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Texans-Eagles Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

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

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Pro Football Reference has a tool called game play finder. With it you can find anything you want. Every rush play that was on third and seven or greater. Every pass to the short right part of the field that was thrown on week 13 2014. With it you can investigate the past. Set the years from 2002 to 2018. Select the Houston Texans as team. Then hit search. You see every player to throw a pass, run the ball, or catch a pass as a Houston Texan. Some of these names are ones you’ll never forget. Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub, Arian Foster. Some are names you’d like to forget, but never will. Jacoby Jones, David Carr, and Ahman Green. And some are names that you forgot, Ryan Moats, Deki Karim, Eric Moulds, Damaris Johnson, and Dave Ragone.

No matter their impact on this team, as little, or as enormous, they all couldn’t do something this Texans team is attempting to do, clinch a bye in the first round. If Houston wins out they’ll clinch the #2 seed with a chance at the #1 seed. A home game to go to the AFC title game is realistic. An AFC title game is something these specters were also never able to accomplish. As awful as the cornerbacks are, one win at home isn’t impossible, it isn’t even improbable.

But before any of that can happen Houston first has to beat the Eagles this week and the Jaguars next week. Don’t go counting the eggs just yet. This is the Houston Texans. I remember going 1-3 to end 2012 with losses against New England, Minnesota, and Indianapolis. Wait until something happens, before you expect it to happen. Especially because this week, on the road, is far and away from certain.

HIT IT

1.) This Can’t Be Happening Again

The anyone can have it, but nobody wants it #6 seed in the AFC has flipped over to the NFC. At 7-7 the Eagles are still alive in the division, and are right behind 7-6-1 Minnesota who plays Detroit and Chicago, and even 8-6 Seattle that has to play Kansas City this weekend, and Arizona in week 17. It maybe too little too late, but this game still means something for them, and more importantly, the Super Bowl MVP is back driving the bus. Standing in a shotgun formation, heaving play action passes deep for completions.

On Sunday Night football the Eagles rollicked the Rams winning 30-23, a late touchdown made the score look closer than the game actually was. Nick Foles was pretty good. He completed 24 of 31 passes for 270 yards and threw 1 interception. The backs cleaned up the rest and walked in to score 3 times after Foles led the offense up the field. He did one thing really well, throw the ball really high and really far to Alshon Jeffery. The outstretched wide receiver caught all 8 of his targets and picked up 160 yards on these catches. Aquib Talib wasn’t ready for this life in his first game back.

There were some quick passes to Golden Tate and Darren Sproles as well. The one player that was noticeably missing was Zach Ertz. All the quick crossing stuff was ignored for sideline heaves. Ertz had only 3 catches on 7 targets.

Regardless, Ertz and Dallas Goedert are bubolic mask horrifying matchups for Houston. Houston has struggled covering tight ends all season. With a defense DVOA of 25.9% Houston is ranked 29th at covering them, and they allow 55.8 receiving yards a game to tight ends. Jeffery is a terrible matchup as well. The Texans can’t cover Zach Pascal, they can’t cover Nelson Agholor either, let alone Jeffery who can beat any of their cornerbacks off the line and go up over the top of them to bring it down.

The good new is that unlike previous years, Houston should clean up the short stuff pretty well. With Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, and Justin Reid, screen passes haven’t been as potent. This shouldn’t be the game where Golden Tate finally bites the finger off the falconer and flies free, or the time when Darren Sproles sees all that unicorn blood guzzling pay off.

The key for Philly is to keep having Foles throw the football. 31 pass attempts needs to be 40 against the best run defense in the league that has crappy cornerbacks who are just now starting to be exploited. If he does they should have success and not struggle to score points. If they keep hammering away and letting Josh Adams run the ball 15 times for 30 yards they’ll have problems. Doug Pederson is a smart man, a gray headed big bellied Don Draper, I think he’ll go after Houston.

2.) Five Best

The Eagles not only have Foles back, but they have their entire offensive line back as well. Last week Jason Peters, Stefen Wisniewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson started. Kelce, Johnson, Peters, and Wisniewski, who’s missed half the season, all have missed time, and are now finally back together. With their entire offensive line back and healthy they controlled Los Angeles’s pass rush. Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Dante Fowler Jr. all were quiet, and the Rams failed to generate any sort of meaningful pass rush.

It’s dumb to run the football at the Houston Texans. Yet if a team was going to, the Eagles could be that team. I don’t think they will. I just think there’s a possibility of them having some success. They should be able to move the interior of the line of scrimmage and Wisniewski, Kelce, and Brooks can all climb up to the second level and make blocks on Zach Cunningham, and Benardrick McKinney.

But also, the Eagles don’t just run it straight ahead. They run a little bit of everything, power, inside zone, and outside zone. But they also love to run the ball to the weakside, they’ll pull Kelce around their guards, and pull the tight end back to crack back on defensive ends running free up the backfield. There’s some misdirection here. They can do more than try to demolish a wall with a dozen eggs.

Houston’s front has changed in recent weeks. They’ve moved to a 4-3 in their base package. It’s Cunningham as the weakside linebacker, McKinney as the middle linebacker, and Mercilus as the strongside linebacker. Clowney and Watt are playing defensive end. And D.J. Reader and Christian Covington are playing defensive tackle. This switch has turned Reader from a good double team devourer. He gets knocked backwards slightly, but most of the time it’s a stalemate. In a 4-3 he’s getting more one v. one blocks, and he’s unblockable in the run game. His pad level has been perfect, he’s controlling the block while keeping his eyes in the backfield, and shedding to make tackles. For most run offenses, their only hope is to run at Covington and then pray.

This season the Eagles have a run offense DVOA of -9.3%, which is 22nd. The Texans have a run defense DVOA of -27.5%, which is 2nd. On paper it looks like the Eagles don’t have a shot to run the ball, and it looks like this game should be like every game before it. Yet with the Eagles having their best offensive line finally out there, and the way they run the ball, they maybe able to, which is more than you can say for any team before them.

3.) J.J. Watt & Jadeveon Clowney

Defensively, the key for Houston is for J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to be murderous. Against the Colts they were football good, but not box score good. Against the Eagles they’ll have to be both football good and box score good.

One of the main reasons for Houston’s reversal from 0-3 to 9-3 was J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney finally started providing. Houston’s pressure rate was in the bottom third of the league. Clowney didn’t exist. Watt finally broke out against New York (G). In the first matchup against the Colts they were monsters that ended multiple drives, provided a short field for the offense, and a touchdown all on their own.

This season Watt and Clowney have combined for 67.5 pressures, 31 quarterback hits, 22.5 sacks, 31 tackles for a loss, and Watt has forced six fumbles all on his own. Whitney Mercilus has added 28 pressures, 13 quarterback hits, 3.5 sacks, and 5 tackles for a loss to the pot. The rest of the front seven hasn’t provided much of anything at all in the pass rush. It’s just these three dudes.

The Texans did change things up against the Jets at the end of the game. Watt moved to the ‘3’ instead of just rushing against the right tackle. Jadeveon Clowney rushed against the left tackle, and Mercilus moved down to the line of scrimmage to rush against the right tackle. It worked. Both Watt and Clowney had sacks to end the game, and almost squashed Sam Darnold a third time. In obvious pass rush situations they should go to this every time.

It gets their best rushers out on field, and doesn’t leave Mercilus as a wide ‘9’ where he doesn’t provide much. Mercilus isn’t a speed demon. He’s a dip and ripper who needs to get into the offensive lineman to get off the block. Placing him outside of Watt, who’s already lined up as ‘5’ technique diminishes his ability.

Watt and Clowney struggled the last time they played a great offensive line against Indy. Watt was neutralized by Braden Smith. I’m still shook. Clowney got close to Andrew Luck against Anthony Castonzo, but never arrived. And the Texans had nothing much on the inside aside from the occasional loop. This was one of the reasons why Houston allowed 31 to the Colts.

This can’t happen against Philly. They’ll need to pressure, hit, and sack Foles. They need to make tackles in the backfield to force third and longs. They need to do everything they can to minimize the impact their defensive backs have on the game. If they don’t, 27 points will be an easy number to reach.

4.) Throw It

Lamar Miller has an ankle injury. Alfred Blue may get the start, and D’Onta Foreman is expected to finally get out on the field again. After back to back 100+ yard rushing games against Tennessee and Cleveland, the Texans have been suffocated by run defenses the last two weeks against Indy and New York (J).

They couldn’t run the ball against the Colts because Kendall Lamm turned Jabaal Sheard into Clowney. They couldn’t run the ball against the Jets because their interior was terrible. Senio Kelemete, Nick Martin, and Zach Fulton spent the entire game in the backfield, and neither could do anything against Leonard Williams. I’m expecting this trend from the last two games to continue without Miller healthy. Blue is probably the worst backup running back in football. The only thing he does well is keep his legs moving when he has the ball. And I have no idea what to expect from Foreman. I love the potential he has, but after just coming back from an Achilles tear who knows if the Dancing Bear will be up on the stage like the end of The Blood Meridian or if he’ll be straight running ahead.

The Texans need to throw the ball, and by throw the ball, I mean they need to get it to DeAndre Hopkins. Last week he had 10 catches on 11 targets for 170 yards and 1 touchdown. This week he’ll be covered by Rasul Douglas, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and Avonte Maddox. Maddox has been the best of the three, but he’s only faced 20 targets this year. Malcom Jenkins is the only great player in this secondary, but aside from that him their secondary ranges from still who really knows to bad, and we all still have those images of what Amari Cooper did to Philly two weeks ago rummaging around our brains.

It’s also dire for Houston to score points. The Eagles probably will. This shouldn’t be like the type of game they won during their win streak where they stopped the run, took advantage of turnovers, and did just enough. They may need to score 31 to win this game. They’ll probably need to score 31 to win playoff games. This season they’re averaging 25 points a game. Now’s the time to bump this up, be aggressive, and throw it deep.

5.) Wait, They Have Who?

There’s one big dilemma for Houston’s offense. The Eagles’ defensive line. Their line is composed of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett, and they exchange Haloti Ngata for Chris Long in passing situations. Cox has 41 pressures, 29 quarterback hits, 7.5 sacks, and 9 tackles for a loss. Graham has 23.5 pressures, 10 quarterback hits, 4 sacks, and 7 tackles for a loss. Bennett has 27.5 pressures, 28 quarterback hits, 8 sacks, and 12 tackles for a loss. In a more terrible world this would be this weekend’s game.

Ngata hasn’t produced much. And Long has 22 pressures, 17 quarterback hits, and 4.5 sacks. As a unit they’re 23rd in pressure rate, but 9th in adjusted sack rate.

The Texans’ offensive line is last in both pressure rate and adjusted sack rate. Yet, there’s context to these numbers. They started the season playing Juli’en Davenport at right tackle where he was unplayable when Seantrel Henderson went down. Rankin was just as bad at left as Davenport was at right. They couldn’t pick up blitzes. It took Bill O’Brien six weeks to chip and help his tackles. This, with the combination of moving Davenport back to left, and putting Kendall Lamm at right has helped things.

Houston has allowed 11 sacks in their last two games. These sacks weren’t the result of getting beat by one v. one blocks though. It was due to a malady of errors. Watson holding onto the ball for too long, long developing pass plays, defenses attacking the Texans’ tight ends in pass protection, defensive back blitzes that snuck past chip blocks, and interior bull rushes that cratered the pocket, all were reasons for the past 11 sacks. It wasn’t because Lamm and Davenport were getting beat by edge rushers though.

This week is going to be different. The Eagles always rush four, and rarely blitz. They mainly play Dime with Nigel Bradham staying on the field for the entire game. The offensive line is going to be stuck having to block Cox, Graham, Long, and Bennett all on their own. Houston’s offensive line is better than most think it is, but I still don’t think it’s good enough to deal with these four. Get ready for a lot of chips and backs in to block. Also, quick passes are going to be a must. Throw slants to Hopkins. It works. The quick throws will be available.

6.) Merry Christmas

His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.