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Texans-Chargers Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

Here are SIX things to watch for when the Texans play the Chargers as each team tries to improve to 2-1.

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Houston Texans Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a movie theater inside of the mall. The popcorn tastes like crimson carpet. Diet cancerous drinks are sipped from paper cups decorated with geometric pastel shapes. Sipped by ponytail shapes. There’s a church in the strip mall where I first found that glorious spirit. The pews are lawn chairs. Kool-Aid and animal crackers and transubstantiated into blood, and into skin. There’s a golf course in Death Valley, verdant, green, and obscene, watered filtered through fairways down into the subterranean cities constructed by civilizations of elves and troglodytes biding their time until the great war, when they can reclaim what is up there, and what has always been theirs.

And there’s a football team in a soccer stadium. Where every home game is a road game composed of fans from cold weather places, looking for those stars beneath that old Hollywood sign, only to leave with magnets from novelty shops of the scene they never saw and bellies full from the Dominos across the street, leaving that sinful place sunburned and peeling after 75 degrees. The stadium is a hacienda, a roundabout and a fountain in front, the perfect aesthetic to pair with an iron statue of a British soccer player. George Washington didn’t die for this. 1776 wasn’t that long ago. STUBHUB naming rights are hung up on white background-black font vinyl banners behind each endzone like tree house clubhouse decorations.

Corporations are people. The Chargers are the first person to choose to leave San Diego, America’s most existential city. Every day is the same. Every day is so so nice. It’s always 75 degrees. The boulder sits on the beach. Nothing ever changes, but if everything is so lovely, why does anything need to change?

It does because one man wanted lounges behind the endzone so people in blazers could entertain and conduct ‘business’, snap a selfie for the gram, have one merlot, and leave after the first drive. Aliens exist, and this one missed his home planet, cancerous and purple from all the oxygen. He’ll finally be at home once his shared space ship has landed up the road. Soon Los Angeles will house the Chargers and Rams in one location, and become the professional industrial football complex to propagate, and NFL Network; and host the NFL Combine and the NFL Pro Bowl and the NFL Superbowl and the NFL Draft; and hide everything behind NFL NFL NFL NFL propaganda.

But before then, before that can happen, Philip Rivers will borrow the Madden bus and commute six hours each day to the stadium across the community college, and fling endless soup and breadstick passes not for the fans, or the city, but only for himself. And there they’ll continue to be the Chargers. And do things like lose in overtime to the Lions, and miss field goals, and hang themselves on late game interceptions, while their entire team watches from the sideline, riled, injured and anguished. A football team in a soccer stadium is such a stupid place. And there isn’t a better setting for something as stupid as Chargers football.


1.) J.J. Watt & Whitney Mercilus

In a surprising turn of events, Whitney Mercilus has been the dominant pass rusher along the Texans’ front. Matched up primarily against left tackles as a ‘5’ technique, in close combat, Mercilus has 4 quarterback pressures, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 4 quarterback hits, an interception, and a tackle for a loss. He has checked off every part of the defensive box score except for pass defensed. The Texans required for him to match Jadeveon Clowney’s production from last season. He’s done it so far.

The biggest reasons for his return to constant disruption is the scheme. Romeo Crennel, for whatever reason, could never figure out how to use Watt, Mercilus, and Clowney all at the same time. This shouldn’t have been impossible. It’s good to have more than two pass rushers. Regardless, Mercilus has moved from a wide technique to an outside shade. He isn’t a speed and bend guy. He’s a hand and rip guy, who counters it with barbaric whirlwinds and outside in cuts.

This is Mercilus condensed to one play, one moment. Will Richardson Jr. Jr.’s punch is stifled by Mercilus getting skinny and minimizing the target. Now he has the outside shoulder. He long arms Richardson, yanks off his other hand, rips under, and then finds the quarterback. It’s a dizzying array of moves linked together. He’s my favorite Striking Vipers character.

The only problem is it takes time for him to get to the quarterback when he rushes wide. Every move has be timed perfectly. The counter is the when the real fun happens. The tackle over sets wide and tries to come at Mercilus immediate and aggressive. Mercilus is a dervish though. He dips his shoulder under his outside hand, and spins back inside. The tackle doesn’t even sniff his aluminum free deodorant. The route to the quarterback is tight and short. The quarterback can’t get away.

The constant edge rushing leads to the tackle setting wide. They get impatient, and try to punch early. Mericilus’s inside moves are impossible to stop when he times them perfectly. If the tackle’s outside foot is in the air when he begins the move, he has a free path to the quarterback every time.

J.J. Watt is 30 years old now, and he’s been pretty much nonexistent to start the season. He has 4 pressures, 1 quarterback hit, 1 fumble recovery, has drawn 2 holding penalties, and has 2 tackles. That’s it. Getting locked down by Ryan Ramzyck was understandable. Ramcyzk is one of the best right tackles in football. He spent the entirety of that game meeting Watt to the point of attack, and timing his punches, delaying and varying his strikes, to get his hands on Watt’s chest.

His performance against Jacksonville was strange though. In the past Watt would devour a rookie right tackle like Jawaan Taylor, and this is coming from someone who adores Taylor, and thought the was a slam dunk start right away first round right tackle in this past draft. Taylor was able to do similar things that Ramcyzk was able to do. He met him at the point of attack, and was able to deal with this edge rushing moves.

Watt was better when he used straight power against Taylor. I don’t know why he didn’t attack him like this more often. Taylor has a narrow stance. He’s selling out for edge rushes. The ability to smash him head on, as a ‘4’ technique, or bullrush him as a ‘5’ was there all game.

They tried to play him on the inside, but even then, he A.J. Cann played him well. He had more success against Andrew Norwell, who has been soup stained, wide, heavy, and sloppy to start the 2019 season.

The problem, of course, is that rushing inside allows hands and mouths to grab at him and shred him apart. It’s also more difficult for the refs to see penalties on the interior. There’s flesh mountains blocking the view of the lake. Until Watt starts getting these calls, rushing from the interior is going to be tough.

Last week’s performance was concerning. It’s still only two games. It’s early in the season. Voices are still high pitched and bodies are hairless. However, if Watt has another game like this against the Chargers, it’s time for a full blown meltdown.

The Chargers’ offensive tackles are, what’s the word, bad. There’s no need for complicated adjectives. Bad. Is the only way to describe them. They utilize Sam Tevi at right tackle and Trent Scott at left tackle. Both players struggle meeting edge defenders square. They’re both susceptible to be beaten with rips and wide rush attacks.

Scott gave up three sacks to the Colts, and these weren’t against all world edge rushers either, these were against Kemoko Turay and Al-Quadin Muhammad.

If Tevi is better, it’s only by a slight amount. He’s quicker to the edge, and his feet are more rapid. Yet, he can over extend, he doesn’t extinguish players with his punch, and in year three he still needs to get stronger.

Houston has to do their pass rushing out on the edge. This is their best chance to get at Philip Rivers. Los Angeles’s (gross) interior pass protection is immensely better. Michael Schofield has transitioned to guard well, Dan Feeney is wide and strong and difficult to get around, and Mike Poncey has perfect technique. He revolutionized the interior of their offensive line, and he’s been one of the best free agent signings of the past few years.

It’s also difficult to create free rushers against the Chargers. Rivers calls the protection. He’s a conductor beckoning for the deep swell of clarinets, keeps the deep rumbling of the baritones in check, and ensures the bass drum is in rhythm. He’s a mad man back there. Clapping and jumping and hollering.

Houston is 4-33 in games where the opponent scores more than 22 points. For them to hold Rivers below this vital line they’re going to have to demolish the Chargers’ exterior pass protection.

2.) Joey Bosa & Melvin Ingram

On the other sideline, the Chargers also have a great NBA jam pass rushing duo. It’s Bosa, who wins with hands and pad level, and Ingram, who wins with speed and power. They’re a clash of styles, and each is a conundrum to block in their own specific way. This season they’ve combined for 23 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 5 quarterback hits, 2 sacks, and 8 pressures.

Bosa strictly plays against defensive end against tackle. He’s an expert in narrowing at the point of attack, and can flip his shoulders in either direction. He’ll go inside-out or outside-in, then use his hands to knock punches away and get to the quarterback. Elastic hips allow him to limbo around the tackle and flatten to the quarterback. Bosa is one of the rare players whose edge rush provides pressure right away.

Melvin Ingram is listed as a defensive end, but he’s kind of better as a standup interior rusher. His quickness is overwhelming when they stretch their defensive line wide and leave him one v. one against guards, and he can turn that speed into immediate power to bullrush through them.

This play is the best use of their resources against the passing game. Ingram wide against the guard. Bosa wide against the tackle. Their other interior rushers Brandon Mebane, Justin Jones, and Jerry Tillery haven’t done much. Expect for the Chargers to use this rush combination on the right side where they don’t have to deal with Laremy Tunsil, and can get Ingram v. Zach Fulton, and Bosa against Roderick Johnson.

The Chargers typically don’t blitz often. They blitzed Detroit only seven times, and the Colts an uncharacteristic 12 times. That could change this game. They love to play six defensive backs. Until Deshaun Watson shows he can identify the blitz presnap and attack it, and the offensive line understands how to pick it up, teams should provide absurd presnap looks, and come after Watson from every direction. They’ve been especially susceptible to blitzes from the third level.

Desmond King could have an impact, along with Nasir Adderley. Rayshawn Jenkins has been good enough as a deep middle security guard to allow the Chargers to sell out and bring additional rushers.

In the past this would be a more advantageous matchup for the Chargers. It looks like the Texans finally have their five best offensive linemen on the field, and they were able to deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars individual pass rushes last week, it was the blitzes that crushed them.

3.) Keenan Allen & DeAndre Hopkins

After cutting Aaron Colvin, the Texans didn’t have a slot corner. In order to deal with this hole in the lineup they moved Bradley Roby to the slot, and started rookie Lonnie Johnson as their right cornerback. This worked out pretty well. After Drew Brees decimated the interior of the center of the field, and the Saints won every middle of the field match up, the Jaguars left Dede Westbook on his own against Roby. It didn’t work. Westbrook had 1 catch on 5 targets for 3 yards. His one catch was a screen that he caught 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Roby controlled Westbrook throughout the game. The Jaguars didn’t attack the other matchups available to them often enough though. Doug Marrone was a coward. They ran outside zone ineffectively and punted throughout the game. They didn’t really push the ball downfield until they were down 13-3 in the fourth quarter.

Johnson on an island outside will have Houston’s entire coaching staff addicted to opioids to cure their anxiety. With him out there, the Texans have to shade their safety towards him to provide an extra layer of coverage. He’s long, and strong, and can come down to attack the ball on short outside breaking routes, but he can’t play man coverage isolated on his own, and his aggressiveness leaves him open against double moves.

Johnathan Joseph played better than Johnson did, but he has his own problems. He’s shorter and it’s hard for him to win against contested catches. Detective Joseph is also like 42 years old and doesn't have the speed he once had. Fast receivers can torch him down field.

All three of these players are susceptible to Keenan Allen’s wrath. He’s a bottle of fireball to start the season, a rag soaked in gasoline. He’s caught 16 of his 25 targets for 221 yards, is averaging 221 yards, has 1 touchdown, and 12 first downs. Allen is one of the most efficient receivers in football. Like DeAndre Hopkins, he lacks top speed, and wins against press coverage in contested situations by beating players off the line of scrimmage in a variety of ways, and catching everything that comes into his atmosphere.

He lines up all across the field too. Last season 64% of his targets came with him in the slot. In week one he primarily played tight to the line of scrimmage, and in the slot.

In week two he was all over the field. The Chargers stretched him wider, threw him shorter, and did everything they could to get him in one v. one matchups, where he was able to have success against Darius Slay. Over and over again he picked up first downs against the Lions.

For the Chargers, it isn’t just Allen either. It’s also Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler. Williams is a 6’4” low post scorer. They love to line him up in the slot and get him against smaller slot corners. He’s also incredible at catching the ball at its highest point.

The Chargers are able to deal with a lack of pass protection on the exterior because of their running backs ability catch the ball. They can screw up rushes and blitzes with exact screen passes, and Rivers is the master of the swing pass. Ekeler has caught 12 of his 13 targets for 163 yards and 2 touchdowns.

All three players are going to be kind of impossible for Houston to deal with. The Texans are going to have to rely on creating a pass rush on the outside to slow down this passing offense. The good news is the Chargers really don’t have an answer on their own for Hopkins.

Last week Hopkins played one v. one against Jalen Ramsey. It was one of the rare times where Hopkins was locked down. Ramsey churned him at the line of scrimmage, and provided suffocating coverage. Hopkins had just 5 catches on 8 targets for 40 yards and 3 first downs.

The Chargers are 25th in DVOA at covering a team’s number one wide receiver at 47.4% and are allowing 102 yards per game to these receivers. They allowed 16 catches, 204 yards, and 3 touchdowns to Kenny Golladay and T.Y. Hilton in their last two games. They lack a true number one cornerback. Casey Hayward Jr. is great, but he moves around the field in zone coverage along with the rest of their secondary. Hopkins is a master at finding soft spots in the zone, sitting, and picking up easy yards at 12-19 yard increments.

It will be interesting to see how the Chargers play this. The Jags were able to have a great game controlling the Texans’ passing attack by latching onto Hopkins with one man, doubling Will Fuller V and running deep with him, and covering everything else underneath. The Chargers don’t have the personnel to play like this. If Houston can pass protect they should be play west coast shootout.

4.) Maybe, Run The Ball

Last season the Texans had the best run defense in football. They finished first in run defense DVOA. They were an iron wall with archers slinging stones and breaking skulls from towers. This season they’ve allowed 6 yards a carry, and rank 31st at this measure.

The problem is Alvin Kamara is really great, and they’ve had problems on the exterior parts of their defense once backs get in out in space. They’ve allowed 108 yards on 20 carries on inside runs, but 30 of these yards are from a Latavius Murray touchdown. With this outlier removed the Texans’ interior run defense has allowed only 2.68 yards a carry.

On the exterior they’ve allowed 143 yards on 22 carries, 6 first downs, and 6.5 yards a carry. The Chargers match up perfectly against the Texans’ run defense. They’re averaging just 3.38 yards a carry across 13 interior runs, but they’re averaging 6.61 yards a carry on 33 exterior runs. The Lions enormous front was able to obliterate the Chargers’ inside rushing game, and the Texans should be able to do the same. Los Angeles struggles to run typical inside and outside zone plays, unless there is a cutback available.

They particularly love to run the ball with lead blockers out in front. They’re able to do this because Tevi and Scott are adequate at reaching defensive ends, and Pouncey is awesome at reaching the nose tackle. Damon Harrison had one tackle against the Chargers. This will be a tough game for D.J. Reader to do much in.

This is a power sweep with Schofield leading the way.

This is another sweep. Both Schofield and Feeney make great blocks to spring Ekeler.

This is counter with the backside guard, and the fullback pulling. The playside double team is great. Each puller makes their block.

The Texans’ edge defenders are going to have read their keys correctly, and find the perfect balance between sitting in the gap and defending, and creating penetration. Both Ekeler and Justin Jackson have great vision and can cutback. Running up field against them will create unintended run lanes, but at the same time, penetration is the best way to dismantle power run plays with pullers.

The Chargers’ run defense has been crappy this season. Their linebackers have struggled when their first level defenders don’t play the ball. Thomas Davis has looked especially slow at the linebacker position. This season they’ve allowed 4.9 yards a carry, and both Marlon Mack and Kerryon Johnson had great games against them.

The Texans don’t block the second level well, especially on outside zone plays. Tytus Howard has no idea how to block this scheme. The majority of their runs last week came from some insane Carlos Hyde runs, and the Jaguars’ young linebackers making incorrect decisions, and finding themselves in situations they should have never been in. Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.

This season Hyde has 173 yards on 30 carries and 10 first downs. Most importantly, he’s making runs happen on his own. He’s averaging 3.2 yards after contact and 2.6 yards before contact. Against Jacksonville he had 71 yards after contact and broke 3 tackles. If Houston can ever figure out how to consistently block the second level they’d have a legitimate dominating rushing attack. If Houston can block Bosa and Ingram, they should have a great game on the ground against the Chargers.

5.) It Could Get Stupid

The Chargers are known for some stupid football games. This season they’ve already played two incredibly stupid ones. They blew a 24-9 third quarter lead against the Colts after Mack broke one for 63 yards, and Hilton broke a ton of tackles to allow Mack to tie it up with a two point conversion. A perfect offensive drive ended it in overtime. Nothing can ever be easy.

Against the Lions, the Chargers were up 10-6 at halftime. They scored zero points in the second half, and the Lions failed to stop them on their own on each of their second half drives. Their drives went Ekeler fumble on a first down red zone carry that was recovered by the Lions, missed field goal, missed field goal, and finally a Rivers interception into double coverage to end it. The fumble ended a drive where they lost two touchdowns because of holding penalties. The interception Rivers threw was on 3rd and 19 with the Chargers already in game-tying field goal position.

It’s the Chargers, a team notorious for stupid football that can end in any assortment of stupid ways. It’s the Texans, a team notorious for playing to the level of the opponent. This game should be close. Most importantly, it should be especially stupid.

6.) And For What?

My friends said they would wait. So I went down into Havasu—fourteen miles by trail—and looked things over. When I returned five weeks later I discovered that the others had gone on to Los Angeles without me.

That was fifteen years ago. And still I have not seen the fabulous city on the Pacific shore. Perhaps I never will. There’s something in the prospect southwest from Barstow which makes one hesitate. Although recently, driving my own truck, I did succeed in peentrating as close as San Bernardino. But was hurdled back by what appeared to be clouds of mustard gas rolling in from the west on a very broad front. Thus gailed again. It maybe however that Los Angeles will come to me. Will come to all of us, as it mus (they say) to all men.