The Savage-Led Texans (and What Becomes of Osweiler?)
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After Tom Savage replaced Brock Osweiler last week, the Texans offense looked like a vehicle that had just had a flat tire re-inflated. Suddenly it could drive again. It functioned smoothly and on time. Bill O’Brien’s decision to start Savage against the Bengals this week was a no-brainer. Savage is more refined in the pocket. He has a stronger arm. Against Jacksonville, he obviously read the field clearer. What stood out was his willingness to throw into tight windows, including one or two occasions where pass rushers were bearing down. The Jaguars, typically a vanilla zone defense, blitzed him hard. (They’d done the same to Osweiler earlier, as well.) Aided by chip-and help-blockers, the Texans O-line responded well, and so did the new quarterback.
As for what happens with Osweiler…
His oversized contract is its own ball of wax. Money aside, the pure football question is: Can he play?. And the answer right now is: Sure, as long as it’s off the bench. That could change; Osweiler is 26 years old and has started just 26 NFL games. But most likely it won’t. He’s too methodical in the pocket. Part of that is that, at 6' 8", he has a somewhat unwieldy body to gather and control before throwing. As the weeks went on this year, he became more and more robotic in his reads and execution. He was playing with a main objective of not screwing up. Perhaps that’s how he was being coached. Houston’s play-calling certainly hid him. There just was never anything loose and natural about Osweiler’s game. And when your top target is DeAndre Hopkins, who can’t really separate but is peerless when it comes to making contested grabs, you must play loose. Otherwise, Hopkins isn’t going to look “open enough” and there’ll be a hitch in your play.
It’s Savage’s show from here until the Texans are eliminated. And that might be later than sooner. It takes a few games on film for defenses to figure out a new quarterback. There aren’t enough games left for that to happen to Savage this season.
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Indianapolis at Oakland
Colts: Expect to see Indy’s receivers align tight to the formation, inside the painted field numbers. The Chargers had success in the first half against the Raiders with this. The tactic forces cornerbacks to play without help from the sideline. Sean Smith really struggled with that. The Colts will do all they can to get T.Y. Hilton matched against Smith near the seams.
Raiders: Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin came to life as edge rushers late in the fourth quarter last week. This week, they’ll probably be involved in highly schemed pass rush concepts. Think twists, stunts and zone blitz looks—tactics that force Indy’s unathletic offensive linemen to read and react.
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Minnesota at Green Bay
Vikings: Mike Zimmer plays nickel on passing downs, never dime. That means five defensive backs and two linebackers (Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr). Which means Kendricks and Barr will have to cover wide receivers a lot this Sunday, as no team is making greater use of four- and sometimes five-receiver sets these days than Green Bay.
Packers: Dom Capers has figured out his safeties’ roles down the stretch, and it’s helped this defense tremendously. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the deep safety. Micah Hyde is the slot man or other deep safety, depending on the situation. And Morgan Burnett is now the box safety, where he’s been stellar against the run.
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Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Ravens: It was strange seeing this venerable run defense get outworked and outmaneuvered by Philly’s zone ground game. Was it an aberration or harbinger for these next two weeks?
Steelers: Eli Rogers showed excellent nuance in his route running on his 28-yard catch against the Bengals (he beat slot corner Josh Shaw) and on his 24-yard touchdown. The Steelers are high on Rogers and have been expecting this all year.
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Denver at Kansas City
Broncos: Von Miller was cast into coverage a few times in the last meeting with Kansas City. That’s a function of him having strongside linebacker responsibilities in the base 4-3 and the Chiefs offense being heavy in running back and tight end personnel groupings, which keeps that 4-3 on the field. Miller has been very solid in coverage this season.
Chiefs: Don’t think of Tyreek Hill as just a gadget player. He’s also become Kansas City’s best wide receiver.
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Detroit at Dallas
Lions: DeAndre Levy only played 30 snaps last week but flashed in run defense. So did safety Tavon Wilson. Both are critical to Detroit’s ability to stop the run out of its foundational two-high coverage looks.
Cowboys: David Irving’s eruption late last Sunday night was not atypical. He has been a splash player off the bench for two years now. The splashes tend to come in bunches, but he’s a player who has often played better than his stats. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to his playing time now that Randy Gregory is back.
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Atlanta at Carolina
Falcons: With all due respect to Mike Tolbert, Patrick DiMarco deserves the fullback spot on the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster. He’s one of the game’s most athletic lead-blockers. His vision is outstanding. He can also line up out wide. He’s not much of a threat there, but by simply being out wide, favorable matchups are created for Atlanta’s receivers inside.
Panthers: No stat is more misleading than this: Carolina’s defense is tied with Denver for the NFL lead in sacks (40). The film hasn’t been nearly that impressive. Except for a few games, that is. Seventeen of the Panthers’ sacks have come in three contests (Arizona, Los Angeles and San Diego). In those games, they’re 3-0. In all of their other games, they’re 3-8. Not a coincidence.
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Arizona at Seattle
Cardinals: Defensive coordinator James Bettcher, per the wishes of Bruce Arians, is very aggressive with pressure concepts, particularly late in close games. That bit them in the tail against the Saints, though. They sent five or more rushers after the quarterback 16 times and gave up 11 completions for 177 yards and three touchdowns.
Seahawks: It’s been a different looking ground game with Thomas Rawls in there. He brings a stop/start explosiveness that can compensate for issues along the offensive line.
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Miami at Buffalo
Dolphins: This defense is not very big at defensive end (Cameron Wake and Andre Branch both weigh about 260). The Bills, though unproductive on the ground when these teams matched up earlier this year, aggressively (and successfully) exploited that with their run designs last year.
Bills: Last week against Cleveland, the gameplan—for the first time all season—called for the corners to travel with specific wide receivers. Stephon Gilmore took Terrelle Pryor, Ronald Darby had Corey Coleman. Traveling against the Dolphins receivers can be tricky because their top weapon, Jarvis Landry, often aligns inside.
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Washington at Chicago
Washington: It’s always unsettling when a defense is still tinkering with its secondary rotation this late in the year. There are issues here at safety and nickel corner.
Bears: Josh Sitton didn’t make the Pro Bowl, and really, he hasn’t quite had that kind of year. But it’s still been a stellar ’16 campaign for the ninth-year veteran. Sitton is one reason rookie running back Jordan Howard has been so effective running off-tackle.
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N.Y. Jets at New England
Jets: When these teams met in Week 12, Todd Bowles called safe zone coverages on pretty much every snap except Malcolm Mitchell’s eight-yard touchdown (that came against a Cover 0 blitz). Last year, the Jets challenged New England’s receivers with press coverage. It’s been clearer and clearer on film this year: Bowles doesn’t believe in his secondary (i.e. Darrelle Revis) the way he did in 2015.
Patriots: Trey Flowers is gradually becoming this team’s most important defensive lineman. His versatility lends great dimension to a scheme that already employs a wide range of fronts.
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San Diego at Cleveland
Chargers: Antonio Gates has taken on greater responsibilities as a lead-blocker in the running game. As this season has progressed, he’s gotten more snaps in an offset fullback position. Usually this indicates some form of zone run.
Browns: To be frank, it’s been the same old Robert Griffin III. He doesn’t see the field clearly and, consequently, leaves open receivers untargeted at the deep and intermediate levels.
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Tennessee at Jacksonville
Titans: Glad to see Delanie Walker made the Pro Bowl. He’s the most important non-quarterback in Tennessee’s offense. It’s an offense that makes great use of multi-tight end sets. Walker’s versatility as a receiver presents a dilemma to the defense. Do they treat those multi-tight end sets as heavy formations and go with extra linebackers? Or do they stay in their base defensive package and essentially view Walker as a wide receiver? Doing that can be risky against a power-running team like Tennessee.
Jaguars: Someone asked me on Twitter the other day who is the best rookie corner in the NFL. I didn’t say Jalen Ramsey because I couldn’t get his handful of blown coverages out of my mind. Then I watched the Jags-Texans film, saw the way Ramsey battled DeAndre Hopkins, and came away feeling stupid. Of course Ramsey is the best rookie corner. His size-athleticism combination is incredible, and he’s been much sounder fundamentally down the stretch.
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Tampa Bay at New Orleans
Bucs: Right tackle Demar Dotson was still in concussion protocol as of this writing. Anyone who saw Gosder Cherilus play in Dotson’s place last Sunday night knows that’s a problem. The Saints’ only threatening pass rusher, the fine-tuned technician Cameron Jordan, almost always lines up across from the right tackle.
Saints: Drew Brees was very effective throwing out of 3x1 formations against the Cardinals. He did it 12 times, completing 11 for 122 yards and a touchdown.
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San Francisco at Los Angeles
49ers: There was an intriguing dimension to San Francisco’s read-option game last week. On Carlos Hyde’s runs of 17 yards and 12 yards, Colin Kaepernick read the backside linebacker, as opposed to the defensive end. And Hyde’s runs went to the front side, as opposed to staying on that backside like most read-option designs would call for.
Rams: One positive from the thumping taken at Seattle: Jared Goff mostly kept his eyes downfield when under pressure. That’s a key to a quarterback’s development, and it’s an improvement from where Goff was in his first few starts.
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Philadelphia 24, N.Y. Giants 19
Giants: It's still not a great ground game, but over the final bit of the season (and into the playoffs) rookie tailback Paul Perkins will be an important piece. With decent short-area elusiveness, he's the best pure runner on New York's active roster right now.
Eagles: The fact that No. 2 tight end Trey Burton has played meaningful passing down snaps throughout much of December tells you everything you need to know about Philly's wide receiving corps.
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