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Texans-Cowboys Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

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Matt Weston gives you SIX things to watch for when the Texans play the Cowboys.

Houston Texans v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Is Dallas v. Houston a rivalry game? It’s a question I’ve been asked multiple times this week. My answer each time as a neutral viewer who lives in San Antonio’s banal goop has been the same. No. This game happens once every four years. It’s like saying Sweden and the Czech Republic have an olympic hockey rivalry. I mean, I don’t know if they do, but you know what I mean. It’s cute. It’s a novelty. It’s not something I really care about. It’s a rivalry in the way that people from Dallas hate people from Houston and vice versa. As a central Texas denizen these hatreds don’t spelunk into my skull and glissade down the folds of my brain. That talk travels down a different interstate, one that I don’t inhabitant.

Yesterday I made the hill country trek up 281 to gaudy Dallas and watched buzzards coagulate around cellphone towers in the foreground of one of the last grapefruit pink summerish sunsets. It’s easy to know when you are near the metroplex. You suddenly start wishing the helicopters would became shooting stars. The sky becomes an unnatural stormy purple. BMWs teleport between lanes and the speed limit becomes an idea, not an enforcement. The billboards ooze past the board and scream for your attention. And somewhere in this section of postmodern sludge, somewhere after seeing the sixth sexy Outback steakhouse illuminated with dimmed lighting and bold red neon signs I began to resent it. The rudeness, the tribal tattooed drivers, the superficiality, the toll roads, the people being an idea rather than being an actual person, I no longer don’t care who wins. Not even Joey Gallo’s Big Shot National Park can sway my mind. I’m all in. This is a rivalry game.

HIT IT

1.) What’s It Going To Be Mr. O’Brien?

The Texans had an offensive DVOA of -22%, 22.9%, -5.2%, and 7.1% in the first month of the season. They scored 20, 17, 22, and 37 points during this range of days. An average of 24 points a game, or 10 points a game less than what Houston averaged last season. With Deshaun Watson healthy 24 points a game was the worst case scenario for this offense.

The offensive downturn was natural regression, Watson will probably never reach a touchdown rate of 8% for the rest of his career, and Bill O’Brien reverting back to his old ways. Rather than run the super cool offense that utilizes a litany of run fakes, run plays with multiple options, Watson as a runner, play action, roll outs, and downfield passes designed to get receivers in one on one matchups, the Texans instead ran the barely score 20 points offense of the past. The one filled with inside runs, third down passes from the shotgun, and isolated routes that don’t scheme receivers open.

As a result, Houston started 0-3, and scored an inexcusable 19.6 points a game. Then last week, what do you know, the super cool offense was back, and it was back right away. On Houston’s second drive they motioned new precious slot receiver Keke Coutee from the slot and into the backfield. Watson hot potatoed the ball to him, then faked the hand off to Lamar Miller. Coutee picked up an easy first down.

On the same drive, they ran a similar motion, except this time Coutee came behind the quarterback and receiver. Watson faked the handoff to Miller, looked left at the swing pass to Coutee, which pulled three Colts’ defenders over. Watson’s speed pulled another defender into the flat to create a throwing lane, and Watson put it over his head to hit Coutee on a deep lunch break drag that ended on the right sideline.

Later in the game Watson turned Coutee into an option run partner. Giving him an over the shoulder toss in the flat. If DeAndre Hopkins gave any effort at all on his block it’s a first down. Great play design. The results just weren’t there.

Hmmmmmmm, where have I seen this type of pre-snap motion and use of play action before? Oh, yeah that’s right. During last year’s hell raising.

Houston ranked 31st in redzone DVOA, were 29th in DVOA in goal to go situations, and Watson was completing only 31.6% of his redzone passes entering last week. Against Indy they scored three touchdowns on their five redzone trips. Two of theirs come from doing simple things they should have been doing all along. It shouldn’t have taken three weeks to find Hopkins on an isolated fade.

It shouldn’t have taken three weeks to have Watson run the ball in the redzone.

For the first two and a half quarters the Texans’ offense looked like it should have looked to start the season. They actually used Watson as a runner, the fakes meant something, they ran interesting run fakes and presnap motions that set up play action, they rolled Watson out, and attacked every section of the field through the air. No longer was it run-run-shotgun pass sack-punt.

It was an actual offense that put its best players in a position to succeed. When O’Brien talked about evolving the offense this spring, it should have meant expanding upon what he created last year, instead of hanging out with the old screams of the past that clawed to an exasperating twenty points. O’Brien needs to learn that old blue fact that you can’t go back.

Immediately this is to watch for in this game. Will Houston run the super cool offense or run the super bad one? Will Houston actually get the most out of its offense instead of stay one dimensional and conservative? The Texans will need to run the super cool one for them to win the Texas-Texas-Texas-Texas Bowl, and if they don’t, shut this thing off, head home, read a book, watch The Sopranos, make your lunch for work tomorrow, go for a run, carve pumpkins, do anything else.

2.) We’ve Waited So Long For This

For seven years I’ve waited to see The National LIVE. They were in town five years ago for ACL. They played an individual show at Stubb’s, but I was broke and wallowing in that post graduation grunge and decided to save my money for food, and rent, and beer I shouldn’t have been buying. They’ll come back soon. I’ll see them next time. Well they’re finally back. It just took five Octobers and two new albums for it to happen.

When the Texans took Jadeveon Clowney in the 2014 NFL Draft everyone had crusty dreams of J.J. Watt and Clowney combining forces to obliterate offenses and leave heaps of bruised bodies massacred along the sideline. It never really happened. Clowney started 2 games in 2014 and played in 4, started 9 games in 2015 and played in 13 and picked up 4.5 sacks and 8 quarterback hits that season. During this time Watt had 38 sacks and 101 quarterback hits. Clowney was a Pro Bowler the next two seasons and Watt played only eight games.

Clowney didn’t admit it, but he was rusty to start the season. He wasn’t providing much of anything as a pass rusher, and was a no name swallowing up double teams in the run game the first three weeks of the season. Then last week, what we all have been dying for, finally came to fruition. Those etches on our palms became reality. Both Watt and Clowney combined to decimate an offense.

Last week Watt had 2 sacks, 4 tackles, 1 forced fumble that set up a touchdown, 2 quarterback hits, and 1 tackle for a loss. Clowney had 2 sacks, 4 tackles, 1 fumble recovery in the endzone, 4 quarterback hits, and 4 tackles for a loss. It was a war coming from both fronts. A glorious victory we waited four years for.

Watt played similarly to last week. He worked against the offense’s worst offensive tackle. In this case it was Denzel Goode. Watt picked up one sack with a long arm that drove him into Luck.

And another where he ripped around the edge and bear pawed the ball out of the swamp monster’s hand and saved some muddy damsel from being dragged into some dreary lagoon.

The biggest scheme change came in how Clowney was used. Romeo Crennel had a similar revelation to the one O’Brien had. What if I do what worked before? What if I stop doing what doesn’t work? When Watt was lost for the year in 2016 because of back surgery, Crennel had to figure out a way to generate an interior rush. He opened up a new factory and manufactured a rush by using both Clowney and Mercilus as interior rushers. They’d move from outside linebacker before the snap, to the inside of the formation, and floor it through the backfield.

Or they’d just have him lineup over the center showing ‘A’ gap pressure and then bring it at the snap.

And sometimes it was just some good old edge rush ripping.

The past we all have been waiting for has converged into the present day reality. And the Texans are going to need this four year old dream to continue to manifest itself against Dallas. The Cowboys have one of the best rushing offenses in football. They are 3rd in rush offense DVOA at 15% and first in yards per attempt at 5.8.

The impressive part is they are doing this without their full offensive line. The best center in football Travis Frederick is still unavailable due to an autoimmune disease and has been replaced by Joe Looney. La’El Collins has moved to right tackle and his vacancy is filled by Connor Williams, who’s the weakest link on the line. Tyron Smith is creakier now, and falls into a sack of skin once his exoskeleton is removed after every game. And despite all of this, Dallas is 5th in adjusted line yards at 4.9 and are averaging more yards an attempt than net yards per pass attempt.

The monumental reason why is Ezekiel Elliot is an elite running back. It’s Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Elliot, then a bunch of other guys. In the past there was this hipster football genius argument that Elliot made the 2016 Cowboys’ run game work. That he substantially improved the run blocking. I never bought into that. Elliot could trample forever. This year, however, I’m buying in. Elliot has 426 rushing yards on 73 attempts, and Dallas is also one of the best second level and open field running teams in the league.

Patience is the biggest difference between Elliot during his rookie year and today. Rather than run straight ahead and free, he’s better at reading the line of scrimmage and highlighting the correct passages. Here, Williams misses his block. Elliot stops, then runs past the defensive tackle, sidesteps around Doug Martin’s flailing body, and tramples inside of Looney to the right sideline.

When things are straight forward and direct Elliot doesn’t waste time. He doesn’t worry if the shark is time restricted eating or not. He rides that breakfast wave. On this outside zone right play Elliot cuts inside right away and stampedes up the field, and then does his best Josh Allen impersonation.

This was my favorite run Elliot had against Detroit. The Lions have an inside run blitz set up. Elliot sees a flicker of light through a crevasse and goes for it. He runs vertically through two tackle attempts and is aken down by two defenders at the first down marker. This is what in between the tackles running should look like.

Dallas’s offensive line is composed of men further evolved than the rest of us. Each offensive lineman can pull to any part of the field. Whether it’s counter or power or dart, and the defender is a safety or linebacker it doesn’t matter. They can make the block.

Here Martin pulls from the right guard position and Collins from the right tackle position. Typically the guard kicks out the end, and the tackle blocks the outside linebacker. But nooooooo. Dallas has the athleticism to shed the conventional past. Martin kicks out the defensive end, and Collins blocks the cornerback in the alley while the rest of the line of scrimmage blocks down. This turns an inside the tackle run into a wiiiiide run, allowing Elliot to just be an athlete and outrun the deep safety early on.

They can also run the fast break in the screen game. I’m still unsure if this is a three man weave or a football game. Look at Martin take over Looney’s missed block, and then Looney immediately adjust and rumble downfield to turn the goal line into a mosh pit.

Houston’s run defense is more than just Watt and Clowney too. D.J. Reader is a football good run defender, Benardrick McKinney can still stand up guards and make tackles, Zach Cunningham can still chase and tackle, but Whitney Mercilus still doesn’t exist. How Crennel uses Clowney as a run blitzer is so important, and so is Houston’s tackling ability. Their broken tackle rate is 8.5%. They must bring down Elliot on their second tackle attempt at a minimum. And Dallas’s rushing attack is more than Elliot as well. Dak Prescott is picking up 5.1 yards an attempt.

This is the best matchup to watch in this game. Houston’s run defense that is second in defensive DVOA against Dallas’s run offense that’s third in defensive DVOA. The individual matchups are spectacular. The results are imperative for the end outcome. Seeing these two super powers collide is what football is all about, not that constant passing 45-42 nonsense we’ve been seeing every week.

3.) lol Can Dak Break 200 Passing Yards?

In Dak Prescott’s career He’s thrown for less than 200 yards 15 times. In those games Dallas is 7-8. When he throws for more than 200 yards Dallas is 17-4. When Dallas’s passing game is working the Cowboys are almost unbeatable. When it isn’t, they’re a mediocre football team.

To start this season Prescott has broke that mystical barrier, once, when he threw for 255 yards last week against the Lions. So far this year Prescott has a passing DYAR of -132 (31st) and a DVOA of -27.1% (31st), which lumps him in the hatch above the basement along with Case Keenum and Nick Foles.

The reason for the inefficient passing game is everything is short. But not only is it short, but it’s short and slow. When you think of quick passing attacks you think of pre-snap reads finds the open man before the snap. Immediate passes against off-man coverage. Quick, well designed screens. Dallas’s offense isn’t that. It’s short and boring and slow.

This year Prescott has thrown only 12 downfield passes. He’s completed 5 of them for 174 yards and a touchdown. Sam Bradford, and the newly afraid Alex Smith, are the only starting quarterbacks who have thrown less deep passes than him. And it’s not that Prescott is a terrible downfield thrower. He can hit open men down the sideline in stride. He did it against the Giants in week two with a lovely high rising toss to Tayvon Austin. Last week he found Michael Gallup down the left sideline.

And set up the game winning field goal by completing a sweet pass to Elliot, who beat the linebacker playing man coverage while lined up as a slot receiver.

Both of these throws will be available for Prescott. If the pass game is short and quick, which it should be against Houston’s terrible secondary, and is stuck playing off man, it should be able to draw the corners to the line of scrimmage in certain situations. When this happens Dallas needs to attack downfield. Johnathan Joseph is savvy, but old and slow. Shareece Wright made up for getting beat by leaping to deflect some passes. Aaron Colvin wasn’t playing well and is hurt, and Houston will be relying on Kayvon Webster right away. Throws to Elliot will be there too. The Giants took advantage of Cunningham in man coverage. If he’s split out wide against Elliot, they have to go for it. The question isn’t if Prescott can complete these passes, it’s if he even attempts them.

Like last week, how well the opposing pass offense Houston faces plays largely depends on the pass rush. Last week it was cranking until they were at pass rush attempt #40, burnt out and exhausted, without much to give. The defense should be good enough in this one if Clowney and Watt can dominate the line of scrimmage, and if Mercilus decides to start playing football agin. Expect for Watt to play on the inside more against Williams, and for Clowney to rush against Smith, or be used in interior blitzes. Crennel has shown a propensity towards using Watt against a team’s worst blocker, and Clowney against left tackles, and now thankfully, as an interior wrecker.

But if Houston’s pass rush is meek and impotent like it was in weeks one and two, Prescott shouldn’t have a problem cresting over 200 yards, which, in the past, has led to Dallas Cowboy victories.

4.) Pass Malfunction

Houston’s pass protection also looked much better last week. They moved Juli’en Davenport from left tackle to right tackle to the bench, and replaced him with Kendall Lamm. Aside from a holding penalty Lamm was pretty good!, and was much better than Davenport who became unplayable. The scheme also helped the pass blocking. Who knew that using play action, Watson on rollouts, and changing the release point would delay the rush a bit and help the offensive line out? Sure, they gave up seven sacks, but the majority were long winded, and not the immediate less than 2.5 second take downs.

Regardless of Houston playing better against Indy’s talented pass rush, I’m expecting for this week to look more like the past, even if Houston runs the super cool offense. This is the best pass rush Houston has faced all season. Houston is 32nd in offensive pressure rate at 38%. Dallas is 3rd in pressure rate at 35.9%. Demarcus Lawrence is a Horadric pass rusher. He can bullrush, rip around the edge, and spin and swim inside. Each move works on its own, but becomes something grander in unison. The cube, staff, and staff all have their own uses, the cube especially as a mobile mini storage unit, but combined together they open up some desert tomb.

That’s against high price free agent Rick Wagner. Imagine this against Kendall Lamm.

Here’s his another one of his sacks against Detroit. On a T-E stunt he embarrasses the right guard with a swim move that even J.J. Watt could learn from.

This season Lawrence has 12 pressures, and leads the league with 5.5 sacks. He isn’t everything though. Tyrone Crawford has 8 pressures, and Taco Charlton has 6 pressures. Expect for Crawford to be a problem for Senio Kelemete. Crawford is a student of Rod Marinelli and has exceptional hands. Correct hand use and strangling the chest has been of Kelemete’s biggest problems in his career. Charlton should also give rookie left tackle Martinas Rankin struggles on the right edge too.

It doesn’t end there with Dallas’s defense. Despite running a 4-3 defense they love to blitz, and are great at it. Dallas loves to send their inside linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Smith has a strong pop at the point of attack.

More importantly, Dallas is a great slot corner blitzing team. This is imperative against a Texans’ team that should roll Watson out, and run jet sweeps. If Dallas can guess correctly, they can end drives with perfectly called and executed slot blitzes. These blitzes were especially lethal against Eli Manning in week two.

Houston should win this game if Dallas struggles to generate a rush. I do think Dallas’s corners have been better than the numbers say, and what the mass consensus is. Byron Jones has been awesome to start the year. I feel like Chidobe Awuzie has played alright. Receivers have just been making some absurd catches against him.

Even if Will Fuller sits, Houston has a top three receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, a new found love in Coutee, and is using both Jordan Thomas and Jordan Akins more often. If Fuller sits, Dallas will struggle to cover Houston, and if he plays, the Texans’ offense is going to be electric as long as O’Brien doesn’t call a monastic game. For the Cowboys, their defense depends on the pass rush.

5.) Game Management

I’m so ready for this. Both these coaches botch end game decisions. Both love to throw that red flag onto the field and waste it on 8 yard receptions that put the opponent at their own 32 yard line, and then chew their lips when it bites them at the end of the half. Damn I guess I could have used that time out. The one advantage is Jason Garrett is at least pretty good with his timeouts. But both are conservative, both love to waste challenges, both are facing scrutiny to start the year, and one is definitely going to screw something up at the end of this game. Can’t wait!

6.) I’d Rather Kill A Man Than A Snake

Why pick on Texas? Because it typifies, concentrates and exaggerates most everything that is rotten in America: it’s vulgar -- not only cultureless but anti-cultural; it’s rich in a brazen, vulgar, graceless way; it combines the bigotry and sheer animal ignorance of the Old South with the aggressive, ruthless, bustling, dollar-crazy brutality of the Yankee East and then attempts to hide this ugliness under a facade of mock-western play clothes stolen from a way of life that was crushed by Texanism over half a century ago. The trouble with Texas: it’s ugly, noisy, mean-spirited, mediocre and false.”

Enjoy the game everyone.