Mills, Texans Shock the Chargers
NFL Week 16 - If you were to tell me at the beginning of the season that this iteration of the Houston Texans would defeat the Los Angeles Chargers during L.A.'s push to the playoffs, I might have laughed so hard I'd get hiccups. However, that's exactly what Houston did, defeating the Chargers 41-29 to push L.A. to the brink of playoff elimination. In their loss, a lot of problems with the Chargers defense were exposed by *checks notes* Davis Mills and Rex Burkhead? Sure!
Offensively, the Texans game plan looked different from the one they used with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, which makes sense because Mills and Taylor are two different quarterbacks with two different playing styles. While Taylor can extend plays with his feet and escape the pocket, Mills is more of a dropback passer and doesn't like to move off of his spot. Against L.A., Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly crafted a great game plan to get the most out of Mills and the Texans offense, by allowing Mills to find the soft spots in the Chargers' zone defense. For example, this first-down pickup had the Texans beating the Chargers' Cover-6 zone look. The Chargers are playing Cover-2 to the top of the screen and Cover-4 to the bottom. The Texans send the outside receiver in motion to make it a bunch look to run Mesh, a classic passing concept. The linebacker expands onto the out route and Mills goes through his progressions to find the open receiver to move the chains.
The Texans offensive line was doing a great job of keeping Mills clean for a large part of the game, giving him time to stand in and fire passes consistently on Sunday. A large part of his problems leaving Stanford was his inability to throw under duress, as he often sailed passes under pressure or looked past his first read. On Sunday, Mills displayed that ability, hitting two pretty passes deep, one of them for a touchdown. Here the Texans run Y Cross, with the slot receiver running an out and the outside receiver running a fly. The Chargers run a zone blitz with three-deep coverage. This means there's only one safety in the middle of the field, and Mills can fire the fly route if he wants it. Mills has a clean pocket and delivers a beautiful ball in stride for the Texans touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, the Chargers played a ... relatively fine game. The largest problem for L.A. was the self-inflicted wounds on offense. As high-powered as the Chargers can be, they can make mistakes, and three turnovers happened to be the turning tide on Sunday. The first Justin Herbert interception was a good concept: a shot play with the outside receiver running a deep corner to take the field-side safety away in Cover-2, and a corner-post by the inside receiver to get him isolated on the other safety. However, Herbert leaves the ball a bit too far inside and allows the safety to make a play on the ball. A great job by the safety of not getting greedy on the fake to the outside as well.
The avalanche of turnovers continued with a Justin Jackson fumble, and finally a pick-six where Herbert and tight end Jared Cook weren't on the same page. The margins for error in the NFL are extremely slim, especially when a team is attempting to make the playoffs. The Chargers couldn't overcome their own errors, and the Texans capitalized on them, turning this into the biggest upset of the week.
Where The Game Swung
|4||1||10||LAC 49||12:56||J.Jackson rush for 1 yard. FUMBLES, forced by D.Walker, RECOVERED by HOU-J.Owens at HOU 47. Tackled by S.Anderson at LAC 47.||+15.5%|
|2||1||10||LAC 41||0:33||D.Mills 41-yard TD to C.Conley.||+13.4%|
|4||2||12||LAC 27||3:22||R.Burkhead rush for 14 yards.||+11.6%|
|3||3||6||LAC 47||2:09||D.Mills 27-yard gain to B.Jordan.||+10.8%|
Kinda surprised by the results here. When the pick-six isn't even the top moment in Where the Game Swung, that's how you know a team shot themselves in the foot! Both of those plays at the bottom by Houston were huge, but neither of Herbert's interceptions makes the top four? Interesting. I guess the game was kind of out of reach by the time the pick-six happened, but the first interception was in the first half!
By The DVOA
Looking at the numbers, it's pretty easy to see that the Chargers' offense didn't play that terribly. In fact, their offensive DVOA was ninth in the NFL for the week! Those numbers, combined with the loss, really shows you how important it is to win the turnover battle at every level of football. A team could be moving the ball fairly well on offense, but one mistake and the tides of the game will turn drastically. The Chargers defense, well ... we'll get to them later.
Sweet baby Jesus, Houston! This is their best offensive performance by DVOA since Week 5 against New England! They were eliminated from the playoffs weeks ago, but offensive coordinator Tim Kelly has the Texans offense looking somewhat passable. Now they just need the influx of talent to match the scheme. In addition, this is Houston's best performance by total DVOA since Week 13 against Tennessee. Really saving their best work for last!
Stalling Out in the Fast Lane
Oh boy, the Chargers defense is in a rough spot defensively. Their inability to stop the run (and, quite frankly, the pass) without Derwin James in the lineup could be what kicks them out of the playoffs. L.A. is third in the NFL in offensive DVOA. Justin Herbert is setting records in his second year, and the wide receiver duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams is good enough to help L.A. to a playoff spot, right?
Not when the Chargers are 26th in defensive DVOA, and 32nd against the run. Houston's offensive line was able to gash L.A.'s light boxes whenever they wanted, simply because the Chargers don't have the personnel right now to run the Brandon Staley "gap-and-a-half" defense up front.
This type of scheme already gives up a lot against the run—just look at where some similar defenses place in run defense DVOA. Green Bay? 31st. Chicago? 24th. Denver? 23rd. The only one that isn't in the bottom half of the league is the Rams, and they have an Aaron Donald who wipes out everything in his path. The Chargers are bad up front right now, and it's at all levels. They could stall out in the fast lane in the heat of the final push to the playoffs.
I think an important thing for the NFL, especially fans and media, to realize is that player development isn't linear. Everyone grows at a different rate, and if a team doesn't surround their youth with the correct personnel they need to develop, draft picks are burned as if they had been touched by Roy Mustang (looking at you, Jacksonville). Time is very important to the development of young players, especially quarterbacks in bad situations. Teams cannot afford to cut bait on players that show promise early, but get dragged down by the lack of talent on the roster and incompetence in the front office (still looking at you, Jacksonville). Mills started off his career rough, posting a DYAR of -98 and a DVOA of -17.9% in Weeks 2 to 8. However, Mills' second go-round as quarterback has seen his DYAR shoot up to 120, with a DVOA of 3.8%. By the numbers, he has been better than Tyrod Taylor, and he has posted a higher DYAR and DVOA than Taylor this season, even with Taylor facing an easier schedule than Mills (DVOA vs. VOA).
Do I think Mills is Houston's quarterback of the future? Probably not. I think he still gets skittish under pressure and fails to create outside of structure, which is needed for a team with a lack of talent up front. However, I do think his play has rewarded him with being the starter for next years' Texans team. The upcoming quarterback class is weak, and the Texans need help literally everywhere, so Houston could use their top pick on one of the few elite prospects available (Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Evan Neal), and wait for next year's quarterback class. It's similar to what the Jaguars did with Gardner Minshew in the 2020 season. Minshew played well enough in 2019 to earn the starting spot in 2020, but the front office saw that there was a limit to what he could do. Mills could be in that same camp going into next year. However, the lesson learned here is similar to that in the Pixar movie Cars: sometimes teams have to slow down with their young players, especially in bad situations.