This week’s shallow thoughts is going to be a little bit different. I watched the All-22 from the first half, and have some quick thoughts on the second half after Houston was down 21-0, and the game was kind of sort of over.
—The Texans don’t consistently run a cohesive and effective offense. There are things that work. Spread out pick and pop passes v. zone coverage. Using DeAndre Hopkins as a hot receiver. Play action. Boot legs. Deshaun Watson manufactured as a runner. But the offense is filled with terrible ideas, late adjustments, penalties, and safe calls. The Colts’ first half offense is what a sustainable grass fed offense looks like.
The Colts converted 9 of their 14 third downs. The first one they converted came on 3rd and 12. Johnathan Joseph is in off-man coverage against T.Y. Hilton. Hilton screams off the line of scrimmage until he hits the first down marker, but rather than make a cut as Joseph waits, ]Hilton bumps into Joseph, turns, and sits for the first down. Luck uses his eyes to pull two safeties to the post route, leaving Hilton in one v. one coverage.
The rush is nonexistent. It’s up to Jadeveon Clowney to beat Mark Glowiniski. He doesn’t. Eric Ebron chips J.J. Watt, Braden Smith catches the big strong boy leaping from a burning building. This is what a chip is supposed to look like.
Andrew Luck found Hilton deep twice. The first time came against Houston running Tampa-Two coverage. The inside linebacker runs up the center of the zone and in between the safeties. The Colts have trips left receivers. Hilton is in the slot. Luck recognizes the shell of the zone. The inside bunch receiver runs a fly route. Ebron in the right slot runs an out. Both these routes pull the safeties to the sidelines. In the center of the field is Hilton running past McKinney. Houston’s linebacker is supposed to carry Hilton to the safeties, but the safeties are preoccupied.
This throw is perfect. Luck sees Justin Reid has a chance to make a play on the ball, and Tyrann Mathieu is further away. So Luck throws it to Mathieu’s side of the zone and away from Reid. It’s a perfect throw in between three defenders.
The Colts scored shortly after this. They’re running a slant-flat combo in the redzone. The right wide receiver is running a slant and creating traffic for Mathieu, who has Ebron in man coverage. Ebron runs the flat unhindered. Mathieu isn’t set and ready before the ball is snapped, and has slight outside placement. He recognizes the route late. And, ontop of all of it, his path to the ball is filled with two stutters. Twice he thinks about taking a sharp path to the ball, before getting flat to the endzone again, these stumbles makes it impossible for him to make a play. It’s a great design by the Colts to create an easy touchdown.
The Colts used a similar concept to beat man coverage on 3rd and 14. They run crossing routes in the center of the field, a slant, and a post, to knock off the secondary defenders. Joseph, who played a really good game, had no chance cutting off this route to Ebron.
Mathieu had similar troubles allowing a first down via drag route on a Colts’ first third down conversion. He’s chasing and has Hilton covered. He could be able to come down and make a tackle if Luck throws it quickly. Instead Luck rolls and rolls and rolls right. Mathieu gets impatient and takes a step towards Luck, opening the completion to Hilton right then and there.
With the Colts’ offensive line, running out of shotgun is an easy way to pick up yards, and they can run a variety of plays from this backfield formation. These wide men can move the first level, they can pull, they can climb to the second, they can do it all. Here the Colts run that screwed up outside zone play where the center and guards pull to the playside, instead of trying to force them to reach the outside shoulder. Quenton Nelson kicks out Clowney. You get Ryan Kelly on Kareem Jackson. Mo Allie-Cox blocks Zach Cunningham, and McKinney sees it too late. This is immaculate.
The thing that surprised me most about this game was how well the Colts ran the ball on the best run defense in football. Mack had 24 carries for 148 yards, a long of 29, and one touchdown. They were moving it on the ground even in the second half when they were trying to get out of there and head to Kansas City. In week 17 last season I saw Mack stiff arm Clowney. I made a note. It takes supreme talent to make plays like that. Now Mack is healthy and driving the run game, and making sneaky little cutbacks like this.
The Colts put up 21 points in the first half in a variety of ways, with a variety of plays. They ran the perfect routes to beat Houston’s coverages even though they didn’t even need to. They won their routes against man coverage. They picked up yards on the ground. And Luck was able to navigate around the little bit of rush Houston was able to generate. The Colts’ first half offense is what a NFL offense is supposed to look like.
—One of the things I was adamant about entering this game was that it wasn’t just Hilton Houston would have trouble covering. It was going to be everyone. It was going to be Dontrelle Inman (4/4 for 53 yards 1 touchdown), Charles Rogers (4/5 46 yards), and Eric Ebron (3/6 26 yards 1 touchdown) too. I’m still surprised Nyheim Hines didn’t get in on the action. The player Houston actually had the most trouble covering was Inman. He made some despicable cuts toward the sideline. He left Jackson dizzy multiple times.
Inman beat Jackson playing man to man coverage with a single safety deep. Jackson grabbed his jersey and turned Inman into a sun cancer destined toddler on a sunscreen bottle.
He spun Shareece Wright for a touchdown. The same Wright who hasn’t been able to cover anyone breaking on an intermediate route, or any type of double move, and started as Houston’s second cornerback for an enormous chunk of the year.
When I said throw the ball against the Houston Texans, this is exactly what I meant.
—The Texans needed both Clowney and Watt to be more than football good. They needed to be box score good. Houston needed tangible production from them, and for them to extinguish multiple drives on their own. Together they combined for 7 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 tackle for a loss, and 2 passes deflected. The majority of the production came from Watt. The only drive they snuffed out was Watt’s deflected pass that turned into a Brandon Dunn interception. That was a miraculous play by Watt. The effort was constant and nauseating against Nelson.
Watt almost picked one off himself too. We were thiiiiiiis close, points to an ant scrambling across my fingers, to another Cincinnati playoff pick six. Watt gets chipped. Makes his way directly in front of Luck and sits while using his hands to keep Smith off him. The ball hits both of Watt’s mitts. Soooo close. The fun thing about Watt is we expect him to make these absurd plays that no one should ever make. Something already miraculous becomes a disappointment since it just barely misses becoming sublime.
He did make a run tackle against Nelson. This rip here is silly. Even after all the injuries, he still makes plays that leaves my heart knots.
He finally beat Braden Smith after getting blocked by him constantly and consistently. Watt took an outside rush and got to Smith’s outside shoulder. A rare, and what was thought to be impossible feat. He shoved Smith off and cut inside. Luck dodged the sack. Mercilus picked up the tab. A Jackson holding penalty negated it all anyways.
Also, this is 100% holding on Nelson. You’ll never hear me complain about the referees. They’re going to miss calls. It’s impossible not to. There isn’t some grand conspiracy. There’s nothing that can be done about it. But to laud and raise glasses to Nelson here is obscene. He has two arms wrapped around Clowney’s back, and turns a slow dance into a wrestling match.
Clowney wasn’t as good as Watt this game, even if he did make some plays on his own. The inside-out moves weren’t there enough. He wasn’t reading the run game very well. And there wasn’t an interior presence from him in the pass rush either.
The two great plays were a second round pass pressure from an inside move, and a body contorting limbo around a pulling blocker.
Houston needs to add more pass rushers too, along with defensive backs this offseason. The team doesn’t have anyone who can rush the interior. Dunn, Angelo Blackson, and Christian Covington are just guys. D.J. Reader offers nothing as a pass rusher. Without Watt and Clowney on the field there isn’t a threat. It’s utopia. This is what the garden was like before that serpent came slithering in.
Regardless, the four years we waited for Watt and Clowney to play an entire season together have been worth it.
—The Texans started the game trying to go deep. The first attempt was a predetermined self prescribed deep heave to DeAndre Hopkins. Kenny Moore has great coverage here. He’s running with Hopkins the entire way. When the ball arrives each player has position on the ball. They extend and hand fight, but no one comes away with anything.
Regardless, I loved the playcall. Sometimes this is a flag, sometimes it isn’t. In a different universe the ref throws a flag here on Moore and the Texans are immediately in the neighborhood to tie the game.
The second was to Vyncint Smith. Houston fake the hand off. The Colts retreat back into cover two. One safety runs with the out. The other, Clayton Geathers, follows Smith. He has Geathers beat, who gets spun around when the ball is in the air. With the safety sprinting wide to chase Smith, Watson puts the ball up the seam instead. Smith never really finds it. When he turns back around the ball plops right into his chest. Ouch. This one really hurt.
Both Geathers and Hooker have trouble getting spun around. If I was Andy Reid I’d be watching this play over and over and over and over again.
—I never want to see Alfred Blue play another down in Houston. This runs sums it up. The Texans finally block everyone on a run play. I couldn’t believe it. Juli’en Davenport makes a great second level block. Senio Kelemete blocks down. Zach Fulton is able to turn the stunting defensive end around. The looping linebacker runs right into Kendall Lamm’s pull. We’re looking at fifteen yards here. Instead Blue tries to run wide? and bumps into Lamm. I’m green faced. Pump me full of pink bubble gum Pepto Bismol.
When picking up blitzes you look inside-out. No matter what position you play. You don’t guess and scurry out wide. Lamm is a big boy. He can handle the end himself for a second or two. Rather than look inwards, Blue runs outside, mainly because he wants to run into the flat and catch a two yard pass. By doing so Darius Leonard rushes inside freely. If he’s not making every pass block out there he shouldn’t even be on the roster. Hopefully this is finally the end.
—Don’t challenge sideline passes to Hopkins. It’s a catch every time. You’re just handing away time outs. Let me spoil it for you. He’s going to get two feet in every time.
—O’Brien was outcoached by Matt Eberflus. The Colts were able to get the slot corner blitz working again the second half. They baited Watson into checking down on third down. They stunted inside whenever someone pulled to rush Watson on play action passes. The cover two sat on the underneath stuff.
—Watson missed a multiple throws in this one. He was staring down one side of the field and didn’t swivel over to find the open man. He didn’t anticipate open receivers and went to his checkdown too soon. There were trust issues between him and his offensive line, and he struggled throwing with integrity and up and into the pocket. This throw man, this throw was crucial, and hurt the most.
It was 4th and 1 before the half. Down 21-0. The Colts are in Cover 4. You can see the elliptical shell pre-snap. Keke Coutee runs a comeback. This route pulls the linebacker down and wide. Hopkins runs a slant behind that. Watson needs to anticipate this and throw it right when the linebacker steps down.
Instead of seeing the route instantly and putting it to the left of Margus Hunt, he throws it to the right of him, low and even out of Hopkins’s catch radius. And even then, if Watson climbs up, or delays his throw and takes the hit, he can throw it to the right of Hunt as well. Unfortunately, he hurries, Houston turns it over. And doesn’t score until the fourth quarter.
—The big difference in the second half defense was the pass rush. Rather than trying to rush Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt wide, and run the occasional stunts, the Texans loaded up the interior with their linebackers. Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, Duke Ejiofor, and Whitney Mercilus had success rushing against guards, and were able to delay their blitzes to create free paths. Let’s never see Watt as a wide nine edge rusher again, or anyone on this roster for that matter. All of Houston’s pass rushers are better using their hands and size and quickness to smack linemen around in tight space. They aren’t true speed rush, bend, turn the corner, and rip guys. Watt had success at it, but it was only against back up offensive tackles. Whoopee.
—Houston moved the ball well in the second half mainly by running drag routes with Keke Coutee, dumping the ball off to Lamar Miller, and Deshaun Watson scrambling. Against cover two, speedy receivers like Coutee can run across the lateral zones, and make it difficult for square shuffling defenders to pass him around. Take this, and add some deep zone drop backs, and you get YAC, YAC, YAC.
Miller was good in the pass game. The same that goes for Watson goes for him. Against deeper soft zones, Miller was able to catch the ball with space to get to full speed. I forget how fast he is sometimes thanks to all the inside zone running, and outside zone plays where no one can block the second level.
This also helped Watson too. When he stepped up in the pocket he had plenty of space to accelerate and run around stagnant linebackers. Some of the runs he made were outlandish. Him zipping around Darius Leonard is something it will take me a while to forget.
—Tyrann Mathieu really had a hell of a time trying to tackle Marlon Mack. I know he wants to stay in Houston, but maybe he should reconsider if it means having to try and bring him down two times a year.
—D.J. Reader is a monstrous tackler. He devours ball carriers like those snakes that eat entire eggs whole.
—Shred this play. Throw it in an incinerator. It has worked maybe twice this year. Vyncint Smith doesn’t block it. Juli’en Davenport doesn’t have room to get around his block, and rarely does he make this block to begin with. At least do something to make it work. Teach Davenport to run flatter to his block. Have Hopkins attack the ball. Try something.
—I was expecting this loss to happen for a while now. Personally, I’m not mad, or sad, or feel anything at all. I was waiting for it. The biggest driver of my emotions is the future. Houston has draft capital, $70+ million in cap space even before cutting Demaryius Thomas and/or Kevin Johnson, and Deshaun Watson. He’s absurd. It’s been incredible watching him this season when Bill O’Brien actually allowed him to try to score points.