Coming into this season, it was expected that the Texans would not be among the league leaders in most winning categories. Especially given the situation involving their one-time franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson, Houston’s offense did not figure to be among the league’s best. Defensively, it would be hard to be worse than the 2020 variant. Bringing in a man who hadn’t been a pure defensive coordinator for over 20 years and appeared married to a scheme whose best days were behind it, the Texans’ defense didn’t figure to be among the league’s best either. Based on this information, it followed that the Texans could at least hope to be decent on special teams.
There were fair reasons for this. A number of the new personnel the Texans brought in, to include the myriad of linebackers and running backs, had experience playing special teams. Included in those 31 new bodies was Andre Roberts, a former All Pro Kick Returner, brought in to help the Texans forget the forgettable tenure of DeAndre Carter. The team brought in a new punter, Cameron Johnson, who had a track record of success in previous stops. 5 year veteran Ka’imi Fairbairn, while not the most automatic of kickers, offered the promise of some stability and kicking prowess, coming off a season where he made 87% of his FGs, to include 4 of 6 from 50+ yards. All of this while being helmed by new Special Teams coordinator, Frank Ross, who was fresh off the Indianapolis Colts’ staff, which rated 4th in the NFL at the end of the 2020 season. For a team with not a lot to be optimistic about, there figured to be some optimism on this unit.
However, since the start of the 2021 NFL season, the Houston Texans’ special teams haven’t been all that special. With a quarter of the season gone, the team finds itself ranking near the bottom in a number of relevant special teams stats:
- Current Special Teams Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) Rank: 31
- Field Goal Percentage Rank: 26
- Extra Point Made Rank: 26
The kicking game is especially problematic as the squad had turned to rookie quarterback Davis Mills. As Mills works through the ups and downs of learning to NFL Quarterback, and with the Texans’ run game hardly a juggernaut, points from special teams are critical. Unfortunately, the team is not getting what they need. This was especially apparent during the Patriots game, when kicking woes led to the team leaving five critical points on the field (1 missed FG and 2 missed XPs). Granted, that was the first significant kicking action that Fairbairn had since his return to playing (he was on the field for the Buffalo game, but aside from one kickoff, there was nothing else to do). However, combining Slye’s and Fairbairn’s kicking stats, here is what we have:
- FGs: 6-8
- XPs: 8-11
Not horrific, but not great either. Yet, for a team where points are at a premium, and especially given the money paid to Fairbairn, the team can’t really afford to leave any points on the field.
For the kicking game, there are some mitigating circumstances. Fairbairn missed three games at the start of the season due to injury, and his replacement Slye demonstrated why he is not currently on an NFL roster. Some of the coaching decisions have not helped either (eschewing easy points in Buffalo at the start of the game, the curious decision to kick the 56-yarder against New England). Still, for a team that has little to no margin for error, especially when it comes to points, any special teams gaff will be that much more magnified.
For the non-scoring aspects of special teams, it is a mixed bag. Aside from the Fake Fake Punt, Cameron Johnson is generally kicking the ball solidly, helping the team achieve the 12th best punt net average. He was arguably the MVP of the Buffalo game, averaging over 50 yards a punt and at least forcing Buffalo to drive long distances for their scoring plays (which they managed to do). Punt coverage, however, has not been so grand, with the Texans rated 24th in punt return yards allowed. With the kickoff portion of the game, the Texans actually rate #1 in kick return yards. Admittedly, that can be attributed to the multiple opportunities to return kickoffs after the opposing teams score. Kickoff coverage is rated in the top ten, but you have to look at that from the perspective of the team having fewer opportunities to kick off, lowering the yardage levels. Roberts, who was brought over to invigorate the kickoff/punt returns, has yet to deliver the explosive return. Desmond King will also return punts, but again, the team is not producing the explosive return plays that it so desperately needs.
Ultimately, the special teams for the Texans suffers from the same issues as the offense and defense, mainly that there is not that much great talent, and the team is not always in great scoring positions to take advantage of those opportunities. A quarter of the way through the season, special teams are just a poorly rated as the rest of the squad. True, it is early in the season and Fairbairn may regain his kicking form, but for those looking for special teams to offer some help for the squad and maybe secure a win or two, this is hardly encouraging news.