Saturday, September 28, 2013

Unexpected Reasons For Optimism In Houston

Seattle will probably lose in Houston. That is what I thought before the season. That is what I thought after seeing the increasing pile of injuries on the Seahawks offensive line. The Texans have a strong running game and a dominating defensive line. Their strengths seemed to line up too well with the Seahawks weaknesses to expect a victory away from Seattle. Or, so I thought before watching every snap Houston has played so far this season. Every play made it more difficult to be intimidated by what the Texans do. Their strengths were not quite as strong as I thought, and their weaknesses are more pronounced. Seattle can win this game tomorrow. Seattle should win this game tomorrow.

Texans Offense Is Predictable And Tame

A balanced offense is an under-appreciated formula for scoring points in the NFL. Seattle and San Francisco have been credited with bringing back the beauty of a run-first style, but Houston deserves at least as much credit. They come with a lethal running back pairing of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, and a well-coached offensive line. Matt Schaub is happy to work off the run with play-action passes and methodically work down the field. The problem for Houston is they are facing a defense that is uniquely suited to spoil their approach.

The Seahawks are almost certainly going to sit Kam Chancellor down in the box to discourage the run, and dare Schaub to go over them. Schaub has not shown a propensity for doing that so far. He is second-to-last in the NFL in percentage of pass attempts that travel more than 20 yards in the air (6.3%), according to ProFootballFocus.com. Russell Wilson, by comparison throws over 20 yards 13.7% of the time, more than double. One of the things you need to throw over the top is time. The Texans line has been struggling terribly to provide that time, and looks like it will be without Duane Brown at left tackle. Seattle brings arguably the best pass rush Houston has faced.

Chancellor stepping up to limit the run, combined with corners equipped to disrupt timing, and a defensive line that can bring pressure with four players leaves Houston with very little to fall back on. 

Andre Johnson has not looked like himself so far this year. The only game where he averaged over 10 yards per catch was against San Diego in the opener. DeAndre Hopkins already looks like a better receiver. He has made some special catches against tight coverage. Look for Earl Thomas to help Brandon Browner over the top with Hopkins and let Richard Sherman handle Johnson on his own. Do that, and Houston would have to find a big play from a player that has not produced one this year. As good as Owen Daniels is, he is not a threat to stretch the field.

Seattle does not need to have a great game on defense. Their typical performance should be enough to wreak havoc with Houston. An above-average effort could leave the Texans offense struggling to score than the Seahawks defense.

Texans Secondary Not Great

Daniel Manning is the only player in the Texans secondary that ProFootballFocus.com has given a positive ranking in pass coverage to so far. It shows. That is how a defense that is top five in opponent rushing yards per attempt and second in opponent passing yards per game is yielding an opponent passer rating of 94.2. The quality front seven is masking a problem in the secondary. Houston has allowed six passing touchdowns against only one interception, and that one interception came from Brian Cushing, not from the secondary. 

If Tennessee had not shot themselves in the foot with numerous untimely penalties, Jake Locker might have thrown for 270+ yards. None of the quarterbacks Houston has faced has been as elusive as Wilson. If he eludes defenders in his typical fashion, there could be some very big plays available to him. 

The biggest advantage on the field for Seattle might be Doug Baldwin. Eddie Royal is the best slot receiver the Texans have faced so far, and he had two touchdowns in the opening game. Houston has had trouble covering crossing and drag routes. Baldwin should have room to run away from some defenders.

Seattle Running Game Poses Challenges

It is reasonable to wonder why a part of the offense that depends so heavily on the offensive line would be an advantage in a game where Seattle is missing three of their five starters and are going against one of the best run defenses in football. This one is just a hunch. But it is an educated hunch. 

The Texans have not faced a team that runs any read option since playing Cam Newton in 2011. They are well coached on defense, but playing the zone read game takes repetition, and the Texans could well be rusty. Seattle has run very few snaps of that offense so far in 2013, so Houston has even less reason to be focused on stopping it. It also is an offense that reduces the pressure on tackles to seal the edge. Michael Bowie and Paul McQuistan can focus on crashing inside and leaving J.J. Watt or whoever is coming on the other side unblocked. The end decides whether to go after the quarterback or running back, but nobody has to block them. 

All of these factors make it likely the Seahawks will at least test the Texans with read option runs, and possibly feature it more than they normally would.

Even if Seattle just goes with their normal running attack, the Texans have not faced a back remotely like Marshawn Lynch so far this year. Ryan Mathews, Chris Johnson and Bernard Pierce have done little to prepare Houston for Lynch. 


Houston Must Raise Their Game To Win, Not Seattle

The Texans have not played well enough to beat Seattle yet. Their pass protection needs to improve. Their play-calling must be less predictable, and their defense has to go from good to dominant. If Watt and the front seven are running free all game, and can hold the Seahawks offense to around 200 yards, then of course Seattle will have trouble winning. Anything less than a dominant defensive performance for the Texans probably ends in a Seahawk victory. 

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