There's no better indicator of the fragility of a Texans fan's optimism than the wide variety of predictions for this upcoming game.
With few exceptions, most fans seem to have significant concern for the upcoming game -- perhaps even a smidgen of fear. Part of it is that the Saints are a damn good team and a very difficult opponent, but another part is that the Texans fan base has been kicked in the fanatical nuts so many times that there is a natural hesitation to be too optimistic.
Even though the team is 2-0 and initial indications suggest that our main weakness from last year has been greatly improved, fans may be forgiven if they flinch a bit at the site of a formidable opponent.
Still, no team is without weakness, so let's take a look at some of the faults of this Saints teams and how the Texans might exploit them. Consider this the frozen bag of peas to sooth your still recovering, um, fandom.There's little question that the Saints offense is strong, and regardless of whatever improvements Wade Phillips has made, the idea that the team will hold Brees and Co. to fewer than the 20 points thus far surrendered might be taking optimism to new heights.
Brees is one of those quarterbacks who doesn't need a Pro Bowl receiving corp to put up big numbers..
This year, he's put up 689 passing yards, 6 touchdowns, and thrown zero interceptions against two defenses that were ranked among the top in the league last year. While it's possible that those two defenses have regressed -- the Packers have given up 800 passing yards this year and the Bears now employ Amobi Okoye -- it's probably still fair to say that Brees is still among the best in the league.
That's all a long winded way of saying that regardless of the upgrades made to the secondary, the Texans are still likely to give up some yardage through the air.
Furthermore, even though the Saints running game has been subpar so far this year, there's reason to believe that this may reverse itself this week.
Suffice to say, it's highly probable that the offense is going to have to carry the load on Sunday. Fortunately for us, the Texans have an offense capable of doing exactly that.
The strength of the Saints' defense is rather similar to the strength of the Texans' defense: pressure (and yes, I still feel weird saying that). It's common knowledge that Greg Williams and the Saints' defense loves to come at you from a variety of angles (which sounds dirty, but really isn't), so the Texans will have to find a way to counter that.
One way to accomplish this is to counteract the blitzes with quick passes and screens, and the Texans have some targets that may be able to do some serious damage.
The first involves using Owen Daniels and the rest of the tight end crew.
According to Football Outsiders, the Saints rank 17th in DVOA against tight ends. This stat is more striking when you consider that one of their two games this season came against the Bears who value tight ends the same way Frank Bush valued logic and common sense. The Bears had a whopping two targets to their tight ends with zero passes completed. So even with that factored in, the Saints are still in the bottom half of the league.
That's courtesy of the Green Bay packers whose tight ends hit up the Saints for 4 catches and 57 yards. That may not sound terribly impressive, but keep in mind that it's 14.25 yards per reception.
Small sample size? Perhaps, but this same Saints defense ranked 27th in the league last year against tight ends with a 19.4% DVOA, so this is really more of a continuation of a trend as opposed to a statistical outlier. Dave Cariello agrees with this in Tim's Pre-Game Recon.
Of course, as Rivers mentioned in this week's Battle Red Radio, in the face of pressure, Kubiak sometimes opts to keep his tight ends in to block, so there will have to be other options.
Enter the running backs.
Despite the smorgasbord of suck that was the Bears' offense last week, Matt Forte had a great day receiving the ball. He hit the Saints for 10 receptions and 117 yards. And this wasn't one of those cases where the Saints held him in check but he managed to break a few long ones, thus inflating the average.
Seven of Forte's 10 receptions went for over 10 yards, and an eighth was good for six. So, only on two of the 10 receptions did the Saints legitimately stop him for short yardage.
The Packers didn't show the same proficiency, attempting only two passes to their running backs and another two to fullback John Kuhn, but this may have been more of a result of Aaron Rodgers being able to pass at will against the secondary.
Again, though, the Bears success seems to be the norm as opposed to the exception. Last year, the Saints ranked 24th with a 14.3% DVOA against running backs receiving the ball.
Historically, the Texans have been an excellent team at incorporating running backs into the passing game, so look for that to continue this weekend. We're not too certain of what Tate can do in the passing game, although he has had some nice receptions so far. If Foster plays, and all indications are that he will, he's a definite threat out of the backfield, and let's not forget that for as bad as he is running the ball, Steve Slaton was once a serious receiving threat.
Of course, my personal hope is that Kubiak finally unleashes the monster that is James Casey upon the secondaries of the world. He only has 3 receptions for 29 yards so far this year, but I truly believe that at least once this year he's going to play a huge role in the passing game and be a major factor in the team pulling out a victory.
Why can't that be this week?
The Texans face a difficult test this week, and it may very well be a throw back game (all the way to the days of 2010) where the offense will have to carry the team to victory. If so, they will have to counter the pressure brought by the Saints' defense and take advantage of their biggest weaknesses.
If they can manage that, they may be staring at the first 3-0 start in franchise history, and that would be a far better step towards healing past wounds than any bag of peas could ever hope to be.