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Texans-Saints Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

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Here are SIX things to watch for when the Texans play the Saints at the Superdome tonight.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone is in their best shape of their life at this point of the calendar, myself included. While the professional football playing men were sprinting up mountains, bench pressing sedans, sticking themselves with needles like Hellraiser and sucking the pain out of their bodies with cups like those slender black fishes that reside in every trailer park aquarium, I’ve been injecting nitrogen into my blood with beet juice, small reps heavy weight I promise one day I’ll bench my body weight, running until I melt in the dying August light, and stretching my brain with words from the modernists.

That long summer slumber is over. I’ve been scratched by black cats. The body is stronger than it’s ever been. The cup is full. It’s Week One. We’re ready to go.

HIT IT.

1.) Snuggie

The Texans traded Jadeveon Clowney in the most horrendous trade you’ll ever see. They received a third round pick, Barkevious Mingo, who has never been good and his career pass rushing production has only slightly surpassed what Clowney accomplished in 2018, and Jacob Martin, a prospect who Seattle fans claim is interesting and great as a way to console and fabricate some less harsh reality where the Clowney trade wasn’t an albatross. GTFO. STFU. Houston then doubled down on this trade by going into WIN NOW mode by trading two firsts and a second for Laremy Tunsil right after they made their team worse for this season. I’ll never get over it.

Since this trade there’s some brain worm revisionist history going around that Clowney wasn’t worth keeping and the Texans are better somehow better off without him. This is untrue. It’s strange how a logo affects a player’s talent level. Players immediately improve once they move to Houston, and their PFF grade immediately drops once they leave.

Houston’s pass rush last season depended on Clowney and J.J. Watt. Together they combined for 25 sacks, 26 quarterback hits (according to Football Outsiders), and 77 pressures. They accounted for nearly half or greater than half of Houston’s sacks, quarterback hits, pressures, and tackles for a loss. This was also on a defense that didn’t even have a great pass rush to begin with. They ranked 20th in pressure rate at 29%, and 13th in adjusted sack rate at 7.4%. It was fine, but it was only fine because of these two players. Whitney Mercilus was whatever. The rest of the defensive line can sit and hold their own against the run, but none of them can rush the passer. Clowney and Watt each ruined entire drives by their own volition alone. The offense would have enough opportunities to do just enough when these two were dominant.

Houston is requiring Mercilus to reenact what Clowney did last season, and for Watt, who has been healthy once out of the last three seasons, to keep up the same level of production that was based around destroying terrible offensive tackles like Chad Wheeler, Corey Robinson, and La’Raven Clark, while Clowney went up against the tougher matchup. They’ll need these two things to happen to maintain a below average pass rush. There isn’t a member of their defensive line you’d expect to make a jump. They didn’t add an interior pass rusher despite their being plenty of options available. You can’t expect anything from Mingo. and Martin is an idea, he’s a sixth round pick who had two sacks last season.

Mercilus is a fine pass rusher. He was out of place last season and should improve. Romeo Crennel kept Watt and Clowney locked on the edges aside from occasional Clowney dive bombs, which was the sole source of their interior rush. This stretched Mercilus way out wide. He isn’t a speed and bend rusher. Too often he ran directly into the offensive tackle and wasn’t able to fight his way around. Back as a 5 technique he can do what he does best, swat punches away, strike the outside shoulder, and rip around the edge. Mercilus winning one v. one matchups is one of the keys to Houston’s 2019 season.

That being said, he can’t do the things Clowney can do. Clowney’s pass rushing ability is now underrated after noxious slander was propagated this past summer. He was a very good pass rusher last season, even if he still hasn’t fully figured it out. He needs a backup plan once his first rush is stopped. Yet he can pull off some absolutely absurd rushes. He has outside and inside moves, and can do more than just swim over offensive tackles.

He’s gone forever. Houston’s rush is going to be worse this season without him. In games where Houston doesn’t have an obvious matchup for Watt to exploit it’s going to be brutal. This is going to be one of those weeks. Chad Wheeler and Corey Robinson aren’t here. The Saints are composed of left tackle Terron Armstead, left guard Andrus Peat, center Erik McCoy, right guard Larry Warford, and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Armstead and Warford are the oldest players on their line at age 28. Over the last three seasons the Saints have ranked in the top five in both pressure and adjusted sack rate, and the highest sack total Brees has taken is 27 back in 2016.

Watt has been rushing solely as a defensive end. Both Armstead and Ramcyzk are two of the best players in the league at their positions. As great as Watt was last season, he was locked down by great pass blockers in various games last season. For example, Braden Smith and Lane Johnson were able to hold him down.

Not only is this a bad matchup for Watt, but it’s one sided for the rest of the defense as well. There isn’t a shoddy blocker they can pinpoint and attack. Mercilus will probably be a non-factor against Armstead. The Texans don’t have an interior rusher, and even if they did, they would have difficulty mustering anything at all.

Most importantly, the defense depends on creating pressure. They don’t have the secondary that can strangle receivers, block out the sun, and prevent completions. Houston’s DVOA without pressure last season was 40.9% and they allowed 7.9 yards per play. With pressure they had a DVOA of -76.3% and allowed 3.4 yards per play. This was one of the most enormous differences in the league last season. The secondary should be better, but it still won’t be good, and without Clowney, the amount of pressure created will be substantially less.

Drew Brees should be able to get the ball out without really having to worry. The most accurate quarterback in franchise history will have plenty of time to throw. Brees was sixth in DVOA last season without pressure at 67.4%, and he averaged 9.1 yards a play. He’s going to have numerous throws in these comfortable situations.

The only hope for Houston’s defense is if last year’s end of season swoon will immediately carry on to this year. In weeks 1-12 Brees had a completion percentage of 78.5%, threw 29 touchdowns to 2 interceptions and averaged 8.8 yards an attempt. From this point on his completion percentage dropped to 68.7%, he threw 3 touchdowns to 3 interceptions, and averaged only 6.4 yards an attempt. His arm looked noticeably worse, and his ability to throw the ball downfield deteriorated. He completed one pass over fifteen yards in the NFC Championship game. Ted Ginn Jr. Jr. had to run back and leap over a building to make the catch. This also came in a season where Brees was preserved like a can of beans, and attempted only 426 passes, the lowest number in his career since he played in San Diego. This doesn’t look like an aberration. This looks like the new normal.

I’d expect for Brees to drop off this season, but week one, after a summer of training and a fresh arm, he should be fine for the first half of the season or so. The Texans don’t have the luxury of playing a worn down Brees. He’s still yellow. There’s nothing squishy about him. Expect for Houston to struggle to generate a pass rush, and for a rejuvinated Brees to have his snuggy on and lounging by the fire when he drops back.

2.) Kamara And Thomas

Brees primarily threw the ball to two players last season. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. Together they combined for 206 catches on 252 targets, a catch rate of 81.7%, 2,114 receiving yards, and 13 touchdowns. New Orleans didn’t have another player with more than 50 targets on the rest of their roster. Panting dogs trembled in anticipation while waiting for the crumbs and spills that tumbled during the transit from vessel to mouth.

Both players provide a tough matchup for Houston. Kamara will line up everywhere. He does everything. He can run routes from a shotgun backfield, he can line up in the slot and run a variety of different routes, and he can turn a simple swing pass into a lightning strike. He does it all.

Houston was great at covering running backs last season. They were third in DVOA against pass attempts to a running back. Zach Cunningham is a fine coverage player, and Benardrick McKinney has improved greatly in coverage from where he was two years ago. Yet, Houston didn’t play a back of this caliber all last season.

(I can’t wait to to see how Houston’s run defense will look without Clowney kicking the door down, throwing a flash grenade, and then letting the rest of the defense barrage on through. Houston will no longer have the NFL’s best run defense. I’d still expect for it to be at least a top ten unit.)

Thomas is an interesting wide receiver because he primarily plays from the slot. 59% of his targets last season came as a slot receiver. He’s incredible at beating man coverage with slants and quick breaking routes that Brees can recognize pre-snap and hit with precision. These throws are important because the arm issues are less of a problem for Brees when throwing to the shorter part of the field. Last season he caught 85% of his targets and his average depth of target was only 8 yards. Brees can be more of a point guard than a quarterback on slot throws to Thomas.

Houston was terrible at covering slot receivers last season. Aaron Colvin was supposed to be the slot corner, he was hurt for the majority of the season, and even when he did play, he was terrible. The Texans had to play Kareem Jackson there more than they ever wanted to. Last season they had a DVOA of 25.9% (28th) at covering slot receivers.

This season they are going to run it back with Colvin. Briean Boddy-Calhoun was a summertime cut, and if Xavier Crawford plays meaningful snaps the Texns are residing in their worst possible outcome. Colvin is supposedly healthy, but even healthy, this is a matchup that’s entirely in Thomas’s favor. This rings true if Bradley Roby or Johnathan Joseph primarily cover him as well. Roby has spent his entire career struggling to cover number one receivers, and Joseph, sitting, reacting, and trying to tackle a player like Thomas seems like an awful idea unless there’s a safety sitting right there behind him.

It will be interesting to see how Houston defends these two. Romeo Crennel has been known to play his corners seven yards off, sit, and make tackles against passing offenses like this, handing out yards, and hoping for his top talent to make enough absurd plays to force the occasional punt. This probably isn’t the right move against New Orleans. The goal should be to focus on the short passing game by limiting the number of safeties they play deep, clog up the short part of the field, and try to jump on short passes. Brees has had trouble throwing the ball downfield before. Forcing him deep is the best way to try and limit this offense.

3.) Swashbuckling

Houston chased down the bitter Clowney shot with a Tunsil chaser. Houston went into the summer thinking Matt Kalil could be the starting left tackle. It immediately became apparent this was a disastrous idea, and Houston paid the ransom for Tunsil because of this.

The Texans’ offensive line is better with Tunsil, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. There are still four other spots on the offensive line that range from unknown to average. Tytus Howard looked lost in the run game this preseason and had hand struggles, Nick Martin can’t run block at all, Zach Fulton is fine but he’s been worse than he ever was in Kansas City, and Seantrel Henderson has been injured since 2014, and hasn’t been competent his entire career. He’s enormous and moves well for his size, but his punch is weak and he doesn’t extinguish blocks. This is a big problem for a quarterback who holds onto the ball, and likes to extend the run time on plays.

The Texans had one of the worst pass blocking offensive lines last season and it’s going to be bad again this season. This should be seen immediately in this game. Cameron Jordan is a swashbuckler. Last season he had 12 sacks, 9 hits, and 49 hurries. Most of this comes as a pure edge rusher where be consistently beats tackles to the point of attack. Expect for him to see plenty of reps against Henderson. He can also move inside and run stunts to create open lanes for those around him.

The rest of their defensive line is composed of Malcolm Brown and Sylvester Williams, two prestigious run stoppers who can’t do much in the passing game, Marcus Davenport in his second year, and Sheldon Rankins back from a midseason ACL tear that ended his breakout season. It’s safe to assume Davenport will line up as the other edge rusher against Tunsil, and it’s impossible to have any idea what to expect from Rankins after coming back from a devastating injury this quickly.

The Saints primarily play Nickel and love to rush six plus, and they especially love to use Demario Davis as a blitzer. This is a problem for Houston. Watson and this offense has had trouble diagnosing exotic blitzes; say hello to Kenny Moore repeatedly coming from the slot. Tunsil is learning an entire playbook in a week, and the rest of this offensive line configuration hasn’t spent much time playing together this summer after rummaging around injuries to Martin and Fulton.

This isn’t the best pass rush in the league. It’s pretty good, and it’s a nice entry level matchup for Houston. That being said, Jordan is a mismatch they don’t have an answer for, and the Saints are great at manufacturing a rush. This is troubling for an unsettled offensive line.

4.) Expected Improvement

The Saints’ pass defense fell off from 2017 to 2018. Led by rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, the Saints transformed their pass defense from horrendous to one of the best ones in the league. Then, last season, they plopped down to below average once again. P.J. Williams was picked on. The Saints traded for Eli Apple. The difference between these two was immense. After this trade their pass defense DVOA improved from 23.9% to -6.2%.

It should be better this season. Lattimore was spectacular his rookie season, is a great talent, and had a down 2018 after dealing with injuries throughout the year. Marcus Williams said all the right things after the Minnesota screw up, but he wasn’t the same player. The Saints were last in the league at defending the deep ball. Ken Crawley is a fine tertiary cornerback too. Defensive backs usually don’t really figure it until their third year in the league. Their 2017 season was unheard of. The talent is still here. It’s reasonable to expect things should be better this time around.

That being said, they could be overwhelmed, by Houston’s passing offense. When you don’t think about the offensive line, or past conservative play calling, it’s impossible not to love this passing offense. DeAndre Hopkins is a top two receiver. Will Fuller V is back and is more than just a deep threat IF he can stay healthy. Kenny Stills is more one dimesional than Fuller is, but he’s insurance and a legitimate downfield receiver. Keke Coutee is awesome at running drag routes and attacking the center of the field, and DeAndre Carter can adequately fill in if his hamstring flairs up. Duke Johnson is a great receiver who can turn dump off passes on 3rd and 7 into first downs. They also have a comptent stable of tight ends. Each receiver has its own unique skill set. There isn’t redundancy here.

The Saints’ pass defense should be better than it was last season, but it shouldn't be neck breaking and strangling. New Orleans isn’t Owl Creek. Houston’s passing game could be ridiculous, if enough good things happen, like competent pass protection, health, and an aggressive game plan.

5.) Aggression

The Saints finished third in run defense DVOA last season. They allowed just 3.6 yards a carry, the second best mark in the league. This has been bolstered by their new defensive additions as well, and it should be just as good this season. The Texans, as you know, are a bad rushing team. They run the ball a lot and they aren’t very good at it. Houston ran the ball 472 times, the fourth most times in the league, but averaged only 4.3 yards a carry and were 26th in run offense DVOA. This was balanced out by Deshaun Watson’s rushing ability, and Alfred Blue being one of the worst running backs in the league.

The run offense should struggle to be meaningful in New Orleans. Houston needs to counteract the Saints’ passing attack by throwing the ball early and often. They need to be aggressive. O’Brien can’t wait until they go down before they start making deep heaves and allowing Deshaun Watson to be spectacular. Immediately, from the very beginning, they’ll need to attack New Orleans’ secondary, and try to keep up and play shootout against the Saints’ Hall of Fame offense. O’Brien needs to be prepared to improve on his 4-32 record when Houston allows more than 22 points.

6.) Ohhhhh, Monday Night

I avoid that bleak first hour of the working day during which my still sluggish senses and body make every chore a penance. I find that in arriving later, the work which I do perform is of a much higher quality.