Four Downs: Texans 26, Jaguars 3

The Houston Texans came out with a statement against the Jacksonville Jaguars: We have Deshaun Watson, and you do not.

Staked with the ball first, the Texans established the tempo of the game with a 6:40 drive that only stalled out early because of multiple penalties. The Jaguars managed just four first-half drives, one of which was a kneelout. With Watson’s contributions in the running game, the Jaguars just never were fully able to get a bead on Carlos Hyde, and his 48-yard run towards the end of the third quarter led to the knockout touchdown.

The Jaguars were put in a multiple-score deficit after Houston scored a touchdown, and a Texans defense that played sound, disciplined football pounced all over some poor Gardner Minshew throws to end the game with four turnovers.

Credit where it’s due: This was an excellent game plan from the Texans, and they were able to overcome a lot of injuries to make a laugher out of a team that’s been pretty quality this year and gave them a scare at NRG.

Going to 6-3, with every other team in the division losing and Jacoby Brissett’s status up in the air, the Texans just pounced into prime playoff position as they head into their bye week. They’re two games up on most of the rest of the wild card hunt and division, and they’ve got every chance to control their own destiny against a schedule that only gets tougher after the bye.

1 –Watson deflates defenses

Doug Marrone was asked about the defense not finishing sack attempts after the game, and his answer is pretty revealing about the obvious advantages of having Deshaun Watson as your starting quarterback:

If we’re continuing our Michael Jordan comparisons that Jon Gruden gave us last week, Watson put a number of high-profile dunks on his beleaguered defensive opponents this week. He escaped a sack with an improvised dumpoff to Carlos Hyde that turned a potential third-and-long into a first down:

The defense thought they had him on second-and-20 in the second quarter, and instead he flipped a perfect ball out to Duke Johnson without even having a base under him to throw from, as both his legs were in the air:

And of course, the most iconic moment even as it didn’t go for six, Watson almost found a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter by jumping over Ronnie Harrison entirely:

What the Texans are doing right now is so simple. They’re using Watson as a rusher to get the box advantage, they have mostly gone away from deep throws the last few weeks against teams that tend to play a lot of deep safeties. They’re running a lot of read-option and run-pass options, and they’re telling defenses to solve it.

The reason this plan is so effective isn’t the plan itself — these plays are staples of many NFL offenses — it’s because Watson’s skill set is so extra deadly in them. You can’t have your defensive force player ignore Watson, so the Texans are always running with a numbers advantage. You can’t let tight ends sneak out, because that’s generally about 5-8 free yards, so when Watson rolls out, you can’t leave the tight end. You also have a player who can run for first downs outside. This was demonstrated well on Houston’s fourth-down conversion on their first touchdown drive:

You account for Akins, you account for Watson. Watson can still just make a perfect touch pass on the run and it looks childishly easy.

Watson is miserable to play against.

I will forever be grateful, after 15 years of above-average to poor quarterbacks, that we get to watch this every week.

2 — Game script defense

The Texans finished this game with four turnovers, four sacks, and five quarterback hits.

They had none of them before the score was 19-3.

I think if you’re trying to extrapolate how well this defense will play against better quarterbacks from this team, it’s probably about where we thought it was. Don’t be fooled by the scoreline. This was a perfect matchup for the Texans, one where Gardner Minshew rarely targeted the middle of the field, the Jaguars played right into Houston’s hand by running often, and Minshew was green enough to get fooled by Romeo Crennel’s late adjustments.

You’re going to hear a lot of crowing this week about this defense. Don’t fall for it. This will not become the norm. But I do think there are positives to take from how tightly they contested some balls and how disciplined the played as a whole.

3 — Laremy Tunsil’s absence was barely felt

This is my dead horse to ride on.

Against a team with three vicious pass rushers in Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen, the Jaguars managed one sack and seven quarterback hits. If Laremy Tunsil plays, I think you are looking at probably four quarterback hits instead of seven — this is, again, with some horrific tackle play from Chris Clark, who continued to rate as a rotation player in Bill O’Brien’s eyes for reasons I cannot even begin to comprehend:

This was always about the quarterback and what O’Brien was asking him to do. I give every bit of props to O’Brien for remaking the offense to challenge defenses earlier in the down, and I’m sure some of the wrinkles to this game plan would not work exclusively against every team with a bad left tackle all season. Laremy Tunsil has been extremely good when he’s played.

But part of the reason I was so adamant about that trade being an overpay is because I thought games like this were a reality with or without Tunsil. This is a real tough and nasty front, and Deshaun Watson’s passing chart showed that, with almost nothing super deep:

To me, the end game of this offense was always that the short would open the deep, not the other way around. I think there’s still plenty of ways for the trade to unfold where the Texans will have gotten their worth — particularly if Tunsil is able to stonewall some big pass rushers in playoff games to come — but when we are talking about how the Texans need to rebuild their pass rush next offseason, and the only thing I can talk about is free agency and weighing who needs to be re-signed versus who doesn’t … well, the Tunsil trade is going to continue to cast a big shadow over the future of this franchise. For better or for worse.

4 — Duke Johnson, WR1

With Keke Coutee apparently completely indisposed from the Houston game plan, and the short passing game being an emphasis the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of recentering around Duke Johnson. Johnson had five targets last week against the Raiders and found a touchdown out of them, and had five more against the Colts in Week 7.

Johnson, of course, was always going to deliver on these passes. He’s been an empirically amazing running back for several years, and I’m a big fan of any play that gets him into space. The only problem with Johnson right now is that he almost seems to telegraph that it’s going to be a pass play with his presence, which is why the Texans tried to get him going a little bit with a goal line carry:

I have generally been in favor of Carlos Hyde getting the carries between the tackles because to me there is a noticeable difference between the two in reading blocks. Johnson again didn’t have a great day with that, though he’s so dynamic that sometimes it just doesn’t matter. It might be worth setting up some more runs with Johnson solely to keep a defense on their toes. Especially if they can be designed in low-impact plays like second-and-short.

Duke Johnson was all about solidifying this offense’s floor, and he’s delivered on that. These targets would have gone to Alfred Blue or someone like Vyncint Smith last year. We saw what happened when Steven Mitchell was given a chance in the first quarter, when Watson led him perfectly and Mitchell couldn’t catch up to the ball. Johnson is one of the players that will probably keep me from ever predicting less than 20 points for the Texans all season. He’s just that dynamic.


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Week 9 Preview: Texans @ London (vs. Jaguars)

With a Deshaun Watson Houdini win in their back pocket from last week’s season-altering clash with the Raiders, the Houston Texans enter this week’s game in a precarious situation in a few ways. For one thing, the defense will have to operate without J.J. Watt, ending almost all of the pass rush they’ve received this season. For another, Lonnie Johnson’s concussion further exacerbates a cornerback unit that has been besieged by injury.

At the same time, even though this game is taking place at 8:30 central time, it has a ton of meaning for the Texans. A win would improve their playoff odds per ESPN’s calculations by 22%, Getting to 6-3 in this weakened AFC would mean a ton for the Texans.

Houston won Week 2’s matchup with the Jaguars by … one point. As I wrote then, there were reasons to believe Gardner Minshew had some promise, and he has mostly fulfilled that promise so far. The Jaguars, surprisingly, have a better pass offense DVOA than the Texans. Jacksonville has not beaten Houston since 2017. Houston is favored to win this game by … one point. It opened with the Texans as three-point favorites and got bet down.

The Jaguars have played in London every season since 2013. If you deeply care about the lore of London games, the Jaguars are 3-3 in these games. Both the Texans and Jaguars flew in on the same day, so thankfully we won’t be hearing much about the travel adjustment time in a competitive advantage sense.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

The major issue in this game is the return of Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue did not play in Week 2, but already has four sacks and 16 hurries per Sports Info Solutions. The health of Roderick Johnson and Tytus Howard remains an open question mark, though both practiced in full on Thursday. Backup tackle Chris Clark was a disaster in Week 8, and if he happens to get a full complement of playing time again I think it will significantly hurt Houston’s chances of getting much going downfield against the Jaguars.

With a healthy Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen, I expect to see the Texans doing a lot of what they did in the fourth quarter last week: rolling Watson out of the pocket to avoid pressures and set up their RPO quick pass game. The Jaguars are third in the NFL in sacks. Even if Howard is healthy, both he and Max Scharping have had their rookie-year issues in one-on-one pass pro, and the Jaguars blitz a fair amount.

Jacksonville is 24th in the NFL in DVOA allowed on passes over the middle, at 33.8%. Myles Jack has rebounded a bit from his rough start against Kansas City in Week 1, but Jacksonville’s cheap dreams at linebacker have been a disaster. Both Leon Jacobs and Quincy Williams have been sidelined with injuries in practices this week, and it seems likely that the Texans will draw Austin Calitro as a starter. The Texans will probably want to target him in RPOs.

I don’t know how else to say it: I am flummoxed by replacing Keke Coutee with DeAndre Carter last weekend. Carter is more elusive than speedy, and one of his downfield targets last week was more akin to watching a hockey goalie than a receiver. Coutee may have made mental errors, but he is head-and-shoulders above Carter as a receiver — and his elusiveness makes him a good fit for this game in particular. The Jaguars have allowed more yards after the catch than any team besides the Texans. I’m really hoping this was a one-week blip, because I think highly of Coutee’s on-field talent.

I’m sad the DeAndre Hopkins-Jalen Ramsey matchup is gone. It was always one of the biggest draws in the AFC South. The Jaguars are actually pretty banged up at cornerback as well, with DJ Hayden missing the first two days of practice this week and Josh Robinson suddenly retiring. Tre Herndon and A.J. Bouye look to be the outside corners, with Breon Borders next man up as the third guy. Hayden is listed as questionable. I think you could still see someone shadowing Hopkins, as that’s a power/length matchup and the Jaguars have traditionally showed Hopkins with Ramsey. The Jaguars did shadow Robby Anderson with Tre Herndon last week. Personally I think Bouye is a better fit for Hopkins since that’s power on power, but I’m not an NFL head coach.

The most important thing in this game for Houston’s sake is for them to be able to run the ball. The odds look good there in my opinion. The Jaguars have a positive run defense DVOA (bad), and allowed 126 rushing yards the last time these two teams met. They are coming off back-to-back weeks of 33 and 46 rushing yards allowed, but those were against two completely incompetent offenses in Cincinnati and the Jets.

When the Jaguars have the ball

Gardner Minshew has been pretty good this season, but the Jaguars maintain an offensive identity that is more about running the football. They are seventh in the NFL in rushing attempts even though a ton of the value they get from them are just the big randomly long Leonard Fournette runs. Per SportsRadar numbers, no NFL team gets more yards after contact than the Jaguars on their runs — 3.1 per attempt, and they lead the NFL on a counting stat level by more than 100 yards. This is a spotlight game for Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney — they’re going to be moving up in the pecking order for the Jaguars to block with Watt gone. Easiest way to hold down this offense is to keep them throwing in on third-and-long.

Jacksonville’s offensive line has received an upgrade in the form of a healthy Cam Robinson, who is much better than Will Richardson. You’ll recall that a lot of Houston’s pressure in Week 2 involved Whitney Mercilus dominating Richardson. Robinson is a much more fair matchup for the Jaguars. Not having to help Jawaan Taylor outside will also mean a lot in pass protection, as you’ll recall that they mostly kept Watt contained with double teams in Week 2.

The other thing that happened in Week 2 is that Romeo Crennel blitzed the hell out of Gardner Minshew. SportsRadar has Minshew with 20 blitzes taken in 37 dropbacks, and most of the non-blitz dropbacks were on the final drive. Minshew shows some pretty big splits between blitzed and non-blitzed games. The Saints brought 13 blitzes in holding him to 163 yards in Week 6. The Jaguars were held down through most of the game against the Broncos with 12 blitzes. Even the Bengals had early success with blitzes. I expect the Texans will make that a thematic part of the game plan again, especially because they have no other choice if they want to get pressure. It should be noted that Minshew has great success as a scrambler this year: No team has scrambled more than the Jaguars through Week 8, and their 7.9 yards per scramble are more than the Texans get from Watson as a scrambler.

I would classify the Jaguars as more of a short-passing offense than a deep-passing offense, but interestingly, most of those plays are away from the middle of the field. Minshew threw just one ball between the hashes in Week 8, and only eight passes qualified as “short middle” in the play-by-play. More interestingly, they only had two passes listed as “short middle” against the Texans in Week 2. This is a big positive to me as far as a matchup trend because the Texans, as I noted earlier this week, have been absolutely atrocious defending passes over the middle this past month:

The Texans will not have Tashaun Gipson or Lonnie Johnson for this game, with neither player making the trip across the pond. It looks like the starting cornerback trio will be Johnathan Joseph, Gareon Conley, and Keion Crossen. I expect the Jaguars to try to get DJ Chark on Johnathan Joseph as often as possible, as that’s a physical mismatch and something that worked in Week 2. Chris Conley also had a nice game outside in Week 2. Fill-in safety Jahleel Addae won’t be asked to do anything too big, with the Jaguars not working their tight ends often in the passing game. Mike Adams will take Addae’s role as dime safety.

There’s a lot of pressure on Houston’s defensive front seven to remain stout without Watt, but they did a fairly good job holding up against Josh Jacobs in the second half last week against Oakland’s run-heavy game plan. The Jaguars are primarily an 11-personnel team, so that’s asking a lot of D.J. Reader. But Reader has been great in almost every game this season, even when asked to play against Quenton Nelson.

Special teams

With field goals trending in the right direction, the Texans don’t have a real weakness as a special teams unit at this point.

The Jaguars have gotten excellent accuracy from Josh Lambo, but have just 73 yards from Dede Westbrook on 14 punt returns. He may be stretched a little thin between his role on offense and returns.

The read

As much as I think that the Texans will eventually be hurt by J.J. Watt’s absence, I think what they do as a defense is a fairly good fit for how the Jaguars play. They can stop the run. They already have proven they’ll send the heat at Gardner Minshew. Minshew may beat them deep a couple of times — that’s kind of how things have crumbled now. The Texans need those negative plays too badly.

I expect Bill O’Brien to play a heavily conservative game plan with a lot of runs. I think he knows how banged up his team is and is trying to get to the bye week with as little stress as possible. That could backfire if the Jaguars get off to a quick start, or it could be part of a positive game script.

After looking at the gritty details, I’m a little more encouraged by this matchup. I agree that the game will be close, and I think it will be less offensive than most of Houston’s last four games if only because both teams love to run. Texans 22, Jaguars 21 is the call here. I don’t feel very confident about this because I think Watt’s injury opens up a lot of different ways the Jaguars can win that we may not know about until they’re exposed on the field.


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What will Houston’s defense be without J.J. Watt?

You would probably have to go back to Romeo Crennel’s time with the Cleveland Browns to find a Crennel unit as unable to rush the passer as what Houston is left with after J.J. Watt’s injury this season.

In 2007, the Browns went 10-6. They did this despite not having a single player with more than five sacks. The ancient Willie McGinest started 11 games at Age 36. An 11-sack rookie year for Kamerion Wimbley quickly proved to be something he couldn’t live up to again. Robaire Smith was around. (Of course he was.) The team finished 30th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and was below-average in essentially every area on defense.

We don’t have a ton of advanced game charting stats from that time period, but the ones we do have back up the idea that this unit wasn’t driving quarterbacks off the field with hurries. Wimbley led the team with 17 hurries per Pro Football Prospectus 2008, and second was Antwan Peek, who would never play another NFL down.

That team gave up 350 or more yards in every single game it played until Week 12, when it held a second-year Gary Kubiak offense under Matt Schaub to 314. The Browns followed up with two highly questionable games against a couple of opponents that were under 300 yards: the Trent Edwards Bills and the Chris Weinke 49ers. In the offseason, they would heavily revamp the defensive line by bringing in an in-his-prime Shaun Rogers.

This is a history lesson, but it’s also a warning sign not to get your hopes up after the Gareon Conley trade. Crennel has always had a good pass rusher in Houston, even when that rusher was just a 23-year-old Jadeveon Clowney in 2016, the last season Watt missed most of where Crennel was the defensive coordinator.


What the Houston defense has going for it right now is that they have an excellent run-stuffing unit. You’d think Watt would change that a bit. His absence will open up teams to run more directions, as Texans opponents have run at right tackle and right end a grand total of 16% of their runs all season as compared to the NFL average of 23%.

However, Watt was not necessarily racking up tackles for loss — he’s currently fourth on the team behind Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, and D.J. Reader. A lot of Houston’s negative plays come from shooting the gap, and I believe there’s still reason to think they can do that. Reader can still control his gap in a way that can win a play.

This won’t work against every team — many teams are built to throw. But the Texans do have one settled trump card that is better than most teams have, even without Watt.


If you want to think of a way to contextualize superstar pass rushers, think of them this way: They are capable of erasing about five plays from a defense’s ledger. They aren’t going to win every down. They can be double-teamed. They mean a ton in the aggregate, but on a down-to-down basis they matter a lot less.

Many NFL teams — smart ones — have moved away from impact defensive linemen and instead invested in coverage players. PFF released a study noting that coverage grades have more reliability in predicting wins than defensive line play. The Patriots traded away Chandler Jones, one of the best defensive EDGEs of his era, on purpose. They let Trey Flowers walk for $90 million from Detroit. Someone named “Adam Butler” has 4.5 sacks for them this year. Jamie Collins, who was cut by the Browns, has six.

The problem with Houston’s pass defense, and something that we have seen exploited week after week without Jadeveon Clowney, is that teams can throw crossing routes over the middle of it with impunity. Teams targeting the middle of the field against Houston have an 89.4% DVOA on the season. Let me unpack that in non-statistical terms: Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL with a 38.8% passing DVOA. Throwing the ball to the short middle against the Texans is like employing someone twice as good as Patrick Mahomes on every snap.

Crennel was already trying to blitz to mask a lack of non-Watt pass rush. But — and I think this is something worth giving Crennel some credit on because this is very new to him — I don’t think his blitzes have been all that creative on a down-to-down basis. When you dabble in the world of film study enough to see rushes where players fake and take a lineman, then drop in to coverage, and compare that to what the Texans have … it feels quite remedial. They run stunts, and they run straight ahead into gaps — sometimes they get gaps that are wide open.

I hate comparing the Texans to the Patriots because a) as much as they want to become Patriots south, I don’t think they’ve really earned the comparison, b) nobody looks good compared to the Patriots and c) it feels like such a Dunning-Kruger syndrome thing to just say aloud “Why isn’t every NFL team copying the smart team?” But I’m doing it here because the Texans are heading into the realm of a team that needs to play a different game plan. They’re going to need to change whatever the hell this is:

Ultimately, the Texans are blitzing about as much as the Patriots are. The Texans don’t have Stephon Gilmore, but they have put significant investments into the cornerback position and do just fine for themselves when throws head deep and the completion percentage ground isn’t easy.

Listen, nobody thinks the Texans can cover on an individual level the same way that the Patriots can. Nobody is going to be upset if Zach Cunningham or Bernardrick McKinney get played in man coverage — that’s something we’ve seen tens of times by now. But the Texans need the wins they are going to get out of that aggressive coverage right now. They need to play some coverage that is going to be feast-or-famine, because right now, it’s all feast.


Crennel has had to change a lot of his game plan from last year already, and I feel for him because this isn’t what he signed up for. I think a lot of what the Texans are doing now plays against the way he would prefer to call defense.

At the same time, this is now a completely desperate situation in pass coverage. It’s not going to be enough to keep doing the same things. Telling Jacob Martin to go be Watt isn’t going to work. How quickly Crennel figures that out — and how quickly he can figure out something that works — is going to be a big question. Given what Watt means to the organization in the face of getting rid of Clowney, and with Mercilus an impending free agent, this may be a transition point for the entire franchise.

Watt doesn’t have to be the deathblow to this season. It does make every play a lot less fun to watch. Deshaun Watson can erase a lot. But the Texans absolutely must figure out how to limit easy yards over the middle. The bye week could not be coming at a better time.


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Four Downs: Texans 27, Raiders 24

Michael Jordan comparisons were coming out of the mouth of Raiders head coach Jon Gruden after the Texans narrowly turned away the Raiders on a Sunday afternoon matinee at NRG.

No argument here.

On a day where the Texans offense seemed listless, and where the Raiders seemed to have opportunity to exploit a broken Houston defense with aplomb, the Texans were able to will out a win with Deshaun Watson. On a day where the rest of the AFC South also won, all but cementing the fact that the top two teams in this division are in line for playoff spots, the Texans kept pace in a game where they never seemed like they had much control.

Deshaun Watson kept them in the game.

1 — We are all eyewitnesses

This was not Watson’s sexiest game.

He didn’t throw a great deep ball all game, as Kenny Stills seemed unable to shake Oakland’s deep coverage. (What do Oakland, Carolina, and Jacksonville have in common? Let’s file that away as a post idea.) All Watson did was cooly take the Texans from a 21-13 hole to two consecutive touchdown drives. He bailed the Texans out of a pair of clutch situations with his legs, converting a fourth down deep in Texans territory (an incredibly ballsy call by Bill O’Brien) with his legs, and converting a third-and-1 in the red zone with his legs when nothing was open on a rollout.

Then we come to the play that’s going to be remembered for a long time:

Bill O’Brien said he thought they had a good play, but that it wasn’t open initially. Watson got kicked in the eye in the middle of the play. His eye was swollen, and he was down on the field for several minutes after it was over.

There is nothing that speaks more to the phrase “willing a team to victory” than what Watson did today. There are quarterbacks who would take that hit to the face and leave the game. Houston’s franchise quarterback took the kick, rolled out as if it’d barely happened, and fired a bullet to a well-covered Darren Fells for a go-ahead touchdown.

In a city that is spoiled for incredible talent right now: Altuve, Harden, Watt, Westbrook, Bregman, Cole, Verlander, Watson is still somehow the most compelling player to watch.

There have been better running quarterbacks, and there have been quarterbacks with better arms. But what Watson does with his own intuition and his own drive makes him a combination to where I can’t even compare him to anybody else I’ve seen play this game. He’s so watchable because he’s completely, utterly, one-of-a-kind.

Watson said he couldn’t even see when he let the ball go:


2 — Goodbye, pass rush

The Texans got one quarterback hit all day, and it came on a play where Jacob Martin came late on a reset by Derek Carr:

And, of course, we learned as soon as the game was over that J.J. Watt would be out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Ian Rapoport reported it first, and Watt followed up with his own post about it:

As I brought up last week, the Texans have been bereft of pressure outside of Watt, who had 12 quarterback hits compared to his teammates’ six over the last three weeks. This only exacerbates the issue. Whitney Mercilus’ hot start was something everyone got excited about, but was really driven a lot by D.J. Reader’s hot start up the middle. With Reader cooling down as a pass rusher the last few weeks, it’s been nothing but Watt.

A secondary that already had problems covering is now about to see how they do with just about zero negative plays, barring yet another trade to fill the ranks. Even if the Texans do find somebody, they’re probably not going to find somebody like J.J. Watt. It’s, unfortunately, a devastating injury for this team’s chances of winning this season. There’s not much of a way to sugarcoat it. Deshaun Watson is going to have to ball out every week from here on out, and the defense is going to have to take advantage of it’s turnover chances.

3 — Gareon Conley’s revenge game

Conley’s first game in a Texans uniform wasn’t bad. He was burnt once, but on a route that you rarely see that happened only because the Raiders had extra time to dial it up:

It’s easy to look at him trailing on the touchdown and get upset and make a snap judgement about who won a trade. But, as I was saying to Avery Duncan on Twitter, I think Tyreek Hill beat Chris Harris on a similar route last week. Most cornerbacks don’t play to stop routes like that.

That’s not to say that Conley’s first game was great. He had another completion allowed at the top of a route after he slipped. Another deep ball that they targeted Conley on early was simply overthrown by Derek Carr:

But when the chips were down, in the biggest defensive play the Texans faced, Conley broke up what would have been a first-down throw to Tyrell Williams. It was a game-changer:

No big statements from me after this game. Conley played alright, I think he can do better. I just want to point out that the touchdown, even when it goes on his record here, isn’t really something you can expect most cornerbacks to do anything about.

You can really feel the deep passion flowing off those words. I don’t know if Conley will ever get over this.

4 — 2017 throwbacks nobody asked for

The Texans had Roderick Johnson active, but instead started Chris Clark at right tackle. Nobody asked Bill O’Brien to clarify Johnson’s status after the game so we’ll have to have that clarified at some other point, but if this was a straight benching, it made no sense.

Clark was quickly pushed around by an Oakland front that was in the bottom five in sacks created coming into the game. Benson Mayowa rolled right over him:

This was hardly the last time that Clark was rolled in this game, including being the root cause of a second sack:

The Texans lost Laremy Tunsil towards the end of the game, forcing Clark to left tackle with recent practice squad signee Dan Skipper at right tackle. The team was mum on Tunsil’s status, but that’s a good sign at least in so much as we know it’s not a season-ender. What was a position of strength as recently as the Kansas City game is now a position, once again, manned by guys who are going to start fires in the backfield and ask Watson to put them out.

A big part of the problem the Texans had in the early going was that they were allowing pressure, four-on-five, versus a Raiders front that couldn’t get pressure against anyone. If that trend continues, Watson is going to be ending every game looking like a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out profile photo.


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Week 8 Preview: Oakland @ Houston

Well, after blowing last week’s game against Indianapolis, the Texans come back to the comfy confines of NRG in what I think most people are projecting as a bounce-back spot. After all, the Raiders just traded one of their starting cornerbacks to the Texans for a third-round pick, they must be throwing in the towel on the season!

I don’t necessarily buy that hype. I don’t know that I’d call the Raiders an out-and-out dangerous team, but I think they present enough challenges to the Houston defense that they can hang close. This is another huge game for the Texans (aren’t they all?) because the Raiders are a hanger-on in the AFC wild card race, and an Oakland win would do a lot for their ability to stick around as well as any tiebreaks.

The Texans are favored anywhere between six and seven points from the numbers I’ve seen, without much budging. One thing that has moved is the over/under, which opened at 48 and is now straddling 51.5 in most spots. Points are a good expectation right now given how both defenses have been struggling.

The last time the Raiders and Texans met, Connor Cook gifted Bill O’Brien his first (and only, to this point) playoff win. They’d actually met in the regular season that year as well, in Mexico City — a game you might remember best for a horrific spot call by an official in Oakland’s favor that helped them score 14 points in the fourth quarter to win. In 2014, the Texans won 30-14 in a mostly-forgettable game in Oakland where Arian Foster rushed for 138 yards.

When the offense has the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

Few teams currently have as horrific of a defense as the Raiders have created under the watch of former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. The pass defense has been one of the worst in the NFL for two years running, following the trade of Khalil Mack. (It’s honestly been bad for longer than that, too.)

Oakland has just 10 sacks in six games. They have a league-worst 11 hurries. They rarely blitz (18.9%, 29th in the NFL), have allowed 16 passing touchdowns, and their averaged depth of target allowed is the third-highest in the NFL at 10.9. Their cornerbacks and safeties have not played well this year. To this point, they have checked just about every box you can check for a bad pass defense.

On an individual level, Gareon Conley’s trade would appear to open up snaps for Trayvon Mullen, their second-round pick out of Clemson. Mullen has played reasonably well in limited playing time, but as a rookie, could be a source of big plays. He’s already allowed one passing touchdown in six targets. The players with the most pass pressures on this team — I swear to God I am not making this up — are nose tackle Johnathan Hankins and journeyman end Benson Mayowa. I would call Maurice Hurst their most talented rusher, but he is not a full-time player.

After reviewing the All-22 from last week’s loss, I don’t think there are long-term concerns for the offense. They did seem to abandon 12-personnel very early to me, but the Colts also played the read-option stuff that worked against Kansas City pretty well. Ultimately, if they hammer in a few of their red zone opportunities, I think we might be talking about this team in a different light this week.

Oakland has allowed 9.3 yards per attempt and 16 passing touchdowns against 11-personnel, while collecting just eight sacks in 165 dropbacks. Even if Bill O’Brien’s offense takes things back to deep play designs, I’m struggling to find a lot to be worried about with this defense besides the random turnover luck inherent in any game.

Will Fuller has not practiced and is expected to be out for a while, so expect Kenny Stills to take over as the main deep threat this week. I think that’s a fantasy football play with some upside. Roderick Johnson has been limited in practice with Tytus Howard still down, and Johnson did not put together a great game against the Colts last week. That’s one spot where I think the Raiders could generate some pressure.

When the Raiders have the ball

This is the part of the game that is very hard to write about in-depth only because the state of both of these units are so in-flux. The following players have had limited practices or no practices through Thursday night and have signaled they might play anyway this week: Josh Jacobs, Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson, Trent Brown, Tyrell Williams, Tashaun Gipson, Johnathan Joseph, Bradley Roby

Let’s start with the general scope of things. The Raiders are a good style matchup for a Texans team that spent last week getting coverage busted all over the field. The offense Jon Gruden has built around Derek Carr relies mostly on safe, short throws — their 6.6 average target distance is tied for third-shortest in the NFL. Per the SportsRadar definitions of a “Bad Throw,” Carr has fewer of them than any quarterback in the NFL. Teams have essentially given up on trying to blitz them — they have taken fewer blitzes than any NFL team.

With J.J. Watt essentially neutralized by game plan — if you think I’m kidding, the Broncos had a healthy Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and got nothing against Oakland — this will become about execution for the back seven. Jon Gruden probably has several ideas about exactly where to stuff the ball at Gareon Conley. Lonnie Johnson had a devil of a time with man-beaters last week. Even the normally reliable tight-end defense cratered with Tashaun Gipson mostly sidelined, allowing a combined seven catches for 91 yards and a score to Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle.

That last part is of interest with the only for-sure healthy Raiders receiving stud being Darren Waller, who lit up the Packers for 126 yards and two touchdowns. So, really, Gipson’s health is a big ex-factor for this game.

The Texans responded to Indianapolis’ short passing game by bringing a lot more heat in the second half and playing an even more aggressive game plan than their initial stab in the first half, which was primarily a man-to-man style with one deep safety. They finished the game blitzing Jacoby Brissett on 21 of 39 dropbacks. That this rarely happens to the Raiders leaves the question of what happens when a blitz is sent up for grabs. Carr has traditionally not been very good with pressure in his face, but the Raiders have been good at keeping that from happening.

Oakland has a great offensive line if everyone is healthy, and Josh Jacobs has been stellar in his first six games. So the nagging question of health hovering over it all is pretty interesting. The Texans beefed up for dealing with Marlon Mack last week, using Brandon Dunn on 34 snaps — nine more than he’d seen in any other game — and holding Mack to 1.2 yards before contact per attempt. Rodney Hudson and Richie Incognito have both been excellent in creating space in the interior. This will be a terrific clash of strength-on-strength up front if Oakland’s line suits up. (All of them suited up last week except Brown.)

The Raiders use 11-personnel less than 51% of the time, as compared to the NFL average of 61%. Like the Colts, they are practitioners of 13-personnel. They also have a foothold in 22-personnel with an actual fullback in Alec Ingold. Think of this offense kind of like Gary Kubiak’s old Texans offense and you’ll get the gist of it. Carr has been much less effective out of 11-personnel, and if the Texans establish a game script where they are leading and running clock, that will make a comeback harder.

Special teams

Kai Fairbairn had a lot of practice ironing things out last week, so that’s good news except for the part where the Texans lost. That remains the only gaping hole on their unit on a seasonal basis.

Trevor Davis has killed it since the Raiders traded a low-round pick for him in the return game. Dwayne Harris combos to create a great kickoff return unit. A.J. Cole (the former Nationals pitcher?) hasn’t been helped out by his coverage unit.

The read

I would be very surprised if the Raiders out-and-out blew the Texans out. That hasn’t happened since Deshaun Watson took the field. Oakland’s run defense DVOA is good and will probably prevent them from being pushed off the field like Kansas City was. (Though I will note, it’s always harder to assume that when Watson is a real part of the run threat.)

Trying to get off of my own slump here after two straight picks losses, I think the Raiders keep this closer than most fans will be comfortable with, but ultimately succumb to the Texans, 31-29.


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Gareon Conley’s flashes are worth buying in on

It is weird to believe that Bill O’Brien could buy low on anybody, just as it’s weird to believe that you can say that about someone who cost a third-round pick.

Green Bay’s decimation of the Raiders showed Conley at the nadir of his value. He was eaten up at times as a run defender. He gave up a tough catch to Jake Kumerow where the rookie ate him up on a curl route. He was in coverage on a deep ball to Marquez Valdes-Scantling that went late in the route once his safety cut inside and left the rest of the field open.

Jon Gruden has always been an aggressive coach, and he has yet to actually field a good defense in Oakland under Paul Guenther. Oakland is 30th in defensive DVOA this year, and was 30th last year. (They were 29th the year before!) The Raiders have zero pass rush and everybody involved in this secondary has to cover forever to make up for it. Didn’t they have some “Mack” guy at some point? Anyway…

So you’ve got two of the most impulsive NFL head coaches teaming up to make a deal that, on the surface, I think is actually pretty fair for both sides. It reminds me a lot of the Eli Apple trade last season. Apple got dealt for a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder, and I think we can probably say Apple doesn’t have Conley’s ceiling.


Conley’s Raiders career

Conley missed most of his first season with a shin injury that sent him to IR after a couple starts. The start of his second season was kind of colored with a lot of easy Case Keenum targets, but he wasn’t quite up to par on a few of the deep balls.

Conley had 15 single-coverage targets in his first two starts in 2018 per Sports Info Solutions. His snaps were down significantly after those two games, hitting their low point in Week 5 against the Chargers where he had just 12 defensive snaps. Gruden carrot-and-sticked his secondary hard in 2018. Conley had seven games with 89% or higher of the defensive snaps, and then also six games with between 46 and 73% of the snaps. Gruden also fought similar battles with Rashaan Melvin.

Towards the end of the season — I’d say his turnaround started in around the Indianapolis game in Week 8 — Conley started playing a lot better. He was tighter in his man coverage, and even when he was beat, he was still putting himself in good positions. I saw multiple examples of him learning on the field and even within a game.

Conley, I think, became a much more complete player towards the end of last season. I don’t necessarily buy the very common trope that I’ve had lobbed on me on Twitter that he’s a better man player. Towards the end of last year, he was doing well in man:

But, he was also making some well-thought out reads in zone:

Conley’s end of 2018 play was impressive — he was rightfully considered one of the two or three most valuable players on the Raiders this offseason. The Texans probably aren’t able to make this play before the season, or even two weeks ago. I think they may have been a bit lucky that this Packers game happened in the long run.

While he wasn’t playing as well in 2019, I think anybody with the kind of flashes that Conley showed in 2018 is worth a real investment. I also don’t think Conley was playing all that poorly outside of the Green Bay game.


The weaknesses

Conley’s weaknesses have a lot to do with one of the things you saw on that Packers tape: tackling on the outer third. That was not the first touchdown I saw him give up on that kind of play. He also was roasted in single-coverage on Melvin Gordon last year on the same sort of play.

I think the other clear weakness he has — and I think this is something that the Texans have stacked a lot of similar guys on — is in-breaking routes. Not specifically slants, but longer-developing plays where he has to cross the field horizontally. He had a lot of trouble keeping up with them early on in his career.

Again, to emphasize: I don’t think his zone defense is all that bad. I think he has some punch in off-man:

But when you ask him to move horizontally — think about the reception Bradley Roby allowed late in the Falcons game where he sort of slipped and fell late in a route — I think Conley has a lot of problems with those kinds of balls as well.


Long-term versus short-term

The Texans weren’t ever going to get into the Marcus Peters or Jalen Ramsey discussions. They didn’t have that kind of draft-pick firepower available. So when you thinned the market a bit, and you realized the Texans were in it after injuries continued to hammer the secondary, I think it mostly came down to Gareon Conley versus Chris Harris. (Maybe you could throw in William Jackson, but I think he would have cost more than Conley because the Bengals are super old school.)

Harris is, in my opinion, the better player today. But Harris is a pure rental, and is turning 31 next season.

Conley comes with an additional year of cost control, and probably two years of cost control as I can’t imagine the Texans not picking up his fifth-year option unless he’s an utter disaster or suffers a career-ending injury.

I loathe Bill O’Brien tossing draft picks away like candy, but I’m almost starting to wonder if it’s a methodical madness. Deshaun Watson will always keep this team afloat as long as he’s healthy. If Watson isn’t healthy, the team was going to fall apart anyway. The funny thing about future draft picks is that there are always more of them to trade.

At any rate, without the Tunsil trade, I don’t think anyone is concerned about the Conley trade. The concern is that the future gets shakier than ever, but the price for the player feels right to me.


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Four Downs: Colts 30, Texans 23

I mean, it is what it is.

There’s not much new to be said. The Texans have been owned by Frank Reich’s Colts. Outcoached. In Bill O’Brien’s words, “they did a good job.” They have a lot of “good players.” They do a lot of “good things.”

The Texans didn’t answer the bell. O’Brien’s team made a number of on-field mistakes. Most notably, they gave the Colts a free set of downs in the red zone when Bernardrick McKinney hit Eric Ebron away from the play, drawing a flag. The Colts scored touchdowns on four of their first seven possessions, and the three possessions that didn’t score were an end-of-half kneelout, an aggressive fourth-down go that got stopped, and a fumble that set the Texans up with great field position.

There were a number of highlights for Jacoby Brissett which were just way, way, too easy.

Instead of stomping down on Indy’s throat while they had an injured secondary, the Texans slid right back to the pack, putting the division up for grabs and making the season much tenser than it had to be.

I wish I could say I was surprised.

1 — RPNo

After tearing up the Chiefs with misdirection runs, the Texans leaned mostly away from that outside of their touchdown run with Keke Coutee and maybe a few other plays:

Now, I understand that football teams can sometimes wax and wane on concepts in a game. Maybe the Texans didn’t think the Colts would bite so hard. But leaning so far away from what was so successful is, in my opinion, a little overly cute. Make the Colts prove they can stop it. This was highlighted by the bizarre idea to mostly go with Duke Johnson on the opening drive, one where he ran for six yards on three carries.

Houston eventually got to 100 yards on the ground, but it took 24 carries, and they had just one rushing first down in a first half that mostly set the terms of engagement for the rest of the game. That came on this cleverly designed O’Brien run where Deshaun Watson was under pressure and did whatever the hell he wanted:

Bill O’Brien, I’m sure, has a reason that he leaned so far away from what worked last week. All I can tell you right now is that nobody asked about it at his post-game presser as far as I could hear. Not much was said about it. Maybe we’ll get something on Monday.

One of O’Brien’s biggest weaknesses is his adherence to the run game while trailing. When it all looks good, and the play-action passes are hitting, his offense looks unstoppable. But when what should be part of the base offense is instead a wrinkle, and he can’t decisively win the ground game, well, nothing comes easy. You can’t have that in today’s NFL, especially with how easy things looked for Indianapolis with much less talent.

2 — Bill O’Brien’s fourth-quarter drive and safety

I have been nice to Bill O’Brien this week, and even applauded him for (correctly) going for it on fourth down a few times in this game. So let’s bury him together.

The Texans get the ball in the fourth quarter with 4:09 left. They are down five points. They have all their timeouts. Here is the sequence of plays:

— First-and-10 pass to Hopkins, incomplete. OK, makes sense. Colts saw the play coming.
— Second-and-10 run with Duke Johnson for three yards. Inexcusable play call this backed up if you’re not going for it on fourth down, then, somehow, it was made worse by the fact that the Texans then let 41 seconds run off the clock before their next snap at 3:23.
— Third-and-7 sack taken by Watson. Then, a carnival of indecision before the Texans called a timeout with 2:44 left. They let more time run off the clock trying to decide what to do.
— Then they take an intentional safety. Let’s throw it to BOB:

Per the folks at EdjSports, where I do some work and am privvy to some information, here’s what the splits look like on that fourth-and-9 play.

–Decision to punt puts the game-winning chance at 7.5%.
–Decision to go for it puts the game-winning chance at 14.5%
–Decision to take a safety puts the game-winning chance at 4.3%.

Now, some of that comes down to the actual idea of winning the game. It’s hard to win the game when you put yourself down seven without overtime. But the Colts on a punt are more likely to run the clock out or attempt a field goal than they are to get a touchdown, and that means that the Texans could still catch them in any scenario where they got the ball back.

This was a masterpiece of overthinking. I feel like I talk about O’Brien’s clock management in every loss the Texans have. But removing the opportunity to win the game with a touchdown in a one-score game is special even for O’Brien. It’s not like Adam Vinatieri has been lighting it up this year — I think the Colts were more likely to go for it than attempt the field goal on fourth-and-short at, say, the 38.

3 — Injuries on injuries on injuries

This is why the Texans went out and got Kenny Stills. The perception is that Will Fuller isn’t healthy often, and when he’s not, it takes Houston’s offense with it. Well, here we go. Fuller was taken out in the first quarter, ruled out at halftime, and the Texans attempted exactly one pass deeper than 20 yards before halftime.

Stills lived up to his end of the bargain when targeted:

The Texans continued to deal with injuries to the secondary, where Johnathan Joseph exited and can, if we’re being honest, not really be counted on to finish any game he plays in at this point. Phillip Gaines left later and appeared in the locker room on crutches. Jon Weeks has a bum ankle. Roderick Johnson took a stinger, per Texans PR.

It’s convenient and cathartic to blame injuries for this loss, but just like it is with the officiating, that’s not really the scope of the game. Houston had backup playmakers and backup defensive backs that shouldn’t have been much of a dropoff from the starters, in theory.

They had more than enough firepower to win the game. They out-performed the Colts on a yards per play basis. They had only one more turnover, and that came on the final drive of the game while trying to tie the game.

I think, as usual with these kinds of things, a lot combined to go wrong to sink the Texans. But the galling thing about it is that, even when given proper replacements, the offense didn’t seem to run any smoother. They ran their smoothest when they were just going hurry-up, two-minute drill ball. The defense ran their smoothest when they’d lost Joseph.

The worst feeling of all is when it feels like all this attention and coaching for a divisional game is less effective than just letting guys roll out there and play basic concepts on their own.

4 — A one-man defense

J.J. Watt had an incredible day. He batted down one pass, had six quarterback hits, and was the only consistent pressure that the Texans got against Jacoby Brissett all day. He also drew two different holding flags.

via NFL Next Gen Stats

When Brissett had a clean pocket, he was able to pick and choose exactly what he wanted from the Texans defense. Brissett finished 22-for-26 for 266 yards and four touchdowns from a clean pocket. He was just 4-of-13 for 60 yards under pressure.

The Texans came away with just one sack. Whitney Mercilus got a fumble recovery off of a bobbled snap, and got half of the sack with Brennan Scarlett, but was otherwise empty. I can’t remember D.J. Reader making any splash plays in this game. All the other rushers got just about nothing.

Watt is a hell of a player, a Hall of Famer, and it’s awesome to know that he hasn’t declined much. It would be even nicer if he had some actual help. The Texans were able to shut down Brissett with better blitz schemes and more aggressive coverages in the fourth quarter, but were otherwise just completely lost.

Watt has 12 quarterback hits over the last three games. Nobody else on the team has more than two.

It was a day to miss Jadeveon Clowney, even if he would have jumped offsides once or twice.


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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.


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.


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:


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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