In my personal life, I spent the last few years feeling I was trapped in a circle, finding myself in the same place, doing the same things, every year, as I traveled on this blue and green space ship around the sun and followed through with the calendar’s wishes. During this time I thought I had to work my way out of it. But I had no idea what this really entailed. I did the usual things people do. I read, I ran, I pushed stuff, I stayed sober, I worked hard, I did all of it, but none of it mattered. I still found myself imagining a different life while I laid on the carpet and listened to the ceiling fan.
This year this has been entirely different. The things I thought about, and the things I wanted, are all kind of sort of here, kind of sort of almost here, as I find myself wrapped in a pink blanket. The most beautiful thing about it, is that there was never a circle. It was a spiral the entire time. I didn’t need to break out of a ring to find the expansion I craved. No. I needed to spin deeper and deeper to get closer and closer to the center.
Andy Reid discovered this. After never quiet getting there with Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick, and Alex Smith. He continuously pursed different ways to improve. Adding college concepts, bringing the read pass option to the NFL’s forefront, designing perfect screen passes, stretching teams horizontally and vertically, learning there’s a difference between players with only speed and players with speed and skill, and of course, traded up for the transcendent Patrick Mahomes, and made the most out of his arm and athleticism from the get go. During this time he also gave up play calling duties, allowing himself to focus on in game management, and after years of botched end game decisions, Reid finally found the perfect workload to coach his team on game day. His Super Bowl win wasn’t because of a dramatic change of his philosophy or who he was. It was only a push farther in one direction. Deeper and deeper.
For the Houston Texans, it’s year seven of the Bill O’Brien era. We’ve seen yearly crappy quarterback changes, different roster configurations, watch star players leave for a lesser assortment, and it’s all built up to now, year four of Deshaun Watson’s career, when the Texans have gone from a great team with a bad quarterback, to an average team with a great quarterback.
Over the course of these years, and all these changes, the Texans have found themselves stuck at the same spot, in the same place, once the regular season ends. The wall is the Divisional Round. Something they’ve never gotten past in the entire history of the franchise, sitting with the other broken heroes in front of the television screen, while watching each one of their divisional rivals get there, with less opportunities.
Most fans want to see Bill O’Brien, the franchise’s Rasputin figure, to disappear entirely in some fiery fatalistic franchise revolution. To break out from the constant circling, the constant sameness of every season. I am part of this groveling horde. Yet, after seeing what the center provides, hopefully, O’Brien also has discovered his own inward journey to get out of his own way, and do the things typical NFL teams with quarterbacks like Watson do, to achieve the highest heights professional football has to offer, instead of mire in mediocrity.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that he’s never going away, and since he isn’t, I’m hopeful this summer, he’s finally figured out what he’s been missing, and learned the things he needed to learn, after some deep digging. That running the ball every first down is dumb. That three yards on first down isn’t a successful play. That returning to and building around Watson’s deep passing ability, something O’Brien has lost since 2017, is the quickest way to go from a methodical ball control offense, to one that focuses on efficiency and scoring as many points as possible. Maybe the DeAndre Hopkins trade signifies this. Maybe having David and Duke Johnson in the backfield, two players who shouldn’t get 250 carries in a season, after turning Lamar Miller into Carlos Hyde, signifies this. Probably not, but maybe.
We’ll find out right away if O’Brien has actually changed, or if all those days are still the same, and Houston remains a constant source of external frustration. After blowing a three possession lead, thanks to a coward’s field goal, a long Mecole Hardman return, and a botched fake punt, that set their lead on fire, Houston gets the chance immediately to prove the past is past, and those seven years have brought them to that spot they’ve been searching for.
1. GREAT PASS OFFENSE MEETS BAD PASS DEFENSE
I wrote the following going into last season’s Divisional Round match up:
The biggest mismatch in this game is the Chiefs’ passing offense against the Texans’ pass defense. Kansas City has a pass offense DVOA of 43.7% (2nd), averaged 7.5 net yards an attempt (2nd), and have thrown 30 touchdowns this year (5th). Opposing this maelstrom of back foot outside the structure passes, vertical safety splitting routes, and efficient pick and pop passing is a Texans’ pass defense with a DVOA of 19.5% (26th), is allowing 6.9 net yards an attempt (25th), and 33 passing touchdowns (27th). Great pass offense takes on bad pass defense is at the center of this game.
This hasn’t changed. Since then, the Texans added rookies Jonathan Greenard and Ross Blacklock, and, this can’t be right, Eric Murray to improve their pass defense. Cornerback Gareon Conley is starting off the season on injured reserve as well. Once again, Kansas City’s passing offense v. Houston’s pass defense is the biggest mismatch in this game.
There isn’t a coverage matchup where Houston has the advantage. Bradley Roby can’t cover Tyreek Hill on his own. Spare the box score statistics. In both matchups Houston used Justin Reid to bracket Hill, and in the first matchup, they also used Tashaun Gipson in this way, until a week 17 back injury pushed Mike Adams into the starting lineup. Roby (#21) would press Hill (#11) at the line, then scamper underneath him, knowing that Reid (#20) was lurking over the top. This led to a vicious hit and vital third down stop in the postseason.
But by devoting so much attention to Hill, who has the most dominant 4 catch 65 yard games you’ll ever see, it opened up the rest of the field for their receivers. In the second matchup it meant Travis Kelce getting man coverage, and torching Houston for 10 catches on 12 targets for 134 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 8 first downs. Houston tried everything to defend him. None of it worked.
Kansas City did a great job getting Kelce by himself on the weakside of wide receiver sets to get him individual matchups. Lonnie Johnson Jr. (#32) was worked by him over and over again.
Houston tried putting Justin Reid on him. He couldn’t cover him.
A quick switch in the redzone, on a rub route, placed Gareon Conley (#22) on him. He of course outran the route, and gave up an easy dinky touchdown.
Romeo Crennel was so desperate he tried bracketing Kelce with Lonnie Johnson Jr. and Vernon Hargreaves III. It, of course, didn’t work either.
Houston didn’t find a better option this summer for the rematch. Reid, Johnson Jr., Eric Murray, none of these players are Kelce stoppers. Houston’s best option would be to bracket Hill with a lesser corner, and keep Reid over the top, allowing Roby to play man against Kelce. But that has its issues too. Kelce has the height and strength advantage. And Houston doesn’t have another corner who can even stay in front of Hill long enough for Reid to have an impact over the top. It’s a brutal matchup.
The Texans are without Conley this game too. He wasn’t perfect in his matchup against Kansas City. He missed a key tackle that led to an enormous Sammy Watkins gain. And he spent the majority of the time squeezing the sideline. At least he’s an option to cover Watkins. Houston doesn’t have that with him out. Watkins isn’t a consistent game by game threat, but like in the Superbowl, he can break out when the entire game plan is devoted to stopping Hill and Kelce.
Playing zone isn’t simple either. Whether it’s cover three, cover four, or cover seven, Hill has the ability to simply outrun shuffling defenders and sprint across sections of zone coverage to make high leaping catches.
And again, the attention he draws, opens up easy catches for Kelce, Watkins, and even Mecole Hardman.
This past draft the Chiefs added Clyde Edwards-Helaire to the mix. Edwards-Helaire is a back who can do it all, and reminds me of Darren Sproles with a bigger butt. The Texans don’t have an option for him either. Benardrick McKinney is made for manual labor. Digging holes, moving rocks, shoving offensive linemen to create mass graves in the hole. Zach Cunningham outruns blocks and delivers kill shots from the backside of run plays into unsuspecting running backs. Neither player has the man coverage chops to deal with a back like Edwards-Helaire. Even Jalen Richard gave Cunningham (#41) trouble. What do you think Edwards-Helaire is going to do?
The only coverage advantage Houston has is when Demarcus Robinson or Byron Pringle comes in and drops a pass on third down. For Houston’s secondary, every drop, batted pass, miss throw, every incompletion, is precious, for a defense that doesn’t have the talent to play with Kansas City’s skill players.
2. TIM KELLY’S SUPER MEGA DEEP VERTICAL KILL ‘EM ALL PASSING OFFENSE
The Texans were worse talent wise by trading DeAndre Hopkins. That being said, there’s built in upside for this offense. It’s Deshaun Watson’s fourth year, after spending the last two seasons playing in a plodding ball control offense, Tim Kelly, in theory, has the keys to design a typical postmodern offense for him. This includes more play action and deep passing opportunities, quick and easy hot routes to find against the blitz, and route combinations that uses receivers to open up one another, instead of working in isolation.
The skeleton is here. It’s easy to see Houston’s ideal passing attack, and hopefully it’s the one they’ll bring out right away. With Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller on the outside, teams will usually be stuck playing two safeties deep. This opens up the run game, and the middle of the field, for Randall Cobb, Kenny Stills, Keke Coutee, and whoever maybe playing tight end.
When teams play one safety deep, Houston can use the same deep crossing patterns they used last season, to isolate a safety, force him to make a decision, and then throw off that decision. DeAndre Hopkins had the world drawn to him, and created one v. one matchups for Fuller often like this. This season, it should be Cooks and Fuller working off one another.
Both players, as long as they’re healthy, have the ability to win one v. one matchups on their own. They can beat any type of coverage with go routes.
For this game specifically, Houston is really going to have to work to create these throws. Kansas City has four safeties they can play, now that Juan Thornhill is back from a late season ACL tear, Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton are plus outside corners, and Tyrann Mathieu is still back there scampering around. The Chiefs ranked fourth in deep pass DVOA last season. Fuller dropped shots against them in their first matchup, he can’t do that in this game, if Houston is going to have a chance.
3. NO MORE HOPKINS
Houston’s primary first down creator in their two matchups was DeAndre Hopkins. He had 18 catches on 26 targets for 173 yards, and most importantly, 12 first downs. Continuously he caught slant passes against press man to move the chains. And in their second matchup, even with broken ribs, he ran deep crossing routes to find holes in zone coverage. Houston no longer has this.
To replace this, they’ll throw comebacks, slants, curls, and quick outs to Cooks and Fuller. The Chiefs are an intelligent secondary, and they’ll run various calls when a slot corner is to that side of the field, to try and jump on these routes if they’re over used.
The best way for Houston to move the ball is by attacking their linebackers. In their regular season win, the read-pass tight end drag flat offense worked well. Kansas City’s linebackers didn’t have an answer. Often they were either stuck behind the line of scrimmage, or chasing at a disadvantage into the alley while Watson and Darren Fells ran the fastbreak.
This play works well against teams with crappy linebacker play. The Chiefs still have this with Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson as their starting linebackers. It will be interesting to see how much second round pick Willie Gay plays, and if he has an impact. As long as the game is close, I’d expect for Houston to utilize this play often.
The Texans also have one of the best pass catching backs in Duke Johnson, and they’ll need to get him more touches. Usually Houston waits until the 20 yard line or so to bring Duke in, and hit him on out routes against linebackers from the backfield. Usually these turned into pylon diving scores, like the touchdown he caught against Damien Wilson in the regular season.
These throws are available for the entirety of the game. Duke is too great of a weapon to only get 145 plays a season. Paired with him is David Johnson. His receiving numbers are overinflated by easy dumpoffs with no one around him, and beating crappy linebackers like Nick Vigil on fade routes from the slot. Regardless, David, like Duke, has matchup advantages in this game. As exciting as it is to expect this high flying passing attack, Houston’s best way to move the ball is to wring out Kansas City’s linebackers as much as possible, and then use the run game to stampede through the defense once they go to more three safety sets.
The Texans are going to have try and find the perfect balance between consistent offensive production, and aggression, all while trying to keep the scoreboard in check.
4. WHO NEEDS AN INTERIOR?
Houston’s front four pass rush is probably going to be J.J. Watt, Jacob Martin, Charles Omenihu, and Whitney Mercilus. It’s a tough matchup for them. Mitchell Schwartz is a lock down right tackle, and handled Watt well in their matchups last season. As pretty good as Eric Fisher is, Mercilus struggles against him. The weakness to the Chiefs’ pass protection is the interior. This season it’s the return of the murderous syrup soaked Kelechi Osemele, Austin Reiter, and Andrew Wylie.
Getting Watt more reps on the interior against Wylie is especially is crucial for Houston. Thy key is going to be to use him as a 4i as much as possible, and pick and choose their five man rushes, to ensure one v. one matchups for him. Benardrick McKinney is perfect for this. They can blitz him over Reiter to create pressure, and even use him off the edge occasionally.
Interior rushes get to the quarterback quicker and take away throwing lanes. Mahomes can of course escape from them, work his way out of the pocket, and deliver throws on the run, but it’s more of a troubling spot than on the exterior, where he can safely climb and deliver. Watt has to do more than occasionally beat Schwartz. He has to create some sort of interior pass rush.
Omenihu was crucial in their regular season win. His long arm pass rush forced a fumble, and in the playoffs, he forced Mahomes to escape the pocket after a quick rip, which led to an incompletion.
Anything they can get from him is a much needed boost for a defense that depends on its pass rush, and after what was reported to be a great offseason and camp, he should be able to win some rushes against Kansas City’s interior.
Kansas City’s interior blocking is their biggest offensive weakness. In the run game, they struggled moving the line of scrimmage last year, and creating open lanes for their vertical rushing attack. In the pass game, it’s going to be up to Anthony Weaver to create one v. one matchups to get his best pass rushers in the best possible matchup, and limit how many reps Watt gets on the outside. This is the best chance Houston has to create big plays, and the occasional precious incompletion.
5. THE WONKY FACTORY
In each of last year’s games between these two teams bizarre things happened. Omenihu forced a fumble that led to an immediate Houston touchdown before the half. Mahomes threw an errant and atypical interception into the endzone that was picked off by Tashaun Gipson. Houston struck first in the postseason with a fake screen touchdown. Scored again after a Tyreek Hill muffed punt. And Barkevious Mingo made the Jadeveon Clowney trade worth it for a special moment, after blocking a punt that Johnson Jr. scooped and scored on to make the game 21-0. In both games wonky things occurred to give Houston their leads, and football, which is by nature, a very wonky game, can’t be relied upon to have these things go your way.
With the difference between Houston’s pass defense and Kansas City’s passing attack, it does seem like Houston needs to win the turnover battle, and have two to three silly things go their way for them to not only pull off the unthinkable, but stay in this game at all.
6. THE GAME:
Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trail of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.