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2021 Houston Texans Season Preview

A yearly tradition, it’s another Texans season preview.

NFL: Houston Texans at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

This week will be golden and beautiful. The Texans won a football game. Mondays are special days after a Texans win. Toro necktie replaces the noose, the Cowboys fan who resides next you will never hear the end of it. Sports Radio blaring Victory! Victory! Victory! The only thing better than the free cup of coffee at the Valero is the free Double Jack. And for dinner? Half off pizza. Life can’t get any better.

If beat Denver at home, there’s a chance they can clinch homefield advantage. If they can just hang on they’re going to the AFC Championship game. Trading DeAndre Hopkins is going to open the offense up so they don’t have to rely entirely upon him—it’s going to make Deshaun Watson a better quarterback. Nick Caserio is making moves, he inherited a dumpster fire, the same one I worshiped, and I have full faith he’s going to build the first Super Bowl winning team in Houston.

Being a fan is more than following a team for most. It’s a part of one’s identity. The Texans aren’t merely a business operation that plays football, they are part of the fabric of one’s being. Fluttering around the soul. Marrow is battle red and gelatinous. How the team performs is an extension of one’s self, and anything negative said about the team, no matter how it true it is, is an attack on the individual. The Texans are the Texans and I’m a Texan too.

For those who feel this way, I can’t stress this enough, find your Houston Texans somewhere else. Discover something you can control to brighten your soul. If you rely upon this team to lift you up, this year will be a malignant maelstrom tormenting your life. Read to your children, buy a kayak and float along some Texas Eden, learn why you have to run, stack the bar full of plates, refurbish grotesque antique furniture into something beautiful, pick up a state park pass, or, if you absolutely have to, watch college quarterbacks and fall in love—only for the team to take the exact player you didn’t want. This isn’t the year for your warped identity to wear you out. The team should enrich your life, it shouldn’t be the entirety of it.

The Houston Texans are going to be atrocious this year. Like, really bad. Like, really really bad. Last season Houston went 4-12, despite Deshaun Watson playing as a top five quarterback, and the passing offense finally rising to eighth in DVOA. Unfortunately for Houston, they spent the first four weeks trying to get David Johnson going, especially seen in the loss to Pittsburgh, where every run halted the offense, and they finished dead last in run offense DVOA.

Bill O’Brien had seeped defense from the roster for the last three seasons, and it finally reached its conclusion. Rock bottom. Houston forced 9 turnovers (32nd), had three interceptions (32nd), finished 29th in run and pass defense DVOA, allowed 7.6 yards a pass attempt (28th), and 5.2 yards a carry (32nd). O’Brien really thought they were an Eric Murray away if J.J. Watt was healthy for the entire season. Narrator voice they weren’t.

There is regression potential. As you know, turnovers fluctuate year to year. Turnovers require the defense to capitalize on an offense mistake. The ball can be punched out, but it still takes a meek grasp for it to flutter away. Nine turnovers is historically low. Houston will force more this year, I guarantee it. They went 2-8 in one score games, and won 2.1 less games than expected. They lost games because they couldn’t stop Pittsburgh’s terrible run offense from killing the clock, Will Fuller couldn’t make the catch DeAndre Hopkins routinely made, A.J. Brown caught a game tying touchdown and another that set up a game winning field goal later in the year while Derrick Henry did the rest, it was too windy to throw the ball in Cleveland, Keke Coutee fumbled into the endzone, Nick Martin skidded a snap, and Charlie Heck blew a block that led to a strip sack. How can you not be romantic about football?

The year before Houston went 8-3 in one score games, 9-3 if you include the postseason win over Buffalo. Deshaun Watson’s heroics and theatrics carried them and pulled them through time and time again. Eye dangling from orbital bone. Car crash turned dump off. The 2021 Texans wouldn’t even allow him to make the unbelievable mundane. His own teammates actively thwarted him from pulling off the incredulous.

There’s an enormous problem here. After the Texans suddenly turned the car around and hired Nick Caserio, Watson requested a trade. He stood by his request after David Culley was hired, and even after Tim Kelly was retained as the offensive coordinator in a half hearted attempt to appease him—shocker. Caserio opted not to trade him before the 2021 NFL Draft, ensuring he’d be on the roster for another season. The complicated became even more complicated. Watson was accused of sexual assault by 21 women. We saw him at training camp, standing at safety, tossing footballs, hoodie covered, glaring at reporters. He’s on the roster, but will be inactive for the time being, and probably for the entire season.

Due to the length of the court process, a civil trial, if one is to occur, won’t happen until next year sometime. The NFL’s own investigation process requires the defendants to hand their information over, making their defense available to the player. Things are at a standstill. If Watson is suspended, it probably won’t be until the start of the 2022 season at the earliest. With this looming above the season, and the fact that the Texans need to know what the picks are worth in a trade for him, Watson will live in Houston purgatory for 2021.

A 2021 Texans team with Watson could, and should, have been a postseason team in 2021. We saw what the future of the Texans was last year. Tim Kelly did the bare minimum as an offensive coordinator. He did something we were clamoring for all these years. He used more empty formations to put Watson in a spread offense. In empty formations the Texans had a DVOA of 51.2% and averaged 8.6 yards per play. Mind you, this was with receivers like chad Hanson, and Jordan Akins at wide receiver. Houston only scraped this surface.

Against cover three, the linebacker doesn’t carry the seam, and Pharoah Brown is wide open.

The same coverage, the same offensive formation, and the linebacker defends the post. This leaves a rushing lane open for Watson. He takes off through a congested pocket for 11 yards. When not maintaining your pass rush lanes goes wrong.

Two hook routes occupy the linebackers, leaving Brandin Cooks wide open on the post route behind it. Easy throw. Easy yards.

This offense created open throws, and rush attempts when nothing was open, but it also allowed Watson to find matchups. It’s Will Fuller in the slot against Jeff Gladney. Fuller has the talent advantage, and with the lone safety in the middle of the field, there isn’t anyone to help out. Gladney falls behind immediately. Watson drops the corner into the bucket.

These days are gone. Those beautiful alternative future we discussed in November when the season fell apart never came to fruition. Instead, it’s Tyrod Taylor, and it’s Davis Mills.

Football is a game of attrition. Most players’ success is a blip that evaporates like countertop vodka. Taylor hasn’t been a consistent starting quarterback since 2017, despite his preseason plans, ruined by his own struggles in 2018, and an inerrant jab in 2020. We don’t know what a Taylor offense will look like. But this idea that Houston will replicate Baltimore’s gap-read offense is silly. Taylor wasn’t that good of a runner in 2018, and that was three years ago. He’s 32 years old now.

Taylor’s best skills are not turning the ball over and not taking sacks. He’s had a historically low interception rate in previous years. The deep passes are wild and all over the place requiring ladder climbers to go up and get it. Nico Collins has this potential, the rest of the receiver group doesn’t. Get ready for a down Brandin Cooks season. His deep crossing routes worked because Watson put the ball right on his teeny body. Taylor doesn’t have this same level of accuracy. I’m sure he’ll regret his no trade tirade early into this season.

The short game accuracy is alright. Expect for this offense to be based around play action and crossing routes, and read pass options with Taylor ensuring the ball doesn’t squirt into the defense’s hands. Here are his plays from his week one win over Cincinatti last year, you know the one where Randy Bullock missed a short field goal and feigned injury afterwards.

I’m sure we will see Davis Mills at some point. The more games he starts the merrier. You glitter a three games started turd, but it’s more difficult to stomach pump seven rough games in the name of development. What we saw in the preseason is what we saw in college. Mills’s best trait is his touch on deeper sideline passes. His foot work is wonky after he takes hits though, and he takes plenty of them. He’s a clean shaven Zach Metteneberger in the pocket. Most importantly, he doesn’t have the play by play accuracy to lead a consistent offense. The gimmes aren’t gimmes with Mills. You don’t have to have incredible accuracy to be a NFL quarterback, but Mills doesn’t have the athleticism to make up for it. He’s a backup quarterback.

David Culley stated the offense will play how the defense will let them, meaning, they are going to run the ball as much as they can, and then try to air it out once they fall behind. The Texans finished 32nd in run offense DVOA once again for all the goldfishes out there. In order to fix their run game they quintupled down on the running back position. David Johnson is still here—the clown merely adjusted his wig—with Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, Rex Burkhead, and Scottie Phillips joining him.

Lindsay is the best pure running back on the roster. He’s a midzone and outside zone back who has a knack for finding cutback lanes. If a team needs a running back between now and the trade deadline, he’s the one to be dealt.

There’s the speed here to bounce these runs wide, and he also quickly diagnoses his runs to find the perfect path.

He’s not a great power runner. He doesn’t grind it out between the tackles well. That being said, he does have occasional success on these plays by breaking big gains. He’s a mole man who follows his blocks well and digs through the Earth until finding sweet rays of light.

Ingram is washed, and is here for the redzone. Johnson is more of a receiver than a running back. Burkead is of the same vein, and would have been a good signing three years ago. All of these names just go to show why it was silly to invest in the running back position like they did in veteran backs. The youth button they have is Phillips, the former undrafted back from Ole Miss, who had a great preseason, and should be a better running back than these three.

The problem is the Texans haven’t been a competent run blocking unit since 2015. Hopefully turning O’Brien crony Mike Devlin into James Campen is the magic move the Texans should have made years ago.

He has a lot of work to do. Despite investing three first round picks, three second round picks, and around $27 million into last year’s offensive line, Houston finished 27th in adjusted line yards, a return to 2018’s figure, and down from 2019’s 21st ranking. Routinely, one player would blow his block removing any chance at a successful run lane, and they could never block the second level. This was never a cohesive unit.

The easy scheme change for Houston is to stick a run scheme and master it. Previous Texans teams tried to run everything, and weren’t good at any of it. Counter, dart, inside zone, duo, midzone, outside zone, all of it was a wreck. The only ‘run’ play that worked as their tight end flat route read pass option that ate up teams with horrendous linebacker play.

Houston’s backs don’t lend themselves to any one scheme though, and the offensive line configuration is wonky. Tytus Howard (#71) has moved to left guard, despite his best strength being his ability to pass protect on the edge. This move is limiting his progression at a premium position. His pass set could be a little quicker to meet edge rushers square, but he’s the size of an exoplanet, and is impossible to get around. He had great games against T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, and Jadeveon Clowney last season.

He, and Laremy Tunsil, haven’t been good run blockers. Howard can’t figure out the mid and outside zone game, routinely missing his aiming point and tripping at the second level.

Justin Britt hasn’t played in a year and a half, and will be tasked with driving out nose tackles and picking up linebackers. Max Scharping (#74) was weak and inebriated last season. He’s now gone from a college right tackle, to left guard, and now to right guard. Hopefully he’s picked up some weights now that Martin isn’t here to take them all home, and has finally learned the playbook. Try not to hurl.

Marcus Cannon is starting at right tackle (#61) since Charlie Heck can’t smell his fingers. Cannon would have been the player to move to guard. He’s great at making combo blocks on power run plays. If he’s anything like he was in 2019, he’ll be the best run blocker on the team.

His pass set worked when blocking for two seconds and it’s out Tom Brady. It’s going to be entirely different blocking for Tyrod Taylor.

I’m like you. I’m hoping for the best regarding this offensive line. I have an 89 cent candle with Campen’s head ordained by a crown of thorns that I light every night before bed. Until the offensive line finally puts it together, I’m not sold, especially when it consists of players playing out of position, and four of their starters dealing with extenuating circumstances. If the investment finally matches the drapes, and they become a top ten run blocking unit, Houston maybe, just maybe, able to pull off the run heavy, play action, RPO offense they had spent the summer drawing up.

The other enormous problem for Culley’s grand vision, is the defense, it’s, well, it’s pitiful. This is a defense that has deteriorated for years. Justin Reid is the only competent starter they added since their 2018 run. J.J. Watt, Jonathan Joseph, Benardrick McKinney, Kareem Jackson, D.J. Reader, Tyrann Mathieu, Jadeveon Clowney, gone. Last year wasn’t one-off. It was the dam finally bursting.

Houston did sign a slew of defensive players for this year’s team: Desmond King (CB), Joe Thomas (LB), Kamu Grugier-Hill (LB), Kevin Pierre-Louis (LB), Terrance Mitchell (CB), Maliek Collins (DL), Christian Kirksey (LB), Tremon Smith (CB), Tavierre Thomas (CB), Vincent Taylor (DT), Jordan Jenkins (OLB), Demarcus Walker (DE), and Neville Hewitt (LB) are all here. They broke the pool cue in half, and tossed into the pit to compete, Compete, COMPETE, COMPETE.

My favorite of the bunch is Desmond King. He reminds of a quote from a great man before the CIA conspired to blow his brains out. Ask not what Desmond King can do for you, but what you can do for Desmond King (#33). He’s a unicorn. He struggles at the typical assignment given to the slot corner role—playing press man coverage. He doesn’t jam well, he falls behind the route quickly, and he doesn’t have the size to really press the receiver at the catch point.

It’s hard being 5’10”. It’s hard being a little guy. He does have his own specific skill set though. First and foremost, he’s an incredible tackler. Low and leg sweeping, he catches foxes, routinely dumping everyone who crosses his path. Big, fast, it doesn’t matter the player. They end up pinned to the mat.

He excels in zone coverage. He can play a variety of zones, quickly recognizing routes, and ejecting to make tackles. From the hook to the flat in cover three, he smacks down Laviska Shenault.

In cover six, he goes from the hook to the flat to decimate Ronald Jones.

In theory, Lovie Smith’s cover two defense is perfect for King. It removes what he does worst, and puts him in the best position to succeed. It’s hard to take the idea of a cover two defense seriously in this post-modern spread era we are in. if you don’t know, cover two relies on the outside cornerbacks pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage, and squatting, leaving the safety to cover anything past them. The linebackers play the short middle. The safeties split the deep part of the field in half. It requires defenders to play routes with their eyes and their body concurrently.

This leaves holes in the seam, and between the cornerback and the safety, making seam and corner routes the money shot. In order to combat the seam, the defense involved to have the middle linebacker rotate to carry it—this is the Tampa two. See the man in yellow.

This defense is a changeup nowadays. It’s no longer an integral base defense. Past that, Houston doesn’t have the personnel to run it. It takes stress off the awful cornerback room they have—Caserio committed an act of war getting Vernon Hargreaves III 17 starts—but the defense has to have great coverage linebackers to pull it off. Brian Urlacher, Derrick Brooks, London Fletcher, they ain’t walking through that door.

Kamu Gruiger-Hill is a coverage linebacker who can’t cover, same goes for Kevin Pierre-Louis, who was benched for Cole Holcomb and Jon Bostic last year. Christian Kirksey is on his third team in three years, and is paleolithic at this point. Zach Cunningham is the most athletic linebacker of this group, but he’s been undressed in coverage time and time again. Thankfully he can move to weakside linebacker, after leading the NFL with 21 missed tackles at middle linebacker in Benardrick McKinney’s wake. Get ready for it. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, teams are going to hit the seam against this defense.

It’s never going away.

Houston also doesn’t have the front four rush to pull it off. There are a lot of names, a lot of guys who are fine but none of them are impact pass rushers. The closest they have to one is Charles Omenihu (#94). He’s a plus interior rusher when his lungs are fresh. His long arms are nasty, and he has a great rip move.

He’s a disaster in the run game though. He still hasn’t figured his run keys out, and gets bludgeoned time and time again on power run plays. He’s a passing down threat, but needs to figure out the run game out, to be an every down starter.

Demarcus Walker had a great preseason. Jacob Martin is easily extinguished by deep pass sets, but the quickness is undeniable. Jonathan Greenard is similar to Whitney Mercilus, before the wrinkles grew. Maliek Collins was hurt last year, and had one great bullrushing season in Dallas. Getting something from Ross Blacklock will be enormous from a team lacking young talent. Shaq Lawson was supposed to be the team’s best pass rusher, but is a number three option for a good pass defense, and he was traded to the Jets already. There’s a lot of players here they can churn in and out to keep them fresh, but it’s not going to push quarterbacks into consistent inerrant throws into the teeth of the coverage.

From a talent perspective, the defense is more interesting than the offense. They’ll force more turnovers. They have more youth. There’s numerous players like Martin, Greenard, Blacklock, Lonnie Johnson Jr., and Justin Reid, who we don’t really know how good they could be because of the previous regime.

There’s still a bizarre mishmash of young and aging talent on this roster. The Texans claim this was done in the name of culture, something that requires winning games to create. There was a schism in Houston’s offseason. On one hand, they cut the fat off this roster, created cap space as they should to move forward, but on the other, they used their cap space to bring in non playable character after non playable character. Most of these players are older and without upside. There isn’t a sudden performance boost lurking, and for players like King or Lindsay, their biggest impact on the future will be helping the comp pick formula, or being traded midseason for a day three pick. There’s no future here for them. Instead of going all in on a youth movement, they are stuck in between two worlds.

Not only that, but they restructured contracts to create cap space for this season. It made zero sense. Mercilus, Tunsil, Lawson, and Cunningham were restructured to push the cap to to next year so they could sign the Grugier-Hills of the world. After trading Bradley Roby for a third and a situational sixth, they are ready to trade anyone and everyone this season. Caserio didn’t have a cohesive plan this offseason. He’s circling back around already. The 2022 Texans are going to be worse off for his myopic vision.

The good news is that one day it will come to an end. The Texans finally have their first and second round picks, for the first time since they made the disastrous Laremy Tunsil trade. Deshaun Watson will net them at least two first round picks and a second. If Caserio can hit these picks, this will springboard the next good Texans team hopefully by 2023. If he doesn’t, we’ll be down in the doldrums where we belong for the long haul.

We are used to the depths. The abyss is our home, and as we all know it, there is no bottom to the well of Texans football misery. This season will dig us down deeper than we have ever been before. Between the talent problems, the roster mismanagement, Watson’s deviant accusations, and a future franchise defining trade, this team is our albatross. Yet, we will still tune in every Sunday, because we are all sickos, sucked into this sick thing we are forever twisted up in.

Don’t let it get the best of you. Please I beg you, find your Houston Texans somewhere else.

Prediction: 4-13