Redskins Recon: Week 1 at Houston Texans

Over the last few weeks we have been looking at the Washington Redskins 2014 opponents in detail, with an initial look at our divisional rivals the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants (click on the links to see previous write ups). Starting today we will begin a weekly look at our other 10 opponents on the schedule, starting in chronological order with the Houston Texans. There are many similarities between the two teams, notably both teams won their division in 2012 and went on to stink it out in 2013. So let's look at the Texans plans to bounce back in 2014.

Going into week 3 of the 2013 season the Houston Texans were sitting on a 2-0 record. They had just defeated the Chargers and the Titans in close games, but everything was looking good. No cause for concern, business as usual. Bear in mind this is following a successful 12-4 record in 2012 that ended in a divisional round playoff loss to the Patriots. Hopes were high in Houston for another crack at the playoffs, and some were even whispering Super Bowl. Could it really be?

Skip forward to December 2013 and the Texans are breaking franchise records for the longest losing streak in their history; having lost every game since that win against Tennessee. They would go onto finish an astonishing 2-14. This included a mid season firing of long serving coach Gary Kubiak, who had a horrible year, having suffered a heart attack during their game against the Colts. Fortunately he recovered, but he was let go with three games left in the season.

The wheels came off dramatically for the Texans in 2013, and highlighted fragility in the team and coaching staff that took most of the football world took for granted. The Texans had been in and around the playoffs for years, and were a consistent force in the AFC South. They had playmakers on both sides of the ball like Andre Johnson, J.J. Watt and Arian Foster. Well what went wrong? How could this happen?

Frankly I am not going to do an autopsy here. There are numerous articles analysing how this team fell apart if you are interested, and I don't think it is too relevant to Redskins fans as we build up to facing this team in week 1 of the 2014 season. The Texans have moved on and will continue to change dramatically leading up to 7th September 2014. They aren't last year's team, just like the Redskins.

Firstly the Texans were quick to replace HC Gary Kubiak with Bill O'Brien. O'Brien brings with him his experience from New England and their up tempo offense, where he served as as their offensive coordinator. More recently O'Brien served a couple of seasons as head coach of a heavily punished Penn State team, where he helped the team to a couple of winning seasons despite the sanctions. Since O'Brien was hired in Houston the Texans have brought in a whopping 16 new coaches and assistants, yet O'Brien has not hired an offensive coordinator, and reports suggest that the Texans will not hire one for the 2014 season. Personally I think this is a strange decision, and a big one to make in his first year. O'Brien must be confident in his ability to run these two roles, but time will tell if this was the correct decision.

In terms of offensive scheme, O'Brien will bring with him a change to the Erhardt - Perkins scheme. I have talked about this before when covering the Cowboys, but this means that the West Coast offense and zone running game we have seen for years under Kubiak is no more. For more information about this new scheme please click here - Once again I can't recommend this strongly enough for those that love learning about the technical side of football.

If you want even more examples, and even some coach's workshops, then have a look at this article and check out some of the videos.

To summarise for those who didn't read the other articles, O'Brien is renowned for taking this traditionally balanced system and focusing on the passing side of the game, so much so that this version is widely known as the Air Erhardt offensive scheme. If you think back to his days as the coordinator of the Patriots with their infamous passing attack, up tempo offense, numerous receiver sets, TE option routes and pass catching catching RBs - this is what we can expect from O'Brien and the Texans going forward.

So how does that match up with the personnel O'Brien inherited from the old regime?

Well not bad, but there are some major holes - not least and most pressingly at quarterback.

I believe it is @NFLosophy of Twitter fame who has a great expression called ‘QB Purgatory', which is a fantastic way of summarising what the Texans have experienced for the last few years. In Matt Schaub they have had a QB who could run the offense, be a model pro and generally fill that position well enough to give the Texans a good chance of making it to the playoffs. He was never in the top tier of quarterbacks. Whilst it is obviously foolish to say that you need a top franchise QB to reach the Super Bowl, if you are playing reasonably well every year and not winning championships you are also not getting the top draft picks. You are going to find it very difficult to find a true franchise QB outside of the top 15 picks in any draft. As such you are left with an above average but not great QB year on year - until he starts to decline. Which Schaub was about to do.

Schaub's poor performances in 2013 (pick 6 anyone?), followed by Keenum's efforts later in the season led the Texan's to the conclusion that their QB situation needed a re-boot and they have subsequently released Schaub this offseason to join the Oakland Raiders. They now find themselves with a rare opportunity - staring at the number 1 pick in the upcoming draft with chance to pick up their QB of the future. Question is, do they spend that pick on one of the QB's in this draft class? We don't know the answer to this question, but we have fortunately been given some insight into what attributes O'Brien is looking for in his next QB.

If the Texans veer away from picking up one of the top QBs with their number one pick then they will be looking at the possibility of playing Chase Keenum or recently acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick as their offensive leader, and neither have had a winning season in their careers. For me this is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the upcoming draft, and will make a substantial difference to how the Redskins approach this game.

Whilst we are now to theorise that the Texans running game is not going to be as prevalent as previous years we also have to wonder about Arian Foster. Coming off a bad year of injuries and questions about his status as one of the premier backs in the game, Foster has a lot to prove. Furthermore, the Texans can no longer rely on one of the better back up RB's in the league. Ben Tate joined the Cleveland Browns in this year's free agency; so Foster's reputation as being fragile may be a crucial factor in how much playing time he gets as the Texans could limit his snaps. As an insurance policy to Foster, the Texans picked up Andre Brown from the Giants, however he is not the long term answer for the Texans at this position, and it is anticipated that the Texans will pick up a running back or two in the draft, or from UDFA's later in the year to bolster this position. Nevertheless, it looks like the Redskins will have to face a healthy Arian Foster on the opening weekend, just how much a part of the game he will be is up for grabs.

One other consideration is that the Texans will most likely be changing their offensive line personnel and protection to focus more on the passing game. An offensive line that was so geared up to zone blocking schemes will need to be altered to provide better pass protection (similarities with Washington here). On the other hand an upshot of this passing game for Foster is that he is one of the better pass catching backs in the game, so his receptions should see an increase. Either way, the Redskins will provide a litmus test for this aspect of the Texans offensive scheme in week one, and if I am Haslett I am looking at Foster very closely coming out of that backfield.

The Texan's offensive line is very much a similar group to the Redskins. Both lines gave up comparable amounts of sacks in 2013. Prior to this season both lines have been built around zonal blocking schemes meaning they lean towards more athletic, lighter players. Whether these players will be able to provide the protection required for a QB under a new pass heavy scheme is something both sets of coaches will be looking at come training camp. Right tackle remains a major concern for this team (talking purely Texans now, but this still applies to the Redskins), and they could add depth at guard, so don't be surprised to see them pick one or two linemen up in the upcoming draft.

When it comes to the tight ends, the Texans lost Owen Daniels during free agency, but they did manage to bring free agent Garrett Graham back to Houston after he successfully filled in for the injured Daniels during 2013. Graham is a good tight end who can be a threat in the open field, however should he be lost to injury or not live up to his 2013 form the Texans have little in reserve. This is another position that they will look to bolster during the remaining offseason, and try to bear in mind O'Brien's background at the Patriots when you think of the type of player they would like to target. He likes his mismatches.

Looking at wide receiver, the Texans are pretty set for the 2014 season at least. They have one of the best receivers in the game in Andre Johnson, and he will be licking his lips with this new offensive scheme (QB dependant of course). Obviously in the near future the Texans will be looking to replace the 32 yr old Johnson, but he will be back as their number 1 WR for this season at least. On the other side of the field we have De'Andre Hopkins who had a solid rookie season and showed that he was worth his late 1st round pick status. He will get better and more consistent, and should also shine in this new offense. They have some names behind these two threats to add some depth, but due to Johnson's age, the teams lack of depth, and a deep WR class this year I could see the Texans picking up a WR in this draft - although not an essential need.

To summarise, we have a potentially explosive offense brewing here, with the majority of parts in place to run O'Brien's hi-octane offense. However the quarterback situation looks like it will not be resolved this year, and unless they can magically pull one out of their sleeve this could be a big factor in how well the team manages to adapt to this new system.

On the defensive side of things, the Texans made another coaching change, bringing in Romeo Crennel. O'Brien would have been well aware that under Belichek the Patriots never won a Super Bowl without Crennel running the defense.

Crennel will be taking over a well oiled unit. Previous coach Wade Phillips had them ranked No. 7 overall in total defense in 2013 despite their awful season. They were also No. 7 in 2012, and No. 2 in 2011. These are impressive rankings, especially when you consider that before Phillips joined the Texans they were ranked 30th in 2010. Obviously Phillips was let go as the decks were cleared in the offseason, but Crennel will be thanking Phillips privately for leaving him with a good hand.

One area I am really interested in seeing is the new scheme from Crennel. Phillips traditionally ran a 3-4 that we will be looking to see in Washington in 2014. That is a one gap system that allows players to rush the passer and make plays in the backfield. Crennel, however, will be looking to run a more traditional 2-gap, 3-4 defense, in which the defensive linemen are responsible for the two gaps either side of them. This means that linemen can not over commit to one side of their blocker, and as such spend a lot of the time with their head up and controlling the blocker in front of them. It will be interesting to see how Crennel views the personnel he has at his disposal on that line, as a traditional 3-4 lineman is more bulky and powerful than a pass rushing one gap player. The draft will be a good indication if he feels change is required here, and the Texans have a natural need at NT regardless of any scheme, so we will see how this impacts a unit that has recorded good numbers over the last few years when it comes to rushing the passer and stopping the run.

The one elephant in the room (football terminology pun there) when saying that the Texans will move to a two gap 3-4 is of course the superstar that is J.J. Watt. The 25yr old phenomenal defensive end is one of the most dynamic players in the league. Whilst his 2013 performance was not as eye popping as 2012, he is a major force to be reckoned with. Becoming a two gap defensive end would restrict Watt's freedom to be a playmaker, so the Texans will have to seriously consider this schematic change and how it will impact their best player. MMQB ran a good but short piece on this here, and it is worth a read not least for the background to my pun above. My guess is that Crennel tries to employ some hybrid elements to maximise his best player's abilities while introducing some 2-gap components.

Furthermore on Watt, his level of play is starting to warrant a look at his contract. You have to wonder if this off field distraction will affect his on field play. This mock negotiation between his agent and the team really puts into context how valuable Watt is to the Texans.

Naturally the Redskins and in particular RGIII will need to be on guard against Watt. His ability to bat down passes has given rise to a new awareness of this particular statistic - one which he totally dominates. Last year RGIII had a number of batted passes so this is an area I will be keeping an eye on closely when the teams play in September.

Finally, we can't talk about the Texans defensive line without talking about the possibility that they may also line up with with Watt and Clowney in September, although the 1 gap vs 2 gap notes above apply to Clowney as well. Clowney is also a more natural 4-3 DE, but either way it is a scary thought.

Alongside the defensive line we have the outside linebackers, and this is an area that the Texans are seriously looking to bolster during this year's draft. In 2013 the Texans OLB combo of Brooks Reed and disappointing 2012 draft pick Whitney Mercilus, did not deliver the goods in 2013. The Texans will look to add to this group in 2014. Again, the 2-gap system we have been talking about puts extra responsibility on OLBs. Just ask Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan how excited they are this season.

Behind the defensive line and outside backers we have another star, however this one comes with a big disclaimer sticker on it. Brian Cushing is a fantastic inside linebacker for the Texans. When he plays, he is a true leader on that defense, however the important part of this sentence is the first word. When. Cushing suffered a season ending ACL injury in 2012, and then broke his leg and tore his LCL (ouch) in week 7 clash against the Chiefs in 2013. In between those injuries Cushing has put up good numbers, so if he can come back once again from this latest major injury then the Texans will be thankful. Needless to say that two major injuries in such a short space of time are not easy to come back from, especially for a position with such a necessity for forceful contact. He should be fit for week 1, but there may well be some rust for Cushing to shake off before he gets back to his best. The Texans have also lost Darryl Sharpton to the Redskins this offseason, meaning they are quite thin at ILB, however they did pick up Jeff Tarpinian (recently overcame brain surgery) from the Patriots, and have a couple of other bodies to help out. I think this is an area of need for them.

In the secondary the Texans have recently acquired former Miami Dolphin Chris Clemons, and Kansas City Chief Kendrick Lewis, to sure up the safety position, however they lost Danieal Manning in free agency. Last year the Texans gave up a lot of big plays due to limited safety performance, and cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson did not help much either. They are both above-average NFL corners, but they need support over the top. Personally I don't think the Texans have that with Clemons, so this is a group that is vulnerable. However, with the pass rush the Texans could potentially have at their disposal (see above re Clowney), the secondary could benefit from flustered QBs throwing under pressure.

That all considered, my feeling on the Texans defense is that it is very top heavy. There are lots of ifs, buts and maybes here, and much depends on Watt, Cushing and that defensive line staying healthy and making plays. If teams can neutralise this heavy front then they could expose the secondary and thin linebacking core - as was the case in 2013. I think the Texans will still be strong against the run, so teams will need a passing game to beat this defense.

Overall I see the Texans improving on 2013. To be honest it should not be not hard for a team with their talent, but they need their big players to make their marks again, otherwise they are relying on an average and thin roster. Questions over the QB position remain, and only the draft will clear that situation up. Either way they will be looking at starting with a second tier QB or a rookie under centre. Will they be able to handle O'Brien's offense from week 1? I think it may take a while to bed in, and as such the Texans could be involved in a lot of close games. I expect that offense to turn the ball over a bit, so that defense will need to step up to minimise the impact of this.

In terms of the match up with the Redskins the key things to watch out for will be:

  • The Texans pass rush. Not just against the Redskins notorious pass protection, but how will J. J Watt be used in Crennel's system? On the flipside, will RGIII find time in the pocket to get the ball to his talented set of receivers? Can he keep the ball safe?
  • How will Alfred Morris fare against the stout Texans defensive line? On the flipside how will the Texans notoriously stingy run defense adopt the potential new system from Crennel?

  • How well will our defense rush the Texans QB (who could be either a second string QB or a rookie). Indications suggest that we will be letting our playmakers loose on defense, so how will this affect the Redskins pass rush and run defense?

  • If that pass rush is not getting home, can the Redskins secondary stay with Andre Johnson and De'Andre Hopkins? Can De'Angelo Hall shutdown Johnson as he does with Bryant and other #1 WRs? How many turnovers can we force?

  • How will O'Brien integrate his offensive philosophies onto the Texans? How will the players respond?

  • Can the Redskins neutralise Foster in both the running game and as a check down receiver?

So that's it for the Texans, our week 1 opponents. Next week we will look at the Jacksonville Jaguars who could be more tricky than people expect.

How do you guys think we will do against the Houston Texans?

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