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Texans-Vikings Preview: A Tale Of Two Defenses

Mike Bullock examines the defenses of the Texans and Vikings in advance of Sunday’s game in Minneapolis.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

When the Houston Texans face off against the Minnesota Vikings this week, it will be a battle of two eerily similar, yet totally different, teams, each vying to stay atop their divisions and return to the postseason.

Both teams have solid, stingy defenses. Both have lost a superstar to injury early in the season. Both teams employ offensive and defensive minds on their staff that belong in the "100 Best of All Time" conversation. Both teams took wide receivers in back-to-back picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, as Houston grabbed Will Fuller 22nd overall and the Vikings called Laquon Treadwell’s name one pick later.

The Vikings appear to have pulled a rabbit out of their hat by trading for quarterback Sam Bradford after Teddy Bridgewater went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason during practice. Bradford is new to their system and running a simplified offense until he can fully grasp all the complexities of offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s playbook.

The Texans’ Brock Osweiler is also new to his system, having come over in free agency from Denver. Like Bradford, Osweiler also may not be quite ready to open it up and fully utilize Bill O’Brien’s complex offense.

Yet the mirror images don’t continue forever. Houston has lost more players to injury than the Vikings have so far this year. The Texans had an exhausting slobber-knocker of a game against Kansas City in Week Two that left them physically and emotionally drained before they traveled to New England just a few days later to get blown out of the building by the Patriots.

Although the schedule-makers were certainly not kind to Houston this year, the AFC South and NFC North face each other in 2016 giving the Texans and Vikings a slew of common opponents.

While the national media would have you believe Houston’s hopes are lost without J.J. Watt, the numbers tell a different story. Looking at the strength of both teams - their defense - Houston actually holds the edge in several categories:

Houston ranks:

  • #2 in passing defense
  • #4 in third down percentage with 32.1%
  • #6 in total defense
  • #6 in the league in total tackles with 276
  • #27 in rushing defense

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
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Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota ranks:

  • 8th in rushing defense
  • 8th in total defense
  • 9th in passing defense
  • 14th in third down’s with 40%
  • 18th with 249 total tackles
NFL: New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
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These stats take into account the horrific 27-0 loss Houston endured at the hands of New England.

The one key stat where Houston really takes a back seat to Minnesota is turnovers. The Vikings’ defense has taken the ball from opponents 11 times so far this season, while Houston has only managed to get the ball five times – one shy of the number of interceptions young QB Brock Osweiler has thrown so far. During the preseason, Houston’s defense looked to be loaded with ball hawks; that trend has failed to continue in the regular season so far.

With a healthy J.J. Watt, I believe the Texans’ defense would be superior to the Vikings’ unit, if nothing more than based on stats alone. Without Watt, the Texans’ defense will need to step up its game to keep this battle from slipping away.

Houston’s offensive line is facing a really tough task this week trying to stop the ferocious Vikings’ front seven. The best way to attack an aggressive defense is with quick tempo and short yardage plays designed to take advantage of defenders running downhill to the offensive backfield. Houston managed to do both of those things last week against the Titans, but not at the same time.

Without having to worry about Adrian Peterson and with the return of Brian Cushing, Houston should have a much better game against the run this week than they’ve had so far this season. Tennessee has a far better run game than the Vikings so far (4th in the league compared to the Vikings, who sit at 32). DeMarco Murray was averaging 5.975 yards per carry going into NRG Stadium this past weekend; the Texans held him to a 3.8 yards average. That sort of stifling drop on the Vikings’ lead back, Jerrick McKinnon, who only has a 3.7 yard per carry average, will turn Minnesota’s offense into a one-dimensional shadow of what Norv Turner designed it to be.

Another wrinkle in Houston’s favor is the amount of game film on Sam Bradford running the Vikings’ offense. The Vikings’ early opponents had spent time game-planning for a far more mobile Teddy Bridgewater. Give Norv Turner immense credit for adapting his offense to a pocket passer so quickly. Either way, Romeo Crennel and his staff now have three games of trends to watch to prepare for Bradford.

Expect this game to be a close one, with defensive firepower on full display as Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel battle it out for their seat at the "Best Defense in the League" table.

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