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Texans-Cardinals Preview: SIX Things to Watch For

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By: Matt Weston

Photo by Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The terrible present reality. Here are SIX things to watch for when the Texans play the Patriots.

There were hundreds, and exactly hundreds. of reasons to hate Bill O’Brien. The never ending pursuit to solve how many carries it takes to finally ESTABLISH THE RUN; an impossible proposition, an empty algorithm, that just ends with a running back having 30 carries for 97 yards. The quarterback carousel he orchestrated, instead of working to actually solve the quarterback situation, all while wasting one of the league’s best defenses. Confounding in game strategy characterized by atrocious field goals, wasteful timeouts, ridiculous end of half and end of game decisions. The inability to develop young talent, and consistently push players to various positions they didn’t succeed at, all in the name of that dirty little thing versatility. The fact that he coached one offense with a positive DVOA in his entire time in Houston, a whopping 0.2%, even though he had Deshaun Watson on his roster. Inserting Jack Easterby into the franchise. Turning the team into his own political drama. As a coach he was atrocious, as a general manager he was even worse, having zero feel for value, what contracts to sign players to, which players are even good at all—using old Rick Smith scouting reports to make his decisions—pushing more talent out than he put back in, and making three trades that ruined the franchise for the next iteration of this team.

Everyone has a reason that sticks stronger than the rest for their hatred and disdain for O’Brien for ruining their football team. All of these are vessels and strings of muscle that combine together to build the heart of the issue. O’Brien won football games. There are division championships swaying from the top of the gallows. But while he was winning games, there was a better future out there, one that we should have been living in, where Houston found a competent quarterback sooner and made a deep playoff run with a brutal defense, where they took advantage of Deshaun Watson’s rookie contract, where they built a post-modern offense around Watson, and found the players needed, to build a top five offense through him.

These things didn’t happen. Instead we received Brian Hoyer’s turd against Kansas City, [NAME REDACTED] making a single throw against New England that was dropped by Will Fuller, Shareece Wright starting at cornerback, a slow moving offense against Indianapolis even when down 21-0, the 24-0 lead conceded against Kansas City where the dam finally burst, and last year, when the one possession luck went in reverse, all the things that talent covered up no longer could.

Houston is 1-6 at the moment. Nick Caserio had a terrible offseason and should have aborted this thing a season sooner. Instead he restructured contracts, signed a horde of non-playable characters, drafted a project quarterback, and had no plan in place when the injury prone Tyrod Taylor would get knocked out for an extended period of time. Caserio, like the rest of us, reside in the remnants of O’Brien’s rubble. He mortgaged the future to get his head bashed in by Kansas City. He traded a future Hall of Fame receiver in the name of culture. He failed Watson every step of the way.

Now we have nothing left. Davis Mills is a backup quarterback at best. The offensive line is a wreck. There are four starting caliber players on the entire defense. A year after trading DeAndre Hopkins to ‘open up the offense’, Brandin Cooks is the entirety of the offense. Aside from Justin Reid and Jonathan Greenard, the players he drafted before are flailing. 1-6 is going to be at least 1-7 until Taylor gets back, and then, what’s the point? The truth is there’s no point to any of this.

It’s a tragedy this game isn’t in Houston, where Cal McNair can see the albatross he created, and not only that, has kept wrapped around his neck and close to his heart, live, in person, and right in front of his face. It’s easy to delete your account and turn the computer off. It’s impossible to look away from Hopkins, and J.J. Watt jerseys filling your stadium, players from that previous wasted era, and your own fans, in your own stadium, cheering against you. Cal has hidden from the media, and the NFL hid him from this embarrassment this weekend.

This weekend’s game is defined by what was lost, and what could and should have been. The deficiencies in the roster that were easy to see even for those of us with Taco Bell signs in their backyard, the atrocious offensive game plans, the insane and stupid decisions, all rolled together into one single spat of three hours, signifying a defining moment of all those things that had gone wrong, when it was so easy for it all to go perfectly.

Last year Steph Stradley and I spoke about beautiful, alternative futures, after the Texans fired O’Brien, and were rotting at 3-7. We discussed how quickly Houston can get things right with Watson as the foundation. Trade requests. Sexual assault allegations. Restructured contracts. Furniture stores. None of this occurred. We may have our favorite football team back—sort of—but this reality we whisked away to is far different than that. No. Instead, this is a terrible present, completely different than anything beautiful that was imagined a single year ago.

HIT IT

1. YEAH, J.J. IS STILL REALLY GOOD

One of the dumbest moves from Nick Caserio’s offseason was outright releasing J.J. Watt from the roster. Houston saved $17.5 million for granting Watt his release from the team. The problem is draft capital is the most important resource in a rebuild, not cap space. As a free agent Watt, went on to sign a two-year $28 million contract, with $23 million guaranteed. Not far off from the $17.5 million he was signed to, a contract that could have been turned into bonus money with a second year added after a trade.

Houston did the right thing for the greatest player in franchise history by allowing him to pick his next team, but by doing so, Houston missed out on a possible second round pick they could have acquired for one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. And, not only that, Houston could have traded Watt to a team he wanted to go to, instead of sending him to shudders the New York Jets.

About that, yeah, Watt is still one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. In a fluid Arizona scheme, Watt is back to playing on the interior, something he stopped doing previous years in Houston. Back then, Watt was mainly a wide five technique who would ghost rip his way to the quarterback.

The sun, the sand, the wild landscape, has brought Watt back home to the interior of the defense. On 3rd and 4, Cleveland is taking in one last breath to turn their deficit to Arizona into a game. Watt (#99) is lined up as a ‘2’ technique head up with the right guard. He takes a wide rush to the quarterback. Cleveland slides their protection his direction, and the center gets in on the protection. Double teamed. Realistic. Instead of fight his way to Baker Mayfield, he sits, squats, and watches Mayfield. Little man throws the ball right into the white picket security fence.

On 4th and 4 against San Francisco, it’s a similar set of circumstances. Watt is a ‘3’ technique, outside shade of the guard, he takes an inside rush, taking on two blockers. Both linebackers eject from the ‘A’ gap. Quick lurch. Enormous arm. He slices a bat out of the air and ends the drive.

In the redzone, Watt is a 4i, playing defensive tackle in the Cardinals redzone defense. He slants inside and beats right tackle Mike McGlinchey (#69) off the snap. McGlinchey’s shove takes him inside, but Watt has the strength and the balance to negate it. He bends the edge like other premier interior pass rushers, and skirts back to Trey Lance (#5). Lance is athletic, but there’s no illusion, elusiveness, or character to his legs. Watt leaps and wrangles him around the ankles. All Lance can do on third down is throw it away.

Against Los Angeles, the rams fake outside zone left. Watt pulls off the classic swim over the outside shoulder against the movement of the play. He gets over and around Rob Havenstein (#79) and barely misses the sack.

Watt can still conjure up the same spells on the exterior. He’s shedding blocks mainly with rips. McGlinchey is what I like to call an off the bus player. He looks incredible and mortifying in pads. When you get off the bus, stare at the other side of the field, and look at what you’re up against, McGlinchey is a palm signifying broken bones and bloody gums. Once the game begins his body doesn’t match the performance. He still hasn’t figured out how to use his hands or play with leverage. Watt is the 6i defending the outside zone run right. He punches the outside shoulder, extends, rips under McGlinchey’s pads, and makes the tackle for a loss.

It’s the same move, against the same blocker, this time as a pass rusher.

Last week against Cleveland’s back up tackles, Watt did what he always does, chew up inferior competition. The same ghost-rip he developed his last two seasons in Houston was here again. He shows his hands to James Hudson III (#66), removes them, drops his hands under Hudson’s punch, rips under, and bends the edge. Mayfield just barely dodges Watt’s sack, before Jordan Hicks is the bread soaking up the gravy.

There was some chatter this offseason that Watt signed with Arizona merely to take the most money he can. That’s far from the truth. Watt made the correct signing, buying in on the offense that Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray were building, and the defensive talent they already had in the building. The motor runs hot. After waltzing on the back of plays on a listless Houston team, Watt is back to hustling his way to production, and ensuring quarterbacks can’t create something from nothing.

The last two weeks Watt has finally been box score good. He’s been his same disruptive self since week one, the difference now, is Watt is making plays at the ball carrier. Before he’d swim over the block, dive, and narrowly miss. Now the end results are here. The last two weeks Watt has put up six pressures, six quarterback hits, two tackles for a loss, one sack, one forced fumble, and two passes defensed.

This week he gets Geron Christian, Tytus Howard, Justin McCray, Max Scharping, and Charlie Heck. Before the offensive line injuries Houston had one of the worst offensive lines in football. With the injuries it’s even worse. Howard and Scharping will see horrific practice sessions turn into a full stadium nightmare, and Heck and Christian will get their first chances facing off against a real edge rusher, after dealing with the Colts crappy assortment of pass rushers.

Three sacks, six quarterback hits, four tackles for a loss, it’s all in play for Watt to have an all-time classic Watt game against his former team.

2. DAVID JOHNSON REVENGE GAME

A year ago, the Houston hopefuls cried the DeAndre Hopkins trade would benefit Houston because Deshaun Watson would spread the ball out, instead of relying on one singular player. Yes. This was a thing that happened. A year later that idea has immolated. Brandin Cooks has accounted for 32.7% of Houston’s targets, 33.3% of their and 36.2% of their receiving yards. Davis Mills’s neck is cemented in one direction.

DeAndre Hopkins is the one leading the balanced passing attack. Hopkins has 26 catches on 38 targets for 367 yards, is averaging 14.1 yards a catch, and has 6 receiving touchdowns. He has accounted for 20.5% of Arizona’s targets, 18% of their receptions, and 21% of their receiving yards. He’s the one who soaks up number one cornerbacks, and safety help to create easy matchups for Christian Kirk, A.J. Green, Maxx Williams prior to his vape dying, Rondale Moore, and now Zach Ertz. Arizona has the 5th ranked passing offense by DVOA at 47.1%, compared to Houston who ranks 28th and -10.0%.

Typically, Hopkins draws the premier cornerback. This is vital to Arizona’s passing game success. He allows A.J. Green to get one v. one matchups against David Long Jr. and Greedy Williams, while he’s taking on Jalen Ramsey and Denzel Ward.

Wide receivers like Hopkins have a gravitational force on the field that draws eyes and bodies to his direction, allowing his teammates to float around the atmosphere. In the redzone, facing 3rd and 21, the Cardinals run a scissors route combination from a trips left formation, with their two inside receivers, Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore in a stacked set. Kirk runs the corner, and Moore the post. Hopkins merely sits in the flat, but by doing so, it ensures that Kirk has a one v. one matchup against the safety, without worrying about the corner peeling back and making the throw difficult.

Hopkins feeds himself. He doesn’t only create for others. Arizona, like all teams, loves to use trip formations, and leave their best receiver on the other side of the formation to ensure man coverage. Hopkins is one v. one against Josh Norman (#26). A slight hitch in his route faking the curl is all he needs. Murray throws with red velvet touch, and crystal ball placement. Murray puts it on Hopkins’s back shoulder, where he dives away from the defender to make the catch, and stick a knee in bounds.

Hopkins is Arizona’s easy source of offense. Quick slants and routes breaking back to the quarterback are always available to move the sticks.

And in the redzone, he’s Arizona’s prime target. In a 3×1 formation, this time Hopkins is the first receiver in a trips formation. He jogs wide of Norman, who has his back to the ball the entire time. Murray turns the football into a masterpiece and puts it over Norman’s inside shoulder. It’s an Italian fresco on an Arizona football field.

The decision to trade Hopkins in 2020 was stupid, idiotic, and numerous other words not meant for this cyber wall. Somehow, a year later, it’s even dumber. The Cardinals have turned into AIRizona with Hopkins and Murray, and the Texans offense subsists entirely on comebacks, curls, and quick outs to Brandin Cooks. Oh, and David Johnson, has nearly as many targets as carries and is pretty much a wide receiver now, and Ross Blacklock has as many sacks as punches thrown to this point of his career.

Against Desmond King, Vernon Hargreaves III, Terrance Mitchell, or whoever is playing at cornerback this week, against a cover two heavy defense that can’t run any coverage well, Hopkins is all set to enact his revenge, even if it just means catching corner routes over and over again.

3. BACK TO THE BANAL

Davis Mills was legitimately great against New England. He threw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns. The question was if the throws he made were replicable. The answer so far is a resounding NO. Last week against Indianapolis, Tim Kelly went back to the well of the banal, and plain, and ran the same offense as previously. Run passes to nowhere, constipated screens, quick roll outs, and comebacks/curls and speed outs. It was frustrating since Mills was fine last week. The gameplan was the problem, especially since it was against a Colts defense that is terrible against the deep pass and can’t stay on top of its routes. This was the good stuff.

As far as the bad goes, Mills had the same problems as previous weeks. He struggled throwing to the middle of the field, he looked through defenders, didn’t adjust to coverages that changed post snap, his accuracy was funky, and he couldn’t deal with interior pressure.

The Cardinals offense gets all the love, but the defense has played better than its offense has. Arizona is second in defensive DVOA at -18.4% and is allowing 18.2 points a game, which ranks third. Both marks surpassing what they have on offense.

It’s a defense that has moved to using two high shells with Budda Baker moving to the deep half to aid the weakest part of the defense, their second cornerbacks, Antonio Hamilton and Robert Alford. He and Jalen Thompson patrol the deep parts of the field. Linebackers Zaven Collins, Isaiah Simmons, and Jordan Hicks, can zip, and clean up the mess the front creates in front of them. All three range from absurd athletes to intelligent minds, and can carry out a wide variety of coverage tasks and rush the passer. In front of them is Watt, Chandler Jones’s chop-rip, the blue haired and red shoed Markus Golden, the belly dancing Zach Allen, and Corey Peters and Leki Fotu driving the pocket. Arizona has found the right mix of dangerous blitzes and conservative two high shells.

Mills is going to get it all this week. Enormous blitzes, one v. one matchups, cover seven, cover three, cover four, and cover one, along with speed he’s never seen before. This is the best defense he’s seen since Buffalo, and the best one he’ll see for the rest of the year. A shutout is in play this week.

4. CORRAL AND WRANGLE

Murray is all of it. He’s the pan and the eggs. He’s been elite through the air and on the ground. As a scrambler, he continuously pulls off runs that deserve everything you have in that thesaurus you bought when you were drunk.

He couples his zipping, impossible to see legs, with magical touch.

A pocket climb becomes a NBA Street fastbreak.

Despite his short stature, the slippery little weasel is able to get away with it, because he never takes a crushing hit. His sacks can be described as cute, or lovely. Defenders lay him down for a nap. They don’t dig him a grave.

The key to defending Murray is to corral him in the pocket. It takes a village to take him down. Pass rush lanes have to be maintained. Defenders can’t run at Murray and play tag, instead, they have to funnel him into gnashing teeth. When it’s done successfully it leads to enormous losses, that Murray just makes up on third down anyways.

Sacks that lose ten plus yards aren’t rare, they’re has ust uncommon. This probably won’t matter for this game. This is just something to keep in your back pocket as the Cardinals continue their Super Bowl slither.

5. THE FUTURE

The Texans are not only terrible, but they are old and terrible. The kids haven’t done much of anything at all. Lonnie Johnson Jr. is an awful cornerback, and isn’t much better at safety; he’s a right fielder playing center field. Charles Omenihu was benched because he doesn’t have the speed to bend the edge, after Houston decided to move him from his rightful home as an interior rusher to a defensive end. Ross Blacklock showed some juice until he got hit by COVID-19. Jacob Martin is wretched playing in a 4-3 defense, and is a meme, he isn’t a football player. Justin Reid has been great at defending half of the deep middle, but the injury, the coverage changes, and moving him to strong safety has minimized his impact. Plus, we don’t know if he’s going to be here after this year, or after this week.

There is one source of glowing light, and that’s Jonathan Greenard. He’s gone from playing a quarter of the snaps, to playing half of the snaps, and he’s answered the call.

Arizona is leaky on the right side of their offensive line. Josh Jones was forced to move from right tackle to right guard, after Rodney Hudson went down, and Kelvin Beachum is in his place at right tackle. This, and Arizona’s new problems running up the interior, are their only weaknesses. Hopefully Greenard can carry on from last week against the right side of Arizona’s offensive line. We need something to feel something about.

6. FEELS BAD MAN

I don’t think that it’s what people may think it is because, I mean, you look at the roster and you look at the guys that are there, I mean it’s been so massively turned over that there’s only a handful of guys that are even there from last year that I played with.

So, it’s not like, I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to go and beat my old team’ or ‘Oh, I can’t wait to face this guy,’ because it’s not the same team. It’s not the same organization that I remember and that I was a part of.

That’s why it hurts me to see where it is now, because I believe those fans deserve to be living those high times and to be experiencing those great moments and it hurts to know that they’re not, and to know that they’re struggling,” Watt said. “So, I hope that they get back there at some point and I hope that they get to do that because I know firsthand it’s an unbelievable place to play when you’re rolling.

Originally posted on Battle Red Blog – All Posts