clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Texans-Vikings Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

Texans. Vikings. REVENGE.

NFL - 2006 Annual Meeting - March 27, 2006 Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Disgust, nothingness, fear, fury, joy, and sadness are a few of the many pure human emotions we roll through as we are carried around in circles by the hands of the clock. Of all the human emotions, nothing is as pure and as beautiful as REVENGE. The trouble with revenge is that it isn’t something we casually swing in and out of. It takes years, decades, sometimes centuries for the course to finally realize those malicious dreams of righting those who wronged them and the ones they love. You can eat a cake to squash hunger, but there’s no simple recipe to satiate one’s lust for getting back at someone.

Because of this, most people never have the opportunity to ever feel this feeling. I know I haven’t. I once told myself I’d end up brutally beating someone I’ve never met, even if it ended up with me breaking a Luann Platter over someone’s head with my nuts hanging out of my shorts in the year 2071. Those feelings subsided years ago. This will never happen. That red and boiling rage spurned into something better and beautiful. It just isn’t the same thing.

Most resort to entertainment to find some semblance of this feeling. They watch movies about the man who kills the man who killed his dog, the man who returns to patrol the highways after his family is run down in the apocalyptic streets, and they cheer as Ashley Judd commits Double Jeopardy. They read the books where the man breaks out of the sack at the bottom of the ocean and starts anew, where a rotten return to Denmark means his uncle is now his father, and a back alley knife fight with a pimp is a vessel to seal up the wounds from a journey into Mexico years ago.

These examples are grand and enormous. Our clean and comfortable lives don’t provide dragons like this to overwhelm and overcome. Instead we are stuck dealing with our own personal neurosis, limitations, and rotting trees rather than some great external force to rise above. Revenge. That sweet and beautiful thing is for the few. For the many, it takes place entirely on pages and screens.

This weekend, we have the opportunity to watch someone get their chance at revenge. Gary Kubiak was the second coach in Houston Texans history. He was fired after Matt Schaub’s arm fell apart a month into the 2013 season. Houston started 2-0 that year. They proceeded to lose the next 14 games. It was a horrible and disastrous thing. From Super Bowl dreams to Texans fans cheering Schaub as he rolled on the grass of NRG Stadium in pain, to Brian Cushing’s car crash leg injury, to Case Keenum melting in the sun, to Kubiak’s collapse at halftime of a nationally televised game, to Schaub and Andre Johnson fighting as Houston lost to Matt McGloin, the 2013 season was despicable in every way.

Kubiak was fired. Bill O’Brien was hired. O’Brien took a talented team that was overrun with awful one-score luck, a terrible turnover differential, and injuries, and inevitably flipped the record to 9-7 in a season. It’s now Year Seven. O’Brien is still here. Kubiak, on the other hand, went to Baltimore and got the last good season out of Joe Flacco as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore, and then became the head coach in Denver, where he managed Peyton Manning, unleashed [NAME REDACTED] onto the world and eventually onto the Houston Texans, and hung out while Wade Phillips coordinated an all-time great pass defense. Kubes won a Super Bowl. Then he retired, came out of retirement to be a special assistant, and has stumbled his way back into calling plays in Minnesota.

The same 0-3 Minnesota Vikings team Houston faces this weekend.

In a sense, Kubiak has already gotten his revenge. He won the big game. He plagued Houston with an all-time free agency gaffe. He accomplished what he didn’t in Houston. Yet the narrative he’s living is too perfect to not exploit for our own personal usage, when this feeling is so scarce. This weekend isn’t merely a return to Houston for Gary Kubiak. It’s the chance for him to get his revenge, force Houston into 0-4, effectively decapitate their playoff dreams. By doing so, Kubiak could effectively end O’Brien’s time in Houston. He could vanquish the head coach who took over for him when his time in Houston came to an end.

HIT IT.

1. SIDELINE PASSING

After a summer of being bombarded with Tim Kelly’s super vertical super cool kill em’ all offense dreams, reality has brought none of that. It’s the same Houston Texans offense. Ground control. Run the ball. Feed your first running back into dust. Utilize the drag flat read option that doesn’t work. Take bad sacks on first down. Run crossing routes in isolation. Spread the ball out and find success, but don’t stick to it, because the run hasn’t been established yet. With Kelly at offensive coordinator, the Texans are still the Texans, and tripping over their same errors.

This weekend is the time to unleash the real offense, the one they’ve been designing all summer, the one they’ve been saving for when they really need it. The Minnesota Vikings lost more than half of their starting defense in a span of an offseason. Up against the salary cap, they finally had to shed skin. The defensive side of the ball has been turned over, and the results have been disastrous.

The Vikings are currently allowing 8.1 yards an attempt, which is tied for 28th in the league. The pass rush has been meek without Danielle Hunter. Their starting outside cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Cameron Dantzler have been terrible to start the 2020 season, and they don’t even have them this weekend.

Instead, Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney, and Kris Boyd will get the opportunity to stop Houston. Hill has allowed 15 catches on 21 targets for 216 yards, 1 touchdown, and his average depth of target is 12.4 yards down field. Gladney has allowed 10 catches on 16 targets for 125 yards, 1 touchdown, and his average depth of target is 11.4 yards. And Boyd has allowed 3 catches on 3 targets for 52 yards. They stink.

Repeatedly, Vikings cornerbacks get lost along the route. It’s fairly easy for wide receivers to use stutters and stops to turn them, get into their blindspot, and then break out free from there.

Khalif Raymond pulled off exactly this against Hill on a play action pass last week.

And he pulled it off against Gladney, faking the corner, and breaking back to the post.

The other problem they have is they fail to stay on top of their routes. Receivers haven’t even needed to really manipulate their release to get off the line cleanly. A slight stutter. A speed release inside or outside to create leverage. These things are usually more than enough to break past and torch the Vikings’ cornerbacks.

Here Hill fails to stay on top of a Davante Adams go route.

These throws to the sidelines, and ones off play action that manipulate the defense, are vital against Minnesota because it removes their best players from the play—Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. Attacking the Vikings cornerbacks in isolation is the key to putting up points against Minnesota. If teams do this, football is easy.

Houston hasn’t thrown the ball in this manner much this season. Their deep passing attempts have usually been deep crossing routes. Posts, digs, long developing scampers all the way across the field. These routes should be decoys for deeper and grander plays against Minnesota.

Watson has to be perfect downfield this game. He hasn’t been to start 2020. On deep passes, Watson is 11 for 22 for 271 yards, 2 touchdowns to 3 interceptions, and is averaging 12.3 yards an attempt. There have been some tough misses for this offense along the way.

Against Baltimore, he missed David Johnson on a slant and go. It’s hard to know if the blame is shared, and if Johnson was supposed to take this up the sideline away from the defender, but a miss is a miss.

Against Pittsburgh, he had Cooks on Vince Williams. The ball flopped out of bounds. Misses like this can’t happen.

To start the season Fuller is 1/3 for 31 yards, Cooks is 2/6 for 62 yards, and Cobb is 4/4 for 103 yards and 1 touchdown on deep passes. Similar to Atlanta in 2019, this is the game for Cooks and Fuller to break out. Their speed is too tremendous to not win down the sidelines and open up the middle of the field for the rest of the offense. Both players haven’t seen true sideline attempts since they failed to convert in Kansas City.

If Houston doesn’t score at least 27 points against this Vikings’ defense than move the team to Memphis and start over again in 2030. After all the talk this offseason, the failure to start 2020, and a ripe opponent for the plucking, if they don’t pull it off this week there’s no hope for this iteration of the team.

2. RUNNIN’ RUNNIN’ AND RUNNIN’ RUNNIN’

The Vikings are an outside zone team. If your heart was attached to this team a decade ago, you know what this means. If you don’t, it’s a rushing attack that has the entire blocking scheme flow in one direction, designed to move the defensive line horizontally, get hats on the second level, turn defenders away from the ball, and allow the running back to break the run outside, turn it up through the interior, or cutback to Elysian fields of glory.

This cutback by Nick Chubb in Cleveland is a beautiful example.

This attempt by the 2020 Houston Texans is not.

The Vikings run the same scheme, and this season, Dalvin Cook is once again one of the best running backs in the league. The run blocking has been acceptable, not great. They’ve done enough at the second level to allow Cook to paint the defense like a canvas. Yet, most of their rushing success has been because of Cook alone.

Their staple outside zone rushing attack hasn’t worked out all that well. Their interior blockers are consistently dented and controlled, forcing Minnesota’s running backs to quickly cut circumvent their runs over the tackle, and removing cut back lanes.

Most of their rushing success has been on plays that counter this outside zone motion. The Vikings are great at running plays like guard-tight end counter, outside zone lead, and split zone. The last two plays have designed cutbacks integrated into the play.

These runs take advantage of the hypnotic flowing the outside zone puts defenses in. Designed cutbacks, plays that are designed to work across the grain, create easy rushing lanes for Cook and Alexander Mattison to get to the second level on.

The Vikings are averaging 5.8 running back yards, the most in the league, and the reason for this is their ability to get their backs into the second level. The Vikings are first in second level adjusted line yards with 1.83, and fifth in open field adjusted line yards with 1.38.

Earlier this year, Kubiak was discussing battlefighting his way through the Vikings’ offensive troubles to start the 2020 season, and to pull them out of their rut, he mentioned getting the ball to Cook more. The Vikings are built around a successful rushing attack, and can’t rely on their quarterback to carry them. This weekend the Vikings are going to run the outside zone, and run counter plays off the outside zone, as the focal point of their offense.

3. TIME RUINS EVERYTHING

The Houston Texans used to have a great run defense. In 2018 they had an all-time great run defense. Since then, their current players have gotten older, they haven’t added a great front seven defensive starter to it, and have seen Kareem Jackson, D.J. Reader, and Jadeveon Clowney fly away to other continents. What used to be the Texans strength, something they could always rely upon, has now become a negative.

This season the Texans are allowing 5.2 yards a carry, which is 27th, 5.84 running back yards, which is 29th, and have a run defense DVOA of 2.1%, which is 24th. Kansas City made their tacklers miss play after play, Baltimore broke through in the second half, and Pittsburgh ran plays with a puller to get out on the edge against them.

Houston’s run defense problems have three tendrils shooting out from the years of brain drain. They haven’t been great on the edges. They aren’t obliterating tight ends to create disruption, and they aren’t forcing runs back inside. Pittsburgh routinely picked off their edge defenders on trap plays, and sealed them off from the running back.

Against Minnesota, the edges have to ensure they don’t get reached, and get pinned back to the play. Against an outside zone attack it’s imperative to limit the reads the back has and suffocate the space they have to work with. Whitney Mercilus, Brennan Scarlett, and Jacob Martin need to do a better job beating tight ends and muddying up the run game, and forcing ball carriers back to the center of the defense. This penetration from Mercilus (#59) is a perfect example.

The second problem is the interior of their defense hasn’t created enough penetration. Against power running teams, penetration is required to disrupt pullers, tangle them in the defense, and distort their ability to get to their targets. Houston isn’t winning their one v. one blocks. They’re creating stalemates instead. And against double teams, they’re crumpling under the weight, forcing Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham to play blockers and the ball carrier.

The third problem is they can’t tackle. It isn’t one player. It’s an issue for the entire defense. McKinney, Cunningham, Justin Reid, everyone, has had trouble tackling this season. This has turned three yard gains into seven, and seven yard gains into twenty plus.

They’ll have their hands full trying to tackle the trapeze artist that’s Dalvin Cook. This season Cook has broken five tackles, and is averaging 2.9 yards before contact, and 3.3 yards after contact. They’ve already had problems against Kansas City’s outside zone game, and tackle breaking back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

This week they’ll get another swing at it to try and prove the run defense problems are the result from not having a training camp and preseason games, and not what the issue really is, an empty cabinet after years of taking out more than what they’ve put back into it.

4. MINNESOTA TWINS

Last weekend Kubiak came to the same realization the Titans came to last year with A.J. Brown. Don’t slowly integrate your talented wide receiver just because he’s a rookie. Get him going, and get him the ball.

Last week Justin Jefferson exploded for 7 catches on 9 targets for 175 yards and 1 touchdown. He won in a multitude of ways. Doing everything from waiting for the fade to clear out space for a quick out route...

to using hop releases to create outside leverage for sideline receptions...

to quickly breaking his route off inside on a quick dig against off-man coverage...

to simply out running Jonathan Joseph on a play action catch and stroll into the endone.

Adam Thielen and Jefferson are the entirety of the Vikings passing offense. Together they’ve combined for 24 catches on 36 targets for 415 yards and 4 touchdowns. This is more than than half of their offensive passing production. The Vikings don’t have a wide net of receivers. They have Thielen and Jefferson. That’s pretty much it.

Jefferson didn’t flourish until last week though. In weeks one and two it was still Thielen carrying things. On deep passes, Theilen has caught 5 out of 12 targets for 115 yards and 3 touchdowns. Most of these were miraculous catches against the Packers in week one.

These two haven’t had a great tandem game yet. With the emergence of Jefferson, the Vikings have the wide receiver combination that doesn’t allow defenses to key their coverage on one player, or keep the quarterback locked onto one target. Each can create and manipulate coverages for the other. Digs open up the post. Flies open up outs. It’s a NFL Jam type of combination.

Houston’s pass defense has been great against the deep pass, and crappy against the short pass once again. They’ve done a great job playing zone coverage to limit deep passing games, and usually play zone on first and second down. On third downs they tend to blitz, playing man coverage behind it. Their outside cornerbacks have been Bradley Roby and Vernon Hargreaves III, and the deep middle safety has been a rotation of Eric Murray, Justin Reid, and Lonnie Johnson Jr. now that A.J. Moore is hurt.

Man coverage doesn’t spell confidence against this wide receiver combination. And Houston is 26th at covering wide receiver number one, and 20th at covering wide receiver number two by DVOA. Expect for Houston to play a lot of cover three to help stop the run and keep them swimming in the deep end.

5. NEED MORE FROM WATT

J.J. Watt hasn’t been J.J. Watt to start 2020. This season he has 10 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 5 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed, and 3 hurries. Against Kansas City he couldn’t get any pass rush going, and really only found success as a nose tackle quickly swimming over the center. The sacks against Baltimore were long developing and plays where the pass protection just kind of lost him. And against Pittsburgh, he didn’t do much of anything. He was locked down by Chukwuma Okorafor, and made only one real run stop.

Last season, Watt won most of his pass rush reps with rips and ghost rips along the exterior. Then, from there, he would use swims back inside to act as a counter. This season his exterior rushes are empty. He isn’t beating the offensive tackle to the point of attack. He’s rushing wider than he usually does, and even when he does turn the corner, offensive tackles allow it, because they can easily push him back towards the quarterback.

Last week he tried to use more long arms and swims as his his predominate rush move. Okorafor was all over it, and the occasional times there was a glimmer of space, David DeCastro was able to move over and squash it.

Watt didn’t play the run much last year, and he hasn’t to start this season once again. Too often he’s easily pushed out of the play by blockers. There’s just a general lack of enthusiasm here early on in the downs. Houston needs their front seven to make more plays. Offenses are rarely put into a hole on second or third down. Watt quickly swimming over blockers, getting into the backfield, and attacking ball carriers, is something Houston is dying for. Run stops like this need to be seen occasionally throughout a game, instead of a singular event notched into the box score.

Watt will get plenty of chances this week, especially if he rushes from the interior. The Vikings interior blockers are easy to bullrush, as seen by Jeffery Simmons last week, and Kubiak, for whatever reason, loves to throw passes with Kirk Cousins taking quick drops under center. All of this opens the door for a big interior rush day from Watt.

The only difference between Houston’s defense last year and this year is Eric Murray. That’s it. The Texans were banking on Watt to be Watt, and to carry their front, and their entire defense to at least passable. That hasn’t happened yet. Houston needs a classic Watt performance in a must win game, and this week is the perfect matchup opportunity for him.

6. ALWAYS AND ETERNALLY IN THE MIDDLE

He steadied himself and blew and got his breath and looked down. His shirt hung in bloody tatters. A gray tube of gut pushed through his fingers. He gritted his teeth and took hold of it and pushed it back and put his hand over it. He walked over and picked up Eduardo’s knife out of the water and and he crossed the alley and still holding himself he cut away the silk shirt from his dead enemy with one hand and leaning against the wall with the knife in his teeth he tied the shirt around himself and bound it tight. Then he let the knife fall in the sand and turned and wobbled slowly down the alleyway and out into the road.