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2019 NFL Playoffs Texans-Bills Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

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Texans. Bills. A Saturday afternoon WILD CARD.

NFL: New England Patriots at Houston Texans Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Crazed man in a desert shaman hat. Hunched in the back of a gasoline sloshing van as the gang rides to solve the gas crisis. Waiting. Brakes pumping. Nothing happening. The curtain is lifted. A big leap. Bloody hollering. Multiple leaps. An explosion of fire.

This past decade, this show, the epicenter of guitar rock and sad guitar rock, The Process, dog masks, turd eating Super Bowl celebrating, and a gates of hell opening hockey mascot, made Philadelphia one of America’s prominent cultural production factories. Out of all of it, I don’t think of Doug Pederson’s gray hair, or the same spirit that possessed Joe Flacco inhabiting Nick Foles, or A Deeper Understanding, or the cleavage from The Menzingers album artwork, or Joel Embiid crying in the hallway after a rim bouncing shot. No, I think of the following image.

For all NFL fans, this image leaps out of the back of the van and permeates across this second reality like ghostly winter fog. Christmas. New Year’s. WILDCARD bitches. It will be in hype videos, internet junk food, in our hearts, and in our heads.

And so here it is again. The second best weekend in sports, the Wildcard Round of the NFL Playoffs. Bills-Texans.

Houston forever resigned to the 3:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon slot. The plunders of an AFC South Championship and punishment of a Denver Broncos loss is brutal, close combat, strangulation. Booger McFarland blowing snot across the telecast and bringing up Houston trading Jadeveon Clowney for Laremy Tunsil and stating Josh Allen looks to run. A graveyard of horrors. Houston, we have a problem. Lay me down in the crypt. Frank Reich and a comeback against a different franchise that was 30-something years ago. Release the ghosts. Brian Hoyer sack time, we beat Connor Cook once and the Cincinnati Bengals twice, down 21-0 and giving up against the Colts. Light the match.

CUT THE BRAKES AND HIT IT.

1. ESTABLISH THE RUN

The big on paper match up advantage is the Texans’ run offense against the Bills’ run defense. Houston has a decent, yet overused, rushing attack that’s going up against a mediocre run defense. This isn’t entirely true. The Bills’ run defense is better than what the numbers say. They have a defensive line that takes on double teams, releases off blocks, and plays the football. Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds are hunters who scramble around the box and tackle.

There are a few problems with this ‘match up’ advantage. Houston runs the ball on first down. They run the ball on second and long. They set up more manageable third downs. The Bills will be prepared for Houston’s tendencies. They’ll load the box, follow Houston’s motions, and be prepared for their 12 personnel rushing attack. It’s probably going to take Houston a half to get going.

Buffalo’s greatest sin is their tackling problems. Safeties in the hole skitter off ball carriers and turn 5 yards into 25. Milano runs across the box and fails to finish the play. Carlos Hyde has a broken tackle rate of just 13.3%. He picks up the yards the offensive line provides to him and falls forward for another. Tackle breaking isn’t part of his skill set. Every week is a great week for Duke Johnson to get more touches. This is another week of that. Spinning out of tackles, and juking in the open field, is a way to create yards against a defense that rarely allows more than 20 points.

The Bills’ linebackers can be blocked at the second level. Houston likes to use tight ends Jordan Akins and Darren Fells to do this. Neither one is very good at it. They should look to run more power, trap, and inside zone to get their offensive linemen up their instead. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

If you want more words on this matchup, click here.

On Buffalo’s sideline, they use a power run scheme. They love to pull center Mitch Morse. There isn’t a center in the league that pulls like he does. Pin and pull action is a staple of their game. Morse (#60) pulls up on the safety in the box. Cody Ford (#70) kicks out the defensive end.

Both guards Jon Feliciano and Quinton Spain are great pullers. Each one understands the angles needed to wall off the defender from the ball carrier.

This is so Buffalo. A twist on counter. Jet sweep motion to the cornerback Joe Haden (#23). Spain (#67) hooks the linebacker Devin Bush (#55) and gets his head inside. From there Devin Singletary (#26) breaks a tackle to get the first.

They’re one of those rare teams with an actual fullback. They like to run lead with Patrick DiMarco (#42), and even design cutbacks in the backfield to turn lead into counter with him following a pulling offensive lineman. Boom. Boom. I can hear the resounding clash of pads from here. Singletary bounces off Bud Dupree’s backside tackle attempt.

Smushed entrails. Bulging orbs of ivory. These blocks lead to squashed and flattened defenders. Their offensive linemen are heavers and heavy movers. Defensive ends and linebackers need to be prepared to juke around them to minimize their run game.

With Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney at the linebacker position they can also choose to defend this power rushing attack in a different way. They can use the play side linebacker to blow up the pull and clear the hall way out for the back side linebacker. This is how Houston defended the Titans’ power run game. The difference is Feliciano and Spain are better pullers than the outside zone blocking Rodger Saffold and Nate Davis are.

Houston’s run defense has found their way post J.J. Watt. The defensive line is composed of defensive end Angelo Blackson, nose tackle Brandon Dunn, and D.J. Reader is now a 3-4 defensive end. Carlos Watkins has replaced Charles Omenihu in run downs when someone needs a breath of air. This has been vital. Omenihu is a young man. He hasn’t figured out how to recognize run keys just yet. Power plays have turned him around plenty of times this season.

It’s going to take everyone to stop this rushing attack. Buffalo is 14th in yards per carry and 17th in run offense DVOA. Singletary has taken over as the team’s number one running back since week 7. He averages 5.1 yards a carry and has a run DVOA of 3.8% compared to Frank Gore’s 3.6 and -15.5%. The prehistoric fossilized back has 15 more carries than Singletary. He’s broken 42 tackles, has a broken tackle rate of 23.3%, and consistently has obscene carries. Houston’s safeties need to bring their mop and bucket whenever Singletary gets past the second level.

Both teams are going to run the ball a lot. Houston loves to ESTABLISH THE RUN. Buffalo likes to as well to make their passing a changeup to their power run scheme. The great advantage Houston has isn’t that much of an advantage, and Buffalo will have a tough task running the ball effectively against this front.

2. WHERE IS MY FRONTAL LOBE?

Pure, limitless, unrelenting, an infinite expanse of rollicking rambunctious youth. Josh Allen is the perfect representation of this. 23 years old. He will complete sublime downfield passes that will rip the sides of your mouth to your ears, and then scream a pass 15 yards over an open receiver on a crucial third down that will put your pubic hair through a shredder. He’ll drift around the corner of a road hugging a cliff to save himself from the dangers of loling while driving. Living life in a cloud of vape smoke. Popcorn lungs will steal your car, return it waxed and shiny, and smelling slightly like butterscotch. Absurd and maddening, frustrating and spectacular, a kaleidoscope of colors smashed over your head.

Like love, or beauty, or the sublime, it’s impossible to critically analyze Allen’s play. It just is. Don’t complicate it. Gasp in its glowing and divine light. That being said, we can give it a try anyways. If C.S. Lewis can do it we can too.

The biggest difference in Allen’s game from last year to this year is his short throwing accuracy. Allen has completed 66.1% of his short passes for 2,175 yards and has thrown 15 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. There’s nuance here. Actual touch. Leading his receivers to flowing and forever expanding oceans of synthetic blades of grass.

He’ll mix this with the worst misses you’ll ever see. Usually this happens when he sees the receiver late, feet all over the place, a tap dancing octopus wearing shoes that are too big will rely on his arm entirely and churn out minigun passes across the field.

The arm is outlandish. Inhumane. It’s an impossibility. Allen can throw cantaloupes from Fresno, over that navy and gray smoky valley, and onto Highway 395. Sitting, with feet set, he can hang in the pocket without fear because of his ability to break tackles, and throw the ball through the levels of a zone defense.

He’s more than just a quarterback. His feet are a vital component of his game. Allen is the team’s second running back, not Gore. The majority of his carries are designed runs. Only 42 of his 109 carries are classified as scrambles. As a runner, Allen has 42 first downs, averages 0.1 less yards after contact than Singletary, and picks up 4.7 yards an attempt.

The Bills will turn a shotgun formation into a power run play and utilize Singletary as a fullback to even the numbers against light boxes. Buffalo primarily plays out of 11 personnel. These plays are killer against light boxes.

The most exciting play in sports isn’t a disrespectful dunk, the juiced ball that lands into an orange alien orifice, the slinky spine save, or the father-the sun-the holy spirit deep heave, it’s the Allen quarterback sneak. Routinely he picks up three yards on third or fourth and short. One day he’ll break one for a touchdown.

He does scramble of course, and when he does he’ll do ridiculous things like stiff arm defensive linemen on his way to devouring all the yards available to him. A barbarian, he’ll batter through defenders to pick up first downs. The Texans like to play at least one, if not both linebackers in a short hook zone to prevent them from playing man coverage. Both McKinney and Cunningham are going to have a blast trying to chase down this four wheeler.

As a play action passer he can roll in either direction and complete spectacular throws on the move.

Allen usually takes quick drop backs. The ball is a iron skillet left on the burner. Buffalo will save the deep drop backs for downfield heaves off play action.

The accuracy has improved, but it’s still a problem. Allen has a completion percentage of 58.8% and a bad throw rate of 20.3%. It’s especially brutal on deep pass attempts. Getting the ball there isn’t the problem. He can throw the ball with planted feet out of this universe and into another. There’s a universe littered with footballs from Allen’s missed deep pass attempts. Looking past the confines of this season, the accuracy needs to improve, and more specifically, it needs to improve on throws deep down the field.

Give him enough tries, fail to put the flames out and turn the cadaver into ashes, and Allen will eventually hit and resurrect Buffalo.

Buffalo has a severe disadvantage at the quarterback position in this game. Allen isn’t in the same realm as Deshaun Watson. The Bills’ passing offense is below average. It’s up and down and pubescent. Yet, there’s always a hidden jolt there. Buffalo can routinely find its way into the craters of three and out depression, only for one deep hit, or one big yards after the catch reception to get the offense scooting again. Things may get dire. They’ll lose themselves sometimes. But they’re usually good to score at least 20 points, and with a defense that allows only 16.2 points a game, that’s typically enough.

3. BAD BAD BAD PASS DEFENSE

Buffalo doesn’t have a true number one wide receiver. John Brown and Cole Beasley are 1a and 1b. Together they’ve combined for 139 catches on 221 targets for 1,838 yards and 12 touchdowns. The key difference between the two is Brown averages 11.9 yards before the catch and Beasley 6.7. Dawson Knox has emerged as a playmaking tight end. Isaiah McKenzie catches some push pass jet sweeps and makes plays in the short passing game. Singletary is a fine pass catching back. Houston’s pass defense will be a communal effort. It’s more than just Bradley Roby playing man on Brown and the rest of the defense falling in line from there.

The problem Houston is going to have, is the problem they’ve had all season, stopping the short passing game. Opponents have a short pass completion percentage of 72.6%, thrown for 3,330 yards, and 28 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Houston is 30th in short pass defense DVOA, have allowed 6.9 yards an attempt (25th), and has an overall pass defense DVOA of 19.5% (26th). Every member of the Texans’ secondary has struggled in coverage this season. They don’t have a cornerback ranked higher than 92nd in Football Outsiders’ success rate, 103rd in yards allowed per pass, and 94th in yards allowed after the catch.

Part of the problem is the design of the defense. Romeo Crennel has bent this thing up to detonation. Lots of off-man coverage. One single high safety playing deep middle. Chasing against crossing routes. The Texans are doing everything they can to not get beat deep. It’s worked. Houston is fourth in deep pass defense DVOA behind Kansas City, Buffalo, and New England, but at the same time, its allowed opponents to throw short on them.

The concern is that Tashaun Gipson has been placed on Injured Reserve. He’s out. Crennel has a decision to make. He can move Justin Reid to deep middle to save Houston from the occasional successful deep passing attempt, keep big runs from becoming devastating, but it would neuter his ability to remain involved in the defense on a play to play defense, force turnovers, and help out in man coverage. Jahleel Addae or A.J. Moore could fill this role in a lesser capacity. Or keep him in the robber position and have Addae, or Mike Adams sit deep. This is a crucial decision for Crennel to make.

The Texans saving grace has been the offense. Houston’s slow moving, heavy breathing offense, shortens the game. The Texans’ average drive takes 2:51 (8th) and they average 6.2 plays a drive (6th). Houston’s offense has had 169 drives (27th), but their defense has faced only 170 drives (T-26th). The 22 turnovers they’ve forced has helped things out too.

This game should be like previous ones. It will be a slow game without a lot of plays run. The clock will skitter on by. Despite Allen’s inaccuracies, and the stagnant ruts they fall into, Houston’s passing defense will struggle. The key for them is going to be to produce turnovers and lop the head off Buffalo’s offensive drives. The secondary needs to be fortunate, and pounce on every Allen overthrow that is pulled into the gravity of a defensive player. These are the requirements to keep Buffalo below that magical 20 point threshold.

4. J.J. WATT’S RETURN

The pass defense struggles isn’t just because of the secondary. It’s because of the pass rush as well. It’s a simple formula. Bad secondary + bad pass rush = bad pass defense. After trading Jadeveon Clowney, the pass rush faced the worst possibility—an injury to J.J. Watt.

The Texans’ star defensive player was knocked out of the 2019 season with a torn pectoral injury in week 8. At that time he was the entirety of a mediocre pass rush. The backfield on pass attempts was vacated like some ancient cliff dwellings without him. Despite not playing for two months, Watt leads the Texans with 21 quarterback hits and 38 quarterback pressures.

Whitney Mercilus leads the team with 7.5 sacks. He’s a wide and looping pass rusher that’s easy to contain and step up from without interior pressure tossing him alley-oops. Most of his rushes are meaningless. His rush has evaporated along with D.J. Reader’s interior rush, and stunts that would get Watt slashing into the interior. This is how Mercilus picks up sacks now.

Jacob Martin has shown some juice off the edge. His chop-rip-phew is a legitimate pass rush move. He doesn’t have an answer when a tackle gets his hands on him though. He’ll need to learn how to leverage over setting, off balanced, tall standing tackles into bullrushes. The weight room is waiting for him. He’s a flash, but he doesn’t create a meaningful consistent rush on his own.

Crennel was stuck blitzing and doing everything he could to manufacture a rush. Despite having a blitz rate of 32.8% (8th), the Texans are tied-26th in sacks with 31 and 19th in quarterback hits with 90. They tried to blitz safeties. They tried to twist their inside linebackers. Crennel has tried everything. None of it was all that successful.

He should keep blitzing even with Watt returning. Allen does struggle against the blitz. He’s 28th in QBR against it. If Crennel can conjure up something even somewhat insidious and diabolical it should fluster Allen, and in the playoffs, every third down incompletion is monumental.

The stars and crescents on his pointy hat will shine brighter with Watt back though. Typically the Texans give him the easiest pass rush match up available. This means Watt v. rookie Cody Ford. At Oklahoma, Ford showed quick feet as a pass blocker, but lining up in a two point stance every play, taking one slide step and making contact, and blocking in a quick passing offense is entirely different than the situation he’s in now. He’s struggled with a traditional pass set. He’s been routinely beat off the edge by quick edge rushers. The Bills will chip and help him out, but even that won’t save him (#70).

It’s a match up that Watt should win, no matter how much his skin is colored by iron oxide, and it’s one that Martin should be able to win too whenever Watt moves inside before or after the snap. Ford probably won’t play for the entire game though. Ty Nsekhe is back to health. The two have split time throughout the season. Buffalo gives up run blocking ability with Nsekhe in, but the pass protection improvement may end up being too much to pass up if Ford gives up constant pressure.

It’s unknown how Watt will look or perform coming back from a midseason pectoral injury. The expectation is he’ll be used in passing downs, and out wide, to shield him from the bruises and punches that come on the interior. Regardless, it’s an upgrade. The difference between him and Blackson and Omenihu and Watkins is astronomical. Houston’s pass defense needs this feel good story to work out.

5. TAKING ON THE ELITE

Buffalo is led by their pass defense. It’s the best part of their team. They’re 4th in pass defense DVOA at -16% and are 3rd in net yards an attempt with 5.2. It’s an intelligent pass defense with a rush and secondary working together in unison that funnels the ball where they want it.

Buffalo typically plays zone coverage out of Nickle with their two safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde playing deep. Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace are their outside corners and they tend to stick to one side. They’re second and fourth in pass defense DVOA at covering a team’s number one and number two receivers. Edmunds and Milano will show ‘A’ gap pressure and bounce out into short zones. As 538 pointed out, teams tend to throw short and away from White to attack this pass defense. Can’t you see DeAndre Hopkins making catches here?

One of the keys to Houston’s passing offense is how they use Hopkins. The Texans have turned him from a sideline slinger, to a less efficient and worse version of Michael Thomas, who attacks the middle part of the field to pick up first downs. Hopkins is 3rd with 68 first down receptions. The assumption is the Texans will throw a lot of slants, curls, comebacks, and deep digs that find the holes in zone coverage to move the ball through the air. If Deshaun Watson and Hopkins connect often enough, frustration could turn the Bills into a man coverage team.

White is the type of cornerback who can be the best player on the field. He can sit in off-man, shadow routes on roller skates, and run the route for the receiver.

Buffalo also likes to play cover six. One side of the formation will pay cover two, while the other side will split the field into thirds. This can be exploited. Decisive double moves can split the zone and create throwing opportunities.

Houston’s passing offense is entirely different when Will Fuller is healthy. Houston shies away from throwing the ball downfield without him. Kenny Stills and DeAndre Carter have to climb the cornerback ladder against man coverage and don’t have the same matchup advantages. Regardless if Fuller plays, the Texans need to have a few route combinations designed to take deep shots against this defense. Buffalo has allowed only 46 plays over 20 yards. This is the second lowest number in the league. The Texans will be starving for explosive plays. Their attempts have to be calculated, and have to be more creative than max protect Yankee concepts.

In conjunction with this is the Bills’ pass rush that runs six deep. Jerry Hughes, Lorenzo Alexander, Shaq Lawson, Ed Oliver, Jordan Phillips, and Trent Murphy all work together to create a rush that’s tenth in pressure rate and thirteenth in adjusted sack rate.

Houston has been good at winning their one v. one pass blocks. Yet, every team can have struggles blocking Oliver and Lawson. Oliver (#91) is transforming into a premier interior rusher. They grow up so fast. He can bullrush, rip deep up the pocket, and bend to sack the quarterback. This is a typical edge rush utilized on the inside.

Lawson (#90), in his fourth year, has finally broken out. He’s great at playing the backside of the run game. He’ll rush from either side. Because of his motor and awareness he will play his way into sacks and turn disruption into box score production. His best move is a quick inside move that gets him scraping across the tackle’s face.

Both he and Hughes will give Roderick Johnson and/or Chris Clark problems at the right tackle position.

Sean McDermott has changed things up. The Bills are blitzing more this season than they did last season, and more than a typical Carolina Nickle defense does. Their blitz rate has gone up from 23.4% to 31.1%. The Bills love to load up the box with defensive backs, play for third down, and then bring the blitz to overwhelm offensive lines. When blitzing, Buffalo prefers to overload one side of the line of scrimmage to create free rushers.

3rd and 9. A defender in every gap. Four against four from the right side of the line of scrimmage. Covered in ants. Free rusher. Easy sack.

They’re also great at blitzing to push the ball where they want it. Sitting in shallow zones they can quickly crash and make tackles to force punts.

This is the biggest problem the Texans’ pass protection faces. All season long, even after the waterbed stopped sloshing around, they’ve been confused by opponent’s blitz schemes. The last time they played a meaningful game the Buccaneers created five sacks and sent Deshaun Watson scrambling and throwing the ball away quickly.

To counteract this aggression, the Texans can use misdirection, throws to running backs, and screens to pick up chunk plays. The Patriots’ passing offense subsisted on these in the AFC East Championship game. The conflict is the Texans aren’t a good screen team. Their screen game is composed of quick throws to receivers that pick up seven yards on third and twelve. Plays like this are a day dream. Johnson is an electric player. The Texans will need to use him.

Houston should have problems throwing the ball. Despite the Watson-Hopkins connection, the Bills’ pass defense is that good. They have a player they can match Hopkins with. It’s an intelligent and confusing defense that hasn’t struggled against any aspect of the passing game. The most points they’ve allowed is 31 to Philadelphia and it took 218 rushing yards 9 weeks ago to make that happen. The Texans have to pick their spots, pick up the blitz, and above all else, need Watson to make absolutely incredible plays within and outside the structure of the offense to move the ball.

6. SMELL THE SOUR SMELL OF THE BONES

It was an old hunter in the camp and the hunter share tobacco with him and told him of the buffalo and the stands he’d made against them, laid up in sag on some rise with the dead animals scattered over the grounds and the herd beginning to mill and the riflebarrel so hot the wiping patches sizzled in the bore and the animals by the thousands and the tens of thousands and the hides pegged out over actual square miles of ground the teams of skinners spelling one another around the clock and the shooting and shooting weeks and months till the bore shot slick and the stock shot loose at the tang and their shoulders were yellow and blue to the elbow and the tandem wagons groaned away over the prairie twenty and twenty-two ox teams and the flint hides by the hundred ton and the meat rotting on the ground and the air whining with flies and the buzzards and ravens and the night a horror of snarling and feeding with the wolves half-crazed and wallowing in the carrion.