Week 7 Preview: Houston @ Indianapolis

Unlike the last couple of weeks, the Texans will be coming into Indianapolis at a bit of a disadvantage. The Colts just had their bye week, are coming off their own rousing win in Arrowhead, and they’re getting healthy at the right time. T.Y. Hilton isn’t on the injury report at all, and star linebacker Darius Leonard has cleared concussion protocol. Indy’s banged up secondary still exists, but that was never going to be fixed in a day.

If Houston can win this game — and that’s a big if — they will cinch a real advantage over the rest of the division. Going to three games over .500 while the rest of the division is at .500 or worse, plus having two division wins in pocket for tiebreaker purposes, is quite a big deal.

The Colts opened as 2.5-point home favorites, and that has been driven all the way down to just one-point in some places. The Texans are clearly seen as the more talented team and are being given respect by virtue of the typical three points for homefield virtue.

The Colts have won four of the last five times these teams have played, and the time they lost, in Indianapolis last year during Week 4, is at least somewhat marred by the game going to overtime and Frank Reich going for it on fourth down to try to win the game rather than just taking a tie by punting. Of course, a lot of that recent past is of questionable value now with Andrew Luck retired.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

The biggest difference between this season and last season is the stunning lack of run defense played by the Colts in 2019. Even when Darius Leonard was healthy, this team got pushed back by the Chargers and Titans. Indianapolis’ defense has one of the worst power success rates in the NFL, allowing 89% of carries on third or fourth-down and less than two yards to go to become first downs or touchdowns. Runs at right tackle tend to give them the most trouble, and that’s fortuitous for the Texans because that’s exactly where they spent a lot of the second half against Kansas City.

The Colts have also generated almost no pass rush this year, with just 12 hurries to join their 13 sacks. They have one of the lowest pressure rates in the NFL, and blitzing appears to be mostly a game plan thing for them. Patrick Mahomes got blitzed 16 times. They blitzed Watson 19 times in the AFC Wild Card game, 11 last December, and nine times in Week 4. I expect the number to be closer to 19 than nine in this game — the depleted DB corps (No Malik Hooker, likely no Kenny Moore or Pierre Desir) doesn’t give them much of a choice as far as avoiding big plays. They sort of have to just put pressure on Watson and hope it works out.

The Titans and Chargers both had a lot of luck throwing out of 12-personnel, completing 16-of-16 passes for 7.6 yards per attempt, and running at 7.1 yards per carry. For the season, the Colts are one of 12 teams giving up more than a 50% success rate against 12-personnel, at 54%. As long as that remains Houston’s base game plan, I expect they’ll get a lot done against the Colts. It won’t be completely free, but they should be able to steadily move the ball along even if the Colts are able to bottle up the concepts that gave the Chiefs a lot of trouble on Sunday.

However, potentially a big wrench in these plans is the expected return of Kenny Stills off of his hamstring injury. Was a big part of the desire to shift to 12-personnel the loss of Stills, or was it an organic reaction the pressure Watson was taking? That’s the sort of question that doesn’t get answered in the media and only really plays out on the field. Indy’s best trait as a defense is their success rate as a pass defense against 11-personnel, which has been what the Texans have generally played as a base offense throughout Bill O’Brien’s tenure. Indianapolis has allowed a 23.4% DVOA to “other” wideouts, so both Stills and Coutee could be in line for a big play or two.

Is this finally the week that DeAndre Hopkins goes back to the good fantasy football numbers we’re expecting? Hopkins has been having a bit of a weird season. His average targeted air yards in the Kansas City game was just 6.2 — that follows 7.4 against Atlanta. For reference, it was 11.9 last year and it’s 9.5 on the balance of the 2019 season. If the Texans continue to run their offense like this, I think it caps Hopkins’ yardage total a bit barring broken tackles. You’ll obviously keep starting him, so it doesn’t really matter. But there has definitely been a shift the last few weeks to shorter targets as a whole and — especially for Hopkins — shorter targets on third down.

Play-action pushes the pace towards Will Fuller. On the season, the Colts have actually defended play-action passes pretty well. They’re averaging 7.2 yards per attempt against, essentially unchanged from their normal average allowed on a pass play. However, teams have run play-action against the Colts 30% of the time, so my guess is you’ll still see plenty of shots at Fuller. If Fuller had caught in even two of the three balls that hit him last week, he’d have been a top fantasy football player last week. I imagine he’ll get at least one more shot deep this week.

When the Colts have the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

What the Colts did to the Chiefs has become almost a default game plan for them as they have struggled with inconsistency from Jacoby Brissett. Brissett has generally played mistake-free football because the Colts have generally been able to use the game script in their favor this year. They aren’t asking Brissett to make a lot of dangerous throws, and the run game has made teams a little more reluctant to blitz him. His season-high blitzes taken was from Atlanta, at 13. Every other team has kept it under 10. The Chargers blitzed him only twice. Brissett has also been hurt by his receiving corps. No Checkdowns has Brissett being hit with 13 receiver errors, one of the highest numbers in the NFL.

The Texans have one of the strongest play-action defenses in the NFL, giving up only 5.9 yards per dropback against play-action passes — third lowest in the NFL. They’ll need that, because the Colts run more play-action than any team in the NFL per Sports Info Solutions — 33% of their dropbacks are play-action. The Colts are only getting .6.6 yards per play on those dropbacks, though. They’re not connecting deep very often so far this year.

This is an on-the-spot game for Houston’s run defense, which has been good, if not as historically dominant as they were in the 2018 season. The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and they run more plays out of 13-personnel (three tight ends, one wideout) than any team in the NFL this season. They average 5.4 yards per carry out of that formation.

The Texans have almost no looks against that formation this year, but were impressively successful against it in 2018, holding runs out of 3-TE sets to just 1.7 yards per carry. (Most of those were goal line carries.) The Colts have some great blockers at tight end though — Mo-Alie Cox has been huge, and Jack Doyle can also bring some thunder.

Where I suspect we’ll see the Texans tested the most — and where I think the Colts will absolutely generate yardage — is getting the ball to the edge. They took advantage of Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt’s aggressiveness to get upfield by running past them in the Wild Card round, and I suspect that will play out again this year. Whtiney Mercilus is not quite as much of a chaser as Clowney was, but Watt can absolutely be schemed past like that.

T.Y. Hilton’s deep ball skills are cited often and they have been a big deal throughout the history of Colts-Texans matchups. However, this year, T.Y. Hilton’s average target distance is 7.8 yards. He’s behind many tight ends. He’s behind Jason Witten. Jason “I retired from the NFL to talk poorly about football, then came back” Witten. The Colts have been using Hilton heavily on screens and mostly connecting with him on curl routes.

Coming out of their bye week, I think the big question mark for the Colts is if Deon Cain and Parris Campbell can give them more. Oftentimes, a bye is what is needed to straighten out lagging areas of a team, and I think both receivers have a lot of promise even if they haven’t been great in small sample sizes so far. As things stand so far this season, this is a prefectly acceptable matchup for Houston’s banged up cornerback corps, which has no Bradley Roby and may or may not have Johnathan Joseph back at full strength.

Special teams

Two struggling kicking units trending in opposite directions. Adam Vinatieri imploded in his first two weeks, to the point where it became assumed he might retire. Kai Faibairn and the Texans have struggled over the last three weeks.

Otherwise, both special teams units have been fairly pedestrian to this point. Faibairn and Bryan Anger give the Texans a bit of an edge in field position.

The read

I have a ton of respect for Frank Reich and the job the Colts do. I have so much respect that I expect them to come out and fix a lot of lagging problems the team has had this year. I expect better play from the run defense and the pass game than I’ve seen to this point. Home field matters, and the bye week matters a lot here.

At the same time, I think had there been no bye week, and they were meeting in London or some other neutral site, I’d probably have favored the Texans by five or six on the merits of how each team is playing this season — and I do think there’s a blowout chance for the Texans if the Colts aren’t better than they have been this year.

Usually, when I see a home favorite being given very little respect, I shudder about the points. I do think there’s a chance the Colts win this game. But the way the Texans are playing offense and defense right now emboldens me, and I don’t think statistical systems are giving them enough credit for the way they played in Kansas City because of a few Fuller drops. I’ll take Texans 29, Colts 26.

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Houston’s post-Jadeveon Clowney defense asked Kansas City to beat it deep

I want to talk briefly about the scene of Houston’s defense, and I know it’s going to upset some of the audience that is sick of Jadeveon Clowney. Move on from Jadeveon Clowney already! Yes, I’ve heard you. I’m sorry, trading Clowney before the season changed a lot about how this defense has had to play.

These numbers are all from SportsRadar. While the number of sacks has been stagnant, the actual amount of pressure has gone way down. To compensate, Romeo Crennel has had to use a lot more blitzes, bringing the overall volume of the pressure up even if he hasn’t been able to get clean hurries on a quarterback as often as he’d like.

Clowney and Watt were on the same team last year. It made the defense pick its poison. This year, apart, both are getting picked on more. Watt has not been playing worse even though his hurries are down — he’s as good as he’s ever been.

He simply is getting more doubles and less help. As good a season as Whitney Mercilus has had in terms of pure sacks and forced fumbles and all that, hurries are simply not happening at the same rate Clowney produced them last year.

Keep in mind that this 34.7% blitz rate comes with the caveat that the Texans blitzed almost never against Drew Brees in Week 1. SportsRadar had just eight blitzes charted against Brees in New Orleans, Since that game, the lowest blitz count the Texans have had was against Carolina, at 14. Every other quarterback had taken 20 blitzes at least.

The 2018 Texans blitzed more than 14 times in a game exactly thrice: against Case Keenum in Denver, in the first game against Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler in Jacksonville, and against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football.

What happened against the Chiefs? Well, for one thing, when an offense holds the ball for 2/3rds of the game, you embrace small sample size as a defense. It’s a lot easier to get an offense to mess up a few plays here or there than it is to get them to mess up when they have 80 plays and understand exactly where they want to attack you.

But another, more interesting development, was that the Texans gave Patrick Mahomes some throws that would beat them deep.

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This is single-high safety, one of the primary coverages the Texans rolled out last week. I saw a lot of Cover-3, a lot of single-high, a bit of single-high with a robber concept (one safety free to read quarterback’s eyes), and the occasional off-coverage mixed in. It’s something that I campaigned hard for them to use more of last year. Lonnie Johnson on Demarcus Robinson. Johnson wins the down handily.

Phillip Gaines was pressed into action in this game and mostly came out unscathed deep outside of a few penalty flags. He kept most things in front of him outside, and reacted. Here he gets Robinson again.

I didn’t video a lot of the defensive plays for the Texans because, honestly, a lot of them were not objectively great plays by the Texans. What I saw was an injured quarterback who was missing some excellent shots deep. The Kansas City offense generated a lot of easy yards against these coverages — there was underneath stuff all game that was protected by vertical receivers. Patrick Mahomes attacked the Cover-3 curls the Texans gave him well.

But when the Chiefs were able to single-up, say LeSean McCoy on Zach Cunningham deep in the end zone, the timing was just a bit off. I don’t watch a lot of Chiefs games so I can’t say if that’s a typical thing or if it’s Mahomes ankle or the receiving depth not living up to Sammy Watkins. What I can tell you is that Mahomes went 2-of-11 beyond 10 yards, and the usual problem was that the throws weren’t on-target. The Texans broke up a few, there were a few plays where someone fell. But generally, it was about the throw.

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As a consequence of what Houston is doing, there’s one number I haven’t harped on yet:

2018 average depth of target: 8.4 (23rd)
2019 average depth of target: 9.7 (5th)

The New England Patriots have the best pass defense in the NFL. They’ve picked off 14 passes and allowed one passing touchdown. They also have made the average depth of target 11.0, the second-highest in the NFL behind only the Lions — the team that employs former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

If there’s one thing that Bill O’Brien has first-hand experience with the last two years, it’s the idea that it’s way harder to create offense downfield than it is to create it underneath. The logical application of this is simple: ask quarterbacks to hit passes further downfield, and most of them aren’t good enough to do it consistently. Even the ones who are can have an off-game, as Mahomes did on Sunday.

The Texans squandered a big opportunity to have Clowney, Watt, Mercilus, and this year’s D.J. Reader all play together. But in doing that, Crennel may have inadvertently stumbled on a more sustainable defense than he had last year anyway.

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The return of 2017

A reason that I was so down on the Texans before this season, and then only kinda dragged against my will into thinking they’d win the division, was because a core belief of mine is that Bill O’Brien wasn’t a very good head coach last year. He showed the ability to make adjustments at opportune times — I’ve used the Watson read-option stuff in the Jags Week 17 game as my go-to for this all offseason — but he went right back into the long-developing garbage chute for the Colts playoff game.

So it’s worth pointing out that the reason the Texans have looked so good the last few weeks isn’t just the growth of Deshaun Watson — it’s because the head coach made an adjustment that has worked on every level, and righted one of the wrongs of the past. For that, O’Brien is getting a lot of credit from me.

2017 Deshaun Watson was never actually stopped

Deshaun Watson finished seventh in DVOA in his rookie season, 2017. He did this not in the offense that the Texans ran in 2018, but in the offense they molded to a lot of his college concepts. While he was not perfect, he showed a lot of promise. I will hand this over to Charles McDonald because his piece on it for Football Outsiders is the first one I thought of:

We’re only in the early stages of Deshaun Watson’s career, but it should be noted that he has improved every time he has stepped on the field through the first three weeks of the season. Some people might say that his day only came because the Texans were playing a poor pass defense, but good players routinely take advantage of inferior matchups on the football field. The Texans have to be very, very pleased with the early progress their young quarterback has made so far.

Watson only got better from there. In Weeks 4-8, before Watson tore his ACL in practice after the Seahawks game, the Texans had a positive pass offense DVOA in every single week. It was as high as 84.7% against the Chiefs in Week 5, and as low 21.4% against the Browns in Week 6. The Texans weren’t always able to mesh it with a good running game because their line was so bad at this point, but Watson’s ability to play off RPO and read-option games gave them a lot of extra space.

If you dropped that play into last week’s Kansas City tape, it would have been essentially in place. That’s what a lot of Watson’s best 2017 stuff was about, because he wasn’t as good then as he is now. There were a lot of schemed quick throws that were empirically successful.

Bill O’Brien removed the easy plays from the playbook in 2018

I wrote about the beginnings of the 2018 season and the sense of what had changed for Houston for The Athletic.

The short of it is that O’Brien preferred longer route combinations to the offense’s detriment in 2018. In researching for Football Outsiders Almanac 2018, I could only find a handful of actual, legitimate option plays that Houston ran. When they did run them, they worked. The one game in which they used more of them than in any other game I charted was when they went to Indianapolis, scored 38 points around a bunch of interesting Keke Coutee stuff, and won.

And remember, this wasn’t with O’Brien having seen a lot of tape about Watson getting owned while teams sniffed out the read-option dressing or anything. They were dominant offensively using that in 2017. He chose to keep that out of the offense as a base look.

The start of 2019 was more of the same

My theory is that a lot of the reason behind trading for Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil was about running the O’Brien 2018 offense.

Houston’s adjusted sack rate actually got worse through four weeks despite empirically better line play. Houston’s quarterback hit rate declined, but only by a tiny amount.

While O’Brien did introduce more RPO elements into his offense than he did the year before, the focus of the team continued to rely on Watson to create out of structure to make offense happen. Too many of Houston’s big plays were “Watson buys time for receivers to get open.” It remained a big problem even in games like Week 3 against the Chargers, where Watson wasn’t pressured all that much. There were still plays where he had to buy a lot of time.

Watson is an aggressive quarterback, O’Brien is an aggressive head coach. It always made sense for them to aim downfield, but they never seemed to have a plan B for that in 2018 or the beginning of 2019. If they missed the deep throws, we would sometimes be watching a team with a ridiculous amount of talent struggle to hit 20 points.

What happened to the Falcons and (especially) the Chiefs

While Houston’s turn to 12-personnel in Week 5 opened up the play-action game, Week 6 was a full-on embrace of 2017’s principles, and with better talent and smarter ancillary designs than we saw in 2017. They didn’t hit a single deep ball and they owned the Kansas City defense so bad that they never punted. The Texans have punted once in the last two weeks.

Here’s them utilizing Darren Fells as a drag player in a read-option play:

I understand that it’s a very NFL fan thing to look at option plays and be like “well, that won’t work in the NFL for long.” Well, the NFL isn’t that much different than college football. The main difference isn’t the strategy, it’s the speed of the players. I know we can get way deep into the weeds about how this play had Akins as a wheel route guy on this play, and I could talk over everyone’s heads for about two paragraphs. Let’s just try to keep things simple:

Option plays and play-action plays share a common principle: Making a defender guess. If the defender corrects, and is one step behind, that’s a big hole in NFL terms. One step behind is a crease Carlos Hyde can run through. One step behind is a mostly-open receiver. If you build an offense around this stuff, and a defense can’t figure it out, it’s free. That throw to Fells was 10 free yards. And then you’re in their head:

Carlos Hyde starts to benefit. Tight ends blocking defensive ends start to benefit. Every player gets that little extra bit of help, and all of the sudden you’re running an offense that is overwhelmingly successful. That’s why I was such a stick in the mud about O’Brien abandoning this stuff in 2018. It never made any sense when your quarterback is one of the five best athletic marvels in the league — defenses actually have to play him honestly. Nobody has to play Jared Goff honestly as a run threat. They barely play Carson Wentz as a run threat, and he can actually run. The stuff Lamar Jackson is doing in Baltimore is terrifying to defenses.

Then you involve Keke Coutee, and now the defense is literally trying to read four different players out of the backfield, all of which are either blocking, eligible receivers, or running threats. (Well, Fells probably isn’t a running threat, and Watson probably isn’t blocking, but you get the picture.) You’re putting a lot of mental pressure on the defense to read things correctly, with lots of cheap yards in front of you if they can’t.

It never made any sense for this to not be the way forward for this offense. It was loaded with playmakers at the skill positions, and this offseason brought a fresh batch of tackle breakers (Duke Johnson) and deep threats (Will Fuller’s return to health, Stills) that would make play-action dangerous. More to the point, Watson gets hit less running this offense than he ever did in 2018 — involving him in run-action is less dangerous for him long-term than what we saw early this season.

It’s also worth noting that this doesn’t have to express itself solely as read-option/RPO principles. A lot of what is important is giving Watson early quick reads that let the offense do the work they’re supposed to do. There were more quick curls in that Falcons game than I can remember seeing O’Brien run in a long time.

Over the last two weeks, Watson leads all quarterbacks in DYAR and has a 56.6% DVOA. He understands the field better than he did in 2017. He’s less turnover-prone, and, as O’Brien noted in his Monday presser, making smarter reads.

The Texans didn’t even play that well against the Kansas City defense. They left meat on the bone on a few running plays. Fuller got open deep three times and caught none of them on his person. Hopkins alligator-armed a ball on the goal line. And they still scored 31 points and marched that defense down the field until it was depleted. Then they stuffed fourth-and-3 right down Kansas City’s craw:

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Listen, it’s too soon to say whether these changes will stick as a base game plan. Stills could come back and we could be right back in 11-personnel blitz-to-the-flat ball. The Cowboys had two great games of play-action to lead off the 2019 season and Jason Garrett dragged them right back to the gutter. The Rams have never completely figured out how to adjust off Goff’s play-action being taken away. I’m not saying that as an insult to O’Brien — I just think it’s important to note that head coaches change game plans on a weekly basis and they aren’t flawless reasoners. There’s also the fact that everything is figureoutable in the NFL to some extent, and somebody is going to figure out how to defeat this stuff against the Texans someday, even though it hasn’t happened yet.

But we now know two things, two very good things, that we didn’t know in Week 1.

— Bill O’Brien is aware that basing a lot of the offense off options will kick ass for him.
— Bill O’Brien saw enough on tape to understand that trading for a left tackle alone wasn’t going to fix where Watson was at in dealing with this offense circa 2018.

Those are both objectively good things and reasons why O’Brien deserves a lot of credit for this change. It takes a lot to make a midseason change like that, and I can only hope it isn’t an underdog tactic and instead becomes a base part of the game plan.

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Four Downs: Houston 31, Kansas City 24

I like to pat myself on the back sometimes, and I’m now 5-1 at picking Texans games this year after picking this exact score, but in favor of Kansas City, in my preview post.

I don’t know if there’s a better way to describe this win besides: franchise-altering. The Texans don’t win games like this under Bill O’Brien. Well, they didn’t. Yes, the Chiefs are banged up a bit on the offensive line and defensive front seven. But they had a semi-healthy Patrick Mahomes, a healthy Tyreek Hill, and a healthy Travis Kelce. This is the biggest win of the O’Brien era.

And it came in spite of a lot going against the Texans. Injuries to Tytus Howard and Bradley Roby. Losing the turnover battle. Going down 10-0 in the first two offensive drives of the game. A drop-fest from Will Fuller. Four lost points to Ka’imi Fairbairn’s mojo.

Franchise-altering. And I think we need to start with how O’Brien made this game work:

1 — Going for it

The Texans went for it on fourth down on three separate occasions.

— Fourth-and-1 on the Kansas City 24, down 8 with 4:46 to play in the first half. The Texans converted and eventually got a touchdown.
— Fourth-and-1 on the Kansas City 40, down 1. The play was eventually an interception because it looked like two receivers ran the same route, but it was a ballsy playcall.
— Fourth-and-3 on the Kansas City 27 to put the Chiefs away after the two-minute warning.

I’ve been critical of O’Brien in a lot of areas this year, but one thing he’s earned consistent praise from me for is his fourth-down playcalling. The Texans didn’t punt the entire game. They did not piss away any points on purpose. This was playcalling to win the game. You’ve simply got to give that applause, particularly when stacked up next to Andy Reid’s last drive where he got the Chiefs into a terrible position.

2 — The short passing game is humming for the second straight week.

Deshaun Watson has not been sacked since Week 4.

When you take what Watson does well, make sure that his short reads are always going to work better for him, and then craft a really well-founded run game around him, what you’ve done is erase most of the negative plays that defined this team for the last 20 games.

Most of the deep shots that the Texans took on Kansas City’s secondary wound up not working out. Will Fuller had three touchdowns on his body that went incomplete. Another throw to Hopkins deep was basically a throwaway. Watson completed just two passes over 10 yards on nine attempts, garnering 43 yards and both of his picks. In fact, Watson’s average completion came just 3.2 yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s a practically Bridgewater-ian rate.

It didn’t matter. Houston’s build up of depth at the skill positions carried the day. Tackles were missed left and right, and Duke Johnson, Jordan Akins, and Darren Fells all had huge catches left open underneath.

This was not the sexiest Deshaun Watson game, though it could have looked that way if Fuller catches all three of those balls. All it was? A wildly effective one. Particularly considering that the Chiefs had put up a negative DVOA against short passes and ranked as the fifth-best unit against those passes coming into the game.

3 — The development of the run game

Carlos Hyde ran between the tackles 17 times, garnering 84 yards and a touchdown.

Hyde has been a revelation, as we’ve talked about before, but what was extremely impressive about this game is all the little wrinkles that O’Brien and the staff added to these run plays. They went RPO at times. The tight end dragged across at times. And, oh by the way, Watson is so good that he doesn’t need a lot of help. Two rushing touchdowns from him, each on plays where the Chiefs read the play right but couldn’t bear down on Watson.

It was easy to see how the Colts were able to drive the Chiefs off the field in the second half to take the lead — Kansas City simply couldn’t stop the run. The Texans rolled into Arrowhead and did the exact same thing, putting down 192 rushing yards and showing a ton of window dressing between Keke Coutee and the tight ends.

The Texans held the ball for nearly 2/3rds of the game. 39:48. The Chiefs had only three second-half drives.

It was a pre-game nugget that O’Brien was pumping a lot of Rocky music this week, playing up the role of the underdog. This is right out of the underdog playbook and it worked to perfection.

4 — The defense … it existed

OK, that’s a little unfair in the second half. But seriously, I don’t think the Chiefs had much of a problem moving the ball. Mahomes was rarely hurried and had just one sack and one quarterback hit. But what they did do is get the ball on the ground at the most opportune time:

Charles Omenihu’s strip sack got the Texans the ball on the goal line right when it looked like they were about to be trailing going into the half. That was a huge emotional boost for the team. They got some help from the referees in the second half, when they didn’t rule an incomplete pass to Travis Kelce as defensive pass interference. Then they got some help from Reid with a two-play sequence where he ran a screen Houston sniffed out so easily that two defensive linemen were waiting for the running back:

Reid followed that up by running on second-and-14, forcing a third-and-long. Mahomes didn’t convert, and the Chiefs never got the ball back.

Small sample size extreme shifts bailed the Texans out on this one — they did not look like they had a prayer of stopping the Chiefs for most of the game. It will be an area that will continue to force the team to play like this against top quarterbacks. I, personally, am not sold that Houston’s defense will be able to get a stop when it matters without outside help. If Bradley Roby is out for any long-term period of time, that concern only grows.

But it is worth noting the shift towards blitzing and man-to-man that Romeo Crennel has had to go with this year without a lot of talent at cornerback. It’s almost like he’s being dragged into playing a more aggressive defense that, ironically, is a better fit for the current state of the NFL. Johnson showed some flashes in this game of getting it. That’s about the upside of it all at this point.

4-2, heading into Indianapolis to play a team coming off a bye that has a power run game of its own. This is going to be an interesting spot for the defense.

Week 6 Preview: Houston @ Kansas City

Well, here we are after another rousing week on the hype train. The Texans took out another team with a good quarterback that appears to be going nowhere, and have run into AFC Royalty at perhaps the best possible time.

Patrick Mahomes is nursing an ankle injury. Sammy Watkins has not practiced this week. (As of Thursday night when I write this.) Chris Jones has not practiced this week. Eric Fisher has not practiced this week. Starting guard Andrew Wylie has not practiced this week. Tyreek Hill has been limited, but appears to be trending towards playing.

The initials odds on this game were the Chiefs by 8.5, but that has been bet down heavily again, to the points where Kansas City is only four-point favorites, in that weird Vegas zone where all Texans games seem to appear in.

There’s a lot of recent history between these teams. Watson’s second career loss game to the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football, where he had a furious rally to get the team within eight. They played in 2016 and kicked off the first oar of hope in the failed Brock Osweiler Era. They played twice in 2015 and met in the playoffs that year, where Brian Hoyer was pantsed and the Texans did not score. I never said it was great history for the Texans.

If Houston were to win this game, even with the injuries, it would be an enormous leap for the theory that this Atlanta game was an actual liftoff point. Let’s feast on the details:

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy of Football Outsiders

The Chiefs went on a huge spending spree this offseason, and that spending spree has turned around … not much. They’re a bit better as a pass defense, but even with Derrick Nnadi anchoring well up front, they have almost no run defense. The Colts steamrolled them for 180 yards. All of the last three teams they’ve played have been able to get at least 180 rushing yards. Of the teams that didn’t, the Jaguars were in a negative game script almost at the very offset of the game, and the Raiders got merely 129 yards.

It is very easy for me to imagine the Texans riding the 12-personnel that worked so well last week against this team. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens is on the injury report and hasn’t been all that good when healthy. There simply isn’t much healthy depth, with UDFA Ben Neimann playing snaps last week. Making them go big is only going to expose more depth without real experience. The Chiefs have just one sack against 12 personnel this year.

In the passing game, the Chiefs have shadowed with Bashaud Breeland at times against true No. 1 threats, and I’d wager they’re likely to do that against DeAndre Hopkins as well. When shadowing Tyrell Williams and T.Y. Hilton, Breeland allowed just 44 receiving yards on five targets. (Source: PFF.) I’m not sure the Chiefs will be willing to double Hopkins as much as Atlanta was, but I don’t think it’s out of the question. I’m sorry, fantasy football owners, I’m right there struggling with you.

The most disappointing player for Kansas City so far is probably Frank Clark, who has just one sack and five pressures (Source: SIS) through five starts with his new team. He’s getting out-produced by buy-low ex-Browns second-rounder Emmanuel Ogbah. The Chiefs are getting pressure on just 23.0% of their passing downs as a defense, one of the four lowest rates in the game. I expect they’ll probably play a pretty aggressive game plan with Deshaun Watson and bring plenty of run blitzes as well to try to score some negative plays. Houston’s offensive line has played moderately well the last few weeks, but this is a loud environment and I don’t think they will be played quite as straight-up as they were in Atlanta. In other words: I expect Watson will actually get hit in this game.

The big strength of Kansas City’s defense is actually short passes — they’ve allowed negative DVOA on all directions of short passes this year, and are fifth in DVOA against short passes. Do not expect the passive Falcons defense you watched last week to bully their way into this game. The Texans will make plenty of plays, but they won’t be quite that easy.

Tyrann Mathieu will be a big factor in this game. 8.4 targets per game go to tight ends against Kansas City, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. Last year saw the Texans watch Mathieu get picked on by bigger tight ends. Darren Fells has a good eight inches on Mathieu, and Jordan Akins isn’t much worse at 6-foot-4. It’s not at all inconceivable that this game will come down to a test of Mathieu’s man coverage ability against taller targets.

When the Chiefs have the ball

I can think of no greater compliment to Patrick Mahomes than to note that with his offense down to Travis Kelce and a pile of nobody receivers, and his offensive line down to two regular starters from last season, he just casually threw for 320 yards and a touchdown, turnover-free.

A lot about this week is going to depend on whether Tyreek Hill, who has been limited in two practices this week, actually plays. He’s probably a game-time decision, but I am writing this as if I expect him to play.

If Hill does play, this above chart is a little less relevant. Hill’s speed is something that forces safeties to play him honestly, and forces zone coverage on to the field. Even just on posts or corners, safeties can’t be counted on to keep up with the play speed that Hill demonstrates.

The Texans run a lot of zone, of course, but showed a little bit more man than they have in a while last week against the Falcons. I think they’re likely to change it up.

The big mismatch the Texans have going for them here is the defensive line versus a banged up Kansas City unit. J.J. Watt is coming off his best week in a while, but will primarily be up against Mitchell Schwartz, who is one of the best right tackles in the NFL. Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff has had somewhat of a down season, but shouldn’t be too overmatched by Watt inside either. Where blood can be found is with D.J. Reader inside and Whitney Mercilus outside. Reader will be up against center Austin Reiter, a first-year starter who has been far from dominant, and Wylie’s replacement, possibly Stefen Wisniewski? It could also be Martinas Rankin! Memories!

Anyway, Cam Erving plays outside and here’s how he did against a blitzing cornerback last week:

So, probably good things for Whitney Mercilus’ hurry numbers this week.

Now I can tell you all these things, and I can tell you that the Chiefs haven’t had much of a run game, and I can tell you the non-Kelce/Hill receivers shouldn’t scare you. But they are going to move the ball, and they are going to score points. Andy Reid’s offense scored 42 on the Texans the last time they played, and that was when he had the limited Alex Smith.

The Texans have talked all week about how much respect they have for Mahomes. Mahomes is the only quarterback who I think can do the things that Deshaun Watson can do and more. He is banged up, yes, but he’s also still phenomenal. The Texans can play great defense and still give up 28 here.

Special teams

The Chiefs have been gashed in coverage so far, giving up 192 yards in kickoff returns and racking up 18 different special teams penalties for 173 yards. This is not how the Chiefs usually play.

The Texans have also continued to tank on behalf of their struggling kicker, Kai Faibairn, who has missed an extra point or field goal in three consecutive weeks since holder Trevor Daniel was let go.

The read

I can definitely see a way that the Texans win this game, and I think it’s on the ground, taking advantage of everything they can do against this Chiefs front seven. I know everyone is excited about last week. The Texans have shown us this kind of offensive performance before under O’Brien and went right back to normal the next week. If the Texans turn in another dominant offensive performance, I am all about it. I will not be the one betting on it to happen in Arrowhead.

Mahomes is not human. Houston’s defense will get pressures but not anywhere near the same amount of sacks the Colts had last week.

This is a game I put in pen as a loss for the Texans when the schedule came out. It feels like everything based on “momentum” rolls that in to question. But I think a logical look at the actors involved leaves us thinking that this game is closer, but still leaves Houston unsatisfied. Give me Kansas City 31, Houston 24. If Hill and Watkins both sit, I would probably take that total down four points for Kansas City, but not change my overall prediction.

Enjoy this game. It has two of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.

How the Texans got their groove back in 12-personnel

Last season, the Texans ran the ball a ton out of 12 personnel (one back, two wideouts, two tight ends) — they ran from that set almost as often as they did from their more common 11 personnel (one back, three wideouts, one tight end) sets despite passing from 11 personnel about twice as often.

Houston was empirically better by a long shot in 2018 passing out of 12-personnel. Watson’s sack rate dropped from 10.7% to 9.9%, his air yards per attempt went from 7.5 to 9.5. His completion rate went from 65.7% to 73.9%. While that hasn’t been the case entirely in 2019, that is based on an extremely small sample of plays because the Texans have only run 38 total plays out of 12 in 2019. Last week was a huge boost because, for the first time all season, Houston had two tight ends with over 50 percent of the snaps:

Last season the Texans ran 57% 11 personnel and 35% 12 personnel. This year, they’re at 74% 11 personnel and 16% 12 personnel. Some of that probably is about having faith in Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, and some of that is probably about having traded for Kenny Stills and wanting to use him often. Obviously, without Stills, there was less incentive to play 11 personnel.

12 personnel on its own cannot be blamed for the Falcons having a shoddy defense that was coached roughly as well as Jon Arbuckle deals with Garfield. But, one thing that has become more and more clear to me watching NFL teams for the last few years is that teams generate play-action shots off of 12 personnel much more easily than they do out of 11. 11 personnel is where you go to get quick passes.

Will Fuller’s second touchdown was out of play-action in 12 personnel, and the entire Atlanta defense decided they would rather cover DeAndre Hopkins:

Now, yes, that looks easy. No, that won’t happen on every play. But — you know who is more likely to mess up in pass coverage between a linebacker and a defensive back? A linebacker. You know who is more likely to bite on a run fake? A linebacker. The personnel has a huge impact on how defenses react to play-action. The more linebackers you put on the field, the more space you can create.

This is an area that was mostly unutilized last year by the Texans. Partially it’s because Will Fuller wasn’t healthy all season. When Fuller was healthy, in Weeks 1-8, the Texans averaged 8.5 yards per play-action dropback, and that’s counting two sacks, out of 12 personnel. You’ll probably most memorably recall what happened when the Texans got two touchdowns out of the set against the Dolphins:

The Texans did fine on these dropbacks afterwards, but they didn’t have the deep threat Fuller provided to make the play work as well as it should. Their longest play the rest of the season was 28 yards, and most of the air yards were closer to the 14-20 yard range.

At the same time, the Texans have somehow shook Carlos Hyde off the scrapheap and found a player who can get through arm tackles and tight inside creases while maintaining burst, which is something they didn’t really have last season. Houston’s early looks with Hyde have mostly been in 11-personnel, but I think he translates well to 12-personnel. If you are able to get teams scared of him as a consistent chain-mover in 12-personnel, suddenly the linebackers are even more liable to getting sucked in. Particularly if the Texans are able to disguise their plays with the satellite action/zone reads they used the last couple of weeks. That is a lot of different things for a defense to worry about before they think about where Fuller and Hopkins are headed. Jordan Akins’ emergence as a pass catcher and Darren Fells’ pass blocking also bolster the unit from where things were last season with Ryan Griffin.

This isn’t an argument that the Texans should sit Stills, or that Stills and Duke Johnson shouldn’t be a big part of the game plan still. I just think that 12 personnel has the potential to be so effective that it needs to be more carved into the 2019 offense than it has been so far.

That’s my major takeaway from watching Atlanta get owned by it for four quarters, anyway.

Four Downs: Houston 53, Atlanta 32

There’s a reason I am so hard on Bill O’Brien all the time, and it’s that we saw how good this offense could be in 2017 and he simply had been unable to recapture that magic. For the last 22 games of Texans football, Deshaun Watson was shackled by a structure that didn’t seem to do enough to help him out. He held the ball a long time. The offensive line wasn’t good enough to protect him.

This is what it was supposed to be like after 2017. This is that 59-point drubbing of the Tennessee Titans all over again. Because when you make things easy for Deshaun Watson, he makes them look easy.

Only Kirk Cousins had a better day than Watson as far as Next Gen Stats’ accuracy against expected completion percentage. Watson completed 14% more throws than expected to by the raw data.

To say that Watson torched Atlanta would be understating things. The Texans punted once all day — happy birthday Bryan Anger, enjoy the time off — and on every drive they took seriously they seemed a threat to score. One field-goal attempt happened when Houston ran a screen for Fuller on third-and-long, and even that screen arguably worked.

This was a master class in something I haven’t seen a lot of from O’Brien, and it’s a reason I want to circle back to his press conference to give him credit:

“He runs the show out there.” The best leaders are quick to give credit to their players. I’ve often felt that O’Brien has made his offense about what he has preferred. With the game plan he picked today, and with Watson running the show as well as he did, he recognized he didn’t need to go back. That’s a huge step.

1 — Can this offensive output be replicated on a weekly basis?

Not only were the throws that Watson took today often not happening as far downfield, they were also easier. The best offense in the world is the offense that makes eight yards on second-and-10 feel like this:

There were several examples of the offense doing this. They were 10-of-13 on third down because they kept generating shorter third downs. The fact that they kept creating X-and-short meant that play-action burned Atlanta, and Atlanta was quick to react to those fakes:

While there will, obviously, be bigger challenges than the Atlanta personnel and coverage scheme, the grander question is if this philosophy can continue. I think it can.

I think the chart is instructive here:

Notice there were only a few throws over 20 yards. One of them being the play-action pass that was wide open for a touchdown. This was a short, focused passing game. This is the sort of stuff that Tom Brady is able to pull out in most games.

It could be Houston’s thing, too.

2 — The best offensive line is throwing fast

That says it all, doesn’t it? The Falcons have a bad pass rush by sacks, but they were getting pressures coming into the game. SIS had them with a 32.8 percent pressure rate in 2019, the sixth-highest in the NFL.

Matt Weston’s counterpoint to this was that the Falcons don’t run many games or stunts, which is what Houston tends to struggle with. Fair enough. But a lot of these balls were out so fast that the Falcons didn’t have much time to pressure Watson. Again:

There will be bigger tests for the line, and I think this is going to be a week where we look at the line and everything looks great — like Week 3 — when the story is a little more complex than that.

But if the Texans continue to get the ball out as quickly as they did in this game, negative plays disappear. When negative plays disappear, and you pair them with a still-explosive offense and consistent gains, you get a top-5 offense.

3 — J.J. Watt picked a hell of a time to have his best game of the year

While the Houston offense kept looking good, the Falcons were able to move the ball pretty easily.

The Texans as a defense right now are incredibly reliant on the pass rush to make things happen. Today, they did that. Watt keyed the charge, and D.J. Reader’s sack came because of Watt pressure in a nice change of pace:

Houston found eight quarterback hits and two sacks. Watt had five of the hits. It was not a dominant performance given the 46 dropbacks, but it was enough. When your offense plays as well as it did today, this performance becomes enough.

Very quiet game from Whitney Mercilus, but he did show some good discipline on this screen pass:

Negative plays are all this defense has going for them. Anything else is going to be too much. Thankfully, between the pick-six and a couple of key third-down stops, they were able to keep Atlanta from making the game tightly contested in the fourth quarter. Romeo Crennel deserves some credit for the blitz looks he came up with to get two of those third-down stops, which generated free rushers at the quarterback:

When the offense plays like they play today, it doesn’t matter too much. But in tighter games, ones where Watson will presumably not hit all but four of his throws, the Texans are going to need every negative play they can cobble together.

4 — The nagging concerns

Coverage continues to remain quite loose. Lonnie Johnson was playing hurt and is a rookie asked to move across the line of scrimmage on this snap, but you simply can’t let a receiver get this free of a release in this coverage:

Some of Ryan’s throws were just flat-out off, rather than well-defensed. Obviously, hard to tell entirely from the tape, but I didn’t see many throws that the Texans negatively impacted outside of the one Julio Jones slant that Johnathan Joseph and Zach Cunningham sandwiched Jones on. Take this pass on second-and-20:

I don’t know that we’re going to see a team with a good quarterback held under 250 yards this year. Pace and tempo matter a lot to that statement, but the Texans don’t have an emerging corner or defensive back that is fixing to come on and save them. They have Mike Adams. They have Keion Crossen. There’s not a lot of hope that the coverage will be able to do much but stay passive and mix in the occasional change-of-pace press play. When they do, they have to have better from Johnson than he showed on that play.

Special teams continues to be a concern. Kaimi Fairbairn has missed a season’s worth of kicks for some kickers in the last three weeks. DeAndre Carter’s fumble nearly imploded the Texans before Watson brought them back from brink with a flawless closeout drive.

The Chiefs are looming, and the Texans have picked up the pace just in time. Could we have a shootout to rival the Rams-Chiefs on Monday Night Football last year? Or, was this a one week flash-in-the-pan?

It’s going to be an interesting week.

Media Meditations: Going Viral

In case you somehow missed this, I made a Tweet out of a Texans video of Deshaun Watson answering Aaron Reiss’ question. It went viral.

SportsCenter essentially copied the Tweet. (They didn’t use the Periscope video, so their version did not have hearts on it.) Deadspin wrote a post about the interaction. Big name media people ran with it all overnight on Monday — Ian Rapoport being the biggest domino — and when I woke up this video I made on my own, in my little computer room, was spun two million times. It only got bigger from there.

Let me tell you a little about the experience of going viral.

***

I don’t have any alerts on my phone. Texts and phone calls only. But every time I logged in to Twitter through Tuesday night, I was buried in notifications. I use web Twitter on my phone so that’s pretty much a constant 20+ popping up every five minutes — I use TweetDeck at home and pretty much every net push was a fresh batch of likes, tweets, comments, retweets.

This was oddly paralyzing as a user. Do I try to Tweet through the storm? It’s actually a little bit hard to have conversations with people on Twitter when this is happening. At the same time, I was fascinated enough by the reactions that I wanted to keep seeing them, so I didn’t mute the thing entirely. I actually put off posting all-22 clips by a day just because I knew I couldn’t have a conversation with anybody.

***

One thing I can’t recommend enough if you’re trying to go viral is to make something that can be viewed through every lens. I closely monitored the comments to this post. There were several groupings of comments, the pro- and the anti- side of each.

*The Bears fans who like Mitch Trubisky versus the ones who like Watson more. (One Trubisky comment on my original Tweet had over 3,000 likes on its own.)
*The people who were amazed by the information and what it took to play quarterback versus the ones who play Madden and were incredulous that people were amazed by this.
*The football coaches who want to use this to train their players versus the football players who already knew it all.

The Tweet itself was innocuous. I did that on purpose. “Deshaun Watson explains Carolina’s defense in 66 seconds” is vague as hell specifically because when I’m just trying to share someone else’s story, I don’t want to impose too much of my own mindset on it. It’s amazing that so much division and cynicism can come from that, but that is the world we live in today. I am literally putting things out there for you to react to and take and put your spin on. Sometimes your spin is positive. In many, many more cases, your spin is negative or angry or cynical. Or not funny. Sorry to tell you — a lot of the comments are not funny.

For the record, there was only one person who directly criticized that phrasing — they said (paraphrasing) “THAT’S NOT THE WHOLE DEFENSE.” So, in case you were wondering, yes, people can get mad at anything.

***

By far the biggest group of people, though, I had to address in an aside:

I would wager anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the Tweets were people happy that Aaron “got dunked on” for asking the question. Let me expound on this Tweet for a minute.

I think major media is fucked, which is why I am writing here and not trying to use my time begging to freelance for bigger places. They have completely failed to address the major issues of the day because — and I say this as someone with a limited understanding of these things myself — most media people don’t know jack shit about advertising. Google and Facebook make all the money. The scraps that are left behind from most major content deals are enough to rig up skeleton crews and trap otherwise great people in jobs that will never make more than $60,000 a year.

Between major media failing to deal with how they make money properly, and major media backlashing that on the public with a sea of scammy advertisements or pop ups, I think most people do mistrust the news to some extent. My wife has negative feelings towards the Houston Chronicle because she was bilked by a salesman once and is on a mailing list that they simply won’t let go of. I can’t imagine this is an uncommon occurrence.

Media reacted to the money being gone by acting like every customer was a mark, and that made their consumers look at them with a more discerning eye. The New York Times has an entire Opinion team that could not possibly be more awful, because they use that rage for hits. We are all guilty of using your emotion against you to get your attention.

At the same time, with the freedom of social media and the self-importance that provides, you are now free to carefully build your own attuned culture of “media” however you like. Some people use that well. Some people use that to remain permanently angry. There are people who would use your anger to blind you to what they are doing to you. I don’t think I have to name names here.

Most of the reporters you interact with do not make a lot of money. Most of them are telling their truth. If their truth doesn’t resonate with you, that’s fine. But we are all so drowned in information and choices now that we’ve become a Dunning-Kruger effect society, and that — plus major social cues from certain other places I probably don’t have to name — just make us all tee off on caricatures of people we don’t know.

Aaron asked that question to get that answer. That wasn’t being dumb. That was about getting the reaction he wanted. But people wanted that Dumbass Reporter caricature to be true so bad that thousands and thousands of them — unprovoked by any kind of political anything — just went with it.

Popular Twitter is a dark, dark place. Or, as one writer I talked to this week said, it’s a “terrible but necessary place on the internet.”

***

When I take videos of the press conferences or media sessions and share them with you, I’m trying to be the editor you don’t have in your busy life. You could watch every Texans video and be drowned with a lot of stuff that doesn’t much matter to outsiders — yes, you’re all trying to win, you’re all going to improve this week, it’s a 60-minute game, etc. etc.

You could watch every Tim Kelly interview to try to understand if he is a robot or a person. One of my services is doing that for you, picking quotes I think are interesting or revealing — i.e. not Kelly quotes — and sharing them.

That’s a loss leader for me. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, think of it as a doorbuster deal on a big Black Friday sale. I post them to get you in the door, and if I get you in the door, maybe you’ll read my writing — just like an Amazon shopper realizes they’ll need batteries for this toy and they’re already on the website anyway. Once you read my writing … well, hopefully I can keep you reading, and eventually, perhaps you’ll pay for it to continue.

Watching what happened out of going viral made me appreciate the people who are positive and back what I put out often. There are tons of readers who come to something quietly now, because the internet has become more rage storm than they are comfortable dealing with in a positive way. Instead of trying to personally interact in fighting anger, they would rather shut down and just be quiet supporters, so as to not lose their own positive energy. I respect that.

So I want to thank people who have been very publicly supportive of my Texans stuff: Steph Stradley, bfd, Mike Meltser, Sean Pendergast, Seth Payne, the guys at TexansUnfiltered. And I want to shout out some of my smaller, quieter lurkers who I see surface only every once in awhile. I won’t splash your names out there.

Hopefully, if you came into the circle this week because Deshaun Watson nerding out on football is awesome, I can show you why you should keep reading.

Week 5 Preview: Atlanta @ Houston

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest this is an enormous game for this year’s Houston Texans. While I haven’t written the preview yet, I think we all know that there is an extremely high likelihood of Patrick Mahomes destroying Houston’s secondary next week. This Texans team has not proven that it can conclusively put away anybody yet — this is not a team that can afford to fall two games under .500. Yet, if they lose this game, that’s about where they are headed.

If you saw last week’s Falcons 10-spot and laughed, well, the Falcons are this weird mix of snake-bit and laughable that I find utterly charming from afar. Keep in mind that they missed a field goal and had three separate fourth-and-short conversions go wrong against the Titans in Tennessee territory. 10 points understates the work that was happening — they remain a fairly dangerous offense. And, as a quarterback, Matt Ryan is accurate enough to exploit the Houston secondary to the exact same extent that Philip Rivers was.

The last time these teams met was in 2015, and Bill O’Brien got steamrolled. The Falcons won 48-21, and all 21 Texans points came in the fourth quarter. Prior to that, the TJ Yates Texans won 17-10 in 2011. Bobby Petrino’s Falcons won in 2007 in Matt Schaub’s return to Atlanta. To Joey Harrington. Are all these games embarrassing for one of these teams? You better believe it.

Vegas has the Texans as anywhere from 4.5 to five-point favorites, so we’re right back into the same danger zone that produced last week’s Panthers upset.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy Football Outsiders

The Titans were able to jump on Atlanta by taking full advantage of a major weakness: their inability to do much about play-action passes. The Falcons allow 5.8 yards per play on regular pass plays, but 9.8 yards per play against play-action. That’s one of the seven biggest swings of any team, and teams run a ton of play-action against Atlanta because they tend to be zone-heavy.

Unfortunately, the Texans aren’t really the team that is going to exploit that weakness. Houston runs a below-average amount of play-action and averages just 5.5 yards per play-action pass, one of the five lowest numbers in the NFL. The Texans have been good at play-action before, but it hasn’t really been much of an emphasis for them this season. Perhaps seeing what the Titans did last week will embolden them a bit.

I say that the Falcons are zone-heavy because most of their cornerbacks haven’t been targeted much. Desmond Trufant has been targeted just 11 times. Isaiah Oliver, at 23, has the most targets in the secondary by far. He’s been boom or bust, giving up 8.1 yards per pass and a 56 percent completion rate, but also three touchdowns.

This is a get-right game for both DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. The Falcons allow a 56.9% DVOA to No. 1 wideouts and an 87.4% DVOA to No. 2 wideouts, both bottom-three numbers in the NFL. No. 1 wideouts are averaging 83 yards per game against the Falcons. The possible absence of Kenny Stills won’t hurt too bad here, as the Falcons have mostly silenced interior receivers anyway.

Atlanta’s pass rush isn’t too intimidating, with a 5.0% adjusted sack rate that is good for 26th in the NFL. Vic Beasley is going on year three of being a completely pedestrian edge rusher. Takkarist McKinney is probably the biggest threat on the outside. On the inside, Grady Jarrett is going to be the first real test for Nick Martin this season. Time to earn your money, Nick. It should be noted that the Falcons still come away with a mid-table level of quarterback hits, so don’t expect Watson to be clean in the pocket for years.

However, one area where the Falcons have gotten much better this year is run defense. Even if DVOA isn’t your cup of tea, they’re allowing just 3.7 yards per carry. They shut Derrick Henry up pretty good for most of a game that they were trailing. The return of Deion Jones has really elevated that part of the unit.

The one thing that jumps out at me about this game in a concerning way is that the Falcons are pretty solid deep. They’re allowing a 36.2% DVOA on deep passes, barely above the league-average. For reference, Jacksonville is slightly worse than that on deep passes, and Carolina is doing better in defending them than any team in the NFL right now. If O’Brien continues to build so much of the offense towards the deep ball, he simply has to hit more in this game. The Texans can’t go 0- or 2-for-8 on deep balls unless both of them are touchdowns or something.

When the Falcons have the ball

The Falcons are a weird offensive team that matches up really well with the Texans because Atlanta has understood that the concept of running the football is stupid, so they just gave up on it.

The Falcons have just 71 rushing attempts on the year — only three teams are below them, and the Dolphins and Jets barely count as football teams at this point. When they do run, Devonta Freeman has been so east-west that he’s not been getting much generally. He’s talented as far as breaking tackles, and I think he’s been a beast in the past, but I’m not sure he’s playing like one this year.

The Atlanta offensive line has not done great things this year, though Alex Mack and Jake Matthews are obviously good players in a grander sense. This is the first time all season that Whitney Mercilus will face somebody worth his time. I do like J.J. Watt’s chances of swimming past rookie Kaleb McGary on a few downs. Because the Falcons have been so depleted at guard without IR’ed first-round pick Chris Lindstrom, I think it is extremely important that D.J. Reader continue to dominate:

Charles Omenihu’s potential return from a lost week looms large as well. James Carpenter and Wes Schweitzer played most of the guard snaps for the Falcons in Week 4 and they let Jurrell Casey eat them alive. Jamon Brown was the nominal starting guard this year, but is questionable with a concussion. While Ryan has mostly been well-protected this year, the line really sprung a lot of leaks, allowing 12 quarterback hits to the Titans.

How do the Texans deal with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley? This is something that they didn’t really have to do against the Chargers, where Mike Williams was injury-limited and the rest of the receiver corps was bad. They let Keenan Allen torch them, but smothered the rest of the brushfire. The Falcons will try to get both in Cover-3 posts for easy change against this secondary, which hasn’t really proven it can cover anybody one-on-one. Lonnie Johnson will be on the spot here. Jones has been about a 50% slot player, so Bradley Roby will get some chance to contain the damage that will obviously be happening.

The Ryan Falcons have been uncharacteristically mistake-prone this year. Ryan has thrown six picks this year. He threw seven all last season. I would expect them to play safer than usual given Houston’s myriad zone coverage schemes.

Special teams

The Falcons have been held hostage by Matt Bosher, who has been on the injury report all season and has winced his way through a ton of punts. The ancient Matt Bryant has taken over on field goals. He’s been surprisingly accurate on longer field goals even at his advanced age. (17 of 19 from beyond 40 in 2017, 11-12 from beyond 40 in 2018.) His usage rate and the fact that he was released before the season may be telling you that range has decreased.

Kai Fairbairn earned the dreaded vote of confidence from O’Brien, but nobody has exactly been dialed up to take his place just yet. Otherwise, the Texans have an edge on special teams.

The read

My gut instinct, before I started breaking down this game, was that the Texans would win. I don’t think they’ll make it easy on you, and I don’t think it will always be pretty, but I think Deshaun Watson will have a major bounce-back game and play well against a defense that doesn’t have much in the way of sure things that can stop him. He might take plenty of hits in the process.

The more I dove into the research, the more I wondered if this feeling was a trap. It’s hard to see “42-0” in Atlanta, no matter who the quarterbacks were, and feel confident that the head coach can hang. Atlanta definitely is the most complete offense the Texans have faced this year to this point.

Once again, I’m back to “I picked this team to make the playoffs, and they better win this game if they’re going to make the playoffs.” I like a high-scoring affair here. Give me Texans 29, Falcons 27

In closing,

The (Early) Returns of the Laremy Tunsil Trade

The Laremy Tunsil trade was, if not exactly stunning because rumors had been floating around for a while, a stunning amount of draft capital to see shipped out all at once right before the season started. And, particularly after the emotionally exhausting end to the Jadeveon Clowney saga earlier that day, it came right when I think most fans needed a pick-me-up to feel in on this season. Whether you think the trade was good or bad, I think you can agree that everybody knew that Matt Kalil was not going to be a starting left tackle for more than a few games before he was found wanting.

Because of the amount of capital shipped out, there was instantly a lot of pressure on Tunsil. Bets as bold as the one O’Brien put on him don’t come around often. What it also did was it set people on trying to figure out the deeper meaning of why the Texans gave up two first-round picks and a second-round pick for him. There is a lot of justification necessary, not only among journalists and the media, but among fans, in properly creating the narrative of why Tunsil was worth the ransom that he was worth. As someone who is more focused from an outside perspective, and saw the trade as a massive overpay the second it happened, it’s always fun to listen to the other points of view out there. Let’s go through these one-by-one, and hopefully I at least capture the spirit of the arguments if not capture them word-for-word. If you’ve got other arguments you want me to respond to, I’d love to hear them.

Laremy Tunsil is worth it because Andrew Luck retired after he got hurt, and you can’t risk your young quarterback’s health in today’s NFL.

This one seemed to be the most prevalent explanation for the overpay. Andrew Luck had just retired in the middle of the preseason, and the Texans were supposed to look at the beating that Luck took and realize that they couldn’t let their franchise quarterback take the same beating.

That argument falls apart in a few different ways, but the most important reason it falls apart is because study after study shows the two people who have the biggest say in a quarterback’s sack rate are the quarterback and the head coach. Just this week, Watson took six sacks, I would argue the offensive line played fairly well outside of Greg Mancz. It didn’t matter:

All of Watson’s sack/hit numbers are essentially within the realm of what he did last season, especially if you believe the Chargers game was an outlier caused by an overly passive defense. Houston’s adjusted sack rate of 11.9% is the second-worst in the league. Last year it was 11.6%. Watson’s quarterback hit rate has gone down only slightly, and in going down slightly it has still not come close to the 2017 numbers:

via airyards.com

The real interesting thing about Watson’s hit rate is when you compare it to Andrew Luck. See, Luck floundered about with what was perceived to be a bad line for a long time too. Then they hired Frank Reich, and Reich completely torched the system that Chuck Pagano had put in place, then made some in-house adjustments. Luck’s adjusted sack rate dropped from 7.6% in 2016 to 4.1% in 2018.

Airyards did not keep Andrew Luck in their system after he retired, so I went and counted out the hit numbers manually.

Andrew Luck’s 2016 season: 8.3 quarterback hits per start
Andrew Luck’s 2018 season: 5.3 quarterback hits per start
Andrew Luck’s last 10 games + playoff games of the 2018 season: 3.9 quarterback hits per start

The problem was: It was too late. Luck had already been broken.

We’ve seen Bill O’Brien run an offense with more concepts that keep Watson doing what he was comfortable in college in 2017. That was the year that Watson had his lowest quarterback hit rate. The head coach can have a huge impact on the quarterback hits by his scheme and the areas of the field he wants to target. O’Brien’s scheme is more conducive to getting Watson hit than Watson’s college scheme was.

Tunsil has not solved this problem because no offensive lineman could. The two people who can solve it are above his pay grade, which is a weird-but-true thing you can say about a guy who will probably get $60 million in guaranteed money at some point.

Laremy Tunsil will raise all tides along the offensive line by putting players into positions they are better equipped to play.”

I think this is the second-truest argument put out about what Tunsil has done, because all you need to do is look at what the Texans would have done without him. Matt Kalil would almost undoubtedly have led to Tytus Howard at left tackle, when Tytus Howard’s first four games have shown us uneven play at lesser positions.

That said, it hasn’t really changed a whole lot. If you look at Houston’s line as a whole, Nick Martin has been solid, but he was going to man center anyway. Zach Fulton has been … okay? But he was going to man that position anyway.

The player who has lost snaps as a result of trading for Tunsil is Roderick Johnson, who I would argue actually deserves to be starting at right tackle on pure merit. That’s no slam on Howard, he just was always going to be year-one project coming out of Alabama State. Howard definitely has higher upside.

But, I have to admit that Howard at left tackle would likely be a disaster, and Johnson and Howard outside probably gets you to mediocre-to-average at best. Tunsil has definitely put less pressure as a whole on the offensive line to perform, and that is an objectively great thing about the trade.

Laremy Tunsil will open up Houston’s deep passing game.”

There are definitely a handful of plays every game where Tunsil out-and-out locks a lineman down.

I think the best argument to make here is not that Tunsil himself is doing enough to make the Texans throw deep, but that he has given O’Brien more comfortability with longer dropbacks. In 2018, Watson took the fourth-most time to make his throws, with an average of 3.01 seconds per throw. But, Watson’s intended air yards of 8.8 was tied for eighth. He has cut that time to 2.92 seconds per throw in 2019, but with an intended air yardage that is tied for seventh at 9.8. That’s almost a full yard of increase, and that includes a game against Carolina where he often did not feel comfortable pushing the ball deep based on what he saw.

The interesting thing about the intended air yards in 2018 is that the number decreased as the season went along not because the offensive line was bad, but because the Texans didn’t have an easy deep-ball target. After Will Fuller’s injury, the Texans had a single-game average above 8.8 air yards twice: against Philadelphia in Week 16, and against the Jets in Week 15. Seven of the eight games where Watson threw less for less than eight intended air yards per attempt came after Fuller was hurt.

Obviously, we have to see where the Kenny Stills injury changes things for the Texans, but they were at 8.3 with him mostly incapacitated in Week 4. Will Fuller is still here. I think they’ll be able to go deep if they feel up to it.

It’s almost impossible to sit here as an outsider and tell you Bill O’Brien’s intent, but I believe that the Tunsil trade was about throwing it deep more than anything, and I think they’ve mostly accomplished that.

“Laremy Tunsil is a leader who will help Houston’s young offensive linemen grow.”

Uh, I guess? I don’t know a whole lot about Laremy Tunsil the person, but what I can tell you that has come out of press conferences is

1) Bill O’Brien says he “leads by example.”
2) He’s sick of talking about his own leadership:

I don’t know how to quantify the effect that having a good left tackle who has learned how to play in the league has on the young linemen. We haven’t really had any good stories leak out yet. There are no interesting anecdotes about him helping Tytus Howard fix Problem X. (At least none that I’ve seen.)

I leave this up to the reader to score, but I personally don’t believe there’s much of a leadership effect. Or, at least, not as much of one as people want to believe that there is.

Laremy Tunsil will be a dominant left tackle.”

Ehhh.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Tunsil has blown three pass blocks. That 1.7 blown block percentage is very good, but about on par with what he’d done in Miami. (Public SIS numbers are through Week 3.) Tunsil leads the team in penalties with four, all of them false starts.

Pro Football Focus has him graded as their 18th-best tackle this year, with a top-10 pass protection grade and a middling run grade. That’s a ranking I think feels pretty right. While the Texans in general have run blocked better than they did in 2018, they haven’t seen a lot of improvement at left end from Tunsil. They average 1.16 adjusted line yards to left end per Football Outsiders, and 3.49 to left tackle. Those are both bottom-eight rates in the NFL.

I will say that Brandon Thorn does this stuff for a living and believes Tunsil has played better than this snapshot sells him, putting him on the short list of honorable mentions for All-Pro.

My own evaluation of Tunsil is that he’s so physically talented that you feel like, watching him, he’s capable of doing anything he wants. On some plays, he does! He’s the guy who can get out on screens and get somebody from an awkward angle. He’s able to stymie good pass rushers out of position. He’s eventually going to be one of the best tackles in the NFL.

But I don’t think he’s played up to it just yet. I’m sure some of that comes from the sudden change, and the fact that through Acts of O’Brien, he hasn’t even played next to the same left guard for three consecutive games yet. Teamwork is important for a line and the Texans have been asked to learn it on the fly.

I’ve seen solid games, and I’ve seen good games. I feel like I’m still waiting for the dominant game.

***

Through one month, you can absolutely see why the Texans were so keen to acquire Tunsil.

But, I think the most important thing going forward isn’t Tunsil, but how O’Brien and Watson combine to fix the pressure in this passing game. That’s a nagging problem that the Texans hoped would go away just by acquiring good linemen. So far, that hasn’t borne out.