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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 12 Texans Defense; a look at week 7 and what changes will come

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Houston Texans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

Overview

On November 21, 2019, the Indianapolis Colts will travel to take on the Houston Texans. In this Week 12 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

In week 7 these two teams met for a fantastic game in Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts had control of the game early on and never let up. Jacoby Brissett had a big day setting career highs for both passing yards and touchdowns while Justin Houston sacked the Texans electric franchise quarterback twice. Hopefully, we see a repeat of that performance in prime time.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in week 12.


Defense

Just as a note, these first few paragraphs are exactly the same as from the week seven article. The first few are evergreen but the predictions I made toward the end before we get to the first video clip, I’m pretty proud of. I’m not going to say I hit it out of the park, but I mean come on, I might as well be Babe Ruth.

The Texans have had a consistent run of solid defensive coordinators over the years. From Wade Phillips to Romeo Crennel to Mike Vrabel (who wasn’t a great coordinator but the Titans, titan’d right up with a head coaching contract, a classic Titans move) and back to Crennel, this franchise is no stranger to coordinators who have had success at the games highest level. The Texans have historically used a 3-4 base set and while that designation seems a little silly considering what defenses actually do in the modern NFL, it’s more important to note that they do tend to use more 3-4 principals in their front seven, mainly the fact that they will spend a lot of time two gapping instead of controlling one gap with penetration. On the back end of the defense, the Texans will primarily look to use zone coverage while mixing in man to man occasionally, especially when sending more than four pass rushers.

In learning more about defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and this Houston Texans defense I came across this article from Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle. Near the beginning of the article, Crennel talks about his desire to take away what his opponents do best and force them into doing something they do poorly. This is interesting because Solomon went on to list some stats from the Colts 2018 regular season match-ups:

...In the two games against the Texans, Luck threw 103 passes as the Colts ran the ball just 40 times.

Luck posted six 300-yard games this season, including yardage totals of 464 and 399 against the Texans, his two highest of the season. He was responsible for two of the four 300-yard passing games the Texans gave up.

Crennel’s defenses have allowed just two 300-yard passers in his 13 playoff games as a coordinator.

This sometimes-dominant Texans’ unit is 28th in passing yards allowed but No. 3 against the run and fourth in points. When Luck threw for 399 yards, the Colts scored only 24 points.

This is interesting when we view these statements with the knowledge we have, knowing how the game that Crennel was preparing for, went. He stated he wanted to force the Colts into doing something they didn’t want to do, he mentioned putting his players into a position they are best at. So naturally, Crennel wanted to force the Colts to run the ball given Luck’s high levels of success throwing the ball against his defense in 2018.

This seems simplistic but given what we know, this could tell us exactly what Crennel is going to try to do to our Colts on Sunday. Historically the Colts have shredded Houston’s secondary but last season’s playoffs proved that Crennel couldn’t choose to limit one aspect of the Colts offense, but this is a new season. The Colts are very good on the ground and have been inconsistent throwing the ball with Jacoby Brissett under center. Coincidentally the Texans have a top 10 run-stopping defense. It stands to reason the Colts might see a lot of 8 man boxes, daring Brissett to throw on Sunday.


So those were my predictions, what actually happened? Well, I was right! The Texans dared the Colts to throw the ball and throw the ball they did. Jacoby Brissett posted career highs in both yards and touchdowns in a game. The how and why of that is less schematic and more talent-based. Obviously we’ll get into those gaps in talent as the article goes on but for now, we’ll look at some of the ways the Texans tried to slow down the Colts offense.

Sending extra rushers

The Texans were smart in how they approached this Colts empty backfield. The Colts would only have five blockers and the Texans sent five rushers which ensured that they would get the match-ups that they wanted. Notably, J.J. Watt lined up over Mark Glowinski. Glow did a good enough job for Brissett to get the throw off but Jacoby did take a big hit. The Texans targeted Glow as the weak point in the Colts line early and often.

Sometimes a linebacker blocking a guard makes sense

This is a really well designed (albeit slow-developing) blitz. The offensive line had to account for six blockers with five men down, meaning that the running back would have to play a large role in protecting Brissett. At the snap the line slides right, picking up the three rushers on that side while the linebacker (Whitney Mercilus) lined up over center Ryan Kelly slants hard into Quenton Nelson’s right shoulder. JJ Watt, who lined up on Nelson’s outside shoulder then loops back inside to rush through the hole that the designed blitz had created in the offensive line. Marlon Mack saw the blitz develop and while he tried valiantly to block J.J. Watt, let’s be honest, he only had a slightly higher chance of stopping him than I have of playing in the league next year. Slightly.

Given the blitz, the Texans are in man coverage with a single high safety over the top. Jacoby’s pass needed to come out sooner to avoid being tipped but he made a good read and ultimately it was completed.

This play was set up in part due to the receivers alignment before the snap

Recently a massive corporation rolled out a new streaming service, if you have any device connected to the internet or a television in your home, you’ve probably heard of the new service. Having a nearly three-year-old daughter who has never seen most of my favorite childhood movies, I felt that the service might be of some use in my household. When I went to sign up I noticed that there was an option to bundle this new service with a service I had long wondered about but never wanted to support; ESPN+. I have my reasons why I didn’t want to pay for it before and those aren’t important but I decided since I was already feeding the beast, I might as well throw in a couple more bucks and try it out. They aren’t paying me to say this, I wish they were, but ESPN+ is worth what they’re asking. Detail with Peyton Manning makes me feel like I’m receiving a private lesson straight from the GOAT and he broke down the play above. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise.

If you scroll back up to the first play, where Nyhiem Hines catches the pass on the crossing route you’ll notice it. Manning pointed out on a few plays when he called a twist release. I just would have said that the receivers crossed at the snap, calling it a “twist” sure is easier. Manning pointed that out before getting to this play and noting that the safety lined up over Zach Pascal on this play probably expected him to twist with T.Y. Hilton, which is what made him hesitate and is the reason that Pascal was so wide open. The linebacker does his best to stay with him but as Manning noted Mo Ally-Cox ran a route that created traffic for the ‘backer. Pascal gave a great individual effort and got in for six.

Again, not an ad, but I do recommend ESPN+ even if it’s just for the Manning content.

This is what a seven-man blitz looks like

At the snap, the Texans send five pass rushers after Jacoby Brissett. The Colts have the standard five linemen with two tight ends who stay in to block after the play action. If you’re counting at home this means that the Colts have to receivers running routes and this is a max protect concept.

What I don’t know but I believe is that the defenders that were lined up over Doyle and Ally-Cox were in man coverage but had the freedom to blitz once it became clear that their men were staying in to block. What results is a highly effective delayed blitz. Once Doyle engages the outside linebacker and he pulls him inside, the defensive back accelerates into the backfield. Doyle sees this but is getting beaten on his initial block and is just too late to recover. Following behind him is linebacker Benardrick McKinney.

Ultimately this is a smart way to play max protect schemes. If the tight ends never release into routes, the men responsible for covering them aren’t going to do much good mirroring them 5-10 yards in the defensive backfield. On the other hand, the best way to counter that would be with a tight end screen. Something to watch for tomorrow night.

A great individual effort

J.J. Watt won’t play in this game after suffering yet another season-ending injury. I hate that one of if not the best defender of the generation has had his career so riddled with injuries. On the other hand, I am going to appreciate the fact that we won’t have to see him again this year. Watt is more than just a physical specimen as proven on this play.

Against almost every other defensive end in football, this run goes for a nice gain, because every other defensive end in football isn’t going to read and react to the play design as quickly as Watt does here. Watt sees that the tackle lined up over him, block down away from him and he notices Mo Ally-Cox coming across the formation to get in his way. Instead of letting that happen, Watt gets in close and follows right tackle Braden Smith, which completely prevents Ally-Cox from being able to make his assigned block, blowing up the run in the backfield.

Anthony Castonzo isn’t a great route runner

There’s not much to look at from the defensive perspective here. They were in man coverage and Eric Ebron set a legal pick inside of one yard of the line of scrimmage. The real exciting tidbit here is that Mo Ally-Cox comes from right to left to fill in and block the man left unblocked due to Anthony Castonzo’s lumbering out route. He must have reported eligible on this play because Ally-Cox is 100% a blocker and AC is running his version of a route.

Just a crazy throw and catch

Manning broke this play down as well and the long and short of what he said is this: Eric Ebron probably did everything he could to prevent Quenton Nelson from catching a touchdown, instead more or less forcing that the ball come his way.

I never would have noticed it but Manning said that he believes that Ebron probably should have done a better job to get in the defender’s way that ended up covering Big Q. He said something about skill position players and ego and, well, when Peyton Manning says something about the sport of football I’m going to tend to believe the guy.

Either way, Brissett threw a ball only his guy could catch and Eric Ebron made one of the best catches you’ll ever see.

Tampa 2 Coverage

Here the Texans come out with a Tampa 2 look. Their corners stay up in their zones, their safeties each stay in their deep half while a linebacker takes away the deep middle of the field. The soft spots in this defense are behind the corners, in front of the safeties near the sideline. So where do the Colts go with this pass?

Right where they should have gone. It did take Brissett too long to get through his progressions and had he thrown the ball to Ebron sooner, the athletic tight end could have turned upfield and picked up even more yards on this big play.

Defending this play is pretty difficult

This is an option play. If you watch Jacoby Brissett’s head, his eyes lock on to the outside linebacker who stays wide on the play. Had he squeezed in Jacoby would have handed this ball to Nyhiem Hines. Because he did the right thing and stayed wide, Brissett hit Pascal with a shovel pass who then followed Quenton Nelson into the endzone for six points.

The Colts offensive line all block down away from the play while Nelson pulls from left to right. The only front seven defenders who weren’t completely out of the play by way of misdirection were the play side defensive end, blocked by Braden Smith or the linebacker, Zach Cunningham, who is absolutely destroyed by Nelson.

After they were taken care of Pascal just had to figure out a way to beat the slow to react defensive backs into the endzone and the rest is history.

The Houston Texans didn’t do anything revolutionary against our Colts. They played solid assignment football in the run game and their good front seven did as much as they could to slow down Frank Reich’s offense, but like most teams, these Texans have a few holes on their roster and they’re almost all at defensive back.


Defensive Line

The Texans’ defensive line has undergone some changes this season. Perhaps you may have heard about the trade that sent Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for what amounted to a washing machine, three sticks of Big Red gum and a third-round pick in 2020. While that sure doesn’t seem like a great return on a former number one overall pick the Texans are still doing just fine up front with the players they have on the roster.

Unfortunately for the Texans the best defender in this franchise’s history J.J. Watt is on IR and these Texans will have to compensate somehow. The other names to know: Carlos Watson, D.J. Reader, Angelo Blackson, Charles Omenihu and Brandon Dunn.

Reader is a massive individual at 6’3” 347 pounds, he looks like the kind of guy that has been asked to leave every Sirloin Stockade he’s ever been to after eating an entire roast beef. The problem for the Colts is that he looks like that, but moves like a guy who eats a reasonable portion of roast beef before having a small bowl of fruit for dessert and leaving a decent tip for that poor server who probably felt hopeful for their new gig at Sirloin Stockade at some point in the past.

Omenihu is a rookie out of Texas who the Texans took in the fifth round. He along with Carlos Watson has helped to fill in for Watt since his injury. The final name to know is Brandon Dunn as he will work in the rotation as well.

Overall this front seven has been good against the run even without Watt. They currently rank 13th overall in yards allowed and that’s including their insanely out of character bad, no good, awful day against the Ravens.

It’s impossible to really explain the impact that J.J. Watt had on this defense

From the first snap Watt was all over the field working tirelessly to try to impact the game.

Run defense from someone not named Watt

I never liked playing defense. I liked hitting and getting hit just fine, but offense made me think. It was more fun than defense. With that said I went from offensive line drills to defensive line drills every day in practice. I was always taught that when facing a double team first try to split it, if that doesn’t work don’t keep trying, hit the deck and create a pile.

That sounds pretty easy to do but when you’ve got two guys just as big and just as strong as you and they want you to go a specific direction, sometimes falling down wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

Glowinski was late to this block and while I don’t think Angelo Blackson (97) meant to fall to the ground, this is the perfect example of why we were coached to do so. Had he stayed on his feet and Glowinski could have gotten around to seal him off, Ryan Kelly has sealed the linebacker and Marlon Mack would just have the safeties to beat. Instead, Blackson created a pile and Mack hesitated before trying to go over it eventually absorbing a mid-air collision.

This play probably looks familiar

And that’s because it’s the same play that I highlighted in the section above, just a different angle. This shot really shows just how hard this front seven worked their plan to get Watt a free run at Brissett.

Even with their best player out, this Texans defensive line is filled with talent and is well-coached. Brissett may have another few tenths of a second to throw and maybe some holes will open in the ground game that wouldn’t have otherwise but I don’t believe there will be a massive drop off given what these Texans coaches have schemed up in the past.


Linebackers

Whitney Merclius, Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, and Brennan Scarlett are the guys who will take the majority of the snaps at linebacker on Sunday.

McKinney is a very good interior linebacker. He’s solid in coverage but excels against the run. Cunningham has surprisingly been better against the rush than he has in coverage, with that said he has been on the field in coverage more than any other Texans linebacker this season. The coaching staff obviously believes he is an asset against opposing passing attacks. Scarlett is someone who will rotate in but will play close to the line much like Merclius.

A quick play breakdown from Peyton Manning

Seriously, ESPN+ is worth it. Watch this video.

Big 4th and 1 stop for the Texans

The Colts have been very good on 4th down this season when trying to convert. This play wasn’t one of their best examples. Instead of picking up the first down we see the Texans linebackers (and DB’s but this isn’t their section of the article) flow outside to prevent Marlon Mack from gaining the yard he needed. These Texans linebackers do a good job on the edges and I don’t expect that to change on Thursday.

The Texans linebackers are good but they aren’t great. They play disciplined football and their defensive line does a pretty good job keeping them clean to make plays when needed. So far the Texans seem to have a solid defense but don’t worry, the good news is coming.


Defensive Backs

Hey guys, the defensive backs are still the weak link!

But they have added some pieces including Gareon Conley from the Raiders who isn’t terrible. They also added Vernon Hargraves III after the former first-round pick was released from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has yet to play for his new team but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him on the field on Thursday. We can expect to see Veteran Johnathan Joseph and Bradley Roby has been limited this week with a lingering hamstring injury. There hasn’t been any word on if he expects to play.

Rookie Lonnie Johnson Jr. has yet to practice this week due to an ankle injury, so it remains to be seen what, if anything he will provide. 2018 seventh-round pick Keion Crossen is likely to see some snaps.

At safety, the Texans started Mike Adams and Justin Reed just last week. Both men are in concussion protocol and it stands to reason that both will miss this week’s game due to the ultra-fast turnaround. Tashaun Gipson has missed time with a back injury but it may come down to him and Jahleel Addae to defend in the safety spots.

T.Y. Hilton on how teams cover T.Y. Hilton

T.Y. Hilton said in the clip above that teams play them differently when he’s not in the game. What does he mean? Well he means a lot of things but this cornerback’s reaction is a good place to start:

With T.Y. in the game, teams (especially the Texans) have to respect his speed and that respect will create plays like the one above. The defensive back was worried about getting beaten deep, and his reaction to the top of Hilton’s route shows that.

So that guy that bit insanely hard only to turn around and run hopelessly down the field to try to fill in for the mistake he made. That’s Justin Reed.

In some ways, I’m sad that I don’t get to see Justin Reed bite harder than anyone has ever bitten before on more routes from T.Y.

The Texans have added some mid-season talent to their defensive backfield. With that said the guys that are available in the middle of the season usually have a good reason to be available. Bill O’Brien obviously doesn’t think so. Time will tell.


Final Thoughts:

The Texans have been injured on the back end of their defense the entire season. They’re much more easily exploited than the front seven and I expect Frank Reich and Jacoby Brissett to take advantage of this weakness.

The Texans offense scares me. The Texans defense... well, J.J. Watt scared me and now that he’s out of the picture I don’t believe that the Texans will be able to keep with the Colts offense against a bad Texans secondary and the Colts stellar defense that has improved greatly since week seven. Anything is possible but this match-up lends itself well to having a predictable outcome based on the fact that on a short week, the Colts have the better overall team and Jacoby Brissett set career highs against this defense in week 7. This game will be huge for the division and I’m excited to see what our Colts can do in a big spot on the road.