Texans Preview: O'Brien Builds Without a QB
Throughout the preseason Andy Benoit will provide in-depth breakdowns of all 32 teams, in reverse order of 2013 finish. Today, the Houston Texans ...
This time last year the Texans had us pondering: Can you win in today’s NFL with a so-so quarterback? We got an answer, sort of. When so-so quarterback Matt Schaub took a step back in 2013, having little room for error, he dropped off completely. For the Texans, it was no longer a matter of trying to scrape by with their QB; they were trying to overcome him. Additionally, running back Arian Foster played in just eight games due to back problems, diminishing the foundational zone rushing attack that Houston’s offense had so long relied on.
This gets to the heart of the problem with a so-so to below average quarterback. If that’s what you have then your 21 other spots need to be stellar, with more than a few being spectacular. Even for a tested ninth-year GM like Rick Smith, this is hard to achieve. And it’s easily crumbled. If any of the spectacular spots are compromised—i.e. Arian Foster gets hurt—then you’ll quickly find yourself with other glaring weaknesses.
That said, the 2013 Texans did not technically offer a pure illustration of whether a team can have meaningful accomplishments with a so-so quarterback; Schaub’s lows were too extreme. (See his NFL record four straight games with a pick-six.) The 2014 Texans could paint us a clearer picture, as first-year head coach Bill O’Brien is going into battle with Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Case Keenum proved last year that he’s not an NFL starter. So with his only other option being fourth-round rookie Tom Savage, O’Brien named Fitzpatrick his starter in June. In terms of his place among the league’s other 31 starters, Fitzpatrick could be considered below average. (He ranks somewhere in the mid-20s.) But over his nine years and 77 career starts, he has shown he can at least keep a team above water.
Or, more accurately, Fitzpatrick can keep a team from drowning. “Above water” implies a certain steadiness; Fitzpatrick tends to go through periods of sinking and swimming. For a “caretaker”, he has an unusually aggressive style. He’ll extend plays and make the sensational third-down completion. He’ll also take unwarranted risks and lead an offense off the field. The problem is, not having great physical tools but still having a willingness to try to fit balls through tight windows (including on improvisation), Fitzpatrick’s risks promise to outnumber his rewards. Evidence: 115 career touchdowns, 116 turnovers.
O’Brien’s tightly strung system does not inherently accommodate a proclivity for running around and needlessly breaking down plays. It’s on the 31-year-old Fitzpatrick to locate his discipline—something spread sets and defined read concepts (like a pre-snap motion to stack, or trips bunch releases) will help him do.
It’s also imperative that Foster stay healthy and regain his 2012 form. At 28 (come August) and with just three full NFL seasons of tread off his tires, he’s more than capable. In league history, few lanky, 6-foot-plus, 225-pounders with an upright running style have had Foster’s wiggle, acceleration and body control. He’s like an agile Eddie George.
With three-year backup Ben Tate now in Cleveland, Foster will be spelled by Andre Brown, a similarly built 6-foot, 225-pounder with more physicality but less nimbleness than Foster. Foster, a formidable one-cut runner, won’t be working out of the same stretch-zone type system that he’s known his entire career. O’Brien will use plenty of zone-blocking concepts, though based on his experience with the Patriots, expect to see more balance with north/south man-blocking runs, as well.
Foster has said he anticipates playing a greater role in the passing game, where he’s soft-handed and alert on swings out of the backfield. How the rest of the passing game shakes out hinges largely on Andre Johnson (assuming he stays with the team). After a tumultuous offseason, the 33-year-old should resume his future-Hall of Fame career with the franchise that he’s seen through other rebuilding projects. Johnson might no longer have the speed to regularly take the top off of defenses, but with his ability to disguise routes through aggressive stems off the line of scrimmage, as well as uncanny ball-tracking skills, he still knows how to get open. Hence his 1,407 yards last season despite his team’s quarterbacking woes, and his 1,598 yards the year before that.
Opposite Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins has a tremendous feel for making the sensational, contested catch—particularly along the sideline. But he must become more fundamentally polished if he’s to fulfill his first-round promise. Too often, Hopkins has looked sluggish coming off the line.
The rest of Houston’s receiving options are humdrum. Keshawn Martin will get a crack at the No. 3 duties, which he couldn’t secure over his first two seasons. Fellow third-year pro DeVier Posey, drafted a round earlier than the fourth-rounder Martin, has not lifted off, catching just 21 balls in 24 games. The mediocrity at tight end could also be exposed with Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin no longer playing in a system that constantly freezes linebackers and safeties through forms of delayed play-action. Graham and Griffin have never had to create their own opportunities as route runners. Recognizing a need for reinforcements, Smith spent a third-round pick on C.J. Fiedorowicz, a classic big-bodied tight end with the run-blocking aptitude and pass-catching acumen to immediately compete for a starting job.
With less zone play-action and fewer rolled pockets in O’Brien’s scheme, the Texans’ offensive line will have to hold up through more traditional (and difficult) pass-blocking means. Left tackle Duane Brown is more than capable of this. A two-time Pro Bowler, Brown has great mechanics and apt feet to recover when beat. Houston’s second-best lineman has long been center Chris Myers; it will be interesting to see how the cagey veteran does in a more balanced system after having spent his first nine seasons in zone-heavy schemes here and in Denver. Myers moves well and has a great sense for reach-and-seal blocks off the snap; he should be fine.
At guard, Xavier Su’a-Filo, the top pick of the draft’s second round, figures to capture a starting job—likely from left guard Ben Jones, as right guard Brandon Brooks has flashed dominance in the ground game. The position of concern is right tackle. Derek Newton is a liability in pass protection; the fact that he was named the starter even before training camp suggests last year’s third-round pick, Brennan Williams, has not shown great promise in his recovery from microfracture surgery.
Part B of winning with a so-so quarterback is having a defense that’s not just solid and stingy but capable of generating big plays. This is what gives the Texans hope. Their front seven features the best defensive player in football, J.J. Watt. The fourth-year pro doesn’t just command doubles teams, he blows them up with regularity. That creates enormous advantages for the rest of the defensive front.
The hope—maybe even expectation—is that Jadeveon Clowney will be Watt 2.0, not in terms of playing style but destructiveness. Clowney was the top overall pick in supposedly one of the most loaded drafts in history. You’ve heard the risks with him. It will be apparent almost right away if he has the mindset to be an all-time great or whether he’ll be just an uber-talented B-level star (or less); along with playing beside two high-octane leaders in Watt and Brian Cushing, Clowney is also playing for one of the most venerated position coaches in the league, Bill Kollar.
The question is: How will new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel use his front seven superstar talents? Crennel has long subscribed to a traditional 3–4 scheme, which he’ll likely continue using on first and second down, with Watt manning the strong side and Clowney playing either beside him or over on the weak side (both scenarios create one-on-one blocking for the rookie). But third downs are where games are won and lost, and here Crennel has said he’ll be irregular, moving both players around.
Every coach trumpets irregularity, versatility and aggression on third down, but Crennel has the pieces to follow through. Cushing can play multiple positions. He is, however, coming off a second serious leg injury in two years (ACL in ’12, LCL and broken fibula in ’13). The hope is he’ll regain the downhill burst that accompanies his outstanding instincts.
Third-year pro Whitney Mercilus, the fourth former first-round pick in this front seven, has experience playing both sides of the formation. Mercilus has flashed star potential, though he’s also a bit tentative at times; it’s on Crennel to get him to play more like his last name.
The playmakers will have to camouflage question marks throughout the rest of the front seven. At inside linebacker next to Cushing, Brooks Reed must learn new techniques and keys after spending his first three seasons at outside linebacker and much of his collegiate career at Arizona at defensive end. Up front, nose tackle will be filled by Jerrell Powe, a former backup in Kansas City who will initially start ahead of Louis Nix III, a third-round rookie. At weakside defensive end, gap-shooting maestro Antonio Smith is gone. In his stead are Tim Jamison and Jared Crick, both athletic downgrades.
Under previous coordinator Wade Phillips, this Texans defense was always multiple on the back end, particularly in its predominant dime package. But changes in personnel will make it tough for Crennel to maintain this. Yes, he has a deft man-to-man corner in Johnathan Joseph, a two-time Pro Bowler capable of shadowing top-tier receivers. He also has a dynamic, though still unrefined, movable chess piece in strong safety D.J. Swearinger. The 2013 second-round pick shows star potential as a fierce box hitter and can play tight ends man-to-man. It’s no guarantee Swearinger will fulfill his potential, though. He’s also temperamental and inconsistent.
But outside of Joseph and Swearinger, none of Crennel’s secondary is interchangeable. Free agent pickup Kendrick Lewis is strictly a free safety. Cornerback Kareem Jackson is almost strictly a boundary player. Fourth-year corner Brandon Harris can play the slot but nowhere else. The depth behind these five, while solid in past years, is now dubious at best.
In order for the defense to carry the load necessary for this team to contend for .500, it must stay healthier than it has in recent years and succeed on the gambles it inevitably has to take.
Kicker Randy Bullock’s nine missed field goals last season tied with Sebastian Janikowski for the league lead. Janikowski’s former running mate, 37-year-old punter Shane Lechler, proved he’s not washed up, netting at least 40 yards for the sixth time in the last seven years. Keshawn Martin has been steady in the return game.
This team is better than teams coming off a league-worst record typically are, but with concerns about the quarterback and depth at wide receiver and on defense, it will be an uphill climb just to win eight games.