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2020 AFC South Season Preview: J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, and the Houston Texans

The 2020 AFC South season preview come to an end with your Houston Texans. AFC South Champs, Brian.

Wild Card Round - Buffalo Bills v Houston Texans Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Numbers are for losers. DVOA, points allowed, yards, touchdowns, Pythagorean win totals, expected points added, point differential, turnover differential, one possession record...these are silly squiggles for empty cowards who live hunched over a slobbery keyboard. Win-loss record. That’s the only thing that matters.

This attitude usually lasts for one season, until the following year, when that nymph Fortuna turns her sweet songs and blessings into a flurry of sharp little teeth that mash flesh and squirt blood like some cannibalistic vintner. Then the purveyor of such sentiments goes back and digs up old Bill Barnwell columns from Grantland and learns the truths underlying a sixteen game sample size.

Last season, the Texans were a below average team, performance-wise. They were mediocre on offense, finishing 16th in DVOA at 0.4%, the first positive percentage in Bill O’Brien’s six year NFL head coaching career. Houston averaged 23.6 points a game (14th). On defense, they finished 26th in DVOA at 9.0%, and allowed 24.1 points a game (19th). Despite scoring less points than they allowed, Houston went 10-6 and won 2.2 more games than their Pythagorean total because they went 9-3 in one score games, including their postseason win over the Bills. In the regular season, only the Seattle Seahawks, who won ten one score games, won more close games than Houston did. Deshaun Watson turned car crashes into completions and popped his eye back into its oval cavern to make this happen. Incredible clutch seasons like Watson had in 2019 tend to work for one year, but not for the following season, unless a substantial improvement in talent combats the inevitable changes in fortune.

So did the Houston Texans get better this offseason?

Houston’s pass defense has been oozing mucous since 2017. In 2018, they managed, thanks to a vicious pass rush and an all-time great run defense that consistently sucked offenses down into muddy situations like 2nd and 12. After trading Jadeveon Clowney, losing Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu in free agency, time grinding Johnathan Joseph down to a nub, and J.J. Watt suffering another regular season ending injury, the pass defense was ripped apart in 2019.

This offseason, the Texans drafted Ross Blacklock, who is great in stunts but will need time to work out in one-on-one pass rush situations; Jonathan Greenard, a Whitney Mecilus prototype; and John Reid, a highly praised cornerback who could steal snaps from Vernon Hargreaves III and Lonnie Johnson Jr. as a rookie. In free agency, the Texans added Eric Murray and special teams contributors Michael Thomas and Jaylen Watkins. Perplexing isn’t even a term that starts to describe the Texans’ strategy the past few months.

Like last season, the pass defense in 2020 depends entirely on J.J. Watt’s health. Even in his early 30s, Watt can be the entirety of a team’s pass rush and create enough disruptive plays to dismantle entire drives. When Watt is on the field, the Texans have a below average pass defense. When he’s off it, the Texans have have one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.

2019 Texans Defense With and Without J.J. Watt

Defensive Category Weeks 1-8 Weeks 9-17
Defensive Category Weeks 1-8 Weeks 9-17
Points Allowed 188 197
Points Allowed Per Game 23.5 24.62
Average Defense DVOA 4.91% 6.60%
Yards Per Play 4.4 (19th) 5.0 (31st)
Yards Per Attempt 6.4 (T-21) 6.8 (30th)
Average Pass D DVOA 18.82% 32%
Yards Per Carry 3.9 (T-10th) 5.2 (31st)
Average Run D DVOA -17.68% 3.02%
Sacks 17 (T-21st) 15 (T-27th)
1st Downs 160 (23rd) 184 (29th)
Punts 35 (T-12th) 28 (31st)

Without Watt, the Texans’ defense went from allowing 6.4 yards an attempt to 6.8. Without him, they gave up 1.3 more yards a carry, forced 7 less punts, picked up 2 less sacks, and allowed 0.6 more yards a play. Houston went from a below average pass defense to bottom of the league in nearly every category without Watt, and that’s including counting stats in the second half of the season where other teams played nine games instead of Houston’s eight because of bye weeks.

Watt is still one of the best edge defenders in the league. He can garrote entire games on his own. His Week Seven game against the Colts was a classic example of this.

At his age, Watt (#99) now has two primary ways to rush the passer. On the interior, he’ll use arm-overs and swims to get around blocks.

He has the lateral mobility to carry out absurd stunts, like looping from the ‘D’ gap all the way to the ‘A’ gap to catch the center off guard and create pressure.

The number of interior rush snaps from Watt have diminished after back surgery, a broken leg, and a torn pectoral. It’s easy to get crumpled by multiple blockers when the protection slides towards his location.

The rushes on the interior are change-ups to move Watt along the front and create easy match-ups. Whenever he lines up on the interior this season, it’s going to be up to new defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver to pair these snaps with five man rushes, or to use him as a 4i to ensure individual matchups. Every bruise is precious after three (regular) season-ending injuries the last four years.

On the exterior, Watt is best using a ghost-rip or pure rip against young or crappy offensive tackles.

The bullrush and swim on the exterior counter the speed rip once tackles set on Watt’s outside shoulder.

Romeo Crennel usually played Watt against right tackles. Weaver should get him the easiest match-up possible to create decimating plays whether it’s on the left or right side of the line of scrimmage. This means playing him against Eric Fisher instead of against Mitchell Schwartz when they take on the Chiefs next week.

After Watt, it’s a lot of question marks. Whitney Mercilus needs interior pressure for his wide looping rushes to have any impact. Losing Watt made life difficult for D.J. Reader, who dealt with double teams and failed to consistently dent the pocket, making Mercilus’ rushes meaningless. Jacob Martin is a 102 miles per hour fastball, but he doesn’t have an answer when tackles get their hands on him. Charles Omenihu is an interior rusher, not an edge rusher; it will be interesting to see if he plays more base defense snaps (which would make his lungs purple) and the bullrush he relied upon less effective. Blacklock still needs time to incubate to learn how to win rushes on his own. Houston’s pass rush has more question marks than tangible production aside from Watt along their front.

Anthony Weaver has put on the mask and spoken like the archetypal defensive coordinator, saying he wants to run a tough blue collar defense that creates pressure and gets after the quarterback. Last season, Romeo Crennel blitzed five 23.3% of the time (9th in the NFL) and six plus 4.5% of the time (19th). The talent, not the scheme, was the problem. Crennel wasn’t why the defense didn’t produce last year. He tried everything to create pressure; nothing stuck. Blitzing more and being more aggressive isn’t going to unlock Houston’s defensive front. That’s not the issue. Talent and the injury Watt sustained were what troubled the Texans’ defense last year.

This year, Watt should soak in a porcelain tub filled with milk on run downs. He didn’t give it his all when defending the run last season. Houston should move him to the bullpen on those plays. Stopping the pass is more important than stopping the run. Watt’s body should be saved for passing downs in order to get as many snaps as possible from him in an attempt to extend his season as long as possible. Three season-ending injuries aren’t a fluke; it’s a trend, and the only sixteen game season Watt played the last four years was when Jadeveon Clowney was on the roster dive-bombing into the interior.

Similarly to the pass rush, Houston is banking on internal development for its secondary to improve. It’s largely the same unit, except Murray will replace Tashaun Gipson at one of the safety positions, which means Justin Reid will probably predominantly play single high. The lack of investment in the secondary already looks like a big mistake.

Crennel learned his lesson in 2018, when Houston was consistently torched by deep throws, and decided to bend as far as possible in 2019. The Texans ranked 4th in defensive DVOA against deep passes and 30th against short passes last year. These are the things you have to do when you have one of the worst secondaries in the league.

The idea is that another year of development and another year in this defense for Houston’s DBs will lead to an improvement in performance.

Lonnie Johnson Jr.’s college video was distressing. Even back then, he couldn’t use his length and strength to play press man. He couldn’t tackle well despite his size. He was lost at the stem of the route. He didn’t attack the ball at the catch point. These same problems plagued him throughout his rookie season, and as a result, he was one of the worst corners in the league. Johnson was drafted because of his athleticism and frame, not because of his play; he probably needs another year hanging out with the Footwork God to be playable. When you can’t jam and you can’t mirror, easy catches like this are the result.

Upon his arrival midseason from the Raiders, Gareon Conley was tasked with defending vertical routes, and even then, he routinely failed to stay on top of routes. Too often he chased blindly, flailing his limbs at the ball while squeezing receivers to the sideline. He was fortunate he wasn’t called for more penalties.

This route in his second start against Jacksonville is a perfect example. Conley (#22) is playing press-man and gets beat by D.J. Chark off the release. From there he’s chasing the rest of the way. Gardner Minshew II doesn’t lead Chark far enough down the sideline, and Chark doesn’t high point the ball, allowing Conley to defend the pass by jumping with his back to the quarterback. It takes Chark losing the ball as he goes to ground for this to end up incomplete.

Playing the catch point is an important facet of cornerback play. Everyone gets beat, but successfully defending passes like this, as Conley often did last season, seems unsustainable.

Crennel’s white whale was stopping the deep pass. By being entirely focused on defending vertical routes, Conley consistently gave up easy yards on routes that broke inside.

Conley playing more press-man isn’t a simple cure. His 2019 season is littered with examples of him getting beat in press-man. It’s going to lead to more downfield completions because again, Conley struggles at staying on top of the route, no matter what his pre-snap alignment is. He’s a coin-flip cornerback whose game is dependent on winning 50/50 balls.

Bradley Roby is the only cornerback on the roster you can define as good. The difference between him and everyone else is remarkable. He mirrors really well. He is incredible at playing the man while keeping his eye on the quarterback. Last season he had two interceptions, but it felt like he dropped at least four more. He still isn’t a dominant lockdown corner who can completely minimize a team’s best receiver. Tyreek Hill’s box scores against Houston were the result of trail techniques and bracket coverage, not because of one-on-one lockdowns. This allowed Travis Kelce to catch 10 passes on 12 targets for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs.

If Watt is healthy for sixteen games, let alone twelve, it’s unreasonable to expect the Texans’ pass defense to be good. With the talent Houston has, even average would be a remarkable occurrence. If something does happen to Watt, everything is going to fall apart.

The saving grace for this unit has been the run defense. In 2018, they had an all-time great one, and Houston has consistently had one of the best run defenses in the league the last few years. Last season, as in every other defensive measure, Houston’s run defense dropped off.

Without Kareem Jackson and Clowney creating negative plays, Houston no longer had a dominant defensive front. Last season’s run defense was dependable, but it didn’t careen offenses into second and third down holes. Now, they’ll no longer have D.J. Reader, who controlled the point of attack at nose tackle and half of the line of scrimmage at defensive end. Reader not only made life easier for Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney; he also made plenty of run stops on his own. Last season Reader ranked third on the team, behind Cunningham and McKinney, with 46 run stops.

Run defense doesn’t matter that much in the NFL these days, but it does in the AFC South. Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Indianapolis all want to run the ball. Tennessee has Derrick Henry and a great outside zone blocking attack. Indianapolis has a top five offensive line and the addition of Jonathan Taylor to pair with Marlon Mack. Both the Titans and Colts should have top ten run offenses in 2020. Usually, Houston was able to go 4-2 in the AFC South and limit their opponents just enough by strangling the run. This season, without Reader, they may drop from good to average against the run. That could be the difference between a division title and a fight for the #7 seed in the AFC Playoffs.

Angelo Blackson, Brandon Dunn, and Brennan Scarlett are replacement level players. Carlos Watkins is a negative. Blacklock should be able to walk in and use his pad level to defend double teams and create for others at the defensive end position. Mercilus is great at setting the edge and easily turns blocks from tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers into negative plays. Watt didn’t do much run stopping last season and shouldn’t really even be used in this way anyway. It’s going to be up to Cunningham and McKinney, one of the best run stopping linebacker duos in the league, to make up for the inadequacies along Houston’s defensive line.

The only concern is that there probably isn’t another level up to their play. They are what they are at this point. McKinney (#55) bludgeons blockers and turns the hole into a massacre, creating a mass grave for running backs to try and muck their way through.

Cunningham (#41) uses great recognition to bolt past lurching linemen and get clean shots on the back.

They’re going to have be even better than they were last season. The difficulty level is going to jump from medium to hard without Reader around to take on offensive linemen.

Let’s talk about the Texans’ offense.

Last offseason, the Laremy Tunsil trade was the most monumental decision Bill O’Brien made. Houston traded Julien Davenport, two first round picks, and a second round pick to the Dolphins for Tunsil and Kenny Stills. The Texans’ offensive line still wasn’t great despite Tunsil’s arrival.

In pass protection, they were iffy at picking up blitzes. Tunsil never realized blocking for Watson is an entirely different animal; he’d give up on blocks and turn his man free to chase down Watson as DW4 tried to create something from nothing. Houston’s offensive line was an above average unit when they weren’t giving up free rushers. They jumped from 16th to 8th in pass block win rate. Pressure rate and sack rate are mostly a quarterback stat; last season, the offensive line usually gave Watson time against three and four man rushes.

The run game was an entirely different matter. Houston’s offense never bolted itself down to one run scheme. They ran a little bit of everything and weren’t great at anything. For the fourth straight year, they were unable to block the second level. Whether running outside zone power scoops, leaving to the linebacker on pure combo blocks, or pulling to up on the second level, they often whiffed and limited what Carlos Hyde could do past the first level. Additionally, Houston’s offensive line is a mishmash. The left side is better built for outside zone. The right side is better built for power runs. Picking one scheme and sticking to it would do wonders for the front five.

Unlike last year, Houston knows who their starting five is entering this season. There won’t be any Greg Mancz, Seantrel Henderson, or Senio Kelemete starts as they figure things out. There will still be growing pains. Who knows what Max Scharping did this summer and if he gained the strength necessary to drive defensive linemen out of the hole? Tytus Howard has the body to be a great player, but he’s a tube of meat and still needs to learn how to meet defensive ends head on in pass protection, time his punches better, and develop some semblance of outside zone blocking ability if Houston continues to utilize the current scheme. There’s upside here, and it should be an upper half unit as long as injuries don’t derail the tackle position.

If last offseason was marked by the acquisition of Tunsil, the monumental decision this year was trading DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for David Johnson and a second round pick that became Ross Blacklock. Houston also used their own second round pick to replace Hopkins with Brandin Cooks via trade with the Rams.

Houston’s worse off by trading Hopkins. There’s no denying this. That being said, the Texans’ offense has inherent upside. Even though the talent level dropped by trading Hopkins because of an interoffice conflict and not because of a contract dispute, Houston’s offense can improve this season regardless of that absurd decision.

If Houston utilizes an offense that teams with great quarterbacks often utilize, the Texans are going to improve on their mediocre offense. If they stop running the ball so much on first down, stop running so many isolation routes, and have their receivers work off each other to consistently create easy throws, run play action more often, give the ball to Duke Johnson, and most importantly, push the ball down field, the Texans’ offense will improve by default.

These dreams are fabrications. Aside from those five hot weeks in 2017 when Watson torched defenses with wonderful deep bombs off jet sweep fakes, Houston has run offenses that focuses on field position and ball control more than on efficiency and scoring points. Houston does have a new offensive coordinator in Tim Kelly, but Kelly has only coached for Bill O’Brien at the professional level. Kelly isn’t someone who’s expected to bring a new set of ideas to expand this offense.

The skeleton is there for Houston, though. The idea is to use Cooks and Fuller on the outside to create two safety looks. By having two receivers who can win go routes on their own, it will force safeties to sit at the hash marks and open up the middle of the field for Randall Cobb, who played 98% of his snaps in the slot. This limits the mobility of Fuller, Cooks, and Kenny Stills, who all have shown they are better slot receivers than Cobb, and whoever is playing tight end on that particular snap.

Even if two safeties are deep, Cooks and Fuller have the ability to still win their match-ups and get open. Defenses will be devastated by either one of these players using their speed to create space horizontally on fade routes from tight alignments.

This will also open up the run game. It will give Houston lighter boxes, which makes the offensive line have to block only one linebacker for a successful play against nickel defenses. Newly acquired David Johnson has been either injured or bad the last three seasons, though. He was the worst running back in Arizona last season; Houston could have at least added Kenyan Drake in the Hopkins trade. Last season Johnson didn’t run hard through the middle and averaged only 2.2 yards after contact. He broke only 14 tackles on 141 touches and lacked the speed to get to the edge on stretch runs.

The numbers state he was great pass catching back, but most of his receptions were wide open dump-offs or one-on-one battles against crappy linebackers like Nick Vigil.

O’Brien has never done much more than force feed his RB1. It’s reasonable to expect David Johnson will get 200+ carries and be Lamar Miller all over again. They already have a better version of a similar player in Duke Johnson; once again, the Texans should give Duke the ball more often instead of waiting until the red zone to throw him out routes against linebackers to score on.

When opposing teams play a single safety deep, if they ever do, Houston can do what they did last season—force the middle of the field safety to make decisions and throw off that decision.

Watson is one of the best deep throwers in the league. A switch to a more vertical offense is something I’ve been clamoring for into the void for two seasons now. Last year, Watson completed 50 deep passes (7th) out of his 109 attempts (8th) for 1,570 yards (6th), averaged 14.4 yards an attempt, and threw 10 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. He dazzled defenses with obscene throws dropped in tiny buckets.

Houston will have a high variance offense this year. One week, they’ll look like they did versus the Falcons. The next they’ll be overwhelmed by big blitzing teams who maintain their rush lanes and can cover on the outside. Plus, it’s an offense with a high amount of risk built in. Fuller has missed 22 out of 64 regular games, and that doesn’t include the games he failed to finish. Cooks suffered his fifth concussion last season and was nonexistent after he took a shot to the head against Cleveland. With Fuller healthy, the Texans scored 27.2 points a game compared to 17.2 without him. Cooks and Fuller are insurance policies for one another.

Houston didn’t have to trade DeAndre Hopkins to make a substantial change to their offense. He was their best outside receiver, their best vertical receiver, their best slot receiver, and their best middle of the field receiver. He consistently beat coverage immediately to create easy open throws for Watson, opened up routes for his teammates with safeties directing their attention to him, and carried the passing offense on his own at times.

With Hopkins working in the desert with Kyler Murray, Houston’s offense no longer has a receiver who can consistently move the chains on his own. Last season, Hopkins finished third in receiving first downs with 68, behind only Michael Thomas’s 91 and Julio Jones’ 77. It’s going to take numerous slants to Cobb and quick outs or curls to Fuller and Cooks on 3rd and 7 to make up for Hopkins’ absence. It’s an understatement to say the Texans are going to miss Hopkins this season.

To answer the question of whether the Texans got better this offseason? It’s a resounding no. But it probably won’t even matter. The issues on the defensive side of the ball and the gripes about the offensive side of the ball, which are probably the result of being so close to the thing itself, mostly won’t matter once the ball is finally kicked. The Texans employ Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Watson is the quaternity. He’s free from opposites. He’s the total personality. He’s the circle enclosing the whole. His #4 should be replaced with a mandala because Watson is the self, undivided wholeness that leads the team to further exaltation.

The number three is open, with a desire to be closed. The fourth number is the result of the transcendent function once the three are in unison. Mobility. Accuracy. Pocket presence. Watson’s three greatest skills as a quarterback work in combination to create mystical experiences on the football field, where reality is liquidated. He rises above everything else. Deshaun Watson routinely makes the spectacular mundane. Game after game, Watson destroys logic and rational thinking. He exists only to elevate the soul.

Despite the Texans’ shortcomings last season, they were able to go 10-6, come back in the NFL Playoffs against the Bills in the Wild Card Round, and found themselves up 24-0 on the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. This was because of Deshaun Watson. Football is a mercurial game. The only thing that leads to consistent success is health and talent at the quarterback position. Sure, teams can win championships without a great quarterback by playing suffocating defense, or having a great rushing attack, or having skill players that make up for the quarterback’s inadequacies, but there are dozens of gears in motion to move that machine. A piston’s systole becomes wonky. Insulation dries and cracks. Performance dwindles. When everything has to work in unison, there’s a greater chance for something to go wrong and for the entire machine to fall apart. With a great quarterback who uplifts the entire roster, the game becomes simple, and it minimizes the number of pieces required to build a winning team.

Houston is set up to regress in 2020. The 9-3 one score record, the +2.2 wins over their Pythagorean total, and the below average overall performance last season—the things already mentioned—are going to correct. Still, the Texans have the best player in this division in Deshaun Watson. Entering Year Four, he should only improve on diagnosing pre-snap blitzes, finding the better half of the field to read, and better balancing the spectacular and the stupid. Because of their quarterback, Houston should still win the AFC South.

The problem this year—the problem with Bill O’Brien these last three seasons—is the Texans should be more than a division winning team. A quarterback like Watson on a rookie contract is a cheat code. It’s the holy grail of team building in today’s NFL. Over the last three seasons, the Texans have pushed out more talent than they have brought in. They have reacted instead of construct a roster that takes maximizes the present and the future. They have gone from a great team with bad quarterbacks to an average team with a great quarterback.

With the talent Houston has and the issues they currently face, it’s unreasonable to expect their performance to jump into that Baltimore-Kansas City tier and for them to break beyond their current wall. The offense has never scraped past average. The pass defense is bad, and the run defense is going to be worse. They’ll lose the close games they won last year because the defense will let Deshaun Watson down. He’ll still pull out enough miraculous victories, but there are too many issues for this team to get past heads or tails deciding their fate.

Prediction: 9-7.

Final AFC South Predictions:

  1. Houston Texans: 9-7 (Division Champion)
  2. Indianapolis Colts: 9-7 (AFC Wild Card Team)
  3. Tennessee Titans: 9-7 (AFC Wild Card Team)
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars: 5-11