In committing to Whitney Mercilus, the Texans played it safe

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

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

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

via Over The Cap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Week 17 Preview: Texans vs. Titans

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

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

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

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

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy of Football Outsiders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Titans have the ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special teams

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

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

The read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could be the difference between advancing or not.

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

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

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

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

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

2/3rds of you will disagree with this take

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

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

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

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

5 — Attrition

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

In summary

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

Quick responses to other sentiments sent to me

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

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

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

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

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Four Downs: Texans 23, Buccaneers 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s break this down into four things.

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

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

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

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

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

Then, Watson threw this pick:

Tampa scored seven at the end of the half.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 — The defense got bailed out by Jameis Winston

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 — Let’s praise the special teams

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

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

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

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

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

Week 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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