2013 AFC South Preview: Houston Texans

Bob Levey

Matt finishes his imaginary tour around the AFC South in 2013 just before the first weekend of regular season football starts. The last stop: Houston. Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.

Matt wraps up his offseason preview after working his way from the bottom to the top:

Part 1: Jacksonville Jaguars

Part 2: Indianapolis Colts

Part 3: Madden Minicamp All-Stars

Part 4: Tennessee Titans

This entire spring/summer/preseason, writing about the Texans has been like eating a colossal Nighthawk authentic meatloaf or soy black bean burger. Now we finally get the chance to eat a meal not made in a zip block bag. Finally, the day is almost here where we get to watch, love, and react to real actual football. No more of this authentic goop we have nibbled on. 236 days have passed since the Houston Texans lost to the evil empire of the Northeast. Here we are again, about to embark on another Texans season for six months. The last time Houston played, I had this to say:

Houston is still a team that has just entered its window of title contention and should win the AFC South for the next three years or until Luck becomes a Texans serial killer. This is still a great young football team that had just finished the greatest season in franchise history and will continue to get better. Seasons will change, spring will be here soon, the hellacious summer heat will come and go, and fall will bring some leaves changing and Texans football. Next season, Cushing will be back better than ever, the young receivers of this year will have another full off season to get ready, Rick Smith will fix the few holes this team has, and Houston will play an even more incredible year of football next year. Go Texans.

We are again brimming with optimism and excitement like the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea. In two days, we'll cheer a new season. Before we start the celebration, I want to take one last look at the offseason and what to expect from Houston in 2013.

Offseason/Draft

Additions:
S Ed Reed, P Shane Lechler, FB Greg Jones.

Departures:
RB Justin Forsett, WR Kevin Walter, TE James Casey, OT Rashad Butler, DE/OLB Connor Barwin, S Glover Quin, K Shayne Graham, P Donnie Jones.

Draft: 1st-DeAndre Hopkins (WR, Clemson), 2nd-D.J Swearinger (SS, South Carolina), 3rd-Brennan Williams (OT, North Carolina), 3rd-Sam Montgomery (DE, LSU), 4th-Trevardo WIlliams (DE, UConn), 6th-David Quessenberry (OT, San Jose St.), 6th-Alan Bonner (WR, Jacksonville St.), 6th-Chris Jones (DT, Bowling Green), 6th-Ryan Griffin (TE, UConn)

I'll skip ahead since I'm sure all of you know what occurred this past summer.

Mr. #20

When Mr. Ed Reed signed with Houston after the team let Glover Quin go, I was not too thrilled with the decision. Smith allowed Quin, the best DB he had ever drafted, dangerously enter Detroit for $23.5 million even though he wanted to stay. The reports were Smith did not even discuss a contract with Quin. When Smith found out he could bring Reed to Houston, he went all in for him.

We all waited for the news to trickle in after various "he's staying in Baltimore/he's leaving for Houston" reports contradicted themselves day after day. The truth finally arrived and we learned Reed would grace Houston with his presence to fix deep ball problems, bring Michael Young #leadership, and have some sort of angelic aura that would make the Texans invincible against the other AFC contenders like the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.

Today, we still don't know when the 34 year old free safety with the gimpy hip is going to play. It may be Monday, it may be next week, it may be Week Five against San Fransisco. When he starts for Houston, nobody knows. The current depth chart at free safety looks like this: 1st string Ed Reed/2nd string Shiloh "I should only play special teams" Keo/3rd string D.J. Swearinger, the arm tackling extraordinaire who will need a year of experience before he should contribute. It's most likely Houston will trot out Keo against SD, TEN, BAL and SEA until Ed Reed actually scampers around the field for Houston.

Which is what Houston needs, right? He's supposed to rest until he's needed and scavenge the field after the bye when they play Indy twice, New England, and Denverr in the second half of the season. Ed Reed should spend every game on the sideline in a giant glass box with break in case of an emergency emblazoned in crimson lettering on the front. The central reasoning behind his signing is for him to make sure we beat Denver and New England. Well, the numbers show a wildly different story when Ed faced off against Tom and Peyton.

Year Week Opp Points For Points Against Cmp Att Cmp% Yards TD INT Reed
2002 6 IND 20 22 30 40 75% 284 1 1 2/0
2003 NA 0
2004 12 NE 3 24 15 30 50% 172 0 0 9/0
2005 15 IND 10 20 20 33 60.61% 249 1 2 4/0
2006 Division IND 6 15 15 30 50% 257 0 1 1/2
2007 13 NE 24 27 18 38 47.37% 249 2 0 2/1
14 IND 20 44 13 17 76.47% 271 4 0 1/0
2008 6 NE 3 31 29 28 67.86% 292 3 2 1/0
2009 4 IND 21 27 21 32 65.63% 299 1 2 5/0
11 NE 15 17 22 31 70.97% 154 1 3 4/1
WC IND 33 14 23 42 54.76% 246 2 1 4/1
Divsion NE 3 20 30 44 68.18% 292 2 2 2/1
2010 6 NE 20 23 27 44 61.36% 306 1 1 DNO
2011 AFCCG NE 31 33 22 36 61.11% 335 2 1 4/0
2012 3 DEN 17 30 28 41 68.29% 304 1 0 9/0
15 DEN 38 34 17 28 60.71% 290 1 0 6/0
Division DEN 28 35 28 23 65.12% 320 3 2 4/0
AFCCG NE 13 29 54 53.7% 4320 1 2 2/0
Total 312 429 (25.3) 377 611 61.7% 4320 26 19 60/6

*Reed's stats are tackles/int Bold constitutes a Baltimore win.

The information is biased because a large number of the games occurred when Kyle Boller was the QB for the Ravens. He probably threw interceptions and had three and outs that led to the offense gaining a short field while putting the defense at a disadvantage. Reed played great in these games--60 tackles, 6 INT, and 31.5% of the team's total interceptions is an excellent performance over 17 games. The impact he had, however, was miniscule.

Despite Reed's numbers, Manning and Brady threw for 4320 yards, averaged 25.3 points a game, 61.7% completion percentage and went 12-5 against Baltimore. This idea of Reed and the Ravens knowing how to beat Brady and Manning came from a narrative last season where they went 4-0 during their improbable playoff run. Before the 2012 playoffs, Baltimore was 1-7 against those two QBs. If Houston wants to beat New England and Denver under the Baltimore model, they better hope Reed has some more of Ray Lewis' secret stuff or Matt Schaub goes on a Flacconian 1,140 yards/57.9%/11 TD/0 INT run over four games. The idea that Reed can just run around the center of the field, confuse the opposing quarterback into making mistakes. and lead Houston to victory is storytelling at its finest. It's just another narrative without any backbone.

The other argument tossed around is Reed will stop opposing quarterbacks from being able to throw the ball deep on Houston, and his ability to patrol the middle of the field will transform the game. Thanks to Pro-Football-Reference's drive finder (the most beautiful thing ever created), I was able to see the difference in deep passing plays with the greatest of ease.

Team Games +20 Yd Plays Avg Yards TD
BAL 65 65 28.46 7
HOU 59 59 34.25 17

Even last season, Baltimore was just a wee bit better than Houston at stopping the long ball. The difference in games played is because the Ravens played two more games and Houston did not give up a 20+ yard pass against the Bengals. Baltimore still gave up long passes, but the difference was the ones they gave up were of a shorter distance and weren't touchdowns. When Houston got beat deep, it was a scamper for 30 yards almost every time. Whether it was a combination of different defensive principles, Reed knowing where the ball was going, or Quin/Manning being slow to help over the top, I don't know. If Reed can help out in dropping the number of deep passing plays and the average yards on these types of plays, he will be able to improve the defense greatly.

On top of that, the quarterback with the best numbers throwing deep on both of the teams last season was, you guessed it, Tom Brady. Against Houston, he completed 8 passes for greater than 20 yards, which accumulated into 300 yards and three touchdowns. He did a little less damage against Baltimore, completing only 6 for 193 at an average of 28.46 yards a catch. Reed should be able to help deep passing plays, but it's simply untrue that he can stop Tom Brady, the Texans' kryptonite.

The last aspect of Reed's play to look at is his impact on the running game. Quin was known for his ability to help out in the box by making stops against the run and snuffing out screens. I don't have the numbers for Quin, but offensive players broke 15 tackles out of 51 tackles against Reed, a rate of 22.7%, good for worst in the league. This problem can be overlooked if he's able to make a difference in the passing game, but I'm sure there will be some runs this year where the Battle Red horde groans in agony as Reed misses a tackle on the receiver and watches him run for twenty extra yards.

The problem is that Reed is not going to be the difference maker, a prophet who will lead Houston to the valley of the Super Bowl and show the Texans the mystical ways of how to beat the Patriots. He should help against the deep ball at the expense of the running game. Ed Reed's time in Houston will not be a game-changing cure-alll.

Heeeeeee's Back

Houston's defense will be measurably better this year not because of Reed, but because of the center of the defense, Brian Cushing. I don't think I've missed any player in the history of professional sports due to an injury more than him in after watching those Patriots matchups last season. I'm thankful we will never have to relive Barrett Ruud attempting to cover Shane Vereen out wide or witness Bradie James on Aaron Hernandez. These types of matchups were exploited because of Cushing's injury. Wade usually blitzes the OLBs in his defense and puts more pressure on the MLBs to cover in third down situations. Cushing is strong and quick enough to do a reasonable job on TEs and his return should help the defense immensely.

The defense did suffer when Cushing was cut from behind by Matt that piece of Slauson. It can be seen by the defense's splits from when Cushing was healthy and after his injury.

Yards/drive Time of Drive Avg #of Plays %Punts Score% Turnover%
w/ Cushing 21.19 1:56 4.7 52.4% 19% 17.5%
w/o Cushing 27.9% 2:28 5.3 41% 33.1% 18%

The data is skewed some because of the more inept offenses Cushing played against (DEN, JAX, NYJ, MIA, TEN) compared to the second half of the schedule. In spite of that, every category increased by a significant amount in his absence except for turnovers. The opposing teams were able to average almost an extra first down per drive against Houston after Cushing went down, scored 14% more frequently, and punted 10% less of the time. On top of that, the defensive DVOA was -59% (MIA), -17% (JAX), -23% (DEN), 4% (TEN), and -27% (NYJ) when he was in the lineup. Cushing is the Horadic Cube that transmutes the defense by his ability to cover and his tenacity in the run game. If he's able to play at the same level he was before the ACL tear, Houston's defense will finish in the top five in the league again this season.

8, 80 & 23

The Texans are one of those rare teams to be able to claim to have a Pro Bowl QB, a Pro Bowl RB, and a Pro Bowl WR. However, last season the offense suffered from conservative play and sputtered off the road, careening down a cliff in the second half of the season. Passing wise, the offense suffered from not having a weapon to complement Andre Johnson and the inability of Matt Schaub to complete passes over 15 yards.

Last season, Andre Johnson was targeted 164 times, catching 112 of those passes for 1,598 yards and 4 touchdowns. By himself, 'Dre accounted for 30% of Schaub's pass attempts, 32% of his completions, and 39.8% of his passing yards. Part of Matt Schaub's dilemma is that it's hard to spread the ball around when you have a future Hall of Famer who gets open almost every play. The other part is they had no one else who could get separation consistently.

The rest of Schaub's targets and completions went as followed: Owen Daniels-62/103; Kevin Walter-42/68; James Casey-34/45; Garrett Graham 28/38; Arian Foster 40/58; Keshawn Martin-10/27. When you don't have anyone else who can get open consistently, you're going to go through periods of difficulty in the passing game. With the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, Houston should have a player who can take advantage of the attention 'Dre will get. Nuk should be able to finish with 600-700 yards this season while opening the middle of the field for Daniels, Graham, and whoever they decide to start at slot receiver.

This next part should make everyone nauseous and go running for the brown paper bag or the corroded sink.

During the 2012 regular season, Houston completed 46 passes greater than 20 yards. In two games, they couldn't even muster one. Their ranking was 20th in the league, narrowly edging Seattle by one pass for last place among the playoff teams. Hopefully, this trend stops this season. With Hopkins and Johnson split outside and a dangerous play-action game, Gary better takes some shots deep. It's an integral part of the offense because it pushes the safeties back; they will then have a smaller role in the running game and fewer men in the box, which should mean more rushing yards.

The other aspect of it is that's it a low-risk/high-reward play. The worst thing that can happen is an interception, and since it's a deep pass, it usually serves about the same purpose as a punt. On the other hand, if you complete the pass, the safeties have to play cautiously and there's a high chance free yards are given, thanks to a pass interference or defensive holding call. Instead, the Texans opted out for the intermediate 10-15 yard pass play that Andre Johnson made famous last season. Houston completed 171 passes between 10-15 yards last year, good for 12th in the league. With the way the team is built around the zone run scheme, everything looking alike, and the effectiveness of the play-action pass, it's inexcusable Houston doesn't complete more deep passes than they do.

Despite the passing game's struggles, the red zone offense was the most hair-pulling, eye-gougingly frustrating part of the offense. Houston consistently moved the ball down the field to get within the 20 yard line before crapping their pants and trotting out Shayne Graham to kick a 35 yard field goal. Last season, they were was 6th in the league with 55 drives that entered the red zone--that's good--but only 58% of their drives resulted in touchdowns--that's bad. The Texans were 10th in the league in this metric, but the real problem is they kicked 20 red zone (36%) field goals, which equals a tie for second with SF and OAK.

We can dig deeper and look at the last six of weeks of the season when the team started to really rot like a piece of roadkill on the side of I-35. From the first Indy game on, Houston had 18 drives that entered the red zone and they scored on 100% of them. Of those scores, only 7 were touchdowns (39%); 11 drives stalled and ended with a whimpering field goal 61% of the time.

It was the demise of the red zone offense that led to Houston's downfall at the end of the season. Touchdowns, not field goals, win games. Matt Schuab's accuracy must improve when the field narrows. Kubiak needs to open his mind, trust his third eye, and be creative in these situations. I did see some new things this preseason when they ran a 3 TE set with Daniels, Graham, and Griffin; they were able to get open after use of misdirection swarmed all the defenders in one way and Schaub was able to counter the other way. Also, Greg Jones should dramatically improve the short yardage game and lead the way for Foster, who hasn't had a blocker like him since Vonta Leach. Whatever happens, Houston must improve in the red zone this season.

Regression

Finally, let's look at some of the luck that went into Houston's 12-4 season in 2012. Houston outperformed its Pythagorean record (remember, it's based on point differential to measure W-L records) by 1.8 points after scoring 416 points and giving up 331. Teams that outperform their Pythagorean record by one or more wins usually see some sort of regression the next season. It's not that Houston didn't have a great season last year. It's just that they didn't perform at the level of a twelve win team.

Houston went 6-0 in one possession wins, though the games against Denver and the Jets were not as close as the final score indicated. They won't play as well in close games this season, and they probably should have lost one or both of those overtime games to the Lions or Jaguars. Based on these two bits of information, Houston won one or two games more than they should have last year because of lucky bounces (cue up memories as sweet as pumpkin pie of Justin Forsett's knee grazing the turf of Ford Field). Other than these two stats, there were no other ones I could find that exemplified any reason for Houston to improve or falter this upcoming season.

The Decision

This year is going to be a weird one for Texans fans. We've spent most of our existence watching crappy team after crappy team, but we were roped in with the hope that this might be the year something good happens. Awfulness plagued the first part of the franchise, then mediocrity, and now it's stuck in the gear known as really good. The fun of winning one playoff game and getting bounced out in the second round has worn off. It's time to make the next leap. One playoff win and out isn't going to cut it anymore for a team that's too damn good to wear down at the end of the season. So every Sunday from Week One to Week Seventeen is going to be a matinee where what happens on Sunday is merely a sideshow to January's goal.

This year, the schedule is predicted as 30th toughest in the league, but it will be tougher because the bottom of the AFC South will be better and because of tough non-division games like Denver, New England, Seattle, San Fransisco, Baltimore and St. Louis. Houston should go at least 5-1 in division play. This should let them finish 10-6, thanks to a tougher schedule and the reasons listed above. They'll wander their way through the season to a three-peat of the AFC South crown. The real question that remains is can they beat the Pats or the Broncos? Despite Manning's 7 touchdown night in an incredible F' you game on Thursday, I still don't believe the Broncos are very good, at least not until they beat a team over .500 other than the Ravens. The real test for the Texans going to New York will be if they can beat the Pats. Based on the team we have and the historical evidence, I don't believe we can. Not until I see it actually happen do I think it will occur.

My prediction: Houston goes 10-6 and loses in the AFC Championship Game. The final AFC South standings for 2013:

Team Record
HOU 10-6
TEN 8-8
IND 8-8
JAC 5-11
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