11:38 of hell: A gory, blow-by-blow look at how the Texans blew a 24-point lead in one quarter

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With 12:28 left in the second quarter, the Texans achieved their highest EdjSports game-winning chance of the game: 84.5%. That number is derived not only from game states, but an evaluation of the two teams as a whole. So even though the lead was already enormous, you could already see a mathematical system being a little uncertain how much it meant. From a perspective of eyes on the field, the Chiefs had gone three-and-out twice, with two dropped passes and perhaps the only great Texans defensive play of the game: Justin Reid’s break up of a pass intended for Tyreek Hill.

They had a first-and-10 at the Kansas City 22, one more touchdown would put them up 28-0. Not only would they have hosted an AFC Championship game for the first time in franchise history, they would have avoided the Ravens, who spanked them 42-7 in Week 11. It was an opportunity of fortune that just simply doesn’t come along every day.

Over the next 11:38 of game time, the Texans gave up 28 consecutive points, and their GWC fell to 15.7%. Let’s look at why that happened. I’ll use as many interviews as I have to add color to this, but keep in mind that most Texans players only spoke in generalities after the game and didn’t speak to specific plays. Romeo Crennel was never interviewed on the record. What we have is a lot of Bill O’Brien talk, which I know is a massive turn-off to many fans.

OK, I warned you and gave you an intro. Let’s melt together.

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1st-and-10, KC 22, 12:28 second quarter, 84.5% GWC

On first down, the Texans ran with Carlos Hyde. I’ve written all year about what a bugaboo the first-down runs have been, and I’ve written many times about my distaste of Chris Clark having a starting job. Here, both Clark and a pulling Zach Fulton blew blocks and what starts out looking like a very clean run goes for one yard:

Second-and-9, KC 21, 11:53 second quarter, 83.8% GWC

The Texans ran play-action on their next down, and the natural action of the play took Deshaun Watson to the right side, where Darren Fells was one-on-one with Tanoh Kpassagnon to hold the edge and Watson was looking up Will Fuller deep. Both Kansas City safeties played this well, and the first read was covered. Kpassagnon beat Fells and, even though DeAndre Hopkins was open to the left side, the scramble and the natural motion of the play kept the Texans away from exploiting that. Watson had to throw it away.

Third-and-9, KC 21, 11:46 second quarter, 82.3% GWC

The Texans took a timeout before their third play, when they couldn’t get their protection set in time. Something that has literally never happened every game in the O’Brien Era — it just feels like it has. They didn’t line up until there were 11 seconds on the play clock. They came right back with another deep route combo, and the Chiefs countered by faking blitz and dropping everyone deep. Watson’s only real read was the short game, and Duke Johnson came ever so close to picking it up, but he just couldn’t get there:

Fourth-and-1, KC 13, 10:58 second quarter, 81.3% GWC

Bill O’Brien kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 13. Many people I followed on Twitter in the moment decided that this was the moment that momentum shifted. Per EdjSports, the decision to kick the field goal cost the Texans 2.5% game-winning chance — their metric that examines game states.

I didn’t take much issue with the field-goal attempt. Here’s why: Andy Reid is a fairly conservative coach in his own right. He attempts plenty of fourth-and-midfield punts, and he attempts plenty of fourth-and-short field goals. It’s true that, from an optimized game theory sense, the Texans were leaving a four-score lead on the board. It’s also true that, given how Reid typically plays, the Texans likely were creating a four-score lead.

What I did take issue with on this drive comes from a lack of consistency in O’Brien’s statements. He said multiple times in his presser that he knew he needed to be aggressive. He also had to waste two timeouts. I think when O’Brien gets pissed off, he cascades himself with other bad decisions. I don’t think this was a bad decision from a 30,000-foot view, but when you view it in context with the fake punt, it’s a little more puzzling.

This play was the last play where the ball would be in Kansas City territory until 4:28 in the second quarter.

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Kickoff, 10:54 second quarter, 81.6% GWC

Kickoff coverage breakdowns are not my forte, but I do want to point out on Mecole Hardman’s 58-yard return that gave the Chiefs some life that it did look like he got sprung a bit on a hold that impacted A.J. Moore’s ability to make the tackle:

Is that something that merits a ton of scrutiny? Man, I don’t think so. Obviously I want the Texans to win, and special teams have been called so tightly this year, but it didn’t mean a ton in the context of this game. That little hold there created a crease. Home-field advantage is a bitch. Note that Lonnie Johnson gets injured on this play, so the Texans have to go with Mike Adams on the next set of plays. Justin Reid is no longer playing deep and gets moved up.

First-and-10, HOU 46, 10:46 second quarter, 77.7% GWC

It took the Chiefs two (2) plays to answer with a touchdown. The first play came off play-action, with the Texans playing single-high with Adams. Adams has to commit to the post over the middle, which leaves Reid on Travis Kelce one-on-one. Great play on both sides, and it took a terrific throw by Mahomes to hit this angle and avoid the underneath zone tip. Just gotta tip your cap on that one:

First-and-10, HOU 17, 10:00 second quarter, 75.0% GWC

The next play was where the Chiefs broke Romeo Crennel’s rules. They motioned the running back Williams in to confirm coverage, but motioned him to the other side of Mahomes. As you can see from the checks, the Texans linebackers are frantically confirming that this means that Jacob Martin is in coverage. One pick play against an inexperienced coverage player later, the Chiefs are on the board:

And so it began…

***

First-and-10, HOU 25, 9:55 second quarter, 70.9% GWC

The Texans received a touchback and on the first play of the drive, ran with Carlos Hyde again. They pulled Tunsil across the line of scrimmage and got a good block, but once again Zach Fulton struggled to make a reach block, limiting the play to five yards:

Second-and-5, HOU 30, 9:16 second quarter, 71.4% GWC

Successful running play! Second down, the Chiefs run an eight-man box and Bill O’Brien runs directly into it. Not so successful running play!

Third-and-4, HOU 31, 8:35 second quarter, 70.6% GWC

But still, third-and-short, the Texans are able to keep the drive alive. The Chiefs show another blitz look, and throws short and outside to a single-covered Will Fuller. The ball is not even in the right area code. I’m not sure if it was a miscommunication or a straight up miss — this is what happens when your receiver never plays:

Fourth-and-4, HOU 31, 8:32 second quarter, 66.4% GWC

So now we have the fake punt. This is the play where I think momentum really swung, and I say that and I don’t altogether hate the call. It’s just how that call and the field-goal call sort of intersect: They’re not telling a consistent story. The play was schemed well, it took Daniel Sorensen coming from the middle of the field and beating Reid to the spot:

In a vacuum, is this a bad play call? No. They have to run it with Reid because he’s part of the normal look. I don’t think Reid has any running back experience at even a college level, which is annoying. But what ends up happening is you get a look and the opposing special teams player makes a great one-on-one tackle.

O’Brien said that he thought he had to score more than 24:

Andy Reid said he liked the call:

I don’t hate the fake punt, but there was an aspect of it that felt a little panicked to me. Almost like a residual “well, I didn’t get aggressive downfield but now I’m gonna flip the knob and take that momentum right back, sucker!” vibe. The thing about being aggressive on a play like this is that if you don’t get it, it can break you. It broke the Ravens not converting fourth-and-short on Saturday as well. And, well, the wind came out of the sails quickly for the Texans after this.

***

First-and-10, HOU 33, 8:28 second quarter, 58.7% GWC

The Texans defense got tough and allowed a touchdown in only four plays instead of two. Much improved!

Mahomes takes a shot against Vernon Hargreaves with Mecole Hardman on the outside. The safety on this play reads Tyreek Hill all the way, and then comes back to the other side late, leaving Hargreaves and Roby essentially on an island with their receivers. The ball looks like a wounded duck, but the Texans don’t capitalize on a potentially interceptable ball because Hargreaves has to play Hardman all the way with no help behind him:

Second-and-10, HOU 33, 8:23 second quarter, 60.1% GWC

On the next play, the Lonnie Johnson-Jason Kelce matchup that had been bubbling officially got cooking for the Chiefs, as Kelce left him a step behind at the line. Johnson got called for the DPI on this play. He was lucky the ball was underthrown:

First-and-goal, HOU 5, 8:17 second quarter, 53.5% GWC

First-and-goal from the 5, the Chiefs come out and run jet motion in the backfield and fake the handoff, then have Kelce come underneath. It’s actually read well by Hargreaves, who funnels Kelce to the sideline and breaks the pass up:

Second-and-goal, HOU 5, 8:11 second quarter, 54.8% GWC

Second-and-goal from the 5, the Chiefs hit pay dirt again. It’s a bunch to the right with a single-high safety, and Kelce and Johnson on the other side of the formation. Kelce actually tricks Johnson here with a stutter like he’s stopping, then continues his route to the right. Johnson kept fairly good coverage, but not good enough. Mahomes was able to buy enough time to get down in his route tree to Kelce.

Well, okay, guess the Texans have to score next series…

***

…Or not…

Kickoff — 8:05 second quarter, 51.5% GWC

If the game turned on the fake punt, I think DeAndre Carter’s fumble was the moment that we collectively knew that the Chiefs were about to win the game. Carter, as Mike Meltser said on his podcast, has been asking for this fumble for a while. I don’t quite know if releasing him is right — as Mike said — because he does seem to know his role in the offense in a world where Keke Coutee doesn’t. (According to O’Brien, anyway.) But he is a replaceable talent in the grander NFL landscape and this was a stomach punch.

It was the most important play of the game per EdjSports’ GWC. Cost the Texans 17.7% GWC.

***

It took the Chiefs three plays to score this time.

First-and-goal, HOU 6, 7:56 second quarter, 33.8% GWC

Their first play went for two yards to Kelce — I’m starting to believe they think Kelce provided matchup problems or something — they ran another play-action with Kelce rolling underneath. They were attacking the Texans horizontally, as teams should, and Johnson has to go a long way to make this play. That he makes it at all is a credit to him, but man does this defense force some poor positions:

Second-and-goal, HOU 4, 7:20 second quarter, 35.4% GWC

The Chiefs took a break from all their wild passing success and decided to run, it didn’t work. Zach Cunningham destroyed this play in the open-field:

Third-and-goal, HOU 6, 6:37 second quarter, 39.0% GWC

The Chiefs come out in a bigger set for third-and-goal, and the Texans actually swap coverage on the right side of the field to help Kelce. Unfortunately, Gareon Conley overruns the coverage to the outside. I’m not sure if that’s a scheme rule or if that’s just a mistake. Either way, he leaves enough space for Kelce to get his second touchdown:

At that point it was 24-21, and the game was officially bungled. The only question was if it could be pulled back.

***

First-and-10, HOU 25, 6:31 second quarter, 31.8% GWC

Houston opened in empty, with Hopkins in the slot, and got a matchup against linebacker Damien Wilson, shaded to play the run/slant. Hopkins settled, then broke a tackle for nine yards:

Second-and-1, HOU 34, 5:51 second quarter, 33.3% GWC

The Texans come back and run a read-option play that Watson keeps. It is the only offensive snap of the game for Cullen Gillaspia. He gets a good edge block to help Watson out. It goes for 10 yards, and all of the sudden the Texans are rolling again:

First-and-10, HOU 44, 5:04 second quarter, 34.8% GWC

On the next snap, Watson resets the offense — I believe he’s seeing the zone coverage — and takes a nice little open checkdown to Carlos Hyde for 10 free yards.

First-and-10, KC 46, 4:28 second quarter, 35.9% GWC

Then the Texans start to defeat themselves again. First-and-10, the Texans line up both Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde in the backfield. The give is to Hyde, and the Houston offensive linemen just have a terrible rep. Laremy Tunsil can’t stop his man. Max Scharping tries to help with two and helps with none. Nick Martin is defeated straight-up by Derrick Nnadi, who stuffs Hyde for no gain:

Second-and-10, KC 46, 3:44 second quarter, 34.8% GWC

For the second time in the only two series we have looked over where the Texans hit opposing territory, they call timeout. The Texans are lined up with 14 seconds left, Duke Johnson splits out wide with 11 seconds, and Watson doesn’t like what he sees and calls timeout before giving props to Tyrann Mathieu. There’s now 3:44 on the clock, and the Texans are out of timeouts.

The Texans motion both Johnson and Hopkins out to the left side of the field, getting chasers. It’s a screen, but the moment Tunsil lets Frank Clark into the backfield, this thing is dead in the water. Hopkins tries to lateral it to Watson because he was infected with the Josh Allen virus last week. Keep in mind, this is out of a timeout. This is when, in theory, you get your best playcall. O’Brien’s screens have been broken and relied too much on offensive line movement for years, to the point where he barely calls them. Second-and-10 in plus territory, in a situation where you probably go for it if it’s close, and that’s your playcall?

Third-and-12, KC 48, 3:02 second quarter, 31.6% GWC

On third-and-12, the Texans try to get all of it back. They run a go/post combo with their two inside receivers in a trips set to the left. Mathieu passes the post off to the safety, comes off, and breaks up the post to Hopkins:

It’s worth pointing out that the Texans had Mathieu last year and Kansas City offered him more money than the Texans did despite the Texans having more cap space. The player that the Texans brought in to replace him, Tashaun Gipson, missed this game with a back injury. I’m not saying that was the only difference between the two teams, but I do think Mathieu offers flexibility that the Texans just don’t have right now. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

The CBS crew made a big deal about Mathieu possibly getting there early. I didn’t really see it, but if you want to be that way, here you go:

If the Texans had run something shorter, they would have had a chance to go for it on fourth down, but instead they punted in Chiefs territory.

***

First-and-10, KC 10, 2:47 second quarter, 27.4% GWC

Patrick Mahomes got the ball at his own 10 with 2:47 to play and two timeouts. He would be past midfield in exactly three plays.

You’re not going to believe this, but the Chiefs went right at Lonnie Johnson again on the first play, and he picked up his second DPI of the day:

It was that little tug at the top of the route that earned it. Again, Tashaun Gipson’s absence showed itself. He helped hold tight ends to a very low completion rate this year, and helped limit Kelce to 58 scoreless yards in Week 6. (Johnson played some against Kelce in that game too.)

First-and-10, KC 25, 2:43 second quarter, 25.1% GWC

The Chiefs came out with a double-stacked Hill on the left side on the next play, so Bradley Roby could not be aggressive with him off the snap. The ball is a little late coming out, but Hill cleanly won to the outside for 20 more yards:

First-and-10, KC 45, 2:05 second quarter, 22.6% GWC

Fed up with getting wrecked no matter what they do out of this coverage look, the Texans finally send a real blitz on first-and-10 from the 45. The result would have my timelline screaming at me about why the Texans didn’t have a quarterback spy.

Mercilus on the right side is trying to jam Kelce, and both middle linebackers come. Mahomes is able to roll out to his right and, once there, finds that there is a vast acre of space between him and any Texans defender. He scrambles for 21 yards. The two-minute warning hits. The Chiefs are already in long field-goal range.

First-and-10, HOU 34, 1:55 second quarter, 20.5% GWC

Kansas City comes out of the two-minute warning with a trick play to nowhere. This is, hilariously enough, counted as a sack. I don’t know why they thought they needed to change anything they were doing at this point, but uh … yeah, best sack in franchise history.

Second-and-15, HOU 39, 1:48 second quarter, 23.3% GWC

Uh oh, the Chiefs are at second-and-15! Surely the Texans can … you watched this game, you know what happens next. The Chiefs run pre-snap motion against with Kelce. The Texans have finally given up on trying to cover him with Johnson and have moved on to Hargreaves. It doesn’t matter a damn bit:

First-and-10, HOU 19, 1:05 second quarter, 18.7% GWC

The play that the Chiefs run to get Sammy Watkins open over the middle of the field works, but the Texans appear to almost accidentally create some pressure as the left guard helps on J.J. Watt and gives Jacob Martin an almost unimpeded path. Mahomes runs to his right, and a 100% Watt probably has a chance to make a big play. This Watt looked gassed. Possible he was hurt at this point as well. I’m always grateful for Watt gutting it out, but this is a play that he makes if he never gets hurt in my opinion.

First-and-goal, HOU 5, 58 seconds second quarter, 17.7% GWC
Second-and-goal, HOU 5, 55 seconds second quarter, 18.3% GWC
Third-and-goal, HOU 5, 50 seconds second quarter, 20.6% GWC

Just to get us out of here as quickly as possible, it took the Chiefs three red zone plays, but they finally found someone who could catch an open ball:

The only notably positive thing you can take from a Texans perspective about those three plays is that Charles Omenihu beat his man on the second one. The Chiefs didn’t even need to get to the third quarter to erase a 24-point lead. After kicking the extra point, the Texans were left with 44 seconds and 15.5% GWC.

They left enough time for Kai Fairbairn to shank a field goal, which was very polite.

***

So, let’s talk about why this happened. If I had to assign the blame for this out, this is the order it goes in:

1a — I don’t think Romeo Crennel’s fastball is enough against a top-10 offense — Crennel does some great things as far as simulated pressures, but on a regular basis, too many players are left wide open over the short area of the field. The NFL right now is a league about easy offense. If you create it with a bad quarterback, you can go far. If you create it with Patrick Mahomes, it can be downright unfair to be a fan of the other team. Crennel’s hands were tied because of 1b, but this wasn’t the kind of game where he pushed the right buttons to get the Texans off the field. The Chiefs were never in any real danger of not scoring on any of these drives. The Chiefs created more drops than the Texans did actual stops.

Moreover, against a team that barely ran, Crennel played Brennan Scarlett over Jacob Martin and Charles Omenihu. I think Scarlett is a solid NFL inside linebacker, but he can’t be asked to pass rush in this game if you’re expecting good things to happen.

Crennel has learned a lot over his career, and knows a lot more about good defensive play than me. I know that he wanted to be aggressive here because he knew he was outgunned. But I would have little faith that a good offensive coordinator couldn’t exploit his defense at this point, and it’s time to admit that this is a problem.

1b — Tashaun Gipson’s injury in Week 17 destroyed the Texans — I don’t know that they would have had a chance against the Chiefs anyway, but taking away their (by the numbers) best safety this season was a deathblow against a team that schemes this well. The Texans felt they had to run single-high the entire game and use Lonnie Johnson as the main “second safety.” Johnson was crushed and there was no Plan B.

Bill O’Brien knew that Gipson was playing hurt in Week 17 — a completely meaningless game — and played him 43 snaps anyway. That’s something he’s largely escaped public scrutiny for, but I’m here to give it to him: It was idiotic.

2 — There was no pass rush — Romeo Crennel’s unit is used to giving up open receivers. The thing that’s supposed to bail them out, and the thing that came back against the Bills, was the pass rush.

Against the Chiefs, the Texans had one “sack” and three quarterback hits. They were disrupting nothing. They couldn’t create enough negative plays to get off the field in that area.

3 — Bill O’Brien’s decision making didn’t have a consistent ethos — Like I said, I’m fine with both the fake punt and the field-goal decision in a vacuum. It’s the fact that they didn’t tell a consistent tale that made them bad together. See also: If the Texans are being aggressive, why are they going for a home run on third down on their penultimate drive of the second quarter?

4 — If you come with the fake punt, you best not miss — And they did.

5 — Too much commitment to the base run game — Carlos Hyde and this offensive line mauled the Chiefs front in Week 6 when given the threat of Watson. Watson ran for 10 yards on his only real look in four series here. But the Texans just kept handing it off to Hyde with no dressing and expecting something great to happen in a playoff game. That’s, at best, a clock-killing method. At worst, it’s putting the ball in the hands of your fifth-most explosive offensive player when you have admitted you need more than 24 points to win the game.

6 — DeAndre Carter’s fumble — Inexcusable in a game of this magnitude.

7 — Offensive consistency — There are a number of plays on offense that were unforced errors: the second-and-5 Hyde run into an eight-man box, Watson’s throw to Fuller that didn’t look to be on the same page,, the screen to Hopkins. With great playcalling outside of that, you can overcome maybe one of those a drive. But you can’t create this many negative plays on your own. That’s the defense’s job.

If this brought up and/or reinforced bad memories, I apologize. Just know that we all carry this scar with us for the rest of our lives. Gen X had Bills-Oilers, and we have this.

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Bill O’Brien is Shredder

Shredder, if you were never exposed to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lore, was the main antagonist for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for many years. He wasn’t always meant to be that way — that is an invention of the original animated cartoon show — but for several years children were exposed to a world where Shredder was the main villain of the Ninja Turtles.

Shredder was portrayed as a cunning, dangerous man. He took over an entire clan of ninjas in Japan. But he had to lose to the Ninja Turtles in just about every episode because he was the villain, and they were the heroes. To do this, the show creators had to amplify Shredder’s arrogance and make him mentally weak.

These are also the main attributes of Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, who has done everything he can to give himself power but never has a Plan B.

***

Shredder’s main henchmen are Bebop and Rocksteady, two incredibly dumb street punks that were turned into mutants but not given any intellectual boost. Every time they tangle with the Ninja Turtles, without fail, the best-case scenario was a draw. Can they handle simple robbery tasks? Sure. Can they overtake humans? Yeah!

And over the course of dozens and hundreds of episodes, how many times does Shredder square up the idea to have these two buffoons hold up the Turtles? Constantly. It never works!

But that’s what it’s like to be Shredder. You need an inability to learn from past actions. That’s where we’re at with Bill O’Brien right now. He has at least two or three decisions per game that come directly from the panic portion of his brain that cost his team timeouts. Is he going to do anything about it? Well, what are the odds that’s changing at this point? Is he going to do anything but run inside zone? Probably not! Is he going to give Deshaun Watson easy hot reads? Probably not! Is he going to give play-action plays underneath routes? Again, probably not!

Ask yourself if he’s more likely to come up with solutions, or spend two months creating a perfect offseason plan now that he has no general manager. This was the answer you give your parents when you didn’t do the homework. I think we all know the answer deep down.

***

Bill O’Brien and Shredder are both hilarious. Shredder is hilarious because he’s written to be hilarious and he breaks the fourth wall to do it at times. Bill O’Brien is hilarious because he has this Press Conference Mask he breaks out where he pretends he’s not in control of anything.

Bill O’Brien wants you to know that if you’re upset by Bill O’Brien, it’s really not all Bill O’Brien’s fault. There are other people involved, so many people you wouldn’t have ever heard of because you never listen to him. It’s hard work, but it’s also a culture that has to be built. Everyone has to be on the same page. It’s a massive undertaking to meet these people daily, but he does it for you. And you’re ungrateful!

Shredder’s arrogance kind of peeks out at the right times, and we get more of an unfiltered view of it, but the same driving stubbornness exists in both of them:

If Shredder weren’t written for a kids TV show, he undoubtedly would’ve said this to some passerby at some point:

O’Brien is a master of unintentional comedy. Note that he doesn’t take issues with the fact that he sucks, but rather, that the fan sucks too. He’s breaking new mediums every day.

***

Bill O’Brien and Shredder are both capable of highly impressive things. They have a long and extensive background in each of their professions that gives them some power when they choose to use it.

Shredder is a skilled ninja. But he’s not really interested in fighting in many episodes, almost as if he’s above it. As if, in his own head, he’s transcended that area of being worth using in a fight. Send the foot soldiers. Send Bebop and Rocksteady. Send whatever partners he has taken with him to the surface. Shredder is here to be the brains of the operation, not work like a dog.

Bill O’Brien is a terrific leader of men. He just rarely ever gets out of his own comfort zone. When he does (the first half of both Kansas City games, Week 17 against the Jaguars in 2018), and he prepares with this “us against the world” mentality, he actually is a pretty awesome coach! Like, I’m not even just saying that to try to balance the column. When he puts his mind to it and schemes up a play based on tendencies and his best guesses — when he tries! — he does so well that it’s hard to believe that the Texans ever have problems. When he first had to integrate Deshaun Watson and work with Watson’s youth in 2017 rather than trying to coach him to his preferred style, Watson was an immediate hit and the Texans looked like a juggernaut.

But that kind of spark almost never lights. It only lights enough times a year to fool everyone into thinking he’ll get it done next year with some changes.

***

It doesn’t matter what tools or toys Shredder has access to, he always loses. Just in the first few seasons alone, Shredder gains control of: The Technodrome rolling over the planet, a sword that lets him cut into the fabric of different dimensions, a ray that removes the power of the sun, a remote control for animals on several occasions, an anti-gravity device, an alien camera that traps people in photographs, and on and on.

When Bill O’Brien got Deshaun Watson, the expectations changed for him outwardly. It was no longer about winning the division, it was about competing for something more. But the Texans haven’t finished higher than 17th in offensive DVOA in any of Watson’s first three seasons despite giving him DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. This season they integrated Laremy Tunsil to try to fix the offensive line, Kenny Stills to add more consistency in the wake of Fuller’s injuries, and Duke Johnson to be the ultimate dump-off option and third-down back. They did all this and finished with a lower offensive DVOA than the goddamn Arizona Cardinals with a rookie quarterback. Than the Seahawks did even though they ran about as often as the Texans. Than a 49ers squad that is entirely reliant on coaching to get anywhere.

Coaching is more important than anything in the NFL right now, and I think NFL teams are still grappling with how to deal with that. What was new five years ago is old school today, and I think O’Brien has struggled to keep up with the pace of how things are changing. To his credit, he understands that he needs great talent to win in the NFL. But the cost of acquiring that talent was massive and has handicapped the Texans going forward, and without a similar improvement in coaching, it’s hard to understand this offense getting any better without Deshaun Watson completely transcending the spectrum of quarterbacking he’s currently on.

Over the last couple of years we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the Texans need more talent. It’s still true. But there are teams out there that are getting more from less than the Texans have, and don’t let that fact slip past you. Don’t let it slip past you that Deshaun Watson isn’t allowed to roll out of the pocket. Don’t let it slip past you that J.J. Watt doesn’t play inside and the team never managed to get Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney on the field at the same time.

It’s how you can be granted a 24-0 lead in an AFC Divisional Round game and still lose by 20.

***

Shredder and Krang were always at each other’s throats. In a way, it helped explain a lot of the dysfunction of the bad guys. They each had different goals at times, and Shredder is outright plotting mutiny in several episodes. Krang is happy to keep Shredder around because he needs someone to do his dirty work, while Shredder resents being asked to do this dirty work and feels like his ideas are the best ones. Inevitably, this escalates into a pissing match.

There was no real boss above Krang, though. Bill O’Brien ultimately answers to ownership, and ownership decided that his view mattered more. They fired Brian Gaine. They fired Rick Smith. They futzed around with the idea of Nick Caserio for a moment, but then decided that hey, Bill O’Brien’s in control! Also, don’t blame him because it’s a collective consensus. But who has final say? Bill O’Brien.

Shredder and Krang never actually separate in the TV show itself — both of them stop appearing after their defeat in Season 8. But there is an episode in Season 3, “Shredderland,” that goes over what life looks like after Shredder kicks Krang out and rules the world:

Shredder, of course, was written in a kid’s cartoon show voice where we pretended that he could be self-reflective after winning. As we see in today’s society, self-reflection is at an all-time low and there is never any shame attached to winning by any means necessary. The world around Shredder in this episode has become a wasteland of broken and useless things … but at least he has power. But the first part — these repair requests — rings true to real life because O’Brien has assumed power, but can’t delegate it to save his life. Even just from this year, we’ve got this inside scoop from Lance Zierlein about O’Brien changing installs late in the week:

O’Brienland doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Shredderland, but this is a dangerous area for the franchise. One where a man acting in his own bold interests can cripple a franchise.

When O’Brien said that he had no idea how many draft picks he’d have at draft time, that raised a lot of alarm bells for me. Clearly nobody is going to be around to stop him or tell him otherwise — they all get fired if they do. I’m not trying to tell you I think the Texans are going to make more moves trading picks, because I honestly don’t know. But given how little they dabble in free agency traditionally, and given how O’Brien’s own reflection of the trades revolves around how they worked, why wouldn’t they keep trading? Why would they feel the slightest amount of remorse?

***

I don’t think O’Brien is going to lead the Texans anywhere, because giving him power is only making him more ineffective in every direction in my opinion. I don’t necessarily think the Texans are going to crash and burn, because the talent they have is too good. I don’t even think a trip to an AFC Title Game is out of the realm of possibility if Watson hits another level. Anything can happen in a one-game sample. Shredder has kidnapped a turtle before. (Usually Michelangelo, lazy party ass.)

But there’s a reason that every TV broadcaster on both networks doing the Texans playoff game picked the Texans to lose. It’s not disrespect of the team — it’s disrespect of a coach who hasn’t seemed all that interested in scheming in a long time and who invents new ways to blow games. He is the anchor around this franchise’s neck. O’Brien advocates will tell you about division championships all day long and challenge you to name a better coach, then shit on that coach. Because “You suck, too, motherfucker!” is not just something we say loudly, it is a personal ethos for many.

When we talk about the sort of cynical feeling around Houston football fans right now, a lot of it comes because they aren’t even able to envision this team taking the next step. I can’t tell you how many ordinary people in my life — people who don’t even know I write about football — tell me unprompted that O’Brien’s not a good coach when the subject hits Texans. I don’t bring this up to use it as proof that O’Brien’s bad, but proof that the city as a whole is tired. It just wants something believable to root for. Someone who, as Sean Pendergast says, won’t bamboozle you.

Shredder lasted eight seasons. That’s the earliest John McClain can see the Texans making a change: O’Brien’s eighth season, 2021.

I’m steeling myself for some enjoyable Deshaun Watson highlights. I have no expectations beyond that. Why would I? Shredder always loses in the end, and Shredder never faces any consequences.

He always escapes, just like Houston’s head football coach.

***

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Four Downs: Chiefs 51, Texans 31

Bill O’Brien was put in the dream coaching spot. He had a 21-0 lead on the road in the AFC Divisional round, in a spot where a win would create the first AFC Championship game in the franchise history of the Houston Texans. That’s the kind of accolade where, even if the team hadn’t been empirically good this year, you can hang on the ass of every person who’s ever doubted you. He loves running out leads, but knew it couldn’t be just about that. He’d dialed up a wonderful play call for the game’s first score by faking a screen and hitting a wide-open Kenny Stills for six. He did not defer the ball at the coin toss, knowing he’d need the game script. It was beginning to look like the Texans were building an insurmountable lead. Twitter was discussing a Texans-Titans AFC South Conference Championship game and had already made it through three different iterations of Thursday Night Football/London game jokes.

To call what happened to the Texans an unraveling is an insult to the word. They didn’t just blow a lead. They didn’t just lose. They got annihilated so badly as a defense that they didn’t even have a halftime lead. They were laughed off the field so badly that the Chiefs ran out of fireworks. They allowed 51 points in about 45 minutes of football and came apart at the seams.

O’Brien blinked at fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs 13. He first claimed that he wanted to go for it, but felt that he had a first down and wanted to challenge. Wanting to challenge a spot is a horrific instinct and probably the worst idea you could ever have for a challenge outside of defensive pass interference, so naturally, the Texans failed to go for it because of that.

O’Brien’s presser was revealing in so much as he said that he thought he had to score 50 points to win this game. 50 points. So with that in mind, it makes some sense that the very next possession had this playcall on fourth-and-4:

It felt like that fake punt was what broke the Texans more than the fourth-and-1 field-goal attempt. As we learned in last night’s Titans-Ravens game, being bold is a double-edged sword. The Ravens were punished for going for it on fourth down. The Texans, here, invited the Chiefs to a short field. Once DeAndre Carter returned Tyreek Hill’s favor, the Texans were mentally cracked.

I want to marinate on how O’Brien comes out of this long-term for a bit longer than three hours before I write about it, but it goes without saying that being at the helm of one of the biggest meltdowns in NFL history while also saying that everybody is coming back and everything is fine is unbelievable. If Houston had an ownership group or anyone in power, this game alone would probably alter the way they felt about O’Brien. But when you win a coup, you get to just strut around like it doesn’t matter, so kudos, I guess. Bill O’Brien is bulletproof to everyone but the media, which he will continue to complain about constantly:

The Texans enter this offseason with no first-round pick. No easy answers exist for the spot they are in as long as O’Brien is in control, Romeo Crennel is in charge of the defense, and they won’t spend big on free agents. They will grow, they will trade more draft picks for fixes, or they will disappoint.

1 — The defense was always going to allow 50 points, O’Brien knew it

The reason the Texans were able to build the lead they did were all on unsustainable things. Patrick Mahomes wasn’t missing throws. The Chiefs weren’t having problems getting people open. They were simply dropping the ball over and over again.

That’s the problem here. When your head coach comes out after the game and says “we need to score 50 to win,” that’s a ridiculous ask. Is it the groceries or the shopper? Would Jadeveon Clowney have changed anything? The Texans mostly played straight man coverage, and they simply had no chance to rattle Mahomes.

They got one sack — a sack of Sammy Watkins — and hit Mahomes on three times in 35 dropbacks. They were able to keep the Chiefs from scoring early, but every indication was that it would be easy for them. Even in the first quarter. I can remember maybe two or three pressures the Texans got in this game, one from Whitney Mercilus, and one from Benardrick McKinney up the middle.

Houston had no answers for Travis Kelce with Tashaun Gipson sidelined. They tried to force Lonnie Johnson into coverage with him, and Johnson couldn’t handle pick plays, couldn’t stick with Kelce on crossing routes, and was whistled for a big penalty that set up one of Kansas City’s comeback scores. The fact that all this happened even despite the fact that Kansas City simply couldn’t run the ball only serves to underscore how embarrassing this is.

So the question becomes: Was this only because it was Mahomes? I don’t think so. The Texans spent a ton of this offseason bringing in new corners, and they turned over the whole cornerback crew. It didn’t actually matter how talented the guys they brought on were as compared to Johnathan Joseph, Shareece Wright, or Kareem Jackson. I don’t think Romeo Crennel did a bad job — I think he made the best out of a short period of time he had — but I also think fresh blood might be the only way the Texans can improve without reeling in another big edge star. If you spike a defensive coordinator hire, maybe you change thing in a meaningful way.

O’Brien said he expects Crennel to stay during his wrap-up presser.

2 — The tone-deaf unawareness of the O’Brien Texans

The Texans seem perpetually three steps behind with O’Brien. That they needed to use a timeout to go for it on fourth down was … mind-boggling. To call this play down by 17:

O’Brien can preach about how the media doesn’t give him a chance all he wants: Things like this are why. The Texans have never felt like a situationally-aware team under O’Brien. They had to come back from down 16-0 to make this game in the first place. They flat-lined down the stretch statistically, and got in by winning close games.

If your comeback for this is that “O’Brien is doing it all,” well, he doesn’t have to! You’re allowed to hire people to do this stuff to help you or keep you honest! It’s in the NFL rules and everything. That O’Brien stubbornly forges on and just seems to organically create situations like this isn’t a fluke. It’s who he is and how he operates, and if those things were going to change, they likely would have changed in one of his first six years as head coach.

3 — Without the read-option, the Texans couldn’t run at all

The Texans ran the ball 21 times for 94 yards, but most of that came from Deshaun Watson’s six carries for 37 yards and a touchdown, and Duke Johnson’s one (ONE?!?!!?) 11-yard run. In my experience there are a lot of fans that pre-complain about O’Brien “letting off the gas” or “resting on his laurels.” Well, 21-0 is a pretty good time to rest on one’s laurels as long as you keep it creative. The Texans didn’t. From the time they went up 24-0, the Texans ran the ball with Hyde five times and gained 11 yards.

Now that may not sound that bad — it may even sound like a typical Texans game — but this was a team they destroyed with read options. Every time they involved Watson in the running game, it worked in this game.

The Texans ran Watson intentionally three times after going up 24-0: a three-yard run on third-and-1 that came back after a holding penalty, a 10-yard play on second-and-1, and the touchdown above these words. The Chiefs as a whole were one of the worst teams in the NFL against the run, as I pointed out in the preview for Football Outsiders.

Again, as it always is with O’Brien, it’s the teases that make you upset. In Week 6 this team rolled with simple read-options and RPOs, and was able to strangle the life out of the ball. This time? It wasn’t so simple. Maybe Watson was still feeling banged up from whatever happened in Week 16, and if so I understand a bit, but there was no reason to never show this look again.

I think the Texans abandoned the run way too quick in this game. It’s easy to say that with retrospect, I know, but that defense needed time to compose themselves and never got it until it was too late.

4 — Deshaun Watson was calm and composed, but it wasn’t enough

I thought Watson played pretty well throughout this game. He wasn’t perfect, he did have plays where I think he looked to run a little too early. But I think he threw some pretty balls, and I think he did a good job of getting his team to the doorstep. Fairbairn’s missed field goal helped people develop the idea that the Chiefs were “on a run,” but the Texans ended their last three plays on downs in Kansas City territory. They couldn’t finish, and issues popped up from last week. It was fitting that the exact kind of blitz that Watson became a hero for avoiding last week was the one that ended this game.

Watson took this sack on a play where the dots would reveal nobody was even close to open, but otherwise took just two others and mostly excelled at checking the ball down over the middle. But towards the end of the fourth quarter he was harmed by an onslaught of drops. Darren Fells had a number of ones we’d look back on as extremely costly if we were in a tighter ballgame.

I don’t leave this game thinking anything has changed about Watson’s franchise quarterback status. Houston and Watson need to continue to develop the plan on blitzes to make that easy for him. They need to improve his play-action passing so that he has more routes rather than having to buy time to make something develop. And, well, I know it gets old when I say this, but they’ve got to get Duke Johnson involved before the blowout game scripts. He can’t be as shackled as he was.

It felt bad. All historical outliers do, unfortunately. We’ve all got to wear this one for a long time, you as fans, the Texans as an organization.

***

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Deshaun Watson, hot reads, and the Bill O’Brien offense

What was old was new again in the playoffs as the Buffalo Bills sacked Deshaun Watson seven times on just 12 blitzes, forcing seven scrambles. Watson came out just fine empirically when he was throwing the ball — he completed 20-of-25 passes for one score and lost one fumble — but the end result has created some interesting dissonance. Who is to blame — if we need someone to blame — for Watson’s sacks? I’ll tell you up front that this is not a question that has an easy answer for someone outside the building. But let’s put all the information we have out on the table.

1 — Other quarterbacks have not seen the massive increase in sack rate that Watson has under Bill O’Brien

Now, granted, all these quarterbacks were a) often given a better offensive line since Duane Brown was a Texan prior to 2017 and b) were compared against NFL stats instead of college stats. Still, that’s a startling increase for Watson only when you compare it to other players. If you’re curious about Tom Savage (read: are related to Savage), he carried an NFL sack rate of 7.9% and a college sack rate of 12.1%(!!!).

Presented with these numbers, it’s quite easy to leap to “It is Watson’s fault.” However, the quarterback — as demonstrated on the final real offensive play of Wild Card Weekend — also avoids a ton of sacks.

Remember when Sean McVay was a genius and the Rams made the Super Bowl, but everyone started copying New England’s successful Super Bowl plan and he was forced off his main game plan? Jared Goff’s 2019 implosion didn’t show us anything 2018 didn’t in small bursts — he was always a bit limited. I think the spread of information has gotten faster and faster, and — ala Independence Day — people are getting on the wiretap and getting the word out faster about how to beat certain coaches and systems. The gap between good coaching and mediocre coaching in the NFL has never been greater than it is today.

It is true that Watson has taken more sacks, but he’s also been at the helm of an offense that has seen free rushers come at him more often than any of his predecessors.

2 — Adding Laremy Tunsil has barely helped anything on this front

Tunsil would probably be in All-Pro conversation instead of the Pro Bowl land had he not false started enough to have this graphic created by CBS:

This year, with top-notch pass protection, the Texans had a moderate reduction in quarterback hit percentage — Watson was hit on a career-low 8.3 percent of his dropbacks and sacked on a career-low 8.2 percent of his dropbacks. But while adding Tunsil has undoubtedly upgraded the offensive line situation and given Watson a number of clean pockets more than Julien Davenport would have, it hasn’t actually tied together in a more cohesive offense. Watson still gets sacked a ton.

The reason — as was obvious in the 2018 season — is that Laremy Tunsil can’t block three guys on his own. Blitzes and schemed pressures are a bigger part of Watson’s sack rate than poor overall line play was.

(Which, again Tunsil fans, does not mean he was not an improvement. Please don’t turn this into a discussion about That Trade.)

3 — 2018 or 2019, it’s hard to find clips of easy hot reads

During the run up to Watson’s first playoff game in 2018, the Colts and the Jets started blitzing him relentlessly. Watson took 15 blitzes from the Jets in Week 15 and was sacked six times. On only one pass in that entire game did the Jets bring a blitz where Watson had an easy throw to make:

I can remember maybe one or two other designs by the Texans that actually capitalized on the pressure coming in either year. One of them was when Ryan Griffin faking staying in to block, but then popping out for a huge gain over an uncovered middle.

Most of the hot reads as they show on film are deep balls or balls to the flats, which are throws Watson has a harder time making against zone defenders that are waiting to sink on the ball.

One of the major sticking points of the O’Brien era has been an acquisition of players who are primarily here to create deep balls: Will Fuller, Tunsil, Kenny Stills. Yet, the Texans are comparatively awkward in play-action because they always have too many blockers, and the Texans barely even bother throwing deep when Fuller isn’t in the lineup. It creates a recipe where, even though the players have the talent to perform well, things get a little too one-dimensional at times.

Note that earlier this season the Chiefs brought a blitz on fourth-and-3 for the game and it was a slant that converted. Everyone looked like a goddamn genius just because it was a simple throw.

4 — Bill O’Brien knows enough to fix this

Listen, you can find coaching clinics where O’Brien sounds quite smart about blocking and picking up rushers, though I will admit when he says in this below clip that they “only had two answers” for blitz-zero (all-out blitz) at Penn State that was mildly concerning to me.

So the two examples in that video are to throw a screen or to slide the protection. The Texans threw just 62 passes behind the line of scrimmage all season. To put that into context, Kyler Murray led the league with 109. Nine different quarterbacks were over 90. Almost ALL of Watson’s throws in that area are to the middle — they’re little pitches off jet motion or something similar to that. Only 37% of his throws went to the sides. So they’re barely running those screens anymore.

The slide protection is what happened on Watson’s spincycle evasion last week — Buffalo brought someone that Watson couldn’t account for, so he knew he’d have to throw hot:

However, his first look was to go to DeAndre Hopkins, something that the Bills anticipated — everyone in any defensive building knows that 10 is Houston’s go-to receiver and treats him as such — and one of Buffalo’s coverage players was prepared and ready to jump the ball. Watson on Wednesday would say that he probably should have had eyes on someone else:

It’s very easy to hindsight critique Watson for this, but this is what Watson’s play personality is. He’s the guy who is going to get kicked in the eye and make the throw. He’s going for the jugular whenever he can. And of course the first read is Hopkins in Cover-0 — you want the ball to go to your best players. It’s the route depth that became the problem that forced that much time to be bought in the first place. Hopkins released outside and then went completely vertical.

I also want to post this video of O’Brien talking about Watson scrambling less this year and how that ties into his job pulling the strings:

“You cannot take away the instincts of a guy like Deshaun Watson,” is strong. It makes a great sound byte too — who has ever wanted to be limited by a head coach?

But in this case I think it’s a bit misplaced.

***

The funny thing about this is a) every time I’ve seen the Texans actually put in easy hot routes for Watson to hit, he hits them and b) the Texans look fantastic as an offense when they do and it helps open up the deep passing game.

Let’s talk a little bit about “you cannot take away the instincts of a guy like Deshaun Watson.” I would argue that it’s your job as a head coach to take away some instincts if it keeps you under seven sacks — this offense gets destroyed by negative plays in every game. Too many inside zone runs that everyone sees coming, too many sacks, and too many penalties. When you don’t have the explosive plays that Fuller provides, it’s tough sledding to keep an offense afloat with so much weighing it down. That’s what we saw for Houston’s first four drives against a good Buffalo defense. That’s why the Texans’ most important offensive play this season is literally their quarterback’s +5 dexterity check bailing them out. O’Brien’s offense has somehow become a place where read-options are safer than dropbacks for his quarterback’s health.

I’m well-aware I’m not going to be changing anyone’s mind about who is “at fault” here. I read the Twitter comments. I know which side you’ve staked out. But regardless of what side you’re on, the answer is actually not all that hard. Hot routes need to be better designed and hit. You can’t run two outside curls against an all-out blitz and expect that to get it done. Run drags. Run slants. Fake blockers that become receivers. Run Duke Johnson screens. That’s four ideas off the top of my head without even thinking about it too hard. I try to praise this stuff whenever I see it, because I don’t think anyone involved is stupid. It just has become a matter of intense stubbornness, in my opinion.

***

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Four Downs: Texans 22, Bills 19

I’ll take it.

Bamboozled, down 13-0 only because Buffalo’s offense got conservative near the goal line, the Texans looked dead in the water in the third quarter when J.J. Watt woke up the crowd with a sack to force a field-goal and keep it a two-score game.

From there, Houston’s offense came alive, and Josh Allen proved himself woefully unable to win from structure when it counted in his first playoff game. When the Bills did get big plays to set them up in go-ahead territory, Allen couldn’t deliver. He overthrew a number of open receivers. He was nearly pick-sixed by Bradley Roby twice. He took a back-breaking intentional grounding penalty and a sack to take the Bills from long field-goal range to miracle territory. Only a long screen against a deep zone put the Bills in position to take the game to overtime. Towards the end of the fourth quarter, this happened:

The game felt drunk. It was a gutty comeback — it proved a lot about the locker room culture that Bill O’Brien has praised all season to come back down from 16-0 against a defense as good as the one that Buffalo has. I liked O’Brien’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 towards the end of the fourth quarter, the playcall was just bad.

If the game was drunk, overtime was two fighters taking turns falling asleep on each other until Duke Johnson managed to turn a third-and-18 into a first down:

From there, the madness started, and Deshaun Watson got his first playoff win after miraculously spinning out of two different Buffalo rushers, hitting an open Taiwan Jones — of all people — for a catch-and-run that essentially ended the game:

From the standpoint of what this win means to the franchise: It’s a monkey off Houston’s back. Watson had never won a playoff game before, O’Brien hadn’t won one against a quarterback with more of a pulse than Connor Cook. That matters for the culture as you try to build a long-term success.

For the short-term? Boy, the Texans were kind of lucky to win this game. Kinda really lucky. O’Brien’s slow starts continued in the playoffs. They are not taking this kind of game to Kansas City and advancing. It’s going to have to be a lot better than this if the Texans want to fashion themselves an actual contender.

1 — This is Deshaun Watson’s Franchise

Towards the middle of the third quarter there existed some real outrage about Deshaun Watson, but to me it was pretty clear that the Bills were all over his initial reads. This happened time and time again, and then I posted this one and a section of “open receiver on the screen” Twitter exploded.

Friends, quarterbacking isn’t as easy as “see open receiver on screen, hit open receiver on screen.” I turn to Watson’s quarterback coach for more analysis:

There are things to be improved on — there are always things to be improved on — but Watson is the only reason this team won this game. Every player in the locker room knows it, J.J. Watt knows it:

And saving Bill O’Brien’s bacon, as Watson did today after that limp plan from the first half, is a lot of Watson’s job description at this point. The Texans are extremely lucky to have Watson. In a past life, this was the Kansas City shutout. This was the game where Brock Osweiler coughed up three interceptions to the Patriots. Watson’s individual talent stood out on the biggest stage. Without him, all of the talk about J.J. Watt’s sack being the turning point is for naught.

The final numbers reflect a quarterback who did damn well when he was given a chance to win in the structure of the play.

Let’s head back to Watson’s sacks in a few paragraphs, because that’s certainly what jumped out to me most about this game going forward.

2 — J.J. Watt’s Comeback was a best-case scenario

I don’t have an in-game snap tracker, but J.J. Watt balled out to keep this game as low-scoring as it was. He was the primary reason Houston was able to hold the Bills to field goals on at least two drives. One, of course, was the highlight reel sack he got past Cody Ford that was credited as the turning point:

He had another hurry here near the end of regulation to help set up Allen’s two huge sacks:

The Texans finished the game with three sacks and 11 quarterback hits, as well as five different tackles for loss. Not only are those numbers enormous compared to recent games — they were the most that Houston had in any game since playing Tom Brady’s Patriots in Week 13.

More miraculously, Watt survived and thrived. He said in his post-game presser that there was a play where he felt like he could’ve been hurt, but wasn’t, and all he could do was shrug at the doctor. I don’t know how his snap count is increasing in Week 19, but it’s obviously enormous for the team that he’s back. The negative plays he creates — both with his attention and from his own moves — is about all Houston can count on as a defense right now.

3 — They must work on getting the ball out of Watson’s hands on blitzes

As I noted in my Football Outsiders game preview, the Texans have been a broken team when blitzed:

Much has been made about how Josh Allen struggles against the blitz, but in lowkey hushed whispers, let’s discuss Deshaun Watson against the blitz. Houston beat Tampa Bay to clinch the division in Week 16, but their offense was abominable as Watson took 19 blitzes per SportsRadar charting. In the seven games in which Watson was blitzed 10 or more times per SportsRadar charting this year, the Texans have a -7.6% passing DVOA and 16 turnovers. Both Baltimore and Tampa were able to chew up the Texans with their aggressive play calling; New England and New Orleans were not. Hey, I wonder which games Will Fuller played in of those four?

The Texans gave up seven sacks today and a lot of it was about the blitz. Here’s a blitz in overtime where Watson escapes the pressure, but Darren Fells drops the ball:

This was a constant issue, and it’s been a constant issue since 2018. Bill O’Brien’s offense just doesn’t have an easy hot read. A lot of them head off to the left, in an area where they can easily get intercepted. There are even some plays in this game where Watson’s hot reads are covered and taking the sack is a good idea:

Bill O’Brien needs to scrap his entire system for dealing with blitzes to the ground and start over again. Blitzes are making his offense look mentally overwhelmed.

It should not be this hard. Fake a block and send the guy on a route. Come up with a quick drag that puts a ball in space early when rushers vacate their spots. It shouldn’t be something that takes two quarters to figure out — it should in fact be something you expect.

It’s incredible just how many yards get left on the turf because the Texans just don’t do anything about this.

4 — The defense can’t get juked out of their shoes like they did in this game

Devin Singletary put together an And1 mixtape today on Houston’s underneath tacklers:

The defense immediately got lost on trick plays and was unable to deal with the mere fact that Buffalo ran jet motion on the first series:

The defense gave up 172 rushing yards. They were able to hold Buffalo to field goals, but the other AFC teams remaining do not have quarterbacks quite as green. Romeo Crennel emptied the entire sink today, up to and including rushing two guys in the last four minutes of the game. He has to play aggressive with this defense, which goes against his conservative nature, and that nature is biting the Texans.

The play-to-play work by the Bills, when they weren’t giving up tackles for loss or sacks, was just chewing up Houston. It goes without saying that they are a bit undermanned, everyone is a bit new — I get all that. But all they have left is the ability to challenge their opponents and they have to stay locked in to that philosophy and tackle when beaten. The defense was lucky today. They’re not going to be lucky against the AFC’s elites.

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Four Downs: Titans 35, Texans 14

No deep storylines this week at NRG, and thankfully the Texans looked to get off the field mostly unscathed as Bill O’Brien’s “we’re going to play to win” mantra was drowned out by the reality of not playing Deshaun Watson, Laremy Tunsil, DJ Reader, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Benardrick McKinney, Bradley Roby, etc. This became mostly a game about three things: A.J. McCarron, the state of belief the Texans have in the back end of their roster, and the stodgy nature of “we’re going to play to win.”

So listen, NFL teams have to do some PR with every speech. NFL teams have to say that they’re playing to win the game, and they have to pass that message along for appearances. You, CBS, don’t. You don’t have to repeat what was said to you unfailingly. The Texans weren’t playing to win — they weren’t playing to win and that was both smart and fine! I praise Bill O’Brien for not attempting to win this game. He had nothing to gain from it.

Now, on to what happened on the field. The Texans hung with the Titans for a half before eventually resting more and more of their players and remembering that they didn’t have a lot of high-quality depth on the roster. The depth that did come to play kept them in it, and perhaps reminded us that they should be utilized more heavily than they are. Fellow connoisseurs of mostly meaningless football, let’s discuss further:

1 — A.J. McCarron played a solid backup quarterback game

McCarron had a keeper touchdown on the ground and scrambled a lot more than I had seen of him in the past. One of my big critiques of signing him was that he took a lot of sacks — and he did in this game as well — but he also showed some jets and functional mobility that I hadn’t seen from him in his recent preseason work.

He also was able to sniff out this disguise. He wasn’t able to step up and deliver a strike — if he was, he wouldn’t be a backup — but this was good, conservative work. The first drive was his best drive, and I’d nominate this as his best throw:

McCarron simply isn’t my style of backup quarterback because I don’t think he can impact the game so much as survive it, but he is BOB’s style and is a good fit for that. I was impressed relative to expectations.

2 — Duke Johnson and Jordan Akins proved they could do the heavy lifting

Akins and Johnson have both been mostly second-rung options for a Texans team that has become too preoccupied with running the ball of late, but both of them had standout games and showed how they can generate easy yards for the Texans if they were empowered:

Johnson had six targets, mostly underneath, catching five for 45 yards. He broke tackles in space and remained a tough matchup. Just like in the New England game, I felt he made the game a lot easier. I spent a lot of my early afternoon watching the Chargers target Austin Ekeler 11 times and I don’t understand why the Texans aren’t automatically making Johnson underneath in space a thing versus deep zones any time they see them.

Akins had five for 54 yards of his own, on seven targets. Akins doesn’t really get targeted deep, but he doesn’t need to be. Whenever Watson finds him with space he’s able to make guys miss: a surprisingly rare quality for a tight end. That showed again today.

Of McCarron’s 225 passing yards, they barely got 100 from the starting wideouts. But between Akins and Johnson, the Texans established a high floor as an offense.

3 — Defensive depth only flashed on a play-by-play basis

Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown combined for some sick catches, particularly this bonkers throw into double coverage that Brown somehow came out with:

The Texans gave up 10.6 yards per pass, 6.3 yards per rush on 39 attempts, and did nothing all that well. Some things I want to point out:

— This Lonnie Johnson coverage:

I don’t care that it was complete, that ball was inches away from being picked. Johnson has some physical attributes that are tantalizing and I think as we look forward to the 2020 roster, Johnson is going to be pushing Vernon Hargreaves for playing time if he puts more plays like this on tape.

— The Texans had just two quarterback hits on 21 dropbacks, both from Barkevious Mingo. That means almost none of the young crew that were healthy made an impact in extended snaps in pass pressure. The only play I can actually remember successful pressure getting through was this, which was also done with Jahleel Addae:

The Texans are in a position where J.J. Watt has to come back and save them. Maybe they’ll get a spare sack from Whitney Mercilus or a healthy Jacob Martin, but Watt is going to be all they have for down-to-down consistent pressure and that’s relying on his pectoral to hold up.

It’s a pretty dark scenario as we head into a playoff game. Someone has to beat Buffalo’s line.

4 — Lowering the flag on Keke Coutee

In a game where backups ran roughshod, the Texans barely used Keke Coutee at all. He had just three targets all game, dropped one of them, and was the target on the fourth-down throw that ended Houston’s offensive drives. He was out-targeted by Steven Mitchell, he was out-targeted by DeAndre Carter. They clearly don’t trust Coutee to the same extent they trust those two.

Obviously the offseason will come, and we’ll see how that goes, but it was an enormous disappointment that Coutee delivered nothing this season. This was the guy they were counting on to win underneath, and when given a chance he did little to stake a claim to the job. The Texans didn’t think highly of his practice habits. It made Houston into a more up-and-down vertical offense than I think they’d ideally want to be. Depending on how they feel about Will Fuller and Kenny Stills at their respective cap figures, it may even make a slot receiver a free-agent priority for the Texans.

As someone who rode hard for his talent and was blown away by what he did when he hit the scene against the Colts in Week 4, 2018, it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy. It’s hard to believe the Texans can’t scheme up offensive sets that take advantage of his open-field talent. It’s hard to believe that when he gets playing time he has dropped as many balls and ran routes that looked off from an outside observer’s perspective.

At this point, I think it’s truly a debate if he’ll make the 2020 squad or even get out of the offseason on the Texans roster. Remember D’Onta Foreman? Same sort of scenario could be coming to fruition here.

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In committing to Whitney Mercilus, the Texans played it safe

One big question about Houston’s offseason was answered early on Saturday, on the eve of their game against the Titans, when the team officially signed Whitney Mercilus to a contract extension. Mercilus had been one of the team’s priority free agents, and Bill O’Brien had expressed interest in keeping him a Texan for a long time in a press conference earlier this month.

Per Aaron Wilson, the deal is for four years and comes with $24.5 million in guarantees.

If you want a window into where that fits in the NFL landscape, compare to this list of EDGE rusher contracts — Mercilus was not valued as a top-tier EDGE, but he did fairly well for himself against contracts signed last offseason.

via Over The Cap

To me, the contracts signed last offseason are the most instructive. That means the easiest direct comparisons are to players like Preston Smith, Brandon Graham, and, just above this tier of players by average salary, ZaDarius Smith.

On just the pure terms of value, I don’t think the deal is bad. You have to factor in a slight bump for the rising salary cap. Neither Smith was playing up to the level they have this year before they signed their current contracts. Graham is practically a Philly institution and has never created gaudy sack totals. You can see how each of these players had warts, as Mercilus does coming into this contract.

But, do you commit to Whitney Mercilus no matter what?

That’s where I’m a bit confused by the terms of this deal. Mercilus is 30, and though he created 7.5 sacks (through the first 15 games), he also had long stretches where he was practically uninvolved as a pass rusher. In fact, a lot of his early sack prowess came because of the exploits of fellow free-agent-to-be D.J. Reader:

Mercilus finished the year with very strong box score stats, but he was never dominant, and has a marked split of being better against bad tackles. His biggest game of the year was over Jaguars backup tackle Will Richardson:

So look at what Mercilus is, and then look at what the market was going to have available — and I’m going to be nice and pretend Jadeveon Clowney isn’t an option. Yannick Ngakoue is scheduled for free agency. Dante Fowler. Shaq Barrett. Bud Dupree. Matt Judon. Kyle Van Noy. Robert Quinn. Jason Pierre-Paul. Some of those players would have been franchised, sure. But some of them have also been able to get consistent rush this year from one-on-one situations, which is something I don’t think you can say about Mercilus.

Once you sign Mercilus, and you commit to keeping Romeo Crennel around, you know that the Texans aren’t going to be signing another big contract at EDGE. The team struggled to effectively use Mercilus with Clowney in the fold. They played him in zone coverage heavily, which I wrote about for The Athletic at the time.

I think Whitney Mercilus is a nice player. I think he’s overextended as someone’s No. 1 pass rusher, which we learned this season as he disappeared for weeks at a time after J.J. Watt went down. But I think you look at him as the fifth- or sixth-best player on your defense and that said defense is probably doing pretty well.

The Texans believe in his intangibles and value them highly. They value who he is, rather than what class of player he is. I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong to value those intangibles, but if you wanted to launch a critique of the signing, you would start with the fact that there’s not a lot of hidden upside left to tap and end at “so why not wait to see what the market bears for everybody?”

It’s been weird getting older and talking about player contracts. Coming from a standpoint of efficiency, you sort of got indoctrinated in to this field of “is this contract good for the team?” and the general perspective is — paying good money to non-elite players when you can still chase elite players isn’t great. At the same time, I’m happy for Mercilus, who stuck out some real issues in 2018 and rebounded from his torn pec to become a solid contributor. Mercilus converted the season-altering interception return off Justin Reid’s breakup in the end zone against Tennessee. There’s a lot more emotion in me about things like this than there used to be.

In the end, the Texans took the safe route. Mercilus is a known, and free agency could have left them scrambling for an unknown.

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Bryan Anger also re-upped on Saturday. I have a lot less to say about this, but Anger has been an exceptional punter this year and I understand why the Texans valued him as much as they do. Aaron Wilson says the total value of the contract is three years, $7.5 million, which values Anger as one of the top 10 punters in the NFL on average salary.

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I’m happily writing this article free of charge — this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Week 17 Preview: Texans vs. Titans

Normally this is where I’d give you the stakes of the game, but if the Chiefs win at noon, there are practically zero stakes to this game. The Texans can’t improve their seeding if the Chiefs win. They could improve their seeding incrementally with a Chiefs loss and a Texans win, but either way, they’re playing next weekend. I wrote about why I would rest the starters this week. I’m not in charge of this team, and everything we’ve been fed seems to indicate the Texans are playing to win and playing their starters as long as the game is competitive. So this preview will be written as if that is the case.

The Titans have lost two games in a row, but they were both close-fought games against real competition. Tennessee’s primarily zone-based defense has been a major weakness, and they’ve now given up at least 355 yards in every game since Week 6. Their offense has been dominant, even without Derrick Henry last week they still found 149 rushing yards.

We went over recent history in Week 15’s preview post. The Titans and Texans have been fairly even since Bill O’Brien joined and the Titans stopped pretending they could start Zach Mettenberger and win football games.

Vegas’ line for this game has been all over the place, primarily because there was an assumption of rational coaching. It opened as a pick’em, the Titans were favored by as much as 6 before news of O’Brien playing to win this game trickled in. Now it’s stabilized around Titans -3.5 and I expect this is going to be one of those games that goes way further one way or another before kickoff.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy of Football Outsiders.

I’m sorry, but since this game last happened a whopping two weeks ago, a lot of this is going to be repetitive. I’m going to quote from the last one a lot and talk about what has changed:

While Tennessee’s offense has been soaring, their defense has been average at best since Tannehill took over. They’ve got a 2.9% DVOA since Week 7 and have given up 355 total yards or more in each game since then. Mostly it has been the pass defense not holding its weight — the Titans have allowed a 20.1% passing DVOA since Week 7. The run defense has been stellar all season.

Now, what happened in Week 15 was that the Texans actually were able to run on the Titans. Carlos Hyde, for perhaps the first time since Week 8, was able to break off massive chunks of yardage on a consistent basis. Hyde ran 26 times for 104 yards and had a long of just 11 — so he set up many second- and third-and-shorts. I say this, and yet the Texans barely were above positive rushing DVOA on the game. That should tell you a lot about how things got to where they were with this offense. Obviously, the O’Brien goal will be to run this back.

Passing is a different story. I worked on a post about the play-action pass game and how it’s been broken. The Titans actually did quite well against play-action from Houston last year as well, holding Watson to 7-of-13 for 88 yards and one touchdown in their two meetings. Adding to the reasons to abandon max-protect: the Titans have quarterback knockdowns on just 5.1% of their defensive dropbacks this year, second-lowest in the NFL. The Titans have some players with good prestige in Harold Landry and Jurrell Casey, but neither of them is tearing up offensive lines this season.

I don’t have legitimate numbers for you yet, but Houston’s play-action absolutely worked on this Titans defense in Week 15. The plays themselves were not the culprit, but rather — DeAndre Hopkins and Deshaun Watson made the plays work:

The Titans could not be less interested in pressuring Deshaun Watson. In Week 15, they blitzed Watson on one (1) of his 28 dropbacks. For the sake of comparison, Tampa Bay blitzed Watson on 19 of 37 dropbacks. I’m not sure if the Titans are feeling like changing anything up in this game, but it probably couldn’t hurt given how much Watson chewed them up last game with time to throw.

This is a game where I think the absence of Will Fuller won’t be too bad if the Texans actually pass out of 12-personnel. The Titans have allowed 9.6 yards per attempt and a 60% success rate on passes out of 12 this year, along with five touchdowns and zero interceptions in 80 dropbacks.

The Texans were 7-of-9 for 11.1 yards per attempt throwing out of 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends, two wideouts) in their first game against the Titans. The only real negative was Watson’s goal-line pick that was batted up by Jeffrey Simmons. I think this is an area you’ll continue to see the Texans attack with, particularly since the Texans averaged 4.4 yards per carry out of 12 against the Titans in Week 15.

Of course, Fuller did play in that game. Won’t play in this game. The Texans have shown a huge split in favor of being a better passing game when Fuller is healthy.

When the Titans have the ball

While Houston’s rush defense is good on the season, they are at 1.3% rushing DVOA allowed since their bye week. They miss the negative plays that J.J. Watt provided, and without having to key on him, offenses can treat the Texans as a lot more predictable. Houston’s run defense especially suffers when playing against 11-personnel, where they have allowed 5.2 yards per carry and a 56% success rate on 75 carries since Watt went down. Tennessee does lean on 12-personnel a bit more than average since Week 7, so perhaps that is a ray of hope in what is otherwise kind of a grim matchup. The Texans only allow 3.4 yards per carry to 12-personnel since Watt went down.

Houston is up to -2.2% rushing DVOA allowed after the last two games since the bye, but they continue to allow over five yards per carry and I think the DVOA allowed is mostly about good situational stuffs. Likewise, while Houston’s pass defense has gotten a bit better since the last time we ran these numbers, a lot of it is on the backs of Jameis Winston’s turnover adventure.

As predicted, the Titans didn’t do much in 12-personnel runs against Houston, getting only 31 yards on 10 carries in Week 15. In fact, a lot of their best runs came out of 21-personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers), where they averaged 7.3 yards per carry on six attempts. The Titans barely rushed out of 11-personnel in Week 15. They should probably do that more, but if they don’t want to, I’ll take it.

Since Week 7, Houston has the absolute worst passing DVOA allowed in the NFL at 41.2%. Houston’s linebackers are very good, but the push-pull between Henry and their underneath assignments is likely to pull them out of position considering how much of Tennessee’s play-action game targets the middle of the field with slants.

On the very first play of the game, the Titans went right after Johnathan Joseph and torched him.

Joseph has since seen his role monumentally reduced, and the Texans’ pass DVOA has improved significantly for it. They allowed 6.1% passing DVOA to the Titans in Week 15 and largely managed the game smartly. By that, I mean they did this:

The one thing that has limited Tannehill — yes, despite the hype, he has been limited at times — is that he takes a ton of sacks. He’s taken 24 in seven starts, at a 10.6% rate of his dropbacks. To put that in perspective: Deshaun Watson, who still takes too many sacks according to many that I hear, is at 8.0%. That’s why, despite the fact that the Titans have been crushing it, they’ve been held under 200 net passing yards in three of their last six games. Houston should be trying to emulate Indianapolis’ game plan from Week 12, where they sacked Tannehill six times.

The problem with that is that Tannehill has mostly been blitz-proof with how effective the running game has been. He’s been blitzed on fewer than 10 dropbacks in each of his last five starts. Tampa sent 19 blitzes at him and and held him to 5.6 completed air yards per completion. If you can get Tannehill to third-and-long, you’ve got to bring the heat. Houston’s base pass rush has all but disappeared. Teams aren’t needing to even double Whitney Mercilus. Jacob Martin is the only player the Texans have who has a sack since the bye, and he only plays on passing downs.

The Texans blitzed Tannehill on 18 of 38 dropbacks, largely turning him into a checkdown thrower. Now, it’s possible a lot of that was game-script influenced — the Texans jumped out to a 14-0 lead, remember. It’s possible that this completely changes around in this game. But if the Texans are able to limit Tannehill like that again in Week 17, it will go a long way towards them winning.

The Titans got Corey Davis out of concussion protocol on Thursday so they should be rocking pretty much the exact same healthy players as they had for Week 15. Adoree Jackson down is the thing that really matters.

Special teams

The major difference in Week 15’s game, as well as Week 16’s game against Tampa Bay, has been dominant special teams play. Two blocked kicks are awesome, but the Texans are also doing an excellent job pinning opponents deep. The Titans didn’t start a single drive off a punt or kickoff against the Texans past their own 25.

Tennessee’s on to Greg Joseph at kicker — Joseph missed 6-of-9 kicks from 40 for the Browns in 2018, as well as four extra points. The Titans probably can’t call him worse than what they got out of Ryan Succop this year, but he’s probably not going to be a major net positive either.

The read

The Titans have several more reasons to care about winning this game than the Texans do. There’s a chance that the Titans get out to a big lead and the Texans understand that they’re better off packing it in. Frankly, even if the Texans were assured to try, their offense looks different without Will Fuller.

I’ll be picking Titans 27, Texans 25 — I just think there are way more paths open to the Titans winning this game.

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It Would Be Monumentally Stupid for the Texans to Play to Win in Week 17

The Houston Texans have clinched a playoff spot, and they are almost assuredly going to be the fourth seed. The Chiefs, playing early in the day, have everything to play for — they can still gain a first-round bye if the Patriots lose, and even if they can’t, they’ll play the sixth seed instead of the fifth seed. The Chargers have played Kansas City tough, but they also have imploded this year any time they come close to winning a game. The Texans will know before they play if they can even change their seed — and I very much doubt they’ll have the opportunity.

Meanwhile, the Texans are 10-5, but they aren’t really a good team and, despite beating the Titans in Nashville two weeks ago, I would argue they didn’t really win it in a convincing fashion. They played an uninspiring game in losing to Tampa last wee — oh, they won? Well, I guess they did. But my point is that, purely on run of play of late, I have my doubts that Tennessee shouldn’t be favored to beat the Texans even with Houston’s starters playing.

The numerical output of that is quite simple: The Texans have an 8.5% chance to gain the No. 3 seed per Football Outsiders’ numbers. Now keep in mind that even if they DO get the No. 3 seed, they aren’t necessarily knocking the Titans out of the playoffs. Baltimore is resting starters, but the Steelers literally can’t throw — that’s hardly a given. The Broncos have a higher weighted DVOA than the Raiders do. Plenty of that 8.5% is still tied up in playing the Titans rather than an empirically weak opponent. It could work out, but the number is so small that I don’t believe it is worth pursuing even if the Chargers win.

Well, it doesn’t matter what I think, because I don’t coach the Houston Texans and all signs from Bill O’Brien on Monday were that the Texans would play to win:

Let me lay out four more reasons why I think trying to win the Titans game is idiotic even beyond the ridiculously small chance the Texans could actually grab the third seed:

2 — The Bills are locked in to the No. 5 seed. The Texans could actually game plan for playing the Bills for two straight weeks.

One of the major reasons that no NFL team has made the Super Bowl without a first-round bye since the 2012 Ravens is that those teams, obviously, tend to be better than most teams. But another major reason is that those teams get to take the first-round bye to study their opponents. They get a major jump in game planning that matters a lot when you’re already likely to be better than your opponent.

Bill O’Brien? He thinks his scouts know what to do. They’ll worry about it Sunday night:

Now, the Texans can’t win a first-round bye, but they can take almost exactly the same tact as a team that had a first-round bye here — they can lose on purpose, not playing their best players, and spend all the collective effort they’re going to spend trying to beat the Titans on trying to beat the Bills. Scouting resources, mental brainpower. That could be quite a significant edge in a home game that should be close.

It could be the difference between advancing or not.

3 — Deshaun Watson’s health is more important than anything else this franchise has

I know Deshaun Watson says he’s fine. I know Bill O’Brien said he’s good. I don’t care. After watching him limp around for most of the second and third quarters against Tampa Bay, I’d rather he gets a rest on Sunday. Obviously, there’s no way you can unhurt someone in the middle of the season. We don’t know how banged up he actually is and I’m sure the Texans aren’t going to reveal any more than they have to.

But, you know what the Texans can do with this week? Make sure their franchise quarterback is as healthy as he possibly can be for the playoffs. Maybe J.J. Watt comes back, and maybe he doesn’t, but either way this defense can’t be counted on. If the Texans are going to win playoff games, it is on Watson’s shoulders.

Making sure he’s as rested as he can be for that burden should be a priority for the Texans in my view.

4 — All things being equal, I’d rather play the Bills than the Titans anyway

2/3rds of you will disagree with this take

I’m sure this is going to be worth at least a miniature fisking from #BillsMafia, and let me be up front: I don’t think the Bills are a bad team and I think they’ll have a good chance to win on the road in Houston in a playoff game.

But Josh Allen is perhaps the weakest non-Pittsburgh quarterback situation you can see in the first round. He’s capable of brilliant moments, but he falls apart when he’s blitzed and the Texans have been transitioning towards that more and more towards the end of this year. I think that is the best-case scenario for Houston’s defense.

Houston’s offense is going to have their big plays limited, but given where Will Fuller is, they may have been limited either way. Buffalo can be run on — they allowed 143 on the ground to the Patriots in Week 16 and have allowed at least 103 rushing yards in seven of their 10 games since their Week 6 bye.

I, again, say this and want to say that the Bills probably are a better team than the Texans. They could win either way. But I think this is probably the best-case scenario the Texans could ask for in the first round: Second-year quarterback who has looked bad in some big games making his first road playoff start, and a defense that has been run on at times. The O’Brien Texans have looked hopeless when they can’t run.

5 — Attrition

Football is a violent sport. Players get hurt. Even if you get away with playing Deshaun Watson through what’s ailing him, what if DeAndre Hopkins goes down? What if it’s Duke Johnson? What if it’s Laremy Tunsil? What the Texans can gain by winning isn’t worth the cost of even one of their good players getting hurt.

In summary

We don’t know if we’re responding to a real crisis or not — I suspect the Texans will play their starters in Week 17, but I am hopeful O’Brien is just okey-doking us all. I desperately want him to just be pretending to be competitive or for this to be coach speak. But it’s been so thorough through so many interviews and so constant that I think we have no choice but to treat it seriously.

Quick responses to other sentiments sent to me

“Bill O’Brien couldn’t get the team ready off of a bye against the Ravens, so I don’t want to chase one now.” — OK, but that’s a head coach problem, not a game theory problem.

“The offense needs to get some momentum after a bad day.” — What about this team has ever been consistent this year and why would you think one more good day would change that?

“But yo, I really want to play the Steelers!” — Cool. I want someone to buy advertising on this website. Neither of those are happening.

“But what about avoiding Baltimore in the second round?” — You’re going to have to go through them either way, and you’re not exactly locked in to playing them with a win.

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Four Downs: Texans 23, Buccaneers 20

If there were a game to sum up the popular Texans fan meme of “Division champs, Brian!” — it was this one.

Because, minus four interceptions in a game where they could have had about eight under the expert tutelage of Jameis Winston’s belief in his receivers, the Texans got outright trashed on Sunday. The defense allowed 6.0 yards per play, including allowing 9-of-17 third downs to be converted. The offense was anchored behind a non-functioning run game that was stupidly sledgehammered against one of the best run defenses in the NFL. Special teams played well, but they were the only unit that came to play in Tampa.

More importantly, injuries devastated the Texans. Will Fuller was ruled out early with a groin injury, Laremy Tunsil walked off after a crucial third-down with around two minutes left, and Deshaun Watson clearly played poorly and looked at his heel multiple times over the duration of the game.

This was not an encouraging tune-up. But … it was a win. Division champs, Brian!

1 — Deshaun Watson’s health is imperative to any hopes the Texans have

Watson played probably his worst game of the season, clearly favoring his heel as you can see on this scramble:

He looked clearly bothered while passing, overthrowing a number of open receivers and otherwise not playing up to the standard you expect of him:

He spent some time in the medical tent in the third quarter but stayed in to finish the game. Watson was asked multiple times by assembled press if he was healthy, and Bill O’Brien noted that it did affect his decision-making on a key fourth-down play that I’ll save for a few paragraphs. O’Brien put it as Watson was “dealing with some things there.”

As much as Will Fuller matters, this team has no offense at all without Watson, and any kind of limitations for him are absolutely devastating for this team’s chances. The Texans are not going to tell you what’s happening — beyond what is required by the injury reports — because every NFL team likes to pretend that they are winning some sort of super-spy battle with information as if it isn’t obvious on the field.

The Texans still have a chance at the AFC’s No. 3 seed — and a longshot chance at the No. 2 as I’m writing this — but I don’t know how you can put him out there against the Titans if any rest at all will help. The Texans have no chance to win a playoff game without a healthy Watson. When asked, O’Brien said they’d try to win every game they could.

Watson has to be 100% for this team to win games. I think that Tampa’s blitzing, aggressive defense forced problems for Watson as well — five sacks is some 2018 vintage stuff — but a lot of it boiled down to him being unable to complete easy passes.

2 — Bill O’Brien’s worst-coached game of the season

Let’s break this down into four things.

–As I pointed out in the preview, O’Brien kept trying to run the ball on Tampa despite the fact that Tampa came into the game with the NFL’s best run defense by DVOA. O’Brien’s two backs combined for 31 yards on 19 carries.

Some of that came as the Texans were trying to run the clock out, but that’s a disastrous result and the only empirically good play they got from the run game was fourth-and-1 when, FOR THE FIRST TIME ALL DAY, they ran with Watson:

Why can the running game not make the entire box out of the one thing that works? I don’t know, but maybe if the Texans run inside zone 300 more times everything will be properly established.

If only, after five years, I could believe that saying that would change anything.

— Bill O’Brien’s Texans got the ball at the two-minute warning of the second quarter, up seven. They immediately ran the ball, taking 27 seconds off the clock, then Watson was sacked in scramble on first-and-10, with the ball going out of bounds. In three plays, the Texans had lost a minute. Every time they set up, it took them forever to go anywhere.

Then, Watson threw this pick:

Tampa scored seven at the end of the half.

We talk a ton about Houston’s poor starts to games, but their hurry-up offense when marshaled by O’Brien is just dreadful. It’s way too slow, it has no idea what to do for 20 seconds. I bet if Watson handled the whole thing on his own, they’d be a lot better.

— With third-and-6 at the Houston 44, O’Brien watched DeAndre Carter catch this ball to create fourth-and-1 at the Houston 49:

There were two acceptable ideas at this point: challenge the ball, or go for it. As O’Brien laid out in his press conference, injuries made him choose to not go for it:

I … actually respect that reasoning more than I thought I would, especially after he said he might go for it looking back at it. He also explained why he didn’t challenge, saying he thought New York had already decided it. I understand, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a correct move. You’ve got to make New York make that call with how little your timeouts are worth at that point. You’ve also simply got to go for it there, the mathematical benefits are obvious:

— Finally, there was something that went totally unasked at the post-game presser: Why on Earth did this team run actual plays after Winston’s final interception. Tampa Bay had one timeout left, and the Texans got the ball left with 1:27 to play. That’s three kneels and the game is over.

The Texans ran a play, were flagged for holding in perhaps the least situationally-aware block I’ve ever seen by Zach Fulton, and actually gave the Bucs a chance to come back with 21 seconds left.

It didn’t matter for this game, but that’s a phenomenally bad error by O’Brien. He has to know that you can kneel out there. What would we be saying if Tampa scrimped together their equivalent of a Hail Mary lateral-fest or the Glover Quin Fail Mary? Get it together.

(I guess the fourth down I linked earlier was a nice decision, but holy hell, this was a stinker of a game from O’Brien. Sean Pendergast called it a D+ — I think that’s being very kind. This was some Jason Garrett stuff.

3 — The defense got bailed out by Jameis Winston

Romeo Crennel’s charge simply did not play good enough deep coverage most of the time to win this game. They got bailed out because Winston and Winston’s receivers could not complete open throws.

They got bailed out when the Bucs went for it on fourth down because Cameron Brate dropped the ball:

They have two gears: Rush everyone at the passer and hope someone gets lucky, or play Crennel’s red carpet zones on third-and-long and make things as easy as humanly possible and pray for mistakes:

I’m not going to tell you that there were no good snaps. Vernon Hargreaves’ run stuff on third-and-1 was incredible, Gareon Conley had a few nice plays in grabby coverage, Whitney Mercilus got two sacks, one of which came on a play where he actually beat somebody.

But for the most part, things stayed the same, if not worse. The Tampa run offense averaged five yards per carry thanks to a big 49-yard gash by Ronald Jones. Winston was sacked three times in 51 dropbacks, the Texans added only two more quarterback hits to that.

The secondary has some talent, but the lack of pass rush and Crennel’s inability to be aggressive on second- and third-and-long are killing this team. If bad luck happened to strike on a few more of the balls that hit them directly in the hands, we’d have a completely different result.

4 — Let’s praise the special teams

In two consecutive three-point wins, Angelo Blackson has blocked a long field-goal attempt. That isn’t something that’s mathematically stable to rely on every week, but it obviously made a difference.

The Texans have been one of the best teams in the NFL all season on kickoff coverage and this was their magnum opus. With Kai Fairbairn trying to pop up kicks near the goal line, Tampa had the following field positions after kickoffs: TB 17, TB 12, TB 15, TB 25, TB 20, TB 17. Five grabs of yardage that really mattered in so much as every extra time Winston had to drop back, the Texans had a chance to create a turnover.

Bryan Anger pinned Tampa at the TB 4, the TB 10, the TB 32, the TB 19, and the TB 30. No short fields.

They’ve done this despite losing Dylan Cole, one of their best tacklers, for the season to a torn ACL. Special teams has been extremely strong, and it’s one of those small and obvious reasons they’ve been able to wrest the division crown away from the Titans these last two weeks.

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