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24 Oct 2006

Any Given Sunday: Texans over Jaguars

by Ned Macey

Every team in the NFL enters training camp with hope. Often, at least in Detroit and Arizona, that hope is misplaced. But most teams, if everything breaks just right, have a chance to be competitors. In Houston, things have assuredly not broken right, but Sunday's win highlighted pieces that are going to be crucial to any franchise turnaround. For Jacksonville, coming off a 12-4 season, it was less a matter of things breaking right than things not falling apart. Instead, injuries have crippled their defense and left them with an uphill battle to return to the playoffs.

As a member of the IPA, Internet Pundits Association, I am contractually required to include a Reggie Bush comment in the first two paragraphs of any Houston Texans article. Rather than belabor the merits of drafting Bush, I offer only that Bush's role as savior in New Orleans has been greatly overstated. Admittedly, he would be a better option than the three-headed "monster" of Ron Dayne, Samkon Gado, and Wali Lundy. But it is doubtful the presence of Bush would have changed the outcome in any of Houston's four losses, all of which came by at least two touchdowns. Bush may or may not have been the correct choice, but the Texans certainly need more than one savior.

The Texans run offense is bad, but their defense may be worse. The transformation from the 3-4 of Dom Capers to the 4-3 of new defensive coordinator Richard Smith has proven a valuable lesson to analysts everywhere: scheme is not all that important when your team lacks talent. The Texans have struggled on defense all year, excelling Sunday only because they faced a hobbled quarterback.

When reasonable talent is in place, however, a change in coaching can lead to a substantial change in performance. The Texans made David Carr the face of their franchise when they drafted him before their inaugural season with the first overall pick. They spent the past four years sadistically running a system that led to Carr getting sacked at record rates.

Much blame was placed on the offensive line, but half a year into the Kubiak era, it seems that coaching may have been the cause of Carr's stunted growth. The transformation this season has been pronounced. Carr is completing an amazing 70 percent of his passes and taking sacks at a lower rate than at any point in his career.

Kubiak was expected to bring a potent running attack akin to Denver's, but the former quarterback appears to be more of a passing game guru. Not only is the Texans run game among the worst in the league, but Kubiak's former charge, Jake Plummer, is struggling immensely following Kubiak's departure. A year ago, Plummer ranked sixth and Carr 41st in DPAR. So far this year, Carr is 18th while Plummer ranks 27th.

The new regime's plan, at least on Sunday, was to keep Carr throwing short patterns. Screens, crossing patterns, and quick slants were the vast majority of the throws. When Carr was pressured, he was willing to check down or throw the ball away. As a result, he was sacked only once. Like Plummer in Denver, Carr frequently moved outside the pocket, including a nifty bootleg on the game-clinching touchdown to tight end Owen Daniels.

Carr only went deep a few times, but one was the best play of the day, a 43-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson. The fourth-year receiver has been dominant this year, and on that play he beat double coverage to make an outstanding catch. For most of the game, he ran crossing routes, but he plays so physically he is a challenge for defensive backs to take down in the open field. He turned a 3-yard pass into a 26-yard gain in the first quarter when he broke a Rashean Mathis tackle and stormed down the sideline.

Carr is completing over 75 percent of his passes intended for Johnson and fellow wideout Eric Moulds, thanks in large part to all those short patterns. Moulds' performance is less impressive given that he is targeted only five times a game. Johnson, though, is targeted more than ten times a game. He is catching almost everything thrown his way and still averaging a respectable 12.6 yards per reception.

Unfortunately, Kubiak seems to have misplaced the magic running game formula from Denver. Part of the problem is that Houston's offensive linemen are bigger than those favored by the Denver system. Every starter on the line weighs over 300 pounds. The Denver offensive line has only one such behemoth, George Foster. As the offense develops, Kubiak will look to bring in linemen more consistent with this vision. Whether that will turn Lundy or Gado into Olandis Gary or Mike Anderson remains to be seen.

For one quarter, at least, it looked like Lundy would not need the new offensive linemen. He ran for 80 yards in the fourth quarter alone, contributing to 17 points. Hopefully the Ron Dayne experiment is over, but consistent production from Lundy is unlikely. For the season, he still rates as a replacement-level running back.

The sight of Lundy piercing the vaunted Jaguars defense was truly shocking to the eyes, but when those eyes started to focus on the numbers on the Jacksonville jerseys, it became obvious how banged up the front seven was. Defensive end Reggie Hayward and middle linebacker Mike Peterson are both out for the season. Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud missed his second consecutive game. The Jaguars were also short nickel back Terry Cousin. These injuries impact depth, so it should be no surprise that the Jaguars wore down in the fourth quarter.

Depth is a crucial part of any successful team, and injuries are to be expected. Still, at a certain point, any team can lose only so many starters, particularly if the injuries are occurring to Pro Bowl or near-Pro Bowl caliber players. The Jaguars were still playing at a high level after losing Hayward, and they stomped the Jets a week ago without Stroud and with Peterson injured early. To consistently ask for that type of performance is unreasonable.

The Jaguars still have good defenders: John Henderson, Donovin Darius, Rashean Mathis, and Brian Williams to name a few. The unheralded veteran Paul Spicer has developed into a quality defensive end. With Stroud back in the near future, this defense will likely remain solid. Down this many bodies, however, it seems impossible for them to avoid a decrease in efficiency.

Without Jacksonville's typical stingy defense, more pressure will be placed on the offense to carry its own weight. Against Houston, a hobbled Byron Leftwich was not up to the task, and the Jacksonville offense stalled repeatedly. The last time we saw a gimpy Leftwich play was in last year's blowout loss to the Patriots, where he served as Willie McGinest's personal punching bag.

Leftwich never moves particularly well, so the thinking is that a bad ankle does not have a large impact on his performance. After watching him spray passes throughout the game, a different conclusion may be warranted. Whether it was lack of practice or mechanics hampered by the sore ankle, the passing offense never clicked. Leftwich did not complete a pass to a wide receiver in the first half. The Jaguars had David Garrard on the bench, and while Leftwich is the better quarterback, it is likely that Garrard would have been the better quarterback on Sunday.

Presumably, the Jaguars do not want to create a quarterback controversy. That is no excuse for not playing the better player when the starter is injured. Jack Del Rio should be confident that Leftwich is his best quarterback. But if on a given Sunday Leftwich is physically unable to perform, putting Garrard in does not have to create a controversy. Instead, Del Rio stuck with "his guy" and watched him go 14-for-28 for only 125 yards.

While Leftwich struggled, he received almost no help from his teammates. Fred Taylor had a couple of nice runs on the touchdown drive, but his most important play was a fumble at the Houston 27-yard line when Jacksonville trailed 10-7.

After Houston converted the turnover into a score, Ernest Wilford promptly fumbled on Jacksonville's first play from scrimmage. Wilford caught what was probably the best throw from Leftwich all day and coughed it up fighting for more yards. Houston turned that into another touchdown. Within six minutes of game time, the game went from close to essentially over.

Wilford's fumble was just the low point of an overall poor performance by the Jaguars receivers. We knew this team would miss Jimmy Smith, but the receivers he left behind played surprisingly well in September. That's no longer the case. With Matt Jones limited by injuries, the Jaguars are now using Cortez Hankton as their third receiver. Reggie Williams has improved from consistently awful to wildly inconsistent, but he is not exactly a prototypical number one receiver. Wilford, who excelled when defenses ignored him a year ago, is struggling now that he is consistently covered.

The Jaguars' road to the playoffs was supposed to be paved with four easy wins against Houston and Tennessee. A return trip seems unlikely now that they have dropped one of the supposed gimmes and are losing defenders left and right. They have five games remaining against NFL bottom-feeders, but three of those are on the road, where the Jaguars have started the year 0-3.

Unless Leftwich finds a new level, the offense is going to struggle. They are running the ball as effectively as they have in years, thanks in no small part to Maurice Jones-Drew. But passing wins in the NFL. Leftwich is their best offensive player, but this year he has been only average. He had to take a step forward from last year's performance to get this team where it wants to go. Instead, he is playing well below that level.

Houston, for really the first time in its history, is an interesting team to watch. Johnson has emerged as one of the top 10 wide receivers in football to jump start the passing game. Now, the team needs only improve everything else. Needless to say, the rebuilding plan continues. With two games against Tennessee and home games against Buffalo and Cleveland, the Texans can win six games -- sadly, the second most in franchise history -- without pulling any more surprising upsets. With a successful 2007 off-season to rebuild the offensive line and upgrade the linebackers, the Texans could dare to dream of going to that place they've never gone before: above .500.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 24 Oct 2006

28 comments, Last at 26 Oct 2006, 9:10pm by Biffy

Comments

1
by Rob S. (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 1:59pm

I'm just amazed that Jack of the River gets passes all the time. His comments about Leftwich saying "he always tell me is fine" is just bad managing. You gotta be able to have your players trust you enough to be able to tell you when they are hurt. Honestly, I think he hinders them.

Oh, and FIRST.

2
by Noble (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 2:10pm

Seeing the Texans succeed warms the cockles of my heart. Good luck to Gary Kubiak on implementing an OL scheme that works.

3
by Andrew Martinez (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 2:14pm

I was at the game on Sunday and it should be noted that the Texans were wearing Battle Red jerseys. For all the games they've lost, they have a winning record with the Battle Red jerseys on.

It's clear to me that the Texans biggest need is at RB and defensive playmakers. While Wong and Faggins made starts for the first time this season, they still need that premier Safety that all good teams have (Lynch, Dawkins, Palamalou, Harrison, Reed, Williams, Taylor).

4
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 2:24pm

1. I agree.

I remember watching the Jax/Pitt game at the beginning of the year, and thinking "This is some awful gamecalling here, hes trying to give this one away."

As to leftwich, it reminds me of Grady Little, and his keeping Pedro in during the 2003 ALCS. Everyone knew Pedro was done, Pedro told Grady he was fine (@120 pitches), and Grady put Pedro back in. He still thinks its the right decision, when Pedro was so obviously done. Thats the problem, the inability to admit a mistake.

3. Running Back is fungible. They dont need a playmaker, they need a couple of guards and tackles. As to the safety, a good defensive line makes any moderate safety into a stud. When a quarterback is hurried, the safety can make his first read and go after it... its when the QB has a lot of time that the mediocre safties get burned.

They need lineman, on both sides.

5
by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 2:36pm

"They are running the ball as effectively as they have in years, thanks in no small part to Maurice Jones-Drew. But passing wins in the NFL."

As a Colts fan, I appreciate this sentiment, but I suspect Denver fans, especially this year, and Bears fans from last year might not agree.

Interesting about Kubiak and his apparent effect on Plummer and Carr. I don't recall, but was Griese notably better with Kube's mentoring than afterwards? That Elway guy did okay with him as QB coach, of course Kubiak started out as Elway's caddy.

Jack of the River.... took me a minute.

Oh, and fifth.

6
by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 2:44pm

Ahh, the battle red jerseys. So what they should really have drafted last April was a competent lineman who had a 4.0 GPA in the double major of textile engineering and fashion design. "Boy, we need some kick-ass unis and we need 'em by Sunday. Our playoff hopes depend on them. Something bold like red up top, something shimmery like silver down below, that accentuates our manliness but doesn't make the linemen's asses look too fat. You can do it!"

And with the first pick in the 2006 draft, Houston selects ROBO-Stitcher. Mel Kiper goes wild, his hair actually droops low over his forehead: "If you've ever seen this kid sew in college, you know he's can sew with the best of them on Sundays. He has good hands, great eyes, and a killer sense of style. He'll pay dividends immediately and keep paying them for years to come in Houston. And hell, they're drafting him to make uniforms, so his career should last a good forty years."

7
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 2:56pm

I've always thought that Carr may be the Archie Manning of his generation, so I'm happy to see him with a chance to escape that fate.

Once again I'll arrogantly presume to tell Aaron how to use his bandwidth, and suggest that a weekly, team by team, injury rundown column, beyond just the NFL office- provided categories, may be useful at this site, despite such information being available elsewhere. A brief synposis as to which players on which teams really are likely to be hampered by injury, along with any insight as to the quality of the players behind the starter on the depth chart, would be very informative, given how injuries affect the results every Sunday.

8
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 3:00pm

So what they should really have drafted last April was a competent lineman who had a 4.0 GPA in the double major of textile engineering and fashion design.

Don't knock it.

(Not that I believe that study, but... c'mon, they're the Texans.)

9
by Pacifist Viking (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 3:11pm

How did Houston shut out Reggie Williams? He seemed to be coming on in recent weeks--I thought he was moving toward filling Jimmy Smith's role. Any explanations for what happened there?

10
by Kal (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 3:20pm

#9: They shut him out because Leftwich threw about 15 yards over his head repeatedly. Seriously, Leftwich couldn't complete a pass over 5 yards. They were just bad throws. Nothing to do really with Houston's coverage (though it wasn't bad exactly) and everything to do with Leftwich.

11
by David (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 3:21pm

#7: In other words, bring back the Black And Blue Report, with more depth. I'd like to see that too, but I assume there's some reason it wasn't passed on to another writer when Will left.

12
by sam_acw (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 3:54pm

The Texans are getting better. After this year hopefully they will stick with making sensible draft decisions. I mean everyone will go on about Mario Williams ( I think he leads the team in sacks though) but Jason Babin???????? He was probably the biggest bust.
They don't need to go crazy with drafting an RB, if they can develop the Oline players they drafted this year and find a Steve Hutchinson type run blocker things will get good

13
by turbohapy (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 4:15pm

When people talk about weakness at RB in Houston, they forget that Domanick Davis was pretty good before his injury and may very well be just as good next year.

14
by cjfarls (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 5:05pm

Re: 7
Isn't the Archie Manning of our generation going to be Matt Leinart?

Sadly, as long as he stays in AZ...

15
by cjfarls (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 5:13pm

#7-Will,
I thought Matt Leinart was the new Archie Manning?

16
by blahblahfalcons (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 5:13pm

isn't there talk that davis' career could basically be over?

17
by Ilanin (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 6:39pm

5 - The server ate my analysis of Brian Griese's career in and out of Denver. The overall result was that his DVOA was a bit better in Denver, but then so was the team so overall the results were fairly inconclusive. Interestingly, there didn't seem to be any correlation with adjusted sack rates.

I agree, though, that the Kubiak comment was a very interesting angle that hadn't occurred to me either. Props to Ned for thinking of it.

18
by turbohapy (not verified) :: Tue, 10/24/2006 - 7:31pm

Re: 16

That's a possibility as well ;o)

19
by Stephanie Stradley (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 12:52am

Thoughtful article. What you are saying with Kubiak I think is spot on.

Some added thoughts:

1. DeMeco Ryans at the MLB has been one of the brightest part of the season for Texans fans. Picked with the first pick of the second round, he's smart and when he tackles people they usually stayed tackled. The Texans have needed someone like that.

2. Texans are 5-4 alltime against the Jags, even though oddswise, they should be 0-9. There is something about the matchup that the Jags just seem to blow off.

3. Jags have won zero road games this season. They keep turning the ball over on the road.

4. Carr raves about Kubiak. Kubiak is chewing on him all the time but he appreciates all the important feedback. After the win against the Dolphins, Carr was feeling kinda good about things until Kubiak gave him a list of 30 things to improve on.

5. The defense for the Texans is improving. Especially from the Dolphin game on. The Texans defense for the first three games was so catastrophically bad that Kubiak spent extra time sorting that out before the Dolphins game. Of course, it is the Dolphins, but the same was said before the Redskins game, and Brunell tore the Texans up.

Dolphins game had decent D, first half of the Cowboys game was decent (before Carr had a turnover meltdown that created shortfields and a quick deficit), and they decent D against the Jags.

If the Texans can hold on to the ball some (and figure out the running game), it will help those defensive stats.

6. The Texans haven't been able to figure out the third quarter. Horrible third quarters of games. You've seen good play here or there, but the third quarters have been bad.

7. The Texans have played a hard early season schedule whilst learning a new offense and defense. As they think less and perform more, it will lead to improved play. If the run game gets going like it did in the 4th, you will see more of that play action stuff that they haven't been able to do much of because the run game has been horrid.

Bunch of road games coming up and historically they've looked poor on the road. Hard to tell if that changes with Kubiak.

8. Mario Williams has been getting better every game. He came out of school as a true junior and I think IIRC is one of the youngest players in the NFL. The dline coach is well respected for developing linemen, so I expect him to continue to improve if he stays healthy.

He is a player that any team at the top of the draft would be happy to have received, but since he was drafted first and not named Reggie, it is fashionable by the media to pile on him by those who only evaluate players by college highlight reels.

20
by PatsFan (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 1:02am

RE: #7, #11

Funny you say that -- this morning I sent Aaron an e-mail asking him to consider just that sort of a column.

21
by Sam B (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 6:06am

Re. injury column.

Or, as someone suggested, just an open thread for each week's injury news.

22
by bowman (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 10:21am

20. A column so we can easily compare injuries so we can determine the most injured team (or alternatively, the team with the most significant player injuries)?

I don't know of a site that attempts to determine if the Reggie Hayward injury is more detrimental to the Jags than the Corey Simon injury is to the Colts. At the very least, we should be able to determine the effect of the "replacement player" for the skill positions.

23
by Erasmus (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 10:57am

well if Kubiak was trying to copy Denver OL theory-he totally misread Charles Spencer and Eric Winston weights.

and #19. Before the draft I was telling everyone who would listen that DeMeco Ryans would a great player in the NFL, and for 2 of the reasons you listed-he is football-smart (and in real life as well) and in all the games I have seen him play, I could count the missed tackles on one hand it seemed like.

24
by Jesus Christ (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 11:34am

Every time I switched to the Texans game I thought I was watching the Falcons

25
by Stephanie Stradley (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 12:52pm

#23 I think as it relates to Spencer and Winston, I think the belief is that you can run a Denver style Oline as long as you have agile guys. Spencer and Winston were both former TEs.

There is also a funky theory that lighter linemen are not as important to Houston as they are in Denver because the Texans play at sea level. Who knows. What is clear is that the Texans line is either oldish or youngish with not too many guys in the middle.

If you are one of the few people who care about the Texans Oline and problems against the run, here are some of my ponderings about it here:

http://blogs.chron.com/fanblogtexans/2006/10/what_is_the_deal_with_the_t...

26
by jack (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 3:59pm

Good article. But you forgot the most important Texans' strategy - sending the marching band around to the Jags' hotel so they didn't get any sleep.

27
by Sam! (not verified) :: Wed, 10/25/2006 - 11:23pm

For what its worth regarding Del Rio sticking with Leftwich, a few points:
1) The thought was that the Leftwich injury was the kind of thing that would improve over time, beginning with pregame warmups, so as long as he could protect the ball early he would be adequate late...

2) While Leftwich was inconsistent, his receivers really did not help. Besides the Wilford fumble, Reggie Williams had at least 2 drops (I think on 3rd down), and George Wrighster droppped at least one.

3) At half-time, Del Rio was ready to put Garrard in and decided to give Leftwich one shot to prove he should be the one to stay in. Leftwich marched the team down and scored a touchdown (of course, I think that drive was 6 runs, 1 pass).

4) It seems Jack is learning. Word is that Garrard may be the starter this sunday in Philly if Leftwich isn't any better. He admitted that the ankle did probably affect Byron's mechanics.

28
by Biffy (not verified) :: Thu, 10/26/2006 - 9:10pm

One serious error - the Texans line does not need to be rebuilt - it needs to be built.