The Texans’ offense has been inconsistent at best this season. Despite the big trade made by General Manager Bill O’Brien with the woefully inept Dolphins to bring in Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills, it’s safe to say that the Texans’ offense hasn’t found its footing four games into the season.
They played the Saints and Chargers tight and were able to put some points on the board, but against the Jaguars and the Panthers, they were barely able to crack double digits. The big question is why, but the answer to that question would require pages of analysis on O’Brien’s bad play calling, the offensive line’s inability to block, and Deshaun Watson holding the ball too long. An underrated aspect for the offense’s struggles is that Keke Coutee has been missing this season. His lack of production is also a potential explanation for why the offense stalls.
A little over a year ago, the Texans beat the Colts in overtime for their first win of the season, stopping a three-game opening skid. The Texans would go on to win nine straight and win the AFC South. However, the biggest story to come out of that Colts game was the emergence of the Texans’ secret weapon, rookie slot receiver Keke Coutee. Coutee had 11 receptions for 109 yards in that contest; he was found by Watson over and over again to move the sticks.
It was a big deal because it completed the receiving corps transformation from good to dangerous. Often you’ll hear football pundits talk about the different types of receivers that a team needs to find success on offense. All of these receivers use different skills to complement each other and give the quarterbacks numerous options on each play. The Texans finally had a short passing option with Keke emerging in the slot.
The Texans already had DeAndre Hopkins, arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL. Hopkins plays the possession type receiver. I don’t mean this as a slight to Nuk; it’s one of the highest compliments I can pay him because it means that he’s trustworthy. He is a sure-handed as they come and is still able to stretch the field. I would argue he is the most or one of the most complete receivers in the game today. He was the go-to option whenever Watson was in trouble last season. No arguments here. Nuk has a legit chance to be a Hall of Famer.
Opposite Nuk, the Texans had deep threat extraordinaire Will Fuller. Fuller was used to stretch the field and scare defenses deep. Watson and Fuller seemed to have great chemistry with Fuller having 32 receptions for 503 yards and 4 TDs before he tore his ACL against the Dolphins in Week 8.
With Keke playing the slot, it was expected the Texans would have different types of receivers to stretch a defense thin and cause matchup problems galore. Of course, as previously mentioned, Fuller got hurt and that put an end to the dream many Texans fans had of an offense spreading teams out and throwing the ball all over the yard.
Keke finished 2018 with 28 receptions for 287 yards and a TD. He added on a stat line of 11 catches, 110 yards, and a touchdown in Houston’s playoff loss to the Colts. Despite the season ending in such a frustrating way, Texans fans had reasons to be optimistic and expectations for Keke Coutee soared.
This is what has happened since then. Through four games, Coutee has posted a line of three catches on 18 targets for 18 yards and no touchdowns. That’s dreadful. He’s been relegated from slot safety net to afterthought.
First, Keke started the season injured. He hurt his ankle in the preseason and was unable to start the season healthy. This cost him the Saints game and has contributed to his slow start, as it looks like Watson and Coutee just haven’t been able to get on the same page. As useless as preseason may seem, it does actually help with things like timing and comfort in an offensive system.
Second, Kenny Stills showed up from the Dolphins and began to steal Coutee’s snaps. In the two games where both receivers have been healthy and available the entire game, Stills has outsnapped Keke 56 to 46. It’s not a large margin, but when you’re the third receiver, it can make a huge difference on your overall impact on the game. Kenny Stills has the ability to play in the slot and is bigger than Keke. He has also looked really good in his limited opportunities while learning this offense. In fact, through four games, Stills is posting a career best 17.1 yards a reception. This number will obviously drop as he plays more throughout the season, but it’s a good start.
Now that Keke is healthy and Stills will seemingly be limited due to injury, many people expect Keke to reemerge for the Texans. I would be quick to offer caution on that. Keke played 40 snaps against the Panthers and finished with just one catch for 11 yards. This is a big deal. The slot receiver needs to be the hot read when the blitz comes and should be the first read when it comes to short yardage/third down situations. Combined with the facts that the Texans went 4 of 11 on third downs and Watson was sacked six times by the Panthers, it’s obvious that Keke hasn’t found a rhythm in the offense yet this season. It’s not all on Coutee, but to have him come up big in those spots would have helped the offense tremendously.
If the Texans’ offense hopes to become more consistent this year, they need to learn how to optimize the weapons at their disposal. This starts with Bill O’Brien (I’ve been told the “O” stands for “offensive genius”), but in the likely event he is unable to spark the team with his play calling, Keke Coutee will need to find a way to step up in a big way.