The mood entering this game is dour. The football loving people in this country don't want to watch it. The fans are sniffling their way to the television. Houston never saw that offensive explosion that was promised all year, and instead saw it implode while their defense propped up the team and carried one of the league's worst offenses through close and ugly wins. Oakland has made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, but their face paint is streaked with tears after seeing their star child, backyard football, gun-slinging quarterback utter the words "It's broken". Someone will win. Whoever does will probably get turned into a lampshade against New England. So who cares?
We do. We all do, and we should. Although It's a bummer that it's Brock Osweiler, worst quarterback in the league, against third string quarterback Connor Cook, it's the playoffs, dammit. It's hard to get here. Both teams never know when they are going to get back again, let alone see another playoff victory. The Raiders haven't been here in 14 years. The Detroit Lions haven't won a playoff game in 25 years. Enjoy it. Savor it. Dress up like Vader. Pierce that septum. Drink those stupid beers with your team's logo on them. Nobody knows when it's going to happen again.
Oakland's problem is their pass offense is the best part of their team. By losing Derek Carr, they lost the fixture of a team that had driven them to twelve wins. This year, Oakland had a pass offense DVOA of 36.2%, which is fourth in the league. They were 13th in passing yards and net yards an attempt, They were eighth in touchdown passes. Carr sitting behind the best pass protecting offensive line in the league and holding his follow through on deep passes down the sideline to Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree is what made this team what it was.
Without Carr, all of that is gone. What the Raiders do best has evaporated. Now their first playoff berth since 2002 seems empty, hollow, and hopeless. It shouldn't be in this weekend's game.
Connor Cook is starting this weekend. That's better than Matt McGloin, the classic big arm, tall and big, pocket passer who scatter shoots passes across the field but manages to hang around the team because of physical traits. Before Jared Crick crunched him out of the game against Denver, McGloin was overthrowing everything and showing zero accuracy. This year he completed 8 of 14 passes for 50 yards, which comes out to 3.6 yards an attempt. He was upset and angry on the sideline when he got hurt. The Raiders are better off with him there. That's where McGloin should be--red with his arms crossed.
With Connor Cook, you get the pedigree of a mid-round pick who fell in the draft because he was grumpy and scouts thought he had a bad attitude. In the limited amount of time he's played, which doesn't mean much, Cook showed some stuff--something McGloin couldn't sniff. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 150 yards, threw one touchdown, one interception, lost a fumble climbing up in the pocket, and averaged 7.1 yards an attempt. He still showed the footwork and pocket presence he had at Michigan State. When he had time, he went through his reads, placed the ball in the right spot, and actually quarterbacked.
On Cook's only touchdown throw, Amari Cooper is running a corner route against man coverage. Cook fakes the hand-off. Then he feels, but doesn't see, the pressure on the edge. He seps up in the pocket and throws a perfect pass to Cooper. The defensive back has inside placement. Cook places it on the outside shoulder for Cooper. Exactly where it needs to be.
Despite Oakland losing their quarterback and the limited number of snaps Cook has played, it's likely the Raiders will have the better quarterback this game. The problem for Oakland is they are playing against a much better defense. Houston has a pass defense DVOA of -5.6% (5th). The main reason for this is their secondary. A.J. Bouye, Kareem Jackson, AFC Defensive Player of the Month Quintin Demps, Andre Hal, Johnathan Joseph, and scraps from others have manacled passing offenses. They held Matthew Stafford to 231 yards, Philip Rivers to 235 yards, Aaron Rodgers to 200 yards, Andrew Luck to 231 and 265 yards, and kept Derek Carr quiet until the second half when he hit on some big plays, like a 75 yard touchdown pass to Jamize Olawale and a screen pass to Cooper that turned into a 35 yard touchdown.
Cook should have time to throw, though. The Texans' pass rush has been average this year. They have a pressure rate of 22.1% (18th), an adjusted sack rate of 5.8% (18th), and have picked up 31 sacks this season. Their rush has mainly come from Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. Combined they have 60 pressures. No one else on the team has more than ten. Although the Texans do blitz Clowney from the inside linebacker position and loop him and Mercilus inside to make up for their lack of interior rush, expect those two guys to stick on the edge. The Raiders have the best interior pass blocking line the in league. More importantly, Donald Penn may or not play after hurting his knee, and Oakland's biggest weak spot is right tackle, whether it's Austin Howard or the very big and very mean but very bad Menelik Watson.
If Houston gets pressure, it's going to be up to Cook to step up in the pocket as shown above. He's going to have to feel the heat and evade it. Despite the clamping of Houston's secondary, both Cooper and Crabtree are too good to be locked up the entire game. They are still going to get open sometimes. That's the important thing for Oakland. With a backup quarterback going up against this pass defense, it's going to be nearly impossible to have a consistent passing offense. What Cook needs to do is hit when things break open down field. This is one of the pass defense's weaknesses. They have given up eleven 20+ yard touchdowns. If Cook makes one or two long touchdown throws, that may be all Oakland will need against Houston's all field goal offense.
It's expected that Oakland will start this game like they did against Denver--on the ground. They started that game by plummeting Latavius Murray into the line of scrimmage. It just didn't work. They had only 57 rushing yards on 16 attempts against the 21st ranked run defense by DVOA. DeAndre Washington had seven carries for 43 yards, Latavius Murray had five carries for 11 yards, Jalen Richard had three carries for 3 yards. Over the last three games, Murray has averaged just 2.55 yards an attempt, while Richard and Washington have averaged at least seven. This could be a game where Washington sees more carries than Murray.
Murray is a brute between the tackles runner, which is where Oakland has run the ball this year. They have 288 carries up the middle, which is the most in the league. They average 4.58 yards a carry (4th) and are 5th in adjusted line yards at 4.19. Houston has allowed 3.49 yards up the middle (T-3rd) and are 11th in adjusted line yards at 3.63. However, Oakland has had trouble running the ball lately. It's going to be war when Oakland runs up the middle.
Houston must do the cliched things against a green quarterback: stop the run, get pressure, force long third downs, and try to get him in a swirling haze of mistakes. To do this, they have to stop the run up the middle. Vince Wilfork is whatever, and Brian Cushing is fine. The two guys Houston is going to lean on are Benardrick McKinney and Jadeveon Clowney.
McKinney has been incredible against the run this year. He has 78 run tackles; Brian Cushing is second on the team with 48. McKinney has picked up the slack his older teammates have left for him. He recognizes and reacts immediately. He has the strength to blow up and take on blocks. He also has the quicks to dodge them.
Here, Oakland is running their favorite play, the inside zone. They get two strong double teams that go to the middle linebackers and single blocks on the edge. D.J. Reader (#98) gets squashed off the ball, but McKinney reacts quick enough to sneak around the double and leap into the diving back. Clowney swims over Penn, gets flat down the line of scrimmage, and comes close to making a play.
McKinney needs to have a great game up the middle. Yet, Clowney can do more than have a great game. He can dismantle a run offense all on his own.
In their first matchup, Houston held the Raiders to 30 yards on 20 carries. Clowney had five tackles and signed a year long lease in the backfield. He forced running backs back to the middle to McKinney, who had eight tackles, and the rest of the defense. That was when the Raiders had Carr, a fully healthy offensive line, and were actually running the football well and could win games on the ground.
If Oakland is going to win this weekend, they have to run the football up the middle. They are going to have to make sure Cook isn't throwing the ball forty times and trying to drive the entire bus by himself. Cook needs to play in a situation similar to Carr. Have all the time in the world to throw, get set up by a nice run game, and make throws down the field when they are there. If the offense can be a shoddier version of what it is when Carr is there, they should win this game. But if they don't, and Cook faces a constant pass rush and they run the ball ineffectively, the Raiders are screwed.
Defensively, it's a great matchup for Houston. The problem is going to be the Texans' offense. Again. Houston has scored 23 touchdowns this year, tied for St. Louis for last in the league. The Texans have a TD% of 12.8%, which is 31st in the NFL. Their offensive DVOA is -21.4% (30th), their passing DVOA is -19.4% (30th), and their rushing DVOA is -19.6% (27th). They are abhorrent. The last two seasons built up to this offseason investment that was supposed to flip turn this team into a contender. Yet again, they are chained and smeared in black in some Gothic basement.
There are two big problems here. The first is Brock Osweiler, who's starting for a hazy Tom Savage. The second is the offensive run scheme. Osweiler has been the worst quarterback in the NFL to start the majority of the year. I didn't know I was a masochist until I got to scrape this sentence into my callused flesh over and over again. Osweiler has a completion percentage of 59% (29th), while averaging 5.8 yards an attempt (LAST) and 9.8 yards a catch (T-LAST). He threw 15 touchdowns (T-27th), 16 interceptions (T-3rd), has a QBR of 50 (28th), a DYAR of -569 (33rd), and a DVOA of -27.1% (33rd).
The only good thing for Houston is they are going up against a bad Oakland defense. The Raiders have allowed 24.1 points a game (20th), have a passing defense DVOA of 15.4% (25th), have allowed a league worst 7.3 net yards an attempt, and a rushing defense DVOA of -7.5% (18th). It really doesn't matter who the opponent is. Houston has been stifled by bad defenses this year. They were held to nine points for 98% of their first meeting against Indianapolis and 22 in their second meeting. They scored 20 against Detroit, 20 against Oakland, 13 against Green Bay, and only 17 against Tennessee's gag-inducing secondary.
The problem for Osweiler has arisen since the New England debacle, when the Patriots played two safeties deep. Since then, Osweiler has been terrified to throw the ball down field. Osweiler has completed only 21 passes of more than twenty yards since that game, putting him ahead of quarterbacks like Cody Kessler and Jared Goff, rookies who only played pieces of the year. Everything has been suffocated short and to the flat. He's not an accurate enough quarterback to have success in the league. He provides nothing in a short quick passing offense. This image is the perfect representation of Osweiler's passing attempts--short and inaccurate.
Passes incessantly thrown out of reach, behind, over, and out of sight of his receivers. Without Osweiler being able to throw down field, the offense has been a mess filled with incompletions.
Tom Savage played well in a half that Jacksonville wasn't prepared for. Since that game, Savage showed why he was passed over. He's a quarterback who can't make quick decisions in an offense he's been in for three years. His brain is a computer powered by an obese hamster wheezing on a blue metal wheel. The two things Savage did well was throw the ball down field and not turn the ball over. This gave the offense some life.
Osweiler probably won't throw the ball downfield with success tomorrow. The one thing he can't do, however, is turn the ball over. In his last start in Week 15 against Jacksonville, he went 6-11 for 48 yards, attempting just two passes over eight yards down field. Both passes were intercepted. The second pick yanked him behind the curtain with a cane.
Osweiler's interceptions are the result of either an inaccurate atrocity or a boneheaded mistake you would expect from a rookie quarterback. I guess that makes sense, since this is "technically Osweiler's rookie year". The interception he threw to Jalen Ramsey was a perfect example of the first problem. Will Fuller ran a nice post route against Ramsey to get open. He flattens the route to create more separation. Osweiler makes an easy throw difficult by putting it up high, bouncing off Fuller's fingers iand into the leaping Ramsey's.
The second to Telvin Smith was of the stupidity variety. Osweiler steps up from an edge rush. He doesn't reset his feet on his throw to DeAndre Hopkins, who runs an in route. Jacksonville is in Cover Three, leaving Smith in the center of the field. He sees Hopkins coming across the middle and converges towards him. Smith is nearly standing in front of Hopkins once Osweiler throws it.
It's not even the interceptions, pf which Osweiler has thrown 16. He's been lucky this year. Pro Football Focus has Osweiler credited with 28 passes that should have led to a turnover. He's been fortunate that more of his wobbly tosses and wrongly-filled Scantron bubble passes weren't picked off.
Yet Oakland's secondary has been burnt like dirty sheets this year. D.J. Hayden, who has been their best cornerback this season,is out for the rest of the year. He led the team in success rate at 65% (23rd) on 49 targets. The rest of their secondary that has seen a substantial amount of targets--T.J. Carrie, Sean Smith, and David Amerson--rank 76th, 92nd and 103rd in the same measure. All give up at least eight yards per pass attempt and rank 123rd or worse in yards after the catch allowed.
The Raiders do have good safety play, though. The secondary is much better with Karl Joseph, who should play this week. With him off the field, opposing quarterbacks have a QBR of 76.2 (LAST), and a QBR of 51.2 with him on the field (BEST). Reggie Nelson is a wiry old man who knows where to go and how to break on the ball. Oakland loves to roll their safeties around to confuse quarterbacks pre-snap. They run a variety of man, zone, and hybrid coverages. It's an amphibious scheme.
This leads to one thing the Raiders do well--pick off passes. The Raiders have intercepted sixteen passes, which is 9th. At the end of their second matchup against San Diego, Bruce Irvin got pressure off the edge, forcing Philip Rivers to throw the ball to avoid a possible safety. Reggie Nelson squats at the first down marker and comes down as a help defender to pick off a pass attempted to Dontrelle Inman.
Brock Osweiler can't throw interceptions tomorrow. He probably will,though. With Joseph back, the head-scratching nature of their scheme, and Osweiler's own ineptitude, we are all likely set for a multiple interception game from Brock. Oakland has to take advantage of Osweiler's mistakes, and they need to make sure he doesn't escape them by dropping misplaced packages.
The Raiders also have their own version of Jadeveon Clowney, a better version as of today's date, and that's Khalil Mack. Mack and Bruce Irvin provide Oakland's pass rush. Mack has 37.5 hurries, fifth in the league, and 11 sacks. Irvin has 27 hurries and seven sacks. Together they combine for 49.8% of Oakland's hurries and 72% of their sacks.
Oakland's pass rush comes from the exterior when they beat one-on-one blocks. Mack is a complete rusher with an entire inventory of rips, long arms, bull rushes, spins, and rips. Irvin needs to have a great first step to create disarray. If not, he's easily blocked. But when he's free, he's a mystical spotted Savannah cat.
The problem with Oakland's pass rush is there's no one else. They don't have any interior rush. For Oakland to get pressure on the inside, it has to come through stunts. For Oakland to take advantage of Xavier Su'a-Filo's spats of horrific misses and Jeff Allen's sluggishness, it will have to come from Irvin and Mack looping, which they do, and which they are great at.
Mack is a horseman of the apocalypse bringing pestilence when he loops inside on T-E stunts.
Houston is going to need to control these two silverheaded flurries. Osweiler is a terrible quarterback without pressure. He is unplayable when under pressure. While he's skittering in fear, Osweiler has a completion percentage 49.4%, averages 4.7 yards an attempt, a quarterback rating of 49.9, and has thrown two touchdowns to seven interceptions. Thanks to Pro Football Focus for the data.
The Texans' offensive line must contain Mack and Irvin. Duane Brown is big, quick, and wide enough to block Mack. He put him in a sarcophagus in their first meeting. The problem is on the other side. Chris Clark has soured as the weeks progressed. When he's matched up against Irvin or Mack on the outside, the Texans either need to line C.J. Fieodorowicz or Ryan Griffin in the slot to land rib shots, or send the back that way to help. The interior of the line, Greg Mancz, Su'a-Filo and Allen, can't turn their heads to the man they're blocking. They need to keep their head up and be ready for Irvin and Mack coming around the block. If not, and Osweiler is covered in pressure, the passing attack is going to be like crossing a pool of starving crocodiles ready to feast on Osweiler's mistakes.
That's the worst case scenario. Houston should still be able to move the ball via the sky a few different ways. The first is by trying to get DeAndre Hopkins one on one against Sean Smith. Hopkins has the skills of a defensive lineman at the horizon. He's great at swimming and skipping past press coverage. Smith is very bad at press coverage, has been bad all year, and whenever they get lined up one on one, the Texans have to go after this match-up.
The other is Oakland is terrible at covering the short middle part of the field. Opponents have a completion percentage of 70.4%, average 9.4 yards an attempt, and have a 9:1 touchdown to interception ratio when throwing to this part of the field. Additionally, their DVOA in this part of the field is 28.6%. The average is 4.4%.
The main reason why is the Raiders play a lot of zone with their inside linebackers covering this part of the field. Both inside linebackers, Perry Riley (#54), and Malcom Smith (#53), are the worst part of Oakland's defense. In zone coverage, they constantly get confused and double the same player, leaving tight ends and slot receivers wide open while they both run to the flat.
When they play man coverage and are lined up against tight ends, or heaven forbid slot receivers, the Raiders stand no chance. They get outmuscled at the point of attack. They are left trying to put their bowels back in their gut when receivers make their break.
Here's Fiedorowicz against Malcom Smith. He gets instant separation when he cuts outside, breaks a tackle, and picks up 18.
In this part of the field, Fiedorowicz has 18 catches on 31 targets for 233 yards. Hopkins has 19 catches on 27 targets for 284 yards. Houston, get these two in the middle of the field. Run crossing routes to get Will Fuller involved. Set up easy throws to this part of the field. Make the throws so easy that even Osweiler can complete them. Take advantage of Smith and Perry. This is what is scribbled on the whiteboards in NRG Stadium.
The other problem with the Texans' offense, the run scheme, could not be an issue if the Texans finally started using Pro Football Reference's Game Play Finder. Houston has overcommited to inside and power runs when Lamar Miller is an artist who sees the world in exploding color. He's best outside the tackles. He's best in space. If they follow this mantra of outside and in space, Miller should have a great game.
Houston averages 5.42 yards on runs over the left edge (14th), 5.63 on runs over the left tackle (7th), 3.28 yards on runs over the right tackle (24th), and 4.6 on yards over the right edge (14th). Oakland allows 7.26 (31st), 2.83 (2nd), 4.65 (29th), and 6.09 yards (27th) over the same directions of the line of scrimmage.
The one mean spot on Oakland's run defense is that monster Khalil Mack. The one thing, aside from running outside, Houston needs to do is run away from Mack. Here's a play in two acts. Both plays are the same, and one is right after the other in Oakland's loss to Denver. The first is away from Mack, and te second is at Mack.
Both plays are an outside zone run with the fullback leading the way. Mack sits, watches, and saunters back over to the ball while both inside linebackers are abused and the first level is incapacitated.
This is the same play, except Mack is lined up on the other side. He dodges the tight end with two quick steps, takes on the fullback head on, tosses him outside, and makes the tackle. The same play. Just two sides of a coin.
The left side of Houston's line run blocks well. It doesn't matter. Houston shouldn't run to some predetermined spot. They should find Mack and go the opposite way. He is great, like Clowney, and can make tackles no matter where he is, but those are occurrences, not a consistent slamming of the head into the wall.
When Houston does run the ball up the middle, which they'll do since they had the second most run attempts there this season, they will be able to block the second level. Again, Oakland's inside linebackers are awful. The key is going to be for the Texans to stick and hold on their blocks at the first level. They can't allow Miller or Alfred Blue or Akeem Hunt to get tangled by vines sticking out at the line of scrimmage. If they hold on those blocks and take care of the cupcake second level, they may actually run the ball effectively.
Lastly, since this will probably be a low scoring game, with a great defense against the ghost of a great offense and a bad offense against a bad defense, the kicking game and field position are going to be even more important. Houston is again 32nd in special teams DVOA. Oakland is 11th and has a substantial advantage in field goals, kickoffs, kick returns, and punts compared to Houston.
It's a strange game when you set out all the miniatures across the board. Each team is good at various and scattered things, leaving no clear resolution or outcome in sight. There are settings where both teams can win, and they are each similar. For Oakland, it's to run the ball, control the line of scrimmage, hit some deep passes, use the kicking game to force Houston into long fields, and take advantage of Osweiler's mistakes. For Houston, it's pretty much the same, except substituting the kicking game for attacking the short middle part of the field, and throwing it to Hopkins when he's matched up in man coverage against Sean Smith.
Because of that, and because of how close and gruesome these Texans games have been, the one clear thing is that it's going to be a close one possession game. I just think the Texans are better than the Raiders everywhere else except for passing offense. Since that is up in the air, the Texans have the advantage and should win this one.
Prediction: Houston 19, Oakland 16.
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