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2017 Houston Texans Season Preview

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It’s the last AFC South Preview before the 2017 season starts. This time it’s the Houston Texans.

Houston Texans v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Last season, the Texans won more games than they probably should have. Their defense led them to a 8-4 record in one-score games. They finished 9-7 despite having a negative point differential, fielding the 30th ranked offense according to DVOA, starting the worst quarterback in the world not named Jared Goff for fourteen games, turned Lamar Miller into Alfred Blue, and the special teams was the worst in the league, just as it has and always will be. Now, this isn’t to say Houston is automatically going to be worse this year. It’s to say that Houston needed to improve this offseason, especially on offense, to even replicate last year’s 9-7 and win this division again. I don’t think they did.

This offseason, the Texans made a few offensive personnel moves. They traded Brock Osweiler and a second round pick to scrub his cap hit off the books, re-signed Ryan Griffin for some unknown reason, drafted Deshaun Watson, and recently extended Jay Prosch, C.J. Fiedorowicz, and DeAndre Hopkins. The most important of these moves involved the quarterback position, that most vital organ that has plagued Houston since 2013. Tom Savage became the starting quarterback and was able to hold Watson off this preseason, and Watson now becomes hot breath on the back of Savage’s neck.

The subjective stuff surrounding Savage derives little optimism. He’s a mid-round quarterback. He’s 27 years old and has only started two games. He’s been passed over multiple times as a starting quarterback in Houston. He was passed over in the NFL Playoffs last year even after recovering from his Week 17 injury against Tennessee. Aside from some nice words DeAndre Hopkins said last month, there isn’t anything to point to that Savage will be any good.

The numbers and video come from are a sample size of two. The numbers don’t say much of anything at all. The 46-73 (63.0%), 461 yards, 0:0 TD/INT ratio, and 5.5 NY/P are scant scraps. The film shows glimpses of what could be expected this season, what Savage could possibly excel and struggle with.

The best thing about Savage are the physical traits. He’s tall and his arm is good enough—two attributes that will give him a comfy life where he can at a minimum hold a clipboard, wear a ball cap, and collect a paycheck for years to come. He can shoot it past defenders to make throws into tight coverage, and he has the arm to consistently complete passes to the sideline.

These sideline throws are going to be integral for Savage’s game. Houston’s passing attack will probably go back to a scheme similar to 2015, when Hopkins ran comeback and fade routes isolated on one sideline en route to a 250,000 target season.

The problem is that teams can, and probably are going to, double Hopkins on the outside whenever they don’t blitz. They are going to play with one safety in the center of the field, daring Savage to go through his reads and try to find someone, anyone, that’s open. I have a bad feeling the beginning of the season is going to be a lot of Hopkins stare-downs into double coverage after which Savage fails to find anyone else open.

Quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson have shown that size isn’t a must to play quarterback. There are just things you have to do on the field to make up for it. Brees throws way over the top of his shoulder. Wilson slithers around the pocket to create open throwing lanes. Size is helpful. Because of Savage’s size, it’s easier for him to put the ball over soft zone defenders and bounce off hits in the pocket.

Savage does both on this play. Duane Brown stays on the defensive end that shoots the inside gap. Rather than pass him off to Xavier Su’a-Filo, Brown sticks on the block. Savage takes a misdirected shot and still delivers a strong throw. With his arm slot, he’s able to keep the ball over the short zone linebacker with ease. The ball is completed right in Hopkins’ chest.

Size and arm strength. These are Savage’s two best qualities. It’s where the good things stop, though. The rest of his play last season was an inconsistent mash.

Savage isn’t inaccurate. He’s just not consistent. As seen before, one throw will hit the receiver in stride or be placed perfectly like a death star detonation. The next will land behind the receiver streaking across the field, or tossed up away and out of bounds. Savage can make enough throws to lead some drives, but over the course of the game, the offense is underutilized, filled with stutters and stops because of these wild throws.

This is a third down conversion that becomes an incompletion because of a misplaced pass. Houston runs a nice pick play combination with Hopkins and Griffin. In the slot, Griffin takes Johnathan Cyprien head on. He comes into his body and drives him up the field. With Jalen Ramsey playing off man coverage, he has no choice but to come over the top of this squabble. This leaves Hopkins wide open. The ball is placed behind Hopkins, crushing his bones when he attempts a one-handed catch.

The bigger accuracy issue is that Savage has shown he has the arm to be a downfield thrower, but hasn’t shown he has the accuracy. All too often, he places the ball over the wrong shoulder and leads his receiver away from his path, or tosses up fade routes that don’t give his receiver a shot at making the grab.

It’s going to be crucial for the Texans’ offense that Savage makes these throws. When defenses can stop deep passes with one safety deep, it allows an additional defender to rush the passer, cover the middle of the field, double Hopkins, or sniff around the box presnap to help stop the run. This one issue will have ripples throughout the offense.

When Savage does complete passes, there are two things that occur on nearly every throw—great pass protection and the first read getting open. When Savage has a great pocket and all the time in the world to wait for his receiver to get open, he can set his feet and sling it. Problems arise when he gets rushed. Against blitzes and free rushers, Savage doesn’t have the ability to create plays. He stands tall without getting the ball out quickly enough to escape the sack. Feeling pressure isn’t something he does well either. There are sacks he takes because he doesn’t step up and away soon enough.

If you see Savage progress through his routes, it’s because he has plenty of time to throw. With his brain slowly turning, he’ll stand there, holding onto each potential option for forever.

Most of his throws have him lock to a receiver or a side of the field based off what he sees presnap. Usually, Savage will keep his eyes on the same receiver for his entire dropback. Troubles arise when that first receiver doesn’t get open or the pass protection isn’t perfect. The difference between Savage’s performance between Jacksonville and Cincinnati is that Jacksonville rushed four and Griffin was able to consistently beat Cyprien in man coverage, and Will Fuller V and Hopkins were open often enough, while the Bengals incessantly blitzed and scattered to different posts presnap to confuse Savage into a hideous performance.

Touchdowns and points are left on the field because of Savage’s Calvinistic tendencies. Against Jacksonville, he missed tosses to the seam against Cover Three that should have been scores. He missed receivers open on the other half of the field because he was locked onto the other side. The offense is underutilized with Savage on the field. He usually only sees one route; the rest is just a diversion rather than an opportunity to attack the defense.

Here, Savage is locked onto Hopkins. When Savage receives the snap, he stares down the left sideline. Against Cover Three, the cornerback has perfect position against Hopkins’ fade route. Once this is covered, Savage immediately goes to the checkdown and dumps it off. In the process, he misses the wide open seam route, which is the go-to route to attack a Cover Three defense.

A sample size of two. That’s all in the past. This offseason, Savage finally got the chance to be the guy. He took all the practice reps with the first team. He started under center during the preseason games. Now he’ll lead the first drive of the regular season against Jacksonville. He’ll get his chance. But from the evidence that’s available, there’s nothing to indicate the near future is going to be good.

Tom Savage is a player with legitimate arm strength and size. That’s all that it takes to be a backup in the NFL. He’s a guy who can make some throws to the sideline and into tight windows. But his accuracy is spotty and he doesn’t complete passes regularly enough. He is slow, can’t create something from very little or nothing, and he doesn’t know how to maneuver around the pocket.

Like last season, when teams used two high safeties to shutdown [Name Redacted], teams are going to blitz Savage and create pressure to shut him down. He locks onto one read, it takes him forever to scan the field, and he rarely progresses through his options to find the open man. Savage could possibly be a passable quarterback on a team like Oakland, one with a great pass blocking offensive line and insane skill players that allow the quarterback to sit around and wait and wait and chuck like they are playing in the backyard.

Savage doesn’t have that luxury in Houston, and he’s not going to. As of right now, Will Fuller V is out for a minimum of six weeks. Jaelen Strong and Braxton Miller have talent that has yet to morph into production. Both tight ends caught a lot of passes and were targeted a lot, but they didn’t do much with it. DeAndre Hopkins is the only receiver Savage has entering this season who would be an unquestionable starter on any team in the league.

Speaking of receivers, the Texans mostly left the receiver position alone. The passing offense should be better by default. There should be a death rattle that gives it the gasp needed to not be one of the league’s worst. However, there isn’t anything pointing to the passing game being even below average. Savage has more flaws than strengths. Deshaun Watson is still an unknown, and if Bill O’Brien makes a change, it may be because of a slow start that Houston won’t be able to climb out of. Houston’s skill players are the same as last year, minus some expected contributors lost to injuries.

Like the passing game, the run game also struggled last season. The only personnel changes Houston made there are that Nick Martin will play this season, where he will have a greater impact on pass protection than run blocking, and D’Onta Foreman has arrived to give Lamar Miller fresh breaths. The offensive line is expected, from left to right, to be Duane Brown (whenever he reports)—Xavier Su’a-Filo—Nick Martin—Jeff AllenChris Clark/Breno Giacomini. It’s nearly identical to last year’s.

That isn’t an entirely bad thing. Houston’s offensive line was mediocre last season. The thing they were best at was running the ball to the left side. Over the left tackle, Houston averaged 5.63 yards a carry, ranking fifth in adjusted line yards. Both Brown and Su’a-Filo understand each other when making their outside zone double teams, and Su’a-Filo has become much stronger since he was drafted.

This weakside double team on the left side here is nearly perfect. Su’a-Filo turns Malik Jackson’s (#90) shoulders and pauses his lateral pursuit, opening him up to Brown. From there, he locks onto Telvin Smith (#50). His hands are outside, rather than in his chest. Brown does enough to get in the way on his cutback. Miller runs past Jackson and cuts behind Su’a-Filo for a rare stroll through the second level.

When it comes to Su’a-Filo specifically, he can now move the first level on his own. It’s just the same old things that keep pulling him on down. It’s his inability to grab the chest to lockdown the defender in the second level and in pass pro. This leads to lost second level yards and hilarious sack creating tumbling whiffs.

The biggest problem with the run blocking was the right side. They averaged 2.85 yards per carry on runs over right tackle, ranking 24th in adjusted line yards. Allen is terrible. He looked overweight last year and brought nothing to his punches. Houston stopped pulling with him on power run plays because it took him forever to get there and he was weak at the point of contact.

Additionally, Allen and Clark have zero chemistry together. They don’t know who is blocking who, who is staying at the first level, who is going to the second level, and they don’t fit well on double teams. This combination crushed their ability to run to the right side and had a negative impact on the constantly used inside run game.

On this play, Allen doesn’t offer any help to Clark. He feigns an attempt by sticking his arm out, but he doesn’t make real contact. With Pat Sims (#92) playing as a ‘3’ technique, he has to help Clark get his head placed on Sims’ inside shoulder. This gives Sims a free shot down the line of scrimmage to devour the trapped Alfred Blue.

This season, everyone who has heartstrings tied to this team should hope that Allen is eventually phased out. Greg Mancz is too good of a player to be on the bench. He would immediately be better at guard than Allen, especially if they focus on the outside zone. Mancz understands the nuances of zone double teams, is great at blocking linebackers, and has the feet to reach nose and defensive tackles.

The other issue with the run blocking is Houston’s secondary blockers don’t add much. Despite his extension, Jay Prosch doesn’t drive defenders out of the hole. He’s gone from missing his blocks entirely to putting a hat on them, but it still leads to lots of clutter and traffic for the running back to navigate. Ryan Griffin is one of the worst blockers in the league. He doesn’t have the strength to block defensive ends in double teams, let alone by himself. Fiedorowicz struggles when making one-on-one blocks and still hasn’t figured out how to stick on the second level. The running backs never really have a chance to cut things to the edge in the outside zone game. Houston’s secondary blockers frequently hinder the run game.

The good news is that schematically it can improve. Miller became an inefficient plodder last season. The main reason why was because of the scheme. Miller doesn’t run inside zone or power runs well. These are runs where the back needs to run vertically. Take the snap and hit the hole past the first level. Instead, Miller would hesitate and scour, wasting and waiting, rather than attacking. Because of his skill set, these runs shouldn’t be the focus with him on the field. Despite this, 63% of Miller’s carries came over the middle, a double-digit increase from the 49.3% he averaged in Miami. The majority of Miller’s runs need to be outside zone plays where he can use his vision to cut back and wiggle.

This is the benefit of drafting D’Onta Foreman. Houston now has a man that can do both. Foreman will be perfect as a vertical runner. He has the nimbleness and vision to set up blocks and cut back his way to yards. Miller shouldn’t have been force-fed as much as he was last season. He had 268 carries, 52 more than he had in a single season with the Dolphins. Miller should be a 200 carry max season guy. That way, he can be kept fresh and can maximize his speed and quickness. This is what Foreman is for.

Last season, Houston ran the ball a lot but wasn’t very good at it. They ran the ball 546 times for 1,859 yards, good for a DVOA of -19.1% (27th). The Texans weren’t efficient or effective. Regardless of possible personnel changes on the right side, if Houston changes their scheme up some to emphasize Miller’s strengths and splits the carries between him and Foreman, it should be better in 2017. But like the passing offense, better doesn’t mean good. The Clark-Allen combo is going to be soft and leaky. Sua-Filo still misses blocks and has problems at the second level. Brown has been out all of training camp and is expected to miss at least Week One. Most importoantly, keep in mind that these play design changes are hypothetical and have never been made.

Overall, the Texans probably won’t be 30th in offensive DVOA in 2017. They will probably be more like 20-25th. That isn’t enough to make the necessary leap in performance. They will continue to win games with their offense, but not because of it.

Like last season, the season before that, and the season before that, this team is all about its defense. Since 2014, Houston has finished sixth, eighth, and ninth in DVOA. This season, it’s going to be a top ten unit again. However, it will be a different one.

With J.J. Watt out last year, the pass rush dipped, and the team was led by its secondary. Quarterbacks had time to throw against Houston last year. The Texans had only 31 sacks in 2016, ranking 18th in adjusted sack rate. Houston pass rushers had trouble winning individual blocks. They relied on stunts and interior blitzes to generate a pass rush. As a result, the Texans relied on their secondary. A.J. Bouye was a revelation and was the team’s best defensive player last season, Johnathan Joseph continued to drink unicorn blood. Kareem Jackson was fine but had trouble in the slot.

The secondary likely won’t be as good with Bouye gone, Joseph being a year older, questions regarding Kevin Johnson’s durability, and the even more troublesome safety position. Now that Watt is back, the Texans are going to be a team led by its pass rush and defensive line.

Houston’s front seven is going to be one of the league’s best, if not the best. It’s made up of players who complete feats rarely seen and younger players who are still developing into something even more terrifying. I don’t know what offenses are going to do against forces like this.

D.J. Reader

Jadeveon Clowney

Whitney Mercilus

Benardrick McKinney

J.J. Watt

The defense should be more interesting to watch this year too. In the playoffs, this defense played well enough to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots. They played a more fluid, positionless, and versatile style. Mercilus and Clowney rushed over center to get to Brady quicker. Jackson played strong safety at times. The cornerbacks played a nice mix of zone and man coverage, breaking on passes thrown by a more hesitant Brady. With Watt back, they can do even more of this. He can play on the interior and exterior. He can destroy blocking matchups with technique and athleticism all on his own. There’s a never-ending combination of blitzers, alignments, and stunts with Watt, Reader, Clowney, Mercilus, McKinney, and Brian Cushing.

The defense should finish about the same as it did last year. It’s going to be a top five to ten unit. They are going to keep Houston in every game. The majority of the season is going to feature two teams playing first to twenty points. Most importantly, it’s going to be a damn blast to watch.

This season should be a lot like last season. The offense and special teams will struggle. The defense will be really great. The thing is, teams usually just win close games for a season. The next year, they usually don’t continue to win close games. They don’t come out the crumbling pile of tight Sunday mashups victorious. Add this to a schedule that is far and away the toughest in the division, and regression seems imminent. Because of this, and because the Tennessee Titans have become an actual good football team, I don’t think Houston will be able to repeat what they did last year. It’s not that 9-7 isn’t likely or impossible. It’s that a step back to 7-9 or 8-8 seems more likely.

Prediction: 8-8.