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Texans-Chiefs Review: “Quick Thoughts”

Bill O’Brien’s game plan, the Texans’ run offense, almost Agholoring Tyrann Mathieu, win-win trades, Kai’imi Fairbairn missing Trevor Daniel more than I do, and other topics in a review of the Texans’ win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Houston Texans vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images
  • The Houston Texans utilized a big, dripping, gooey game plan for the second week in a row. Last week it was using DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller stacked sets and route combinations to create confusion in the Atlanta Falcons’ perplexed secondary. This week, the Texans’ offense aided their defense as they ran a balanced attack to keep Patrick Mahomes bench ridden.

Time of possession really doesn’t matter. It’s an overrated stat. What’s more important is scoring points and playing with a lead. That being said, playing against the Chiefs is different. The only team to go arm v. arm against them and win were the Rams on Monday Night Football that changed football forever, but didn’t change football forever. They also had five turnovers that game. To beat the Chiefs you have to limit them to less than eleven possessions or so and have the ground game mash up their linebackers.

Houston did exactly this. They had the ball for 39:48 and picked up 35 first downs. They ran the ball 41 times for 192 yards. Deshaun Watson threw 42 passes, completed 30 of them, and averaged 6.7 yards an attempt. They ran 83 plays compared to the Chiefs 46. The Chiefs had ten possessions, one of which was a kneel at the end of the first half, and only three second half possessions that gained a total of 61 yards. Houston also had six drives where they ran more than ten plays, and would have had seven if they didn’t need only nine plays to ice this game like a black cherry Smirnoff in the bean pot.

Going into this game I didn’t think Houston’s offensive line could pulverize the Chiefs into a goulash of bones and brains, tendons and hair. Their run game had been efficient and effective, but it had more to do with the light boxes they ran against, vision, and broken tackles, not the offensive line. I either underestimated Houston’s offensive line or just how wretched the Chiefs’ front seven is. Whatever. Who cares.

The Texans were wise and didn’t waste time running a bunch of options plays and trying to get the ball out wide. They ran less outside zone than they have this season, a lifestyle they haven’t fully committed to and have failed to block well. Instead they were vertical. Running lead, inside zone, dart, and power. And from there Carlos Hyde would take care of the rest.

Hyde picked up 84 yards on 17 carries between the tackles. He was murderous. Running straight ahead through tackles with his jersey stretching like sunscreen marketing.

It’s first and ten. It’s Darren Fells in a flex wing position. The Texans have a strong ‘Ace’ between Zach Fulton and Nick Martin. It doesn’t get to the second level. It doesn’t matter. Fells takes out both linebackers on this block. Hyde takes Tyrann Mathieu five yards to turn a seven yard gain into twelve.

It’s third and one. This time Houston is running an inside zone play. Since 2015 the Texans have struggled blocking the second level. It’s been an epidemic. They did it routinely this game as they pulverized Damien Wilson, Darron Lee, Ben Niemann, and Reggie Ragland. This time it’s big neutralizing big, Zach Fulton bashing Niemann, and Tunsil popping the back side second level defender. An eleven yard gain on third and one. I’m dying to see what their rush offense DVOA was.

This is embarrassing. Houston is running dart to the left. Dart just means pulling a tackle from the backside to the playside to block the second level. It’s power, but with a tackle pulling instead of a guard. Howard is pulling. There’s a pileup. He never finds the second level. Instead Hyde cuts it back on a play no one ever cuts back on. He’s really feeling himself here. It works too. Roderick Johnson as the sixth offensive linemen pulls him through the defense.

In the second half, the Texans’ run offense was less diverse. Monomaniacal, they repeatedly pulled Max Scharping on power plays to the right. Over and over again, he didn’t make monstrous blocks, this isn’t required, but turned and walled the linebacker off from the ball carrier.

Kansas City’s front seven was post-graduate lost and aimless yesterday. This time. they are in an over front. The Texans run a zone read the opposite direction and skew the numbers in their favor. They read the playside defensive end. It ends with both the playside guard and tackle crawling up to the second level. Absurd. This is something that’s rarely seen. Both Fulton and Johnson make their block. Hyde stiffarms Mathieu for more.

  • In the pass game, the Texans were experts at attacking the Chiefs’ linebackers. Watson completed 19 of his 24 passes that traveled from zero to ten yards through the air. These went for 195 yards and a touchdown. On throws over ten yards Watson was 2/9 for 41 yards and threw two interceptions.

A lot of these throws were seeps out to the flat off of play action that sent Williams and Lee scrambling to make tackles. The Texans secondary pass catchers caught 12 of their 15 targets for 142 yards and 1 touchdown.

Fells is lined up in the flex wing position. Houston runs play action, and he runs across the formation. Lee is attracted to the glowing light. Fells runs outside the tackle box and Lee chases him down from behind.

This time it’s Jordan Akins beating Lee in the pass game. Lee once again chomps down on the play-fake. Akins runs out from a split shotgun backfield into the flat. At the tackle, he dips under Lee’s strangling attempt, and dives across the first down. See, isn’t that so much better than running a draw on second and ten?

The Texans are in 1-1-3 personnel and have a trips wide receiver formation left. Duke Johnson is the shotgun back lined up right. Johnson runs an out route against Wilson, and then outruns him to the pylon. This was why Houston traded an eventual third round pick for him.

  • Houston’s receivers also made quick little catches too. Will Fuller caught a slant against the blitz.

Houston demoralized Lee. He goes from ‘A’ gap pressure to chasing back to Keke Coutee, who catches an easy first down against the blitz.

Hopkins was used in this fashion more than the rest of Houston’s receivers. The Chiefs played more man coverage than they usually do. This led to Hopkins either playing one-on-one against Mathieu, or ran routes with him bracketed over the top. I counted five Hopkins first downs with Mathieu either directly or indirectly in coverage.

Mathieu isn’t a cover corner. He’s a guy who’s pretty good at a bunch of different things. He can cover a little bit, tackle a little bit, blitz a little bit, sit in zone and read the quarterback’s eyes a little bit, and play the deep middle a little bit. He isn’t great at anything, though. He definitely isn’t going to cover Hopkins on any intermediate routes. This led to Mathieu playing off of Hopkins and spoon feeding him first downs.

The one time when it didn’t work in Houston’s favor was when Hopkins dropped a post route touchdown. Don’t let life get you down. We all mistakes.

The best, of course, came on the final play. Mathieu showed ‘A’ gap pressure, blitzed with no success and tried to drop back to play the slant. No luck. First down. Game over.

There were also two other instances where Hopkins caught a quick pass to convert for a first, the most important of which, was a second half fourth down conversion that was part of the Texans 20 point wave.

Hopkins had nine catches. Seven of them turned into first downs, and in addition to that, he drew two defensive penalties.

  • O’Brien stayed calm and rational in this game. He didn’t abandon his son like a California oil magnate and stop running the ball once the Texans went down 17-3 in the first half. Most teams would go pass heavy and throw into the Chiefs competent secondary to play catchup. Houston didn’t give in. The Texans turned 17-3 into 23-17 and turned a first half deficit into a halftime lead.
  • Houston suffered one major injury this game. Tytus Howard came out with a knee injury and was replaced with Roderick Johnson. This was the best I’ve seen Howard play from this vantage point. He held the right side for extended periods of times and made the best run block of his career.

The difference between Johnson and Howard isn’t enormous. Johnson can provide a similar level of play. It’s a blow to the future, though. On the sideline, Howard loses valuable playing time as he continues to grow into a plus right tackle.

  • The Chiefs couldn’t rush the passer. For the second week in a row, Watson was sacked zero times. Last week was mainly because of the Falcons’ inept pass rush. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have horses. Alex Okafor, Frank Clark, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Tanoh Kpassagnon are all competent, yet none of them could win their battles. Clark (#55) struggled against Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard on both sides.

Okafor was nonexistent. There never was an interior rush. Chris Jones is Kansas City’s best defensive player; he’s on the same elite level as players like J.J. Watt and Fletcher Cox are on. The Chiefs are turning purple waiting for him to recover from a groin injury.

The one time the Chiefs had a rush that really affected Watson, it turned into a first down anyways because of a defensive holding penalty.

The monumental difference between this game and previous ones is Houston’s offensive line picked up blitzes and stunts when they came running. No free rushers. And when the Chiefs did show blitz, Watson sniffed it out ahead of time and threw assassin daggers into his receivers’ necks to beat the blitz.

Pressure resulting from stunts and blitzes was expected entering this season. The Texans came into the season with an offensive line that had never played together before, and the waterbed constantly shifted under Bill O’Brien throughout the beginning of the season. It takes more than a left tackle. It takes more than the offensive line. It takes more than chips and six down linemen to protect the passer. It’s a collective effort.

Now, since the sediment has settled down, Houston isn’t seeing rushers waltz through unlocked doors and smash Deshaun Watson. He has time to throw. He’s seeing blitzes before the snap and making quick reads. The occasional free rushers are arriving from the edge, not from the interior, where they have a quicker path to the quarterback.

  • Laremy Tunsil finally gets it. Earlier this season, he ‘allowed’ a sack against Los Angeles (C) because the edge rusher went way too wide; he let him run free and hit Watson from behind.

Tunsil now understands blocking for Watson is different than blocking for Ryan Tannehill. Watson’s going to hold onto the ball. He’s going to make plays outside the pocket. Blocking for 2.5 seconds isn’t enough. Tunsil, with the heavy price they paid for him, has to block forever and seal down the left side for the entirety of the play. This is happening now.

This play action pass is a great example. Tunsil blocks for ohhhhhhh, six seconds or so before Watson finds Jordan Akins baseball-sliding against zone coverage.

  • Last week Will Fuller caught three touchdowns. This week he dropped three touchdowns, and another deep pass sailed over his head. DEVASTATED. I wanted more than anything in the world for Fuller to Nelson Agholor Tyrann Mathieu.

He should have. He was close. He just couldn’t bring in that big fish.

This wasn’t against Mathieu. It was just a drop. Not everything is petty self-affirmation.

Also, pay attention the down and distance on these plays. The Texans didn’t do their typical thing, where they groan and grunt and exhaust all their effort to get ten yards in three plays. They took chances on first and ten and second and short. These weren’t desperate and exasperated heaves. Finally, O’Brien as a play caller has confidence in his offense to pick up chunks whenever and make the most out of the situation available to him. He isn’t playing for third and four any longer.

  • You have to love the Chiefs’ decision to give Mathieu three years and $42 million ($26.8 million guaranteed). The Chiefs were 32nd in run defense DVOA in 2017. They were 32nd last season at 9.8% and allowed 5.0 yards a carry. This season, they’re 30th in run defense DVOA at 8.4%, and are allowing 5.3 yards a carry. Rather than invest in their linebacker group, they brought back Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens and only added Darron Lee and Damien Wilson to the unit. It’s horrendous again. Great job, Kansas City.
  • The Chiefs missed Hitchens. He’s slow and is pretty easy to block, but at least he tackles fairly well. Even replacement level linebacker play is something Kansas City was yearning for in this game.
  • Houston’s defense almost did everything they needed to. They forced two turnovers. One was an interception of Patrick Mahomes by Tashaun Gipson, disallowed by a defensive pass interference penalty, until it was turned back around again after the flag was picked up.

The other was a strip-sack by Charles Omenihu. This was the biggest play of the game for the Texans’ defense. Right after Watson threw a fourth down interception, the Chiefs were looking to take a shot deep before the half. It’s play action. Rankin pulls to kick out Watt. Everyone is going deep, aside from Mecole Hardman in the flat. Mahomes doesn’t see Omenihu, who keeps pumping his legs and turns Austin Reiter to create a rush lane. His arms are so long.

The hit is special. He goes for and plays only the ball. Watson turned this into a touchdown with his legs, making it 23-17 entering the half.

Omenhiu hasn’t been an edge defender for Houston. His legs and Space Jam arms are fresh. He hops along the center of the line of scrimmage to take on guards and centers with their hands on their hips. The biggest difference between the 2018 and 2019 Texans defense is that this year’s version has an actual interior rush along its defensive line with Omenihu and D.J. Reader.

The Texans played a lot more man coverage than was expected yesterday. They’ve been able to survive fairly well like this. The days of soft Cover Four have dried up and disappeared. Sure, they got beat a few times, but most importantly, they played fairly tight at the line of scrimmage and challenged the catch point.

The biggest problem was the tackling and the pass rush. Houston had the sixth highest missed tackle rate entering this game, and the Chiefs ranked second in broken tackle rate. Ten of their broken tackles were created by the inactive Sammy Watkins. Missed tackles in the secondary continued.

It didn’t kill Houston this time around. Missed tackles didn’t turn into touchdowns like they can against the Chiefs. They just cut Houston wider and made them bleed a little bit more than they should have.

Houston’s pass rush decisions were typical. It was D.J. Reader, Omenihu, Brandon Dunn, and Angelo Blackson on the inside. On the exterior, J.J. Watt against the right tackle, Mitchell Schwartz, and Whitney Mercilus against the left tackle, Cameron Erving. Watt and Mercilus were able to draw the occasional holding penalty, but throughout the game they were blocked well on the exterior.

This game encapsulates Mercilus as a pass rusher, too. He needed to provide constant pressure against Erving, who had been scorched in each of his first three starts. He was unable to. He tried to win with more inside moves to get to Patrick Mahomes quicker but didn’t have much success. His spin was washed out well by Erving. Also, Mercilus’ edge rushes create fumbles and are impact plays, but they are so wide and looping that they take years to get there. On top of all that, Mercilus’ rushes are easily escaped by pocket climbs. He requires interior pressure to have an impact.

Regardless of this, the Texans’ defense played extremely well. Helped out by their offense, they only allowed 24 points to the league’s best passing offense, and they did this with Johnathan Joseph on the sideline and Bradley Roby leaving with an apparent hamstring injury. Kansas City’s last two possessions ended with a punt.

  • The best thing the Texans’ secondary did was take away the deep pass. On throws between 10 and 20 yards through the air, Mahomes was just 1-5 for 18 yards. On throws traveling more than 20 yards, Mahomes was 1-5 for 46 yards and a touchdown. That one touchdown of course came on an offsides heave. Free play. Tyreek Hill bounded over everyone and caught a touchdown pass that went through Justin Reid’s hands.

That was it, though. Mahomes was stuck throwing between zero and ten yards and then watching his receivers break tackles to pick up more. Mahomes didn’t look himself. His ball placement was spotty. His throws didn’t have the same strength. The mobility, pocket escaping, and sublime reality-bending throws weren’t there.

—The Texans traded former third round pick and fan favorite Martinas Rankin for Carlos Hyde right before roster cuts. Both teams were probably going to release each player, and rather than deal with messy waiver claims, they switched them straight up.

Not every team has to win a trade. Each team can benefit. The Texans found a back who could replace Lamar Miller after his preseason ACL tear, and the Chiefs added a talented young offensive lineman they could cultivate and mold.

Hyde was a monster and has been a vertical running machine. Rankin was really good too. There wasn’t interior pressure from his side. The extension on his punches were great.

He pulled and kicked out J.J. Watt a few times, on play action especially. Watt was really selling out for the pass this game.

He also made a vile block on Reid to spring Williams on their screen pass touchdown.

  • The Chiefs’ last offensive drive was brutal. Down 31-24 with 6:04 remaining, they threw a screen to the short side of the field and lost four yards on first down. 2nd and 14 was an option play with either a screen to the left or a zone play right. Mahomes checked the numbers. The Texans matched the wide bunch left formation. He handed it off and the Chiefs gained one yard.

On third and thirteen, the Texans finally got a pass rush. Watt beat Schwartz with an swim inside. Jacob Martin was blocked on the interior, but backed away from it all and ran out wide to pursue Mahomes. Martin’s closing speed is insane here. With these two after him, Mahomes threw an incompletion. Kansas City wouldn’t get the ball back again.

  • Kai’imi Fairbairn missed a field goal and an extra point this game. There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the laces of the football. Since the Texans cut Trevor Daniel and replaced him with Bryan Anger, the Texans’ long snap holder has changed. Luckily, we can check the numbers instead of having vague conversations about the orientation of laces.

In the first two weeks of the season, Fairbairn was 5-5 on extra points and 2-2 on his field goal attempts. Since then, since Daniel was cut, Fairbairn has gone 11-15 on extra points and 4-6 on field goals. There you have it.

  • —Both coaches lost timeouts by challenging pass interference penalties. Both were blatant penalties. It doesn’t matter. Neither head coach has apparently watched a NFL broadcast this season. These calls never get overturned. You have to decapitate a wide receiver with the ball in transit; even then, they still probably wouldn’t overturn the call.

I love the new rule, the red-faced hollering, the spitting vitriol, the disbelief and futility it causes.