Five Questions: Special Teams & Coaching

We've done the offense, we've done the defense, and in lieu of coming up with pressing questions about the kickoff coverage, I've simply merged the special teams and coaching questions side-by-side.  So here it is, the last installment of the Five Questions series.  I hope you all have a lot of fond memories of it, and remember to tip Tim with a Coors Light if you see him tonight

 

1) Who will win the kicker battle?  Will it make a difference?

I’ll point you to a post I made back when the Texans originally signed Neil Rackers.  The conclusion that Football Outsiders drew, that I referenced in the article, is that field goal kicking accuracy is essentially random from year-to-year.

So assuming that principle is true, and that there is basically no hot hand, these guys have very similar career numbers.  Rackers has been hurt lately but has had better years than Kris Brown has ever had, and certainly if he’s in his old form he’s a better pick than Brown.  But realistically, no matter who the Texans pick as the winner, regression to the mean will take their field goal percentage upwards.  

2) Can Trindon Holliday replace Jacoby Jones’s explosiveness in the return game immediately?

This basically breaks down into two questions: can he do it, and will he be allowed to do it?  Coach Gary Kubiak has already come out with some strong words for Holliday in early OTAs as far as his ability as a receiver:

 "He's got a long, long way to go," Kubiak said. "He's way behind. He's got a long way to got to prove to this team he knows what the hell he's doing. So it's probably not a good day to ask me that question."

Kubiak has also never carried a pure return specialist, which makes me wonder if Holliday is really being considered for a roster spot at his current level of play.  If Holliday doesn’t improve dramatically at the trade skills of the receiving game, this may be a case where he plays his way onto the practice squad.

Should Holliday make it, however, he has all the tools to replace Jacoby Jones as a huge return threat.  Track runner speed, elusiveness, and a record of busting open big plays in college.  Look no further than what Johnny Knox did for the Bears last year and you’ll see that return specialists often don’t need much seasoning.  Whether Kubiak will use him or not will be, I imagine, one of the big dramas of training camp.

3) What changes will Rick Dennison bring to the passing game?

While Kyle Shanahan had a propensity to get a little cute sometimes, as Chris Brown’s arm can attest, the passing game blossomed under his watch.  He had a wrinkle or two for every game, whether it was a silly one like starting Vonta Leach out wide or an increased reliance on a formation not often used in previous games.  One of the things I thought Shanahan was best at was keeping the defense off-guard.

I have very little question about Dennison’s ability to improve the running game.  He’s got an offensive line background, total familiarity with the scheme and system, and the Texans have added enough pieces to the run game to make me think they’ll revert back to 2008 form.  My worry is that he turns out to be more predictable than Shanahan and that he tinkers too much with a good thing—the passing game last year. 

I have no gut feeling one way or another on this, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Texans passing game regressed a little bit.  They won’t tumble like the run game last year, but considering the new coordinator and Matt Schaub’s career year, I would be thinking Top 10 rather than Top 5.

4) Will the Red Carpet Prevent Zone be put away?

There were many fair criticisms of Frank Bush's first year as defensive coordinator.  His blitzes were uninspired, his scheme was vanilla, and his first three games might rank right up there with the worst three game stretch any defense has had in NFL history.

However, the most glaring and obvious flaw, one that was being pointed out as early as the Arizona game, was this team's tendency to be absolutely horrendous during end of half and prevent situations.  Here is some evidence of this effect:

Game 2 @ Tennessee: End of first half drive for Tennessee: 10 plays, 59 yards, 2:11 elapsed, Field Goal.

Game 5 @ Arizona: End of first half drives for Arizona: 7 plays, 68 yards, 2:35 elapsed, Touchdown.  Then after a quick three and out, 3 plays, 48 yards, 0:53 elapsed, Touchdown.

Game 6 @ Cincinnati: End of first half drives for Cincinnati: 6 plays, 69 yards, 1:31 elapsed, Touchdown.  After a Schaub interception at nearly midfield, the Bengals had a one play drive to tack on a field goal.

Game 7 vs. San Francisco: Texans go up 21-0 at halftime, spend the entire second half getting murdered by Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, barely win.

Game 8 @ Buffalo: End of first half drive for Buffalo: 8 plays, 32 yards, 2:00 elapsed, Field Goal.  (Okay, this seems pretty tame, but remember that it was the Bills.) 

Game 10 vs. Tennessee: End of first half drive for Tennessee: 8 plays, 75 yards, 3:11 elapsed, Touchdown.  End of second half drive for Tennessee: 9 plays, 56 yards, 2:05 elapsed.  Field Goal (GW).

Game 11 vs Indianapolis: Texans lead 17-0 after the first drive of the second quarter, 20-7 at halftime.  Spend the entire second half getting murdered by Peyton Manning (although that happens to everyone), with a little help from a Schaub pick six and the offense giving away field position like Kerns gives it up for Ben Tate, lose 35-27.  

Game 12 @ Jacksonville: End of first half drive for Jacksonville: 9 plays, 52 yards, 1:51 elapsed.  Field Goal.  

Game 13 vs Seattle: End of first half drive for Seattle: 6 plays, 84 yards, 2:15 elapsed, Touchdown.  This was their only score of the entire game.

Game 14 @ St. Louis: End of first half drive for St. Louis: 7 plays, 25 yards, 2:33 elapsed.  Touchdown.  With a little help from bad punt coverage.

Game 15 @ MIami: Texans go up 27-0, then give up an 18 play, 61 yard end of first half drive that takes off 4:18, Miami kicks a field goal.  Texans then spend the entire rest of the second half laying down arms and getting pummeled by Chad Henne and Lex Hilliard, barely hold on to win 27-20.

Game 16 vs. New England.  End of first half drive for New England: 10 plays, 47 yards, 3:55 elapsed.  Field Goal.  With Brian Hoyer leading the charge. 

Add it all up and that's three games that the Texans defense turned from blowouts into close games (yes, they were helped by the offense, but they still gave up the points)  and by my count, 63 of our 333 points allowed came on drives that could have ended a half or a game.  Trust me, I'm wincing typing it, so I know how it must feel to read it.

So while there were many critiques of Bush, this is the one that the Texans have to work on most: stop giving away points at the end of the half.  Stop breathing new life into dead teams.

5) Can Gary Kubiak start closing out close games against good teams?

Kubiak took a ton of heat after the Texans dropped to 5-7 and he seemed to be on the verge of being fired.  Perhaps the most telling statistic that fans have pointed out is his 7-17 career record against the AFC South, with 3 of those wins coming in 2006.  While that's certainly a damning statistic, I'd like to point out one of my own:

The Texans are, by my count, 16-17 in games decided by less than 8 points under Gary Kubiak.  That doesn't seem so bad, does it?  In fact, after watching the middle of last year, I bet that sounds damn great, huh?  However, if we expand this a little farther, we can see the true culprit is that the Texans just aren't winning the close games against good teams.  The combined win-loss record of the teams that the Texans have beaten by 8 or less points in the Kubiak era is 108-148, or as a percentage: .421.  The combined win-loss record of the teams the Texans have lost to by 8 or less points in the Kubiak era is 163-109, or as a percentage, .599. 

The Texans have beaten five teams over .500 under Kubiak's watch in a close game.  They have lost nine.  If you kick out the teams that were just a game over .500, it drops to 4-9.  That might have been good enough for the Texans in 2006, but now that they are a team with a real chance at the playoffs, they simply can't afford to drop that many close games to good teams and make the playoffs.  Yes, Kubiak had some help from Kris Brown last year, but in the end, your record is your record.  The Texans aren't going to be better than a near .500 team until they start closing out against good teams, especially against the schedule the NFL has drawn up for them this year.

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