The Houston Texans enter this week’s game with a 10-4 record. This is a team that started the season 0-3, won nine straight games, lost to the rival Colts, and then got back on the horse last week against the New York Jets. They’ve got blue-chip talent, winning with gifted skill-position players on offense and along the line of scrimmage on defense. The schemes are very strong on both sides of the ball.
Let’s start on offense, a group led by second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson. The former first-round pick was an early favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors last season before tearing his ACL mid-year, and so I was excited to study him this week leading up to the game. As expected, there was plenty of good with Watson (my favorite quarterback from the 2017 draft class that included Mitch Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes), but there was plenty of bad as well.
Watson has struggled with his poise, vision, and decision-making in the pocket. No quarterback in the league has been sacked more than the former Clemson star. He’s also taken more sacks in the red zone than anyone in the league as well, a bad stat to have on your mantle. Are all of the sacks on him? No, of course not. He’s also able to wiggle out of pressure when needed, but he puts himself in harm’s way too often in the pocket by holding on to the football longer than necessary.
I know much has been written about the Eagles and their pass protection woes at times this season, but for comparison’s sake, Watson has been sacked 52 times (again, most in the league), with 19 sacks coming on third down and 14 in the red zone. Carson Wentz and Nick Foles have been sacked a combined 36 times with 11 sacks on third down and just four in the red zone.
Watson has been a bit erratic at times, but at any point he’s able to turn it on and make plays that the Texans envisioned when they traded up to take him in last year’s draft with the 12th overall pick.
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Look at some of those plays, and you’ll see examples of everything you want in a young quarterback. Poise, arm strength, touch, ball placement, pocket movement, accuracy – it’s all there. Consistency (or lack thereof) has been the name of the game for Watson, who still finds ways to turn it on when his team needs him most. The second-year passer was up and down for most of last week’s win against the Jets, but helped lead the team on a game-winning drive in the latter stages of the fourth quarter to win. THAT is the Watson the Eagles' defense must be ready to deal with.
The best player on this offense is Watson’s favorite target, DeAndre Hopkins. The veteran receiver is one of the very best in the league, and his hands and ball skills set him apart from his peers. Hopkins is flat-out nasty at the catch point, reeling in passes in all areas of the field that most just simply would not come up with.
Hopkins is someone who must be handled when he lines up outside the numbers. He’s tough to jam at the line of scrimmage. He’s tough to outmuscle in the air. He’s one of the toughest covers in the NFL.
The Texans want to lean on the run game. They’re second in the NFL with their run/pass ratio on first down (63.5 percent). They take care of the football (a turnover differential of +10 ranks third in the league), and they only go three-and-out on offense 18 percent of the time. They’re an efficient group. The key for the Eagles is to get to Watson. Win those one-on-one matchups on the offensive line and make him uncomfortable, just like they did last week against Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
Now the Houston defense is a tough, physical group that is very well coached. That defensive front is outstanding. It's a big reason why the team ranks fourth in rushing yards against per game (88.3 yards), first in yards per carry (3.56), and third in runs of 10-plus yards allowed (29). The Texans are great against the run and they’re very good at getting after the quarterback, as they present one of the biggest challenges that the Eagles have faced this year.
It obviously all starts with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Watt spends most of his time winning on the edge, while Clowney is matched up against guards. The Texans like to move Clowney around, standing him up and moving him around as a "joker." With his combination of size, power, and athleticism, Clowney is a tough guy to block one-on-one. Watt wins with effort, technique, and a great first step. The veteran’s snap anticipation gives him one of the best first steps in football. He’s a threat to get to the quarterback on any dropback.
The Texans help get one-on-one matchups for these guys in a lot of different ways, but one of my favorites is with the use of a three-man rush.
You read that correctly.
The Texans will rush three players against five blockers, and still find ways to get Watt and/or Clowney (among others) a one-on-one or even get them scot-free to the quarterback. Here’s how ...
These three-man rushes aren’t your typical, passive, three-man pressures. Instead, Houston will put a bunch of players up near the line of scrimmage, forcing offensive lines to slide one way or another, and then attacking the opposite side. They may use different stunts and twists to create those matchups, or they may send a free rusher from depth. Either way, they excel at creating those opportunities for Watt and Clowney, something Greg Cosell illustrated so well this week on Eagles Game Plan.
On third down, the Texans love to send pressure, and safety Tyrann Mathieu is a big part of it.
The Honey Badger's ability to pressure the quarterback from depth makes him one of the most versatile defensive backs in the league, and with players like Watt, Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, Benardrick McKinney, and Christian Covington all involved as well, there are a lot of pieces on the board for defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to use to his advantage. This is a big test for the Eagles' offense.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.