Flying East To Testify: Are the Texans Legitimate AFC Contenders?

Sunday will provide the the biggest and perhaps truest test of the 2019 Houston Texans. Lying in wait, a 7-2 Baltimore side, who’s unique explosion of run offence has got many talking up their chances as legitimate contenders. The game has been billed as a clash of the emerging new guard of the NFL and the winner will take the lead in their quest for a top-two seed in the AFC play-off running.

Lamar Jackson running the…..?

After watching the Lamar Jackson, wish-bone, triple Heiseman option, run heavy, RPO, pistol formation, jet motion, spread concept with QB designed runs aplenty, whatever you want to call this offence, as we stand today – it works. The Ravens made child’s play of a Bengals team last week, just as many have done so this season, but they looked ruthless when they went to the air and were explosive in running attack. Their ground game spreads across the the depth chart as every skill position will run the ball and be in pre-snap motions, on every drive creating misdirection to put opponents on their heels, to great effect.

The Texans will look to the Patriot’s tape from the week prior, where the Ravens put up 37 points against the heralded Coach Belichick’s unit. The master of modern defence is often clinical when he puts his mind to a game plan. The mark left on Sean McVey and Jared Geoff of the 4-man rush and quarters coverage is still present from Super Bowl LIII right through until today, a team that have never quite recovered. 

Partly, it was the first offence of any measure New England had played all season but also perhaps it would be logical to consider ‘the hoodie’ was willing to take a loss with the long game of getting all their best work on tape, so a repeat fixture would have a different outcome. Possibly not such a far-fetched notion, but time will tell.

Jackson is the teams leading rusher with 702 yards through nine games and for good reason, he is the most athletic quarterback in the League since Michael Vick. The similarities that Greg Roman, the Ravens O.C., has built into this system to put Jackson in a position to succeed is stark, but effective. A similar system, ironically run under the supervision of the other Harbaugh brother, Jim, and Greg Roman lead the 49ers to a Super bowl in 2013 by the maligned Colin Kapernick at quarterback. A season which ended in defeat to his sibling and long standing Ravens head coach, John Harbaugh. So the foundations for this offence were laid some time ago, but it all starts with Jackson on the ground on his RRO, run, run option with selectively passing where route combinations and favourable match-up’s can be exploited.

After scouring the tape, it was the number of options that the Ravens utilise to keep constant misdirection and disguises that stood out. Exemplified by opening drive against the Patriots in the 37-20 week 9 win. Each play shows the variance of looks and motions used by the offence, which results in a six, although a drive abetted by a field goal penalty.

Opening drive:
– Pitch Option to Running Back
– End Around to wide receiver
– Designed Quarterback Run
– TE Move and TE designed Roll Out
– Run stuff on Option, WR in Motion
– Touchdown – QB Option, OLB bites and Lamar Walks it in.

The one carry over from the Ravens 23-17 Wildcard round loss at the hands of the Chargers, is now Texans saftey, Jaleel Addae who exclusively played an off-the-ball-linebacker-come-safety in that game. Any insight into the unconventional, but successful, seven defensive back look that can be given would be much needed intel. But after watching their tape on both sides of the ball it’s clear this team is far superior than the one that fell short at the first hurdle last season.

Keys to the Game:

Disciplined Defence

The number of options and motion’s the Baltimore offence presents at the line of scrimmage is the origin of their big play ability. The Texans will need to show the utmost discipline across the front seven, to limit Jackson, Ingram or any skill player to avoid breaking contain. The Ravens just like the Texans due to their quarterback’s playing style, will have the off-script, chain movers to sustain drives. But the limitation of such plays and a more refined strategy that showed up versus Jacksonville, at Wembley, will be just the basic outline of what will be required.

The Texans appeared to find a modicum of pass rush in London, the first outing without JJ Watt. This was a positive as it was done so whilst being disciplined in the rush lanes. The key will be to create pressure on Jackson whilst not at the expense of getting caught out their assigned gaps. As losing integrity will only end up in a scramble for cheap yards. Texans will be looking for a big performance from Whitney Mercilus, on the road to lead this unit along with DJ Reader and his Lunch Pail Crew at the heart of the line. A top three run defence against a first ranked run offence will have the ability to flip the result for whichever unit makes its presence felt the most at M&T Bank Stadium, Sunday.

Jan 5, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus (59) against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Setting the edge against a unit that want to run outside and keeping Jackson in the pocket and making him throw is essential. Most of the his throws are based on timing routes rather than waiting on or throwing receivers open. So bating Jackson into mistake’s when he opt’s to throw will be key. When Jackson does throw, unrivalled running ability aside, his throws certainly don’t carry the velocity and tight spirals that you’d expect from a top-end signal caller. There’s a reason why this offence ranks 31st in both completions and passing attempts.

Pass Coverage & Tight on Tight Ends

Of the 177 completed passes this season, 47% of the completions have been to their three leading tight ends, Andrews, Boyle & Hurst. Andrews, carrying the bulk of the threat, has been a later round surprise and developed into Jacksons favourite target, leading the team with 5TD’s.

The trio will need to be accounted for in the short to intermediate passing game, but equally in the red-zone. The Texans will need a package that can cope with 2 & 3 TE personnel groupings that they will likely see.

The health of the Texans closest player they have to an authoritarian on the back end would be Lonnie Johnson. After his physical work against Travis Kelce, Johnson will be expected to line up against one of these threats. Teshaun Gipson made a name for himself with his performances against Gronk so having both on the field, will be a plus factor for the Texans. If they can force Jackson to go through mutiple progressions, will lead to incompletions and turnovers if the ball breaks their way.

Houston Texans safety Justin Reid, rear, tackles Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) with safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. (39) closing it, during the first half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

If the Texans can set the edge and follow their assignments then it leaves the question of their coverage approach. There may be an acceptance that they opt for predominately zone coverage. Which was the key against the Jag’s to help avoid a mobile QB’s scrambles and offers more flexibility in the formation to react and helps to blur the quarterback’s vision of clear reads.

It will be a chess match between Crennel and Roman all afternoon. Stopping the tight end’s from sitting down in zone gaps may require man looks on key third downs, on short/medium distance. But giving up those play’s may be the trade-off when avoiding game breaking deep threats. Bend, don’t break is often RAC’s mantra.

Deep-Threat Passing Game

The deep threat of former Oklahoma wide-out ‘Hollywood’ Brown will be something to monitor. Jackson’s volume of throw’s will likely be limited but when they look downfield, they aim to exploit favourable match-ups. The Texans will hope that Bradley Roby’s hamstring has healed to maintain pace with Brown on the perimeter. His touches are limited but when found, they are for big gains and 4 TD’s in his rookie season to date.

Similarly Willy Snead, Miles Boykin have both caught passes for 50 yards each and combined for 4 TD’s. So, communication and assignment clarity will be key on the back end, to avoid undoing their good work in an instant.

The Texans will need a stand-up-and-be-counted type performance from the secondary in run support but also the pass coverage. An uncommon challenge for Conley, Joseph & Justin Reid, who will need the return of a healthy position group, who all have missed time prior to the bye.

Clean and Efficient Offence

The Texans offence has tormented Bill O’Brien with the pre-snap penalties, illegal formation and false starts being the crux of their issue. Many games points totals have been inhibited by stalled drives and not accurately reflecting their time of possession and yards gained. The bye was hopefully a time where the staff and offensive players have reflected on and have found a fix. As Sunday game won’t leave much space for error and points will be at a premium, just as will quick starts, as playing from behind won’t suit either offence.

The passing game will be a point of emphasis against a Ravens, who’s strength of their team is the attack minded secondary lead by Marlon Humphrey, who leads the team with 9 passes defended. The opportunistic corner Marcus Peters, who has 4 pick six’s on the season, will provide a tough challenge for the Texans receiving corps. Either corner will be asked to match up with Deandre Hopkins so expect the Texans to move Hopkins around the formation to get free and impact on the game. The key for Watson will be finding the third or fourth cover player match up’s and continue the work he’s shown this season in spreading the ball around his weapon’s to keep defences honest.

Winning at the Line or Hyde-ing to Nothing?

The level of defence is likely be a top three unit the team have faced this year. Williams and Pierce are the space eaters at the point of attack so the Houston interior O-line will need to be ready for a brawl. Pierce will likely miss this game, and his omission may assist in the Texans attempt to command the trenches. A huge task but if able, the offence can then leverage the ability in opening up the passing game, where Watson can take control of the show.

Contending with rusher Matt Judon who has racked up 19QB hits and combined with the ageless Pernell Mcfee for 15 TFL’s will be high on the agenda. The line is expected to have both its bookends in Tunsil and Howards ready. The first time the first choice line will be in place since week 6 and will be an acid test of their growth as a group.

The balance achieved through the run game has been central to the Texans offence this season and Sunday will be no different. As the Raven will want to control the time of possession but just as the Texans showed on the road in KC, taking over in this department will be a big factor in deciding games. Using Carlos through the middle will be key but I’d expect the growth of Duke Johnson to be a central point for hard yards to be gained and provide the Texans own dual-threat weapon.

Bye Week Creations

What packages and off-shoots to their current tendencies will OB & Kelly incorporate into the playbook? This could be crucial in a game that is expected be a ‘shoot-out’ and a few un-prepared looks from the Texans offence may be enough to edge it. The return of Fuller, would be a huge boost to the passing game, which looks a far a more dangerous proposition when he’s on the field. The big play ability to stretch a defence, particularly against a defence that likes to bring its DB’s up to the line for additional pressures. If the Raven’s have to deal with some deep attempts early to Fuller and Stills, that may lead to Don Martindale calling less single high looks, which they have seemed confident to do with the addition of former Seattle Star, Earl Thomas.

Watson out to show he’s top Dog over Jackson

Very few could protest at the notion, that at this stage of his career, Deshaun is the more complete player. Subtle are the nuances, but Watson presents as much more refined player, running a more complex and layered offence, with full control at the line. The Texans aren’t coming into the game with a shower of praise from national media outlets and Jackson appears to be the newly found media darling. That will likely irk Watson, who was famously ranked below Baker Mayfield in last seasons top 100 players poll. So if there was ever any incentive to put a stake in the ground, it’s Sunday, not only for himself, but his team and the franchise to take a monumental step towards their goals.

CBS (Ian Eagle & Dan Fouts)
SKY SPORTS Action (6pm BST)

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