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» Futures: Josh Rosen

UCLA's quarterback clearly has the talent to succeed as an NFL starter. The question is whether or not he can avoid enough mistakes to become a superstar.

26 Dec 2012

Any Given Sunday: Vikings Over Texans

by Rivers McCown

We talked about a team "peaking at the right time" in this week's DVOA analysis. Now it's time to talk about one trending in the other direction.

Since their Week 8 bye, the Houston Texans have had just two above-average DVOA game scores: against the Bears in Week 10, and against the Titans in Week 13. They've managed to win a good majority of those games anyway because (a) they weren't exactly facing a murderer's row outside of New England and (b) they had some fortunate bounces in close games. For instance, the Justin Forsett "touchdown run" against the Lions on Thanksgiving.

While the offense has gotten a majority of the blame for this -- and trust me, we'll get to them by the end of the article -- Houston's defense has also fallen off. In those six games after the bye where Houston has posted a negative total DVOA, the highest defensive DVOA the Texans have achieved is -6.6%. If that doesn't sound too bad to you, remember that these relatively mediocre ratings are despite J.J. Watt having one of the greatest defensive seasons in NFL history.

It was shooting fish in a barrel to predict Houston's defense to regress after their tremendous improvement in 2011. What has been surprising is not that it happened, but how it has happened. Watt has been spectacular, and Kareem Jackson has blossomed into a capable, if not outstanding, second cornerback. The run defense has held up very well despite Brian Cushing's injury and Houston's continued "ignorance is bliss" strategy when it comes to upgrading at nose tackle.

Instead, the main issue has been the lack of pass rush outside of Watt. The outside linebackers, in particular, have struggled to get to the quarterback. Connor Barwin, of the 11.5 sacks last season, is stuck on four in 2011. (However, Barwin does have 16 quarterback hits through Week 14 -- well on pace to match his total of 19 from 2011, so he's not a totally lost cause.) Brooks Reed missed most of the last few weeks with a groin injury, but he has added just 2.5 sacks. First-round pick Whitney Mercilus has accumulated six sacks in (mostly) situational play, but has problems staying on the field at this point because he can't keep contain on the outside. Cushing's absence is actually felt more here than anywhere else -- he's one of the best blitzers in the NFL from the inside linebacker spot. Without him, the Texans have had a harder time generating pressure in their dime and situational nickel packages.

In coverage, both of 2011's free-agent heroes, Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning, have regressed. Joseph has battled through a groin injury for most of the year, so he at least has that to fall back on. Manning spent most of this day biting on play-action fake after play-action fake as the Texans spent their time trying to limit Adrian Peterson. Another silent killer has been the lack of consistency the Texans have received from the sixth defensive back in their dime packages -- the third safety. Quintin Demps has been cover-your-eyes awful this year, and was the main culprit on Donte' Stallworth's long touchdown catch in New England. The Texans have mixed in Troy Nolan and, in this game, Shiloh Keo, to about the same level of success. (Watching Keo come on a blitz is almost comical -- he's practically playing pattycake with offensive linemen.)

In short, the Texans have become completely reliant on their superstar to win on defense over the last two months. Without Watt's pass-rushing success, Wade Phillips' defense is imminently beatable. Houston's chances of avoiding a one-and-done in the playoffs are going to be riding on Watt's shoulders unless Phillips can find the right tweak -- and he's had two months now to find a solution.

It may not be coming.

By the VOA

Oh, right, the actual game itself! It was a bloodbath.

Bulls On Naptime
MIN -10.4% -47.4% 4.8% 41.8%
HOU -56.4% -4.0% 3.5% -47.2%

The only number that significantly changes when we change VOA to DVOA is Minnesota's offense, which moves up from -10.4% to 9.5%.

Call of the Game

Gary Kubiak gets this for his cumulative efforts in the third quarter. Down 13 with 7:58 in the third quarter, Kubiak elected to punt on fourth-and-6 from the Minnesota 41. Then, when first-and-goal presented itself roughly six minutes later, Kubiak ran the ball just once. Matt Schaub was sacked on third down, removing the Texans from the range where they could conceivably go for it on fourth down, and the game was effectively over.

Spotlight on: Houston's running game

The Texans' passing woes aren't so hard to believe once you figure out that Schaub completed just two of nine passes to his non-Andre Johnson wideouts. In fact, Texans Third Receiver, a generic blend of rookies DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin, with a sprinkle of undrafted free-agent pickup LeStar Jean, has caught 51 of the 125 passes in his direction this year. Kevin Walter has seen his catch rate tumble to 60 percent, which is the lowest it's been since he became a full-time starter in 2007. Houston's passing game needs to be focused more on its tight ends to be successful, and Minnesota was constantly able to hurry Schaub in this game, leading to a lot of checkdowns on third-and-long because the Texans had problems staying on schedule. As for why that was...

Here is a list of numbers, let's see what they have in common.

-27.3%, -0.8%, -21.9%, 50.1%, -21.4%, 0.0%, -11.7%, -67.1%.

Are they:
A) my chances of winning the lottery (where was I on that 50.1% day?)?
B) the APR finance rates on my last eight vehicles after I installed a virus on my car dealer's computer?
C) the rushing offense DVOA scores, game-by-game, for the Texans since Week 9?

It was a given that Houston's run attack would lose something when the salary cap forced the departures of right tackle Eric Winston and right guard Mike Brisiel. The Texans filled those voids with a bunch of possible options. Rashad Butler and Derek Newton would battle it out at right tackle, and Houston spent third- and fourth-round picks on Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones to try and unseat Antoine Caldwell.

Outside of losing Butler for the season, nothing has settled yet. Newton has been so bad that Ryan Harris, who was signed just before the start of the season, has taken about 35 percent of the playing time. Caldwell was horrendous before getting replaced by Jones. Jones and Brooks are now splitting time at right guard, and have both been rather inconsistent.

In this particular game, outside of some notable Newton blowups and a hilariously blown chop block by left guard Wade Smith, most of the missed blocks came from the skill players. Garrett Graham has absorbed Joel Dreessen's snaps this season, and while he's a capable receiver, he's not anywhere near Dreessen's level as a blocker. Owen Daniels has never been a good blocker. Everson Griffen and Jared Allen were able to regularly get penetration and keep Arian Foster from getting any room on the edge. Kevin Williams won his individual matchup with Chris Myers handily.

That's not to say that Foster hasn't regressed as well this year -- he clearly has. His balance going through the offensive line has been shaky and he's not generating anywhere near as many missed tackles as he did in 2011 or 2010.

But the problems in the Houston run game start up front.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 26 Dec 2012

6 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2012, 2:00pm by peterplaysbass


by theslothook :: Wed, 12/26/2012 - 5:49pm

Houston is experiencing the well known affliction of "trying to win without good Qbitus". The notable symptoms? Without the elite qb elixir, every and all cracks in a team's foundation suddenly become infinitely more magnified and harder to mitigate. Essentially, to win an average starter you must be strong in so many areas to compensate.

by Paddy Pat :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 10:47am

I have such a hard time evaluating Schaub as an average QB. But then, I suppose it's very difficult to comprehend average compared to how passing offenses used to look. I am generally inclined to think that most passing offenses look pretty good these days. Where are all of the Cleo Lemons and Rob Johnsons and Chris Redmans? Even going back ten years ago, Schaub looks borderline elite. Has the game really changed so much that we can comfortably say that Schaub is average? He's performing this year at about the same level this year (according to DVOA and even accrued DYAR) as guys like Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Are those guys average? In 2010 his performance was more similar to Drew Brees and Tony Romo. Did they really have "average" years that year? It seems to me at this point that the top half of the league generally has annual QB play that is pretty darned good, and most of the rest of the teams have play that is very respectable.

I would tend to say that this year, NYJ, ARI, KC, TEN, JAC, PHI have had bad quarterback play. And that someone like Sam Bradford or Josh Freeman has looked average.

by jimm (not verified) :: Wed, 12/26/2012 - 7:03pm

"Then, when first-and-goal presented itself roughly six minutes later, Kubiak ran the ball just once. Matt Schaub was sacked on third down, removing the Texans from the range where they could conceivably go for it on fourth down, and the game was effectively over."

Given Houston's challenges running the ball in the game - I thought passing 2-3 times a fairly sensible strategy - it just didn't work out.

I thought Schaub looked gun shy pretty early on. He seemed to be checking down when he didn't need to and looked frazzled. That was one of the few games where the Vikings QB looked better than the opponents.

by andrew :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 11:07am

It seems this result was all about the Texan's failures, and not anything the Vikings did.

by mike9322 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 12:41pm

I was coming down here to type this comment almost verbatim, but I see you've already done it for me. I guess the spectacular defensive performance, Ponder playing somewhat replacement level (GASP!), and the excellence of Blair Walsh, who is already one of the league's best kickers, had nothing to do with the win. Nope, the Texans lost this game, rather than the Vikings winning it.

I'm realistic about my team and I didn't think they could win anything if Peterson didn't have one of his monster games, so I'd hoped to see something that might give me some hope for the Packers this weekend and (maybe?) the playoffs beyond that.

by peterplaysbass :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 2:00pm

Why does the VOA table heading say "Bulls on Naptime"? Is that a mix between Rage Against the Machine and "boy oh boy, that game was dull for everyone but euphoric Vikings fans"?