This is year seven of the Bill O’Brien era. It doesn’t sound real when you read those words in your head, does it? During these seven years, no matter who was the quarterback, the Texans have lost by more than fourteen points eighteen times. Five of these losses happened with Deshaun Watson as the starting quarterback. Indianapolis in the 2018 Wildcard Round. 7-41 to Baltimore and 24-38 to Denver last season. And since then, they have loss back to back games in this fashion to the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-51, and a still bloody 20-34, a game where Houston fell behind 7-31.
No matter who the quarterback is, Houston is always a week away from being eviscerated, diced, boiled, and poured across the football field. In these home losses the fans of the Houston football team haven’t been afraid to unleash torrential storms of disdain onto the field—waves so enormous, that even a closed roof can’t keep them out. The air is explosive in these settings. A soft garbled utterance can spark the entire stadium. A casual ‘YOU SUCK’ brought out a resounding ‘YOU SUCK TOO M’FER’ from Houston’s professional football coach, warming everyone’s hearts, to know that their head coach, who just blew homefield advantage to a rookie quarterback on a team that missed the playoffs, is an emotional fiery competitor, and that, right there, is the man I want go to war with.
Since the last time we’ve seen the Texans play the Ravens, the Texans have gotten worse, and the Ravens have gotten better. Baltimore added talent to a front seven that struggled stopping the run by drafting Patrick Queen, moving Brandon Williams to nose tackle, signing Derek Wolfe, and trading for Calais Campbell. Marquise Brown is healthy again. The Ravens have an actual sideline passing threat. The Texans, well, they pretty much turned a top three receiver into Brandin Cooks and David Johnson, and only added Eric Murray to one of the worst pass defenses in the league.
7-41. 31-51. 20-34.
Expect for O’Brien to add loss number nineteen to his goal post.
The good news for O’Brien’s ego, that hideous thing the size of a red dying star, is the stadium will at least be empty this time. The buzzing of boos won’t clatter his brain, making him feel impotent and small. The mocking laughter and derision will take place online and in living rooms. And afterwards, having escaped from the usual outpour and outcry, he can preach about having to do better, and claim the team is improving, while speaking into a computer screen, safe and comfortable, far away from all those bad words and and all those mean things.
1. WHAT WAS ONCE GREAT, WAS GOOD, AND NOW IT MAYBE BAD
There were dozens of reasons why Houston was blown out by Kansas City last week. One of the most horrifying reasons, from a ‘I love the Houston Texans’ perspective, was the run defense. Over the last few seasons Houston was able to count on their run defense to force offenses into second down holes, and devour short yardage situations. The brains have since been drained from Houston’s all-time great run defense in 2018. Kareem Jackson, Jadeveon Clowney, and D.J. Reader, are all gone. The veterans are only older. Aside from Zach Cunningham, they haven’t seen a boost in performance from anyone else.
This season the run defense could fall to below average. Pair this with one of the worst pass defenses in the league, that again, only added Eric Murray to it this offseason, and you have a disaster waiting for you.
Kansas City ran their junior varsity offense against Houston last week and still put up 31 points in three quarters. Andy Reid ate the cobwebs off the Alex Smith playbook, and played basketball against the Texans. It was a lot of screens, outside zone runs, roll outs, and quick read-pass option passes. The deep passing was saved for another day, like 9/28 when they play Baltimore, and during this game, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense looked bored strolling the field.
The Chiefs did a little bit of everything to attack Houston. They ran a jet sweep to Mecole Hardman, away from Houston’s slanting, where Cunningham, as the force defender, was stuck stomping in place grabbing.
They ran a slip screen that used two receivers as a decoy before Mahomes dumped it off to Travis Kelce. During the football’s transit, Whitney Mercilus (#59) had a personality crisis, and with the ball in his hands, Benardrick McKinney (#55) looked like a man in his 40s who came to a realization he can’t play pickup on the second court any longer.
The Anthony Weaver defense is different than the Romeo Crennel defense in one major way. Weaver likes to use stunts and movement along the line of scrimmage to manufacture disruption. Occasionally it worked last week. J.J. Watt made two plays as a nose tackle. But it also leads to zany things like Brennan Scarlett (#57) playing a ‘1’ technique, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (#25) shuffling through the line of scrimmage, breaking tackle attempts by McKinney, Cunningham, and Justin Reid (#20) all on the same play.
They ran outside zone with Anthony Sherman (#42) as the lead blocker. Houston used a 4-3 front to try and get more bodies along the line of scrimmage. This didn’t work either. Four limbs in the hole were snapped into shrapnel by Edwards-Helaire.
And of course, there was the quick cutback from Edwards-Helaire against a light box, whose movement in the open field defy what words try to accomplish. How do you write a feeling?
Houston’s tackling has to improve immediately. It takes a family to stop the Ravens. Every member of the defense has to be prepared to chase down ball carriers no matter where their alignment is on the field, and they’ll need their inhaler, to keep seven yards to seven yards by chasing from the back side of the play.
Weaver should stave off his lust for line of scrimmage movement against Baltimore. Wrong guesses will lead to touchdowns. With every gap of the field on every play potentially open for the ball carrier, more often than not, he’ll be guessing wrong.
All of this murderous running, and shoddy tackling, came against a Chiefs’ team that doesn’t have a great offensive line to begin with, or a quarterback who is a focal point of their rushing attack—Mahomes is merely a diversion. Last season Jackson led all quarterbacks with 55 broken tackles. 30 more than second place Josh Allen, and 54 of them came past the line of scrimmage. As a team they finished fourth in broken tackle rate. This turned great blocking, and a great scheme, into a rushing attack that was better than most teams’ passing offense. In 2019 the Ravens had an all time great rushing game that led the NFL in rushing DVOA at 21.5% and yards a carry with 5.5.
Previously, Houston could at least count on their run defense to make teams one dimensional. Last season they gave up 256 yards on 37 carries against Baltimore, and after giving up 166 yards on 34 carries to a usually below average Kansas City rushing attack, no number is too hyperbolic. If last week was a blood bath, this week could be a biblical ocean.
Baltimore is more than a great rushing attack. Jackson’s slippery jukes and dips out on the edge gets most of the attention. There’s entertainment in novelty, and the 900s Jackson pulls off like this, in Baltimore halfpipe offense designed to get him in the air, are tricks no one else in the league can land.
The Ravens still finished first in passing offense DVOA last year with a rate of 47.2%. Last week they continued doing what they did last season. Jackson completed 20 of his 25 passes for 275 yards, 3 touchdowns, and averaged 11 yards an attempt. He only had 7 carries for 45 yards. Baltimore soared through the Browns’ secondary.
There’s no good way to defend them. If you play zone, Baltimore is great at stretching an offense horizontally to create seams in the defense’s heart. They’re especially great at using Mark Andrews to draw defenders and create easy throws underneath. On these attempts, it’s comedic how perfect Jackson’s timing is, as he puts the ball through the cracks of a wooden fence.
With Marquise Brown in the lineup again, the Ravens have an actual sideline threat at wide receiver. Last season, Baltimore struggled getting anything going to this section of the field. Brown is an epiphany. He had 5 catches on 6 targets for 101 yards. His longest reception was for 47 yards. Against cover three, he ran a deep corner. The deep in by Miles Boykin (#80) puts Brown on an island against the safety.
The Ravens don’t have a great receiving group, but they have a deep collection of pass catchers. With Brown back, this drops everyone else down a peg. Willie Snead IV is a fine third option. Miles Boykin is an enormous physical possession receiver. Devin Duvernay is something from a Kansas City passing attack. Their backs are fine receivers. And Mark Andrews is one of the three best receiving tight ends in the game.
Against man coverage, these receivers can win their match ups. The Andrews-Jackson connection is on par to the Mahomes-Kelce connection. Here, Andrews is a slot receiver, who turns an out and up into a corner route. Jackson completes an impossible throw.
Andrews’s hands are excellent. He catches everything. Lamar Jackson can’t even cover him.
Baltimore can pair Brown and Andrews together to create match up opportunities for others. A bunch right formation gets Willie Snead IV (#83) against Tavierre Thomas (#20). He wins his post route easily, and Jackson’s touch pass puts the ball away from the safety.
If you load up the box to hinder the run, Baltimore runs easy play action passes to take advantage of it. Cleveland is running quarters, but has Denzel Ward (#21) in the box without a receiver to his side. He sees the play action late, and is underneath the open drag route. Jackson is a puppet master and plops the ball over his head.
And let’s say you do everything right, you cover well, you create a pass rush, Jackson can step away, calmly find holes in the zone coverage, or scamper to turn zeroes into into successful plays.
The same quick passing attack that devoured Houston last season is even better, and the Texans, well, the Texans, are trotting out a nearly identical defense, the same one that gave up 41 points last season. There isn’t a coverage match up that works for them. They don’t have an answer for Brown or Andrews. And their only real pass rushing opportunities are getting J.J. Watt on D.J. Fluker, and Jacob Martin on Orlando Brown—which, you know, only helps the Ravens’ rushing attack. There isn’t a way to catch this bar of soap.
3. SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS
The song of the summer, while we were indoors wishing we were eating hot dogs, were online hopes, that Tim Kelly would unleash a super cool super vertical kill them all offense. Last week the only explosive part of Houston’s offense was the diarrhea Kelly pasted across the field.
Despite playing one safety deep for most of the game, Houston didn’t press or manipulate Kansas City’s single high defender, and didn’t utilize the deep ball that was hoped for and expected so much from. On paper it made sense. With Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller V on the outside, the Texans could force teams to play two safeties deep, which opens the middle of the field for Randall Cobb, Keke Coutte, Kenny Stills, and whoever is playing tight end. Against single high defenses, Cooks and Fuller would have the space to run go routes, and work off each other to force the single safety to make a decision, and create open throws for the other.
None of this happened. The Texans took three meaningful deep shots with the game somewhat in play.
On the first, Fuller was unable to wrangle in a back shoulder fade.
On the second, Cooks was pressed at the line of scrimmage by L’Jarius Sneed, and observed the pass being slapped out of the air.
On the third, Watson had nothing open, and delivered a floppy pass to no one.
Cooks was on the injured report with a quad injury. This is disturbing for the Texans’ passing attack. Cooks wins entirely with speed. He can outrun cornerbacks horizontally to create space. He turns cowardly off-man coverage into quick outs and slants. If he’s even 95% at what he usually is, what makes him great is zapped from him. Cornerbacks can play press, something he struggles at breaking, and not worry about the repercussions. Without fearing him, teams can bracket Fuller whenever they need to, and force Houston to come up with answers from there.
Baltimore has a great secondary. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters is one of the best cornerback combinations in the league. Even if Cooks was 100% Houston would struggle pushing the ball downfield. Because of their ability on the outside, Baltimore mainly plays a ton of single high safety deep with DeShon Elliot as their deep middle Earl Thomas replacement, who, in theory, is supposed to come over and provide aid when deep shots are attempted. The sideline is squeezed by Humphrey and Peters. And the middle of the field is precarious because of Elliot.
The hole in Baltimore’s typical cover three defense is the seam. This game would be as good as any to make Jordan Akins the number one tight end. He can’t block, but Darren Fells can’t either, and Akins has the speed to stretch the seam, and can pick up yards after the catch.
Houston can also use their outside speed to horizontally run across the formation. Deep in breaking routes can do exactly this, and little curl routes underneath suck in the linebackers to open throwing lanes like how beet juice opens capillaries.
When teams spread the field out, Baltimore mostly plays man coverage. This is what Baltimore’s cover one usually looks like. Against this coverage, Cleveland was able to hit a fade from the slot to David Njoku.
Last week Houston’s secondary receivers, Randall Cobb, who didn’t have a target until the fourth quarter after being blanketed for most of the game, and Kenny Stills, provided nothing. If Houston tries to spread things out to coax Baltimore into man coverage they have to get more out of receivers who aren’t Fuller. As great as Fuller is, even he’ll have troubles against Peters and Humphrey.
The last time these two teams played the Texans still had DeAndre Hopkins. He was the entirety of their passing attack. He was able to run slants from a wide variety of positions to move the chains.
The problem for Houston isn’t that they have a ton of new pieces in this offense, they really don’t, it’s that O’Brien didn’t understand how much he leaned on Hopkins until he disappeared. He’s now learning he had something, by now having nothing. The Texans not only have to try and crack a top pass defense, but they’re having to do so while still trying to find themselves.
Like last week, the Texans defense is going to give up dozens of points, barring turnover miracles, and Houston will have to score to keep up. The best way to do this is to find holes in cover three, and stretch the field out to beat man coverage. These things are easy to say, and nearly impossible to do, against this defense.
4. PICKUP YOUR DRAWERS
Continuity is vital for an offensive line. Guards can see the ‘3’ roll to a ‘2i’ and know immediately their brutal tackle can’t reach this far of an inside technique without having to make a sound. Contact is made in unison to drive down linemen off the ball. Stunts become a lazy river. Things that were dull one year become sharp and exact.
Coming into this season, the Texans knew who their starting five offensive linemen would be after taking a few weeks to figure out how to get their five best on the field last year. All the allure of continuity provided were continuous physical and mental blocking errors that limited Houston’s offensive output against Kansas City. The same problems from 2019 were on display in week one 2020.
Simple blitz pick up errors, like turning your body to the line of scrimmage can’t happen. Laremy Tunsil has been here for a year. He’s paid too much to make mistakes like this.
Baltimore led the NFL in second level sacks and five man rushes, and were second in six plus man rushes last season. They’re one of the most aggressive pass rushing teams in the league. Blood will spew out from every orifice to inject fear into the quarterback, and force the offensive line to think, instead of merely react and play.
Tunsil had this same problem against Baltimore last year. You can’t guess or assume anything from what Baltimore shows pre-snap. You can only make inferences. Decisions made before the ball is snapped only creates open lanes for pass rushers.
Baltimore only sacked Baker Mayfield twice last week. The box score is fork tongued though. Baltimore was able to use a wide variety of blitzes to get him rolling right and throwing the ball out of bounds. Quarterbacks need to have a fast computer to quickly process Baltimore’s defense to find any semblance of success.
The Ravens are one of those insane defenses who can create plays for themselves. Rather than wait for the offense to make a mistake for them to capitalize on, the Ravens create their own luck by constructing hazards for the quarterback to fall through. This insidious simulated pressure dropped Calias Campbell from left defensive end to right hook, and put him in front of a Mayfield quick slant attempt. The ball bounced off Campbell’s paws and into Humphrey’s arms.
This Baltimore sim-pressure that runs Calais Campbell from LDE to the right hook to create a Baker Mayfield interception is filthy pic.twitter.com/7a22pn3AC4— Matt Weston (@Matt__Weston) September 17, 2020
Houston’s offensive line has to be prepared for defenders to leave and for new ones to arrive. They have to stay square to the line of scrimmage, and keep their eyes up. Sharp blitz pickups like this one from Joel Bitonio (#75) need to be made from Houston if they’re going to allow Watson to do Watson things.
Deshaun also can’t guess. He has to see the entirety of the field. The Ravens’ defense is great at masking what they’re up to pre-snap. Players disappear and reappear. Movement out of a zone seen in in the peripheral a second ago, can be replaced with another body by the time you come back to make a throw.
There’s a balance to the mystical. Houston often won games last season because of the singular plays Watson made outside the constricting bounds of the offense. There’s a give and take to this. Last season, Baltimore’s offense got moving after Watson fumbled trying to make something from nothing. Throwing the ball away isn’t a bad play against this ravenous and opportunistic defense.
When the game is close, Houston can’t make mental mistakes that create sacks, and negative plays that crush drives. The Ravens can beat them on their own. Houston can’t aid them if they’re going to keep this game close at all.
5. THE LAST THING YOU FORGOT
Over Baltimore’s last 14 games, they’re 13-1. They, of course, lost to the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. A lot of bizarre things occurred for Tennessee to pull off the upset. The Ravens lost the turnover battle 3-0, they went 0-4 on fourth down after crushing teams in these situations throughout the 2019 season, Tennessee scored a touchdown on all three of their redzone trips, Derek Henry devoured a then below average Baltimore run defense, and Dean Pees employed a devious coverage scheme that took away the middle of the field from Jackson, forcing him to the sideline, where the Ravens didn’t have the talent to win in this section of the field.
That’s a lot of things. For Houston to even make this a game, they’ll have to play perfect mistake free football, multiple things have to go wonky against Baltimore, and they’ll have to finally discover an offensive strength, and manipulate it to pressure Baltimore’s defense.
6. ENUMERATE THE TERRIBLE POSSIBILITIES
People are like lice—they get under your skin and bury themselves there. You scratch and scratch until the blood comes, but you can’t get permanently deloused. Everyone has his private tragedy. It’s in the blood now—misfortune, ennui, grief, suicide. The atmosphere is saturated with disaster, frustration, futility. Scratch and scratch—until there’s no skin left. However, the effect upon me is exhilarating. Instead of being discouraged, or depressed, I enjoy it. I am crying for more and more disasters, for bigger calamities, for grander failures. I want the whole world to be out of whack, I want everyone to scratch himself to death.