Football is a complicated game. It's difficult to understand what's going on. The best way to grasp the action is to combine the numbers and film to create the best inferences you can. After eight games, we now have a decent sample size to dive into as it related to the 2015 Houston Texans. So let's take what we have seen and mix it with the cold, soulless numbers to better understand the last two months of madness.
If you have ever read anything I've done before, you know how much I love these types of numbers. The idea behind it is simple. A sixteen-game sample size is minuscule. There are stats that vary from year to year and can measure how lucky a team is one season, and where they may regress the next. Because it's a short schedule, teams can dramatically over/under perform below/above their record in a given year, and there are numbers that indicate when this is happening. If you need a primer, read this.
|Expected Win Loss Record
||3.2-4.8 (Point Dif -31)
|Offensive Plays Run While Leading
|Record in One Possesion Games
|Fumble Recovery Rate
||-2 (22nd) (9 TA 11 GA)
|Redzone Offense TD%
|Redzone Defense TD%
The first thing I always look at is expected win-loss record based off point differential. The Texans' record is identical to what the numbers say it should be, besides a few mythological decimal points. The surprising part is Houston's point differential being this high after getting obliterated by the Falcons and Dolphins. Another way I like to look and see if a team's record is above or below their actual performance is by looking at the numbers of plays run while leading. This year the Texans have run 139, which is 22nd in the NFL and which is about what's expected. The top three teams in this measure are all undefeated: New England, Carolina, and Cincinnati.
Like last season, the Texans are having problems winning one-possession games. In 2014, Houston was 2-4 in these situations, losing to Dallas, Indianapolis twice, and Pittsburgh. This year, they are 0-3 and 2-7 overall during the Bill O'Brien era. Usually this sort of thing evens out without a Riverboat Ron sort of transformation. This is something to watch out for going forward.
Unlike last season, the Texans have a very different turnover differential. This was something I predicted would happen before the season began. Last year, Houston had a turnover differential of +12, which tied them with New England for second in the league. Now, it's -2, and they are 22nd. It should probably be worse, though. Brian Hoyer has thrown multiple dropped interceptions (we will get these numbers at the end of the year), and the Texans are recovering fumbles at an unsustainable rate. The offense has fumbled the ball twelve times, and they've recovered four. The team as a whole has recovered 66.7% of all fumbles (4th).
The last thing to look at is red zone scoring percentage. The offensive scoring percentage isn't too far from the mean and isn't anything unusual. However, on defense, the Texans' have given up a touchdown 65% of the time (31st in the NFL). I expect for this to get better as the season goes on.
Overall, there are some interesting morsels of facts that can dribble out the sides of your mouth. Yet there's not an overall trend that shows the Texans should be worse or better than their record indicates. The Texans are, and should be, a three win team by this point of the season.
The previous section looked at numbers that compare the Texans' record to their performance and things teams don't have control over. The next three sections will look at Houston's performance only. For these, I won't be as exhaustive since I'm not looking at trends. Instead, I will look at interesting things that stick out.
The biggest thing here is the passing game. The Houston Texans have thrown the football 379 times, which is 3rd in the NFL. Yes, part of it is because they were down big early and threw often to mount a comeback that would make Bill O'Brien look better. But the Texans have thrown a lot, and they wouldn't rank this high just because of this. Houston has thrown the ball 145 times on first down, which is 5th in the NFL. On first down, they are averaging 5.6 yards a play (16th), so this strategy does make sense.
It makes even more sense because the running game is abysmal. Houston has a rushing DVOA of -25.4% (31st) and is averaging 3.27 Y/C (32nd). Last season, they ran the ball 551 times, most in the NFL. The offense was set up to put Ryan Fitzpatrick in manageable third downs and easier passing situations. Without Arian Foster, they can't do this. They don't have talent at running back that can make up for the issues on the offensive line.
Alfred Blue is the primary running back this year, and like last year when he was the worst running back in the league, he hasn't been any good. He has a DYAR of -11 (27th), a DVOA of -12.1% (30th), and is averaging 3.69 Y/C. The other RBs haven't been good either. Johnathan Grimes is just a guy. Despite the burst, Chris Polk's production isn't there, and he's also a poor pass catcher.
Additionally, Houston can't get into the second level of opposing defenses. They have 0.3 open field adjusted line yards (a stat by Football Outsiders that measures the effect the offensive line has on the run game), which puts them 32nd in the NFL, and 0.94 second level adjusted line yards (29th). The primary issue is the offensive line has had so many moving parts, and they can't gets hats on hats on hats. One of the things I've learned this year when watching NFL offensive lines is that great bulldozing blocks don't usually lead to big gains. The plays that break deep are the ones where every defender is just covered up. The Texans' offensive line hasn't done that this year.
Last thing on the run game: Despite the mixing around at left guard, and Ben Jones's generally poor performance, the Texans have blocked well on the interior. They have an ALY of 3.46, good for 11th in the league. The weird thing is they are 31st in the NFL on these runs, averaging just 3.27 yards per carry. This is all on the running backs.
When we go back to the passing game, there are three things that stand out: DeAndre Hopkins is the only receiver on the team, Brian Hoyer is having success throwing deep, and the tight ends are worthless. This year Hopkins has a DVOA (efficiency per play) of 5.8% (27th), and 169 DYAR (total, which ranks 9th). The reason why Nuk's DVOA is so low is because he's targeted so often.
Hopkins has 112 targets (2nd, behind Julio Jones), 66 catches (3rd behind Jones and Keenan Allen), 871 yards (3rd behind Jones and Antonio Brown), and 6 touchdowns (3rd). He won't make an All-Pro team because Jones and Brown have been better, but he's solidly a top five receiver now.
In Cleveland, Brian Hoyer had success throwing deep at the beginning of the year. Then Alex Mack went down, the run game disintegrated, and the open throws weren't there anymore. This season, Hoyer's been good at taking shots deep, and the Texans have done so often.
Hoyer is throwing the ball downfield, but not far downfield--Y/A is 12.2. When he does throw over 15 yards, he's completing passes at a better than average rate. I would assume most of this is because of DeAndre Hopkins. Houston has thrown the ball deep left, where Hopkins lines up most of the time, 29 times (5th). But there is still some skill involved here. With the same receivers, Ryan Mallett was 5-24 (20.8%) for just 145 yards. I still can't get over how inaccurate Mallett is.
When Bill O'Brien became the head coach, we all assumed tight ends were going to be a vital part of this offense. He was the offensive coordinator in New England when Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski decimated the league. In Houston, the one of the first things he did was re-sign Garrett Graham, and then the Texans used a third round pick on C.J. Fiedorowicz. Make sure you have a brown paper bag nearby. The numbers are gag-worthy.
These are the totals for 2014-2015. Graham has a sub 50% catch rate. Fiedorowicz's numbers don't do anything for the offense, and he's too crappy of a blocker to even stay on the field. Griffin hasn't played much this year; even when he has, he's been a total non-factor.
Garrett Graham is the worst tight end in the NFL this year. His 2015 DVOA is -66.3%, which is last in the league. He's caught only 4 of his 19 targets, a catch rate of 21.1%, and he has just 30 yards receiving. I'm sure when the drop numbers come out, it's going to be even worse.
For the rest of the season, I don't see the offense changing much. It looks like it's going to be a lot of Brian Hoyer throws to DeAndre Hopkins behind an inept running game. The most interesting aspect of it all is if Hoyer can keep throwing down field with accuracy. I mentioned it earlier, but in the past Hoyer needed a great running game for him to make easier throws downfield. This hasn't been the case this year. If it continues, DeAndre Hopkins should be thrown into the Hall of Fame immediately.
According to DVOA, tthe Texans have the 21st defense (4.6%). They have the 17th pass defense (14.4%) and 20th run defense (-7.5%). This is better than it was earlier in the year, but it still is nowhere near the top ten level they needed from this unit to be a winning team.
The run defense has improved, but tackling is still an enormous issue. Houston's ALY is 3.65 (11th), and there are no glaring holes according to ALY aside from right end. This is surprising to see after how disgusting Vince Wilfork was to start the year. In the open field, the Texans are the opposite of the offense. Second level ALY is 1.24 (21st), and in the open field their ALY is 1.01 (26th). This is because of their inability to tackle.
The pass defense has a really interesting distribution chart.
Teams aren't taking a lot of shots deep against the Texans. This is partly because the cornerbacks are decent, but also because Houston gives such big cushions. Rather than take multiple shots deep, teams pick and choose. As your eyes probably told you, offenses like going after the Texans' safeties. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 12 passes in the deep middle part of the field. The Texans have done a decent job defending the deep pass, though. Y/C and DVOA are around league average.
The shorter part of the field is where things get weird. The Texans have the least amount of throws in the entire league against the short center part of the defense. This is because offenses like making the inside linebacker have to get out in space and cover. Additionally, we can see the effects of deep cushions on the short left part of the field. The Texans are last in the league and give up 8.21 yards per attempt here, and they have a defensive DVOA of 16.4%. The league average is -6%. I assume a lot of these numbers are a result of the long Devonta Freeman catch in the flat and what the Dolphins did to them. The other short side of the field is covered well, so this is looking more like a personnel or schematic issue.
Football Outsiders also breaks down how teams cover types of receivers.
|Type of Receiver
||v. #1 WR
||v. #2 WR
||v. Other Receiver
The Texans have problems against a team's top two receivers and running backs. The two top receivers make sense. Johnathan Joseph is starting to see the affects of older age. Kareem Jackson hasn't been himself in Romeo Crennel's scheme this year. Kevin Johnson is a rookie, and is still learning how to play the game at this level.
Likewise, the issues with covering the running backs are clear. The team lacks speed at the inside linebacker position. They aren't able to cover quicker players, especially out of the backfield.
"Other" receivers and tight end are strange to me. Teams aren't throwing the ball in the middle of the field as pointed out earlier. But they also aren't having success on balance, this year or last year. Last season, the Texans' DVOA versus tight ends was -24.1%, 3rd in the league. The personnel Houston has doesn't really match up. It's something I'll need to watch film on and pay attention to for the rest of the year. As for the "other" receivers, the Texans play 6 defensive backs more than most teams in the NFL. They also have depth at cornerback, which helps.
Aside from some aberrations here and there, the Texans' defense isn't great at anything. All of their numbers fall in somewhere between 10th and 20th in the league's rankings. Their adjusted sack rate is tied for 15th and their DVOA in both aspects of the defense is mediocre.
One of these irregularities is their third down defense.
||Avg Yards Gained
Offenses have a third down conversion rate of 28.4%, which is the best mark in the league. Teams are gaining just 4.68 yards per play on third down. That's the fourth best mark in the league. The reason why the Texans are having success on third down is the average third down is 7.9 yards, which is 4th in the league. Concerns about stopping offenses are legitimate, though. First and second down defense is more indicative of a team's defensive performance. In this case, the Texans aren't good in these situations.
We need a RICO case on why the Houston's Texans' special teams have been putrid every single season. Is it because they draft poorly in later rounds and don't have talent on their special teams? Is it because they don't do a good job with their undrafted free agents? Is it because there's a general lack of focus in this aspect of the game during practice? Is it because the only job qualification necessary to be a Houston Texans special team coordinator is knowledge of ABCs? It's probably a combination of all these things.
The Houston Texans have the 31st best special teams unit in the NFL. When looking at Football Outsiders' numbers, we see the Texans don't add anything on kickoffs and have had problems with field goal kicking with Randy Bullock. The biggest problem has come on punts. The Texans are giving up an estimated 6.6 points on punts and 6.0 on punt returns. This is surprising because everyone tells me how great Shane Lechler is when the numbers say he really isn't. On returns, what do you expect when Keith Mumphery, a limited physical athlete, is returning punts?
The best part about all of this is the Texans are ranked 1st in "hidden," which measures things out of a team's control: opponent field goals (remember the Texans have the best opponent FG% in the league), kickoff distance, and punt distance. Even though the Texans are 31st in special teams, they should be even worse.
If you are an optimistic person and think the bathtub water is glossy and not dirty, you are probably going into the last half of the season with the mindset that "The team is 3-5. Andrew Luck is out for a month. The Texans have a chance to make a playoff run." Here is when that blimp explodes.
The Houston Texans have played the easiest part of their schedule and they finished 3-5. The rest of the way, they play the fifth toughest. Before they get to play against their fellow mangled AFC South compatriots, they play the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Buffalo Bills, and New England Patriots. They aren't better than any of those teams. There is a reality out there where the Texans are 3-10 after this stretch of schedule. No, the Texans won't make the playoffs this year. It will be another offseason of moral victories, things we know we need to improve on, and we'll-get-'em-next-year.
I still think the Colts win the AFC South. Luck is out for some period of time, but Matt Hasselbeck is a capable backup, and the Colts have been running the ball well lately. Also, they don't lose to the AFC South. I see them going 6-0 in this AAA division we call home and clinching the division.
If you are looking for a dark horse this season, watch out for the Jaguars. That offense is a blast to watch. T.J. Yeldon proves again that you don't need to draft running backs in the first round. He can turn earwax into gold. Blake Bortles is a real NFL quarterback. The arm is there. The athleticism is too. The problem is that he's too boom or bust and makes one to three awful Geno Smith-ish decisions a game that turns wins into losses. Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson do make Bortles look better; they can go up and catch anything if Bortles even puts it in the neighborhood. The defense, and pass rush specifically, has unexpectedly fallen apart. Yet Jacksonville should get better now that Sen'Derrick Marks is healthy.
The Jaguars are turning into a real NFL team, and they have the easiest schedule in the NFL the rest of the way. Yes, I'm saying it: The Jacksonville Jaguars could win the AFC South.
For the next eight weeks, we will learn more about the Texans as they try to win the worst division in the NFL. Pay special attention to these numbers as the season progresses. We will check back at the end of the year and see what has changed.
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