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2019 AFC South Preview: Houston Texans

A look into the Texans 2019 season.

Detroit Lions v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Despite losing at home to the Colts 21-7 in the Wildcard Round of the 2018 NFL Playoffs, the Texans should have entered this season as the runaway favorite to win the division, and contend for a Superbowl in 2019.

Deshaun Watson is on the third year of his rookie contract—it’s easier to build a roster when a team pays its quarterback $3.7 million instead of $28 million. J.J. Watt was healthy for the first time in three years, and finally, he and Jadeveon Clowney were NBA jam teammates playing together at catastrophic levels. Houston had the best run defense in football in 2018 and a competent pass rush because of this gruesome twosome. Young players like Justin Reid, Zach Cunningham, the Jordan rookies, and Keke Coutee, emerged as valuable players and solidified themselves as starters. DeAndre Hopkins is a top three wide receiver at a minimum, and Will Fuller would be back to join him on the opposite sideline.

Sure, there were holes to fill. They needed to improve the offensive line, secondary, and add another pass rusher. This would be possible to do. They entered the offseason stuffed with resources. Houston had 4 top 100 draft picks and $78 million dollars in cap space after releasing Demaryius Thomas. Then the offseason happened. Their oppurtunity came and went. The 2019 season is about to start and the roster is pretty much the same, just slightly shaken and fizzled.

Here’s the story. The Texans franchise tagged Jadeveon Clowney, never came to a long term agreement, and have answered calls to gauge his market value. They resigned the same defensive linemen who can’t rush the passer. Their big free agent offensive lineman signing was Matt Kalil, who is still expected to start at left tackle and make his $7.5 million. Depth was massaged into a shredded secondary with the signing of Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and Bradley Roby is an upgrade only because of his predecessor. The best decision they made in free agency was skimping on Tyrann Mathieu’s demands and making a cheaper lateral move by bringing in Tashaun Gipson.

The Texans were stuck improving the roster dramatically through the draft after a lame free agency, which is often a foolish proposition. They added offensive linemen with potential in Tytus Howard and Max Scharping. Both have a chance to start at either guard position, but both, at this position, probably won’t be a substantial improvement for this season. Lonnie Walker is a tall, strong, athletic specimen, but doesn’t know how to use his size in coverage, and has issues playing man coverage. He’ll need to learn how to play cornerback, and it would be unreasonable to expect much from him this season. Kahale Warring is banged up, and Bill O’Brien is mad at him. He’ll probably be an injured reserve stash. Charles Omenihu, Xavier Crawford, and Cullen Gillaspia were their late round draft picks. Brian Gaine was fired a month later.

A bounty of resources led to a rejiggering instead of to a substantial change to the roster. The same problems the team faced last year, they’ll once again face this year.

Houston had the worst pass protection in football last season. They allowed 62 sacks, ranked both last in adjusted sack rate and pressure rate at 11.6% and 38.5%. Watson even made this look better than it was by breaking ten tackles behind the line of scrimmage. This crumpled their passing offense to start the season. Deshaun Watson’s lungs were purple, the color and consistency of prunes, and had to ride the bus like Jordan to Jacksonville. Part of the early season struggles were because of Houston’s own mismanagement. After Seantrel Henderson went down for the season in New England, they moved Julien Davenport to right tackle, and Martinas Rankin to left tackle. They set offensive line play back to leather helmet days.

Eventually they found their footing by starting Kendall Lamm at right tackle and moved Davenport back to his rightful home at left. They chipped more on the edge, and kept their backs in to help for a bit before seeping out to the flat to be tackled short of the sticks. More empty back sets and shotgun formations were employed. This helped, but in the aggregate it was still a disaster. By the end of the season Watson was knocked down 138 times, the most in the league. This is a punishment only Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson have taken in recent years.

The pass protection could be just as bad this season. The tackle play may even be more miserable. Kalil didn’t play in 2018 and the 2017 version was worse than Davenport is. If O’Brien’s words become a reality, expect for him to have a Tom Savage start where he’s yanked at halftime after giving up three sacks to old foe Cameron Jordan. Roderick Johnson has played well in preseason, but, like all things, preseason is meaningless. Houston is still obsessed with Seantrel Henderson’s size. He’s enormous, moves well, but has one of the weakest punches you’ll ever see. It’s a plastic bag. He’s never played well as a professional, and hasn’t been healthy since 2014. Lamm was an all-time horrendous run blocker, but he was competent enough in pass protection. Houston may even miss Kendall Lamm this season.

The improvement in pass protection should come at the left guard position. Kelemete gave 3.5 sacks and missed 14 pass blocks. Howard, even as a rookie with hand issues, should be better than that. Max Scharping may start at right guard, and he probably should, with Zach Fulton kicking to center to help the Texans’ run issues. Sure, Nick Martin is a good pass protector, but that’s like paying a point guard to rebound. Moving Fulton to center would do wonders for the Texans’ inefficient rock slinging rushing attack.

The Texans once again have legitimate talent issues on the offensive line. They have a horrendous tackle combination. Questions at the center position. Two rookies fighting to start at each guard spot. And they are all coached by Mike Devlin, who is still trying to develop a young offensive lineman in Houston, and every free agent lineman who arrives here plays worse than he did at his previous stop. It’s reasonable to expect the starting lineup to slosh around under Bill O’Brien’s control while Houston drowns trying to find some combination that makes sense.

It’s a travesty for Watson to still not have an offensive line that can do anything well. They can’t block the second level in the run game, they don’t know how to pass blockers on outside zone plays, there’s a lack of aggressiveness in combo blocks, and as its been said so many times, they can’t pass block.

Watson has been able to make do though. His DVOA under pressure last season was -27.4%, which was 4th, and he averaged 5.3 yards a play. He wasn’t incredible without pressure, but it’s hard to get a feel for the pocket even when the pass blocking is surprisingly ok. Without pressure, Watson had a DVOA of 56.2% (T-13th), and averaged 8.1 yards per play. He was also the only efficient runner on the team.

Maybe one day Houston will finally find it. The Duane Brown curse will be lifted. Scharping and Howard will max out their potential. They’ll finally enter free agency with cap space and offensive linemen they finally feel are worth spending money on. But this season isn’t it. The pocket is going to be an interstate for Watson once again.

Like the offensive line, the secondary was terrible last season, but it was masked by absurd combined efforts from Watt and Clowney and the opponents they faced. Houston loaded up on their win totals by beating teams that were run heavy, not because they were great rushing teams either, but because it was the safest option. Oh let’s hear that golden familiar saying again. If you want to win, throw the ball against the Houston Texans.

The fabric of spacetime is folding in on itself like some quesadilla. Every atom in the universe is in the same exact place as before. And there in the center of it is Shareece Wright being beat by a double move. Johnathan Joseph is a grizzled detective who’s seen it all. He’s still here at age 35 until that one case finally breaks him. He’s spectacular at playing five to seven yards off, recognizing the route, and playing the ball. There are still issues with speed and deep passes though. The Texans ranked 31st in DVOA against a team’s #1 WR (thanks T.Y. Hilton), and were 25th in DVOA against deep passes. Roby replacing Wright will be an immediate improvement, but Roby isn’t a #1 cornerback. He’s a good cornerback on a great secondary. He has problems with great receivers with speed—see what Tyreek Hill and JuJu Smith-Schuster did to him last season.

The Texans had problems in the slot too. They paid Aaron Colvin to play this position. He was crude last season when rarely healthy, and for the majority of the season his ankle was a Cascade Volcano. Kareem Jackson moved from his rightful home at safety to the slot to make up for the disfigured limbs, and he too struggled like he has for so many years. The Texans had a DVOA of 25.9% (28th) against these receivers. Boddy Calhoun and Crawfored are merely competition. Nothing is sure at a position that was ruthlessly attacked last season.

Expect for Houston play a lot of cover four and cover three to make up for this. They’ll want to run stride for stride with receivers to limit deep options, and play coverage for long enough, just long enough, for the rush to have an impact on the throw. This will be a problem when they blitz to jolt the pass rush, and when they play quarterbacks who have PHDs in beating zone coverages.

The defense was dependent on the pass rush. They were 5th in DVOA when they had pressure at -76.3% and they allowed 3.4 yards a play. Without pressure they had a DVOA of 40.9% (18th) and allowed 7.9 yards a play.

This just means the Texans were dependent on Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt. Together they had 108 tackles, 34 tackles for a loss, 25 sacks, 46 quarterback hits, 80 quarterback pressures, and Watt forced 7 fumbles on his own. They accounted for 42.5% of their tackles for a loss, 58.1% of their sacks, 57.5% of their quarterback hits, and 46.9% of their pressures. Because of these two players the Texans finished 13th in adjusted sack rate and 20th in pressure rate, commendable for a rush composed of two main ingredients.

Whitney Mercilus wasn’t the same last year. He didn’t even earn third wheel status. He had 4 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and 28 pressures, and was phased out by the scheme. Mercilus was stuck rushing wide and outside of Watt and Clowney. Nitrous isn’t in his blood. He doesn’t turn and bend the corner. He’s a close combat hand fighter. Sending him out to the edges of the Earth gelded him as a pass rusher, and took him out of his element. Hopefully Romeo Crennel gets back to using him correctly this season. This would lead to Watt and Clowney rushing more on the interior, which as its own benefits, and Mercilus getting more reps as a five technique.

The rest of the defensive line are non playable characters in the passing game. D.J. Reader, Angelo Blackson, and Brandon Dunn combined for 3 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 20 pressures. They’re great against the run, but can’t even get a whiff of the quarterback’s AXE body spray. They’ll never know the scent of Phoenix.

The decision to skip out on adding an interior rusher was especially stupid this offseason. Unlike the cornerback position, where the free agency group was thin, there were rushers available. They could have traded for Michael Bennett. They could have signed Malik Jackson, Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson, or Gerald McCoy. Either one of these players could have been a hammer on stunts to create open rushes for Benardrick McKinney and Cunningham, push the pocket and suffocate quarterbacks, and allow for Watt and Clowney to get more one v. one rushes. This was the position they could have invested in to make the biggest impact on this defense, and they didn’t do it.

Additionally, Clowney still isn’t on the roster. He hasn’t signed his franchise tag. It was reported he’ll come back after the Dallas game. In the meantime the rumors have swirled that Houston was looking to trade him. Maybe they didn’t receive an offer. Maybe Clowney wouldn’t sign his tag to finalize a trade. Nobody knows. But what is clear, this defense will be a disaster if Clowney isn’t on it. The Texans will no longer have the best run defense in the league, and the pass rush could plummet to a bottom five one if he’s exchanged for Brennan Scarlett, Carlos Watkins, or Omenihu.

The roster stagnancy is integral to projecting the 2019 season because Houston no longer has the schedule benefit they had in 2018. Last season they played the fourth easiest schedule in the league. The Texans are going to play teams that can and will actually throw the ball in 2019. The roster is relatively the same, but the schedule isn’t.

In 2018 Houston’s average opponent had a passing DVOA near 0. Andrew Luck still rehabbing, Dak Prescott without Amari Cooper, Josh Allen/Nathan Peterman, Blake Bortles before and after he was benched for Cody Kessler, regressed to the mean Case Keenum, [NAME REDACTED], Alex Smith/Colt McCoy, Marcus Mariota, Baker Mayfield before he threw the ball downfield, and Sam Darnold were the quarterbacks the Texans beat. Houston overcame eight of the nine worst passing offenses in football last season.

The average passing DVOA they face based on last year’s rates is 15.8%. They play four of the top five passing offenses from last season. They play six of the top ten. Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck, and Tom Brady all get a chance at them. Jameis Winston, Lamar Jackson, and Derek Carr should have better seasons. Nick Foles is an extreme home makeover at the quarterback position for Jacksonville. Expect for the Titans and Broncos passing offenses to remain crappy.

For Houston to make the postseason, or win the division, they’ll need to beat the opponents that rely on a run heavy attack: Denver, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Baltimore; beat the two worst teams on their schedule Oakland and Tampa, and then hope they can play shootout and win enough close games to make up for the rest.

The Texans have rarely won games in this fashion under Bill O’Brien. They play 20-13 purple tongue just do enough football. In losses they allowed 25.1 points a game last season, and in wins they allowed 16.9 points a game. As Rivers McCown noted in the 2019 Football Outsiders Almanac, the Texans are 4-32 under O’Brien in games where they allow more than 22 points, and 3-15 in one score games where they allow more than 22 points. Those wins are against Miami, New York (J), and Indy last season, and [NAME REDACTED] once threw a sideline pass to Jalen Strong that set up a game winning overtime field goal v. Indy in 2016. That’s it.

They’re going to have to win games in a way they haven’t before to make the postseason in 2019. Mediocrity would be a spectacular feat for their pass defense. The schedule is a cross country road trip visiting the nation’s best passing attacks. Houston is going to have to overcome their offensive line, and rely on Watson to carry them to high scoring close game wins.

The only hope the Texans have in 2019 is for Watson to play at a MVP level, and there’s no question he can do this. At the surface level, it’s impossible to not love this passing offense. They’ve fixed the blind spots in their receiving core.

Duke Johnson is a great pass catching back. Johnson averaged 9.1 yards a catch last season and averaged 8 yards after the catch, caught 42 passes, had a receiving DVOA of 12.9%, and had 27 first downs. Gone are the days when Alfred Blue catches a pass with no one around him on 3rd and 7, fails to break a tackle, and sees the series end with a punt on 4th and 3. Blue had a receiving DVOA of -23%, and managed to pick up only 4 first downs despite having 20 catches. There aren’t enough words, there isn’t enough time, to celebrate this occasion.

Both the Jordan rookies struggle blocking, just like Ryan Griffin did, but they at least offer the athleticism to break tackles, run the seam in play action, are big bad redzone targets, and do something more than just run out to the flat and get tackled immediately. Warring is the most talented player of this group, but he still hasn’t been on the field yet, and it’s hard out there for rookie tight ends. Spreading out Griffin’s 40+ targets across the sparkling tight end group is a humungous improvement for the passing game. It’s amazing how bright the light is, and how much it burns, after being held captive in Garrett Grahams’s cave with soggy malodorous skin for so long.

In the slot Keke Coutee is a drag route catching demon, who again, provides athleticism and competent route running, something the Texans haven’t had in the slot while Bill O’Brien has been the head coach. Injuries are a problem for him though. He dealt with a nagging hamstring, and is currently out for the rest of the preseason. In his place momentarily is DeAndre Carter, who lacks the upside of Coutee, but is still a viable receiving option. Watson needs to work on getting the ball out sooner. It took him 3.02 seconds to throw the ball last season, which was tied 4th with Wilson and behind rookies Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. The slot receivers and tight ends are monumental for this to happen.

Most importantly of all, Will Fuller is back. He tore his ACL against the Miami Dolphins. Laying, crumpled in a heap, like clothes in the corner of a teenager’s bedroom, will be the lasting memory from his 2018 season. Which is a shame, because when he was healthy all he did was catch deep passes.

And of course there’s DeAndre Hopkins. He’s a top three wide receiver. He can carry a passing offense all on his own by beating press coverage with swims at the line of scrimmage, creating separation with his body and subtle push offs, and making absurd catches with a defender in his shirt.

The Texans must push the ball downfield more often in 2019 to get the most out of their passing attack. Watson’s average depth of target last season was 8.9 yards (13th) and he attempted only 83 deep passes (T-17th). When throwing these passes to Fuller and Hopkins he completed 27/45 passes for 788 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Hopkins averaged 28.05 yards a catch and Fuller averaged 32.4 on deep passes.

They both play so well off each other and their presence cannonballs throughout the entire offense. They force teams to play two safeties deep, creating smaller boxes to run against, which works wonders for an offensive line that can’t block the second level. If teams dare to play single high, depending on the direction that vulture is shaded, it creates easy downfield reads for Watson, and one v. one targets for either receiver. Teams can’t just double Hopkins with Fuller on the field.

Aside from the offensive line, the biggest hurdle the Texans’ passing offense has is Bill O’Brien and Tom Kelly. There were substantial reasons why the Texans’ offense hid under a rock and played a conservative offensive style to win 20-13 grapples. Deshaun Watson’s organs were liquid. O’Brien wanted to try and limit how often he was hit, and keep him away from the offensive line. Houston also didn’t need to score a ton of points to win games in 2018. That changes in 2019.

O’Brien has shown the ability call an interesting and aggressive offense. He did it in 2017 when Houston benched Tom Savage for Watson and lost raucous games against New England, Kansas City, and Seattle. He did it last season when the Texans fell behind. They ranked tenth in offensive DVOA when they were trailing big. In games against the Jets and Eagles, the Texans ran the type of big passing plays they’ll have to run every week in 2019.

O’Brien can do so many things on his end to improve the passing offense in 2019. As mentioned earlier, he should call more deep passes, something that should be expected with Will Fuller back.

He can run more play action, a no brainer in the post-modern NFL. It’s an easy decision to make when you consider Watson’s mobility and the pass protection issues the Texans have. Houston ran play action on only 23% of their plays (15th). On these plays they averaged 8.5 yards a play, and they averaged 7.0 yards per play without play action. It removes traditional pass sets from the offense, is the most efficient play a team can run, and it helps out with the run game. Houston can even use Watson as a runner more often to amplify play action. Options, jet sweeps, zone reads, duo runs, and others can be used to skew the numbers back to neutral for the offensive line, and jolt an inefficient slogging run offense.

In 2019 the Texans can’t expect to go 11-5 again by winning low scoring one possession games. They’ll need to average 28 points a game or so, and win enough games 34-31 games to compete for the division. They’ll need so many things to happen for this to happen. Watson has to jump another level and play at a MVP level, the offensive line needs to ensure he isn’t murdered, Hopkins and Fuller have to stay healthy, Watt and Clowney (who first has to actually play for the Texans) need to set fire to offenses every week and stay healthy, and O’Brien needs to call a completely different aggressive and overwhelming offense.

Sure, the top end talent is on the roster, and all these things can happen. But we are talking likeliest outcomes here. The Texans didn’t make the offseason moves they needed to that would’ve improved their chances to survive the upcoming hellacious schedule. As a result, they are needing to rely on Watson to carry them, and for their coach to run an offense that will allow him to. This has only happened in spats. They’ve never consistently put it together. There’s too many enormous holes, too tough of a schedule, and too many ifs to feel confident in Houston to make the playoffs this season.

Prediction: 8-8