Another Sunday passed with an all too familiar result for the Houston Texans. As Aaron Rodgers ripped through their defence with ease, putting up 21-points at the half, a familiar feeling echoed around an empty NRG Stadium. Downtrodden with limited signs of positivity.
Their inability to run the ball, through a troubling mix of asinine play-calling and a destitution of defensive talent, hinders a talented offence. This despite having Deshaun Watson, who is playing at a high level, throwing for over three-hundred yards again this week. There is now an inconceivable situation – his talents are ineffective on game day, due to lack of help around him, defensively and coaching on the sidelines.
It’s lead to a worrying state for the team, one that has been driven into the ground by 18-months of tyranny, filled with woeful personnel decisions, as Jack Easterby has the gaul to idly stand watch the mess he co-created.
The Packers were dealing with loss of their starting Tail-Back, Left Tackle, Safety and Corner entering this week 7 procession. It was a ‘get-right game’ in the truest sense, as the result rarely seemed in any doubt, after they made it 14-0, with 13.33 left on the clock in the second quarter.
The Texans did score on their opening drive of the second half as a switch to field two-back sets allowed them to march down the field. The defence aided with two three and out’s and a blocked punt on special teams assisted but the offence’s lack of rush attack, stalled out in the red-zone. As they settles for multiple field-goals, after Fairburn missed a 41-yard attempt before the break.
This Texans team can ill-afford first half shut outs, as their defence was deciamted further with the loss of corner Bradly Roby. As Davante Adams laid on two touchdowns and 196 yards on the day. Phillip Gaines, Eric Murray and Vernon Hargreaves, though not assisted by some suspect safety play, were left helpless as Rodgers found his main target 13 times on 23 completions.
Perhaps even more worrying, were the displays of growing factions within the team, as they spilled out into post games media calls. The sentiment from Brandon Cooks being that practice has been poor. Watson’s reaction was one of both scorn and dismissal when asked about that comment. It’s a rare position the former college national champion finds himself in, as he isn’t used to losing at all, let alone in this painful manner.
The Texans now head into a bye week, with decisions to make. Will they trade out any players who they receive a credible offers for? Will the coaching staff cut bait with players not bringing enough value to the field? So to experiment with younger and less experiences players. As as this stage of the season, the results can’t get any worse but the demeanour in the way they are being achieved, is the hardest part for fans to swallow.
This year’s rookie class needs game time so they can be evaluated and expensive under-performing vets need to be shipped for any value sought. As it’s now a question of the future for this team rather than the present. Though ironically, they’ve chosen to live in the latter, which has cast doubt about their speed and flexibility to rebuild this ailing roster.
As they were dismantled by a Green Bay team who’s quarterback finals years may well be crowned with a final title. But the personnel mistakes that have surrounded Aaron Rodgers career, will see him retire with nowhere near the success his generational talent should have commanded.
Let it be a lesson to all those inside the building. A quarterback is the most important piece, but it’s only the start.
Sunday’s overtime loss added to the Texans litany of games where Watson’s offence, left the field with a lead, yet to only suffer a loss.
Memories of Seattle, New England 2017, Philadelphia 2018, New Orleans 2019 quickly came to the fore. As Houston added another moral victory to their extensive catalogue. Deshaun trudged off the field after an ill-fated two-point attempt and would not return, as the Texans were confined to their 5th loss in six games.
Watson’s reaction to the loss of the overtime coin-toss was telling. The Texans defence has now cemented themselves in unwanted history, total ineptitude against the run. For only the fourth game since the merger, they allowed an average of 9.7 yards per carry whilst hemraging over 600 total yards on the day.
Adding to their woes, their long standing issues with Tight Ends reared at Nissan Stadium. Anthony Firkser went for 113 yards as Ryan Tannehill’s resurgence continues, throwing for 364yards on the day. The Tennessee run game, was not just Derrick Henry as he and their third stringer, Jeremy McNichols, ran for 263 yards against a porous Houston front.
Despite the highs of two fourth-down touchdowns, a 53-yard bomb to Fuller were all bold statements of intent. And for long periods in the second half, momentum felt like it was swinging in Houston’s favour. They were further aided by a JJ Watt strip sack and Bradly Roby’s athletic interception, but ultimately the game slipped out of Houston’s grasp.
The Titans comfortably marched to scores either side of overtime. Whilst notably, Vrabel taking an intentional 12-man on the field penalty, to stop the clock on Houston’s final possession. As the offence helplessly looked on from the sidelines in the 4th quarter.
The two-point attempt that Romeo Crennel understandably went for, will take much of the headlines. Though situation was rooted in Fairburn’s missed PAT attempt, which was a catalyst in the Texans losing game they should have won. Whilst also providing reminder how fine the margins of error are for the offence, when propping up a defence that cannot play the run.
It begs, the question – why aren’t the rookies getting more of a run on defence? Can John Reid be worse than the current output of of Vernon Hargreaves or Phillip Gaines? Is John Greenard any less capable than Brennan Scarlett? As both positions pose a glaring weakness to opposing co-ordinators. As the Texans defence, from 2018 has disintegrated into a sorry resemblance of its former self. The unit continues to hit new lows by the week. No more so, than on the game-sealing wild-cat call, as Henry walked in the score.
Crennel’s comments post game were telling: “that play was run in practice and they should’ve been prepared … the responsibility had been vacated.” In plainer terms, their current defence is not only lacking in talent but in the mental aspects of the game. Change is on the horizon for this team but of course, it will take time. And this unit will plague the remainder of this year.
Sunday was a timely reminder of the offensive talents on the this team. But those investments have been at the sacrifice of the defence. The Texans have a star in Watson but how quickly or if at all, they can address the other side of the ball is their looming and unavoidable task. If Watson is to captain a competitive team in the seasons ahead.
The Texans travel to Nashville with the hope of building on their maiden win, after last weeks victory over Jacksonville. Securing a consecutive victory would seem unlikely against an undefeated Titians who handled the 4-0 Bills on Tuesday Night, 42-16. A game that many decried a statement win however, upon closer inspection, the game was not as convincing as the box scores would suggest.
The Titans are on limited rest and with signifiant injuries that may well factor later in the game. Though considering their early enforced week-three bye, due to positive Covid tests, they’ve played less football and had an improved consistency in this weeks preparations.
Since Mike Vrabel left Houston to take the Tennessee position the team are split 2-2. Though the most recent, a Titans win on the final day of last season, Houston rested their starters, allowing the Titans into the play-offs. A game that paved the way for Tennessee to reach the AFC championship game.
That post-season run was characterised by Derick Henry’s bouldering running style, controlling the clock and suffocating opposing defences. The Texans have a glaring weakness against the run, currently 32nd in yards through 5 games, which may be an overbearing component in this game. Though Henry’s yards-per-game and per-attempt are down, he will remain a strategic consideration for Anthony Weaver’s game plan.
As Houston’s inability to get off the field and stop the run has translated to the offence. As they sit 4th in total yards-per-play, they rank last in time of possession. Simply, the offence hasn’t had the ball due to opposing offences dominating on the ground.
Last week, provided the Texans an opportunity to win but they will have to take a similar step forward again if they are to come close. Failing would confine their season as over, with the trade deadline approaching. Jack Easterby fielding offers for your best players is something many can ponder as a frightening hypothesis that may be realised post a defeat, in the coming weeks.
KEYS TO THE GAME
THEWATSON FACTOR – who’s yet to have an ineffable performance this season, will need to come alive. If his teammates can play fundamentally sound defence, providing a QB-vrs-QB clash, which presents a chance for the Texans to finally shape up into their pre-season vision. The notable improvement in pass protection, will have to hold against, Landry, Simmons, Jones and (sighs) Clowney, who’ve not influenced games in ways the team would have hoped.
DEEP PASSING ATTACKING – Tennessee’s ability to rush the passer in terms of pressures sits at 4th fewest and their secondary, missing Adore Jackson, is there to be exploited. As the Texans skill group who are slowly becoming synchronised with Watson. Former Texans-Great Johnathan Joseph, at 36 years old, is a guy who the Texans can target deep.
RUN OUTSIDE – David Johnson is not a running-back for inside the guards. The Texans line don’t block well on with inside concepts, either power or zone. Thought Johnson has shown his ability to find space when stretching plays to the edge of the box. A concept that can be worked against the Tennessee front and can arguably be run with the far more elusive Duke Johnson. A player the Texans continually to criminally underuse through the air and on the ground.
HANDLING PLAY-ACTION – Houston will have to handle play-fakes better than they did against the Vikings, where Kirk Cousins torched them them with a passer rating of 127.1. The 2019 week 15-encounter showed a heavy package of blitzing form Romeo Crennel, it would be to expected this may be Weaver’s most aggressive call-sheet to date. Otherwise AJ Brown could find himself slipping the grasp of Bradly Roby.
JONU SMITH – treating the former FIU standout in the same vein as a star tight end would now appear a reality for opposing defences. As versatile third-year player has given the Texans their fair share of highlight reel plays since entering the league as 3rd round pick in 2017.
THE RUN FITS – bottling Henry to a performance similar to the 86 yards he was held to in week 15 has to be the aim. If the Texans show regression against the run, after much needed progression just a week ago, their chance of a meaningful season may be over by the conclusion of week six.
HOUSTON @ TENNESSEE; 12pm CT; NISSAN STADIUM NASHVILLE; CBS
A new era of Texans football will begin on Sunday, after the departure of Bill O’Brien. But how much materially changes, as it pertains to this seasons success, will likely be inconsequential. The change was much celebrated but perhaps such rejoice was premature, as it will take time for any marked difference to reach the field.
Often teams show a short term improvement when making a move at head coach. But ultimately it will be the the same players in deep steel bue, who weren’t executing last Sunday, dawning the field against Jacksonville. A fixture that many would have seen as the most winnable of the 2020 slate, will be a test of how far the franchise has fallen over the last 18-months, due to decisions that eroded their talent.
Player, Head Coach disconnect had made its way on to the field, rather unmistakably in the opening four games, which may well dissipate this week. Quite how much of a transformation the Texans show, may be testament to how strong that disconnect had become. Jacksonville, lead by Gardner Minshew, will hope to arrest a three game losing streak and improve on his performance from London, last November. That was last time the teams met and was perhaps Houston’s strongest outing of the year.
The Texans went stale under O’Brien as he juggled his front office responsibilities. Perhaps his broadened role was the undoing of his coaching abilities. As he seemed fixated on coaching fallacies such as, “establishing the run”, i.e. running the ball incessantly, inside the tackles. He continued to double down on errors and chased shadows on expensively acquiring offensive personnel, at the expense of the defence. So Sunday should provide a test-bed, if his personnel mismanagement was either heavily weighted on the front office or on the practice field.
The Texans regardless of their figurehead will need to show-up as an offence that matches their talent. Can they move the move ball putting up scores on a semi-regular basis? Can their defence stop the run? All rudimentary questions, they’ve failed to answer. Can Romeo Crenels’s calming presence, remove multiple fatal flaws on this football team? It would seem unlikely but stranger things have happened.
Twelve games remain this season, games that at very least provide a new complexion to the roster. Regardless if the Texans were to win 10 games and get to the play offs, they are a fundamentally flawed roster. It will require significant iterations and considerable time to correct, if their true aspirations are a championship.
The Texans will perhaps hope they can trade out some players and acquire some value to reinvest in their roster. The concern must be – that process will need to take place prior to bringing in a new GM. As the looming threat of Jack Easterby’s ability to implode the inner sanctum of this franchise’s future, more than he already has, is highly plausible.
Either way, if he’s allowed to do that then, the timelines to correct the very mistakes he has personally overseen, will only have lengthened.
JACKSONVILLE @ HOUSTON; 12 NOON CT; NRG STADIUM; CBS
O’Brien, colleagues and ownership will asses these years as a golden chance squandered but much of the downfall was self created.
As the Texans announced Bill O’Brien’s departure, his team losing their four opening games of 2020, there was a tangible sense of relief. As what seemed an inevitable decision, arrived earlier than most had expected. Rumours of player disconnect swirled, after much of the regime had been littered with a patented resiliency but this season seemed different. No longer could the myriad of off-field decisions continue to be masked.
A popular hire, when appointed in 2014, O’Brien credibly steered his litany of quarterbacks to respectable outcomes. Although by his own admission didn’t care for the talents of Brock Osweiler, he managed to reach an admirable play-off defeat to the Patriots. Though his team was lead by a staunch defensive unit, they were “just a quarterback away”.
Entering 2017, for a second consecutive year, O’Brien benched his Quarterback amidst the season opener. Cue the emergence of the missing piece, as Deshaun Watson’s electrifying run shattered records, to only to tear his ACL and miss the remainder of the season. That promise was enough to earn O’Brien an extension which coincided with the hiring of Brian Gaine as his chosen GM pairing, after Brian Ghutenkunst, turned them down returning to Green Bay.
Unbeknown at the time, the conclusion of the 2018 season formed the outset of the Texans unravel, from a potential contender to their current state. The primary failing being their inability to take advantage of Watson’s rookie contract. This combined with O’Brien ridged approach to play calling which lead to much inconsistency and Watson not realising his full potential.
The later years will be remember for Bill shouldering additional responsibility and his team’s talent eroding as result. Personified by heavy handed trades, the team continued to buy high, sell low as the defensive talent was drained at the expense of investing in an offensive scheme that underwhelmed.
Now lies the pivotal task of cleaning house, namely the removal of Jack Easterby being equally essential as nailing the next General Manger hire. If Houston are to realise there current chance of re-defining their franchise, it essential that it’s achieved independently of their past. This team requires a GM of pedigree, qualified to evaluate personnel whilst and building a winning culture. And will ultimately have to be resourceful in order to maintain competitiveness, considering cap and draft picks expended.
The biggest organisational mistake of the the O’Brien hire was not aligning it with a new GM, which generated continual rift that distractions. Similarly, the ownership should question whether an intervention should have occurred last season, post the Chiefs play offs defeat, not allowing the trade of DeAndre Hopkins. Equally, allowing the unsuccessful acquisition of Nick Caserio to deter their search from and filling that position, was also a turning point that could have altered much that transpired.
Ownership, O’Brien and the many who have fallen foul of the decisions, that were made with the best interest of the team, should all take their share of blame. The attention will turn to the potential candidates and the plethora of young offensive minds and personnel executives who will be vying for these coveted role with a franchise passer already in house.
The team owe it to Watson to get these hires right, positioning this team to be successful and allowing him to realise his potential, that’s continually been hemmed in. This franchise has spurned the respective primes of both Deandre Johnson and JJ Watt, adding Deshaun to that list would be the gravest error of them all.
AfterOnly four games into his seventh year Bill O’Brien was relieved of his duties. But it cannot be ignored, further corrective steps are required if this franchise is to reset its course.
Many Texans will have understandably welcomed yesterday’s news, though it must be heeded by all, further changes are in order. There will be time to reflect on the O’B. era but there are far more pressing matters at hand.
It cannot go unsaid nor it cannot go unchallenged. As Cal’s next set of decisions will impact on the franchise’s very existence. He will have to show they have learned from their past mistakes. The Texans need a radical overhaul off-the-field before they can truly flourish on it.
The biggest error in the O’Brien appointment was not hiring a new GM, to make that coaching hire.
Jack Easterby is still employed by this team. Until he is removed, no one can collude in the illusion we have corrected our wrongs. Easterby is equally under-qualified as O.B. was to perform the General Manager role. Arguably, O’Brien was far more equipped than Easterby ever could be. In being allowed to continue his role, he in essence, is being absolved for his part in the previous 18-months. A period that has regressed this football team, in some instances irreparably.
Easterby is essentially a religious based, life-coach that’s made a habit of sticking around football teams. If he is remains part of the this team’s future we have failed before we’ve even started.
He orchestrated the departure of Brian Gaine, who for all his leadership flaws, was a solid talent evaluator or at the very least, he had a track record of doing it. Easterby has not been a bystander in the recent decline, further, he’s idly watched and allowed the firing of the man who brought him to Houston. Such a move would appear to be the mark of his character. But quite how he’s seen his position re-affirmed, for the time being, is beyond baffling.
If Cal McNair is ingenious to the tactics of Easterby, then this may only be the start of this franchise’s nose dive into the football oblivion.
Easterby was the culprit in a failed attempt to lure Nick Caserio to Houston, crassly at the Patriots Superbowl ring ceremony. If the grand plan is to bring in Caserio and Josh McDaniels as Head Coach, that move would already seem similarly ill-fated. Considering the previous attempt narrowly avoided tampering charges, which Robert Kraft dropped after they abandoned the move.
Cal’s father routinely obsessed with the New England’s operation. Hopefully, his son can take a more pragmatic view of a uniquely successfully competitor, realising you cannot replicate dual-generational brilliance without a significant portion of good fortune. Simply put, the Patriots model is the greatest-ever coach and quarterback, together with high levels of coaching discipline.
If we are to realise this chance of re-defining Houston Texans Football, then that needs to be achieved independently of its past. This team needs a General Manager of pedigree, qualified to evaluate personnel whilst and building a winning culture.
This is a football team. It needs to be lead by true football people. The attempts at the unique models and sub-programs has to be left where they belong, in the past. The structure should be fundamentally sound, admired for the investment in talented people and their efforts to build an on-field product thats universally respected.
There should be no influence in this new dawn of Houston Texans football from Jack Easterby. He should have been given his marching orders with O’Brien. There is a wealth of talent and experience out there, many, if not all, would want these jobs. There is a transcendent quarterback under centre, merely in need of nurture. That is the hardest piece to find, now it’s time for the easier part.
There are may millions of people been duped by great speeches and positive talk. But Calhoun I beg you, do not be another statistic. As the consequences of failing on these hires, for millions of Texans and Deshaun Watson is yet more despair.
Now is the chance Calhoun, to make your mark, I trust you will take it, as this opportunity may not come round again.Hiring a respected GM and progressive Head Coach will take this city into a new dawn of winning football.
Houston areout of time with nowhere to turn, as this team’s shots at success have been taken and a reset is required.
The Texans slumped deeper into their botched attempt in fielding a competent football team on Sunday. For a fourth consecutive week they failed to even remotely quell the concerns regarding the flaws of their roster. Quite how the notion of not being able run the ball or stop the run has been a surprise, is only a question that could be answered inside the walls of NRG.
The limited fans who chose to subject themselves to another unassuming offensive display, who themselves are now making a habit of only turning up for a half, were subject to one of their worst performances in recent memory. The Texans, despite playing a winless team showed their structural deficiencies are so glaring that opposing teams and the FOX commentary team, attacked at will. Finding themselves 31-16 down in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings lead by Dalvin Cook, rather predictably notched 130 yards, whilst Kirk Cousins was effective against a limited pass rush, completing over 70% of his passes. With the benefit of time, based of their play-action calls, Cousins rarely looked flustered and embarrassed the Texans defence whilst scampering for a 4th down conversion. The lack of talented corner play beyond Bradly Roby was lucid as Hargreaves and Gaines were exposed as Rookie Justin Jefferson showed both the finer points of route running.
This week, the offence chose to wait until the second half to show signs of life but quite simply they don’t see the ball. This is due to an un-conducive mixture of three-and-out’s, added with the inability to stop the run, as for consecutive week they held the ball for 13 minutes less than their opponents. No Defence can sustain that level of pressure and expect to win, not even a talented one.
The inconsistencies of the offence continued, despite O’Brien visibly taking over play calling duties. There were drives in the second half, where the empty-set, up tempo and Duke Johnson re-introduction made them, at times, looking coherent. But they continually foiled by an inhibiting system as it relates to their talents, whilst poor execution continues to hinder any momentum.
Though Deshaun threw for 300 yards and they were a contentious incompletion call from setting up a two point attempt, to tie the game late in the fourth, the game was never close for a long period. Their inability to run the ball hurt them in the red-zone. As they settled for field goals on three occasions and stalled out, punching it into the end-zone seemed inevitable.
It’s a stark reality for the Texans, that the personnel moves of O’Brien regime haven’t paid off. David Johnson – the team cannot run the ball; Max Sharping & Lonnie Johnson – benched in favour of others; Brandon Cooks – was without a catch yesterday; Ross Blacklock – ineffective in all aspects; the loss of DJ Reader – is glaring; paying Whitney Mercilus and Nick Martin whilst both respective units aren’t competitive. And Laremy Tunsil has been a stalwart but within this current context of a failing pass protection and a frail roster, the loss of those draft picks is magnified.
The countless bad off-field decisions are now compounding on it. As Jordon Atkins went out, they look thin at Tight End, whilst Jordon Thomas is scoring his first touch-down for Arizona. Atkins sustained a helmet clash on a play that set them up in the red zone, which saw Minnesota Safety Harrison Smith ejected from the game. The conclusion from the broadcast team and any willing on-looker: there are players out there that shouldn’t be on this roster. Deandre Carter – fumbled his 7th ball in only 27 games; Brennan Scarlett cannot set the edge; Carlos Watkins is a just a body in trenched, just to name a few.
This franchise dismissed and paid a disservice to the talents of J.J. Watt and DeAndre Johnson in their prime. Cal McNair has a duty to us all, by not adding Deshuan to that list. Ownership will likely be silent in the lead up to Jacksonville but a defeat in their first AFC South clash of the year and dropping to 0-5 would put O’Brien and his coaching staff on notice. A move that is overdue and based on this start to the season, a change needed if the franchise wants to win a championship.
O’Brien has admirably tried to do it his way, going thoroughly against the grain with a non-traditional approach but his team has regressed, beyond recognition. Even the grandest of optimists within the building will now realise that an ownership intervention is required, if they want a better fate for Deshaun Watson’s talents. It’s never too late but the passive trust they’ve paid, has only left them and their fans at the foot of football’s top table. The exact place that all of those underachieving Texans greats found themselves.
The Texans season, to this point, has been one to forget. The resulting bi-product of such a dismal start, it may allow many to realise a long held aspiration – to remove the man that has almost single-handedly created it. The organisation has trusted O’Brien to operate in a unique way and the pay-off reached isn’t respectability on the field. Amongst this short term pain, even his greatest detractors will find solitude in the fact that a regime change that may well be approaching. But at what pace?
It’s been a common occurrence under O’Brien, when all seems lost, he finds ways to revive his squad back to mediocrity. Though with an alarming sense of predictability, Houston are 0-3, facing a fellow winless team that Houston have never defeated. The feeling of deja-vu, entering week 4 is consistent at every turn, predominately yielding trepidation throughout Houston, as their star-quarterback is continually hamstrung by deficient coaching and personnel evaluations.
Familiar Faces Return
In welcoming Minnesota, former head coach Garry Kubiak, returns as the Viking’s offensive co-ordinator. The former Aggie, though is arguably similar to O’Brien in terms of their offensive outlook being somewhat limited, though they are quite the contrary in persona. Many listening to “Kube’s” in this week’s media availability would have understandably twinged with nostalgia. Over his seven years in Houston, he gave everything to this franchise, including suffering a stroke walking off the field at half-time, on Thursday Night Football. He left amidst the 2012 season 2-14 slide, but re-established his credentials, winning a Superbowl with Denver a year later.
Two former Houston Head Coaches will be on the opposing sideline Sunday. As Don Capers, also sits on the Vikings pay-roll as a defensive assistant, as both could be the protagonists in the Texans 4th straight loss. A result which could finally turn the pressure dial up on Kirby Drive and another coach leave after year 7 being unsuccessful.
Improvements… As You Were
The keys to the game, just as they were last week, are football basics, a startling indictment of this team’s talent, execution and fruitless scheme that has seen them fail in aspects of the game, through the first three weeks.
The Run Game
The Texans are a team that cannot run the ball, nor stop it. Facing Vikings ‘back Dalvin Cook could provide another harrowing outing for the limited fans inside NRG. Until the Texans can find a suitable counter-formula in this rudimentary aspect of defence, then their fate is already assigned. As they are still to face three of the top four running teams in New England, Green Bay & Cleveland on their schedule.
Whilst the trade that brought David Johnson to Houston, has shown limited benefit to a team, ranked 31st in rushing yards. Their paltry 198-ground-yards compared to 345-yards, after three weeks a year ago, face a significant structural issue. They hope to welcome back Duke Johnson to the line-up as the coaches trust beyond their top two running backs, has been nil.
Offensive Output Versus Talent
Similarly, if the passing game cannot find greater levels of consistency, for more than a handful of drives per game, they will become a play-off afterthought. Their talented quarterback has continued to pose a frustrated figure in recent weeks. It’s clear Watson’s connection with Tim Kelly’s communication and play-calling isn’t fluid. His thinly veiled references in two media calls this week, has noted that.
Tim Kelly’s ability to call plays at this level or lack of it, has been apparent. The inability to plan a scoring opening-drive is a perpetual issue. Added to the inefficient play calls, which has added unnecessary pressure to an offensive line who have not fitted their billing. The lack of cohesion and play design is less effective revision of the O’Brien called product which continued to underwhelm with regularity. Asking your players to fit the scheme rather than the logical inverses continues to draw dismay.
The Texans will have by far their greatest match-up advantage against un-drafted cornerback Holton Hill and rookie Cameron Dantlzer (third round pick) as both are likely to play the majority of snaps, due to injuries to Jeff Gladney and Mike Hughes. If the expensively assembled cast of wide-receivers do not have a breakout performances, that would further underpin this roster’s fundamental flaws.
Livening A Decimated Defence
This is the weakest Quarterback and Offensive Line combination the Texans will face this side of the bye week. Cousins has the ability to make plays, but if this defensive front-7 cannot have a season high in pressures then another defeat may be on the horizon. They will welcome back Ross Blacklock from a self-imposed 1 week ban, who is overdue to show flashes of potential upside.
The ailing impact and expensive contribution’s of Watt and Mercilus has been well documented. But the Texans urgently need to find players who are capable of impactful performances beyond their two former standout’s if there is to be life in this unit. If they are not currently on this roster, then their issues are perhaps rooted deeper than many could have feared.
Similarly, can the Texans go another week without forcing a turnover? It’s a feasible notion, for a defence who is ranked in the tail end of all majority categories. Anthony Weaver has drawn some praise but they present as a unit trying to hide their lack of talent whilst searching for an identity. Though, the teams offensive struggles have unfairly compounded their issues on the defensive side of the ball.
This is far from the traditional “Get-Right” game that some may hope it to be. The sobering thought at this stage would be, that even if a transformational type performance is found, it would be with only be to chase a wild card berth. Another all too depressingly familiar outcome for team equipped with a franchise passer.
A New Dynamic Emerging To Be Considered
The feeling of repetition will linger around this and franchise for another few weeks, at a minimum. But a storyline this week, has unmasked a new visible point of disillusionment within it’s fanbase.
The Texans often point to their sell-out record of every game in their history as a barometer of health. The rolling purchases of season tickets and lengthy waiting listing of many, eagerly awaiting their chance to purchase a season ticket, is a positive narrative that suits the team.
The reality is more clear cut but in the opposite direction. In these Covid times, the Texans had to manually sell the reduced capacity of 13,300 tickets this week. As of Saturday morning, this is something the team had failed to do. A tangible indication of current fan sentiment, delivered in a translatable message to ownership. Often, monetary consequences will help engender change far more rapidly than boo’s from a filled stadium.
It would appear that there are some rumbling in the hierarchy, considering how the Earl Thomas situation was oddly managed this week. It may have taken a significant on-field low to achieve this, but the McNair’s may have finally awoken to the fact that this team’s leadership isn’t performing. If Bob’s team then slips to a forth consecutive defeat tomorrow, then that process may start to accelerate.
O’Brien’s football team look short of any discernible contending qualities for the third week in row. After an 0-3 start to the season, their weaknesses are apparent as they show limited signs of improvement.
When Deshaun Watson marched the offence down the field with less than a minute left in the first half, it seemed for a brief moment that this Texans offence had finally come alive. Alas, it was a false dawn, as Houston failed to register a single point in the second half, which confined them to a 28-21 defeat.
O’Brien seemed almost blasé in his post match media conference. Sighting the long yards to gain as a constant factor. He didn’t strike the figure that was feeling the heat. His heavily invested offensive line was again suspect, not aided by Deshaun Watson overplaying. The fluidity of play-calling and execution had small pockets of progress but they failed to move the ball on three of their 4 attempts in the second half, the other resulted in an interception.
Following that interception, the Steelers predominately ran the ball to seal the final score, just as they did to kneel the game out. For the second straight week the defence, who were on the field over 13 minutes more than their stumbling, offensive counterparts. caved towards the end.
The Defence had, for three quarters, given another admirable account of themselves, bar the blown coverage on the Smith-Schuster touchdown. Holding the Steelers to 218 passing yards was laudable but as their tiredness grew, they finished the day conceding 169 on the ground.
Though JJ Watt struggled against back-up Tackle Okorafor, in only his 5th start. Whitney Mercilus once again is making that contract look like a horrific error or judgment, who was embarrassed by Ben Roethlisberger twice. Once in run blocking and then the 37-year old veteran, beat him to the outside to set up one of two successful 4th down attempts. As the Steelers, aided by the return of David DeCastro won the battle of the trenches and time of possession.
There were some small glimmers of hope, as the pass rush continues to look improved as Charles Omenihu and a rare Carlos Watkins sack got the unit off the field on a number of Steelers drives. Similarly, the ball was spread around with a greater degree of variance throughout the skill positions on the offence, both Will Fuller and Randall Cobb registered their first touchdowns on the year.
This teams plight is firmly on one man, who’s been given the autonomy to win, trusted to make this city’s football team successful but despite that faith, the Texans face a paradoxical situation. They are in severe risk of wasting years of Watson’s prime. A quarterback who took a number of big hit again Sunday and was sacked 5 times.
An 0-3 start has historically, limited a team’s chance of making the play-offs but with an added 7th entry spot in the post season, Bill’s year-seven Texans seemed to have their name written on. Though, if they were to drop to 0-4, that would be something many could digest in the hope of much needed structural change in Houston. It’s been clear from these first three weeks, the team has regressed, which would have seemed impossible considering their quarterbacks talents.
A beleaguered fan-base may somewhere deep down find a level of comfort in Minnesota’s visit to NRG next Sunday. Equally in the sense that they are 0-3, whilst also a loss could perhaps awaken this franchise’s ownership to a view that many have long held about this head-coach.
A teams play-off chances when starting the season 1-2 sits at a modest 24.8%. Though when starting out 0-3, a teams likelihood of playing any knock-out football drops to 2.7%. Many will point to the Texans 0-3 start in 2018 which saw them win 9 games in-a-row. But that run posed the luxury of an amenable schedule and they enjoyed multiple last minute field-goal misses. Since then, the defensive talent have been drained, making a repeat, even less likely. Whichever way you look at it, Houston need to win at Heinz Field or face another season of mediocrity to add to a long list.
The Keys to Sunday’s Game:
Handling The Blitz
The Steelers defence have maintained their menacing presence in 2020, giving up the least rushing yards and a pass-completion rate of only 53%. The method of attack by DC Keith Butler is blatant but has been disproportionately effective, in the opening weeks. Playing with a Blitz rate over 60% has delivered 40 quarterback pressures thus far, a threat the Texans will need to show they can adjust to, if they are to have a realistic chance of winning.
The long held issue for the Texans offence, that even backdates to the 2017 encounter, (with TJ Yates under centre) is the nickel blitz. Corner Mike Hilton, racked up three sacks that night and has posted two already this season. The offence’s ability to manage this threat will hinder on attacking short & intermediate hot routes, to stifle the creativity of the Pittsburgh blitz packages that have notched 10 sacks. Thought that will be a significant ask considering the lack of proficiency shown in recognising such pressures but progress will be required to move the chains consistency on Sunday.
Deshaun and Nick Martin will have to be consistent in identifying the front as getting behind the chains will only amplify the pressure that the Steelers unit brings. In week 1, against the Giants, they continued to stack the box and move around TJ Watt in finding the desired miss-match. This front will provide a true test of the pass protection, for a position group who’ve been the single biggest disappointment through the two weeks, relinquishing pressures too frequently on to their signal caller.
The Steelers 4-3 defence deployed has shown a number of fronts over the first few weeks. The rotation and depth beyond Heyward, Tuit, Dupree and TJ Watt is a source of strength that will stress Deshaun’s trust in this offensive line group, a connection that has not yet yielded the desired stability.
Balancing With Run Game
Running the ball and the David Johnson’s impact will crucial. If the Texans find themselves throwing 35+ pass-attempts, that desperation to move the ball will fall into the Steelers lap. Tim Kelly will need to diverge his focus on running between the guards and stretch the run game to outside zone & misdirection concepts. As the Bronco’s showed last week, racking up 90 yards on 22 attempts.
The likely return of Duke Johnson could be a timely return to help the Houston offence find its feet. This play design from Denver shows a way to attack when the Steelers are in Zone. A perfect play for Duke to execute, which leaves the tight-end wide open.
Finding the Slot Receivers and Tight Ends will be the way to win over the middle. In both opening Steelers games, they sat in either deep cover 1 with Minkah Fitzpatrick or cover 2 deep from the line. So there was numerous crossers and outs, particularly against Vince Williams (98) and Terrell Edmunds (34) who are match-ups Watson should look to take advantage off.
Taking the Shots To Stress The Secondary
As was the question in week one and will ever-present significance this year: can the Texans stress the defence on the outside? Tim Kelly is yet to show any promise as the OC, but watching the Giants and Bronco’s combine for 688 all-purposes-yards, opportunities will present themselves, but will the level of execution rise to take advantage of them.
The answer to the favourable cornerback match-up in week-1 was a resounding no. But a cornerback unit lead by Joe Haden can be exposed by the speed and Cooks, Fuller and Stills (if healthy). Deshaun will need to add this dimension to the passing attack, to spread the field, as this defence flies to the ball and the more they respect the long-ball, the more space it will create.
Finding Pressure Of Their Own
The Texans defence will be able to attack Roethlisberger more freely that they were able to, as the 17-year pro doesn’t have the spry abilities to extend plays with his legs. So Anthony Weaver will be able to dial-up a greater variety of pressures without the nagging thought of losing contain on the edge. The Texans will be required to show further improvements against the run, where Pittsburgh will lean on James Connor after 106 yard in week 2, after Benny Snell’s second fumble in as many games saw his carries drop.
The Steelers do expect to welcome All-Pro-Guard David DeCastro back to right side of the line, after a number of injuries. The Steelers have a continuous linage of lineman, who if they are able to keep a clean pocket, their Quarterback will be able to freely spread the ball to it’s ever growing lineage of receivers. Beyond Smith-Schuster, Eric Ebron & James Washington the emergence of former Toldeo wideout Diontae Johnson and Rookie Chase Claypool will provide an able supporting cast to the arm of their quarterback who shows no signs of decline, just yet.
Mixing Coverages & Turning Over the Ball
A surprise highlight has been the defence’s ability under Weaver to play a blend of personnel and coverages. They have been fundamentally sound, limited their biggest play given up to Mark Andrew’s 29 yard catch, on his only reception of the game.
That won’t be enough as the Texans are looking for their first turnover of the season. Partly, down to the run heavy attacks they’ve faced but they will undoubtedly have to turn that boxscore column in their favour if they are to come out with the victory.
A Test of Character
Facing the previous two MVP’s, where the offence failed to reach a functional performance level for sustained periods, hasn’t provided an accurate barometer of the Texans quality. But they are facing a team that saw a re-building Giants and Daniel Jones consistently move the ball against. Just as Denver back-up, Jeff Driskel, threw for 256 yards & two touchdowns in a close fought win five-point win. That included two Denver missed field goals and a safety on special teams.
The broader outlook of this offence after week three will be will become much clearer. Last year, the Texans came in their third game, with a 27-20 win over the Chargers. A week where Watson threw for 351 yards and 3 touchdowns, a repeat of such heights will be required if they are to get their season back on track.
HOUSTON @ PITTSBURGH, HEINZ FIELD, CBS, 12NOON KO (CT)