Completion of the fourth game of the season provides a good opportunity to take a step back and evaluate the progress of any NFL team. Although no team has ever won the Super Bowl based on their performance in the first four games, the first quarter of the season can reveal a lot about a team’s trajectory.
If you told me in early August these five things were the current reality for the Texans, I would have said that this team is falling apart:
Tom Savage got pulled after one half of football.
The Texans got smoked by the Jags and looked totally incompetent.
Brian Cushing was suspended for ten games thanks to his second violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Tom Brady had another comeback victory against the Texans.
Those are the facts, but not the full story. The book currently reads that the Texans are 2-2. They pushed the Patriots to the brink of defeat and should have won if Corey Moore had not dropped an interception,. We just made the Titans look like Hobbits by setting a franchise record for points with Deshaun Watson at the helm. Let’s break down the team by position group to better understand how the Texans have gotten to where they are.
Tom Savage was named the starting quarterback for this team even before No. 4 arrived in Houston. Whether it was hubris or sunk costs, this organization and staff stuck with their initial decision to start Savage and save Watson. Maybe they knew the offensive line would be this bad and did not want to injure their future starting quarterback? Maybe they wanted to see what Savage had to offer now that he was healthy? Or maybe Bill O’Brien believed someone who had been schooled in the locker room for years would best manage his system. These all could be true or false, but they do not explain the performance that Savage had against the Jacksonville Jaguars. His starting role lasted only one half of one game, and I do not think that many people will complain if that’s all we see.
Cut to the chase: We all want to gush about the talent and promise of our new quarterback. He stepped into a bad situation in the Week One game and gave his best effort in a lost cause. He took some big shots and made some mistakes, but the Watson Era in Houston had begun.
I wholeheartedly believe that the rookie QB gives the Texans something they may have never had at the position before: poise. Watson has pure, unadulterated moxie and can take the game over by his mere presence in the lineup. Watson causes so much attention to be focused on him and his scrambling talents that it opens up holes to run and lanes to throw. His development must continue as teams will start to catch onto some of his plays and trends.
An interesting group of pass-catchers are gaining trust and rhythm as Watson gets more first-team reps. After a disappointing 2016 campaign where he could never sync up with Brock Osweiler, DeAndre Hopkins leads the league with 31 receptions through four games the season. I am especially impressed with Nuk’s awareness in down-and-distance situations.
Bruce Ellington has been a welcome surprise, adding speed and versatility to the offense. O’Brien has used him in speed options as a ghost to confuse linebackers and momentarily stall the defense. His 35 yard catch on the first drive last Sunday set the Texans up to begin their demolition of the Titans. His touchdown catch against the Patriots came from the slot position, where he got positioning on the CB and the safety was late over the top. Ellington’s skill set compliments the Texans’ scheme. With any luck, he can build on his promising first few games.
Will Fuller is thankfully back, and boy did he put on a performance to answer a surge of doubt and conjecture. His back-shoulder catch for a 10 yard TD against the Titans was simply spectacular. I am interested to see how often Watson targets Fuller on deep routes throughout the season. Fuller’s instant juice takes a ton of pressure off of Hopkins.
Tyler Ervin was a potential WR/RB who was finding a niche on the team with slant routes and checkdowns. Unfortunately, he will be out for the rest of the season with a torn patellar tendon. The kid worked incredibly hard this offseason to make the team after a disappointing rookie campaign, and now he will have to wait for next year to earn a spot on the team.
Braxton Miller has been ineffective this season and has not found an identity or consistent role in this offense. The 2016 third round pick was a healthy scratch last Sunday.
It seems that the Texans have a two-headed monster with RBs Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman. A pretty simple statistic for you: When the two backs combine for over 100 yards, the Texans won; when they did not, the Texans lost. The running game is the heart of
Lamar Miller has averaged 17 carries per game through four weeks of the season. This role seems to fit Miller well, as we saw him struggle late in the season with a larger role taking a toll on his health. It seems that Miller runs better out of the I-formation than the shotgun. His production is vital to Houston’s offense. When given the ball early in the series, his ability to get the offense on track opens up the playbook for the Texans. Miller has not reached 100 yards rushing so far this season, but his threat as a pass-catcher has supplemented his value to the offense.
D’Onta Foreman’s tough running has been missed since we let Ben Tate sign with the Browns. Most thought Foreman would be a third-down short yardage back at first, but instead, he and Miller go 2:1 on their series and play throughout the drives. Miller has done a good job making the most of his opportunities, helping to wear down opposing defenses. His first four games have been relatively productive, although not in comparison to some of the other rookie running backs. As the season progresses, watch as Foreman gets closer to breaking a long run; it seems that he is only a step away from getting loose.
Since Watson is has the second most rushing yards and the most TDs on the team, WHY NOT include him in this section? C’mon, we at least need to mention him in every segment. Right? That 49 yard scramble against the Bengals was a masterpiece of agility and vision. Watson currently boasts 148 rushing yards and 2 TDs. The implementation of the zone read and designed QB draws have been a spark for the offense.
With so many injuries at the position, the first four games haven’t given us much to speak about. Losing C.J. Fiedorowicz to IR with multiple concussions has been a major loss for the offense. He was the breakout player in an otherwise anemic 2016 offense.
Ryan Griffin also had a concussion injury early in the Jacksonville game. He and the other tight ends all were KO’d by the Jags, who we made look like the ‘85 Bears. Griffin quickly got back his role on the team with a great TD catch against the Patriots.
Stephen Anderson was an exciting addition to the offense last season, though he fell short of the sizable expectations many had for him. Anderson should continue to develop with some good blocking progress and hopefully further cement his role in the passing game, particularly on third down.
The kink in the armor. Since this is a group that plays as one unit, I will not separate them individually. During the Jacksonville game, the OL detonated like I’ve never seen before. On almost every sack, there was one lineman who was not blocking anyone while someone else was getting blown off the ball. Missing last year’s two starting tackles has left the line in complete disarray and threatened to condemn the entire season. The interior of the line struggled with zone blocking when opposing defensive linemen pinched between the gaps to cut through into the backfield.
The issue during run blocking is purely not pushing the tackle off the line and getting to the second level. Jeff Allen and Greg Mancz have exchanged injuries in the starting role on the right side, with Mancz looking much better than Allen. The tackles have honestly been the most improved unit on the team, which means they aren’t allowing the quarterback to get hit every other drop back. Rookies Julie’n Davenport and Kyle Fuller have been utilized as tight ends in specific packages and have come in for pass-blocking relief. Their developmental paths are long and should be nurtured throughout the year.
With 25% of the season over, the Texans are right in the mix to once again to win the division. Some will say they deserve to be 3-1. Some will say that the team is destined for another 9-7 season. But we can all agree that the team has looked better each week. Remember that the season is a marathon, not a sprint.