clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Texans-Falcons Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

Texans. Falcons. Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub head back to Elm Street.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Sometimes you only get once chance at something. The opportunity was finally there. Those previous failings disappeared. 28-3. Smashed at home, as the one seed, down 42-14; scoring two points in a Wildcard playoff game; blowing a 17-0 lead in a NFC title game, that should have been us is what you thought in the middle of January. Those were the alligator rivers, and jagged mountain ranges, drowning and broken, that brought upon all that heart break and devastation. Resurrection every summer. The same sort of death every winter. Soon jubilation and confetti showers. What will I say? What will I do? I don’t even know. I thought about this for so long.

Then you are 34. You peaked at 31. The last and only chance you’ll ever have is gone. Some suns only rise once. Back in this stadium again. If only this, or that, or this, or that happened. I can’t think like that.

Certain aspects of life just aren’t for certain people. Some can’t sleep outside, others aren’t meant for marriage and kids and steady work and obedience, some can’t stay in one place, and others, just coagulate into a bland mash, banal and ordinary. There will never be that big break. There is no special destiny, no perfect reality. Everything and all of it will always be the same. The majority is bland and tasteless. Most will never be great. Most quarterbacks will never be elite.

HIT IT

1.) SEE IT SWIMMIN’

Look at the following stat line. Close your eyes. Let it sink in.

124/176 (70.5%) 1,325 YARDS 8 TDs 6 INTs 7.5 Y/A 10 SACKS 6.72 NY/A 213 DYAR 6.8% DVOA

What do you think? You are impressed by the high completion rate, the yards per attempt, the sacks and interceptions are a little too high, but there’s still a relatively high efficiency even with the high volume. It all looks pretty good. A fringe top ten quarterback, who is a few breaks away from being top five, top seven, fringe elite.

Then you watch him play, and what you see is a deteriorating mind. A quarterback who has been driven insane by an interior rush he can’t escape, ball placement that is all over the place, and absurd play calls that put him in an absurd space.

Ryan was spectacular last season, but the defense was wretched. He had to do it all. He was valiant in a 7-9 season. Throwing for 4,924 yards, completing 69.4% of his passes, averaging 8.1 yards an attempt, and throwing 35 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. It wasn’t 2016 All-Pro MVP spectacular. It was just really [KITTEN]ing good.

Lost among the numbers was the start of the decline. The Falcons were 4-4, flying back from the ashes of 1-4, same story, different bird. The chance to make a run was there. Cleveland (2-6-1), Dallas (3-5), New Orleans (7-1), Baltimore (4-5), Green Bay (3-4-1), were their opponents’ records at the time.

The Browns ran the ball for 211 yards. Nick Chubb gone for 92 to make it 28-10. Ryan unable to find the open receiver in the flat. Stripped and sacked on 4th and 3 to squash it. On the sideline, howling into the void, like each morning when we get on with our day, screaming songs on interstates, putting makeup on at stop signs, listening to podcasts in traffic, working, working, working, coarse, devastated by the triviality of life, terrorized by meaninglessness, condensed all the way down into a singular scream, lugubrious and bellowing. 12 years. A life of hard work. One’s entire experience committed to this. And for what?

From that point on the Falcons lost their next four. Back into the ashes. Their remains cremains. From 4-4 to 4-9, everything had fallen apart, and continued to as they won their last three games to their own detriment, hurting their draft capital in the process.

In their last 13 games the Falcons are 4-9 with wins over the 3-10 Arizona Cardinals, 6-8 Carolina Panthers, 5-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the 1-0 Philadelphia Eagles. The numbers say Ryan has played well, but that doesn’t tell the truth. It’s only a minuscule sliver. He’s strapped and rocking in the corner, leading an offense down the Congo, descending into madness.

Dirk Koetter hasn’t helped him either with some of these play calls. After whispering into Jameis Winston’s ear and telling him to do bad things, he’s putting Ryan in some nasty situations. Too often Ryan drops back with nothing open, and Julio Jones doubles, fighting to get open. It’s a lot of crossing recievers with no one working off each other. Without any confidence in his offensive line he rolls out ejected into empty rambling space.

Ryan is also missing ooooooopen down field throws. On throws that are greater than 20+ yards in the air, Ryan is 5/19 for 136 yards and 1 touchdown to 2 interceptions.

From 10-20 yards through the air it’s different. On these throws he’s 27/34 for 412 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s been especially great at finding Austin Hooper in the middle of the field, and ate up the zone coverage the Colts ran, and redirected the Titans’ sideline spotlights.

Like last season, the Falcons are relying entirely on Ryan, and once again, it hasn’t worked. The Falcons have attempted 176 passes, the 2nd most, and have run 46 plays when leading, 30th, ahead of only Arizona with 10 and Miami with 3. Despite all the yards, and a high completion percentage, the Falcons have scored only 70 points. They are averaging 17.5 points a game, which is 26th. This isn’t nearly enough. They have allowed 99 points, 24.8 points a game, which is 22nd. This differential comes out to an expected win loss record of 1.2 to 2.8. Atlanta isn’t unlucky. Their offense is 21st in offensive DVOA. 19th in passing and 25th in rushing. They are a talented football team that is playing poorly.

In Ryan’s best years, the entire offense wasn’t on him. The outside zone run game was deliberate and beautiful. He excelled throwing play action off of it. The defense during their Superbowl run was terrible for the first three quarters of the year, then turned it on and started forcing turnovers down the stretch.

Ryan is a great quarterback. He isn’t an elite, transcendent quarterback, who can carry 52 others to something more than kind of crappy. The Falcons forced him to do it last season. They are forcing him to do it again this season. Once again it isn’t working. And by the time they correct this, he’ll probably already be too old and too forgone to recover.

The mind can be shredded into so many pieces. The body can take only so many hits. The heart can break only so many times.

2.) INTERIOR BLOCKING

The Falcons made two disastrous moves this offseason. These decisions led to a full blown meltdown. They signed guards James Carpenter, teams will never learn to not sign former Seattle offensive linemen, and Jamon Brown. They also drafted guard Chris Lindstrom in the first roud after these decisions. He’s out for the season with a broken foot.

The Falcons’ interior blocking has murdered their season. Ryan can handle some exterior pressure. Like all pocket passers with longevity he can step up and evade and deal with those things in his peripherals. It’s all the trouble in front of him that’s derailing things. He doesn’t have the speed to run sideways and escape. Both Carpenter and Brown have been awful, and Alex Mack is in the middle of a down year.

This is a bootleg pass where the interior is screwing up a block that is easy to make. It’s a lot of sloshing around. No one wants makes a block.

Here Jurrell Casey splits the double team and strip sacks Ryan.

The exterior has blocked well too. Kaleb McGary is a brute right tackle. He redirects pass rushers easily with strength alone. Hands on a defender is instant death, like an outback snake bite. Jake Matthews is above average, and can continuously makes his blocks. The problems are on the interior.

Even when Ryan has plenty of time he doesn’t trust his offensive line. Ryan has spent way too much time scrambling, and fading right in fear once it starts ticking. Rarely does anything good come from this.

This season the Falcons are 11th in adjusted sack rate and have allowed 10 sacks. This is what happens when you throw the ball 176 times in 4 games. They are 18th in pressure rate at 28.7%. When the pressure comes, it’s typically inescapable for Ryan. It’s through the middle. It’s suffocating.

This also affects the run game. McGary and Brown have struggled getting any sort of feel together. Second level leaving is mistimed. Rarely do their double teams soak up both levels. Carpenter hasn’t done much of anything. The Falcons are 21st in adjusted line yards, and most importantly, they are 26th in second level adjusted line yards. They aren’t blocking the second level, and their backs aren’t making anyone miss.

The run game has too much Devonta Freeman. He doesn’t cut like he used to. He’s a straight line, and isn’t a lovely array of jagged shapes. He’s averaging 3.3 yards a carry, is 28th in DYAR, and 37th in DVOA. Football Outsiders has him credited with 13 broken tackles, but Pro Football Reference has him down for 6. The latter better matches the eyes. Ito Smith should be utilized more, but brains can smash into the confines of the skull. He is averaging 5.7 yards an attempt, and has a DVOA of 26.1% compared to Freeman’s -24.8%. I know Freeman is paid to get the majority of the carries, but the wealth needs to be spread out.

The Texans have problems on the back end. They need to create a pass rush. They’ve feasted on blind side tackles and sacks. The majority of their rush has come from J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus on the exterior. They’ve combined for 8 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 22 pressures. The interior has been composed of D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, and Charles Omenihu used in a variety of esoteric ways. Each player has four pressures this season.

The fluidity and flexibility is important. Watt and Mercilus on the edge isn’t the best matchup. Unless there’s interior pressure Mercilus will have trouble against Matthews, and he’ll have to be more than wide and looping. Watt v. McGary is the type of thing that only I care about. McGary has the strength to bully Watt out wide, but will occasionally struggle getting there on time.

Houston will need to get pressure inside. That means Watt should bump to a 4i and pair with McKinney or Jacob Martin wide, and D.J. Reader as the opposite defensive tackle. Toss in some fresh Omenihu bullrushes and Cunningham blitzes, and Houston should be able to leave Ryan rolling right, and into nothingness, or standing with an apple in his mouth.

3.) IF ONLY

Every season sounds the same with Atlanta. Their defense is so good…if it stays healthy. It never does. They are always hurt. They are tiny and fast and can’t mash against these big football playing men. On paper it makes sense. They have players that are a defensive coordinators ideal against the spread, passing heavy postmodern times the game resides in. Atlanta has plenty of great athletes, who are multidimensional, and in theory, can play a variety of roles. Deion Jones is a linebacker with safety speed. Takkarist McKinley is an edge defender who can run like a linebacker. Vic Beasley is really fast. Grady Jarrett can play the run and rush the passer on the interior. Keanu Neal is a bird of prey swirling around the secondary.

I never fall for it. I copy and paste the same phrases and say the same things. But, for one game, I have to admit, I did. Against the Eagles my internal monologue, that great trickle of consciousness, seeped Wait a second is the Falcons’ defense good? They held the Eagles to 20 points. 49 rushing yards on 21 attempts. Keanu Neal played man coverage against Zach Ertz through the majority of the game and kept him to 8 catches on 16 targets for 72 yards. Without his blankie, Carson Wentz was red faced and flummoxed.

Then Neal tore his Achilles in the endzone against the Colts. Since then the Falcons have allowed 38 points in the last game and half. The secondary is all over the place. Erratic. Giving up yards after the catch. And Trufant has been zapped of confidence without any sort of over the top help.

On top of all of that, they are running some absurd coverages, making some blatant mistakes. The Dan Quinn era everyone.

Neal has been the adhesive, the great tree, that has kept the secondary together. Since his injury their back end is grotesque. The Falcons don’t have the pass rush to make up for it either. Their pass rush is composed of four players Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Takkarist McKinley, and Adrian Clayborn.

They are creating pressure, and have a pressure rate of 32.8% (6th), but they don’t create enough meaningful rushes. They have only 5 sacks, an adjusted sack rate of 5%, and are allowing third down conversions 51% of the time (29th).

Beasley is the biggest problem. He has one move. An edge and rip. It’s easy to step up and away from, and only matters if another rusher assists him. These probably are charred as pressure, but in reality, they are empty and don’t matter at all.

His individual rushes only work when he has a great jump off the snap.

Without this, or a teammate collapsing the pocket, he’s standing in the outfield.

Clayborn and McKinley are brute powers. They’ve had trouble closing the gap and actually getting to the quarterback once they beat their block. And Jarrett is phenomenal. It’s just rough on the interior dealing with dozens of blockers and having to run through hands and arms and teeth.

The Falcons don’t blitz often. This should be a game where Deshaun Watson doesn’t really have to worry about the pass rush. The Falcons are a pretty straight ahead rushing team, and the Texans have the pass blockers to cover them up. Add this to a crappy secondary, and the Texans should, in theory, score a bunch of points. It’s still the Texans though. Theories are rarely a box score reality.

4.) 1A AND 1B

Who’s the best wide receiver in the league? Quick. The first name that pops in your head. DeAndre Hopkins. Julio Jones. I’m a mind reader. I wouldn’t argue against either of these positions. That being said, each player has been like the 50th best wide receiver in football this year. Chris Godwin has actually been the most productive.

Let’s look at the numbers:

They’re pretty much the same. Nearly identical. Twins with slightly different moles.

Eventually they’ll both be murdering opposing secondaries. Sew them up and keep feeding and feeding and feeding them. Sunday is as good of a day as any for each one. Johnathan Joseph was running behind receivers last week against Carolina. Curtis Samuel had him a few times. Kyle Allen just barely missed. Lonnie Johnson is a newborn giraffe, bloody, plopped on the ground right next to the placenta. He’s spinning around in man coverage and the only nice thing you can say is that he’s tall. The Texans are 20th at covering an opponent’s one wide receiver.

The Falcons have Desmond Trufant and Isaiah Oliver on the outside. Trufant is allowing 26.5 yards a completion and 2 touchdowns. He’s faced 11 targets, and they have traveled an average of 17.7 yards through the air. He’s one v. one on the sideline and he hasn’t been up to it since playing pretty well in week one. Strong safety Ricardo Allen has allowed a catch rate of 97.7%, 12.4 yards a completion, and 2 touchdowns. Oliver isn’t much better. He’s allowed 3 touchdowns this season. The Falcons are 30th at covering an opponent’s number one wide receiver.

All of this doesn’t matter if the Texans don’t throw the ball downfield, or if Deshaun Watson barely overthrows his wide open receivers, or if Ryan is running away from phatom interior pressure. The light is a different tint. I think both teams will in this game.

5.) DON’T RUN THE BALL

The one concern in Houston Texans land is that the Texans will play down to their opponent, which they do, and will be mired in it with some team they should beat by two scores, which they probably will be. The path to them falling down this same hole, isn’t a white rabbit obsessed with all that ticking, it’s running the ball against the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons have a great run defense this season. They had a rushing defense DVOA of 2.2% against Minnesota, -20.8% against Philadelphia, -22.5% against Indianapolis, and -37.4% against Tennessee. This season they are allowing only 3.7 yards a carry (8th), have a stuff rate of 26% (4th), and have a run defense DVOA of -19.1% (7th).

Allen Bailey has been doing what he did in Kansas City all those years, sit over the tackle and circumvent running backs. The backfield is a gulf coast Sunday timeshare for Jarrett. And from there Devonte Campbell and Deion Jones make tackle after tackle. Campbell has 26 run tackles, Jones has 15. They are also making tackles in the backfield too. As a team they have 28 run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, leading to obvious passing situations that they never stop.

Houston shouldn’t bash their head against their English classroom desk. They should throw the ball all the time. Give me that play sheet. Don’t even think about running it. Keep slinging it and slinging it. Get the passing offense back on track. Use this as time to prepare for next week when they head up to Kansas City.

6.) AWWWWOOOOOO

He turned the corner. There was a man on all fours halfway down the corridor, between him and the stairs. Danny froze. The man looked up at him. His eyes were tiny and red. he was dressed in some sort of silvery spangled costume. A dog costume, Danny realized. Protruding from this strange creation was a long and floppy tail with a puff on the end. A zipper ran down up the back of the costume to the neck. To the left of him was a dog’s or a wolf’s head, blank eye sockets above the muzzle, the mouth opened, in a meangingless snarl that showed the rug’s black and blue pattern between fangs, that appeared to be paper mache. The man’s mouth and chin and cheeks were smeared with blood. He began to growl at Danny. He was grinning, but the growl was real. It was deep in his throat. A chilling primative sound. Then he began to bark. His teeth were also stained red. He began to crawl toward Danny.