone during them. (This was a big problem the Texans had against better quarterbacks in my eyes.) I believe that he’ll work the sim pressure angle in a way to get J.J. Watt more one-on-ones when Watt is on the field. Finally, I think we’ll see more defensive back blitzes and more DBs standing up near the line of scrimmage.

But ultimately I don’t think in reviewing what I have about Ryan that Weaver has a ton of schematic gotchas. I think he’ll play mostly under control. I think the Texans are very much reliant on a lot of the young members of this defense growing up real fast to improve. That means big steps forward from Lonnie Johnson, Charles Omenihu, Gareon Conley, and the rookies. A lot is going to have to grow up in a hurry if the Texans are going to do more than regression bounce to the 25th-best DVOA defense or so.

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Training Camp Digest: Week 1

Training Camp Digest is a series of quick-hit observations about the Houston Texans as they make their way through training camp. These observations are mostly made from publicly-available material, as I do not have a camp pass. I do converse with reporters who have been inside the bubble, but I mostly will use this piece to opine on my own and without inside knowledge.

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Two-back sets: One of the hottest topics of the first couple of days of training camp was the potential of using two RB-sets more now that David Johnson and Duke Johnson both provide versatility. I don’t want to dismiss the idea of this completely out of hand, because I do think that having three separate players that are running threats in the backfield can be, at the very least, a tendency-changer for the Texans. I do think the propaganda has gotten ahead of the likelihood that it becomes something more than a 3-5% play that they put on film to make other teams prepare for it.

Think about it this way: there are four things a player can do on any one down: pass, run, catch, or block. Duke Johnson and David Johnson are not exactly devastating blockers to deal with. Thus, when you put them in the backfield together, whatever you design is ultimately based on misdirection. The very best backfield players in the NFL can threaten to do three of those things well. I don’t think any of those players are on this Houston roster at the moment. (Maybe, maybe, Cullen Gillaspia can do that. Certainly not proven.)

But the more you condense a formation, the less horizontal space you can attack. I think opposing defensive coordinators will happily treat Duke Johnson as someone who gets countered with a safety or nickelback rather than a linebacker. At that point, you’re in a “matchup” league, as O’Brien likes to call it. Could it create some of those matchups you like to see? Sure. But short of running the single-wing I think the versatility aspect of this is perhaps a little overrated. The most likely way it plays out to me is that “two running back” formations have one of the backs out wide.

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The ascension of Jordan Thomas: So much of what happens behind closed doors in training camp is essentially made unreportable by the team. So one of the things that I think should raise alarm bells for you is when a reporter asks a coach about a specific player at practice. In this case: Jordan Thomas.

I think Thomas has always had enough of the eye of the coaching staff to say that he’s earned playing time. He got buried last year because of an unfair injury situation where the team aggravated it playing him in the fourth preseason game to try to make up for lost reps. Because Jordan Akins was playing as well as he was as the second tight end, I think it was a tough situation to integrate Thomas once he came off the injured list at midseason. I do believe Thomas has NFL talent, which he showed in his rookie season, and wouldn’t be surprised at all if he had a bigger role this year.

If it does happen, I’m hopeful it is at Fells’ expense, because as much as I enjoy Fells, he is the exact kind of player that sneakily drains cap space that could be used more efficiently on better players … particularly as the Covid-19 salary cap impacts of next season seem likely to make middle-class players expendable.

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Unicorn Prayer and Duke Ejiofor: Forgive me for this rant, but there is absolutely nothing cheaper in the NFL landscape than fan excitement about a player who has to overcome history to be good. For one, those players often have a collegiate record or fanbase that leans towards accentuating the positive. For another, there’s nothing risked in being optimistic. I certainly am not going to chase you down and keep you honest on your positive Gareon Conley opinion — I don’t care about it. But it’s a lot easier to be negative about someone else’s sports opinions when they aren’t overwhelmingly positive.

The truth of NFL coverage is that most people have a hard time remembering anything more than snapshots. Because our audience tends to be as big as the number of casual fans to be, it’s hard to work with more than that. Showing every player’s sacks for a season will get traction. Showing 10 plays where a run defender gets defeated is something that a) nobody watches and b) nobody talks about. I’ve tried. We are a highlights society. In that society, the most important thing in my eyes are the people who actually go through and watch all they can, bring you their consensus, and let the results speak. I can pick through five plays of anybody’s all-22 and show them, at the very worst, holding their own. You can punctuate that with something like “Cornell Armstrong can be a great off-cover defender,” and get people excited. Can does all the lifting, but the people are already convinced.

Duke Ejiofor fell to the sixth round because he had concussion issues. He got hurt again last year. Lots of players make the NFL and get hurt — it’s a big jump in athletic competition. Many players don’t come back from a torn Achilles at all. He made it back to camp, and this time has torn his ACL. He has one sack in his career on 158 defensive snaps. I’m not telling you that his NFL career is done. I’m not telling you that you’re not allowed to be excited about his 2018 snaps. But from any sort of objective, 30,000-foot view, this isn’t a guy you do more than monitor and hope for. That was the case before training camp, too. I can go along and drag out 10s of Tweets I’ve received from people amounting to “why are you ignoring Duke Ejiofor?!?” This was always a more likely scenario than him hitting it big. Obviously, I’m pulling for him. I want him to succeed. But this is the exact situation that couldn’t have been more designed in a lab for people to yell at me. Those people never take any accountability when they’re wrong. It’s astroturfed optimism.

Keep your eyes on Kahale Warring, because if he doesn’t start impressing in practice, he’s about to become the next guy I get yelled at for ignoring.

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Don’t sleep on John Reid getting early playing time: When I did my breakdown of Reid earlier this offseason, I was impressed by the quality of player he was and — reading more about him — impressed by his approach to the game. Everybody continues to be quite optimistic about him, and I think the quote from Anthony Weaver says it all:

Specific praise like that catches my eye. That’s not the sort of generic “please don’t ask me about this player” template answer you get. Then when you get into the circumstances, you see the case for playing time gets a little higher. Conley and Roby are the two corners everyone seems to think will start. Lonnie Johnson is getting “moving to safety” buzz. There’s not a clear player better than Reid who is playing nickel.

Then you mix this in with the same organization that dropped Aaron Colvin from starting slot to the street after Week 1 last year, and four games in a row against objectively good teams to start the season, and I think you’ve built a situation that Reid will likely step in to sooner rather than later. Vernon Hargreaves is not a clean projection at slot corner. If Roby isn’t moving inside to bring Lonnie Johnson outside, I think a battle with the interior players on this roster could go quite favorably for Reid.

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Contracts:

I’m for them! We know that Deshaun Watson is going to get paid. Restructures from the front office (Angelo Blackson) are likely aimed at trying to get that done in a hurry.

I think Zach Cunningham has been a pretty good middle linebacker in the Benardrick McKinney tonesetter role, last year was a breakout. He’s not the best coverage linebacker in the business despite his physical gifts and, 2,500+ snaps into his career, probably never will be. The big question will be what is a fair value for Cunningham, and I think that’s one where his agents will likely see him as someone who deserves around $13-$15 million a season with $20-25 million in guarantees. That keeps him below Bobby Wagner and C.J. Mosley, but comfortably into the tier of recent signees like Shaq Thompson, Myles Jack, Jaylon Smith, and Cory Littleton.

Is he compromising down from that? I don’t know. I think I would personally value him closer to like $10-$11 million a season and $16-$17 million guaranteed — i.e. what McKinney got. But there’s probably a comfortable middle ground there that will still work with next year’s cap.

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