Football is a complicated and convoluted game. To have some semblance of what’s going both the numbers and the video have to be devoured and synthesized, and even then, the understanding can be vague and murky. Schemes are complicated. Who knows what’s going on behind those doors, and who even wants to know what’s going on behind those doors? And the cold and brutal numbers operate in a pit of small sample sizes. These little sixteen game extremes don’t allow a win-loss record to explain as much as it does in other sports, but it’s still the supreme ruler in determining a team’s postseason standing.
During the season it’s vicious trying to figure out what has meaning and what doesn’t. Now that the season is over, the sample size is full, and even if the sixteen played isn’t substantial, it’s the best we got.
I’ve crawled out from the pit. I looked it all up. Here are the cold hard facts from the Texans’ 2019 season.
When I first learned about the high variance stats that pinpoint why a team sees a sudden drop off or jump in their record, the big question I had was what can a team do with this information. At the time, when I was even dumber than I am now, I thought teams were just screwed and unable to do anything against these tides, stuck drowning under dark green water or basking in Fortuna’s glowing wondrous light, before returning to normalcy the following season. This is incorrect. The high variance stats allow a team to better understand their true performance, and go into the offseason knowing whether or not substantial changes have to be made.
The Texans were one of those teams whose performance didn’t meet their record. They over-performed based on their play by play statistics and point differential. Houston was 19th in DVOA (-5.8%), 17th in offense (0.3%), 26th in defense (8.9%), and 5th in special teams (2.9%). They had 7.3 estimated wins, and 7.8 Pythagorean wins (based on point differential). Houston of course went 10-6 and lost in the Divisional Round to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Houston had the third most wins over their expected Pythagorean total with 2.2, and were only behind Seattle with 2.8, and Green Bay with 3.2. The main reason for this is the Texans won the close games they played. The Texans went from 3-3 in one-score games to 9-3 when including their postseason win over Buffalo. Houston didn’t see some enormous swell in performance from the .500 they were treading at to start the season; they just started winning close games after losing to New Orleans, Carolina, and Indianapolis.
The Texans only shredded two teams into tatters. The Falcons, whose secondary was lost and dismantled after the Keanu Neal injury, and the Jaguars, who had one of the league’s worst run defenses and played perfectly into the Texans read-pass option offense. Their eight other regular season wins were one possession victories. Only Seattle who was 10-2 in one possession games won more close games than Houston did.
The one thing that should help Houston next season is they played the fifth toughest schedule. Their opponent DVOA was 2.8%, which tied them with Cincinnati. The problem is they have a first place AFC schedule next year and are forced to play Kansas City, Baltimore, and New England, play in a competent AFC South, and play the AFC and NFC North. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati are going to be better. The NFC North is rough too, especially since Matthew Stafford is coming back from injury.
Nothing else stands out. The Texans turnover differential was zero. They weren’t particularly injured.
Overall, the Texans 2019 season wasn’t something to build on. There were moments of domination they can jump off of to build their team next season, but over the course of last year, Houston was mediocre. What they did have was Deshaun Watson, a quarterback with elite talent, who repeatedly made spectacular plays that turned the incredible mundane and carried Houston in these close games. Houston has to get better this offseason. Resigning the same players and running it back next season won’t see the same results.
Congratulations, Bill O’Brien, you finally did it! Your team finally had a positive offensive DVOA! It only took six seasons, but you made it. Hang this above your Diet Coke can covered desk.
This was the Texans first season with a positive offensive DVOA in the Bill O'Brien era. A whopping 0.3%!— Matt Weston (@Mbw987) January 20, 2020
If only he held himself as accountable as he holds others pic.twitter.com/heEqbMrYey
After trading for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills, selecting two offensive linemen in the first two rounds and a tight end in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, trading for Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson, using the 2016 and 2017 drafts to improve their offense, and having a young franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, a team building cheat code, the Texans had an offense DVOA of 0.3%. This is the best mark of Bill O’Brien’s career.
The offense did look different with Will Fuller on the field then without him on it. Houston averaged 27.2 points a game with Fuller, and 17.2 without him—I’m including his pull outs against Indianapolis and Tampa Bay as without him. Watson had a better completion percentage without Fuller but his yards per attempt dropped from 8.37 yards an attempt to 7.09, he threw 6 interceptions regardless, and threw 15 more touchdowns with Fuller on the field.
Fuller makes a dramatic difference. He’s obviously a talented player, but the splits shouldn’t be this obscene. Kenny Stills is what, 90% (?) of what Fuller is. He caught 9 of his 13 downfield targets for 300 yards and 3 touchdowns. Fuller caught 9 of his 23 targets for 347 yards and 2 touchdowns. The three wide receiver sets are impossible to defend when Fuller is healthy, and his presence alone changes a defense entirely, but the way Houston’s offense turtled without Fuller on the field was incomprehensible.
This is even more frustrating when you consider the fact that Watson is a premier downfield passer of the pigskin. He completed 50 (7th) of his 109 (8th) deep pass attempts this season. His 1,570 passing yards was the 6th most, and he averaged 14.4 yards an attempt. Throwing the ball downfield is good. Watson is great at it. The Texans’ offense should be led by their vertical passing game.
The most annoying part of the season wasn’t this though. It was how DeAndre Hopkins was used. Bill O’Brien turned Hopkins into a lesser version of Michael Thomas. He played a lot of slot receiver, and used hands and ridiculous wide receiver releases to get open in the center of the field. He caught 68 first downs, the third most receiving third downs in the league, but this made him a less efficient receiver. Hopkins’s DVOA dropped from 22.6% (10th) to 6.3% (31st) and his yards before reception dropped from 10.3 to 7.5. The sideline isolation receiving that made him famous, and one of the best receivers in the league was gone this season, and he was a worse version of himself because of this.
Houston also hamstrung their offense by their desire to ESTABLISH THE RUN. The Texans had one of the worst first down offenses in the league. Their passing DVOA was 4.9% (22nd), a rate that’s way too low with a quarterback like Watson. The 17 sacks he took on first down is the main reason for this. I see the max protect play action passes with only two receivers downfield when I read this. He did average 8 yards an attempt, a metric that doesn’t include sacks, across 167 pass attempts though.
The Texans ran the ball 259 times on first down, which was tied for the 6th most. They averaged 4.63 yards a carry, and had a run offense DVOA of -5.8% (14th); both are lesser figures than the passing game. Carlos Hyde had 161 first down rushing attempts and picked up 4.39 yards a carry, a figure carried upwards by dramatic outliers. He had 4 carries over 20 yards, including two over 40 yards—a meaningless touchdown run against Baltimore, and a meaningless endzone fumble against Jacksonville. These runs count of course, but when you remove the outliers his first down yards per carry drops down to 3.49, which is less than what’s required to constitute a successful first down play. As the analytics say, when you run on first down you’re already falling behind, and the Texans were one of the most first down run heavy teams in the league.
Houston was average on second down, but they were great on third down. They had the league’s best short yardage rushing attack with a power success rate of 81%, and a run offense DVOA of 4.7%. Their third down passing DVOA was 27.7% (8th). They had the same ranking in third down conversion rate and converted 43.5% of the time.
The only good reason for this ball control offense was it kept the defense off the field. In this sense it worked. Houston averaged 2:50 per drive (10th). Teams 5-10 were all bunched together. The Colts ranked 5th with 2:53 per drive. The Texans also averaged 6.15 plays per drive, which was 8th. As a result, Houston’s defense faced only 160 drives, which was the 26th least. The offense was able to keep one of the league’s worst defenses off the field.
Houston spent last offseason upgrading their offensive line. Primary starters Julien Davenport, Kendall Lamm, and Senio Kelemete were replaced as the waterbed continued to slosh around. Houston added Tunsil, Tytus Howard, Max Scharping, and I guess we can count Chris Clark and Roderick Johnson too.
Offensive line statistics are pretty crappy. It’s hard to measure something that has dozens of variables affecting statistics like pressure rate, adjusted sack rate, and rushing yards. On top of that, Houston dealt with offensive line injuries and a constantly shuffling five man configuration. Yet, by the measurements available, Houston went from the league’s worst to bad in these measures. They improved from 32nd to 27th in adjusted sack rate, from 32nd to 28th in pressure rate, from 27th to 22nd in adjusted line yards. This is all slight. The substantial improvement came in pass block win rate. Houston jumped from 50% (16th) to 62% (8th) in 2019.
Houston has the makings of a very good offensive line in place. What’s important to remember is the ecosystem in place, play calling, and offensive design is an important factor in an offensive line’s performance too. Running on first down, the constant searching for a hot route, failing to scheme open throws consistently affects the entire offensive performance, including the offensive line.
All in all, considering the talent in place, the investment the team made, and the quarterback Houston has, the offense should have been better in 2019. The good news is it isn’t going away. Darren Fells and Carlos Hyde are fine, but there isn’t a valuable offensive player set to hit free agency in 2020. By continuation alone, Houston’s offense should be better, and must be better in 2020.
I said it last season, I said it once again this season, the Texans’ pass defense is bad folks. Last season it wasn’t stressed until the end of the season after playing crappy quarterbacks leading cowardly offenses. This season the Texans weren’t as lucky. Their pass defense was attacked, and eventually did them in when they allowed Kansas City to put up 41 straight on them.
To ‘improve’ their defense Houston replaced Tashaun Gipson with Tyrann Mathieu, allowing Justin Reid to play a variety of defensive roles, opted to not resign Kareem Jackson, signed Bradley Roby, traded Jadeveon Clowney for what turned into Jacob Martin, Barkevious Mingo, and Gareon Conley, and drafted Charles Omenihu and Lonnie Johnson Jr.
In every statistical measurement Houston’s defense was worse in 2019. What do you like? Pressure rate? Fell from 29% (20th) to 27.6% (25). Run defense DVOA? Fell from -30.1% (1) to -5.1% (22). Points allowed? Fell from 316 (4th) to 385 (19th).
The Texans needed to improve their pass defense and instead focused on their offensive line. The results were expected.
When O’Brien decided to trade Clowney the Texans lost their safety net in case of a J.J. Watt injury. The meteor was a torn pectoral that detonated in week 8, and at that point, Watt was the entirety of Houston’s pass rush. Despite only playing eight games, Watt led Houston with 21 quarterback hits and 38 pressures. Whitney Mercilus led the team with 7.5 sacks, but he only had 2 without Watt, and each were chase downs of Jameis Winston, not sacks in how we think of the word.
Both young players Jacob Martin and Charles Omenihu provided pass rushing juice. Martin had 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 14 pressures but played only 20.52% of the defensive snaps. He’s a liability in coverage and the run game. His pass rush was all about running around offensive tackles. If he can add strength while maintaining quickness it will dramatically improve this defense. Omenihu had 3 sacks, 5 hits, and 14 pressures. Most of his pass rushes came on the interior. He’s a fresh lung bull rusher. He isn’t a speed and bend rusher. He’ll need to do learn how to recognize plays quicker to become an every down player.
Losing Clowney absolutely hurt this team’s pass rush. He only had 3 sacks and 13 hits in Seattle, but was disruptive, and like always, came so close to making so many big plays. In 11 games started Clowney had 44 pressures (13th), a pass block win rate of 24% (7th), and was one of the most double teamed players in football. Clowney is football great, not box score great. Not much has changed.
The only reasoning for the Clowney trade, as I turn a screwdriver through my chin and into my mental protuberence, is that Houston needed cost controlled players with team control for multiple seasons after trading top draft capital for Laremy Tunsil. Regardless, Houston was a worse football team in 2019 without him.
Bad pass rush + bad coverage = bad pass defense. The Texans coverage struggled as well. Each one of their cornerbacks ranged from alright to bad in Football Outsiders’ charting statistics. Out of 85 qualified cornerbacks, Roby was the best of the Texans’ group, and ranked 44th, 38th, 51st, and 62nd in yards allowed per pass, success rate, air yards per pass, and yards allowed after the catch. Roby is a good player, but he doesn’t lock down a number one receiver or remove entire sections of the field. He isn’t the type of player who can carry a pass defense on his own.
The one thing Houston’s pass defense did well was cover the deep ball. The Texans always played one safety deep, and liked to use off-man coverage, to take away the deep pass. Houston allowed a completion percentage of only 35%, 9.5 yards an attempt (4th), 5 touchdowns (5th), and had a deep pass DVOA of -7% (4th).
The short pass defense was gruesome though. The Texans allowed a completion 72.6% of the time, 28 touchdowns to 7 interceptions, 7.3 yards an attempt (32nd), and had a DVOA of 8.2% (30th). This was the trade off to protect this secondary.
The most surprising aspect of last season’s defense was the run defense. Houston went from all-time great to below average after losing Watt to an injury, and Kareem Jackson, Clowney, and Tyrann Mathieu I guess. The biggest difference was Houston stopped making tackles for no gain or less. Houston had 92 of these plays (11th) in 2018 and only 64 (30th) in 2019. The Texans’ defensive line can maintain blocks, but can’t make plays in the backfield. Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham accounted for 25 of their 64 run stuffs. Houston missed creating the negative plays that put their pass defense in more advantageous situations.
Despite being 26th in DVOA, Houston was 19th in points allowed. As mentioned earlier, the Texans’ defense didn’t faced a below average number of drives. The other thing that played in their favor was their turnover rate. They forced 22 turnovers (15th) and had a rate of 13.1% (11th). Although teams could move the ball on them, their best players were able to make big plays, to save them often enough.
Without a first round pick, and around $52 million in cap space, the Texans goal this offseason, like last offseason, should be to improve their pass defense.
The Texans special teams were great once again. Bill O’Brien and the organization has done a great job flipping it around since 2017. They went from 31st in special teams in 2016, to 26th, and ranked 5th the last two seasons with a DVOA of 2.9%.
The main reason for this is they have multiple players on the roster who focus entirely on special teams. Cullen Gillaspia (64.3%), Buddy Howell (66.35%), Peter Kalambayi (67.54%), Barkevious Mingo (75.36%), A.J. Moore (77.49%), Keion Crossen (59.95%) all played nearly 60% of the team’s special team snaps and less than 10% of the snaps on their side of the ball.
Punting was the best special teams unit. Since Trevor Daniel forced Shane Lechler into retirement (-10.7 expected points added in 2017) and whining about it on a podcast, the Texans punting unit added 4.5 and 10.5 expected points. Bryan Anger was an improvement over Daniel, and was worth the weird end of season extension. Houston’s opponents average drive started on their 20 yard after punts, which was the best defensive starting field position in the league.
Finally, Ka’imi Fairbairn is fine. He makes kicks from 40 yards and less. But he doesn’t automatically put the ball into the back of the endzone, he only made 50% of his 50+ yard field goals, and Houston ranked 27th in extra point field goal percentage. Expect for Houston to bring in camp competition this summer.
Check back next week when the season preview continues with some hot film room analysis.