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Texans-Panthers Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

Texans. Panthers. The earth has found its way back here again.

NFL: SEP 22 Texans at Chargers Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Where were you four years ago?” is an impossible question to answer for most people, and the answer they provide, would probably be a fabricated mash of fragments and snippets of memory like a raNSOm note made from various characters cut out from a Good Housekeeping collection. This isn’t true for NFL fans who love and follow one NFL team. Every four years a division from the other conference collides into their life. Like a bookmark, or an album that was conjoined together with months of time, these games are a handy reference point along one’s timeline.

Moved to Virginia. Cut down trees. The Battle of Bullrun. Saw the leaves finally change colors. Fell into some what are we transient twenty-something relationship I wonder what she’s up to. Watched Carolina v. Houston in a biker bar called Afterlife360 located inside of a strip mall that also housed a Mexican meat market, a go-phone cell phone shop, a local pizza place, and was across the street from Barnes and Noble and Lion’s Den Grocery store. Ryan Mallett. Throw hard. Ryan Mallett. Complete less than 50% of his passes. A rare Garrett Graham touchdown. My favorite thing I ever wrote. Cam Newton leaping for touchdowns, Superman celebrations, endzone gift giving, on the way to 15-1.

Four years before that. Alive, but groggy, back home for the weekend collegiate drinking. Newton’s rookie year. The fumblerooskie. A playoff berth clinched, but it’s the same old Texans. Whatever. I miss Matt Schaub so much.

Four years before that I wasn’t fully online yet. Four years from now, these instances will grow hazier and hazier, the headlights dimmer, and the fog heavier. Each set of four stacked on top of one another making the ones before harder to see, harder to touch, until one day, “Break his leg Redskins”, will become some voice a neuron can no longer connect the setting to, a distant wail where did I hear that from again.


1. J.J. Watt And Whitney Mercilus…And D.J. Reader

The Texans pass rush is the main reason why Houston’s defense has been able to do just enough for their offense to play in one possession games. Last week Houston had to win their outside matchups against Trent Scott, one of the league’s worst offensive tackles who leaves Philip Rivers’s progeny praying for Russell Okung’s heart at the foot of their bed, and Sam Tevi, who is only slightly better. The Texans did exactly this. J.J. Watt is no longer nonexistent. Watt had two sacks, five quarterback hits, and two tackles for a loss.

Watt won primarily with outside moves. Stretched way out wide he was able to eat up space quickly, and knock away Tevi, perpendicular to the sideline. These quick wins allowed Watt to jump on Philip Rivers quickly, and smash him before he could wade up the pocket and sling some hazy joint to one of his short route receivers.

Whitney Mercilus had to match Jadeveon Clowney’s production from last season. This season he’s done exactly that. He had another fine game last week making tackles along the edge, stripping Rivers on what should have been a quick pass attempt, and adding another sack of his own in a room of one’s own. Matched up primarily against Trent Scott he had one sack, one quarterback hit, two tackles for a loss, and one forced fumble. The box score was stuffed, but it wasn’t the same dominant performance he had against Jacksonville. In this one, he was the perfect complement to Watt’s dominance.

Most importantly, D.J. Reader is a new year new person. The Chargers’ interior pass blocking of Mike Pouncey, Michael Schofield, and Dan Feeney had been commendable this season. Rivers had a wall in front of him. From there he could deal with the collapsing towers with supreme pocket presence and bouldering to get the ball out quickly before he was an outstretched arm in a sea of rubble. However, against interior pressure, Rivers can’t escape. He’s covered in rock and sinew. Choking under the ashes.

The Texans’ best interior defender is showing explosive lateral movement he’s never shown before. In the past he was a straight ahead bullrusher who would tucker out a yard or two before the quarterback. He’s now dodging punches, splitting double teams, and jolting to the blocker’s outside or inside half. It’s miraculous the improvement he has made.

The same bullrush is there too. It’s just better. Reader has used straight ahead brute force to collapse the pocket, create deeper dropbacks, and allow Houston’s edge rushers to make plays they have no business making because of wide edge rushes.

Reader has been overwhelming as an interior rusher this season. Last season he had two sacks, three quarterback hits, four pressures, and five tackles for a loss. This season he’s nearly matched that in three games. Already he’s accumulated one and a half sacks, three quarterback hits, two pressures, and two tackles for a loss. The Texans absolutely had to have an interior pass rushing threat this season. They balked at each free agent option available to them. From the outside it didn’t seem like they had someone who would make a leap along its front. Around age 25 players just kind of are what they are. Reader didn’t do this. Progression isn’t always linear. Reader has found an entirely new skill set to combine with his monstrous run defense. The Texans’ pass rush has been better than it was last season. And no, it wasn’t because Mercilus is better than Jadeveon Clowney. It’s because of Reader is a legitimate pass rusher.

This week is similar to last week’s expectations. The Panthers are tremendous interior run blockers. Left guard Greg Van Roten, Center Matt Paradis, and Right Guard Trae Turner, compose one of the best interiors. The outside is where they’ve had problems in pass protection. These problems have only been compounded though. Offensive tackle Daryl Williams is moving to right guard to replace the injured Turner. Rookie left tackle Greg Little will get his first career start at left. Last week he was a twelve year old getting a sip of his old man’s beer, alternating at left tackle against Arizona. And Taylor Moton is moving back to his rightful home at right tackle. It’s a new offensive line. A refurbished front five.

In each of the last three weeks edge rushers have put in enormous performances against Carolina. Dante Fowler had two sacks, three quarterback hits, and two tackles for a loss. Shaq Barrett had three sacks, four quarterback hits, and three tackles for a loss. Chandler Jones had two sacks, two forced fumbles, and three tackles for a loss.

Even if it’s Little at left tackle, a natural pass blocker who can be summarized as a worse version of Andre Dillard, and Moton at right tackle, who looks more comfortable there than at left, the Panthers are still susceptible at these positions. Moton will be the best player to attack. His hands and punch are horrendous in pass protection.

Last week Merclius, Watt, and Reader slaughtered the Chargers. This week they’ll have to once again. It’s reasonable to expect they will be able to.

2. Kyle>Kyler

The Panthers’ offense wasn’t stagnant and starving and prominently ribbed because of a lack of talent, a horrendous offensive line, or a butthead offensive scheme. No, it was because Cam Newton was erratic and unable to make the wide open throws available. The biggest difference between Kyle Allen and Cam Newton is that Allen made the open throws that Newton didn’t make.

Newton averaged 8.4 air yards per throw, 6.8 air yards per completion, had an aggressiveness rate of 16.9%, had an expected completion percentage of -9.3%, and a bad throw rate of 29.2%. Allen’s numbers were 9.2, 8.3, 7.7%, +9.2%, and 11.5%.

Allen put his polo shirt on. He said no ma’am, yes sir, what else can I help you with, it’s my pleasure, and made some very nice and perfectly reasonable throws along with with some perfect, wait a second, there may actually be something here throws. That’s what this offense needed to finally pull the plug and put 38 points on a crappy Arizona defense.

The Panthers’ offense improved dramatically because these throws were no longer regurgitated across the field.

Open throws are going to be available this weekend too. Drew Brees was able to torture the middle of the field. Gardner Minshew threw the ball down each sideline with success once the Jaguars stopped being checkdown cowards. Philip Rivers slung soup to Keenan Allen throughout the game, and Lonnie Johnson Jr. Jr. was taught life lessons by Mike Williams.

Curtis Samuel has been open all season long. D.J. Moore can turn a dig route into a 52 yard touchdown, a puddle into the ocean, a stretch mark into, well, you get it. Greg Olsen is healthy again and can play the center of the field. And Christian McCaffrey can line up as a wide receiver, in the slot, turn screen passes into a deep passing game, and run a variety of routes out of the backfield. As long as Allen has the green light to go after it he should be able to.

It will be interesting to see how Houston deals with it. The Panthers don’t have a true slot receiver. Jarius Wright has been the team’s third receiver in a typical sense, but they aren’t a true three wide receiver team. Instead McCaffrey and Olsen act as their third and fourth receiving options.

The Texans balanced Aaron Colvin’s release by moving Roby to the slot and playing Johnson Jr. and Johnathan Joseph on the outside. Tashaun Gipson was signed to cover tight ends like Olsen. The Texans will probably play more base against the Panthers pulling power scheme, and push Johnson Jr. to the bench and move Roby back wide. This isn’t a great option. Johnathan Joseph will struggle out wide against speed demons, and tackle breakers. He’s struggled with speed since 2015 and has missed seven tackles this season. Roby isn’t a true number one corner, and hasn’t really been tested with better matchups available. But it’s their best, and really, their only option.

Carolina should do what New Orleans and Los Angeles did. Throw the ball downfield. Attack Houston’s secondary. Get their skill players in space. And if they do, Sunday should be another high scoring one possession game.

3. Is This It?

Bill O’Brien’s been stomping around in his sleep, hollering and grinding his teeth. Each movement shifts the ocean underneath. The Texans’ waterbed offensive line has sloshed around the slumbering O’Brien week after week. Three weeks. Three different offensive line combinations. Maybe, just maybe, they may have finally settled on a starting five of Laremy Tunsil-Max Scharping-Nick Martin-Zach Fulton-Tytus Howard. Who knows though? I thought the same thing last week. It’s just a matter of time before Fulton is no longer a Bill O’Brien guy.

Last week the offensive line played well. Tunsil suffocated Bosa, even if he did get away with some holds to make it happen against his edge rushes. Scharping played adequately. Howard held his own out wide. And most importantly, Deshaun Watson was able to get the ball out quickly, and make most of the Chargers’ rushes ineffective by design.

This was a Chargers’ pass rush that rarely blitzed, sat back in coverage, didn’t utilize Melvin Ingram and Bosa in a unified manner, and in a strange turn of events, have zero interior pass rush whatsoever. This week won’t be like that. The Panthers’ defensive line goes seven deep. Dontari Poe and Kyle Love are double chinned run stoppers. Poe has the agility to do things like stop David Johnson screen passes.

Mario Addison is thriving in their new base 3-4, which is really just their Nickle defense, and is the team’s best pass rusher. He has 3.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and six pressures.

Brian Burns isn’t as good as the internet wants you to think, but he’s an athletic treat. He has two sacks and already has eleven pressures this season.

Gerald McCoy and Kawann Short can both rush on the interior even if their 2019 seasons have been underwhelming so far.

The Panthers don’t blitz often, they’ve only blitzed 16 times, but when they do its usually Shaq Thompson. They run some tackle-end stunts when they are in their Nickle defense, but that’s about it. The corners will sometimes sit in shallow zones and come down to tackle rolling, seeping, and scrambling quarterbacks. They may blitz more this week, and they should, but even if they play how they typically do, this is still the most vicious front the Texans will have faced yet.

4. Break My Legs, Break My Heart, My Bones Are Strewn Across The Yard

The last time we heard from Cam Newton he said he needed to look at himself in the mirror and do some soul searching, while dressed for a convertible drive out to the country to keep his hair from getting tangled in all that annoying wind. After a loss to Tampa Bay, last season’s shoulder surgery, and an aching foot, he sat out last week, and may have evaporated forever.

This is devastating. Newton was one of the NFL’s unicorns and a player no one has ever seen before. The size of a defensive end, Newton was both a fullback and quarterback, being utilized as Carolina’s short yardage runner, and a spear slinging quarterback who unleashed sniper shots off his back foot. Impossible to bring down. An all arm rocket throwing motion I’ve never seen before. His size allowed the Panthers to build an offensive line around monstrous run blocking maulers, and utilize undrafted free agent talent, because his strength as a runner confused defenses to allow the offensive line to block in advantageous situations, and even when they did get there, they were minuscule compared to him.

The way most people feel about Andrew Luck, I feel about Newton. Luck retired right at his prime, and opted to not play for the best team he’s had in his career. After carrying an offense for seven years, Newton is injured, and out of the picture, while finally finding the best offensive scheme and situation in his career.

Norv Turner’s offense was a funhouse last season filled with mirrors that narrow, stretch, and oblate shapes, a horror show of fake doors and bone and gore decorations. Turner unleashed years of imagination and late night in the garage play designs onto the league. Anyone could be a passer. Everyone was a runner. Every play had secondary options. Plays compounded ontop of one another like hundreds of mattresses stacked on a simple pea.

Reverses became double reverses. Options became screens. Heavy sets turned into halfback passes. It was obscene. With Newton still able to run and pass, Turner was able to let his freak flag really fly. No longer was he limited by personnel restrictions, or archaic defensive rules.

That was last season. This season he had to preserve Newton in a plastic tray, because Newton’s body is decayed and is no longer a threat running the ball. I mean, the Panthers handed it off on 3rd and 1 against Tamp Bay instead of battering Newton on a quarterback sneak. So Norv Turner has gone back to the past, and reverted back to running a vertical passing offense.

This is heartbreaking. So much of my football watching is based on two things nowadays, does this team play in an interesting way, and is this teaming maximizing its talent with its scheme. The wins and losses mean less. An adult saying the word ‘Superbowl’ with a straight face is the funniest thing in the world. Super fandom is a mental illness. The Panthers’ offense last season was a rare instance of a team that was doing both at the same time.

The carnival is torched. The Great Wheel has collapsed into an octopus of steel. Red tufts of hair are burnt into burgundy. But, if you listen closely, you can hear the entertainer jangle through the wind. Norv, even with Newton busted, has still occasionally ran naked out of the madhouse this year.

McCaffery Cat redzone touchdown run.

Allen runs a cute little read pass option to pick up the first.

These plays are only a taste of the past, and things typically seen around the NFL. I don’t think the red nose is locked away forever though. After a week of deliberating and working with starting quarterback Kyle Allen, instead of, oh crap, Kyle Allen is our starting quarterback, Norv may paint his face again this Sunday, and use eclectic plays to get his skill players in space and disorient and daze a destructive pass rush.

5. Skill v. Coverage

Carolina plays a lot of zone coverage. Always have. Always will. It’s Luke Kuechly and Thompson covering the short part of the field, Eric Reid in a shallow zone, Tre Boston deep, and Donte Jackson and James Bradberry trotting down the sideline. They also love to goad quarterbacks into throwing the ball to their defenders by doing wild things like having Kuechly diagnose and run with the post.

There isn’t a true one v. one matchup here. The Panthers won’t have DeAndre Hopkins slathered in press coverage with a leash tied to his collar. They’ll stick to their sides. This is a great matchup for Hopkins. He’s one of those intelligent receivers who understands where to find the weak spot in the fence, adjust his route to these weak spots, and sit for open passes. He should break back out after being relatively quiet the last two weeks.

This probably won’t be the game for Will Fuller to become a deep throw demon again. He’ll run downfield and act more of a decoy to open things underneath for Hopkins, and the seam, for either tight end and Kenny Stills.

The key is going to be for Watson to not make inerrant eyes closed heaves when the rush comes. To think for a millisecond longer before making throws. What looks to be open may not even be open. With Kuechly in the center of the field potential defenders are everywhere. The Panthers are great at funneling the ball to where they want it to go, and making tackles from there. That being said, if the pass blocking can handle their own well enough, Watson and this offense should be able to outscore whatever 24—27 points Kyle Allen can toss up.

Oh, and in case you forgot, Deshaun Watson is absolutely spectacular, fantastic, marvelous, tremendous, or whatever adjective your first grade teacher stamped onto your homework to create some illusion of yourself that you would never live up to.

6. What Could A Panther Be Searching For In Houston?

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngaje Ngai’, the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcas of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.