When I left Colorado, my big stupid heart was broken. I played astronaut and got a closer look at Rocky Mountain National Park’s skyline, the Long’s-Pagoda-Chief’s Head-Powell peaks, from Flattop Mountain. When I woke up the next morning, the sky was a different hue. It was gold. It was crisp. The wind had a bite to it. I walked twelve miles along a meadow back to the car to finish my thirty mile loop. Along the drive to other side of the park, there were splashes of yellow and orange crawling up the mountains. All I wanted to do, and all I still want to do, is sit there and watch all that color finish erupting, everything freeze and choke with white, have it all melt to the tune of birds, and cook back up again. The last way I want to bring in the fall is what I’m going to do tomorrow, what we are all going to do tomorrow, which is watch the Texans get their teeth kicked in by the Patriots.
Let’s get on with it.
1.) No Chance
If Houston is going to win this game, it has to be through their defense. They have to do what Denver did in 2016 to beat the Pats, but in a slightly different way. Rather than rely on speed of light edge rushers who can time the snap perfectly to the center’s beat, the Texans are going to have to get interior pressure. Interior pressure is better than exterior pressure. The quarterback can’t step up past it. It arrives quicker because the distance to travel is shorter. It’s vital in today’s NFL to shut down an offense’s reliance on the boring, efficient, pick and pop, quick passing game.
This is how the Texans’ defense played their best game against the Pats in franchise history last postseason. They lined Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney up over center and twisted and blitzed with Benardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing to smash Tom Brady. Brady was battered, fried, and frustrated. If the offense wasn’t among the league’s three worst, Houston could have beat New England last January thanks to the defense’s performance. It ended up wasted. That formula is still there for the Texans to use this week.
Houston needs to use that formula to hold New England to that mythological twenty point barrier. Center David Andrews still has trouble pass blocking. J.J. Watt needs to rush as the three technique. Clowney and Mercilus need to rush from the ‘A’ gaps as often as possible. If the Texans can get pressure up the middle and get Brady screaming at the refs, they have a shot.
The big difference from last year and this year is the Texans don’t have the secondary talent they had last year. A.J. Bouye is gone. Kevin Johnson is injured again. Even if Houston gets pressure up the middle, they may not have the horses on the outside to pull this off. The pressure is going to have to be even more gruesome than last year to limit New England at all. From the Texans’ perspective, this is the only thing matters.
2.) Covering New England
In the passing game, the Patriots aren’t a typical team. They have only one real outside receiver in Brandin Cooks. The rest play all over the field doing a variety of different things. You have Chris Hogan, who is somehow a premiere deep threat and can play on the outside or in the slot, Rob Gronkowski is a horror picture monster who’s too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Phillip Dorsett is a speedster that New England still hasn’t fully worked into their offense (it’s amazing what good coaching can do to players). The two running backs, Dion Lewis and James White (Rex Burkhead is injured), are dump-off blankets that can line up at wide receiver and run pivot, curl, and out routes.
Houston will probably retaliate by playing Johnathan Joseph on Cooks. After that, I don’t know. The Texans predominantly play man. They may use Eddie Pleasant or Kareem Jackson on Gronk; if they put Pleasant on him, Jackson will run around with Hogan. Both of those are mismatches. My biggest concern is how the Pats scored on Houston last year. They used power run plays to suck the linebackers up and then motioned their backs out wide to get them one on one against Benardrick McKinney in to attack him singularly. Hopefully, Houston can employ rookie linebacker Zach Cunningham to cover these plays. Hopefully, he can actually stick with White or Lewis.
3.) Deshaun Watson, Starting NFL Quarterback
Our long nightmare ended up being only one half of football. Tom Savage, starting quarterback, was a dreaded summer endeavor that was extinguished in seven sacks. He’s back on the bench. Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson is now the starter, as he should have been all along. The funny thing is that based on the skills both these quarterbacks have, Savage and not Watson probably gives the Texans a better chance to win tomorrow. If Waston starts out slow and Houston goes down early, we could end up seeing Savage again.
Thing is, Watson wasn’t good last week in the win over the Bengals. It doesn’t mean he won’t be good in the future or improve this season. It just means he wasn’t good in his first NFL start. Regardless, he gave Houston the best chance to win last week because of his pocket maneuvering, elusiveness, and speed. Savage moves slower than the hamburger I have churning through my bowels. With the offensive line Houston has and a single receiver to throw to, the Texans needed a quarterback like Watson to counteract Cincinnati’s defense.
New England’s defense is the opposite of Cincy’s. The Patriots have trouble generating a pass rush. Their front seven is malleable. Teams can have all the time in the world to throw the ball against New England. Their secondary is their strength. Watson is going to have to win from the pocket, which isn’t something I think he can do this week. New England is going to blitz him, double DeAndre Hopkins to make every pass attempt to him as impossible as possible, spy Watson to trap him in the pocket, and force Watson to place the ball everywhere else.
This, plus Watson’s below average arm and a young brain that is still trying to get past reading half the field and start reading the whole field, could spell disaster. Savage has a better arm to attack a defense like New England’s, and even though his accuracy is really inconsistent, he can still place the ball where he wants it at times. Just like last season in Week Three, when the Patriots played two safeties deep and put a noose around [Name Redacted]’s ability to throw the ball downfield and killed Houston’s passing offense, giving NFL defenses the template they used for the rest of the season to shut down the Texans, New England may end up doing the same thing to Watson tomorrow.
Don’t be surprised if Tom Savage ends up playing some tomorrow.
4.) Kicking and Punting, oh no!
This article is not like the usual ones that get typed. It’s missing all those pretty numbers, and I only gots four things to watch for instead of five. It’s not because of a lack of effort or Saturday morning eye-crusted laziness. It’s because the season is still infantile, and this game is going to be a disaster. There isn’t much to gleam just yet. Strange things are out there that probably won’t mean much in the future.
The strangest thing is Houston isn’t 32nd in special teams this season. They are 24th in special teams DVOA, dragged down by the -2.8 expected points they have in the punting game. Shane Lechler isn’t good, folks.
The Texans’ special teams has actually been a bit better this season. It’s nothing to be confident about. I’m still ready for Dion Lewis to return a kick for a touchdown. There’s going to be some terrible special teams atrocity committed by Houston tomorrow.
Try to enjoy the game, everyone.