Film Room: Houston Pass Defense
Expectations are low for the Houston Texans in their upcoming divisional match against the Kansas City Chiefs. Houston's 14.1% odds of advancing to the next round are the worst among the eight teams competing this weekend, per our projections. The Texans' painfully low chances are not all that surprising considering their season-long inconsistencies compared to a consistently great Chiefs team that earned a bye week, but they are indicting, nonetheless. Even though the Texans beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead earlier in the year, it's going to take a stroke of genius for them to do it again.
If there is anything that will give the Texans a fighting chance, it is their ability to defend against the deep pass. The Texans own the skies past 15 yards. They will concede short throws all day long, especially over the middle versus their linebackers, but getting deep passes by them is an entirely different beast. Through the regular season, Houston ranked fourth in deep pass defense (past 15 yards) with a -7.0% DVOA (subscription required). Only the Patriots, Bills, and Chiefs fared better against deep throws over the course of the season.
Earlier in the season, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense experienced the Texans' suffocating deep pass defense firsthand. On seven attempts beyond 15 yards in their Week 6 bout, Mahomes' only completion was a miracle jump ball that Tyreek Hill caught over two defenders. On the other hand, the interception Mahomes heaved looked more like a miscommunication than anything, but that still leaves five other passes that the Texans successfully covered against arguably the most threatening deep passing offense in the league.
At the time, rookie Lonnie Johnson, journeyman Phillip Gaines, and free-agent signee Bradley Roby were starting at cornerback. Johnson and Gaines have been awful this season, and any half-decent upgrade over them could have gone a long way. And it has. Since about the midway point of the season, Houston has been starting Gareon Conley (traded from Raiders), Vernon Hargreaves (cut by Buccaneers), and Roby. The "new" trio has been significantly better than the trio that played in Week 6, even with Hargreaves being lackluster.
Cornerback talent is not the primary reason for Houston's success in deep pass defense, though. Safety Justin Reid, a second-year player out of Stanford, has been as instrumental to the Texans' identity as any other safety in the league is to his defense. Reid's ability to patrol the deep middle of the field is fantastic. More than just sideline-to-sideline speed, Reid plays with a savvy understanding of leverage and a keen awareness of where he needs to be helping the most. He is almost always setting himself up in a position to make a play and he has the physical tools to capitalize.
The Chiefs are running some variation of Yankee on the following play. Tyreek Hill (10, left) aims to run a deep post down the middle and Demarcus Robinson (11, right) cuts across the intermediate middle section of the field from the opposite side. Conversely, the Texans seem to be in a Cover-1 look that will not allow for any passing off of the two routes like some defenses can do in zone coverage. In turn, Reid is responsible for ensuring he does not get beat over the top.
As the play begins to roll, Reid pedals on the hash as Hill takes an inside stem and flies at him. Reid begins to open his hips to the sideline as Hill starts to break that way, but the young safety knows that his cornerback is going to be able to play under an out-breaking route. Thus, Reid has no immediate need to commit to an out-breaking route. Once Hill transitions back up the seam, Reid is already in position to continue staying on top of him and squeeze the area between the hash and the trailing cornerback. Hill cannot just win a foot race down the sideline at this point, nor can he just lightly bend between the hashes to stay somewhat vertical. Hill's only option is to bail on the route entirely and cut straight across the hashes, leaving Mahomes with a sliver of hope to chuck up a pass and pray Hill can run under it.
While it almost works because Mahomes has a golden right arm and Hill has track-star speed, this is not at all how the play is supposed to hit. Reid did everything a player in his position is asked to do in order to kill this play as it is drawn up.
In the next clip, the Chiefs are trying to run a switch verticals concept from the tight trips set to the right side of the formation. Hill (10) is the No. 3 (inner-most receiver) to the trips side, but loops under the other two receivers to sprint down the sideline and become the new No. 1. At the same time, the original No. 1 (outside receiver) switches inside to become the new No. 3 and run vertically between the hashes, while No. 2 (middle receiver) runs a straight vertical from his initial spot. Reid is again asked to defend the deep attack from a centerfielder position.
Reid bails to the right sideline the moment he sees the flurry of vertical stems. As he is making his way over, Reid makes sure to climb over the vertical route down the painted numbers until Mahomes declares his intention. Reid does not want to fly to the sideline only to leave his cornerback hanging one-on-one in front of the goal post. The instant Mahomes starts his throwing motion, however, Reid picks up the pace and makes a beeline for the outside vertical route. Reid meets up with the pass right at the intended catch point and leaps to snatch it out of the air before the receiver can. Unfortunately for Reid, he landed out of bounds and this did not count as an interception, but that is as calculated and fast as any deep safety could defend that particular concept.
Reid's value stretches beyond being a centerfield safety. Among a number of other skills, Reid is a reliable bracket player. In bracket coverages, two defenders will directly cover one receiver, with one handling outside leverage and the other handling inside leverage. On third downs, in particular, bracket coverages can be effective, even with the understanding that you are surrendering help to other areas of the field. Against the New England Patriots in Week 13, Reid showed off his ability to work as a bracket player against Julian Edelman.
In this instance, Reid isn't playing directly off Edelman in a true bracket. He is playing more as a "rat in the hole" as an intermediate middle-of-the-field defender. Considering Reid's technique of immediately turning his frame to the sideline, it looks like his job is to wall off whomever the No. 3 (innermost receiver) is once the route distribution reveals itself. Edelman, who is the No. 2 before the snap, cuts across the intermediate middle of the field and runs right into Reid. The cornerback on Edelman is allowed to play in a trailing position while Reid flips his hips to stay underneath Edelman as he runs across the field. There was no chance Tom Brady was going to be able to fit a throw into that window.
This clip is a deliberate bracket onto Edelman (left slot). Reid is aligned 8 yards off the ball and a couple yards inside of Edelman before the snap, and the nickel cornerback over Edelman steps out to gain outside leverage as soon as the ball is snapped. For a moment, Reid comes up to defend the run, but he recognizes the pass sets of the offensive line and turns to bail upfield. While Edelman does have a step on him, Reid is plenty comfortable considering he has help on the outside of Edelman. Brady tries to heave one up, but by the time the ball arrives, both the cornerback and Reid clash at the catch point to knock this pass down.
More than likely, if the Texans decide to turn to this tactic against the Chiefs, it's going to be in order to slow down tight end Travis Kelce. With dangerous speed at every wideout position and a number of capable pass-catching backs, expending extra resources directly onto one player is too risky to do as often as they did it against the Patriots, but the Texans at least have peace of mind that Reid can handle the job in a pinch. The one time Houston dials something like this up on a third down in the fourth quarter could be the perfect changeup to get Mahomes off the field in crunch time.
All that being said, Houston's prowess in defending against the deep ball is not grounds to call an outright victory against the Chiefs. The Texans' offense still runs hot and cold, and their defense is a disaster defending underneath passing. They are as coin-flippy of a team as there is remaining in the playoffs right now. Betting on them to come up heads against DVOA's second-ranked team is optimistic at best.
The Texans do have a strength they can cling to, though, and that counts for something. If nothing else, it is worth exploring why a team in Houston's position may be able to squeeze out an upset win considering how strongly they are being counted out.