With 12:45 left in the fourth quarter, the Texans clung onto a three point lead against the Dolphins. The team hadn't executed particularly well in the red zone throughout the game, settling for two chip shot field goals early in the game. Had the Texans punched it in during either or both of their early trips to the red zone, the game may have already been over for all intents and purposes. However, this was not the case and the Texans faced an inflection point.
With basically a full quarter to play and only three points separating the teams, the game was essentially a toss up. What happened next was a good indicator of just how much the team has improved since last year. Want to walk hand-in-hand with me while we break down what happened? Awesome. Let's do like Cyril Raffaeli and flip across the jump.
Hope you all stuck your landings. Let's set the scene again: the Texans have been leading all game, but thanks to some slack defending by
Petey Faggins Jason Allen and a field goal, the Dolphins are right back in the game. The Texans have a three point lead with slightly less than 13 minutes left to play and are about to receive a kickoff. The game could go either way. There is plenty of time left on the clock and lots can happen. From the Texans' perspective, some possible outcomes, ranked from most to least desirable, are:
- Going on a long, time-consuming drive that leads to a touchdown and gives the Dolphins the ball back with less than two minutes on the clock;
- Going on a long, time-consuming drive that leads to a field goal and gives the Dolphins the ball back with less than two minutes on the clock;
- Scoring a fairly quick touchdown;
- Scoring a fairly quick field goal;
- Moving the ball but not enough to get within field goal distance, which forces them to punt;
- A turnover; and
- A pick six.
There are probably a few others, and some people might quibble with how I ordered these, but I think this covers the most likely scenarios. So, what happened? Let's take a look.
Danieal Manning does an excellent job returning the kickoff (I'm super impressed by his returns, by the way) and gets the good guys some excellent field position at the Houston 37. From there, it's still standard play calling by Kubiak/Dennison and the Texans go pass, pass, run, run, pass with the last pass being a touchdown to Dre. Pretty standard Kubiak play calling, except for the lack of play action. Ben Tate caught a pass for a first down and ran for one. In addition to Johnson, Schaub (who hung tough and took a big beating right after he dished to Tate - thanks to Myers getting abused by a swim move) and Tate, Manning stepped up and made a big play.
So far so good. It would have been nicer if the offense took more time off the clock, but let's not get too picky here. The Texans' lead is now ten points and about ten minutes remain. Still plenty of time to play, so there are more inflection points to come. Now it's our defense's turn.
After a good kickoff and coverage, the Dolphins get the ball right around their eight yard line. Ten minutes to go. Henne takes the snap, drops back, and is forced to scramble because a) his receivers are covered; b) JJ Watt gets his hand up and manages to block a passing lane; and c) he feels the pass rush. Mario puts a good move on Jake Long and gets past him; Long should probably have gotten called for a hold. Henne gains about two before Smith brings him down. Next play, Reggie Bush is stopped cold for a short gain by Kareem Jackson. Quite frankly, I don't know how Bush could live with himself after that play. I mean, Kareem Jackson is shutting you down? Anwyay. I digress.
This leads to about a third and five. Henne drops back again, but the combination of good coverage and strong pass rush force him to leave the pocket, where he comes face-to-face with the talented Mr Cushing, a meeting I don't think Henne will be forgetting any time soon. The upshot of all of this is the Dolphins have a fourth and one and elect to punt. It's not really within the scope of this post, but I think it would be possible to have a discussion about the Dolphins' play calling on this drive, and not just about the choice to punt on fourth down here (the long and short of it is, why go to Bush outside the tackles on second down when going up the gut with Thomas had been so effective?). A lot of players stepped up in this short but very important series, including basically the d-line/OLBs and secondary, with extra kudos going to Cushing and Jackson.
In any event, the Dolphins pretend to go for it and burn even more time off the clock in a failed attempt to draw the Texans offside before eventually deciding to call a timeout and then punt. This was phenomenally stupid game management by the Dolphins who, down by two scores, needed to preserve every second on the clock and save their timeouts. The Dolpins punt and Jacoby nearly gives us all a heart attack before being brought down around the Houston twenty. Now the offense faces a situation where, if they do well enough, the game will be out of reach for the Dolphins (especially now that Frank Bush is no longer the defensive coordinator).
Eight minutes to go, first and ten, ball on the Houston 18. From this point on, Kubiak has decided that, with a ten point lead, killing the clock is more important than scoring. The outcomes that I laid out above change in rank order, with eating the clock more important than scoring. As such, Kubes calls run after run after delicious Ben Tate run. Every first down essentially allows the Texans to burn over a minute off the clock. Kubiak calls one timeout on a third and short, which seems to run against what he should be doing, but I suspect he did that because Tate was off the field getting a breather and he wanted to get him back in the game. Sure and begot, after the timeout the give is to Tate who powers his way for another first down. By now, there's five minutes left in the game, the clock is ticking and the Texans' o-line is rolling.
On the next set of downs, however, the drive stalls out and the Texans face a third and eight on their 46. Earlier in the game, this would have been a passing situation, but not here. By now, 3:10 remains in the game and the Dolphins have two timeouts. An incomplete pass would stop the clock and basically give the Dolphins back that timeout that they foolishly burned in the previous series. Kubiak dials up a run which doesn't lead to a first down, but it keeps the clock ticking and forces Miami to burn another timeout. Now there are three minutes left, the Dolphins are down by ten and they have only one timeout. How you like them apples, Mr Sparano?
More great special teams coverage leads to the Dolphins starting out on their twenty yard line. This game is all over but the shouting, however, as Texans fans we know that a lot can happen in a short period of time. We cringe and hope for the best, trying hard not to think about fiascoes against Jacksonville, the Jets, the Ravens, or whatever other game. The defense, however, has other ideas and Smith promptly sacks Henne with a huge assist from Barwin, who abused Long, pushing him right back into Henne so that he had nowhere to go when Smith came a-knocking.
As an aside, further tape study shows that both Barwin and Mario had monster games. I mean, Jake Long is a hoss, and both of them had him screaming his safe word at various times in the game.
Moving along, immediately after the sack, Henne drops back to pass (once again under real pressure) throws to his right. Joseph has good coverage and the pass is ruled incomplete as the receiver ends up out of bounds. Texans fans, not used to seeing cornerbacks who can actually cover, promptly freak out. On the next play, JJ Watt bats the ball down. On fourth down, an under-pressure Henne throws downfield but the receiver can't hang on (and Colombo is called for holding) and the game is over after Tate rushes for one more first down.
What's the moral of all this? If you skip back to the beginning of the fourth quarter, the outcome of this game was nowhere near decided. It could have gone either way. If the Texans turn the ball over deep in their own territory, they could be looking at having to come back from behind on the road - never a good situation in which to find yourself. However, some smart play calling (on offense and defense) and key performances by Texans players gradually turned a close contest into one where only one outcome was possible.
Inflection points crop up all over NFL games, but the closer the game gets to the final whistle, the greater the chance that a particular event can change the outcome of the game. Individual plays become more important. Coaching decisions (such as the decision to burn off clock, then call a timeout and punt with eight minutes left in the game) have larger impacts. The team that makes the best decisions in these situations will win a lot more than they lose.
I'm sure that we'd all like to see the Texans win each game by 20 or more points. But the reality is that in the modern NFL that kind of stuff just doesn't happen. Furthermore, this game was a pretty good test of every part of the Texans team. Players on offense, defense and special teams all made important contributions at key moments, and the coaching staff managed the game about as well as possible. It wasn't sexy, it wasn't the kind of stuff that leads on Sportscenter, but it was something possibly better: it was clinical, professional and ruthless. It was drama-free. And I'd say that, if you're looking for a reason to think the Texans can play into the New Year this season, handling a tricky road game like the Dolphins and turning it into a semi-boring game is a pretty good one.