Houston's Case Keenum was the most prolific quarterback in NCAA history, and he had a nice 2013 preseason after spending his rookie year of 2012 on the practice squad. Still, it was a bit much to expect Keenum to play well in his first NFL regular-season start, particularly given that he was facing the Kansas City Chiefs' tremendous defense -- at Arrowhead Stadium. He was doing so in an offense that had been dispirited by a series of mistakes over the previous five weeks, and Houston's 17-16 loss to the Chiefs put them at 2-5 on the season.
That may end the Texans as a postseason concern, but as it turned out, Keenum showed some very positive attributes in the game. He completed 15 of 25 passes for 271 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. That last number was surely a balm for a team coming off five straight games with pick-sixes against it, and it continues the trend Keenum started in the preseason, when he completed 43 passes in 63 attempts for 482 yards, three touchdowns, and no completions to Houston's opponents.
Receiver Andre Johnson was not surprised that Keenum, an undrafted free agent a season ago, was able to handle the pressure.
“You always see flashes from players in practice, preseason and different situations throughout the season," Johnson said on Wednesday. "What he did during the preseason and the things you see from him in practice, the guy, he creates plays at times when things aren’t there. Like I said before, there’s just something about him. He did a great job.”
Head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who have been rightfully criticized for the rigidity of their schemes in the recent past, helped Keenum by using formations that put Keenum in positions to succeed. The Texans ran a lot of Pistol formation plays, which Keenum used quite frequently in college. As it did when he was with the Cougars, the short shotgun concepts allowed Keenum to access quick reads from short dropbacks, and move in the pocket without being overwhelmed by any vision impairments defensive lines might present. At 6-foot-1, Keenum needs what Drew Brees, Michael Vick, Russell Wilson and other height-impaired quarterbacks require to beat linemen nearly a foot taller than them -- they must be able to access free throwing lanes with movement in and out of the pocket.
“I try to approach the game with what I think he does best, and I had one week to do it," Kubiak said after the loss of his approach to Keenum's start. "So, we went to the Pistol and tried to get him out there where you could see really well. We functioned well and we functioned with the ball well, we didn’t have any problems with the snaps or anything. We didn’t have any turnovers until the end of the game there. I liked the way we functioned for a team that really made a big change for four days.”
Keenum's 42-yard pass to Johnson with 6:07 left in the third quarter was right out of the Russell Wilson playbook -- roll out of pressure when the windows are closed, elude defenders with your mobility, double back against the defense, and make the shot play when your receivers adjust.
Houston had first-and-10 at its own 20-yard line. The Chiefs lined up in a 5-2 front with safety Kendrick Lewis (27) coming down into the box to cover tight end Garrett Graham (88), Eric Berry as the lone safety up top, and press coverage underneath. The Texans countered with a straight Pistol look, two wideouts, and two tight ends in the formation. Kansas City's inside linebackers dropped into coverage to the side of receiver DeAndre Hopkins and tight end Ryan Griffin (84). Though Griffin ran a post route away from coverage, Keenum had nothing open when he rolled right -- the staple preset of the Texans' passing game. Part of the reason why was that Griffin and Graham were basically in the same place -- over the middle of the field.
Yes, the Texans still have some receiver distribution issues.
Keenum didn't help his case by rolling out of the pocket too early on this play. He was getting a bit of heat from left defensive end Tyson Jackson on his front side, but left tackle Duane Brown had right outside linebacker Tamba Hali contained. Keenum most likely had an extra second if he wanted it, but he ran right into a phalanx of coverage, which included left outside linebacker Justin Houston dropping into short coverage and complicating his reads even more.
Keenum boxed himself into a corner, which is fairly common among young quarterbacks.
In the end, Keenum rolled back to the left, saw halfback Ben Tate (44) open underneath, but decided to take a deep shot to Johnson, who was just beating cornerback Sean Smith (27) downfield. It was a money throw, and it demonstrated Keenum's faith his own velocity and Johnson's skill in separation.
“I think when you have plays like that, it turns into school-yard football,” Johnson said. “That’s pretty much what that play was. I saw him rolling back towards me and I couldn’t really run the way I was running because there was nothing there but the sideline so I just turned up field and he saw me and threw it.”
However, Keenum also showed the ability -- more than once -- to stand in the pocket under pressure, drive through the throw with good mechanics, and make shot plays in structure. The 29-yard touchdown pass to Hopkins that opened the second quarter was a great example. The Texans had third-and-3, and lined up in two-back Pistol, which the Chiefs countered with nickel man under and the inside linebackers rolling to Keenum's left.
Hopkins was the "Z" receiver, pressed by Smith. He ran a little stutter-step at the line of scrimmage, then arced to outside position and started to separate from Smith at the 13-yard line. Meanwhile, Hali had beaten Graham on an outside rush and was bearing down on Keenum. The first-time NFL starter was nonplussed by this, and the fact that Houston was about to crash in from the other side with an inside move on right tackle Derek Newton. He simply stepped up in the pocket, threw deep downfield to Hopkins with outstanding timing, and let his receiver do the rest.
“It was man-to-man coverage," Hopkins said. "Case trusted me, and I went up and made a play. It was a great throw by Case.”
Sometimes, it seems that simple, but Keenum was the one who had to avoid the natural temptation to get squirrely in the pocket and lose his vision.
Late in the game, two things happened to Keenum's detriment. The Chiefs started to move away from their base fronts and throw more exotic things at him, and Houston went with more empty backfield packages, which obviously telegraphed Kubiak's offensive intentions. As Hali noted, the Chiefs knew it was time to tee off. It was a sound strategy, as the Texans' last three drives ended in sacks.
“Coming from Houston, he passed for a lot of yards, so we knew the guy was shifty," Hali said. "We knew he could throw the ball. Him in that shotgun-type of look, where he looks like he’s going to hand it off, sometimes that slows the rush down because [you don’t know] if it could be a run, or it could be a pass. Once we know it is a pass, we can go after him.”
Keenum completed three of six passes for 42 yards in the fourth quarter, but he lost 45 yards in sacks, and it wasn't just from pressure against empty backfields. Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who has done his job as well as any assistant coach in the NFL this season, also upended Keenum with a cornerback blitz from Brandon Flowers with 12:02 left in the game. The Texans had third-and-9 at their own 37-yard line, and they brought an interesting front look with two down linemen and blitz possibilities from either side. Hali was outside left, but Sutton brought Houston inside between the left guard and left tackle. At the snap, Houston dropped into coverage, while inside linebacker Derrick Johnson blitzed up the middle. Meanwhile, Flowers moved up from a run fit look to blitz position and looped inside as Hali took tackle Ryan Harris outside, getting the takedown as the Chiefs won the numbers game.
“That’s part of playing, and this team knows you’re going to throw it and it gets really difficult," Kubiak said. "We were really able, throughout the course of the day, to keep them off balance from how we were playing the game and what we were doing. Then with our running back situation, we got in a situation where we had to throw the ball. They pinned their ears back and that’s what they do best. So, hats off to them.”
"They were doing a good job, and I got confused," Keenum said of the late pressure. "My guys were working to get open, and I just need to get the ball out. My offensive line did a great job protecting all day. They did an extremely good job, especially running the ball early. I thought we had some really good drives. We just didn’t make the play at the end.”
Keenum made this start because of Matt Schaub's ankle injury, T.J. Yates' relative ineffectiveness as Schaub's post-injury replacement against the Rams on Oct. 13, and because Kubiak wanted to give the offense a spark. Keenum did accomplish that. The Texans have a bye and will next play the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 3, giving Kubiak some time to think about what he's going to do at the quarterback position.
“I’ve got to sit down and look at our situation and what’s going on right now," Kubiak said Monday. "Obviously, Matt’s our starting quarterback. Case played this week because Matt wasn’t healthy. Case went in and played extremely well. I’m going to evaluate where we’re at as a team and move forward form there. So I’m going to do that everywhere, not just at the quarterback position. I’ll do that at every place.”
Kubiak may be well-served by giving Keenum another shot, whether Schaub is healthy or not. He's shown obvious inexperience, and things will become more complicated as opposing defensive coordinators get more tape on him, but it's pretty clear that he brings an expansiveness to an offense that has been mired in predictability for far too long.