Houston started off the 2018 season 0-3. I, like many other very dumb people, thought their season was over. The Texans were done. 0-3 teams don’t come back and make the playoffs. 0-3 teams are usually terrible and continue to stay terrible. The ones that turn their season around are extremely rare.
Yet seven weeks later, we know the Texans aren’t done. They are 6-3. They are thriving. How and why did the Texans go from 0-3 to 6-3? That’s the question I asked the masthead. Here are their thoughts.
I wrote about this earlier this week in “Film Room” articles on J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Yes, the Texans made smart scheme changes and ran an offense similar to last year at times. Deshaun Watson was used as a runner. Play action was finally utilized. They started throwing the ball downfield. Jet sweeps, options, and cool run plays were used; play action was thrown off of them. Houston started to chip to finally help the tackles out. Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas, and Justin Reid started to play meaningful snaps over lesser veterans. Juli’en Davenport moved back to his natural position at left tackle. Watson stopped turning the ball over and giving points away to offenses that couldn’t score them on their own. Clowney joined Watt and finally started rushing the passer. The Texans began winning one-possession games instead of losing them. These are all substantial reasons for the Texans’ turnaround.
Yet my brain tells me the biggest reason why the Texans have won six in a row is that the schedule aligned perfectly for them. The Texans have played teams with terrible passing offenses (aside from Indianapolis, which has a mediocre one that lost T.Y. Hilton early in their game with Houston). Opponents are forced to run the ball. This is a horrendous strategy against the best run defense in football. Instead of throwing deep and attacking Shareece Wright, Johnathan Joseph, and whoever is left in Houston’s secondary, offenses were running right at Watt, Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, Kareem Jackson, Justin Reid, and Tyrann Mathieu. It didn’t work. It’s never going to. Houston turned their season around because of this.
The good news is that it should stay this way for the remainder of the regular season. Unless the TITANING UP we saw last week against the Patriots is real and Marcus Mariota’s right hand is no longer a stranger, the best passing offense Houston will face for the rest of the year will once again be Indy. The rest of the schedule is Washington, Tennessee, Cleveland, New York (Jets), Philadelphia, and Jacksonville. All of these teams have mediocre passing offenses at best.
In the NFL Playoffs, this will change. Unless Houston plays Baltimore, every possible playoff opponent can spread Houston out and throw the ball downfield. Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Los Angeles (C), and even Cincinnati have good to great passing offenses.
All of this is still far away. Things change dramatically every week. The Texans won’t be the same team they are now, and they should get better. Mercilus still isn’t really rushing the passer, and him doing so can morph the pass rush from mediocre into a top ten unit, one that can terrorize the AFC playoff class. Most importantly, Watson still hasn’t been fully unleashed. He’s not being completely used as a runner again after his lungs turned into two liter bottles of grape soda, and Bill O’Brien has limited the number of downfield attempts he makes to reel in the interceptions.
If the offense looks anything close to how it did last year, or how it looked against Miami, the Texans have a real shot to make some noise in the postseason. If not, they’ll be AFC Divisional Round chum once again.
The run defense has been vastly improved.
Deshaun Watson got healthier and started trusting his legs again.
They’ve been more aggressive on offense.
The team simply came together and started playing with chips on their shoulders.
Having a fourth place schedule has helped this team immensely in a number of ways. The teams we’ve played during the streak are a combined 22-34 (.393); only Miami is at .500 with every other opponent below .500. It’s the usual punching down.
Most importantly, we’ve only played one decent QB during this stretch, and Andrew Luck was missing his only consistent weapon in that game in T.Y. Hilton. When you consider the weakest part of the entire team (aside from the offensive line) is the pass defense and we haven’t played a decent passing team, that’s a big deal.
As long as we play teams that rely on the run against our incredible run defense (which is kind of LOL), we are in good shape.
A wide combination of things, for sure. Improved play calling, better cohesiveness from the offensive line, solid defense, a fire-in-the-belly from several key players and a fair amount of blind luck. Overall, though, the big difference seems to be the players look like they’re prepared to play when they take the field. That wasn’t the case in the first three games.
The parity in the NFL means there really isn’t that big of a gulf between the worst and first teams, even though it often seems that way. A few key injuries, bad calls, unfortunate bounces, and any team can climb or fall.
Hopefully, the healing that took place during the bye and the time for Demaryius Thomas to gel with the offense, plus the potential upgrade in the kick return unit, should be enough to propel Houston to a double-digit win season.
I think the Texans’ turnaround is as simple as the team playing better and the schedule being kind. With regard to the latter, you can only play the teams that line up against you, so it’s not like Texans fans should feel bad about beating the Colts, Cowboys, Bills, Jaguars, Dolphins, and Broncos. That’s not exactly a murderer’s row thus far in 2018, but those dudes get paid like everyone else. A win is a win is a win.
What’s exciting is that I don’t think we’ve seen the Texans’ best football yet. The closest we got was in the Thursday Night Football win over Miami, and that was a few weeks ago. Since then, the Texans have gotten healthier, and Demaryius Thomas has had more time to get acclimated to his new home. As Weston noted, the offensive line is playing better (due in large part to some adjustments made by Bill O’Brien, the least of which is not leaving his tackles on an island) and the defense is rolling. There’s legitimate reason for optimism beyond simply believing the Texans will out-ugly the opponent each week.
The regular season is a means to get to the postseason. Once there, strange things can and often do happen. So while I agree that the vast majority of the likely AFC Playoff participants are more than capable of ending the Texans’ season in less than glorious fashion, let’s just get to the dance. We can worry about what song is playing in January.