Football marketers, the behemoths driving the four wheeler to get eyes and ears on football games, usually use the same strategy to drive attention to a game—quarterback battles. Even though they are never on the field at the same time, the throwers of the football are the staple headline pitted against each other of nearly every BIG game.
Patrick Mahomes v. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger v. Kurt Warner, Cam Newton v. Russell Wilson, Tony Romo v. Matthew Stafford. BIG BOLD headlines. A Ford truck driving up some desert rock. High fret guitar solo. Football robot. Make sure to watch the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Can the Seahawks continue to break tackles and limit their blocking issues against a ferocious Carolina front makes you want to dead lift the lithosphere, not drink lite beer.
For us, over here, in this little Texans burrow, we’ve been an electron buzzing around the outer shell and staring at the nucleus. Quarterback battles had nothing to do with us. J.J. Watt would wave the stars and stripes around. Our Rapunzel, the best wide receiver in the league, would stand front in center. No one cared about our quarterbacks. Matt Schaub play action doesn’t mean much to anyone but us. Brian Hoyer. Tom Savage. Induce gag reflexes. Pulling the lettuce out of ham and mayonnaise sandwiches and talking about boys over chocolate milk at the cool kids table is something we never got to do.
All of that has changed now. Deshaun Watson is a top five MVP candidate, one of the best quarterbacks in the league, the adjective young doesn’t need to be attached to it. And now he’s the one putting Houston in primetime matches, and playing valuable important football games, that leaves the television behind the bar on Sunday Ticket instead of NFL Redzone.
Deshaun Watson v. Lamar Jackson
This is the epicenter.
1. THE UNSTOPPABLE FORCE
Of all the art I’ve consumed: Virginia Woolf novels, Desert Oracle podcasts, Mary Oliver poetry, Chuck Klosterman essays, the Baltimore Ravens’ rush offense might be my favorite. I’ll have to revisit this in a few years. Greg Roman has stretched the numbers advantage as far as it can possibly go, and the fabric of all time and reality will continue to spread until it shreds, allowing the human race to burst out of the chains of this limited reality, and into dimensions far past and more beautiful than this one.
Good. That’s better.
2. IT KIND OF MATCHES UP
Since I watched the film, I’ve gone for walks, I’ve stood in the shower until all the hot water disappeared, I’ve driven my fast car really fast down the interstates, deep and thinking about how to stop this Ravens’ rushing attack. And I’ve come up with nothing. They attacked Pittsburgh, Seattle, and New England’s defense in three different ways, and brutalized each.
During each of these games, each team did a few things that helped stifle the run game occasionally, but over the course of the game, Jackson was still keeping and breaking outside and picking up 11 yards on 2nd and 7, and Mark Ingram was turning outside zone runs into 53 yard gains.
Win a one v. one block to make a tackle in the backfield.
Flood the same gap to overwhelm the mesh point.
Put a defender in each gap and stack the box like mattresses on a legume.
Utilize a freak edge defender who can play both the back and the keep at the same time.
Utilize an edge defender who can chase from the backside and make tackles in the backfield.
Press the red button and demolish pullers.
Bring defensive backs to balance the numbers game and run well timed blitzes that Baltimore’s monstrous offensive line can’t pick up.
These things all worked, but they only worked every once in a while. The rare stubbed toe along a beautiful life. Baltimore was able to change where they attacked to counter each.
The Texans kind of match up alright against the Ravens’ league leading offense. This is the best run defense the Ravens will have faced. The Texans had an all-time great run defense last season, and this season they’re a fringe top five one. They’re sixth in run defense DVOA and 13th in yards allowed per carry. The problem is their run defense is built from the inside up. It starts with D.J. Reader, then carries upwards to Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham, and then up to Justin Reid cleaning things up from there. They should be able to hold up fairly well when Baltimore runs straight at them, but these are changeups for the Ravens’ run offense.
The biggest issues for Houston’s run defense are they don’t create negative plays, they lack top edge speed, and the secondary doesn’t tackle well. The Texans are tied last with Kansas City for run stops that allow zero yards or less with 35. That’s the best way to limit the Ravens’ rush attack. Get quick penetration. Devour the handoff. Complicate reads. The weakest link on the Ravens’ offensive line is Orlando Brown Jr. Angelo Blackson and Carlos Watkins aren’t going to win that matchup. D.J. Reader could, but he’s a master at holding blocks and allowing the linebackers to run free, instead shooting the gap and making backfield tackles.
The Ravens are 1st in the league on left edge runs, averaging 7.1 yards a carry, and 6th on right edge runs, averaging 5.34 yards a carry. On the edges Houston has Whitney Mercilus and Brennan Scarlett. Both are plus run defenders when matched up against secondary blockers: tight ends, fullbacks, wide receivers, but they can get swallowed up by offensive tackles, and neither one is a sprinter.
Each wins with strength, taking on half a block, extending their hands, and finding the ball from there. Both should be liabilities when Jackson is reading them. They don’t have the speed needed to play both the back and Jackson at the same time. The one player that in theory who should be able to do this Jacob Martin. It will be interesting to see if Romeo Crennel uses him as a 3-4 outside linebacker cheetah after spending the entire season playing almost exclusively on passing downs. But even then, the Ravens could attack him on the edge by running straight at him.
As a team, Houston is 20th in defensive broken tackle rate. They’ve missed 59 tackles this season. This hasn’t been because of their front seven, but because of their secondary. The open field defenders have missed 44 of their 59 tackles. Out in those Dakota plains, they’ll be stuck trying to stop speed options, Jackson keeps, and jet sweeps. Jackson has been impossible to tackle too. He’s broken 29 rushing tackles, and the Ravens led by his elusiveness, are 4th in broken tackle rate as entire team.
Houston is going to try and stop the Ravens run attack by playing disciplined smart football. Maintaining gap control. Tying up first level blockers. Hoping McKinney and Cunningham can chase enough tackles from there. They haven’t played a rushing attack like this. It’s unknown waters. Let’s see if they can swim.
The Ravens depend on their chimera of Mark Andrews, the fire breathing lion’s head, Nick Boyle, the strong blocking goat’s body, and Hayden Hurst, the slippery serpent’s tail, to motion and showcase coverages presnap, pull and block the second level and open field, attack the seam on play action, and run quick hitting out and crossing routes.
Houston also has been great at covering tight ends this season. They’re 3rd in pass defense DVOA at -29.7% when tight ends are targeted, and are allowing 43.8 yards a game against tight ends. They controlled Travis Kelce and Darren Waller in previous matchups, players similar to Andrews. And this week, lock down tight end extraordinaire Tashaun Gipson maybe back to help things.
The Texans matchup almost as well as you can against Baltimore. They have a good run defense, and they can cover tight ends, the two most important components of trying to stop them, but there’s one problem.
3. SHORT AND QUICK
The Texans have been awful this season at defending the short passing game. Quick crossing routes that run across the field have given them fits. They’re allowing a completion percentage of 73.5%, 7.1 yards an attempt, a DVOA of 6.8% (27th), and have given up 15 touchdowns compared to 2 interceptions against passes that travel 15 yards or less through the air.
For the Ravens, the deep passing game is a play action change up. It isn’t a foundation of their success. Jackson has been able to read and manipulate, make quick decisions, and put the ball in a great spot all season when they throw short. Jackson has completed 74.4% of his short passes for 1,400 yards, which is 7 yards an attempt, and has thrown 11 touchdowns to 3 interceptions.
The Ravens do this in a variety of ways. Jackson can recognize obvious matchup advantages presnap and assume his teammate will win. It’s 4th and 2. It’s Andrews against a linebacker. Jackson goes his way immediately and puts it only where he can get it.
Goal line play action. Andrews v. a linebacker. Easy decision.
They love to use deep routes to clear out the center of the field and run crossing routes underneath it. This is a late rub my Andrews to get Marquise Brown extra yards after the catch. Stephon Gilmore, the league’s best cornerback, stands no chance chasing to stop this pass.
They can turn heavy formations into five routes. Jackson does a nice job reading deep to short to dump off easy yards to Boyle against zone coverage.
Adding to all of this is their offensive line. The Ravens can pass protect forever. Jackson has plenty of time to scan the defense and make decisions with a sweater on with all the information available to him.
And in the rare occasions when he can’t find anything, or there’s a bit of pressure, he can always take off and run forever. Jackson has scrambled 27 times this season and is picking up 11 yards a play when he does.
Ignore the sack numbers. Reincarnated into a great Sequoia. Burned up. Became a man again. Lifetimes passed for the Texans to pick up sacks against Jacksonville. Without J.J. Watt they don’t have a consistent source of pressure. Scarlett or Martin aren’t going to consistently beat Brown Jr., especially not when the ball is out in 2.37 seconds. Houston could throw Mercilus against him, but they’ve used him against left tackles exclusively this season, and Mercilus’s rushes take forever to get there.
Blitzing is a scary proposition against Jackson. He can evaporate and congeal twenty yards down the field. If they do blitz, they’ll have to try and force him towards spy defenders, and even then, he can escape from anything.
Instead Houston should be stuck having to cover. Gipson is listed as questionable. Bradley Roby is out. Recent pickup Vernon Hargreaves III probably won’t play. Johnathan Joseph isn’t someone you want chasing drag routes in man coverage. Justin Reid will probably have to cover Andrews on his own if Gipson doesn’t make it, leaving a deep safety combination of Mike Adams and Jahleel Addae. Lonnie Johnson Jr. is still dealing with a bumped head. Gareon Conley has chased back to play the ball, but really hasn’t been very good in man coverage. It’s been more noise than signal so far.
Even if Houston can stop the run, which doesn’t seem likely, Jackson should be able to quick pass them to death.
4. GET IT GOING
The numbers say the Ravens have a terrible run defense. This isn’t entirely true. Nick Chubb happened, and he busted them wide open in their loss to Cleveland earlier this season. 165 of his rushing yards happened when the game was tied or Baltimore was trailing. The familiar names are still here: Brandon Williams, Chris Wormley, Michael Pierce. They’re difficult to move backwards. Their linebackers aren’t the same laboratory monsters, but they’re intelligent and recognize plays well to make up for it. Matthew Judon on the outside is a plus run defender, and Patrick Onwuasor can stop the run, cover, and blitz. He does it all.
The Texans’ run offense has been better than expected this season. Their living my best life offensive line should be out there this week. Laremy Tunsil-Max Scharping double teams are the truth. Zach Fulton can move stuff to Nick Martin and help him out. Tytus Howard isn’t a negative. And Carlos Hyde is a successful runner, who can bulldoze through backfield tackle attempts and fall forward for more.
Yet this rushing attack doesn’t dictate the Texans’ offense. It isn’t the type that can win on its own. Their rush attack has been set up by the zone read play action pick and pop passing game that leaves linebackers drunk and spinning. The run game is great in advantageous situations, and when leading big, it can ice the game down like plastic shopping bags on grapefruit ankles with help from some absolutely stupid second level run fits.
Houston can’t start slow. They shouldn’t try to establish the run and get a feel for Baltimore. They should try and take some shots deep early. They’ll need to throw early on in the downs. 1st and 10 and 2nd and 7 are passing downs, not times to set up more manageable third downs. The Ravens are 22nd in deep pass defense DVOA. Kyler Murray and Patrick Mahomes had success beating them downfield with pure speed, and Russell Wilson was able to find 3 deep completions on his 11 tries, but each completion was for 30+ yards.
Houston hasn’t been a great downfield passing team despite Watson’s skillset. He’s completed 23 of his 53 tries for 754 yards and 4 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. And with Will Fuller out, it’s been an afterthought. He’s out again this week. Yet, like previous weeks, that shouldn’t change anything. Kenny Stills can do similar things but at 105 mph instead of at 120 mph. He’s caught 6 of his 7 deep targets for 229 yards and 1 touchdown.
The key to the deep passing game is it needs to be calculated and not forced. You want to create opportunities for it. It can’t be a desperate attempt to pull your way back in. When that happens you have to deal with Earl Thomas playing pure single high and flipping over picnic coolers and gorging himself on airy pastries.
The Texans have been slow starters the last three weeks. They’ve scored only 28 first half points and went into the half with scores of 9-14, 10-14, and 9-3. This game should be a shootout and high scoring. Hectic football at its highest level of beauty and pace. O’Brien can’t take 32 minutes to finally understand the matchup advantages available to him. The Texans need to be aggressive right away.
5. 3RD DOWN BLITZES
The Ravens have been great in coverage, and it’s been even better since they traded for Marcus Peters. In three games, their average pass defense DVOA has been -34.2% and they’ve had 3 interceptions, 3 sacks, and are allowing 5.9 yards an attempt since trading for him. A substantial drop from 10%, 11 sacks, 5 interceptions, and 8.1 yards an attempt. Their cornerback group of Peters, Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, and Brandon Carr are flocking and ca-cawing with monocles over their eyes.
They can’t rush the passer though. Matthew Judon is their only legitimate pass rusher. He isn’t a pure edge rusher. He’s better at going inside-out or outside-in to take on half of an offensive tackle.
He has 4 sacks and 19 quarterback hits. Nobody else has done much of anything. This team misses Pernell McPhee in 2019. Things have gotten that bad.
This is a problem for the Ravens straight four man rush. They absolutely can’t get pressure with four alone, and if they put Judon against Laremy Tunsil, it will only exacerbate matters. Yet, with their cornerback group, they’re one of those teams who can blitz on obvious passing situations, play man coverage behind it, and be perfectly fine. Against New England they created plenty of free rushers and overwhelmed the Patriots spread passing attack by bringing more than they could pick up.
At the beginning of the season the Texans played well against individual rushes, but were devoured by blitzes. They had pickup problems. Watson could never find hot throw chemistry. It’s gotten better as they’ve found their best unit and stuck with it, but the waterbed has still shifted around because of bandages plugging holes and duct tape sealing house cat scratches. Lately, the play action zone read offense has negated the blitz, but if Watson is stuck in the pocket trying to complete third and longs this is going to come into play. It’s going to be up to him to stand strong and make obscene throws with black and purple jerseys masquerading around him.
6. UGH! UGH! UGH!
You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible. Besides, there is Luchesi—” “Enough,” he said; “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.” “True—true