9-7. 9-7. 9-7. 4-12.
These are Houston’s regular season records with Bill O’Brien as their head coach. Since taking over a talented 2-14 team that saw its franchise quarterback’s arm fall off and subsequently enduring a most miserable season of hell, O’Brien has been able to keep the Texans playing just well enough. A few blowout losses. Close wins, thanks to defensive play and the offense doing just enough. This was how things were.
Then last season happened.
Last season, the Texans’ record plummeted along with the health of their roster. J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Deshaun Watson, and others were abandoned rusted vehicles crippled along the side of the highway that was the 2017 season. The roster became a cicada husk of what it was on Week One. Houston had 62.2 adjusted games lost on offense last season, which was the second most in football, and had 45.1 adjusted games lost on defense last season, which ranked 26th. After losing Watson, the Texans managed to win a single game more, thanks to a combination of disastrous pass defense and Tom Savage as the starting quarterback.
Without Watt and Mercilus, the Texans’ average run defense DVOA was -6.5%, a respectable figure. Their pass defense DVOA was 24.4%, which would have been 28th over an entire season. Because of Jadeveon Clowney finishing second in the league with 24 tackles for a loss, D.J. Reader standing up double teams, Benardrick McKinney stunning guards and making tackles, and Zach Cunningham scampering though holes, Houston was able to stay afloat at commendable. I named a lot of names, but you can mostly thank Clowney for this.
The pass defense was an entirely different ordeal. Clowney was the only pass rusher on their roster. He had 9.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 45 hurries. Houston’s second best pass rusher was their 260 pound inside linebacker. McKinney had 13 hurries and 3 sacks. The majority of their rushes went like this: Clowney rushing from the interior and getting doubled or tripled while no one was able to win a one-on-one battle, or Clowney’s eyes filling with blood, going berserk, and clubbing the offensive lineman on the way to the quarterback.
If Jadeveon Clowney didn’t do it, no one did.
Houston was also a much unluckier team compared to the previous season. Even with [NAME REDACTED] at quarterback in 2016, the Texans still managed to win the division, host a playoff game, take down Connor Cook, and play defense well enough to make the Divisional Round against New England a wasted opportunity. Because those Texans had an offense that ranked 30th in DVOA in 2016, they had to win games by purple tongue strangling. They outperformed their expected win-loss record by 2.5 games, the second highest mark in football. They went 8-4 in one score games. They did this against the second easiest schedule in football.
Last year, things weren’t so fortunate. Houston saw their win total drop by five games, their one possession record was 1-5 (31st), and their turnover differential was -12 (28th). They won 1.7 games less than expected (29th), and they played the 11th toughest schedule in football. Sure, without Watson, Watt, and Mercilus, the Texans weren’t good, but overall they should have won more games than they did.
Apocalyptic front seven injuries and black cat luck were compounded by putrid, malodorous, noxious (whatever your word is for disgusting, terrible, or stinky, go with it) secondary play. That secondary was the biggest reason why, for the first time in the O’Brien era, the Texans didn’t have a top ten defense. They never really had a strong safety for the entire season. Kareem Jackson lost a step and couldn’t make up for his floppy feet. Johnathan Joseph no longer has the ability to break on the ball in off-man coverage or run deep without safety help. Kevin Johnson hasn’t looked like the same player who was a pinball rocketing off the spring once the ball was released.
There’s three chairs for great, good, and bad news for the defense this season. The great news is Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus are on this roster. In case you forgot, in each of their last fully healthy seasons:
- Watt sacked the holder of the football 17.5 times, deflected 8 passes, forced 3 fumbles, had 33 quarterback hits, and had 51 hurries.
- Mercilus had 7.5 sacks, 14 hits, and 31 hurries.
- Clowney jumped from 6-12-33 in 2016 to 9.5-13-45 this past season.
This trio, when fully healthy, can combine to pick up 35 sacks, 45 quarterback hits, and 90 quarterback hurries over the course of a season. Sprinkle in some spicy Romeo Crennel blitzes and the occasional McKinney free rush, you have a dominant pass rush. The only time these three kind of played together was 2015; even then Clowney started only nine games, played in just thirteen, and still had some yippy, little puppy teeth. That year, the Texans had 45 sacks, finished 6th in adjusted sack rate, and 8th in pressure rate. This is the baseline if all three are healthy.
Additionally, this troika was pestilent against the run last season too, turning glowing offenses into green-skinned cadavers. Houston’s average run defense DVOA was -19.47%, which was propped up by the Titans running the ball in meaningless situations. I mean, how do you run around this?
This isn’t a rhetorical question. The answer is simple. You can’t. You don’t. You won’t.
The good is the safeties will be better. Andre Hal will be missed. He’s a safety that can play from the center of the field to the sideline and affect passes. He is, however, an awful tackler, missing 12 last season on 75 defensive plays. The Texans will actually have a strong safety in either Jackson or rookie Justin Reid, and all will probably play the majority of the time. Crennel loves going with six defensive back sets, and with the lack of talent and depth at cornerback, they’d be better off giving Reid snaps over Johnson Bademosi or Kayvon Webster.
Jackson should have been moved to safety two...three...I can’t remember anything anymore...years ago. He’s an incredible tackler who has lost his ability to play man coverage. Let him sit in shallow zones, stiff arm the blocking receiver, and make plays. Jackson is going to scrub the crime scene clean of splotches and clean up the box with his tackling ability.
Although deep fielding is what he can’t do, Jackson shouldn’t have to. Mathieu and Reid can do a little bit of everything. Mathieu can blitz, play in the slot occasionally, chase down screen passes, and cover tight ends. Both of them should be able to play deep, and I like Reid in man coverage against bigger receivers. Keep in mind that, like Hal, Mathieu was also an awful tackler last year, missing 15 on 80 defensive plays. Still, this unit will be admirable and better than last year, but it’s not the type of elite unit that will make the field bite-sized for the cornerbacks.
Even worse is Houston’s cornerback play. Johnathan Joseph is one of the smartest cornerbacks in football, and it’s the reason why he’s still around. He can recognize routes immediately and attempt to play the ball. He just isn’t quick enough to come downhill and actually influence the play. You can’t play him closer to the line of scrimmage, because if you do, he’s going to get beat deep. At his age, you almost always have to keep a safety playing over the top of whoever he’s covering.
Kevin Johnson was one of the worst cornerbacks in football last year. He was awful even when he was healthy to start the year, and he was awful once he returned from injury. He can’t cover, which is troubling for a cornerback. Johnson had an adjusted success rate of 45% and allowed 9.2 yards per pass. He also can’t tackle. Johnson allowed 3 yards per reception after the catch and missed 13 tackles on 47 plays last year. Too often, Johnson sits back, can’t react to the route or break on it quickly enough, and gets blown past while he misses the tackle. The downfall from his successful rookie year is staggering.
Aaron Colvin playing slot corner is the big addition Houston made this offseason. The market wasn’t there for Houston to make an enormous move in free agency. Kyle Fuller stayed in Chicago. Trumaine Johnson wasn’t worth what he signed for in New York (J). Houston didn’t have the draft capital to try and trade for Marcus Peters or Aqib Talib. They were kind of stuck. Colvin was the next best cost-effective option. The concern is he’s going from playing behind the best pass rush in football last year, while sandwhiched between the best cornerback combination in football, to Houston’s defense. How Colvin responds to this situation will be one of the keys to the pass defense when the rush doesn’t get there.
With the front seven talent and Houston having actual safeties, the Texans’ defense should easily be a top ten unit again. However, injuries are those dreaded things breathing down Houston’s neck. If something happens to Watt, Clowney, or Mercilus, they may be able to recover. I’m dubious, though. The Texans don’t have the cornerback play they had in 2016 to rescue them when Watt’s back gave out. If something happens to two out of the three of those players, it’s going to be 2017 all over again: A slog of a pass defense that can send out only one capable rusher, and a bunch of wide open spaces back behind him. Sure, the run defense will still be really good, but it’s 2018; nobody runs the ball anymore.
The Texans’ one saving grace won’t come from their defense if something bad happens. It’ll come from their offense. The Texans’ offense was a dinosaur murdering asteroid hurdling towards the rest of the NFL with Deshaun Watson under center. Sadly, or luckily depending on how you feel, it was spurned by gravitational waves. Deshaun Watson tore his ACL. Case closed. That’s fine. With him in the operating room, the Texans’ offense plugged in the VCR and wallowed in nostalgia.
Yeah, that’s the stuff. That’s the Texans’ offense that made me want to die from 2014 to 2016. It was no longer an offense that scored 34.6 points a game, had a pass offense DVOA of 44.2%, averaged 145.8 rushing yards a game, and cremated opposing defenses. With Week One starter Tom Savage back at the helm, the Texans averaged 13 points a game, a pass offense DVOA of -29.52%, and averaged 96.7 rushing yards a game. Life is pain.
There’s thousands of reasons why this happened. To name a few: Savage is hard rocks of ketogenic stool in the bowels of the pocket, Savage doesn’t have short, intermediate, or deep accuracy, Savage can’t quickly compute what’s happening on the field and look past his first read, and Savage doesn’t have the athleticism to run the same offense Watson ran. Tom Savage was four yard throws to the tight end in the flat.
The Texans could do so many things with Watson. Yee-haw, baby! They could run the option.
They could come out in a zany shotgun formation and run dart to get Lamar Miller out in space with a lead blocker while Watson’s running ability limited the defense’s freedom to pursue the ball carrier.
They could run play action off these runs to create one on one match-ups, attacking the space left behind by the vacated safety.
Houston was an entirely different offense with Watson in it. It was zone reads, options, outside zones, draws, jet sweeps, play action off those plays, quick pick and pop passes, and insane downfield throws. It all worked together in unison. It was how an NFL offense was supposed to run.
It of course helps that Watson has an insane level of talent. He could do things rarely seen in the NFL. He had scrambles that broke my brain.
There are deep passes that are absolutely perfect. After watching this team for so long, I forgot you could throw a deep pass IN BOUNDS. Watson completed 22 of his 53 deep passes for 649 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. He averaged 12.2 yards an attempt. He was especially great at throwing to the deep center part of the field, completing 5 of his 8 attempts for 182 yards, 3 touchdowns to 1 interception, and 22.8 yards per attempt.
When defenses are having to double and use multiple defenders to collapse and shrink the already shrunken sideline to cover DeAndre Hopkins, the middle of the field, and the rest of it, is wiiiiiide open. Will Fuller V, when healthy, has the insane speed to run past single coverage and split the safeties guarding the deep part of the field. I mean, the dude had 7 touchdowns on 28 receptions and averaged 15.1 yards a catch in limited action. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
There are two concerns about the offense. The first is that Watson played unsustainable football in his six game stretch as Houston’s starter. He had a touchdown rate of 9.3%. Only 16 quarterbacks have ever had a touchdown rate of 9.0% or more when throwing a minimum of 200 passes. Watson was the first to do it since Peyton Manning in 2004, who was the first since Ken Stabler in 1976 to do it. Manning is the only quarterback since 1990 to ever repeat having two 8.0% touchdown rate seasons in his career, a list that includes only 8 quarterbacks. Watson is in great company by pulling it off; it’s just he probably never will reach 8.0% again. We can evolve, advance, and then simulate other realities billions of times and never see Deshaun Watson’s 2017 season ever again. Progression isn’t linear. Watson was spectacular in a six game sample. Even with another year under his belt, he won’t be able to reproduce the same kind of numbers next season.
Because of this, Bill O’Brien has to add to what he did to the offense last season. He can’t trot out the same stuff. Coaches around the league won’t be surprised by Watson’s antics this year. They know what he can do. All-nighters have turned into months of film study. O’Brien has to expand beyond what he did last year to mold this offense around DW4 last season.
The second issue is the offensive line. Last season, Houston allowed 54 sacks. They finished 30th in adjusted sack rate and 31st in pressure rate. They had twelve different offensive linemen play a snap for them. Breno Giacomini, a truly horrendous player, played every single one of them. It didn’t matter who the quarterback was, either. Going back to a minimum of 200 passes thrown, Watson was last in the NFL in pressure rate and was plunged into impossible depths on 41.9% of his attempts. Savage was the fourth most pressured quarterback in football at 38.5%.
The difference is that Watson can cover himself in grease to slip out of tacklers and the pocket. His DVOA when pressured was -36.0%; Savage’s was -105.4%. When the pocket was a cozy, comfy womb free from diabolical defensive terror, Watson was the most efficient quarterback in all of football with a DVOA of 99.3%.
In addition to O’Brien continuing to develop his offense around Watson, the offensive line is the key to this unit staving off the inevitable Watson touchdown rate regression. And you know what? I think Houston’s offensive line can be mediocre this season. Juli’en Davenport got big, strong, mean, and tough this offseason. His feet are still there after an acceptable rookie year, but now he’s evaporating defenders with his punch. Senio Kelemete was good, but inconsistent in New Orleans, especially struggling to block at the second level. Zach Fulton has Pro-Bowl potential. Nick Martin’s career should blast off by having these two replace Xavier Su’a-Filo and Jeff Allen.
The pit is at right tackle. Seantrel Henderson was awful when he last played regularly, and the last time that happened was in 2015. Luckily, Houston added Martinas Rankin in last year’s draft. The only tackle prospect who could both run and pass block is the security blanket and breath on the back of Henderson’s neck after he missed the majority of training camp.
If Watson stays healthy, the offense is creative, and the line can be as good as I think it can be, this part of the team should be great, more than good enough to make this squad a championship contender if the defense holds up because its pass rush stays healthy. However, if anything happens to Watson, the 2018 season is doomed. If anything happens to this pass rush, the season will go from championship contention to fun as hell but ultimately mediocre. The Texans’ offense can be great, but it won’t be able to overcome a defense that slips to 25th or worse in defensive DVOA, which is the kind of collapse Houston faces if horrible things happen to the premier players on its front seven.
This also isn’t the AFC South of the past. Houston can’t play hungover football and expect to beat Tennessee, Jacksonville, or even Indy if Andrew Luck is healthy again. This barely hanging on act, being the best team in a bad division, no longer exists.
Like all teams, the Texans’ season depends on health, but even more so when you consider the prior injury history, the depth behind their stars, and how front-loaded this roster is. If Houston’s quarterback and pass rush stay strong and tough, they should win eleven games and face off against the Jaguars in Week 17 for an AFC South Championship Game. If Houston loses two or three of the Watt/Mercilus/Clowney trio, or something happens to Watson again, or both, they’ll be a six to seven or even worse win team.
I’m feeling in the middle.
Prediction: 9-7. Houston Wins The First Wild Card Berth in the AFC.