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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Week 16 Preview: Texans @ Buccaneers

The stakes of this game are pretty simple for the Texans. Winning means clinching the division title. Winning means that they are able to retain their extremely tiny chance to have a first-round bye, as well as their more believable chance at being the AFC’s third seed and avoiding the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round. While I am not expecting Tennessee to triumph against the Saints, stranger upsets have happened. A loss would either lock Houston into the fourth seed or force a winner-take-all showdown for the AFC South next Sunday. In short: There is plenty to play for!

Just like last week, the Texans are traveling to face a red-hot Bucs team that has won four in a row. A lot of the talk this week has been consumed with Jameis Winston’s back-to-back 400-yard games, but I think what has gone relatively unnoticed is the job that Todd Bowles has done with Tampa’s defense. It is wildly aggressive, and that kind of defense destroyed Houston in Baltimore earlier this year.

Tampa and Houston have not played since 2015, a dreary game in which rookie Winston kept putting the Bucs into a position to succeed only for kicker Kyle Brindza to choke it away. Brindza attempted one extra point and four field goals, missing all of them but one field goal (naturally, the 58-yarder), in a game the Texans won by 10. Brindza missed two more field goals in his next game and never played an NFL down again.

Vegas’ reaction to this game has been quite interesting, like last week. The Texans opened as one-point underdogs, but were bet up all the way to three-point favorites. That’s an enormous line shift. The over/under has also gone from 53 to 49.5 or 50, suggesting a game that may not be as high-scoring as you’d expect based on Winston’s recent offensive output.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy of Football Outsiders

Coming off a performance that was more clutch than dominant, the Texans will have their will to run the football tested severely by Tampa Bay’s No. 1 run defense DVOA. Vita Vea, off an injury-plagued rookie season, is devastating interior lines. Ndamukong Suh has also been quite effective against the run. The Bucs have held their last four opponents to 66 total rushing yards or less. They have allowed only the Seahawks to run for over 112 on them as a team. This is definitely a potential trap for Bill O’Brien’s clock control brain to run into on Saturday. As good as the Texans were the past two weeks, and as good as their run offense can be when Watson is involved, I doubt simple inside zone gets it done here.

Tampa Bay has one of the more unique coverage profiles of any NFL team: They’re going to blitz the hell out of you and see what happens. Only Baltimore has blitzed more than Tampa’s 44.1% rate this season, and that makes proper quarterback dissection extremely important for O’Brien and Deshaun Watson in this game. Baltimore tested Watson with an extremely varied game plan and I’m not sure that’s in Tampa’s playbook, but they will ask him to beat man coverage.

Shaq Barrett is essentially the only dominant rusher the Bucs have. Second place on the team in sacks is Carl Nassib, with five. Barrett added to his pass rush arsenal and exploded on to the scene with a dominant display of taking advantage of weak tackles like Carolina’s Darryl Williams. The good news for the Texans is that they have Laremy Tunsil. The bad news for the Texans is that the Bucs tend to line Barrett up on the weaker tackle, and the Texans continue to employ Chris Clark for reasons that I have only been able to ascertain as good teammate adjacent. (Roderick Johnson would also struggle to contain Barrett.) In every game Watson has been blitzed more than 10 times this season, he’s eaten at least three sacks. The Ravens blitzed 18 times and got six sacks. Just be prepared for that.

The Bucs have been most vulnerable to No. 1 wideouts (22nd in DVOA allowed, league-high average of 9.7 targets per game), No. 2 wideouts (20th in DVOA allowed, league-high average of 7.8 targets per game, league high 79 yards per game), and tight ends (27th in DVOA allowed, top-five with 8.2 targets allowed per game). This is a game where I think DeAndre Hopkins is set to blow up and take the Texans to the playoffs all on his own. This is not a Duke Johnson game, as former All-Pro Lavonte David has been smothering people in coverage all season.

One interesting split from Tampa’s defense: When asked to defend 11-personnel, they have 27 sacks in 444 dropbacks. When asked to defend 12-personnel, they have just 2 sacks in 82 dropbacks. That may be Houston’s best way of beating them, and that’s good news considering how much that formation got used in Week 15 (43% of the snaps).

The Bucs have lost safety Jordan Whitehead for the season, and will likely be fitting rookie safety Mike Edwards into the vacated hole. Communication has improved for Tampa this year, but I like the odds of some of O’Brien’s patented two-receiver play-action passes paying off against a team this young in the secondary. The important question will simply be just how much time O’Brien spends running into a box he will never defeat.

When the Buccaneers have the ball

Over their last four games, Jameis Winston has combined for a 44.4% passing DVOA on 161 dropbacks. The most important statistic to me is actually how his sack rate has lowered. Since Week 11, he’s taken just nine sacks in 199 dropbacks, cutting his sack rate from the first 10 weeks nearly in half. The Texans, with Jacob Martin out and no real pass rush, figure to not be able to do anything about this in particular.

The only major complicating factor for the Bucs figures to be exactly how they attack Houston without Mike Evans or Chris Godwin, who was formally ruled out on Thursday. Tampa’s main options in the receiving game are Week 15 hero Breshad Perriman (three touchdowns) and their tight ends, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. The Texans also give up 29.4% DVOA on a league-high 7.8 targets a game at running backs, so Ronald Jones might see a bit of a workload increase there as well. Tampa had to sign a fourth receiver from the Dallas practice squad, so it seems unlikely that someone will come out of nowhere to grab the workload — the question is merely where they choose to make the focal point.

Houston played about as well as they could play as a pass defense in Week 15’s win over Tennessee. By that I mean they were gashed routinely, but used a blocked kick and a goal-line turnover to make things seem more respectable than they really were. The Titans scored 21 points, but outgained the Texans in yardage and yard per play handily. They were bailed out by the turnover, Gareon Conley’s clutch break up on third-and-10 that forced a punt in no man’s land, and Tennessee’s inability to run play-action down 14-0.

Romeo Crennel blitzed the hell out of Ryan Tannehill last week — 38 dropbacks saw 18 blitzes. Drew Lock saw 10 in 28 dropbacks. Since the New England game, Crennel has been upping the pressure, knowing he doesn’t have much choice given who is on the roster right now. That leads to more man coverage, which in turn makes the matchups at receiver matter more. Bradley Roby played 100% of the snaps after being rotated in Week 14. I’m curious who comes out of the cornerback sorting hat this week. I’d roll with more Lonnie Johnson given how aggressive the coverage needs to be right now — Johnson got zero snaps last week.

Tampa Bay has not actually been much of a rushing team this year, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Tampa’s held an average lead of 0.34 points per offensive possession this season, but has attempted 367 rushes (13th in the NFL) despite averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Normally we’d laugh and say good, let that happen, but I think the Houston defense may not be quite the same with Benardrick McKinney (concussion) on the sideline. Zach Cunningham has gotten more press this year for his good play, but McKinney is the man who is usually on the right spot, leading the defense, and setting up the run fits. His absence does cause me some minor concern that the Bucs will be able to run the ball.

Tampa Bay is above-average in their percentage of 11-personnel used (64% to 60% league-average), with 12-personnel being the major change-up. I suspect more 12-personnel than normal this week without Godwin. It’s kind of hard to project how Houston’s defense will react without McKinney, because that puts Peter Kalambayi in a spot with Dylan Cole down. McKinney, unfortunately, is one player the Texans could ill-afford to lose for a game they have to win. Houston has traditionally been better against 12-personnel this year … but that’s a key cog removed out of it.

Special teams

Tampa’s punting situation will give the Texans some free yardage, and Houston’s blocked kick last week is one of those plays that is awesome but uncounted in DVOA because of how random they are. Big ups to Angelo Blackson for that one.

Tampa, somehow, has had a good year kicking field goals. You’d think that ancient curse planted on them would have taken root by now, but that’s where we’re at.

The read

There’s a big part of me that thinks that Tampa will give the Texans a real game here. The blitzing is concerning. The run defense should mean a lot of second- and third-and-longs from the Texans, which should lead to blitzes. At the same time, I think if both Hopkins and Fuller play, this game is really about them beating up on a bunch of kids. I like those odds. If the Texans do lose this game, I expect it to be an offensive breakdown and I expect Todd Bowles to be in the prayers of Titans fans.

Winston will create some turnovers for the Texans. I expect a bushel of “complimentary football” references after the game, and it’s one that I expect to be close and high-scoring. Give me Houston 31, Tampa 29.

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The Texans Aren’t A Win-Now Team Yet

Robert Mays wrote a great Ringer piece recently on the Texans and the ownership that Bill O’Brien has in this Texans team and how it is built. A lot of it centered around the idea that Bill O’Brien is in charge now, and the report that the Texans wouldn’t chase a general manager might mean he’s in charge for the foreseeable future.

But a line that I keep hearing appeared in that story, and I want to talk a little bit about that line:

Double-digit wins and a playoff victory would qualify as a successful season for nearly every franchise in the league, but at this stage, the Texans have grander ambitions. … The Texans are built to win right now, and to a degree, they have.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Texans defenders this season — something that happens when you write critically about a team and something I welcome — and I hear a lot of similar defenses of the Laremy Tunsil trade whenever that bear is poked. The rationale is essentially “They went up and got their guy now, and he’ll be a Texan for a long time.” Now, I’ve got nothing bad to say about Tunsil’s post-snap play even if I think the Texans got raked over the coals in trade value to avoid a bad season in 2019. But a key, recurring issue of O’Brien’s early GM tenure that I’m willing to give Tunsil trade defenders is that the players they have targeted have the potential to be long-term fixtures.

  • Bradley Roby, 27 years old, first-round pick. Signed a one-year prove-it deal as a free agent.
  • Laremy Tunsil, 25 years old, first-round pick. Traded multiple first-round picks for, and Tunsil is under contract through 2020.
  • Duke Johnson, 26 years old, third-round pick. Traded a third-round pick for. Johnson is under contract through 2021.
  • Gareon Conley, 24 years old, first-round pick. Traded a third-round pick for. Conley is under contract through 2020.
  • Vernon Hargreaves, 24 years old, first-round pick. Waiver claim despite warning of 2020 fifth-year option becoming guaranteed. Is under contract for 2020 and can likely be negotiated off his number.
  • Jacob Martin, 24 years old, sixth-round pick. Throw-in with the Clowney trade. Under contract through 2021.

(When you listen to O’Brien’s press conferences, you can’t help but notice how much he talks about a player’s initial draft status. He brags about Carlos Hyde’s play in college. He talks up every starting quarterback — Tannehill, Winston, etc — as if their first-round pedigree is still important to who they are today.)

The Texans have a lot of flexibility with the non-Tunsil players — technically they have flexibility there too, but if they let him walk O’Brien will be figuratively dead — they have time to figure them out. They also have a boatload of cash to spend. Houston enters the 2020 offseason with $74 million in cap space, and that number gets even bigger when you realize players like Zach Fulton ($7 million), Senio Kelemete ($4.5 million) and Hargreaves are easy cuts if need be. Make some difficult cuts on top of that, and you’re looking at $100 million in cap space before you start re-negotiating with the obvious long-termers.

This is a distinction that I think many people — even me, probably — lost in the Tunsil trade. It’s a trade that was aimed to make the roster better this year, and it was wildly aggressive, but it’s also not exactly something that won’t continue to help the Texans in future years. At least until they pay Tunsil $75 million guaranteed and he shows up to camp weighing 350. (i’m just kidding. I think.)

What does a win-now team actually do?

A win-now team would have taken Houston’s offseason cap space and actually spent. A win-now team would have signed Trent Brown (or Nate Solder in 2018). A win-now team wouldn’t have traded Jadeveon Clowney. A win-now team doesn’t pretend that Earl Thomas isn’t available because he’s old. A win-now team probably even claims Terrell Suggs on waivers this week. Sometimes, win-now moves work. Sometimes, they don’t. They are risks you take because you’re trying to win.

The key to a win-now team is mentality. When Bill O’Brien talks, you never really hear a lot of talk about Super Bowls. In-season, he barely wants to even discuss the idea of upcoming games, let alone have his team lose focus on what’s at stake this week. When O’Brien does sit downs during the offseason, as in say this one, he focuses on the division intensely. “You have to win the division,” O’Brien says in that clip. They’ve won it in three of his six seasons. They may make it four in short order. And if you are privy to the bevy of Texans PR stuff, you know that when O’Brien talks before division games, he’s happy to bring up how much more important those games are to him.

How many players over 30 years old do you think the Texans have employed this year? OK, OK, Jon Weeks is old. How many offensive and defensive starters do you think were over 30? The answer was four: J.J. Watt, Johnathan Joseph, Darren Fells, and (if you count him) Chris Clark. Joseph, Fells, and Clark are all free agents in a few weeks. J.J. Watt is a superstar and will obviously be retained.

The Texans had the youngest snap-weighted offense in the NFL in 2018, and in 2019, they added two new rookie offensive linemen, Tunsil, and Duke Johnson. The defense was older, but it was heavily weighted by Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Shareece Wright. Two of those three didn’t come back. Neither did Tyrann Mathieu (26). A win-now team isn’t going to let rookies figure it out on the field. You can be safe with your contracts, or you can be safe with the quality of players you put on the field. The Texans have usually sided with the former.

Win-now teams that come into free agency with cap space are interested in Thomas. They’re willing to overpay Mathieu. Bringing in a whole new receiving corps and offensive line like Buffalo successfully did. Bringing in two new edge rushers like Green Bay did. Making more reasonable splash trades like Cleveland did before Freddie Kitchens turned their season into a Wile E Coyote movie. They’re treating the NFL offseason as a real opportunity to attack. The Texans did that this season after O’Brien had to look at his roster with fresh eyes and cleaned house — in a way that will deprive them of a lot of draft picks later on — but they haven’t attacked free agency since…

All setup, no payoff

Brock Osweiler.

The Texans didn’t make a huge cash outlay in 2019’s free agency — Tashaun Gipson got $9.5 million guaranteed. They were the buy-low team on Tyrann Mathieu rather than the team that paid him big. They spent a modest amount on Aaron Colvin ($18 million guaranteed) and Fulton ($13 million guaranteed) in 2018. They signed practically nobody in 2017. Jeff Allen received $12 million guaranteed in 2016, Lamar Miller received $14 million guaranteed, and Osweiler — the great white whale — received $37 million guaranteed. The 2015 offseason under O’Brien brought in Rahim Moore, Vince Wilfork, and Brian Hoyer — though they also spent heavily to keep Kareem Jackson and Derek Newton. Jackson got $20 million guaranteed, and Newton got $10 million guaranteed.

The Texans have not been heavy spenders. They re-signed DeAndre Hopkins in 2017. They re-signed J.J. Watt in 2014. Nick Martin in 2019. Benardrick McKinney in 2018. When they find someone they like under O’Brien, they’re happy to commit to them early. But outside of that, they have been remarkably thrifty.

A lot of the fans I talk to are conditioning themselves to look at the available draft picks the Texans have, look at the salary cap space they have in 2020, and project the Texans to go hog-wild in free agency.

I think history as a guide would tell us to not believe in that. You’ll see a new deal for Tunsil. You might see a new deal for Watson if the Texans think it’s advantageous to do that now rather than wait a year. But if you expect the O’Brien Texans to do more than splash around in the middle market, I would dial back those expectations a little bit. It would be wildly out of character for how this franchise has operated under the McNairs. The only free agent deals the Texans have ever really struck at the top of the market are Osweiler and Johnathan Joseph.

Narrative fandom and storytelling

We are trained by movies and fiction writing to expect a certain resolution to things in a neat and normal order. The hero saves something from the villain. The villain strikes back. Things go back-and-forth, and finally order is restored. We talk about sports teams in those same terms even though sports teams aren’t a narrative arc. A fall-apart moment is only a fall-apart moment if the people in power believe it is. Bill O’Brien has defied the easy narrative for years, and the Texans retained him after a 4-12 season because of what he was able to show with Watson in a small sample size.

What if the 2020s Houston Texans are nothing more than the 2010s Green Bay Packers, waiting for Watson to become Aaron Rodgers? What if their ambition, every year, is simply to win the AFC South and see what happens?

When Cal McNair fired Brian Gaine, he noted that it was in the best interest of their organization in their “quest to build a championship team for the city of Houston.” I found that wording revealing, because someone must have told him in that moment that what Gaine had put out there in the middle of the summer wasn’t going to cut it.

Everything about this franchise that fans are upset about — how slow they are to make progress, how they aren’t taking the next step to a first-round bye, how sick they are of hearing O’Brien make excuses, how annoying it was to ship out Jadeveon Clowney for nothing — can be explained away very simply if you stop believing in the narrative arc that a team has to take a next step.

I’m not saying this story ends that way for sure. Watson gives them a chance in any playoff game they play in. But a key characteristic of win-now teams are that they have grand ambitions. Sometimes those ambitions are hilarious in retrospect — hello to the Dream Team Eagles — but they are always set in motion with defining actions that go beyond “wanting to retain this tackle’s rights in 2020” or “we like the flexibility that this corner gives us going forward.”

As Houston heads into what is likely another playoff season with Deshaun Watson, waiting for the Texans to do more than struggle against the current to stay a playoff team, I think that’s an important question to ask. Do the Texans actually have championship ambitions, or do they simply want to remain the team that could get there if everything breaks right?

Because when I hear the only football man this organization puts forward talk, I don’t hear a win-now mentality, I don’t hear the vision of future titles when he answers for his trades so much as I hear the idea of sustainability.

But for the most part, what I hear is a man who is focused on Tampa Bay (or Tennessee, or Atlanta) intently, and that’s about it.

***

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.

Four Downs: Texans 24, Titans 21

This year, one where we’ve seen the Texans speak out about their own inconsistency multiple times, has actually been fairly consistent in one way. The Texans falter in a game where they should have won, fail to take control of their playoff destiny, but they settle themselves down.

They look in to the chaotic void that is the middle class of the AFC, and they say “no thanks.”

To me, the Texans didn’t do a whole lot to answer the questions about themselves going forward — and I’ll talk a little bit about why that was as we get further down — but what they did prove was that when you take a game-script offense and put it down 14-0, you greatly increase your chances of winning.

The offense wasn’t always pretty. The defense was never pretty. But after taking care of business in Nashville, the Texans are an overwhelming favorite to make the playoffs. One win or a pair of losses by the Titans and Colts (three games left) would clinch the AFC South. I crack a lot on Bill O’Brien’s vision because I don’t think it’s ambitious enough, but you have to admit — he does set out and accomplish what he actually plans to seize.

1 — The play that swung the season

Tennessee’s run offense had just gotten cranking, with a Derrick Henry 20-yard run a few plays before this one. The Texans had been stymied with an interception deep in Titans territory on their first drive, and had gone three possessions with no points. It looked like Tennessee was about to send the Texans to game-script hell before Justin Reid recognized the play that the Titans were about to run and … well, I’ll let him describe it:

Reid broke up the pass, the ball serendipitously landed in Whitney Mercilus’ lap, and he turned the entire field over by setting the ball up at the Tennessee 12. Two plays later, Deshaun Watson laid up a loft ball over man coverage to Kenny Stills, and the Texans took their first lead in a game they’d never trail.

I want to be realistic about this: The Texans were outgained 432-374, and they lost yards per play 6.4 to 5.9 while losing the turnover battle 2 to 1. By the raw yardage statistics, this was Tennessee’s game to lose. But the ability to avoid getting game-scripted by a run-heavy offense is enormous, and the raw return yardage on this pick was enormous.

This was, literally, the play that saved the season.

2 — Hyde definition

In typical AFC South fashion, this game was won in the run trenches. In unexpected fashion, it was the Texans that won the game there, not the Titans.

Those 18 attempts were weighed down by four clock killing attempts in the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead. From the second quarter on in particular, the Texans were able to get four or five yards whenever they needed to.

I don’t think this is particularly sustainable given how easy New England was able to limit O’Brien’s zone game a few weeks ago, but it was a nice surprise for the Texans to come out and lay 140 rushing yards on a team that hadn’t given up that many since Week 9 and had only given up more than 117 twice all season.

If you want to be supremely optimistic, even Chris Clark made a great block! (If you want to be supremely optimistic, please disregard all other Chris Clark plays.)

We’ll see just how real that is in a tough matchup next week against a Tampa Bay defense that has allowed just 3.4 yards per carry all season.

3 — Houston’s pass defense is entirely dependent on coverage right now

It’s third-and-10, the Titans are driving to the Houston 37 with 1:20 left. Their kicker already had one blocked and has been horrendous all season, meaning they needed positive yardage. The Titans schemed Kalif Raymond open on one side, but Gareon Conley was able to beat him to the ball:

On fourth-and-10, with no ability to even pretend they’d kick a field goal, the Titans attempted a fake punt and had it broken up by Lonnie Johnson:

The Texans had two sacks and six quarterback hits today, one sack came as Ryan Tannehill tried to step up and run and was caught before he could get past the line of scrimmage. The other, from Charles Omenihu, came as Tannehill tried to buy enough time for someone to get open near the sideline in a Hail Mary situation:

But as a whole, with 37 dropbacks today, the Texans put absolutely no pressure on Tannehill. He was rarely hurried. He got wherever he wanted to go, and the play-action that the Titans used largely worked:

With the Texans right now, it’s all about how often they can cause big plays, and those big plays almost never happen as a result of the pass rush. This is purely about how well they read coverages. That is the defense right now. They got about as gashed up as we all thought they would in run defense, but managed to turn a few drives with good coverage.

4 — The Will Fuller factor

Let’s bring back a classic:

Fuller played today, and the Texans went 6-of-9 on balls that went 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, for 154 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick. Moreover, it was presented before the game as if Fuller missing the Denver game was more about maintenance than anything else, which is terrific news.

Fuller on his own had a solid day, with only one deep catch of note, but the Texans were able to have a lot more success out of their play-action formations because Fuller draws a ton of attention on those. That attention left Hopkins one-on-one on this backbreaker over LeShaun Sims that put the Texans in scoring position up seven with five minutes to play:

Watson did not have his prettiest game, getting picked a couple of times and throwing some ducks early on. But there’s nobody I can think of who I’d rather have with the ball out of the pocket.

This is a different offense when Will Fuller is healthy and playing. Trying to figure out when those two things will happen is sometimes a headache. But when it all goes together, even if O’Brien doesn’t call a perfect game, Houston can still be dangerous.

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Week 15 Preview: Texans @ Titans

The Houston Texans come into Tennessee for a game that will define the rest of their season. It is by no means do or die, but a loss would effectively confine the Texans to the fourth or sixth seeds in the playoffs, and force the return match against the Titans in Week 17 to be a must-win. A win would allow them to all but clinch the division. Their magic number with Tennessee would be one and, if Indianapolis wins to stay alive, their magic number with the Colts would also be one. It would also keep the Texans in contention for the No. 3 seed with a tiebreaker with the Chiefs that could come into play, as well as the vague possibility of a No. 2 seed should they manage their way to a tie with New England or Kansas City for that spot. It will also set the terms by which we see the entirety of Houston’s win-now moves — no pressure!

Unfortunately, the Titans are red-hot. Since Ryan Tannehill took over, Tennessee has had the second-best offensive DVOA in the NFL. There is something to the notion that Tannehill will regress long-term, but Houston’s defense allowed Drew Lock to bake up 31 offensive points for the Broncos with the EZ Bake oven. That is the dark shadow hanging over this game.

Recent history of these games have been mixed for the Texans. Houston’s 97-yard Lamar Miller touchdown run came against the Titans last year, and that keyed a 34-17 win. But in Week 2, the Texans suffered one of the bleakest losses of the Deshaun Watson era when they were felled by Blaine Gabbert. The Titans have historically been whipped by O’Brien’s Texans — they’ve lost seven of the 10 meetings since O’Brien took over in 2014 — but those were mostly Zach Mettenberger-aided cupcake games. It’s been 3-3 since Mariota actually started playing against the Texans in 2016.

Vegas has installed the Titans as three-point favorites, and that has raised from an initial line of 1.5, essentially saying the game is even. It’s an interesting line because I think the Titans, on recent run of play, probably deserve to be favored by even more. The over/under has raised 2.5-3.5 points since it was posted from its original 47 as well, meaning the initial Vegas lean didn’t quite believe in the Titans. That is an interesting development on its own.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy of Football Outsiders

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.

In that way, this game presents as a bit of a trap for the Texans, who have a run-first identity — they’re 12th in rushing attempts despite an average lead of -3.17 per offensive possession. The Texans did not run the ball much in last week’s game despite good per-attempt numbers, and are likely going to see that and be tempted to run more. Particularly when you pair that with how Houston beat the Titans in 2018 with Miller’s big carry.

As self-depreciating as Vrabel is, he definitely knows that O’Brien wants to run. If I were Dean Pees, I’d welcome those runs. The Titans are a much-improved rushing defense (up from -9.4% in 2018) and have only allowed two major blemishes (against Carolina and Indianapolis). This isn’t to say that the Texans couldn’t run on the Titans — they absolutely have enough talent to — but it will be inconsistent at best as long as O’Brien stays with the inside zone as he is wont to do.

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.

The Titans are one of the few teams that run almost zero shadow coverage, so the Texans should be moving DeAndre Hopkins into the slot to dominate. Throwing to the slot last year against the Titans, Watson was 12-of-14 for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Hopkins only had one of those targets. With Adoree Jackson out with a foot injury (two DNPs) and Malcolm Butler on IR, the Titans ran with Tye Smith, Logan Ryan, and waiver claim Tramaine Brock as starters last week against the Raiders. Tennessee’s got great safeties between Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro, but the short passing game should favor the Texans.

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. Of course, if Fuller plays, he scorched the Titans in his first game of 2018 for 100 yards and he’s obviously got the talent to do that in any given week.

Finally, I am using this paragraph to protest Chris Clark’s existence on the roster. I don’t get it. I’m sure Chris Clark is a perfectly nice man and he’s had a fine career. But he’s 35 fucking years old and moves like he’s had a hip injury all year — and hey, speaking of, who popped up on the injury report this week with a hip injury? So … yeah, please don’t make me watch Chris Clark anymore. Thanks.

When the Titans have the ball

The accolades have mostly been about play-action and Tannehill, but let’s also take a moment to recognize that the Titans have a 14.8% run DVOA since Tannehill has been starting. They’re getting good offensive line play pretty much up and down the board, outside of reserve guard Nate Davis. They’ve integrated Tannehill into the run game with some success, and their tight ends and wideouts — particularly rookie A.J. Brown — have been excellent blockers as well. The gliding style of Derrick Henry is a lot of fun to watch when he’s going.

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. Of course, the last time we started looking for rays of hope, the Ravens deathmarched the Texans down the field. The Titans probably aren’t quite the Ravens from a schematic standpoint, but they’re as good as the rest of the league has to offer.

I’m not going to lie to you — the prospect of Tannehill raining death and destruction on the Texans over the air is something that may be somewhat inevitable. 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.

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.

Romeo Crennel said that the cornerback rotation the Texans used last week was part of the plan. Let me say right now: the cornerback rotation for this game should not include Johnathan Joseph in my opinion. This is not the kind of game he’s built for at 35 — physical pounding and with a lot of necessary man-coverage against big receivers. Gareon Conley needs to be a full-time player with Bradley Roby, and I’d actually lean towards Lonnie Johnson as another corner here given his power. I suspect Crennel will play this a little more passive than I’d like, though.

Special teams

Tennessee’s kicking game has been abominable all season. Ryan Succop has missed time and, currently, has not hit a field goal longer than 40 yards on the season. In contrast, the Texans aren’t doing so bad!

Both teams have good punt coverage units. The Texans have lost a little bit of oomph recently without Dylan Cole — they allowed a 33-yard kickoff return to start the second half against the Broncos.

The read

It’s true that the Texans have ground out wins in big games this season. It’s true that the defense has been better coming off a game where they got their butt kicked. I regard that as mostly noise.

I would not be completely, knock-me-over-with-a-feather shocked if the Texans won. I expect it to be a low-possession game with two teams that like to run, and if Will Fuller plays, the Texans have so much juice that they can’t be counted out. All it would take is a few big plays on defense.

I do not trust this defense to successfully stop Derrick Henry or the play-action pass game. Titans 29, Texans 27. Prove me wrong kids, prove me wrong.

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Houston runs too much max-protect play-action

Deshaun Watson and play-action passes are a natural marriage. Watson has the ability to loft the ball deep over man coverage, he has the ability to scramble to buy time. Bootlegs give him the ability to use his natural athleticism in space if nothing is immediately open. He reads the field well enough to get to his checkdowns with extra time. Bill O’Brien runs the ball a lot out of heavier formations — these are things that, in theory, should make play-action amazing for the Texans.

But that marriage remains a fit only on paper with how the Texans run play-action most of the time. It’s one of the weakest parts of the Houston offense, and is especially galling as they go into a tilt with the Titans. The Titans have dominated in play-action under new coordinator Arthur Smith — even when Marcus Mariota was starting — and the Texans have been comparatively awful.

The key point of difference for me is simple: The Texans use too many blockers on their most-used play-action sets.

In 2018, the Texans ran max-protect play-action (seven or more blockers) 61 times and averaged just 6.9 yards per play. When they used six or fewer blockers (89 times), they averaged 9.1 yards per play. Now, nothing I have at this moment lets me split out the numbers like that for this season — FO does not rebuild it’s database for this sort of thing until the playoffs typically — but anecdotally I think the Texans have used more max-protect play-action than ever this year and it’s just not effective.

The Broncos roll out with two deep safeties on this play. I started from the end zone angle so you can see the progressions — Watson looks to his right, then to his left on the step up, then back to the right again. This doesn’t have a prayer. In fact, given that it has become easier and easier to target the middle of the field for offenses, it’s flagrantly dumb that the Texans don’t even have a receiver in that area.

The Hopkins touchdown catch at least threatened the middle of the field in max-protect — it’s the Yankee double-crosser route that O’Brien loves — but it still takes forever and a day to develop. Watson has to hold for routes to clear, and it relies on the defense taking the bait. That’s a key implication: When you run max protect play-action, you are relying on the defense to take a bait. You are relying on them to play poorly rather than your players to draw it up and make a play. This is something you see over and over again on play-action tape from the Texans.

Remember that the biggest play-action games for the Texans tend to come against the weakest defenses. Miami in 2018. Atlanta in 2019. These schemes don’t work as well against disciplined schemes that understand how to deal with crossers. They pick on the weak teams.

Contrast this to the Titans — when they run play-action, they almost always have an immediate throw: Even when they were starting Mariota, this was a successful part of their offense.

With Tannehill, they’ve become dominant in play-action, and they do mix in max protect still:

But they also have a variety of depths of target for Tannehill to get after. Look at how many of these wind up as underneath crossers. Notice how often the middle of the field gets targeted. Notice that Tannehill doesn’t often have to buy extra time to make the plays work. They’ll roll Tannehill out and get him some space to operate. They are in-rhythm throws unless Tannehill has to wait for an underneath clear, and even that doesn’t take very long most of the time.

When the Texans run play-action right now, it is all or nothing. Either the play gets open deep, or it doesn’t and they gain almost nothing. That’s why the Texans run play-action just 22% of the time. That’s why the offense is only explosive on an inconsistent basis and is heavily reliant on Will Fuller, who is — pardon my language — a fucking unicorn as far as his combination of speed and route-running. So much of the passing game is built on winning deep and late, and even the few checkdown options that do get integrated feel like afterthoughts.

It’s okay to run play-action and only get a slant across the middle. That’ll win a lot of games, as the Titans are showing. Houston’s play-action game, by contrast, is constipated.

Maybe it works against Tennessee and maybe it doesn’t — that defense is not playing particularly well right now — but with how big of a weapon play-action should be for this team, it’s obviously not living up to what it could be because of how slow it is. Nothing shows that more than matching up against a Titans team that, on paper, doesn’t have the skill position talent to max the Texans on offense. But the plays they run are more effective, and that’s all that matters.

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Four Downs: Broncos 38, Texans 24

Well! That was degrading for everybody involved.

The Texans, coming off one of the best wins in franchise history, flopped and surrendered on Sunday. Rookie quarterback Drew Lock, in his second start, destroyed the Romeo Crennel game plan, and Kareem Jackson’s fumble-six return game-scripted the Texans to a hell that they were never able to climb out of.

It is a crushing loss, and one that carries with it a bevy of questions. Why isn’t a team that is able to seemingly bottle up Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady unable to do the same against a rookie quarterback? How did the Texans get behind so quickly?

I’m going to run out of space because we’ve got a lot of little things to talk about, but I want to quickly mention the fourth-and-1 go the Texans did in their own territory. I loved this call:

I don’t like moving the running back out, but that seems to be a comfy thing for Watson so I understand it. The score is 24-3. The game is effectively over if you punt it, and you have to chase at that point. They dialed up a play that had not one, but two open receivers. The ball was tipped. A lot of my timeline was up in arms about how Hopkins was open — well, the pick play action was supposed to free up Coutee, it was the primary read, and it was also open. It’s poor execution — and a play that I think Watson has more problems throwing than over the middle — but not a play I think was bad in general. It was a poor result rather than a poor process to me.

And, well, that’s how I feel about a lot of what the offense did today. But first:

1 — Houston’s defense was thrashed repeatedly

Here’s the real problem the Houston Texans face: They have no negative plays. Drew Lock took one sack — from Jacob Martin in the fourth quarter when the game was already in hand — and took a bunch of quarterback hits late in the play. So when you do that, you have to have tight coverage.

They did not have tight coverage. Lock’s first touchdown throw? Incredibly well defensed by Jahleel Addae, great throw and it still took a great catch from the tight end.

Everything else the Broncos did? Wide the hell open. Just play after play of open receivers with nobody next to them. A sonning by Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello.

Denver torched Houston’s play-action defense — which actually started the day allowing only 6.5 yards per pass — by making sure that everything was headed towards the first action. That’s a natural order for Crennel’s units and something I’m surprised doesn’t get exploited as often as it should.

So yes, Lock’s first touchdown throw? Excellent. The other two? Receivers went in essentially untouched. Guys were flying open on slants. This was a case of a unit that got flat-out outcoached. And when you have no room for error and get outcoached, you can give up 31 points as an offense.

Simply put: The Texans can’t afford for Romeo Crennel to give up that much space to anybody right now. They’ve got to game plan better. Oh, and Tennessee loves play-action, so — get on that right quick, right?

2 — The offense … actually wasn’t that bad until they crossed the 50.

Houston’s first four series gained 135 yards. That’s not too shabby. But when they crossed the Denver 50-yard-line in the first half, they turned into pumpkins.

The Texans were haunted by a pair of crucial false starts by penalty league-leader Laremy Tunsil, who has been a walking false start violation this season. That forced plays that were third-and-5 and third-and-10 to third-and-10 and third-and-15, respectively. But more importantly, they gained negative-1 yards on 13 plays. There were a mix of woeful plays by both Deshaun Watson, his receivers, and the coaches in those drives — I want to talk about play-action passing later this week so I’ll save it for that — but when the Texans threw on first down they threw into crowds. The Broncos seemed to be waiting on curls. Watson often had to go past his first few options to find someone open.

You can see Watson reading the field on this throwaway. Doesn’t like it to the right, doesn’t like it in the middle, has to get going:

Simply put — it’s very hard to score when you can’t produce in this area. The Texans got a long field-goal attempt out of it, punted twice, and had the fumble-six. They moved the ball fairly well. But, well, the execution matters.

3 — Kareem Jackson was a man on a mission

Jackson walked from Houston to Denver without even a contract offer after nine years here as a first-round pick. He was one of the major reasons the Texans won the game against the Broncos in Denver last season. And, here, he was one of the main reasons that the Texans were whomped. Jackson returned the fumble for a score, intercepted a ball late off a deflection, and thumped DeAndre Hopkins bad enough to send him to the medical tent:

I wrote a big piece about Jackson’s history in Houston before the season when it became clear he wouldn’t come back. Obviously, when you cover players, you aren’t supposed to let your personal feelings get in the way about them. It makes some sense to let 31-year-old safeties head off. I get it. But I always admired that Kareem was able to come back from his dreadful first couple of years and become a contributor. Even though it was Texans ass he was kicking today, it was still fun to watch him play:

Say what you will about Jackson’s coverage — and boy have I ever over the years — but he could always come downhill and thump you. Still can, as the Texans learned on Sunday.

4 — The rotations fell apart

Johnathan Joseph isn’t a man-coverage cornerback in 2019. He’s just not. I think he’s objectively the best cornerback in Texans history, and I respect the hell out of him. He’s just not physical enough to hang on horizontal crossing routes anymore:

The idea of bringing in all these other corners was that the Texans needed to play more physical coverage, but the Texans rotated cornerbacks around wildly, to the point where even Bradley Roby was getting taken off the field, and it didn’t seem to help anybody.

Chris Clark is still bad. That was a rotation that nobody needed and I still have no idea why he gets to play over Roderick Johnson. (And no, “he’s a good teammate” is not a good answer.)

It felt like we saw a lot less Jacob Martin with the return of Brennan Scarlett, and as much as I think Scarlett’s good at what he does, what he does is not pass rusher. Martin had the lone sack of the game:

Scarlett, playing hurt (I assume) and being shook up later in the game, was the victim of an easy touchdown throw off motions from the Broncos play-action:

I don’t think any of the players I named aren’t NFL-caliber players. I just think the Texans didn’t really understand how to use them best in this game at this time. They don’t know who they want to start at corner or in what situation they want to play them all. They don’t know if pass rush is more important than run stuffing. So it felt very much like a game where the Texans just threw some shit at the wall to see what stuck:

Unfortunately, this is something that kind of comes with the territory of bringing in new players. It’s one of those things that happens when you are as aggressive as O’Brien has been about bringing in new guys.

Here’s how I’d play it: Start Roby and Conley, put Hargreaves in on third downs. Martin’s pass rush is too important for him to not be taking most of the snaps opposite Mercilus. Let Lonnie Johnson play fourth corner in dime situations. Let the defense play as aggressively as they can in coverage.

It’s not ideal, but it’s where the Texans are at right now on that side of the ball. They need to take some bold steps to be competitive. The Titans are bringing a high-flying play-action attack to the Texans next week. Houston better be prepared to cover for as long as they can.

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Week 14 Preview: Texans vs. Broncos

Huge win over the Patriots in their pockets, the Texans will look to topple the Broncos to complete a 3-for-3 homestand and firmly solidify a playoff spot. I would not call this game huge by an objective measurement compared to what the Texans have been up against all year only because they are two games behind a first-round bye and (effectively, assuming they can beat the Titans once in two games), two games ahead of the AFC South race. All that is imminently turnable in one week is the race for the 3-4 seed with Kansas City, who play the Patriots. Obviously, of course, if the Texans have real designs on the playoffs rather than just wanting a participation trophy, they’ll want this one in pocket as well.

This is sort of a weird game to call because so much has changed for these two teams this season. Deshaun Watson is around and is consistent, but every other position group on these two teams — including every great edge player each team has — can’t really be counted on for one reason or another. Last year, when the Texans went to Denver, Watson hung on to a win that J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney mostly generated by dominating the Denver line and Case Keenum.

These two teams share a very linked history, with Houston importing Gary Kubiak from Denver after the 2005 season and importing Brock Osweiler after the 2016 season. And, of course, Kubiak linking up with Peyton Manning after it was rumored that Manning wanted that to happen when he was originally released after 2011. Prior to beating up on Keenum last year, the last two games the teams played were Broncos asswhippings — one in Osweiler’s return to Denver, and one with Manning at the trigger in his record-breaking season.

Opening at 7.5-point favorites, the Texans quickly ballooned to 8.5 or even 9-point favorites in some books. That reflects the reality of the Broncos starting a regressed rookie quarterback who didn’t exactly look stellar in the second half of his debut. But is that initial view of Lock what we should count on against the Texans?

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

Let’s start with where Denver is at as Kareem Jackson re-visits NRG: The big news is that Von Miller has been dealing with an MCL injury and may not play in the game, telling reporters that “when you take away exotic movements that make me who I am it changes the type of player I am.” Bradley Chubb is on IR. Derek Wolfe is on IR. That might give you the thought that this defense will pack it in — don’t get suckered in. The Broncos have a ton of depth and experience over the middle of the field. I’ve long been a fan of Todd Davis. Shelby Harris is having his typical solid season with four sacks at off-tackle, and Justin Simmons appears to be this team’s next star in the making at safety. Jackson, of course, remains a stellar box safety as well.

All of which is to say: Bill O’Brien made a big point of how he wants to run, and I don’t think he’s going to have a lot of success with it. The Broncos have gotten spilled by the Jaguars and Bills this year to the tune of 200+ yards on the ground, but have tended to be fairly solid over the course of the season. The Broncos are a YAC allowing ground defense: They gave up 151 yards after contact to the Bills and 159 after contact to the Jaguars. Carlos Hyde is an arm tackle breaker, but not really the back who is going to leave someone in the dust after getting past them. If the Texans go into the lab and get RPOs working as a staple play again, I’d totally get it. But simple inside zone with Hyde is not going to get the job done in my estimation.

The Broncos show a pronounced split in how well they do against 11-personnel versus how well they do against other groupings. They’ve held 11-personnel to a 40% success rate against the pass, and a 43% success rate against the run. Only New England, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh have done better. The Texans have been moving towards more 12-personnel with Jordan Thomas back, even mixing in more 13-personnel last week, and that would seem to be an easier area of attack with teams succeeding on 54% of their dropbacks in 12 against the Broncos.

The big letdown spot for the Broncos have been the non-Chris Harris corners. Bryce Callahan, big free-agent signee, has never gotten on the field. That’s left the Broncos rotating through corners and, as the Texans did last year, shifting Jackson back-and-forth between corner and safety. Last week, Jackson took one spot with Will Parks playing safety, and Isaac Yiadom took over and allowed 114 yards on seven targets, with two missed tackles.

Harris had shadowed against several big-name wideouts this year and has played quite well when doing so, holding Stefon Diggs catchless and Keenan Allen to 16 yards last week. That’ll likely be this week’s DeAndre Hopkins challenge. Note that No. 1 wideouts have been quite good against the Broncos empirically, as they’ve averaged a 27.1% DVOA that ranks 29th in DVOA allowed to No. 1 wideouts.

I don’t have a lot of doubt that the Texans can throw on the Broncos. For one thing, the Broncos are not frequent blitzers under Fangio. They sent seven blitzes at Philip Rivers in 32 dropbacks, and have blitzed on just 26.2% of opposing dropbacks this year, a middle-of-the pack amount. With the big pass rushers down or at least hampered, I don’t foresee a reason that Watson should be especially harried outside of excessive Chris Clark play. (Please, please, don’t make me watch Chris Clark.)

But the Fangio Broncos are impressive overall as a defense — they aren’t going to make things easy for the Texans unless Yiadom and Jackson simply can’t hold up in deep coverage.

When the Broncos have the ball

Both coordinators on this side of the ball — Rich Scangarello for Denver and Romeo Crennel for the Texans — commented on how hard this game is going to be because they simply don’t have a lot of tape on how each side plays with new additions. So if I am wildly wrong somewhere, please keep in mind that even the coordinators are not entirely sure what to make of the matchup.

The Broncos had one of the best run offenses in the NFL last year, but haven’t really been able to do as much inside as they did last year with Matt Paradis off to Carolina and Ron Leary ineffective away from the Dallas dream team line. Phillip Lindsay averaged 5.9 yards per attempt on inside runs in 2018, and is down at 3.3 in 2019. The group as a whole just doesn’t get as much push as they did in 2018.

The good news for Denver is that Houston has been woeful over the last three weeks against the run. Each of the last three opponents are over 145 yards, and with J.J. Watt done the Texans generate very little in the way of negative plays. They have just 10 run stuffs since Week 9. They had 28 in the first eight weeks. The Texans only allowed 54 yards after contact to the Patriots and 71 yards to the Colts too — they were getting whipped up front, it wasn’t just poor tackling.

Denver actually uses a lot of 21-personnel — two backs, one tight end — they’re at 14% of plays out of that set, fourth to only Minnesota, San Francisco, and New Orleans. They are built to run the ball because, outside of Courtland Sutton, they don’t have much in the way of scary receiving threats. DaeSean Hamilton dropped an open slant that might have gone for 30 yards last week. Even Noah Fant, though he’s come on of late, has had a lot of inconsistency as a rookie.

Houston’s new big strength with all its healthy cornerbacks, as you saw against New England, is the ability to cover traditional mismatches with more adept cover players. That doesn’t deeply matter against Denver — the Broncos are going to find a way to throw to Sutton and they don’t have a deeply impressive receiving option.

Drew Lock’s first start showed a lot of what we already knew about him coming into the season. He made a rookie mistake on his pick. He has a ton of arm strength and an uncommon ability to create out of structure. I think it’s probably a good thing for the Broncos in this particular game that there’s not a lot of tendency tape out there for the Texans to study, because he strikes me as someone who can succeed right away but struggles more as the little things pile up against them.

One thing that I think bodes well for the Texans is that the Broncos don’t attack the middle of the field all that often — even with some improvement against the Patriots, the Texans are still allowing a league-worst 65.6% DVOA on passes over the short middle.

Special teams

Is this the week the Texans actually get a return going? Denver’s coverage teams have been abysmal all season. The Broncos have allowed 28.43 yards per kickoff return — second-highest in the league — and are one of three teams to have allowed a punt return touchdown this year. DeAndre Carter hive, this could be your week.

The read

High point spreads in the Bill O’Brien era … the Texans have won every single game that they’ve been favored by more than 6.5 — but that’s often been them getting matched up against ghastly teams. I don’t think the Broncos are ghastly, and I don’t know if Houston is going to be able to run the ball effectively enough to salt leads away.

I do think there is some blowout potential for the Texans, both because of Watson and because Lock’s potentially combustible. But I think the more likely scenario is one where two conservative coaches take turns trying to out-conservative each other. I will be taking the points and going Broncos 16, Texans 20.

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Negative plays, the concept of first-down runs, and Bill O’Brien’s Texans

Your Houston Texans are having, compared to 2018, a highly effective season running the football. They’re averaging 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, which puts them fourth in the NFL. In 2018, that number was 4.3. Both numbers see a Deshaun Watson boost (Watson averages 5.7 yards per attempt for his career), but the Texans have clearly improved from 2018, where they struggled to run out of base formations for whole games at a time at the end of the season.

However, because of the shape of what running the football looks like for most teams, how much Houston cares about the running game — and in particular on first down — anchors their offense. The Texans improved from 15th to eighth in DVOA this week on the heels of Watson’s four touchdowns against a Patriots defense that was playing historically well. The ceiling of the pass offense has been improved by all the additional weapons that they’ve brought in. With a 30.3% pass DVOA, the Texans are seventh-place and not far out of the top five.

The Texans are one of two teams with a top-8 offensive DVOA that has a negative run offense DVOA. The other, Kansas City, has run the ball 269 times to Houston’s 326. Critics of Bill O’Brien tend to revert to the idea that he plays too simple of a pattern: run, run, slant. That’s not necessarily true. The Texans did run-run-pass last year only 18 percent of the time — a high amount, but not outlier high like Seattle was.

But this was a massive problem against New England, where Carlos Hyde had just 10 carries for 17 yards. Often, the concept of “staying on schedule” is invoked in NFL circles. For O’Brien, he most often harps in press conferences about the idea of avoiding negative plays and mistakes. “We don’t have a play for first-and-30,” to paraphrase something he said about the Jaguars game in London. Where we have a ways to go in the analytics world is finding a way to make coaches understand that failed rushes in a non-clock killing situation are mistakes.

Last week Bill Belichick posted up eight in the box 30% of the time for Hyde, a much higher number than he was used to seeing. (Over the full season, that number is 14.1%.) He played to keep the Texans from running on first down because it is fairly evident to anyone who watches games that this is what O’Brien likes to do. O’Brien changed nothing, barely ran anything that would occupy a defender like a read-option, and the run offense died on the table. It was only for the grace of Watson and Duke Johnson that Houston’s pass offense was able to save the fact that it was handed the ball on second down with an average of 8.75 yards to go for the entirety of the game.

The top five teams in terms of running the ball on first down are Baltimore, Oakland, Dallas, Houston, and San Francisco. Baltimore and San Francisco have unique, well-documented run games — one has Lamar Jackson and a pile full of Greg Roman schemes, while the other has Baby Shanahan’s impressive set of tactical advantages. The Raiders have Derek Carr at quarterback, so they have little choice but to run the ball. The Cowboys … well, I hope if you’re reading this you know that as an organization they have decided to prove that signing Ezekiel Elliott to a huge contract was worth it even though it wasn’t.

The other thing those four teams have in common: they actually run for positive DVOA on those first downs. That is something the Texans don’t do, and something that gets even more extreme when you split out recent games:

It’s also something that is borne out in multiple years of data. The Texans ran 278 times on first down in 2018 and had a -25.2% DVOA on those carries. (The only teams that ran more were Seattle and Baltimore, and each only by two rushes.) The Texans ran 267 times on first down in 2017 and had a -14.1% DVOA. (The only team ahead of them that year was Minnesota, at 276.)

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I am not quite as anti-run as a lot of my fellow analytics disciples. At the end of the day, what you are trying to do in a football game is play to where defenders aren’t and play to where your strengths are. Sometimes, as it was against Kansas City’s woeful run defense, that will mean you run the ball a lot more.

But the Texans have been donating downs away under O’Brien’s watch for seasons, and since we just spoke Duke Johnson targets into existence last week, let’s speak this one into existence too: Those donated carries don’t always have as much negative yardage as a sack does, but they continue to put the passing offense in situations that are trickier than they should be. Worst of all, the runs themselves are not particularly interesting. I make it a point to pick out O’Brien’s exotic designs with Watson and satellite receivers and praise them. They were a big part of the Kansas City game plan. Whereas the Ravens and 49ers are running on first downs with a big schematic advantage, a lot of the donated downs Houston runs are just simple inside zone.

Red zone stalls are often part and parcel with donated plays. Houston’s first field goal drive against the Colts in Week 7 started out with a failed run and a false start. Their second? Failed run on first down. We focus in on Watson’s sacks because they are loud. Comparatively, these little runs for no gain are silent killers that set up the sacks.

With coaching, it’s always the little things. If O’Brien ran the ball four or five times less on first down a game, this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s all it really amounts to. But the more stagnant and easy to read an offense is, the easier they are to defend. Right now, everybody knows what is coming on first down. Even the fans.

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Four Downs: Texans 28, Patriots 22

The AFC glass ceiling shattered on Sunday night, and Texans fans were free to envision something more for the first time.

Houston bullywhipped the New England Patriots, long-time Texans tormentors, in a way that the final scoreline doesn’t even completely address. Houston achieved a 95% win probability (per ESPN’s in-house metric) towards the end of the third quarter, and turned the tables on the Patriots by decisively winning the battle of the game plans, getting around tight coverage with annoying short completions, and frustrating the opposing quarterback into a series of annoying passes. They Patriots’ed the Patriots. And you can tell this game meant a lot more to the Texans than they’d ever let on this week.

Summing up what this game meant to the collective fanbase is weird in the same way that any thing that destroys self-perception is. This game is the moment you dropped below 200 pounds for the first time in eight years. This game is the first time you asked someone out and they said yes. There are plenty of Toro-colored glasses out in Texans Internet land, and they did go to Arrowhead Stadium earlier this year and win, but the Texans have been Little Brother to the Patriots ever since they became relevant, especially since O’Brien has been in town. Big Brother finally stumbled.

My pragmatic side wants to tell you that this does not necessarily mean much. It wants to tell you that the Patriots are still heavy favorites to host a return meeting between these two teams if it happens. It wants to tell you that Bill O’Brien has often come up with amazing play designs and has called good game plans before, but that it’s usually a tease rather than a trend. It wants to tell you that New England’s passing attack has looked broken since Week 5 and that this played into that. It wants to tell you that the real threat is roughly 400 miles west of Foxboro, where the Texans got spanked 41-7.

But it does matter. It matters because we were able to see it. The vision that Bill O’Brien has sold his bosses as Patriots South has always been a fraudulent-ass one that relied on closing your eyes any time the Texans played a real team. They haven’t closed the deed on this season yet, and they’re still not likely to grab a first-round bye. But when you watch this game, and the Kansas City game, you are able to see it.

1 — Deshaun Watson, Duke Johnson, and short game dominance

The mantra all week from the Texans was about avoiding turnovers and playing mistake-free football. They didn’t always do that as a team — they had penalties that set back the cause, and two of Watson’s three sacks taken were from almost entirely unaccounted for rushes:

But what we’ve seen when the Texans have cruised this season hasn’t been that they need to reinvent the wheel on offense, it’s that they have so much skill position depth that all they need to do is have Watson get the ball out and go on with their day. Watson took three sacks, but only four total quarterback hits on those sacks. He was 14-of-18 for 135 yards and two touchdowns on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If you go through the ones that weren’t caught — one was defensive pass interference, one was a dropped Kenny Stills slant — they’re not exactly plays that show poorly on Watson.

It’s me, I’m that idiot who said that Duke Johnson was the important player that needed to be involved. I get to be right about things sometimes.

When Watson is operating the short-area game well, the Texans feel unstoppable and inevitable. They were so inevitable in this game that they donated 10 Carlos Hyde rushes to charity (1.7 yards per carry, long of four yards) and still averaged 7.7 yards per pass.

The play where Watson avoided a Kyle Van Noy sack on first down, throwing the ball away, and then found Jordan Akins on a tackle-breaking run after catch to get out of second-and-10 on the second scoring drive exemplifies what’s going on here. The Texans aren’t necessarily avoiding hurting themselves with penalties or bad plays — because every team does this to some extent — but when you throw for 7.7 yards per attempt it doesn’t really matter if you mix in a negative play or two.

2 — The emergence of Jacob Martin

Not only did the Patriots look limited as a passing offense, they looked limited in a way that relied on Tom Brady buying time. I don’t think any of their older receivers besides Edelman looked 100%, and I don’t think either of their younger receivers showed themselves capable in this game. There is no tight end play.

But the Texans also did this by bringing heat — they sacked Brady three times, but they hit him 12 total times. Brady was constantly being harassed. His average time-to-throw was a startling 3.4 seconds, which points to both the trouble his receivers had getting open and how often he had to reset his throwing point.

Nobody sent Brady fleeing as often as Jacob Martin on the edge — the Patriots simply couldn’t give Marcus Cannon enough help on the outside, and Cannon was watching Martin go by him on nearly a by-drive basis.

Brennan Scarlett and Angelo Blackson were missed in the base run game — more on that in a moment — but those extra snaps that Martin got showed us some flashes of how the Texans might possibly be able to recoup a little value on the Jadeveon Clowney trade. I don’t think Martin is some sort of burgeoning superstar — he’s not leaving guys in the dust snap-after-snap or anything like that — but I do think he has enough speed on the edge to be an effective complementary rusher. Like Whitney Mercilus, he does a lot of his living on the initial get-off. Cannon couldn’t deal.

3 — The defensive game plan that the Patriots couldn’t counter off of

The Texans — Romeo Crennel — came into this game with a game-specific plan that actually worked. They decided to force New England’s non-Julian Edelman and James White receivers to beat them in man coverage, and those receivers simply couldn’t do it.

On 24 targets to non-Edelman and White receivers, Brady completed 10 balls for 122 yards and no scores. A vast majority of those balls came on New England’s final three drives of the game, after they were down 21-3.

The Texans were able to create pressure off of guarding White with a DB, and they were able to halt Edelman’s routes to the inside with doubles. Edelman’s 44-yard catch came on a deep in with a picked-up blitz that happened roughly six seconds into the down. Outside of that catch, he had almost nothing happening deep.

When the stakes were their highest, the Patriots went to Mohamed Sanu to try to convert on fourth-and-short. The Texans smartly(!!!) stacked the line, forcing Brady away from the sneak. It was Sanu on Johnathan Joseph, and Joseph was able to break the ball up even if he couldn’t quite hang with Sanu on the initial play:

The amount of situational things that the Texans accounted for in this game that they normally don’t was staggering to me. Maybe it goes blind and unaccounted for and we see it brightly here because it was such a big game, but I’m positive I’ve seen Brady sneak past the Texans for first downs on a regular basis. It was wonderful to see some actual opponent-based game planning that worked. If that sticks throughout the season, it’s cause to praise the coaching staff.

4 — Bradley Roby’s game-script shattering interception and the ensuing touchdown

So of course, Roby’s interception (and near pick-six) was enormous. The Patriots were up 3-0 at the time, and the Texans pounced on that to turn it into seven points when they hit Duke Johnson on third-and-3.

But even more than that, against a Patriots offense that had major issues but could absolutely run the ball in this game, it forced a negative game script from the very beginning. Look at Joseph in run defense on this play:

The Patriots wound up running for 145 yards in the game even though they were always behind. With Scarlett and Blackson out, and the defense up front stocked with guys like Joel Heath, Barkevious Mingo, and Eddie Vanderdoes who had seen very little in the way of playing time, the Patriots were able to pick and choose their way to success in the run game.

You can easily imagine a scenario where the Texans play field position with the Patriots for another couple of plays, then the Pats hit a big run or two, and go up 10, and time is a big ally for the Patriots. That’s why the Roby interception was so big — it wasn’t just the specific purposes of points off turnovers, winning the turnover battle, the short field — it was that it kept the Patriots from executing from a positive game script. If they could have banged away with Sony Michel all game, we might have been looking at a very different final score.

Roby’s pick was, quite frankly, one of the most important plays of the season. It might wind up being one of the most important plays in Texans history if this season continues an optimistic trek. So much hinged on him reading N’Keal Harry’s route and running it for Harry. Even down starting center Ted Karras, the Pats were able to bang away on the Texans.

But because of Roby, they were never able to use the run game as a true weapon — it was a change of pace for three-fourths of the game.

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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.