With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up next: the Houston Texans, who finished 4–12 in 2017.
1. Bill O’Brien and Deshaun Watson acclimated to each other on the fly in a very impressive manner. O’Brien brilliantly replaced many of the complex option routes from his playbook with misdirection concepts, highlighting Watson’s mobility. Watson, in return, did not use that mobility as a crutch, committing more each week to playing from the pocket. That’s essential for sustained NFL success. And if Watson and O’Brien continue this way, Houston will soon have one of the NFL’s most electrifying aerial attacks. Watson does not have a cannon arm, but his downfield decisiveness can be more than enough. Notably, he’s comfortable making these downfield throws while on the move and outside the pocket. His vision and touch, though maybe not quite to Russell Wilson’s level, are excellent.
Assuming Watson is healthy, the only concern is his callow sense for appropriate risk-taking. He threw eight interceptions last year and could have easily had 12 or 14. Decision-making usually improves with experience, though that gunslinger mentality might make him one of those Favreian star QBs whose turnovers you just have to live with.
2. Having speedy vertical receivers like a healthy Will Fuller and fourth-round rookie Keke Coutee can change Watson’s world. Not only are more downfield throws available, but safeties now can’t always squat on DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins is football’s most befuddling receiver. He’s not fast, quick, big or refined, and yet, his production is almost unmatched. No one is better at making contested catches.
3. Dire questions along the offensive line could really hinder the vertical passing game. O’Brien hails from a Patriots system that prioritizes getting all five eligible receivers out in routes, but on deep shots he’ll add one, or even two, of those receivers to the protection. O’Brien’s left tackle, Julie’n Davenport, is one of the NFL’s greenest linemen, and his starting right tackle, whether it’s Seantrel Henderson or Kendall Lamm, is more of a high-level backup.
4. O’Brien helps his quarterback by staying committed to the ground game. Even with an iffy offensive line and an agility-based lead back like Lamar Miller, Houston’s gameplan is balanced with traditional between-the-tackles runs each week. We’ll see less smashmouth and more read-options, jet sweeps and zone runs in this year’s Watson-friendly scheme, but the effect is the same: opposing defense must honor the run.
5. Because of what his shifty speed can bring to the misdirection game, don’t be surprised if Bruce Ellington overtakes Braxton Miller in the wide receiver pecking order.
6. After losing Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt on the opening series of the Texans’ Week 5 Sunday night game against Kansas City last year, Houston’s defense allowed a league-worst 29 points an outing in 2017. Watt’s and Mercilus’s versatility defined Houston’s diamond front, where five balanced defenders align across from the O-line, dictating one-on-one matchups (of the defense’s choosing, no less). Mercilus should be full-bore coming off a torn pec. Watt, returning from a yearlong 2016 back injury and ’17 leg injury, is more of a question. But at least with these two together, the Texans can once again dictate the terms of engagement.
7. The other key to those diamond fronts is Jadeveon Clowney, who hopes to become the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player when his contract expires after this season. Playing in an ornate pass-rushing scheme like Houston’s is important because Clowney, though perhaps the game’s most destructive run-defender, does not have the flexibility to consistently bend around the edge. His deceptive herky-jerky movement can still generate outside pressure, but he’s most dangerous inside, where he relies on upfield burst. Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel must keep aligning Clowney at defensive tackle and standup joker positions, and looping him around on stunts against centers and guards.
8. It’s no accident that Houston’s starting safeties, Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson, are former slot corners. Or that last year’s starter, Andre Hal, who is out battling Hodgkin Lymphoma, is a former cornerback. The Texans play a lot of quarters coverage concepts on early downs, where zone coverages can convert into man-to-man. On third downs, they play a lot of straight man coverage. Disguises and wrinkles are common in all their coverages. If the safeties can’t act as de facto inside cornerbacks, the scheme loses potency.
9. The Texans have a thumping linebacker in Benardrick McKinney and a run-and-chase linebacker in Zach Cunningham, both of whom can star in those diamond pass-rushing fronts. McKinney just got a new five-year deal worth $21 million guaranteed, though Cunningham, because of his speed and potential versatility, could be more valuable by season’s end.
10. Cornerback Kevin Johnson has superb transitional movement skills, but it doesn’t matter if he can’t stay healthy. He’s missed 14 games over the last two years, including four last season with a left MCL sprain. With 34-year-old Johnathan Joseph slowing down and becoming increasingly vulnerable to deep in-breaking routes, Houston—even with the arrival of free agent ex-Jaguar Aaron Colvin—no longer has the cornerbacking depth to survive a prolonged Johnson absence.
BOTTOM LINE: The big names on offense and defense are talented enough to make Houston dangerous week in and week out, but the lineups beneath the stars are pocked with question marks. This team has a “boom or bust” feel.
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