Before the season, most pundits (some folks are more -dits than others) had the Texans finishing the season in the 7-9 to 9-7 range. There were a few outliers, but in general with a schedule that originally included QBs like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, Pat Mahomes, Andrew Luck, Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, Nick Foles, Joe Flacco and Marcus Mariota, 10-6 looked like about the best that could be expected.
The Texans have been a bit up (big road wins at the Chiefs and Chargers) and down (embarrassing home loss against the Panthers and their backup QB Kyle Allen), but a 6-3 record and a game lead in the division gives them the chance to get greedy. They are scheduled to get back three DBs in Bradley Roby, Tashaun Gipson and Lonnie Johnson, super WR Will Fuller, and critical LT Laremy Tunsil (who has the right initials for the job) in the next few weeks. If they can weather a tough three-game stretch after the break (Baltimore, Indy and New England) with a couple wins, they would be in position to leapfrog that 10-6 record. What do they have to do? Here are five critical focus points.
Protect Deshaun Watson.
This is not just a cliché at this point. This is a critical criteria for success. In their three losses, Watson has taken 5 sacks a game, including a season-worst six sacks against the Saints and the Panthers. The third most (4 sacks) occurred in the just barely escaped 13-12 win over the Jags in their first matchup. On the other hand, Watson has only suffered 1.67 sacks in the six wins, which has improved to one sack per game in Houston's last four wins. When Watson has time and reasonable protection, this is a lethal offense that can effortlessly move the ball down field.
The Texans have been the hare versus the tortoise so far this season, being outscored 23-48 in the first quarter and yet able to overcome this for their current 6-3 record. They have been shutout in the first quarter of four games and scored 3 or less points seven times. They have maxed out at 7 points twice. If they have any hope in their battles with the Ravens and the Pats coming up, they must do a better job early in the game. The 7-2 Ravens have outscored their opponents 85-24 in the first quarter, have only been shutout once in that opening quarter, and have scored 10 or more points five times. The 8-1 Pats have outscored their opponents an even more impressive 87-17 in the first quarter. This was an ungodly 77-7 before the Ravens game when Baltimore outscored them 10-0 on the way to the Pats' first loss of the season. Coach BOB, you have to be on it from the beginning to win these types of games.
So far this season, it seems like the timing on the turnovers has been as important as the quantity. Against the Saints, right after the Saints had scored to cut into an 11 point lead, Watson threw a poor judgment interception that led to the Saints taking the lead to start the 4th quarter. The ill-fated DeAndre Hopkins throw and resulting interception turned the Panthers game around on a dime. The Keke Coutee juggle into a pick ended the Texans' chances of a comeback on the Colts.
The Texans have been a little above average as far as protecting the ball this season, ranking 12th in the league with 11 TOs. On the other side of the ball, they have been in the top quarter, running 8th with 14 TOs on the season. On the plus side, Deshaun Watson has not had an interception or a fumble in his last two games. It has not hurt that Hop has not thrown any passes in a while either.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Texans have 5 interceptions, with one by Whitney Mercilus and four split between their safeties. You notice no cornerback is included in that roll call. That seems almost impossible. That also needs to turn around. The Texans have been solid causing and recovering fumbles, mostly through their pass rush, which brings us to the next focus point.
The Texans are 21st in the NFL with 21 sacks, while playing with J.J. Watt for 8 games. Finding ways to the QB would seem to be a huge focus area for the balance of the season. While containment of Lamar Jackson, rather than sacks, may be the most critical criteria against the Ravens, Houston needs to find ways to pressure, hit, and sack the rest of the QBs on the schedule now that teams can double team Mercilus instead of Watt. Brennan Scarlett, who had 2 sacks against the Jags last week, may be a critical under the radar component. D.J. Reader, who has been breaking out this season, is also important, especially against Tom Brady, who does not like that pocket collapsing up the middle on him. Wherever it comes from, the pressure, even if it does not result in sacks, is an area that the Texans need to improve down the stretch.
The Texans' 1,285 yards and 5 yards per attempt are both a terrific 4th in the NFL after 10 weeks of the season. A rejuvenated Carlos Hyde (704 yds/ 4.7 yd/att) is doing the lion share of the work, but both Duke Johnson (287 yds / 5.3 yds/att) and Watson (279 yds / 5.4 yds/att) have given the defenses two other components to worry about.
The running game helps slow down the pass rush on Deshaun and helps the Texans control the clock, which makes their play action and their RPO that much more effective. Maybe BOB shouldn't call a run on every first down (well, that is what it seems like), but the Texans have a very balanced offense and this gives the opponents a lot to think about when facing them every week.
If the Texans can succeed in 4 or 5 of these areas every week, the stretch run of this season will take care of itself.