The Houston Texans have ripped off nine consecutive wins and have all but clinched the AFC South. Their 29-13 victory over Cleveland again featured brilliant performance by Deshaun Watson and Romeo Crennel.
One of the most unlikely storylines this year appeared to be how one of the 0-2 teams would recover from their slow start to make a playoff push. The Houston Texans dropped their first three games, but have since rattled off nine straight wins since then, bucking a trend that often spells doom. They’ve taken full advantage of a weak schedule as quarterback Deshaun Watson has shaken off the rust from a torn ACL, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has adjusted for his personnel.
The Texans have a clear, easy path to clinching their divisional title. Not only do they sit three games on the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts, but their remaining schedule doesn’t have a winning team left. Even if they split their final four games, they’d be at 11 wins.
How they were able to reach this point is what’s most notable. Riding Watson’s ability to extend plays and create chunk yardage downfield has been critical on offense. But they’ve also been committed to running the ball to reduce a much stress on Watson as possible.
Houston sits second in the league in both rushing attempts and yards behind another team with an unlikely turnaround, the Seattle Seahawks. Lamar Miller and Watson have been the most efficient runners on the team, both averaging over five yards per carry. Their ability to augment Watson’s deep passing with a running game is a stark contrast to last year’s limited run game.
The running game’s success is a reflection of Watson’s increased efficiency within one of the more unique offenses in the league. Houston’s vertical passing game is more balanced and scaled back from the extreme version last year that had Watson finding the end zone at an absurd yet unsustainable 9.3 percent of his throws. It’s a healthier offense as Watson’s working better within structure while still taking his downfield chances.
His performance Sunday was an excellent display of how much he’s grown in his year-plus as a starter. Always special at Clemson, he still struggled with consistency on throws beyond 10 yards due to his placement issues. He gave his receivers a shot to play the ball, but didn’t always make it easy on them like he did with the below throw to DeAndre Hopkins.
Some of that still exists, which is partially why the Texans’ offense has bogged down in the red zone. They rank just 25th in touchdown rate in the red zone where the passing windows shrink and the ball needs to come out quickly. Still, Watson’s grown considerably in 18 starts and it’s not out of the question he continues ascending and sharpening his craft.
One of the biggest differences between the Browns and Texans on Sunday was the stark difference in quarterback play in the first-half. That’s making everything overly simplistic, but while Baker Mayfield was lost in Crennel’s clouded shells, Watson showed off his comfort making leverage reads against Cleveland’s aggressive defense. He continually had the middle of the field open and they knew that’d be the case from studying Gregg Williams’ defense.
Hopkins continues to wreck defenses with his acrobatic catches and sure-hands. He was unstoppable Sunday, drawing several defensive penalties in addition to his seven catches for 91 yards. His ability to humiliate defenders is as important as his talent to finish first-down conversions.
The partnership between Watson and Hopkins, and the presence of Demaryius Thomas as a possession receiver only bolster the offense’s knack for avoiding three-and-out situations. They’re among the league leaders in three-and-out percentage thanks to the running game creating short yardage conversion attempts and allowing Bill O’Brien to be aggressive with his play-calling.
The other concern for this offense for when they face better competition is clear. Watson’s sack rate continues to be astronomically high as he’s still holding on to the ball too long, and his offensive line is among the worst in the league. It’s a combination that can snowball quickly when there are ball-hawking secondary players, as seen last year when Watson was more reckless with his passes.
Crennel’s contributions to the defense since he took full control over the unit from Mike Vrabel have been significant. Last year, Vrabel’s one-year stint led to considerable miscommunication from a depleted and deteriorating secondary. Yet with a similar cast of players, add Tyrann Mathieu and Justin Reid, Crennel’s scrapped together the fourth-best defense in DVOA.
The beauty of the Texans’ defense is within a fast, strong, and athletic front seven that’s able to win with gap control while not sacrificing their pass-rush. Especially with Whitney Mercilus starting to show more signs that he’s a capable contributor once again, Crennel’s been able to commit more of his men to coverage assignments.
The flexibility afforded to him with Mathieu, Reid, and now Kareem Jackson has been similar to giving a master interior designer unlimited access to whatever materials and resources they could dream of. Jackson and Mathieu specifically bring so much versatility because of their competence in the slot and also as a safety that Crennel can move them around without revealing their plan pre-snap.
There’s a reason that a defense that has been relying on 34-year-old Johnathan Joseph and journeyman Shareece Wright despite Joseph looking physically done last season and Wright continuing to bounce around the league. It’s the support and number of zone calls that Crennel has reintegrated to fit the personnel.
And on Sunday, the game-plan confounded Mayfield and a red-hot Browns offense in the first-half, and forced Mayfield to make several incredible tight window throws in the second-half.
All three of Mayfield’s interceptions featured a bevy of support around the intended target, and highlighted the strategy of clogging underneath passing windows on the two short throws. By dropping the linebackers to take away the tight ends, and using the safeties to provide support with the receivers, Mayfield was pushed towards his weaknesses of playing with quick timing on tight passing windows.
This has been a constant from Crennel, and something afforded to him based on having an elite pressure rate despite not having to constantly bring extra defenders. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney continue to wreak havoc on opposing blockers thanks to the sturdy gap-eating from interior defenders D.J. Reader, Angelo Blackson, and Brandon Dunn. Their three-headed tackle monster overwhelms guards and centers with their impressive collective strength at the point of attack.
The sideline to sideline speed and versatility of Bernardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham keep the unit unpredictable. When they’re deployed on backs, it’s common to see Mathieu and Jackson on seam routes or blitzing. Mayfield had to threat an impossible needle on the below throw on a desperate late-game drive.
This is a team with personnel flaws at both offensive line and cornerback, and they’re issues that very well could lead to their defeat in the playoffs. But the brilliance of their quarterback and defensive coordinator must not be overlooked even if it’s not a Super Bowl-worthy team right now. The Texans are dangerous because of these x-factors in a league that features many unreliable defenses and offenses lacking a potentially transcendent playmaker at quarterback.
The AFC is loaded, so the Texans may continue to be overlooked as a potential playoff threat. They have the means to pull off an upset though and will bring headaches to any matchup they face.