Way back in April, the 2019 NFL Schedule was released. I yanked the tack out of the wall, unsheathing it from its scabbard and showcasing the multiple holes in the plaster like strange tasting cheese. I placed the calendar on the desk. Flipped through the months of classic National Park travel posters. Time traveling past the red pinnacles in Utah’s red rock country; that grand wisdom tooth, the highest peak in Texas, Virginia’s rare east coast park with waterfalls and deers and the sun hidden by all those leaves, and went to September: Theodore Roosevelt; October: Zion; November: Everglades; December: Arches.
Boxes were filled with pay dates, checkups, car maintenance, birthdays, and flea and mosquito pills. Nw they were added with Houston Texans’ football games.
JAX @ HOU 12
HOU @ SD 3:05
HOU @ KC 12
This one, the one that arrives tomorrow, was highlighted by poorly drawn stars. More than the rest of them New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis, New Orleans, this was the one I couldn’t wait for, as I laid on my carpet, and thought about what I wanted then, how I may feel like then, and how Houston’s season may look like then.
Now I’m back on the carpet. Scrounging together the dog hair deep in the fibers, so deep that the vacuum can’t reach it, and imagining what tomorrow may look like. Unlike then, right now, there aren’t months that need to go by. Only hours. A day and some change. Tonight is the last night.
1. O’BRIEN V REID
Bill O’Brien has been the Houston Texans head coach since 2014, and in each matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs Andy Reid has been on the opposite sideline. Like New England, O’Brien’s teams have struggled against Kansas City. The one difference is Houston has beat the Chiefs once.
That one win was early in the season. 2016. Houston bumped to 2-0 with [NAME REDACTED] leading the offense. Eight field goals were made. Houston won 19-12. I remember Kansas fans clamoring for Reid to eat the metaphorical gun after that one. Now look at where we are.
In the rest of these games Houston has lost 20-27, 0-30, and 34-42. 20-27 was riding on the Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett freshmen three star recruit quarterback carousel. The Chiefs threw a bunch of screen passes, and took advantage of Houston’s slower linebackers in space. 0-30 was the famous Hoyer four turnover Wildcard Round performance. He was massacred. It led to Houston bringing in that clunky ungulate that offseason. 34-42 was Deshaun Watson’s only game against the Chiefs. The Texans went down 23-7 and 39-20. Watson threw five touchdowns, made some snazzy pocket moves and deep passes in desperate times, and the game was closer than it actually was. Oh, and J.J. Watt broke a piece of bone in his leg.
O’Brien’s teams have usually had problems against the best teams in the league. The team’s record has been bloated by the AFC South being crappy, but fun, yet still crappy, and playing hungover defensive football and doing just enough on offense. The Texans’ offense has had three great games this season. Things are looking different than before. This is another chance for O’Brien to prove that, yes, things are actually different this time.
2. BLEEDING KANSAS
The Chiefs are banged up, bleeding, and broken, but they’re still alive. Last time we saw them Patrick Mahomes was hobbling with a horror movie ankle, and the Colts running the ball against a once again disgusting run defense.
The injuries are more than Mahomes’s ankle. Guard Andrew Wylie, defensive tackle Chris Jones, left tackle Eric Fisher, and Sammy Watkins all didn’t practice. Martinas Rankin may start at guard. Jones is the Chiefs’ best defensive player, and has almost accounted for their entire pass rush. Cameron Erving has replaced Fisher the last three games and has been awful. Watkins breaks tackles, has a great game every once in a while, but fumbles too often, and rarely attacks the ball at its height. He still is someone defenses have to account for and the Chiefs are great at opening the field for him.
Adding to that is Anthony Hitchens, one of the Chiefs’ whatever linebackers who tackles well but sticks to blocks, and Tyreek Hill, a broken wing that maybe able to fly, were limited in practice and are gametime decisions.
Patrick Mahomes, LeSean McCoy, Alex Okafor, and Anthony Sherman, were all full participants in Thursday’s practice and should be good for Sunday.
Rarely do I care about inactives, and injuries, most inactives are players who would have no impact on the game, and every team is injured after a month of football. That being said, injuries can dramatically change how the Chiefs look on Sunday. If Jones or Wylie are out, or Hill suits up, the Chiefs will look entirely different.
3. CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER
Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback in football. He’s regression proof. Last season he had a touchdown rate of 8.6%—anything above 8% is historic and usually plummets the following season. This season he’s at 5.6%. A 3% drop. Regardless, he’s still in first in DVOA at 39.9%, first in DYAR with 662, is completing 66% of his 202 pass attempts, and has thrown 11 touchdowns to 0 interceptions.
Deshaun Watson isn’t the best quarterback in football, but he’s one of the eight best or so. Last season he quelled all rookie year fluke questions by playing great once again whenever the offense opened up and allowed him to do more than hand the ball off. This season he’s expanded upon that even further. He’s fifth in DVOA at 21.9%, fifth in DYAR with 361, is completing 69.6% of his 177 pass attempts, and has thrown 11 touchdowns to 1 interception. Sure, playing the Atlanta Falcons helps things, but Watson has been a spectacular top tier quarterback in three of the five games Houston has played.
The narrative is set. These are the best young quarterbacks in football. Playing at too high of a level for being in the league for only three seasons. Picked in the same draft, traded up for by two playoff teams, altering franchises completely. This game should be a point on the timeline that will stretch throughout their careers. Watson v. Mahomes. Regular season games with playoff implications. Playoff battles. MVP debates. Liquid and solid snake.
4. HOW TO WIN: DEFENSE
Back when the internet was attached to phone lines, and years could go by until Nickelodeon and snowball flash games would load, you’d have to read books to get help. Things for dummies. 1996 Toyota Camry repair guide. Prima Official Strategy Guides.
Thoughts are different than memories. Everyone remembers things from an early age. It’s just a remembrance of the last time you remembered something, en electrical charge traveling down an old highway to pull out some dusty file. Remembering an exact thought is an entirely different thing. With a controller in hand I love this, I love video games, I’m going to play them for the rest of my life. Then you only have so much time, and you find things that are more interesting like William Faulkner, and National Parks, and women, but the deepest truth is that all I really want to do is play NHL 19’ and waste my entire life.
Back when I had thoughts like this guide books were what helped my forming brain feed a grenade to a rancor, or snipe a wolf in the snow, or understand the combination of Horadric runes to get the benefits I want. Then the internet really came around. Connected to cable. There were Game FAQs, titles made with zany character combinations that have evolved into Twitter house memes, and written by people with brains who love writing instructions.
Take this not as a Prima Official strategy guide, but a Game FAQS guide for how to beat the Chiefs. It’s quick. It’s inexact. It’s made in a mother’s basement while staring out the window and at a Taco bell sign.
Defensively, you aren’t going to beat Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City’s passing offense is great all the time. There isn’t a split, or a situation, or a strategy that confounds him. Kansas City will always move the ball through the air. Close, late, down, it doesn’t matter. Man, zone, press, off, double high, it doesn’t matter.
Against man coverage Reid is great at calling a variety of routes to cross the first read, get a defender chasing from a disadvantage, and create open throws.
Against zone, they will flood things, force the secondary to make decisions, and find the open man. Mahomes can stop time and wait and search around until he can find an open receiver sneaking around. Unless the pass rush is extreme there isn’t much you can do to stop it.
There are things you can do that can force enough punts and field goals to give your offense a chance however.
One of the most important things is tackling well. The Chiefs are 2nd in broken tackle rate at 14.8%. They have broken 35 total tackles which is tied for 8th. Damien Willams has broken 14, Sammy Watkins 10, Mecole Hardman 3, LeSean McCoy 3, and Patrick Mahomes has broken 2.
The first defender needs to make tackles, because if they don’t they may not get another chance. Because of how the Chiefs spread defenses out like adding powder milk to the last few sips, there may not be anyone else around. Watkins did this against the Jaguars.
Running the ball against light boxes can turn 9 yards into 30 after a missed tackle.
It’s impossible enough to stop Kansas City on its own. Allowing extra yards only further exacerbates things. The Colts perfected this last week. They smashed the Chiefs, and rarely allowed them to pick up anything more than the bare minimum.
Defenses also have to play the football. At the catch point, the Chiefs’ receivers don’t high point and strangle it. Watkins rarely attacks the ball at the catch point. Hill lets it fall into his belly. Because their receivers are so wide open, they rarely have to fully make difficult catches in traffic. Mahomes’s aggressiveness rate is 10.3%, the lowest in the league except for Drew Brees.
When catches are in close range the ball has to be attacked. It’s the one saving grace to turn completions into incompletions, and every incompletion is integral to forcing the beautiful and rarely occurring punt.
This also has to be done when their skill players are carrying it. Mahomes hasn’t thrown an interception. He doesn’t make mistakes or force the ball. The Chiefs have squandered it away though. They’ve fumbled nine times this season and have lost five this year. The Lions fist punched the ball four times. If it wasn’t for two goal line fumbles of their own, including one turned into a touchdown, they would have won that game. The Colts were able to do the same and have a different outcome.
In this matchup specifically, the pass rush is crucial. Typically Mahomes is able to evade and make throws on the run. Last week he was hobbled though, and was unable to escape from what he’s typically able to.
Of course his ankle will be shot up, and the pain will be minimized after a week of rest. But there’s still concerns, and most importantly, the Chiefs’ offensive line is injured. Wylie and Fisher may not play.
Replacing Fisher as been Cameron Erving. This season he’s been beat by spins, bullrushes, rips, every move imaginable.
Hell, even Kenny Moore was able to dip under his punch and sack Mahomes on a slot corner blitz. These come for everyone.
PFF All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has even been beat occasionally by some inside moves.
Typically Houston uses Whitney Mercilus against an opponent’s left tackle. Houston should give Watt that matchup this game, and switch it up by moving him against Wylie’s replacement, Martinas Rankin, or whoever it maybe, to ensure the Texans have constant disruption. Mercilus has provided the BIG play. He’s forced four fumbles and has five sacks this year, but he hasn’t provided constant disruption. Aside from the Jacksonville game, he’s needed interior push to make his rushes meaningful.
Watt has been more than that. He’s been football dominant, and has provided nonstop pressure. Get him v. Erving. Get him v. Rankin. Get him in the best spot to attack and pressure Mahomes.
From an ‘I love the Houston Texans’ perspective, hopefully Watt keeps up the trend from last week and uses more inside moves and power rushes to win his matchups. These get to the quarterback quicker, and he’s had more success manhandling blockers instead of beating them to the edge and ripping.
And on top of all of that, you have to survive. The Chiefs are going to casually score 28 points in a quarter, or 17 points in 7 minutes to force overtime. Mahomes is going to scramble around and make absurd throws, that twist reality, making it trip, fall on its back, regurgitate and asphyxiate on itself.
These things are going to happen. You have to just deal with it. Every drive and possession is vital and valuable. A punt is a miracle and needs to be celebrated. In losses, the only team to force more than three punts was Los Angeles (C) last year, who needed some fourth down and two point conversion miracles to take them down, and the Colts last weekend. Turnovers have to be forced. Los Angeles (R) allowed 51 points, but had 5 turnovers, the Patriots and Seahawks forced 2 in their 2018 regular season wins, and so did the Colts. Time is valuable. Letting the clock snuff out possessions is important too.
You can’t stop the Chiefs. They’re overwhelming. All you can do is minimize them by tackling well, playing the ball, getting a pass rush, and forcing turnovers.
5. HOW TO WIN: OFFENSE
On offense, the biggest problem is that playing shootout against them rarely works. When allowing +22 points the Chiefs are 10-5. Those losses have ground game stipulations. The only game where a team matched and overcame Kansas City’s passing offense was last year’s Monday Night Football loss against the Los Angeles Rams. 54-51. Mustard beat ketchup. Jared Goff was 31/49 for 413 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Rams still needed five turnovers to win that game.
Instead the way to take down the Chiefs is to control the ball and limit the number of possessions Mahomes has, and the best way to do that is to chew their front seven’s bones into the consistency of mashed potatoes.
The Chargers had 24 rush attempts for 119 yards, 4.55 yards a carry, and 2 touchdowns. The Seahawks went 43-210-4.88-2. The Patriots went 28-173-4.55-3 and 28-176-3.67-4 in the playoffs. The Colts went 45-180-4.0-1 last week. Using the offense to hold the ball, and minimize the number of times Mahomes has is it, is the best defense against the Chiefs.
Kansas City switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 to stop the run. They traded for Frank Clark and Emmanuel Obgah, and they signed Alex Okafor. They traded Dee Ford and didn’t retain Justin Houston. The idea was to have more complete defensive linemen and add another hand on the line of scrimmage to stonewall running backs.
It hasn’t worked. Linebackers Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens are still primarily making the Chiefs’ run tackles. Darron Lee hasn’t made the impact he was expected to. Reggie Ragland doesn’t exist. The Chiefs’ interior linemen are too slow to adjust from the block to the tackle attempt, and rarely does their defensive line make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Last season Kansas City had a run defense DVOA of 9.8% (32nd), allowed 5.0 yards a carry (31st), and their adjusted line yards was 5.28 (32nd). This season their run defensive DVOA is 8.4% (30th), they’re allowing 5.3 yards a carry (31st), and their adjusted line yards is 5.43 (31st). They were last in run defense DVOA in 2017 also. Despite the changes, it’s still awful and horrendous.
Throughout last week the Colts were able to move the first level and devour the second level and let Marlon Mack work them for 132 yards and 4.55 yards a carry.
The Lions are 27th in run offense DVOA and even Kerryon Johnson averaged 4.8 yards a carry and rampaged into the open field.
Kansas City is susceptible at the second level. They are last in second level adjusted line yards in back to back seasons. Last season they allowed 1.64. This season it’s 1.52. The key to scoring on Kansas City is to attack their crappy linebackers. If you block the first level you can run forever.
The problem for Houston is their run offense isn’t as good as the typical ones that have murdered the Chiefs. They’re averaging 5.1 yards a carry (8th), and have a run offense DVOA of 2.5% (12th). Carlos Hyde is leading the league in success rate. And Duke Johnson is averaging 6.4 yards a carry, and has a rushing DVOA of 15.6%. But these runs are usually the results of cutbacks, broken tackles, and light boxes.
The Texans have only run the ball 128 times, which is 15th. This is good. Houston shouldn’t run the ball that often with Watson and the secondary they have. It just means the run game is advantageous and efficient, not ball controlling and devouring. See the outside zone. Watch Tytus Howard. Observe Nick Martin blocking the second level.
The Chiefs are better at stopping the pass. They’re eight in pass defense DVOA. Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland have covered well on the outside. They have struggled to rush the passer though. They’re 29th in pressure rate. Their new additions have combined for 5.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 7 pressures. Chris Jones is their best pass rusher with 2 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 12 pressures, but he probably won’t play this game.
Clark is the Chiefs’ best pass rusher without Jones. He’s been pretty football good. Yet, without having to worry about their other interior rushers, teams have been able to chip and double back on Clark, making him box score ineffective.
The Chiefs have had to resort to blitzing to conjure a pass rush, despite the change to Steve Spagnuolo’s front four rush defense. They’ve thrown out 71 blitzers according to Pro Football Reference. Wilson and Hitchens have blitzed 25 times and have one pressure. Aside from the three pressures Tyrann Mathieu and Kendall Fuller have, they haven’t gotten much of anything from their blitzes.
Houston has blocked their individual rush matchups well. It’s the stunts and blitzes that have given them trouble. If the Texans can switch off well, and recognize where the blitz is coming from before the snap, Watson should have time to throw for the second week in a row.
This should be an enormous game for Duke Johnson to catch passes, break a tackle, and then pick up more. Plays like this from Nyheim Hines are what Houston is needing from Johnson.
The key to throwing the ball against the Chiefs is to recognize the coverage immediately, and put the ball in between the levels of the defense. Kansas City typically plays zone. There are holes available as they pass receivers. Matthew Stafford made some wild throws, and Kenny Golladay made a top tier sideline touchdown catch to beat the Chiefs’ secondary, but these aren’t plays outside the realm of Houston’s skill level.
The biggest problem for Houston’s offense is they’re kind of stuck. They don’t have the offensive line and run game to do what Indianapolis did last weekend, and as great as Watson has been, the passing offense can stagnate, and Watson isn’t Mahomes. The best way to attack Kansas City’s defense probably isn’t attainable for their run offense, and playing shootout typically doesn’t work for Houston, let alone against Mahomes. The Texans are 4-5 with Watson when the defense allows more than 22 points. Bill O’Brien is 5-35 in his career when the Texans allow more than 22 points.
This is the best offense Houston has had in O’Brien’s tenure. Watson is playing at an elite level when the offense is all things go. They have a chance to play Kansas City pass v. pass, but the Rams are the only team that has been able to do it. It’s going to be high scoring. It’s going to be close. It’s going to be bedlam.
6. OUT THERE
Once a thing is set to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t. Or will-depending. As long as you live, there’s always something waiting, and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do? You can’t stop living.