Now after the nonsense and absurdity these last three weeks have been, we will finally find out if Houston is a good football team. So far this year, this question has been impossible to answer. They have come back against two possible playoff teams and were blown out by another. The Chargers, Titans, and Ravens could all see their season's narrative differ from a 6-10/top ten pick, to 8-8/mediocre, to turning into a 10-6 playoff team as the season progresses. Each of these teams are on page three on one of those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels. Only time will tell what to make of them.
This week will be much different. Houston is playing against the steamrolling juggernaut that is Seattle. This season there are only a few things we can deduce with certainty: Seattle and Denver are the clear favorites, Jacksonville is a microwaved turd covered in burnt hair, and Andy Reid looks hilariously fatter in Kansas City red instead of dark green. He's like a giant strawberry begging to be squashed into jam.
Seattle is undefeated, has a point differential of 59 points (1st in the league), and blew out the 49ers and Jags while narrowly beating the Panthers on the road in Week 1. Houston will now finally get the chance to have a control group to measure their team against and find out how good they really are.
Birds Of Prey & Bulls On Parade
After watching Seattle play against the 49ers and looking at their numbers, it seems fairly clear how this defense works. They will try to force as many 3rd and 7s as possible and corner the opponent into trying to throw on the best pass defense in the NFL.
The average third down teams have faced when playing Seattle is 7.59 yards (10th in the league). They've allowed only 3.21 yards on third down (1st). They have forced 15 third downs for five yards or less and 24 third downs greater than five yards. On third down, Houston's offense has needed 7.89 yards to convert, gained 5.53 yards in this situation and has accomplished a first down at a rate of 34.8%. Add this to Seattle's secondary and the problems Houston has had in their passing game, and it could be another worrisome day on third down for a Houston offense that was 3/12 last week.
Let's talk a little bit more about Seattle's pass defense. What they like to do is use their large physical corners to play tight, press coverage and bump wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. The members of their secondary stand at a height of 6'0", 6'3", 6'2", 6'1", 5'11", 6'1", 6'4", 5'10", and 6'3". Against every team they are just as large, fast and physical as the wide receivers and tight ends they cover. There won't be too many opportunities for Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins to go over the top and make plays against the enormous secondary Seattle employs. Additionally, their passing defense has the following statistics this season:
What's amazing is not only the 52.8% completion percentage and 4.6 net yards an attempt they have held offenses to, but how afraid teams are to throw against the Seahawks. They have played Carolina, San Francisco, and Jacksonville, all run based teams, yet in two of those three games, Seattle went up big and forced their opponent to throw the ball in comeback bids. Teams are afraid to throw against the Seahawks and they do so unsuccessfully.
If you want to look at Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, Seattle's pass defense has a DVOA of -64.6%, which of course is the best in the league. This success can be directly attributed to the secondary since Seattle has only 8 sacks and an adjusted sack rate of 8.2% (13th in the league). After seeing how horrendous Houston's passing game was last week when they averaged roughly four yards a pass, I don't see Houston being able to move the ball through the air at all.
Despite Seattle's ability to deflate the passing game and shut it down, they are good, but not great, at stopping the run. Teams have run the ball 71 (11th) times for 285 (12th) yards; that amounts to 4.0 yards a carry (17th). This is promising for Houston, which has run the ball for 386 yards and 4.9 yards an attempt. For Houston to pull the upset, the key will be for them not to fall behind early. If they do so and have to come back by throwing the ball every play like they did against the Chargers and Titans, they will stumble through incompletions, interceptions, and four yard passes en route to failing miserably. If Houston can establish the run early, take the lead, and build off the play-action, it could be a different game. I hope to see Arian Foster get 20-25 carries, Ben Tate get 15 or so and see Matt Schaub throw the ball only 15-20 times. If the Texans can carve up yards on the ground and limit Schaub, Houston can move the ball on Seattle's defense. However, if they fall behind early and have to attempt another miraculous comeback through the air, we could see a lot of television channels switched to Red Zone or MTV's Teen Mom.
In Houston, the only fun thing to watch from the first snap to the end of the game is the defense. They have forced 16 three and outs, teams only average 23 yards a drive (3rd in the league) and 55% of the opposition's drives have ended in a punt (4th). Plus, they have one of the best defensive combos in the league with Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt, who are a delight to watch play no matter what the score is. When looking at just yards, they have given up the following:
|Category||Cmp||Att||Yds||TD||INT||NY/A||Rush Att||Yds Y/A|
Pass yards allowed are very comparable to Seattle's, but part of the reason is because they have played against running teams like the Titans and Ravens, which ran the ball 31 and 33 times, respectively. Some will claim that Houston's defense is great when looking at how many yards they've given up, but that they are overrated because they give up a lot of points. This claim can be looked at as true because Houston has given up 82 points, which places them at 25th in the NFL. However, if you remove the punt return for a touchdown, and the two pick-sixes which the defense had no direct control over, this number drops down to 61, which places them at 12th in the league. Houston is also tenth in the league in DVOA at -10.1%.
On offense, Seattle is 8th in the league in total yards with 1,139; 741 of those yards are passing (16th) and 398 come from running the ball (8th). However, they have scored 82 points, which is fourth in the league. What they are good at doing is taking advantage of the short field their defense gives them. This year, Seattle's drives on average, have started at the their own 33 (4th) and they have scored on 47% of their drives (2nd). Additionally, Seattle's drives resulting in a touchdown on average start at their own 40 yard line (8th in the league). When you add this to the 10 turnovers their defense has forced, you end up with an opportunistic offense that takes advantages of their good fortune. The key to Houston's defense won't be stopping Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson. It will actually be the Texans' offense. If the offense can move the ball, win the field position battle, and not give up a costly turnover, the defense should be able stop Seattle from putting points on the largest screen in sports.
Help, I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up.
Another factor that will have a titanic impact on the game is injuries. It seems that the key to the passing game, Andre Johnson, will play on Sunday and will get the chance to go up against Seattle's gargantuan corners. However, the real issue is Duane Brown. The offense that scored 31 and 30 points in Weeks One and Two turned into a strange creature that couldn't throw the ball and scored only 9 points against the Ravens. In Brown's absence, Schaub was 25/35 for 195 yards, with a long of 18 yards and was sacked 3 times for a loss of 24 yards.
The problem wasn't that Schaub was inaccurate (which he was sometimes). It was that he couldn't get the ball downfield. This can be seen by the times he was sacked on long dropbacks, and he averaged a mere 5.57 yards per pass. That's almost at a Gabbertian level of play. Mentally, he was mortified at the thought of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervll screaming from the edge with Ryan Harris and Derek Newton protecting the outside. As a result, his mental clock sped up and he threw the ball to the first guy that was open, even if it was three yards short of the first down marker. Even though Seattle's pass rush isn't incredible, it is at about the same level of the Ravens. With Duane Brown likely out again on Sunday and Schaub facing a comparable pass rush with the best secondary in the game, I see the exact same problems in the passing game from last week carry over to this one.
If we thought that Duane Brown's absence was an enormous loss, Seattle could possibly be without 60% of their starting offensive line tomorrow. Right tackle Breno Giacomini, center Max Unger, and left tackle Russell Okung all could miss Sunday's game. If all three can't go, they would start Paul McQuistan at LT, their 7th round draft pick from last year Michael Bowie at RT, and Lemuel Jeanpierre at C. I know nothing about any of these guys, but I do know they would have to block Whitney Mercilus, Brooks Reed, J.J Watt, Brian Cushing, and Antonio Smith...a front seven that is currently ranked 4th in DVOA when stopping the run at -31.1%.
The only good news for Seattle is that their guards are healthy and Seattle is running the ball for 4.61 adjusted line yards up the middle, good for 6th in the NFL. Houston's ability to get to the passer is on par with Seattle's, but Seattle employs an agile leopard at quarterback in Russell Wilson. The key for Houston on defense won't be to bring pressure to Wilson; they have to actually bring him down. They can't miss sacks when they have the opportunity and then let him wreak havoc on the secondary outside the pocket. Because of the injuries to the offensive line for both teams and the talent on defense, this looks to be a low scoring defensive battle.
Get Down With The Homesickness.
Seattle turning from Jeckyl into Hyde on the road is one of those widely known facts around the NFL. Everyone knows believes it is true, but nobody has actually gone back and measured it. If everyone just accepted what was known instead of looking for the truth, we might still believe that the Earth is flat, that we live in a geocentric universe, and that Wade Smith is a good left guard. However, anyone can go back and find out the truth since all of the data we need is at our fingertips thanks to this magical being the wizards created called the "internet."
Pete Carroll began coaching the Seahawks in 2010. Since then, Seattle has had the following differences when playing on the road compared to playing at home.
|Average Points Scored||26.07||19.35|
|Average Points Allowed||18.03||23.39|
Hmmmmmmmm..... in a sample of 55 games, there's an enormous split in production between how Seattle plays at home compared to the road. They've won 10 more games, scored 162 more points, given up 168 less points, and scored a touchdown more at home. The difference between their point differentials is staggering. It's like looking at two entirely different teams.
One can't make the argument of luck or that this trend has changed since last year. Pythagorean wins are a way to measure a team's record based on their point differential. It's a better way to measure a team's success than a win-loss record. Bill Barnwell has described it better than anyone else with the following metaphor:
"It's like saying the pass/fail system is just as useful as the traditional grading scale when figuring out how well somebody did in a class."
Looking only at a team's record is like measuring a student simply by whether he passed or failed while ignoring if he made a A, B, or a C and overlooking the fact he made a B because he did well on his homework, but failed the tests. Seattle in this case has a Pythagorean win record nearly identical to their win-loss record. As a matter of fact, it's the closest I've seen between a Pythagorean record and a team's actual record. Based on this measurement, Seattle should have maybe won one more game on the road, but even then it's a not significant difference. This is not a case of Seattle having bad luck on the road.
Additionally, this is not a trend that has changed in the last year. In 2012, Seattle was 8-0 at home and 4-6 on the road. At home they outscored opponents 243-95. On the road they outscored them 221-94. They even lost to the sub .500 Lions, Rams, Cardinals, and Dolphins on the road last season. Although the sample is too small to come up with a definite conclusion, this season the Seahawks have won 29-3 and 45-17 at home compared to 12-7 on the road. Yes, the Seahawks are a considerably better than they were in 2010, but the stats still show enormous splits between how Seattle plays on the road compared to at home.
As I sit here writing this while the shadows dance around the floor like an archaic ballet, it seems all the signs are pointing to a Texans upset. Since Seattle is playing on the road where they don't play as well, might be missing 60% of their offensive line, and are playing at 10 a.m. Pacific time, there's a chance Houston can win. I'm saying there's a chance, even if it is a slim one. If Duane Brown was playing, I would pick Houston to pull off the upset and move to 3-1. However, since he is probably going to be sad panda scowling around on the sideline, I don't believe Houston can move the ball well enough against the best defense in the NFL.
As a result, I have little confidence Houston can score more than 13 points on Seattle. I envision a tough defensive battle where the team who scores touchdowns instead of field goals wins. If Houston falls behind early, this game will be over at halftime. If the Texans can find success in the run game, take advantage of Seattle's cut and paste offensive line ,and capitalize when they get good field position, they can win. I just don't see Houston winning with Duane Brown not playing.
Seattle wins 17-13.