The very idea that the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs are squaring off for the third time in a calendar year this weekend is a bit surprising; the fact that the Chiefs are 2-0 against Houston in that time equally so. You know that everyone working down at NRG Park is laser-focused on making sure that doesn’t turn into 3-0.
The list of evidence to back this assertion up is long and unmistakable. Injured linebacker Brian Cushing told his coach, Bill O’Brien, that he’d be there all week to help instill in his new teammates how important this game will be. Quarterback Brock Osweiler told the media – and presumably in greater detail his teammates – how familiar he is with the Chiefs from his time spent sharing a division with them when he was a Denver Bronco. And, perhaps the most tangible evidence is the undercurrent of unspoken sentiment that J.J. Watt has a score to settle from his last encounter with Kansas City.
While we can’t know exactly what Houston has up its collective sleeve, we can speculate just how the Texans plan to attack – and ultimately beat – the Chiefs.
First and foremost, as they would every week, look for weaknesses to exploit. As the adage goes, more games are lost than won, so helping the opponent lose is the key to victory.
Let’s look at the current injury report for KC:
Sam Barrington LB Hamstring DNP
Jamaal Charles RB Knee Limited
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif OL Ankle DNP
Parker Ehinger OL Concussion Limited
Tamba Hali LB Knee Limited
Spencer Ware RB Toe DNP
While many might see Jamaal Charles and Spencer Ware on there and think that’s the key to victory (i.e., a lack of running game for the Chiefs), the real potential weakness is due to the most overlooked guys on this list: Duvernay-Tardif and Ehringer, the Chiefs’ starting guards.
For some teams, that might not pose such an obvious weak link. For a front seven scheme like Romeo Crennel’s Texans employ, it’s blood in the water.
With the fluid nature of players and looks Crennel brings each and every down, there will never be a play where one of the injury-hampered starting guards – or better yet, their second-string replacements – aren’t looking to fend off one of Houston’s stud defenders.
First down, and one of the guards is forced to deal with John Simon and Benardrick McKinney. That may not scare them.
Second down, and in comes J.J. Watt and Max Bullough. Uh oh.
Third down, and stunting around Watt is either Whitney Mercilus or Jadeveon Clowney. How do you block that?
Worse still is the potential lack of chipping/blocking help from the running back position, with two of the four tailbacks either out or playing hurt.
While this certainly won’t translate into 10 sacks and dozens of negative plays, it will force Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith to make faster decisions than his skill-set is built to make. Physically and talent-wise, I believe Smith is very similar to Rich Gannon, a former Chiefs (and more famously, Raiders) quarterback turned broadcaster. Smith doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he’s great at managing the game when his teammates do their jobs well. He thrives on a short passing game; when left unmolested, Smith can put up great stats. What Gannon possessed that Smith doesn’t is an incredibly high football IQ (that’s not to say Smith is unintelligent by any means, but his name doesn’t always come up when people mention the smartest signal-callers in the league). What that IQ brings with it is the ability to make something out of nothing when your pocket continually collapses around you.
When the offensive line fails to keep Smith upright, and he starts getting beat up repeatedly, the mistakes will come.
In order to nourish the soil where errors can grow, Romeo Crennel must find a way to exploit the guards while also protecting against Smith’s bread and butter: the short passing game.
Tight end Travis Kelce is a major reason why Smith had so much success in the short game last season, as Kelce racked up 875 yards on 72 receptions. Difficult as it may be, finding a way to shut Kelce down will be key. Without Kelce, a running game to lean on, or the time to get the ball to deep threat Jeremy Maclin, Alex Smith’s mistake-to-play ratio will rise.
How might these mistakes materialize? Instead of throwing ill-advised passes that end up as interceptions, Smith likes to run. Last season, he ran for 510 yards. Of those, 222 came going around the end, which is ill-advised with Clowney’s closing speed and reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week Whitney Mercilus on the other. 189 yards came running between the tackles in the A through C gaps; it stands to reason that will rarely come open with the Chiefs’ guards playing at less than 100%.
With the running lanes closed, the edges set, and pressure continually hitting him, it’s only a matter of time before Smith’s waters no longer run cool.
Once those issues begin to boil over, the Texans just need to cash in on the hard work that made it happen to make the Chiefs lose one and Houston can stay undefeated.
Of course, like any game plan, this one will go right out the window after the first play. Still, the best part of this weekend remains: Win, lose or tie, Brian Hoyer won’t play catch with anyone on the Chiefs’ payroll.
What do you think? Have a different strategy? Think this game plan smells worse than Hoyer's playoff record? Still stuck on the Texans not wearing the color rush uniforms this year? Let us know in the comments below.