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Thursday Night Football Preview (Texans-Panthers): SIX Things to Watch For

Bundle up, it’s Thursday Night Football time.

NFL: SEP 29 Panthers at Texans Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The prevailing image from the 2021 Houston Texans offseason came during the NFL Draft. Deshaun Watson requested a trade, and then was accused of sexual assault by 22 women. The Texans, despite finishing 4-12, didn’t have a first or second round pick, because they traded for Laremy Tunsil two years ago—the ones who loved the trade, pointing to these draft picks being worthless late round picks because there was no question the Texans were going to be great, even two years into the future. So we waded through Thursday, and sat around Friday night, until finally, Nick Caserio could make his pick.

Quarterback Kellen Mond was selected by Minnesota. Houston had holes scattered across the roster. Former head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien had mortgaged the future, and pillaged the roster, allowing more talent to leave than he could bring back in. The trades were horrendous. The contracts given out were ridiculous. Now in his rubble, Houston could use young talent at any position.

The Texans selected Stanford quarterback Davis Mills. It wasn’t just that they selected Mills, but they popped champagne, slung their fists, they partyrocked. You would have thought they made the first AFC Championship Game in franchise history. Instead, they merely just drafted a slow quarterback, with a lack of pocket awareness, down to down accuracy, and arm strength.

That gnostic archon. His tongue is sharp and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is does a great deal for the Houston Texans. He never sleeps, Jack Easterby. He is fist pumping, and fist pumping. He says that he will never die.

Now’s the time to see what all that revelry was all about, why the man who has no say in football operations, who does a lot of important things, who no one says exactly what they are, although they laud themselves for communicating clearly, was jubilant and beside himself.

Tonight Davis Mills makes his first start.

HIT IT

1. A MILLSI

I really mean this when I say it. I’m legitimately worried for Davis Mills on Thursday Night Football. The third round selection from Stanford was lost and took vicious shots in his second half appearance against Cleveland. Twice, he didn’t know where the ball carrier was to carry a hand off, or lead a playfake, leading to broken plays.

Often he was locked onto his first read, his head craned to his left, staring down Brandin Cooks. Bliss. Completely unaware of the freight train coming from his right side.

Houston’s last drive was when the hits really started coming. Cleveland is running quarters after a zone blitz. The slot cornerback drops to cover a fourth of the field, Takkarist McKinley (#55) drops into the hook, and Grant Delpit (#22) screams off the edge. Mills looks left once the ball is snapped and his head is cemented to his spine. Brandin Cooks runs a corner route over the top of Andre Roberts drag. It’s a variation of smash. Houston’s offensive line slides one gap left, but Rex Burkhead runs into the flat. The collision is something seen from a polygonic hyper reality. The ball ejects and Marcus Cannon rescues it.

On the following play, Houston utilizes a split backfield to chip the edges, and help in case of another free edge blitz. He’s locked onto the Cooks short comeback route the entire play. The same problems from previous years, and last week, plagued Houston’s offensive line again. It’s another tackle-end stunt. Malik Jackson (#97) slants to the B gap, soaking up Max Scharping (#74) and Marcus Cannon (#61), and Jadeveon Clowney (#90) loops to the inside gap. Although they’re blocking big on big on this side, Scharping needs to keep his head up, stay square, and be more cognizant of another defender coming across the vacated gap. He doesn’t. Clowney has a free path to Mills, and unleashes a final club to Houston’s baby seal.

After finding his legs a little bit, he found the nerve to hang into the pocket longer, but that led those some enormous shots. Mills was nervous when he first found the field. The ball was out quick and floppy. Pressure that wasn’t substantial forced it out early. Pigksin was an ionized potato fresh from the microwave.

There’s a health and safety concern here for Mills. He didn’t look like a starting NFL quarterback in Stanford, he didn’t in the preseason, and he still didn’t last week. From a pure ‘is he good at football? perspective, the lack of accuracy is the biggest concern for his future.

Mills threw one interception. It was third and ten. Cleveland played quarters. Tim Kelly called quick breaking isolation routes in an attempt to create an easy throw for Mills. Andre Roberts runs a dig that he breaks back to the quarterback around the hook defender. There’s plenty of time to step up and throw a ball with zest. The ball is late, the hook defender is watching him the whole way, and most importantly, the ball is placed too far inside. It needs to go outside of the hook defender, instead he puts it lame on his outside shoulder.

He was lucky he didn’t throw two more.

This isn’t a new issue. Mills struggled with this same facet of the game in college. It’s a continuation of the past; it isn’t just a rookie quarterback struggling in his first NFL action. In college, Mills showed the same accuracy, and ball placement problems. His down to down accuracy was never there, he doesn’t have the athleticism to create big plays to overcome this limitation, and now, without having a stranglehold on the offense, he’s dealing with the speed of NFL blitzes, while playing behind an offensive line that has problems picking them up. It’s all scary stuff.

There was the occasional fine play. It wasn’t all black masks and hissing snakes. He threw a prayer down the sideline that created a defensive pass interference penalty made by rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II. He hit Brandin Cooks on a speed out route. He dumped it off to David Johnson in the flat, where he broke a tackle and converted for the first. He climbed the pocket, rolled right, and found Roberts on a post that was missed by the downward driving safety.

His best throw came on third and seven. The Browns are playing cover two man. The crossing routes in the middle of the field act as a quarters beater, and as a man beater once Cooks comes across Jordan Akins’s stem. Akins is the end man on the line of scrimmage and runs a quick out against Ronnie Harrison Jr. (#33). The left side of the line of scrimmage, Tytus Howard (#71) and Laremy Tunsil (#78) miss the T-E stunt, giving Clowney a free run at the quarterback. Strong. Coming off his back foot a bit. He puts it over Harrison’s shoulder to hit Akins in stride.

This doesn’t happen consistently. Typically this throw is on Akins’s back shoulder and is deflected, or Cooks is on the other side of the formation, he’s staring right, and crushed from behind. Mills lives in the muck. This is just a glint of sliver down in the abyss.

2. TREE TOP BUFFET

This fear. This concern over Mills’s health and safety, why candles are lit, is not only because of what Mills did last week, but also because of the opponent he’s facing this week. Through two weeks, the Carolina Panthers have the best defense in the league. They’ve allowed 21 total points, have 10 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, are allowing 4.2 net yards an attempt, 2.7 yards an attempt, and are first in both run, pass, and total defensive DVOA at -52.0%.

Last season the Panthers defensive toiled in that beautiful combination of youth and talent. By DVOA they were below average against the run and the pass, mainly because of the problems they had at inside linebacker in their 4-3 defense. Tahir Whitehead and company gave up the short middle of the field, and missed numerous tackles, which led to easy yards. The young talent was there though. Last season was all about development.

Carolina has nailed their top draft selections since 2018. Cornerback Donte Jackson was picked in the second round that year. This year he’s been great at playing quarters, or deep thirds, and has been an electric tackler. The flat is supposed to be the weak spot in a quarters defense. It isn’t when Jackson is on the field.

The following season they selected Brian Burns in the first round at pick #16. Burns (#55) is currently the closest thing we have to prime Von Miller, except for, you know, Von Miller. He wins with speed and bending the edge, and he combines this with a litany of chops, spins, and rips to counter when tackles overset to defend the speed rush. His arms are spiderwebs.

After a disastrous defensive season in 2019, the Panthers went all in on defense in 2020. They selected six defensive players with each one of their selections. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown (round one), defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and safety Jeremy Chinn (round two), Troy Pride Jr. (round four), Kenny Robinson Jr. (round five), Bravvion Roy (round six), and Stanley Thomas-Oliver (round seven). So far, Brown, Gross-Matos, Chinn, and Roy have found roles in this defense.

Brown (#95) is comparable to Fletcher Cox. He’s a big belly behemoth with nimble feet who can attack offensive guards in every way. Cox typically plays on the weakside of the formation, with DaQuan Jones or Roy playing on the strongside. This gives him more freedom. Instead of merely taking on double teams to give linebackers the ability to run freely, he can play the block, penetrate, and find the football.

As a pass rusher, he typically bullrushes, or uses rips to get around the edge of the blocker. He’s a monster on stunts, can crush the pocket, and will raise his arm to catch the bats escaping out into the orange dusk.

Gross-Matos (#97) has inspector gadget arms. Outstretched, he can put space between him and any blocker, to keep them off his body and control the block. Although he’s listed as a defensive end, he can be used as an interior rusher too.

Chinn (#21) plays strong safety in the Panthers cover three shell, and will even play linebacker when the Panthers run their Nickle packages. His game has been broken open by Phil Snow’s blitz schemes. Carolina will use him to mug the A gap to create havoc. When they show cover one, and he’s lined up close to the line of scrimmage, he’ll blitz instead of play man coverage. His interior blitzes force linemen to pick him up, allowing for their edge rushers to come free unscathed. Confusion and plenty of free paths to the quarterback.

He’s even a pretty good pass rusher in his own right. Against tight ends he can outrun them on the edge, run the arc, and rip around secondary blockers.

This last offseason, rather than join everyone else and take a quarterback in the first round, they selected cornerback Jaycee Horn (#8). Horn has played outside cornerback in their zone schemes, and in the slot when they play man. Aside from giving up a touchdown on a quick out route against the Jets, where he barely missed the ball, he’s been lock down. Like the rest of the defense, he’s aggressive, and will race from the cornerback position to play the ball.

This offseason they used their free agency dollars to fill in the gaps. They added Jones to stop the run, Morgan Fox to rush on the interior, linebacker Frankie Luvu, fourth cornerback A.J. Bouye returns from suspension this week, and EDGE defender Hassan Reddick (#43), who has made the most impact.

With him on the edge, their odd five men fronts, turn into four man rushes, with him or Burns jumping out to the flat. Offensive lines pick the wrong direction to slide their pass protection. The hot route is covered. Calamity ensues. He’s an incredible pass rusher too. Long arms break punch attempts, proving last season’s breakout wasn’t a fluke. He’s the versatile missing link that really pushes this defense over the top.

Shaq Thompson (#7) is the remaining veteran from this defense. Selected in the first round in 2015, entering year seven, Thompson has outlived Vernon Butler, Kony Ealy, Kawaan Short, and Star Lotulelei. This year he made the jump from very good, skipped over great, and is playing All-Pro football. He can cover running backs lined up at wide receiver, he can play the hook in zone coverage, he can run the seam, he chases pullers to defend the run, and he’s been a maniac in the blitz game.

Carolina has the talent to play everything, and this scheme runs it all. They primarily play cover three on run downs, which is strange to see from an odd front defense. The cornerback talent is here to play cover one, allowing them to rush five whenever they want. And they have the front four rush to still create pressure when running cover four, cover seven, and cover six, on deeper passing downs. No quarterback can feel settled. No blocker knows where the rush is coming from. They’ve been the NFL’s premier defense to start the season.

This is what Davis Mills is up against.

3. RUBBING OFF THE ADAM GASE STINK

Nearly every slasher movie follows the same trope. A killer kills a lot of people, the survivor kills the killer, ends up in blood and in shambles, dirty, tortured, and is forced to pick up the pieces from there. Playing for Adam Gase is similar. It not only questions a player’s love of the game, but their will to live.

Like Ryan Tannehill, and others before him, Sam Darnold is the newest player to try and recover after being subjugated to a horrific life under Gase. The Panthers traded a second round pick for Darnold, hoping they could reverse his year to year downward trajectory, and turn the bipolar 85% of stupid, and the 15% of incredible, into an even keeled quarterback.

So far it’s worked out. The Panthers offense hasn’t been great. It’s been fine. They’ve scored 45 points in two games (18th), despite having zero run game. Carolina has tried to be an outside zone team. It hasn’t worked out. Their best run plays come on changeups, like wham and arc. The hyper efficient Christian McCaffrey has been bogged down by clogged rushing lanes, and is currently 29th in rushing DVOA. It’s been a lot of this. SO much this.

Their offensive line is composed of haves, Taylor Moton and Dennis Daley, and have nots, Matt Paradis, Pat Elflein (until he was sent to injured reserve), and Cameron Erving. Without Elfelin, they’ve moved Daley to right guard, and have played John Miller at left guard. This has put Daley out of position, even though Miller, just like anyone, is an upgrade of Elflein.

Joe Brady and Matt Rhule know how to put together a successful passing attack. They’ve been especially great at scheming open the quick game for Darnold. Before the snap, Darnold knows where to go with the ball, and delivers it immediately.

New Orleans is playing cover one rat. Carolina has twin wide receivers left, and stacked tight ends left. Darnold checks right to verify it’s man coverage, before turning left, where he has Ian Thomas and Dan Arnold against Zach Baun and Demario Davis. Thomas runs up the seam before turning on a corner to occupy both linebackers. This leaves Baun behind, and chasing, the wide open Arnold.

On this throw it’s 3rd and 1. He sees the blitz presnap. The slot cornerback on the trips side is capped by the safety, hinting at man coverage. With slants being run by the #1 and #2 receiver, and man coverage, Darnold knows he has Terrace Marshall Jr. against a safety who’s playing twelve yards off. It’s an easy completion and conversion.

And, of course, there’s McCaffery, who always provides an easy passing option. Choice routes allow him to choose his own adventure based on how the linebacker defends. The stuttering and stopping, the agility, the ability to torch safeties. Even as a running back, he’s one of the best receivers in the league.

The offensive line is holding the passing offense back. Deeper and intermediate passing concepts can’t be hit on despite their wide receiver talent. The offensive line can’t ride the bull for long enough. The same have nots that hurt them in the run game, make throwing the ball downfield a death defying endeavor.

Darnold has the talent to make tough throws against pressure though. It’s cover two, with McCaffrey running a choice route. The linebacker has inside leverage so McCaffrey runs the out. Against corner two, the cornerback squats on McCaffrey instead of using his eyes to defend this route, and his body to muddy up the corner route. It’s a twist on smash. Despite the press created by Quinnen Williams (#97) against Elfelin (#60), he’s able to snap his wrist over Williams with a high arm angle to deliver a clean ball.

This is a nearly identical route combination and throw. This time, with a defender wrapped around his legs, thanks to a horribly timed punch from Erving (#75), he overthrows Moore.

He’s scoured the pocket well too. Sacks and pressures are partly a quarterback stat. On his deep bomb to Robbie Anderson, he climbed the pocket against the blitz to create a throwing lane. Carolina used a pin concept (post-in) to create this touchdown. Against a cover three heavy defense, they ran this combination to open the dig. Instead, they got something better, cover six (quarter-quarter-half). With Sheldrick Redwine (#31) who is no longer on the roster, playing the second quarter, and defending the deep middle, Anderson ate up this one v. one matchup.

There are still flecks of skull, blood in his air, and mud embedded in the bottom of his shoe. You can take Darnold from a Gase offense, but there’s still some stinky here.

There was the basket toss interception against New Orleans.

There was the dropped interception on the out route after he stared at the out cleared by the double verticals.

There was a redzone touchdown miss on an out route.

There was the seam miss against cover three in the redzone.

I was skeptical about the Darnold trade. We knew what he looked like behind a leaking offensive line, and the one he has in front of him in Carolina, struggles 60% of the time every time. There were the insane decisions that only increased as days floated on by. He was one of the rare quarterbacks whose performance has dropped every year since his rookie year.

So far, although the offense has been underwhelming, it hasn’t been on Darnold. Without a run game, behind poor pass protection, he’s made the throws created for him, and has dropped the insane 85% down to 5%. The offensive line talent isn’t here to expect a dramatic change in their blocking issues, but if the defense holds up, the offense is more than good enough for a Carolina playoff run.

4. LOST HIGHWAY

There’s a misnomer that the Texans run game has been great this season, and the left side of the offensive line has been churning open rush lanes. This isn’t true. Houston is averaging 3.5 yards a carry, and has a run offense DVOA of -29.7%, which is 26th. Their running backs are only averaging 3.03 yards per carry.

The same problems continue to plague them. They can’t block the second level. Over, and over, and over again, when they run scoop blocks, or quick double teams in the outside zone game, they’re split on the first level, and stumbling at the second one. The majority of these problems come directly from Tytus Howard (#71) and Laremy Tunsil (#78) too.

Against Cleveland, they are running split inside zone right. With a ‘3’ and a ‘7’ on the playside, both Scharping and Cannon have one v. one blocks to make. Justin Britt (#68) will help Scharping in case of a slant, but is focused on climbing to the second level. On the backside, Howard and Tunsil have a quick scoop against the ‘2i’. Howard is supposed to punch and turn the defensive tackle Malik McDowell’s (#58) shoulder so Tunsil can overtake the block and wall him off, allowing Howard to waltz up to Takkarist McKinley (#55). Tunsil doesn’t take a deep enough step, McDowell swims through the ‘B’ gap, and both players are split. Pharoah Brown (#85) is pulling to seal the backside, and instead blocks McDowell. Clowney is able to follow Tunsil down the line of scrimmage and devour the play.

Houston keeps trying to run a zone scheme, and keeps running into these same mistakes. This isn’t a cherry picked play. It’s ubiquitous across the run game.

The Texans would be better off switching to running a vertical run game, based around getting first level movement. They have the strength up front to do so, and first level movement can mask second level pickup problems. Missing the second level on duo after driving the first level means six yards instead of twelve, missing it on zone plays kills the run dead entirely.

Surprisingly, their best back has been Mark Ingram. David Culley has seeped everything he can out of his character, and out of his heart. He’s broken four tackles, the rest of the Texans backs have broken zero, and is averaging 2.4 yards an attempt after contact, but only 0.8 yards before contact. With will, tenacity, determination, he’s turned nothing into something, proving that those things often mocked actually do matter.

This play is a combination of the previous two paragraphs. Houston runs duo. Scharping pops off the first level to block the linebacker. Howard and Britt crush their Ace block. Ingram has a rushing lane. The safety meets him in the hole though. Ingram refuses to go down and drags him up the field.

With Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, Houston had a top ten passing offense. With Mills in, this is going to be a bottom five unit. There’s only so much Brandin Cooks can do. He’s been a number one caliber wide receiver, but he isn’t someone like Stefon Diggs, or Davante Adams, or you know, DeAndre Hopkins, who can carry a passing attack on his own. Houston needs its offensive line to step up in the run game, and take the pressure of Mills. His life depends on it.

5. IT’S THE WORST IN THE SUMMER

Like Houston’s run game, their defense hasn’t been particularly good either. By DVOA they are 5th against the pass, and 31st against the run. This is in spite of allowing 6.9 yards a pass, which is 20th, and allowing 4.6 yards a rushing attempt. The reason is simple. Houston has forced all five of their turnovers defending the pass.

Two weeks ago it was three Trevor Lawrence interceptions. Last week it was a Justin Reid forced fumble, and a Reid interception.

On the forced fumble, Houston was playing cover three—they strayed from their cover two against a team who doesn’t play more than two wide receivers and relies on play action. Vernon Hargreaves III (#26) makes his zone turn. Donovan Peoples-Jones runs the post. Reid shows why this is a middle of the field closed coverage by driving down on the route, putting his head on the football, and smashing it out of the receiver’s arms. It falls right to Christian Kirksey.

On the interception, Houston plays Tampa-Two. Kirksey runs the intermediate middle. Reid has one half of the field, and Eric Murray (#23) has the other half. When Houston was in cover two, the Browns used a short hook to draw the linebacker, opening up the window for the slant route. This time Reid sees into the future. The ball is wide, Anthony Schwartz (#10) doesn’t really play it, and it ends up in Reid’s hands.

This week Houston isn’t expected to have Reid, who has forced three of Houston’s five turnovers on his own, and is playing at a Pro Bowl level. Get ready for Lonnie Johnson Jr., who was benched after incorrectly passing an out route in the first half, at safety, and scrounging up the Tremon Smith’s and Tavierre Thomas’s they have on the roster.

Houston isn’t stopping offenses on a play by play basis. Baker Mayfield only had two incompletions last week. Cleveland punted twice, one was regurgitated back up by Roberts, and the other was at the end of the game. Carolina is a competent well coached offense. This isn’t like playing Lawrence and Urban Myer.

The best path to create turnovers is going to be from their pass rush. Jacob Martin finally got one with a nice chop against Jack Conklin, but was locked down after that. The rest of the pass rush last week was meek and ineffective. For Darnold to look reminiscent of how he looked in New York, the pass rush has to take advantage of Ervin, Paradis, and whoever they start at the other guard spot. If not, this game is going to look like the second half of the Browns game, when Cleveland trotted up and down the field.

6. TOMATO, TOMATOE, PANTHER, LEOPARD

Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngàje Ngài,” the House of God. Close to the west-ern summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.