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Redskins Recon: Week 1 at Houston Texans

Welcome to the first in a series taking a detailed look at the Redskins 2014 opponents. Today we will be focusing our attention on our week 1 matchup versus 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.

Larry French

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? Unfortunately for Houston fans it was all a mirage...

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 on to finish an astonishing 2-14. This included a mid season firing of long serving coach Gary Kubiak, who had an especially horrible year, having suffered a heart attack during their game against the Colts. Fortunately he recovered, but he was then let go with three games left in the season.

The wheels came off dramatically for the Texans in 2013. It highlighted a fragility in a team and coaching staff that 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. So 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 prepare to face this team in week 1 of the 2014 season. The Texans have already 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 high scoring 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, and he helped them to a couple of winning seasons despite the sanctions placed on their recruiting. Since O'Brien was hired in Houston the Texans have brought in 16 new coaches and assistants, yet O'Brien has still 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. 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 - I can't recommend this strongly enough for those that love learning about the technical side of football.

To summarise for those who didn't read the above article, 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 question marks - 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 it certainly helps when you have one, and if you are playing reasonably well every year and not winning championships you are also not getting the top draft picks. You are then 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. In the recent draft the Texans picked up Tom Savage in the 4th round. Savage is 6'4" and by all accounts he has a cannon for an arm, but is very raw and will take time to learn the finer points of the NFL. Many people think Savage will be a perfect fit for the Texans offense, which we will have to wait and see for ourselves, but until then we have fortunately been given some insight into what attributes O'Brien is looking for in his next QB. Again, for the time poor it is basically Tom Brady.

We don't know if Savage will be playing in week 1, so the Redskins also need to prepare to face Case Keenum or recently acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick, and neither have had a winning season in their careers. Reports are also still circulating that the Texans could trade with (you guessed it)  the Patriots for Ryan Mallett who would bring with him the required knowledge of the offense that O'Brien is looking to install in Houston. For me this is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the Redskins approach this game, and longer term could it define the Texans' season.

As 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 recent fragility may be a crucial factor in how much playing time he gets as the Texans could limit his snaps to keep him healthy. As an insurance policy to Foster, the Texans picked up Andre Brown from the Giants, and more recently Alfred Blue in the draft, so we will see how much playing time these two get in this Texan's offense. Regardless, 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 looking at their offensive line to focus more on the passing game. An offensive line that was so geared up to zone blocking schemes will need to provide better pass protection (more 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 the Texans running backs and how they fit into this offensive scheme in week one, and if I am Haslett I am looking at Foster very closely coming out of that backfield, with the ball or without it.

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 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, and they picked up a guard (Su'a-Filo) in the 2nd round of the draft who is a big body and widely seen as one of the best interior linemen in this class. A few other guards and tackles have been added from undrafted free agency, so we will see if this makes an impact on this group, but I feel that this line can be targeted.

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 only rookie C.J. Fiedorowicz (3rd round) in reserve. As mentioned already O'Brien likes his mismatches, and we should bear in mind his past history at the Patriots.  Fiedorowicz is 6'6" and 265 pounds - almost a Gronkowski clone if I ever saw one. Look for him to feature early in the Texans offense, and the Redskins would do well to keep an eye on him when he is on the field for those classic option routes we have seen from the Patriots over the years.

Looking at wide receiver, the Texans are pretty set for the 2014 season - unless recent trade talks from Andre Johnson become a reality. They have one of the best receivers in the game in Johnson, and he should be licking his lips with this new offensive scheme. Obviously in the near future the Texans will be looking to replace the 32 yr old wide receiver, but he should be back as their number 1 WR for this season at least. Missing out on offseason activities may cause issues with learning the new offense and getting to know his new QB's, so I actually think that he may start the season slowly. 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 and the teams lack of depth, I am surprised the Texans didn't pick up a new weapon in this years draft. I think if they had known about Andre Johnson's plans before the draft it would have changed their approach considerably.

To summarise, we have a potentially explosive offense brewing here, with many parts already in place to run O'Brien's hi-octane offense. However the quarterback situation is a gamble, and unless they can magically pull out a huge coup in taking Savage late in the draft it could be a big factor in how well the team manages to adapt to this new system. The WR situation with Johnson is one to keep an eye on in the next few weeks, and the Redskins should remember the name 'Fiedorowicz'.

On the defensive side of things, the Texans made another coaching change and brought 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, and he needed experience to take up the defensive side of things while he installs his new offense.

Crennel will be taking over a well oiled unit and should be licking his lips after the recent draft. 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 reportedly we will be seeing 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 has provided them with a new big nose tackle in Louis Nix, who can play the two gap system naturally, and they also drafted further depth at DE with Jeoffry Pagan.

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 25 year 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.

Final point here, we can't talk about the Texans defensive line without talking about the number one pick in this year's draft - Jadeveon Clowney. Having Watt and Clowney should be against the rules, and the Redskins will need to be very wary come September. Having said that the 1 gap vs 2 gap notes above apply to Clowney as well. Clowney is a natural 4-3 DE, so how they line him up will be a very interesting feature of this game. Recent reports are suggesting the Clowney will feature as an outside linebacker, with Brooks Reed moving to ILB alongside Cushing. Either way, Trent Williams will need to have one of his better games to neutralise Clowney at the line of scrimmage.

Alongside the defensive line we have the outside linebackers, I felt this was an area that the Texans would seriously look to bolster during this year's draft, yet they left it untouched (perhaps knowing their plans for Clowney as described above). In 2013 the Texans OLB combo of Brooks Reed and (disappointing 2012 draft pick) Whitney Mercilus, did not deliver the goods.  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 to be let off the leash. Perhaps Clowney will be used as an OLB in certain situations which would solve a lot of issues surrounding his usage in the Crennel system? We just don't know, and we are unfortunate enough to be the guinea pigs for the rest of the league on this one.

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 healthy 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 (guess who) Patriots, and have a couple of other bodies to help out. I think this is area of weakness 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. They also have promising rookie D. J. Swearinger who found himself thrust into the front lines last year after injuries to other starters. 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, and Swearinger needs time to develop, so this is a group that is vulnerable. That all said, with the pass rush the Texans could potentially have at their disposal the secondary could benefit from flustered QBs throwing under pressure. The draft also saw them bring in CB Andre Hal and Safety Lonnie Ballentine in the later rounds, but it is doubtful they will provide immediate help here.

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, Clowney, 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 the talent at their disposal, 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, despite picking up Savage in the draft, he is still a rookie and no doubt that will be mentioned in the Redskins game plan meetings. Will Savage 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 and Clowney 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?
  • Is the old RGIII back? Has his footwork improved? How will he play under this new offense?

  • 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 rookie Tom Savage). 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?

  • Will Andre Johnson come back 100%? Will he be distracted?  Will he even be there?!

  • 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?