A season for change, coming of age and renewed hope for an offence lead by a special talent who will need to be at his best on this three game run, if the Texans want to stamp their ticket to the play-off’s.
The Texans regained their position at the summit of the AFC South with a commanding win against Jacksonville, in London. The mastery of the elusive Deshaun Watson and the revengeful running of Carlos Hyde put on a show in the final game of the NFL International series of the 2019 season, as both teams ardently head into their bye week but for very difference reasons.
Results will inevitably come with the level that this Houston offence is currently on, it’s more a question of how often. Consistency and health often defines a successful football team. But without a top-tier signal caller, your chances are greatly diminished. Luckily, Rick Smith left Houston with a bigger parting gift that anyone perhaps at the time realised. On Sunday, once again the mercurial Watson, exhibited to a Wembley crowd largely of neutrals, that he’s hard not to root for. Despite yet another reasonably slow first half, crippled by needless penalties and procedural errors. The disparity of talent levels between the two teams, as they game progressed, continued to show. The Texans tightened their grip on a game that at no point, did they ever look like losing, running out 26-3 winners and in all likelihood that margin flattered the hosts.
The Texans defence were given the bulk of the credit for holding a Jag’s defence to just a mere field goal last Sunday, which was a huge positive considering the loss of their star DE JJ Watt, the week prior. That was the biggest question coming into this game. How would the defensive front cope? How can you replace a three time defensive MVP with even a number of players? The answer was simple. Play tough, smart and disciplined football. The gap discipline was clinical for the Texans D, who kept a mobile quarterback in the pocket and forced him to throw against mostly zone coverage, which resulted in a stifled Jags offence.
A similar adage rings around the league when a certain football powerhouse continues to maintain is nauseating level of success year after year: ‘Do your job’. This needs to be the mantra for this unit moving forward. Perhaps it would refreshing to see a newly coined phrase, but the message remains the same. Now bereft of stars on that side of the ball, the unit must be greater than the sum of its parts, a step-change from previous era’s of Houston Defence, but one that is needed if 2019 is to yield any results.
The Texans front will be asking a lot of young and inexperienced players. Chuck Omenihu has shown he can make plays, but finding consistency in using his long and powerful frame will be key for the former Big10 defensive player of the year. Jacob Martin is a pure speed rusher with a high level motor and Carlos Watkins a former 4th round pick on a contract year will need to dig deep in the trenches to created QB pressures. Whitney Mercilus looked to be on an unstoppable track at the seasons outset, however he has regressed in top line production but will be the teams main threat as an edge bender. The trusted aids, who form the self proclaimed “Lunch Pail Crew” lead by growing star in DJ Reader (also in contract year and would seem in line for a serious offer from someone, if not the Texans) ably assisted by DJ Dunny and Angelo Blackston will need to be dependable as ever to out allow the middle Linebackers to work freely.
B-Mac & Zack as a pairing has a ring to it on paper just as much as they do on the field. The level which the two continue to play the run and the improvements in pass coverage, means that this is no longer a weakness that opposing offences attack. This tandem is up there in the top 4 of pairings at that position and are vital to this team’s success. Dylan Cole perhaps hasn’t reached the level of play some might have hoped and Texans have continued to mix the third safety into packages, this is something that will need to be answered during the bye.
J-Reid continues to be a player that opposing teams avoid in the passing game. The Stanford engineering grad. shows equal nouse of the football field and is the leader of this secondary. The surprising addition of Gareon Conley, who lead with eight tackles last Sunday, appears to be in a position to succeed in this defence. The Texans will need growth from this group, under the stewardship of Anthony Midget and Conley’s fellow Ohio State product Bradley Roby, will be a much needed return from the hamstring injury that has sidelined him since week 6. Lonnie-J. Jr will hope he can brush off his concussion to return to round out a starting group that will need the experience of Jonathan Jospeh and safety Teshaun Gipson to solidify this DB unit in tough moments. The invaluable experience that the duo of Armstrong and Crossen will have gained in the starters absence will only be good for a position grouping that appeared to be the achilles heel of this team. But a scenario now presents itself where this group are in a situation to change that mentality down the stretch, it’s a case of piecing it together, week by week.
A team with Watson in it, is one that will likely be within touching distance regardless of whoever they face. In his 32 starts, the Texans have never lost by more than a single score. Now sitting at 6-3, the Texans will be largely content with their start to the season. The week four Carolina game aside, this 2019 Houston football team has been largely impressive. The engine of the team is their third-year quarterback who’s growth and maturation has been evident. The coaching staff have progressed the playbook to assist in heightening Watson’s strengths, but the mental aspect of the game is where ‘D4’ is not only elevating his own performances but all of those around him. Going into this bye week, Houston leads the league in total offence with 3,570 yards and Watson has contributed more total touchdowns that any other player with 25, through nine games. Whilst Watson continues to complete over 70% of his passes and adding over 30yards for rushing, he threat is ever-present, regardless of the score or situation. The offence has become dynamic, but in so many different ways.
But the emergence of a supporting cast from unlikely sources has been an underrated narrative. Tight end, Darren Fells, discarded by the imploding Browns was a veteran free agent pick up. Fells, a former pro basketball player, leads his position in touchdowns with six. The Browns, albeit for an above market value rate, bolstered the Texans once more in the trade for Duke Johnson. Duke not only notched his first rushing TD on Sunday, but also lead the team in receiving yards. His unique skill set has changed the way defences match up their coverages and has added a completely new dimension to keep opposing co-ordinators guessing. The Texans have transformed their half-back position group, lead by coach Danny Barrett and perhaps by chance. Carlos Hyde, by all accounts was offered to the Texans by Kansas City as a first option prior to hitting the waiver wire. He has been a missing piece of the offence of O’Briens tenure since the loss of Arian Foster in the 2014 pre-season. A true bell-cow back who lowers the pads, welcomes contact has added an element off balance to the offence. After a 160 yard performance last Sunday and 704 yards for the year, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, it’s difficult not be equally surprised and delighted with the “Elguapo” addition.
The aforementioned trio have been strong additions to an offence growing in stature but be careful not to overlook the secondary asset gained in this seasons bombshell trade, wide receiver Kenny Stills. The former Oklahoma stand-out has been an under the radar extension of this offence. His season has been defined by clutch catches when the team needs a play he is often the second read, when in receiver heavy sets. Stills announced his arrival in week-one with an introductory catch to the fan base, taking a late lead against arguably the NFL’s best team, in Louisiana. If this had of been a game winner perhaps it would have etched into Houston folklore more than current levels of praise have attained. However, it is clear he’s a trusted aid in passing game and it’s reasonable to expect that Stills will make an sizeable impact on this season’s story.
The primary addition of the seismic trade with Miami brought over left tackle Laremy Tunsil. The front office on Kirby Drive have been looking for answers at that position since the acrimonious split with former pro-bowler Duane Brown. Addressing the most vital position of the O-line has had wide reaching and positive consequences for the offence. Tunsil’s play has shored up the unit and often with O-Line play, a game changer can elevate the other four performances across the line and that’s been the case with both Rookie’s Sharping at left guard and Tytus Howard at right tackle. The missed time by Tytus was a stark reminder to all what phenomenal additional he’s been to this team despite being panned by draft nicks, he’s proven he was worth the selection and some. Even the sometimes questionable Nick Martin at centre appears to have found a groove and perhaps a string of good health and is playing at a solid level as the anchor in front of Deshaun.
The biggest issues for the last three weeks for the Texans has been health. Sunday saw yet another missed game by speedster Will Fuller. The fourth year player out of Notre Dame, is a pro-bowler when healthy but the ability to stay on the field has eluded him and robbed the Texans of one of the games best deep threats. If, Fuller can stay healthy, his speed opens up sections of the play book and gives this team big-play ability that they lack, in his absence. His return and sustained returned in the back half of the 2019 slate will be critical.
The proverbial sky is the limit for this team, providing team defence can rule the day and missed special team assignments are kept to a minimum. As we sit watching the remainder of the league playing out their ties this weekend, the Texans have three-game stretch upcoming that will delineate their 2019 fortunes. To this point they have exceeded expectations, propelled by Coach OB’s wheeling and dealing. It would seem now that theres an inclination to logically envisage more. Standing in their way of a play off run: at Baltimore, hosting both Thursday Night Football against the Colts and Sunday Night Football against New England. This of course followed by a 4 game-run that looks winnable but such games could easily become no-contests, if the Texans can’t handle the three preliminary ties.
In this three game span, there there will be no hiding places, the margin for error reduced and a need for at 53 men to step forward and be counted. If this can happen and the Texans can come out the tallest of tasks with two wins, then we can afford ourself to perhaps dream but only a for a short while. The Indy game is on a short week after a trip East will be the toughest test of all. Mainly, as under no circumstances can the Texans drop that game in the division. Most Texans fans would put up with a loss to both Baltimore and from the visit from the Tom Brady, if it lead to a win against the Colts. Every game in the NFL is must win, but the winner of that TNF clash will likely go on to win the AFC South and gain the resulting home play-off tie in the division round.
It would appear the odds and momentum could likely be stacked against this team going into these games. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens unique run-heavy offence will in all probability be 7-2 going into the clash as they face the 0-8 Cincinnati Bengals this weekend with Andy Dalton watching on from the sidelines. Similarly the Colts, the health of Jacobs Brissett’s MCL aside, host two games in their own building against a 1-7 Miami side – albeit coming of their first win this season – followed by a visit from the Jags. A Nick Foles revival in Duval county will need to be in the hopes and prayers across Houston.
The Texans in their entire history have been in the shadow of the team that everyone loves to hate, the New England Patriots in the race in the AFC. The Pats scheduled to the point, sitting 8-1, has been favourable by any stretch of the imagination. Losing their first game of the season in Baltimore last week is one point of consideration but so is their impending trip to Philadelphia and hosting the Cowboys, prior to the Texans on national television. Facing two teams who have limited room for error in the NFC East race, will likely bring the best out of a new England unit who have a remarkable ability to rise to the occasion. But they certainly have the tougher prelude prior to facing the Texans. This should give reason for some modest optimism and its worth noting they face the Chiefs the following week, in Foxborough. It appears the AFC’s elite will have traded blows substantially by the close of week 14, to give a clear idea of the run-in required for each city to reach it’s goals.
It’s currently all to play for, the view of this years Texans squad will be a more accurate picture come the end of the New England game. There’s far too much football to be played for comparing of schedule run-in’s and lots of variable will swing and questions will be answered in the next month.
But one is thing for sure, there’s very few other leaders on this planet your’d rather have than H-Town’s no. 4 to take on the AFC’s elite. The closer, each week they can get to health and playing a full 60mins with cleaner execution, it would be remiss not to say that this team has got a real chance.