Sports aren’t political. They don’t exist to convince people to vote, or put a spotlight on social injustices, or allow for athletes to use their platform to expand the public consciousness, or represent the struggle of the human existence. This isn’t to say they don’t do those things; they do, and they are a vital avenue for these causes to travel along, but they don’t exist for these reasons. Sports aren’t played, watched, and enjoyed because of political or social reasons. These are indirect, not direct results.
The games exist to enrich one’s life. As players, the game allows individuals to live their life in a black and white world dominated by a binary win and loss conclusion, something particularly valuable in an existence lived in subjective conflict where few things are measurable and conclusive. The game pushes individuals into conflict they would never had the chance to overcome in a cozy, comfy world. The game provides a collective structure to exist in, to find one’s role in, a place to work for something bigger than the self.
As consumers of the game, the players and teams we love make our lives more enjoyable. The same contrast of black and white, win and loss, can be lived vicariously as athletes pull off tasks that our rigid and flabby bodies don’t have the genetic disposition to ever complete. Players become more than players, staples of one’s life for years at a time, as we watch their careers mold and change as they perform on the local stage. Deshaun Watson escaping from a car crash and turning the impossible into possible, turning the third into the fourth, and pulling off mystical experiences tear down the walls of reality, opens the roof of our rib cage, and makes us feel things that are so difficult, so rare, to feel.
Sports enrich life. Everything is else is an indirect result from it. Those results are more due to the number of viewers and the size of the platform than something the game itself provides.
The worst aspect of the Bill O’Brien era wasn’t the bare minimum he got out of the Texans, or his failure to get the franchise out of the constrains of the Divisional Round, or the horrendous and stupefying decisions that actively made the team worse. It was the lack of joy derived from watching this team play. A bathroom break offense defined by usually horrendous quarterback play (until Watson came along, of course), controlling the ball, ESTABLISHING THE RUN, and winning enough close games when paired with great defenses was the name of O’Brien’s game in Houston. The Texans won games; O’Brien finished 52-48 in Houston, but the majority of the time, the game itself was banal, listless, and better suited for when the slow drip of previous night’s binge drinking rolled down the spine. Sundays weren’t the raucous times they had been and should have been with the talent this team had on the roster.
Terrible personnel decisions finally caught up to O’Brien. The Texans went from a great team with bad quarterbacks to a bad team with a great quarterback. O’Brien’s crappy offensive design couldn’t make up for the talent he purged from this franchise the last two seasons. The summer promises and aspirations were fork-tongued. The close games Houston won a year ago have been lost. An 0-4 start is unacceptable with a franchise quarterback.
Now all of that is gone. Although the postseason is probably unattainable, the Texans’ 2020 season is far from over. Because the game and the team doesn’t exist just to win games, to make the NFL Playoffs, and to try to win titles. The game exists to enrich, to make living more enjoyable. For the next twelve weeks, with O’Brien gone, Texans football will do exactly that now that it’s longer dragged down by O’Brien’s temper and ineptitude.
The postseason doesn’t matter. Wins and losses don’t matter. Having our favorite football team back is the only thing that matters.
1. ESTABLISH THE RUN?
As of right now, Myles Jack may not play against the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is monumental. The Jaguars had a good run defense the first three weeks of the season, but last week it fell apart. The Bengals, who have one of the worst rushing attacks in the league, churned 34 carries into 205 yards and 2 touchdowns.
They did this in two ways. The first was by running off tackle. Jacksonville has two competent linebackers in Jack, and Joe Schobert, and everyone else is abysmal. Not only that, but last year’s terrible linebackers Quincy Williams and Leon Jacobs are injured. The Jaguars don’t have three linebackers they can put on the field. As a result, they mostly play nickle with a defensive back in the box against heavier formations. If they want to play three true linebackers it leads to glimpses of Cassius Marsh as the standing end man on the line of scrimmage.
Cincinnati was able to attack this well by blocking down on the edge defender, having their running back bounce wide, and then getting Joe Mixon into individual open field match ups against Jacksonville’s defensive backs, who, aside from C.J. Henderson, struggle at tackling.
It’s duo from the Bengals. Two down blocks by wide receivers draws D.J. Hayden (#25) and Chris Claybrooks (#27) inside. Joe Mixon bounces it wide, scorches them, and plays footrace against Josh Jones to the pylon (#29).
Same play. Nickle defense. Block down on the edge defender. Get Mixon into a one v. one matchup against the defensive back off tackle.
In the second half, Jack was pulled with an ankle injury. His replacement was Dakota Allen (#53). And with him came some of the worst run fits you’ll ever see. Completely lost, with no idea what to do, a usually awful Bengals rushing attack was able to successfully run the ball between the tackles.
It's hilarious and ironic, and beautiful, that Bill O'Brien was fired before he finally played an opponent to ESTABLISH THE RUN against— Matt Weston (@Matt__Weston) October 6, 2020
The Jacksonville Jaguars run defense is an absolute disaster without Myles Jack (ankle injury) pic.twitter.com/OnL6TJ3lnw
Schobert is a fine player, and his signing made sense for Jacksonville, because it would move Jack out of the middle linebacker position, not because of some grand skill Scobert has—he’s been especially bad in coverage this season allowing 17 catches on 18 targets for 165 yards and 1 touchdown. It’s worked out well. Jack is this defense’s anchor. He’s back to playing out in space, instead of having to mash against guards and trying to read and react to run keys he struggled to make sense of last year. In a nickle defense, Jack has more space to cover, and he’s excelled this year.
In this role that better suits his skill set, Jack (#44) has done everything from crash down to make badass run stops...
to covering tight ends as a slot defender...
to simply being an athlete and making plays.
If he doesn’t play on Sunday, the Texans should be able to put 41 points on Jacksonville with the quarterback and talent they have. If he does play, Houston should, even with their run blocking issues, be able to exploit the edges of the Jacksonville’s defense to get David and Duke Johnson into space and into tackle breaking opportunities.
They should get tackle breaking chances, and they need to make the most of them. Since week one, David Johnson hasn’t looked the same, and isn’t making people miss when he has the chance. Houston’s run blocking hasn’t created many opportunities for him. That being said, he’s whiffed on the ones he had.
This is a 3rd and 1 run attempt. Houston actually blocks the outside zone well. David has an easy cutback, and a great tackle breaking chance. He runs into the defender, and gets wrangled low. Good running backs salivate and live for this, turning attempts like this into 20+ yards.
His vision as an outside zone runner hasn’t been there either. He’s indecisive. The jump cuts are better suited for an inside zone attack. As an outside zone runner, he isn’t sticking his foot and coming off his blocks well. He’s wide and hazy and taking inefficient paths. He should have scored on first down on their goal line stand against Minnesota last week. It’s ironic Houston’s goal line stand failure was the result of a Johnson run path, and a Will Fuller dropped catch that DeAndre Hopkins makes.
This week one run was the exception. The rest of Johnson’s rushing attacks have been ruined by one missed block, or by him, not making a play he should make.
Both him and Duke Johnson are going to get tackle breaking chances this week, and David has to do more with them. It’s expected for the Texans to try and run the ball this week. Both new head coach Romeo Crennel and recently reassigned to play calling duties Tim Kelly, mentioned it this week in their press conferences. Unlike previous weeks, this is the perfect team to run the ball against, if they run it correctly, and even this is even more true, if Jack doesn’t play this week.
2. EMPTY, EMPTY, EMPTY
The Texans’ offensive game plan last week was baffling, the same as it was previous weeks. They didn’t do enough to attack Minnesota downfield. It took 40 minutes of game time to finally get Will Fuller a shot down the sideline. They were flummoxed at times by Minnesota’s zone coverage switches after the snap. And the incessant need to get the ground game only hurt them, like it did the previous three weeks.
Houston was at their best last week when they went empty, or out of the shotgun with four wide receiver sets, spread the field out, and picked their pre-snap match ups out.
The Texans have 01 personnel. The Vikings show double ‘A’ gap pressure. Erik Kendricks (#54) shows blitz, and pops out to wall off the crossing route as the rat defender. Watson knows he’ll have this match up, or a free short middle pre-snap. Randall Cobb runs a nice route around the linebacker to get open.
Out of an empty set, Will Fuller (#15) is the slot receiver. He gets a one v. one match up against Jeff Gladney (#20). With no safety help, Watson delivers a pretty touch pass, after Fuller wins his route.
More receivers can stress and confuse zone defenses. Against Pittsburgh, they had success spreading the field out too. It’s another empty formation. The quick out draws the cornerback, leaving David Johnson wide open by himself down the sideline.
The Bengals had success against Jacksonville like this as well. Out of five receiver sets, with one safety deep, Joe Burrow had a blast hitting Tyler Boyd on post routes against D.J. Hayden.
The Jaguars pass defense started off alright in week one, but it’s rubble now. Hayden was having a lackluster season at the slot, and is now on injured reserve. C.J. Henderson may not play this week, and is still a rookie who has things to learn, even after his incredible week one performance. Tre Herndon isn’t it. The safety play is terrible. And now with injuries, there’s way too much Chris Claypool and Sidney Jones on the field. Jacksonville is last in pass defense DVOA and is allowing 8.0 yards an attempt, which is 31st. They’ve been among the worst in the league at covering running backs and tight ends. The secondary is bad enough that even Brandin Cooks should be able to win a vertical route for the first time this season.
Hopefully now that Timmy is free from Billy, the super cool super vertical offense kill em all offense will come out of the box. The Texans have been at their best passing from spread sets, and exploiting individual match ups. Too often, they’ve saved this offense for the end of the half, or when trailing, all in the name of conservation, keeping the game close, limiting mistakes, and playing to win at the end. This doesn’t work anymore. The Texans don’t have the defense to expect for 24 points to be enough. The quarterback is too good for 24 points to be enough. This is the week, just like last week, for the offense to finally break out.
3. BACK ON TRACK
The dam has broken. What was once wet, that became dry, is flooded again. The Texans run defense is horrendous after allowing Jadeveon Clowney, Kareem Jackson, and D.J. Reader to leave this defense, and age and a lack of progression from young players. Even I, with a charred and rancid heart didn’t think the Texans’ run defense would be this bad without Reader, and man, it stinks.
There are dozens of reasons for this. Brandon Dunn has been mushy at the center of this defense, sliding backwards against double teams, and easily moved off the ball in one v. one one blocks. J.J. Watt doesn’t really play the run much, and when he does, he’s not quite getting there, and has been unable to make the tackles for a loss he used to make. Jacob Martin doesn’t have the size to stick half a defender and control the edge. Brennan Scarlett and Whitney Mercilus aren’t winning blocks against fullbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends. The defensive line isn’t creating enough penetration. They’ve gotten nothing from rookies Ross Blacklock and Jonathan Greenard. Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham have needed to find another level without the same defensive line talent, and they’ve been unable to do so. The tackling has been putrid at every position.
And, just in general, they just aren’t winning their blocks. They haven’t kicked any ass. This inside zone run against Minnesota is a perfect example. Martin (#54) hesitates against the split zone pull. P.J. Hall (#96) is whooped by the combo block. Dunn (#92) can’t maintain the ‘A’ gap, and for whatever reason tries to wriggle off the block, driving him inside, and losing his gap in the process. McKinney (#55) fills his gap, forcing Dalvin Cook to the other ‘A’ gap. Watt (#99) cowards against the double team, dropping to one knee, instead of maintaining the line of scrimmage. Cunningham (#42) tries to go under the second level climb, instead of going through the inside of the block to the linebacker. Scarlett (#57) is driven off the ball by a tight end. And the secondary is lost in the motion. Every member of the defense loses their assignment, except for McKinney, against an offensive line that has been below average run blocking this season.
The Texans have a run defense of 4.0%, which is 29th, are allowing 4.9 yards an attempt, which is 25th, and only had a negative run defense DVOA against Kansas City, in a game where they consistently gave up big plays on the ground. In the span of two seasons, the Texans’ run defense has gone from all-time great to the worst in the league.
Jacksonville runs a balanced offensive attack, and it’s been successful. James Robinson is better than Leonard Fournette, and the Jaguars have run a fairly effective zone rushing attack. With Jay Gruden as the offensive coordinator, they’ve moved away from the pulling power run game, have gone with a zone attack, and have improved as a result.
Robinson is more than a cute story. He’s a legitimate starting running back. He’s averaging 2.8 yards after contact and has broken six tackles this year. He can string together a spin move with a quick juke to rematerialize into the open field.
He has great vision as a zone runner. His paths are efficient. Allowing his eyes to take him away from tackles. Convoluted boxes are navigated. He misses tackles telepathically.
The Jaguars’ offensive line has been much better blocking this scheme as well. They have been able to climb to the second level better than expected, while still having the brute strength to fold the defense on combo blocks when they run inside zone and duo. It also helps that Andrew Norwell has transformed from a walrus into a yak in the run game. Now that he isn’t pulling so often, he’s been picking up blocks at the second level well.
The balance helps too. Jacksonville doesn’t run to throw. They pick and choose their plays based on what the defense provides. Outside zone runs with 11 personnel from the shotgun against emptier boxes has been their coconut oil to lubricate their run game.
No matter what the scheme is, the Texans have struggled stopping it. Kansas City and Minnesota’s outside zone game gave them fits in weeks one and four, and now they’ll get more of it against Jacksonville. It’s a lesser rushing attack, but it’s far from incompetent. Any little bit of a jump of performance, especially just a more vicious effort, will be a noticeable difference than what they’ve pushed onto the field to start the season.
4. MUSTY MUSTY STINKY STINKY MINSHEW MINSHEW
Jacksonville isn’t 1-3 because of Minshew. In week two their defense allowed four redzone passing touchdowns, lost receivers in the screen game, and was torched by a few patented Arthur Smith play action passes. In week three, their pass defense was stretched apart by Miami, allowing 21 points on the first three possessions, making Jacksonville’s offense one dimensional without D.J. Chark on the field. In week four, which has already been put in your head, the middle of the field was attacked and their run defense fell apart.
Minshew has been an above average quarterback this year, and with a salary of 600k a year, Jacksonville is getting closer to having conversations if they should take advantage of a rookie quarterback contract and build a team around him.
Last year he had problems against the blitz and as a short passer. Jay Gruden has been a positive influence in his life. The short passing issues have mostly dissipated.
He’s no longer throwing quick curls and comebacks into zone defenses. Instead, their short passing game is mostly crossing routes to their wide receivers who are great at picking up yards after the catch.
Laviska Shenault Jr. has been spectacular at this. He’s like if Cordarrelle Patterson was a worse running back and a better receiver. Even little hook routes become impossible yards after the catch plays.
Gruden creates advantageous throws and reads for Minshew too. Motion that draws the corner into the flat, and opens up the vertical for Chark against quarters is a perfect example of this.
He’s done this while still allowing Minshew to be Minshew. The deep passing offense is still here. Minshew has been even better in this regard, tossing sublime touch passes.
His biggest weakness right now is throwing against the blitz. He gets a little too antsy in the pocket with six defenders clattering around him, like he’s accidentally eaten too many milligrams of THC as the shadows from the trees outside of his window paint the images of witches and ghouls along the walls of his house. He gets caught on his back foot. Throws recklessly, and misses throws he usually makes, when up against imminent pressure.
Houston has tried everything with their pass defense. They’ve blitzed everyone, they’ve run every type of zone coverage, they do a little bit of everything, and none of it has worked well. Last week they were picked clean by Minnesota’s play action passing game. It got so bad that Houston benched Vernon Hargreaves III for Phillip Gaines to try and find a spark, leading to a lot of cursing and drinking beans straight from the can for dinner.
They’ll probably try to to blitz and play man against Jacksonville, instead of playing as much cover three and cover four they’ve played previously. This will lead to a lot of Bradley Roby v. D.J. Chark, a comparable match up where Chark has the slight advantage, and will create plenty of open crossing routes for Keelan Cole, Chris Conley, and Shenault Jr. Blitzing is the best way to affect Minshew, and try to create big plays, even if it opens the door on the back end.
5. JAWANN v. J.J.
J.J. Watt has lined up against right tackles all season, and hasn’t done much against them. Last week against everyone from Dru Samia, to Brian O’Neil, Watt didn’t have a big impact on the game. He was close to making some enormous run stops, without ever getting there, but that was about it.
This week he’ll go up against Jawaan Taylor. Last season Watt had success using his hands, rips, and ghost rips to get around Taylor in week two. As a rookie, Taylor had a competent game against him, and was great at matching Watt’s strength with his own.
Taylor (#75) has been even better this season. His hand placement has been perfect. He’s punching, extending, and strangling the chest, squashing rushes, and giving Minshew time to scamper around. Perfect hand technique has cleared up the holding penalties that hurt his rookie season.
He’s locked down each of his pass rush match ups this season. The most impressive was against Jadeveon Clowney in week two. Clowney (#99) isn’t, and wasn’t in football shape yet, but that doesn’t change how Taylor locked him up play after play. Outside, inside, it didn’t matter the route, Taylor stifled him.
Two sacks aside, Watt hasn’t done much as a pass rusher. This week isn’t an easy match up. Taylor is one of the best young offensive tackles in the NFL, and has made a tremendous jump in year two.
6. AS WE LAY SMILING
It is because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don’t try to hold him, that he can’t escape from.