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Texans-Colts Review: “Quick Thoughts”

First down run troubles, Houston’s pass game success, J.J. Watt’s as the entirety of Houston’s pass rush, coverage woes, and other quick thoughts from the Texans’ loss to the Colts.

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images
  • The Texans had 166 and 192 rushing yards in back-to-back weeks. Their run offense DVOA was -7.6% and 3.4%. They ran it a lot, and they were fairly effective. One of these weeks was against a good Falcons run defense, and the other was against the Chiefs’ run defense—stinky stinky—the one that finishes last in the league in run defense DVOA year after year and 31st in yards allowed per carry. They depend on Anthony Hitchens. Send linebackers. We don’t need vaccines.

Maybe Houston had this whole run offense thing down entering this Colts’ game. They did a great job at throwing downfield to setup light boxes to open up their run game against Atlanta. There’s no such thing as establishing the run. You throw to run. And in last week’s game of keepaway, they mauled the second level. Sharp claws. Raking. Bloody. That sort of thing.

This week was back to the usual. Houston tried to establish the run. Despite all the resources they’ve put into it, they don’t have the ability to control and win games with their ground game alone. Repeatedly, their ‘ace’ blocks were split by Grover Stewart, as Nick Martin spent the majority of the game a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage. The Texans’ running backs turned 19 carries in 69 yards, good for 3.63 yards a carry.

This is ‘dart’ right. They’re pulling Laremy Tunsil behind the line of scrimmage and up into the second level. Zach Fulton and Martin are split. Tunsil can’t pull. He’s like one of those horses sucking deep into the mud on an extreme daytime television rescue show. Johnson is slippery and able to squeak out a few yards despite the noxious blocking.

It’s inside zone. The ‘ace’ is between Max Scharping and Martin. Margus Hunt only plays Martin. He punches and extends him. They blitz the safety, which doesn’t allow Scharping to play the linebacker. The play is clogged.

Houston is in the red zone for the first time. On first down, they run inside zone, peel back the skin, and pull Darren Fells behind the formation to seal the backside. The ‘ace’ between Scharping and Martin gets zero push. Nothing. Scharping is able to pop the second level when he rushes through the gap, but the lack of movement stagnates the run, forcing the back to sit. Because of this, the edge defender is able to sneak around Fells’ block and make a play that should be impossible to make.

Houston is running outside zone right on first down. Martin can’t reach Hunt. It’s a glass of fruit juice sitting on the carpet. He spills into the backfield. I’m never getting that deposit back. Might as well smoke inside.

The down is important here. The Texans repeatedly choked their offense by running the ball on first down. It was a record scratch. Their backs ran the ball 12 times and they picked up 30 yards on these carries, good for a mere 2.5 yards a carry. Over, and over, and over again, Houston’s offense was crushed and put into a hole by doing this.

The Colts were aggressive on first down defense. Matt Eberflus kept defenders in the box, tying up the second blocker and allowing others to run freely. Add this to the constant interior blocking failures, and Houston ended up with a horrendous first down rushing attack they nevertheless kept going back to. On this play, Martin is pushed backwards by Stewart. The playside has three blockers to block four. The running back never had a chance. 1st and ten.

This is how the Texans’ run game should work. It’s second and two. They’re in 12 personnel (1 tight end/2 wide receivers/1 running back). They have six players to block eight, but Justin Houston, the backside defensive end, can be phased out of the play by Duke Johnson’s speed. Laremy Tunsil drives out the defensive end. Scharping and Fulton kind of make second level blocks. Everyone else sticks on theirs as they flow left. Johnson doesn’t have to worry about flotsam or penetration. He can hit this run straight upfield.

The Texans scored nine points in the first half because of their red zone offense, partly due to an inability to run block. Throughout the game, Bill O’Brien put his offense at a disadvantage by calling first down run plays that hindered the drive. The worst call of the entire game came on second down, however. The Texans were trying to come back and take the lead. It’s second and ten. Martin is stuck. The Texans’ new right tackle Dan Skipper gets beat outside in. No one can block the second level. The clock keeps ticking. What are we even doing here?

  • The maddening part of the Texans’ first down run game commitment is the Colts couldn’t stop Houston’s passing game at all. Watson was 23-34 for 308 yards; he averaged 9.1 yards an attempt. His average completed pass traveled 8.1 yards through the air. Indy couldn’t get much of a pass rush going, as it’s been all season for them. Their coverage was chasing with Pierre Desir and Rock Ya-Sin playing on the outside and without safeties that can affect the pass.

DeAndre Hopkins was impossible to stop when matched one on one against Desir. The Colts played a lot of man coverage with Desir latched up against Nuk. Hopkins timed his punches, jams with long arms, and immediately cuts inside to get open. He caught 9 of his 12 targets for 106 yards.

The Texans have stuck with the play action quick slants when they’re desperate for yards. It’s Hopkins versus Desir. The Colts’ linebackers drop back in shallow zone. Leonard gets duped by the jet sweep action to open the throwing lane.

You know what works on first and ten? Throwing the ball. Play action. Watson was 13-16 for 200 yards on first down. He averaged 12.5 yards an attempt on first down.

Here Houston fakes the hand-off. Watson has plenty of time to throw. Hopkins easily evades the hand stab and gets wide open on an inside breaking dig route.

Will Fuller V was knocked out of the game with a hamstring pull. The Texans were able to replace him with Kenny Stills and ran the same type of route combinations they had success with against Atlanta. Stills and Hopkins are stacked to the right. Stills’ slant gets the outside cornerback running with him. Hopkins runs a quick out against a cornerback with inside placement. Easy. Easy. Great play design.

There’s no limit to the number of catches or targets Hopkins can have. He had 12, but he should have had 20, 25, 30. No number is too high. The Colts couldn’t cover him at all. Repeatedly, he was wide open against man coverage.

It’s tragic that Fuller is out once again, especially after the Atlanta outburst and the steaming potential that never boils into consistent production. This doesn’t mean the Texans can’t throw downfield, though. Stills is a great deep threat on his own. Here he’s lined up in man coverage against rookie Rock Ya-Sin. It’s first and ten and Watson asks the question—what came first, the rainbow or the pot?

Earlier in the game, Houston ran a deep post to Stills after play action. This is the same deep crossing route pattern Hopkins and Fuller ran in the Atlanta game. The pass rush is meaningless. Houston picks up the blitz. Watson puts this ball right on Stills to set up their first touchdown.

The biggest difference between the first and second half offense was Houston ignoring the failing coaching tropes since they were playing from behind. They were aggressive and explosive. They threw the ball downfield early in down and count, and they took advantage of the Colts’ coverage woes.

It shouldn’t take this long to figure it out. It shouldn’t take 30 minutes and a 21-9 deficit. It’s the same coaching issues and play calling problems. It’s never going to stop. It’s unbelievable the Texans attempted to establish a run game against this Colts’ pass defense, a unit that struggles covering without a pass rush, when Houston has the Watson-Hopkins combination and secondary skill players that can take advantage of of multiple match-up opportunities.

  • So about that non-touchdown touchdown. After failing to run the ball with success near the goal line, Deshaun Watson drops back to pass on third and goal. The Colts’ red zone strategy: Play man coverage. Double Hopkins. Nothing is open.

Jabaal Sheard came back against Oakland, but didn’t make an impact or look like himself until this game. He pops Roderick Johnson wide and keeps his path straight ahead to the quarterback. Watson dodges his sack. It seemed like Tunsil learned his lesson and figured out he needed to block forever when blocking for Watson. But Tunsil lets Justin Houston turn him and make a play on Watson instead of sticking for eternity. Watson doesn’t go down easily. The snake is around his neck. He grabs his machete. He stays up. He makes a throw to Hopkins in the end zone. Touchdown. But it isn’t a touchdown. I’m already out of magenta petals.

I don’t have a problem with the call. Referees call quarterbacks down while in the ‘grasp’ often to stave off barbaric hits. But what I can’t understand is that Watson takes the hit anyways. If the play is called dead, and Watson is smashed, it should be 15 yards (or half the distance in this case) and a first down for unsportsmanlike conduct. They protected the player without protecting him.

  • The Colts are down in the DVOA basement. I really don’t care. Their defense has been crappy, but it’s crappy without Malik Hooker, Sheard, and Darius Leonard. Their slot corner, Kenny Moore, didn’t play this week either. These were the four most vital components of their defense last season. Hooker is still out, but Sheard, who looks great again, and Leonard made some wild plays. Their defense is going to improve. The Colts are infuriating and insufferable.

Johnson, filling in for Tytus Howard, couldn’t match Sheard’s physicality and strength at the point of attack. Sheard created separation throughout this game and was able to cut back into the backfield and disrupt plays.

He can even mix it up as an interior rusher. Severe and underrated. This time he beats Fulton, setting the spark that leads to a Watson scramble and the Texans’ longest running play of the game for 19 yards.

Leonard didn’t make the high impact negative plays. He had ten tackles, seven of which were solo, and cleaned up after Stewart, Hunt, and Denico Autry. Throwing the ball in the short center and the flats is diabolical when Leonard is on the field. Leonard can affect slant routes and can peel off to cover ball carriers. The Texans tried to isolate him against Carlos Hyde on a crucial third and one. He comes over the quick comeback and plays the high pass to Hyde.

He also had the game ending interception. With Leonard, the Colts can do absurd things like have their inside linebacker carry the post deep downfield. They can be creative with their coverage, and Leonard gives their secondary less ground to cover in the center of the field. This coverage call is the type of ask you’ll see coaches make only for linebackers like Luke Kuechly.

Also, this stiff arm is so mean. Marlon Mack has seeped throughout the entire Colts’ roster.

  • The Texans’ defense allowed 28 points and looked more like those summer expectations. Man coverage problems. No pass rush aside from J.J. Watt. The Falcons and Chiefs games had me feeling strange and confused. Houston had been able to play single high press-man against Matt Ryan and Patrick Mahomes. Ryan, despite the numbers, has been afraid of phantom pressure and doesn’t have the same ball placement and velocity this season. Mahomes, with the horror movie ankle, were unable to outscore Houston and was stopped by the Texans’ pass defense. Even given the context, the Texans’ pass defense was better than expected. The oasis became a sand dune against the Colts this week.

The Texans had one sack and eight quarterback hits. Six of them came from J.J. Watt. The one sack took 5.3 seconds to happen. The Colts ran play action. They have eight blocking eight. With Marlon Mack blocking, Jaheel Addae gets a free run off the edge and at the quarterback. Brennan Scarlett is unblocked after his man runs to get a hand on Addae. Whitney Mercilus is locked down. The hand fighting, the outside shoulder rip, the inside spin, all of it didn’t work against Anthony Castonzo. Both Scarlett and Mercilus combine to bring down Jacoby Brissett after Addae’s blitz opens them up.

That was pretty much it for the non-Watt pass rush. D.J. Reader and Charles Omenihu couldn’t get anything going on the inside. The Texans blitzed a lot, but didn’t create much pressure with it until the second half, when they used stunts to get Watt open.

Watt had a 2014 Watt sort of game. It was Buffalo lite. They put him against Mark Glowinski on the interior, getting him one on one against the Colts’ worst pass blocker. It was a great decision by Romeo Crennel. Stop locking Watt in against right tackles. Just find him the best match-up. He freestyled the 100 meter throughout the interior of the Colts’ offensive line to create constant pressure. He also had some nice rushes against Braden Smith as well after being locked down by him twice last season. Sacks are dumb.

I’m going to watch the film and write just about Watt, so I don’t want to waste any more words. I have a finite supply. In the meantime, pour yourself something hot, put on your Snuggie, keep those arms free, and hit the clips.

  • Run defense is the least important aspect of football. The best thing it does is elongate a game for an offense, preventing the opponent from running out the clock and shortening the game. The Texans front was able to do that this game. They gave Houston multiple cracks at taking the lead in the fourth quarter, and resigned Frank Reich to having a run-run-screen pass drive of his own.

The Colts’ running backs combined to have 53 yards rushing on 21 carries, which comes out to 2.52 yards a carry. Marlon Mack never had any space to get going. On inside runs he had 35 yards on 13 carries, but most importantly, he only had 9 yards on 5 runs off the left edge. The Colts were first in adjusted line yards off the left tackle entering this game, and loved to get Mack running off the left edge.

Houston did a great job creating a mass grave in the center of the line. D.J. Reader couldn’t provide a pass rush, but he neutralized Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly in the ground game. Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, and Scarlett had some nice run stops as well. Houston also called aggressive run blitzes at the perfect time. The Colts’ offensive line didn’t win this game, and struggled against Houston’s front.

  • Lonnie Johnson Jr. has been better than I thought he’d be as a rookie. He can come screaming down from the flat and make tackles.

But at the same time, he misses way too many tackles for being such a physical player. I like how he plays the ball at the catch point, stretching his lats to reach up and swat it away. That being said, he doesn’t have the quickness to play straight man coverage. He needs to punish receivers at the line of scrimmage. He still doesn’t have this down either. His teeth still haven’t fallen out yet. Whenever he misses his jam at the line, it leads to easy completions.

I didn’t dig the Johnson pick when it was made because the Texans needed cornerbacks who could play right now, right away. I don’t think Romeo Crennel ever imagined leaning on the rookie this much this season, but this is life with the cornerback injuries they've had and the Aaron Colvin debacle. Johnson has played better as a rookie than I imagined he would. Even then, his PFF dog brain grades have him ranked like 174th.

  • The man coverage problems aren’t just Johnson Jr., though. It’s the entire secondary. It’s shredded, sick, and bleeding. Jacoby Brissett had forever to throw whenever Watt wasn’t getting through the interior. The Texans tried to play single high press man and it didn’t work. Brissett completed 26 of his 39 passes for 326 yards and averaged 8.4 yards a carry. He threw four red zone touchdowns. On passes between 10-20 yards through the air, Brissett was 5/8 for 117 yards. He even hit on two throws over 20 yards, a rare occurrence in his life.

Indy was repeatedly able to either have their receivers beat man coverage on the outside or run across the secondary from one sideline to the other without a problem.

Brissett had too many easy throws on Sunday. The best quarterback skill he showed was using his mobility to sneak away from Watt, but the majority of the game, he had open receivers and a clean pocket.

From a coverage standpoint, Houston is kind of screwed. They don’t have the horses to play man coverage with Johnathan Joseph and Bradley Roby out, and even then, it’s questionable that they can do it. So far they’ve exceeded expectations. With all the injuries, they don’t have the continuity and feel to pass receivers in zone coverage.

The Texans need to get more out of their pass rush. I know the Texans ‘won’ the Jadeveon Clowney trade after Mercilus forced some fumbles to start the season. But since the Carolina game, Mercilus has 1.5 sacks and 3 quarterback hits. Reader has 1 sack and 1 quarterback hit. Charles Omenihu has 1 sack and 1 quarterback hit; the sack was the forced fumble of Mahomes at the end of the first half last week. Watt during this time has 2 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. This is the Texans’ front four on pass rushing downs. It’s getting close to being all Watt and nothing else.

  • Romeo, oh Romeo, please stop bringing only three on passing downs. Stop doing things like dropping Jacob Martin into coverage and blitzing Addae. Keeping eight in coverage never works. Please. Stop.

It’s third and ten. Come on man.