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Texans-Raiders Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

Texans. Raiders. They’re coming to get you, Barbara.

New Orleans Saints v Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The black crib is rumbling. High pitched screams from a smouldering ball of baby flesh. Each holler gets louder and louder, bloodier and bloodier. A mobile made of cross shapes bobbles. The Earth shakes. Then, the crying stops. The mobile rests. Water sits still. Clouds cover the sun. Everything grows darker. Birds become bats, dangling up and down, as if they’re attached on a puppet’s string, instead of marvels of biology. Grab the knife.

The Raiders aren’t terrible, they aren’t great, they’re competent. They’re kind of sort of back. The cosplaying goths are still diabolical and demonic, wolfmen, gorillas, and shoulder pads made of skulls, and now they finally have somethings to cheer about. Josh Jacobs’s cutbacks. Derek Carr with plenty of time to throw. Gareon Conley traded for a third round pick.

Well, for one more year. Next year the mausoleum becomes a tanning salon, and Raiders games become an event, a sight show for those transient weekend getaways to have something else to do, because there is never enough to do. Plastic people and frosted tips will burn all the black with sunshine and orange skin. Ahhhhh! Make it stop. Everything falls apart.

HIT IT.

1. MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE

The Oakland Raiders had a dominant offensive line in 2016. Derek Carr had a lifetime to throw. He’d hold onto the ball forever and ever and then use his arm talent to find Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree down the sideline. Sure, he’d miss some open men, and yes it didn’t matter anyways because life is never fair and Connor Cook started a playoff game, but what they did in 2016 worked with the help of a lucky one possession win record. I’m sure every game felt like an exorcism for Jack Del Rio after that season.

Since then the Raiders had dealt with offensive line injuries and offensive tackle struggles. The offensive line crumbled. And so did the Raiders’ offense along with it. In 2017 they finished 13th in offensive DVOA and averaged 18.8 points a game (23rd). In 2018 they finished 25th in offensive DVOA and averaged 18.1 points a game (28th). This season they are 8th in offensive DVOA and are averaging 21.2 points a game (18th).

The biggest reason for this change is their offensive line is incredible once again. Kolton Miller has made a +1 year leap that’s the difference between climbing a mountain in Delaware compared to climbing one in California. Richie Incognito, is a wide brutal bully, and has worked out better than Oakland could even imagine. The Rodney Hudson-Gabe Jackson combination is healthy again. And Trent Brown, the highest paid offensive tackle in the league, is the size of Jupiter’s red eye and is nearly impossible to get around.

This season the Raiders are 4th in pressure rate at 19.9%. They’ve allowed eight sacks. They’re 4th in adjusted sack rate at 4.3%. The last time Carr was an above average quarterback was in 2016, when he was sacked 2.18% of the time. It isn’t that good this year. But behind this offensive line he’s been able to put up career highs in completion percentage and yards per attempt.

The Green Bay Packers have a top five pass rush. They failed to hit or sack Carr once. Repeatedly, he had all day to throw against Green Bay. Maybe if he didn’t fumble into the endzone, and if Josh Jacobs wasn’t stopped at the goalline, last week could have gone differently.

Even the Chicago Bears struggled to affect Derek Carr. Take look at Trent Brown (#77) here. His punch throws Leonard Floyd (#94) out of the bar. I don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here.

When Carr can play backyard five M-I-S-S-I-P-P-I football he’s at his best. He can hang back. Scan the defense, find the open receiver, and make the throw. I particularly love the wrist flick. It makes him look better than he is.

The biggest difference between Carr in 2019 and 2016 is he isn’t missing open receivers. He takes his time with the protection. No longer, is he looking to get rid of the ball instantly and immediately, taking the checkdown instead of waiting for deeper passes to bust open. Wake up early. Get that worm. Get a little bit better everyday. Try to do it again the next day.

That’s kind of the problem with Carr though. Every single quarterback in the league is good without pressure. It’s easy to play quarterback when you can listen to an entire episode of Hardcore History before throwing the football. Carr doesn’t make plays outside the structure of the offense. Even when he has plenty of time he can’t create on his own.

He also isn’t elite at anything. The arm strength is just above average. The ball placement could be better. He misses some throws. He doesn’t throw covered receivers open consistently. He’s fairly quick, but you could even tackle him.

If the Raiders could combine this offense with a competent defense they’d be a playoff team. But Carr can’t pull more than his own to make up for it. The Raiders would save $16 million in 2020, and $19 million in 2021 if they traded or released him. Mike Mayock and year three out of ten Jon Gruden will have an interesting decision to make after this season. My guess is he stays around for one more season as Oakland adjusts to the carnival lights and indoor cigarette smoke.

The biggest problem is the Raiders are pretty stale on offense. They don’t create enough big plays. They’re tied for 22nd in plays that gain more than 15 yards. 15 of these are throws to Darren Waller and Tyrell Williams, and 6 are Jacobs runs. The Raiders’ have a ball control offense. They run 6.3 plays per drive, which is tied for 5th. Their average drive takes 3:07, which is tied for 4th.

The bigger problem is this is a problem within a problem hidden deep within their psyche. The Raiders have run only 369 plays, which is tied 27th, and they’ve led only 60 offensive drives which is last in the league. The defense doesn’t give them enough oppurtuntities. They don’t score fast enough. Scoring on every drive is monumental. Every punt is brutal.

Oakland has an enormous hole on offense. Tyrell Williams is a fine deep play number two wide receiver, who is expected to play this weekend. The Raiders were really depending on Antonio Brown to be their big play threat, and lead their passing offense. You know how that story goes. Their other targeted wide receivers are Hunter Renfrow, Ryan Grant, Keelan Doss, Trevor Davis, and J.J. Nelson. I present to you all hope and misery.

Gruden has done an incredible job making up for it by scheming his receivers open. They’re a good screen team, they use route combinations to set up open throws, and run plenty of cute play action passing plays.

Take a look at this open field Kolton Miller block to open up the screen.

This is a nice quick screen to pick up the first.

Darren Waller (#83) sets his route by crashing down on the end. He just sits while the rest of the world flies by. Porch chair rocking passing.

And most importantly, the Raiders scoured the Earth, dug and dug and dug in that blistering Mojave sun to find tight end talent. Darren Waller, a former sixth round pick, who rehabbed his way back into the NFL, is the team’s best receiver. Long, he can stretch the seam and make high point catches. Quick, he can beat slot defenders with shifty moves on quick breaking routes.

The Raiders love turning two and three tight end sets into deep passing opportunities. This is something rarely seen.

They also have Foster Moreau (#87) and Derrick Carrier (#85). It’s a Natural Lite version of the Baltimore Ravens tight end trio passing attack. These three have combined to catch 53 of their 75 targets for 693 yards and 4 touchdowns. Up against them is a Texans’ defense that is 7th in DVOA against tight ends with a rating of -18.1%. The Texans have mainly done this by Tashaun Gipson covering tight ends. He’s questionable this Sunday. Lonnie Johnson Jr. may get the responsibility of covering Waller. But the Raiders have more than one tight end, Houston’s linebackerss are going to have to cover too.

2. WOLFMAN BOOGYING

The same things said about the Raiders’ pass blocking can be said about their run blocking. Hudson and Jackson are powerful on the inside, and it’s impossible to move the line of scrimmage backwards against them. Miller (#74) lives at higher elevations where the Joshua Trees grow. He’s a spectacular second level blocker. Quick feet. Wide base. Anaconda punches that turn the chest purple.

No reason to block the second level. Sure, let’s run into the open field and block the safety.

Outside zone left. Incognito (#64) reaches the ‘3’ tech. Miller gives a hand of help, trusts his man to make the block, and eats the linebacker like one of those snakes that swallows entire eggs without breaking the shell, all of this is true here, except, well, Miller smashes the shell and bathes in the yolk. Jacobs (#28) flicks the right thumbstick up and entombs the defender under a rock slide.

As an entire team, the Raiders are great at blocking the second level. This is one of the reasons why they’re a great outside zone team.

The Raiders also love to do FUN things like pull Brown (#77) into the alley to treat defensive backs like a baseball bat to mailbox.

Running backs aren’t worth first round picks. Running backs aren’t worth big contracts. The offensive line makes the back, the back doesn’t make the offensive line. Most of the time this is true, but there are those rare backs who end up being worth the high draft capital, and maybe worth the big contract when it comes around. Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley, an inshape Ezekiel Elliot all come to mind. Put Jacobs in this class. He’s one of the best running backs in the league.

Jacobs is an elite outside zone runner. He complements his offensive line that provides, and gets more out of it. The Raiders are 4th in adjusted line yards with 4.92. Jacobs is averaging 5.1 yards a carry, and has broken 27 tackles on run plays. He’s tied for fourth with Kamara.

Love this play design. Stacked wide receiver combination left. Motion the outside receiver to pull the cornerback. Outside zone left with pin and pull action on the playside. Marcell Ateman (#88), a 6’4” seventh round pick wide receiver with one catch this season—this is the most hipster NFL sentence ever typed—blocks down on the defensive end, so Miller can pull around the edge and into the alley.

Carr turns away from the running back when he tosses the ball to pull the outside cornerback in. Hudson (#61) cuts the middle linebacker. Miller kicks out the corner. Jacobs spins around for more.

This is outside zone right. You’re probably a Texans’ fan reading a Texans’ site. You probably know what the outside zone is. The Raiders are experts at this run scheme. They reach the outside shoulder well, and, again, they’re spectacular second level blockers. Take all this, and add Jacobs doing surrealistic things like melting clocks, painting self portraits with his heart ripped out showcasing his rib cage, cutbacking across the first and second level defenders, and then, going outside in against Kevin King (#20) in the third level to pull his skeleton out of his skin. Fatality. And then immediately cut inside of free safety Adrian Amos (#31), and finally, after all of that, get yanked down by the jersey.

Or here, cutback inside after taking the pitch to convert an easy score. Jacobs is far from myopic. He sucks in the entire landscape. He’s a National Park photographer.

My tongue is flopping on my desk. I don’t need it. I can learn sign language. My voice is terrible anyways.

The enormous question is if the Raiders can run it against the Houston Texans. They ran it well against the great Bears’ front across the sea. The Texans held Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines to 53 yards on 21 carries, which comes out to 2.52 yards a carry.

I don’t think Oakland will be able to consistently block Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham. No team has. Instead, if they have success on the ground, it’s going to be out on the fringes, out in space, where they can get Miller leading the way for Jacobs, and attack the Texans’ worst tacklers.

3. ESTABLISH THE RUN

The Texans tried to establish the run last week. They scored nine points because of it. They repeatedly ran the ball on first and ten, and repeatedly picked up between zero and three yards and constipated their offense. On first down the Texans’ backs had 12 carries for 30 yards. Deshaun Watson was 13/16 for 200 yards on first down. This is a difference of ten yards per play. Watson didn’t attempt a pass on first and ten until their was 13:04 left in the second quarter. He of course found DeAndre Hopkins for 12 yards.

The Texans’ run offense is at its best when it throws to run, and gets Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson against light boxes. Houston doesn’t have the run blocking offensive line, no matter how many resources they put into it, to control and dominate great run defenses on their own. They need light boxes and advantageous situations. On predictable run downs they struggle.

If Houston can get the Raiders into Nickle early on in downs they should be able to have a successful rushing attack. The Raiders’ linebackers, well, they’re bad folks.

The Raiders have a good run defense. They’re 11th in run defense DVOA at -15.4% and are allowing only 3.4 yards per play, which is 4th. It’s 2019 and Johnathan Hankins (#90) and his waterbed belly are still immovable.

Rookies Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell have also been good run defenders. Crosby (#98) can get off the line and liquefy tight ends then play the ball.

Ferrell (#96) has inspector gadget arms that can extend blockers.

Against this Raiders’ front every run play on first and ten or second and long is a wasted play. Just fold the franchise if Bill O’Brien does this once again. The Texans have a top five quarterback (?) in Deshaun Watson, and the best wide receiver in the league with DeAndre Hopkins. They’re so many matchups along the field for them to exploit.

The Raiders are 30th in pass defense DVOA at -38.1% and are allowing 8.2 net yards an attempt which is 31st. Their only great pass defender is Daryl Worley. Out of 59 qualified cornerbacks he’s 11th in yards allowed per pass and 8th in success rate. Quarterbacks are only completing 50% of their passes when targeting him. Pick anywhere else along the field and throw it there. Someone will be open.

The next man up in their lineup is Trayvon Mullen after the Raiders traded Gareon Conley to Houston for a third round pick. Mullen is kind of an unknown. In these same metrics Conley is 59th and 56th, and is allowing a completion percentage of 73.5%. It’s a shame Houston can’t attack him this weekend.

The best way to attack the Raiders’ coverages are to find their linebackers. Tahir Whitehead (#59) and Nicholas Morrow (#50) are run thumpers. They get lost in pass coverage. In zone coverage they can’t cover the seam.

In man coverage they can’t run laterally to cover anyone.

This should be a BIG game for Duke Johnson, Jordan Akins, and Darren Fells in the passing game. Houston should be able to attack the Raiders like how they attacked Kansas City. Play action. Pick and pop. In that game the Texans’ secondary pass catchers combined forces to catch 12 of their 15 targets for 142 yards and 1 touchdown.

Establishing the run is death and is a lie. Don’t do it. Throw on first and ten. Run play action. Attack the Raiders’ linebackers. Score lots of points.

4. HOPKINS-STILLS

Will Fuller V is many things. Golden Rapunzel that blazes in the sunlight like mystical fall afternoons. Dynamic deep threat who can torch anyone in man coverage. Devoted devourer of presnap cushions. Lover of touchdown catches. Slippery fingers. The type of guy who makes a good passing offense great. The problem is he’s always hurt. Last week he had one catch before being yanked out with a hamstring injury.

Luckily, the Texans sweetened the Laremy Tunsil trade with Kenny Stills. He doesn’t have the same speed Fuller has, but he still has the jets to run deep. Fuller’s absence shouldn’t prevent Houston from throwing downfield. Last week he had 4 catches for 105 yards and averaged 26.3 yards a catch. The Texans can run the same route combinations with Hopkins and Stills that they ran with Hopkins and Fuller.

The Texans need to understand this. Watson is a great deep thrower. The only fear they have against the Raiders is playing from behind. If this happens, the Raiders can control the ball and clock and evaporate time. Houston can’t let this happen. They need to throw early, deep, and often. Fuller’s absence shouldn’t prevent this.

5. CLEAN SHEETS

Adding to their coverage issues, the Raiders can’t rush the passer either. They have 10 sacks this season, and are 22nd in adjusted sack rate. They’re 25th in pressure rate at 25.7%. Their front four combined of Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Benson Mawoya, and Johnathan Hankins, have combined for 7.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 30 pressures.

Mayowa (#91) is their best pass rusher. He’s 28 years old and is the type of player the Ravens should trade for like a sixth round pick. He’s an edge rusher that doesn’t win with speed. Instead he gets to the quarterback with power rushes and inside moves.

Crosby has been better than Ferrell at rushing the passer. He has some juice. Each of his two sacks took a while to get there. That being said, he has a strong punch, has a nice inside swim, and he plays hard. Watson can hold onto the ball for too long. Houston has to pass block forever. If not, Crosby (#98) can make some plays.

Ferrell (#96) is mostly arms. His one sack took forever, and it came against Joe Flacco back when there was an infield on the football field. He’s better at being a fence along the line of scrimmage to knock down passes. He’s knocked down two of them this season. It’s hard being an edge rusher without top speed.

The Raiders don’t have anyone who can give their first four pass blockers any trouble. Mayowa could give Roderick Johnson some problems, and beat him with power and punches, kind of like what Jaball Sheard did last week.

Instead the Raiders have to blitz, and even then, they aren’t very good at it. Both linebackers struggle at creating any pressure as blizters. The Raiders have to bring safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Karl Joseph, which only exposes them to deep passes. They also like to overload one side of the line scrimmage with three hands down rushers. It usually doesn’t work.

The Texans also shouldn’t be able to rush the passer either. J.J. Watt doesn’t have an easy matchup available to him if Trent Brown is able to play. D.J. Reader has cooled down as an interior rusher, maybe he’s tired, the interior blockers he’s faced have been better since the Atlanta game. Whitney Mercilus is wide and looping and should struggle like he did last week against Anthony Castonzo. Houston had one sack against the Colts. It took 5.3 seconds.

They’re going up against a similar offensive line that pass protects well, and knows how to pick up blitzes. Their only real hope is to use inside stunts to create open rush lanes for J.J. Watt. That’s about it.

This game should come down to Deshaun Watson v. Derek Carr. 7 v. 7 football. Both teams should have trouble rushing the passer and running the football. If this is the case, the Texans should win by ten or so. Deshaun Watson and the Texans’ pass catchers are better than Derek Carr and his gang. But it still is the Texans. Every game is close. Every game is complicated and conflicting. That being said, as long as they don’t fall behind they’ll be alright.

6. ALWAYS BELIEVE WOMEN

They promised me you wouldn’t be hurt,” he said. “And you haven’t been, really. I mean, suppose you’d had a baby and lost it; wouldn’t it be the same? And we’re getting so much in return.