The Earth rolls around the sun in an elliptical fashion once a year. After this happens four times the divisions realign. The Texans go back to playing those teams they played an Olympics ago. This week it’s the New York Giants.
I remember those prior four years. I was writing on this site a lot, I didn’t have a job and was eating cookies and watching coach’s film at the folks’ house, I was super in love and super heartbroken at the same time, and I was super confused and getting ready to go to California. I was a resident of Saffron City living in Sabrina’s Gym. Like repeatedly listening to an album that eventually bookmarks a passage of time, Houston’s return against the NFC East has had the same effect.
I’ve been hopping over the fences in my brain. I’ve been digging in old filing cabinets and sifting through manila folders. I see J.J. Watt making an unbelievable two point conversion stop, DeAndre Hopkins’s one handed catch that never was, Ryan Fitzpatrick spelunking head first in the endzone, Ebola scares, and when I see these things I see images that make me remember how I felt: confused and broke and restless and wanting to be anywhere else than where I currently was.
Four years later, I’ll remember what this felt like, paying off student loans, the two bedroom house two-story rental house, the central Texas September jungle, a little girl dog that’s now a big girl dog, my eyes still broken by Canadian snow, enjoying being alone, Gerald Murnane fiction, Blaine Gabbert and the Tennessee Titans, and the mind constantly churning and romanticizing about what to do next.
But I don’t care how I felt. I’m not drinking Code Red Mountain Dew. This isn’t wallowing nostalgia. I just remember what it felt like. I only care about now, and right now the only thing I care about is Sunday’s stupid little football game.
1.) Tackling Saquon Barkley
In this past NFL Draft the New York Giants took a luxury with the second overall pick. They added revolutionary collegiate running back Saquon Barkley to a roster that’s now missing a lot more than a running back. Quarterback, offensive tackle, center, linebacker, another cornerback, improvement at each of these positions would be more valuable to solving the Giants’ current big blue woes. So far drafting Barkley has been like buying limes for a mass produced lite beer fridge that only has condiments in the crisper.
This isn’t a dent on Barkley as a player and how he’s performed so far this year though. He’s been spectacular. Right now he’s the focal point of the Giants’ offense. Barkley has 45 touches this year and is third in the NFL entering this week behind James Connor and Todd Gurley. These 45 touches have produced 236 yards, which is fifth, and 5.2 yards per play. Barkley has 134 rushing yards on 29 attempts—68 of these yards came from one marathon run—and 102 receiving yards on 16 receptions on 22 targets.
The most impressive part regarding the raw totals is the situation Barkley has been in. The Giants’ run blocking has been whatever. It’s been a lot of inside running, and some silly toss plays that Barkley flips back into the interior of the line of scrimmage because their tackle play has been shoddy, and they have a lumbering offensive line that moves like they’re getting out of a mattress. Constantly he’s breaking tackles to pick up the meager 2.35 yards a carry he has after removing his sublime run against Jacksonville. The Giants’ offensive line hasn’t given him much of anything, and he’s been able to go out and turn scraps into bites.
According to Football Outsiders’ Premium Charting Data Barkley has broken 12 tackles this season, 5 on runs and 7 on receptions, and is averaging a broken tackle on 26.1% of his touches. When watching him these numbers seem light. He’s constantly stepping back and watching defenders fly by, spinning around linebackers, leaping up and over low tackles on the sideline, and putting his head down in a kitty litter running style.
The key for any team playing Barkley is the second tackle attempt. It’s impossible for the first man who gets there to consistently bring him down. Barkley is going to incessantly get around that first attempt. It’s about the second tackle attempts. The second defender needs to either bring him down or hold on long enough for the stampede to arrive. If not, with his speed, you’re getting ready to watch the number on his back for the rest of the play. Jacksonville was the first team to learn this harsh truth.
New York runs their staple inside zone play. The double teams are good. Nate Solder makes a great block washing down the defensive end. Both end blockers don’t make their blocks though. Both Calais Campbell (#93) and Yannick Ngakoue (#91) are able to stave off blocks and come flat down the line of scrimmage.
When Barkley makes his cut a diving Campbell is behind him. Accidentally missing tackle #1.
Myles Jack’s biggest struggle is tackling. He lowers his head and doesn’t see what he’s hitting. He lunges and misses Barkley for missed tackle #2.
The safety makes a diving attempt while being blocked and misses tackle #3.
Ngakoue chases from the backside and falls on his face like he’s beach running.
A.J. Bouye gets blocked and Barkley lifts his leg to dodge Tashaun Gipson’s flailing attempt for miss #4.
Barkley makes a poetic cut where his knees scrape across the grass. He runs past Campbell’s diving attempt. After Jack misses, the entire field is open thanks to his cutback. There’s no one in the vicinity.
Dallas did a fine job quarantining the infection. They missed the first tackle at times, but they were able to get two to three defenders around the ball after the first attempt to cancel the track meet.
This season Houston hasn’t tackled well in addition to all the other things they haven’t done well. Their broken tackle rate is 7.9%, which is 28th in the league. They’re going to miss tackles in the game, and that’s fine. They just have to make sure they only miss the first one.
2.) Deshaun Watson As A Runner
The Giants’ defense fell from 2nd in defensive DVOA in 2016 after free agency bought them a brand new defense to 24th last year. So far they’re 22nd this year. Their big struggles this season have been stopping the run. New York is allowing 5.2 yards per carry. A horrifying 29th. And they are 30th in run defense DVOA.
The best way to attack this defense is by running at the tackle positions. Getting away from Damon Harrison is the purest way to run at New York. Their big hurt has been allowing yards to quarterbacks as well. Blake Bortles and Dak Prescott have combined for 12 rushes for 87 yards, including a hilarious shoplifting Blake Bortles run. The Giants love pulling Landon Collins into the box to cover tight ends, clean up short passes, and crush the run game. So far he’s been biting hard on the hand-off on zone reads along with the entire defense. This pull inside has created enormous running lanes for the quarterback.
Deshaun Watson has yet to really be used in the run game. Last season his rushing ability blasted this offense off into edges of the universe. Zone reads, draws, and option plays were all used to perfection. From there play action was used to create masterful downfield throwing attempts. This season Bill O’Brien has kept him in a drawer. Coming off ACL surgery he’s opted to not let Watson run the ball. The fakes are empty gestures, like asking someone how they’re doing when you ignore what the say immediately afterwards.
Watson has run the ball some. It just hasn’t been on direct run calls. He has 13 carries for 84 yards, is averaging 6.5 yards an attempt, and is putting up numbers similar to the ones he had last year. The scrambles are nice escapes from pass pressure, and conversions when no one is open. But without being a factor in the run game, the pass game has suffered. Houston is among the bottom in the league in both play action attempts and yards gained on play action attempts.
If O’Brien was to deploy Watson as a runner, this would be the game and the team to do it against. The Giants are susceptible to it. The Texans are 0-2 and need to play the hitz. And if they don’t, it just means the changes O’Brien was making to the offensive scheme weren’t changes, but just reversions back to old screams.
3.) Rush The Passer
The Texans are 26th in points scored. Not great Bob. That’s a concern. They have, however, had some meaningful drives and moved the ball well at times, suffering from a variety of different culprits sitting on their chest. The pass rush, however, has been an absolute bust. The Texans finally have Whitney Mercilus, J.J. Watt, and Jadeveon Clowney all on the field together. And so far, their pass rush has been as diabolical as a Creed song played in the headphones of a discman powered by gas station batteries.
Houston ranks 31st in pressure rate at 13.8%. Only five of their players have accrued a single pressure: Watt has 3, Duke Ejiofor, Justin Reid, D.J. Reader, and Jadeveon Clowney all have one each. Pass plays are like the wilderness for opposing quarterbacks. All they can hear is a buzzing sound reassuring them they’re the only thing that exists at this moment in this space. Sure, part of that is the fact the Titans picked up an early lead and got the ball out quickly, but Gabbert still took five step drops at times without both his of his two starting offensive tackles, and didn’t have to worry about much of anything at all.
Watt has gotten close, but doesn’t have the closing speed he’s had in the past to remove the distance between him and the quarterback once he chewed the ropes off. Clowney was a no show against New England. I’m questioning whether or not Mercilus even exists like a priest in an Indie movie. These are the big three. The rest of the bunch hasn’t done much of anything at all either.
If Houston was to finally learn how to live again and rush the passer this would be the team to do it against. Nate Solder is reaffirming that he wasn’t worth his contract even in a parched tackle market, and moving Ereck Flowers from left to right hasn’t done much of anything at all. Solder still isn’t extinguishing pass rushes and is grappling defenders, and Flowers provides nothing at all. He moves like has a refrigerator on his back. His hands are after school high fives.
The Giants also have been susceptible to blitzes. With the new additions on the offensive line, they too are allowing free rushers and missing blocks, leading to Eli going down immediately.
The Giants’ pass protection is a systematic collapse. Watching Eli Manning makes me yearn for retirement, the same feelings I have when I look at sixty year old coworkers and a blazing sun. Pat Shurmur runs more of a vertical offense with receivers working each level of the field. He has the skill players to run it. But this offense does needs longer drop backs. Longer drop backs put pressure on a crude offensive line. The crude offensive line has contorted Manning’s face into a video game manual shrunken head. Manning can’t climb the pocket like he used to, or escape from pressure, or hang in there long enough to find open receivers downfield. The passing offense has predominately consisted of sacks, throw aways, or dumpoffs to Barkley.
Romeo Crennel has the opportunity to create a noxious box score for Manning. With the talent he has, the pass protection issues, and his drop out creativity, he should be able to make this game a nightmare for Manning.
4.) If They Don’t
If the Texans don’t create pressure in this game, it will be time to worry about this season no matter what the offense does, or what the end result of this game is. The Texans’ defense is going to be carried by their front seven this year. They don’t have the talent in the back end. Kareem Jackson came out on fire at safety, something I loved so much, since it’s something I’ve been dying for for years, but has moved back to cornerback after Kevin Johnson suffered yet another concussion, and really, I don’t think I can come up with a better metaphor for life. Johnathan Joseph is once again slow and is unable to play off-man and break on the ball. Luckily, he hasn’t been pressured downfield yet. Aaron Colvin hasn’t been targeted often, but has shined so far. And the safeties have moved around too much too tell what’s going on.
Because of their offensive line the Giants struggle to maintain long drives. Like an inflated bladder, they’re forced to pull over and stop thanks to too many negative plays. They do have spectacular skill players that can score from any part of the field. Barkley’s casket has already been busted open. Odell Beckham Jr. has converted a bunch of first downs and looks the same out there. His longest reception is only 24 yards. It’s only a matter of time. Sterling Shepard has been similar to Beckham, but doesn’t have the volume. And Evan Engram is a linebacker and safety’s biggest fear, even if he’s had a case of the whoopsies to start the season.
If the Texans aren’t able to kick Manning’s big stupid head in a little bit, the Giants will be in this game the entire time. They have the skill players to be a better offense. Manning just hasn’t been given the time for plays to develop. And against this secondary, and this team that has struggled to tackle well, time to throw the ball is all Manning probably needs to actually put some points on the board.
5.) Boom & Bust
As of tonight, tonight, the Giants will not have Olivier Vernon playing once again, and neither will Eli Apple. Vernon is a premier pass rusher. Apple has been awesome to start this season. Like the pass rush, there’s no excuse for the Houston’s passing offense to not be better.
The best cornerback the Giants have available is Janoris Jenkins. This big former free agent defensive back is an aggressive playmaking corner. This season he has deflected two passes and stole an underthrown Bortles pass in week one, and in his first year in New York, his only healthy year, he had 18 passes deflected and 3 interceptions. Sometimes his aggressive style works.
And sometimes it doesn’t. Currently his numbers are sagged down to subterranean worst in the league levels because of a Tavon Austin touchdown pass he allowed. Jenkins got beat off the line after failing to press the pea-sized receiver, and with only one safety deep because Collins was in the box, Austin was able to cross the center of the endzone to set up an easier try.
When I saw this catch I thought of Will Fuller.
Whenever New York pulls Collins in the box, Houston needs to attack the sidelines where they have one on one coverage. Who cares who Jenkins is covering. It doesn’t matter. Both Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins have the talent to beat him individually along the sideline. There’s no reason to be cute and play the matchup. Just look for single coverage and let your talent win out.
This situation should be available often too. The Giants have been a poor run stopping team. The strength of the Texans’ entire team to start the season has been the run offense. Collins is going to hang around the box. Houston has to take advantage of these single high safety sets.
6.) The Living Author
I have no doubt the invisible part of me will continue to exist even when the visible part ceases to.
Enjoy the game everyone.