Every year, without fail, there is one NFL team that manages to defy all logic. There are examples both positive (2007 Giants) and negative (2012 Chiefs), but one thing is inevitable: somebody is going to make history.
Everyone, I'd like you to meet the 2013 Houston Texans.
Over the past few weeks, I've worked tirelessly to present statistical anomalies for your entertainment. Try a few of these on for size:
1. Houston opponents are averaging 11 points per game off turnovers, the highest total ... in a decade.
2. In the last 24 years, the most pick-sixes thrown in a season is eight. Texans QBs have thrown five in six games.
3. Houston's defense is giving up 30 points per game (28th) and just 250 yards (1st).
4. The Texans are averaging 140-plus yards more than their opponents while being outscored by an average of 12 points per game.
Don't worry, I've got more. That was just an appetizer... and a tasty one at that.
The Texans (2-4) are coached by Gary Kubiak, a former Bronco player and coach now in his eighth season guiding this franchise. Despite winning the AFC South two consecutive years and posting 22 regular season wins over that span, the stench of the current season is starting to chip away at Kubiak's job security. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is also a former Broncos player and coach, hired by Kubiak in 2010 to help develop their zone-running game. Wade Phillips is in his third season as defensive coordinator and prior to this season's results, was running one of the most dominant units in the NFL.
Since the arrival of Rick Dennison in 2010, the Texans have blossomed into one of the most balanced offensive units in the NFL. They finished last season 12-4 and were in the top 10 of every major offensive category you can think of. One of the keys to their success in 2012 was how rarely they turned the ball over - just 17 giveaways on the season. Through six games this year, they already have 15 turnovers.
Matt Schaub is the starting quarterback for Houston. .. but for how long, we don't know. He was injured last week against St. Louis and much to the chagrin of Eric Winston (and Brian Cushing), a sickening and disgusting number of fans cheered the arrival of backup QB TJ Yates. The cheers didn't last long, however, as Yates extended the Texans' streak to five consecutive games throwing a pick-six en route to a 38-13 blowout loss.
Amateur Hour spoke to forer KC radio host Nick Wright, who is now covering the Texans in Houston, and when asked about the quarterbacks, Nick said the Texans coaches have been rather cagey thus far. Now we know Schaub isn't playing and Yates' level of play against St Louis was atrocious, that leaves Case Keenum as the starter.
Houston is loaded at running back with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. This is one of those rare situations where a team has two legitimate players for a short time (see: Priest / LJ or LaDainian Tomlin / Michael Turner). Foster is the clear starter and has taken the bulk of the workload (a bit better than a 2-1 ratio) but Tate is averaging over five yards a carry and has shown some explosive ability. It's worth nothing that this isn't a thunder / lightning type of combo - Foster and Tate are both feature backs with an elite combination of speed, power and soft hands. The Texans are fifth in the league in rushing and given the ineptitude of the QB position right now, they may just decide to run the ball 50 times on Sunday.
Stud tight end Owen Daniels is out for about two months with a broken leg, leaving Houston with Garrett Graham as the current starter. Graham's numbers with Daniels in the lineup were pretty respectable as the Texans routinely employed two tight end sets. While they may not abandon that principle, I expect the tight ends to take a major hit in production.
Andre Johnson is still one of the five best receivers in the NFL. He's averaging 7 catches for 83 yards this year and with the absence of Owen Daniels, may see his targets increase even more. The other starter is DeAndre Hopkins, a rookie first round pick out of Clemson. Hopkins started the season strong including a 7-117-1 line against Tennessee... but in his last three games has tallied just 7seven receptions for less than 100 yards. Lester Jean, DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin don't see much action due the two tight end heavy sets that Houston prefers.
Left tackle Duane Brown was given a very hefty contract extension prior to last season and has continued to play at a high level. To his right are veterans Wade Smith (LG) and Chris Myers (C), neither of which are the type to dominate you at the LOS, but will surprise you with sound technique and quickness. Myers is Pro Football Focus' top rated center in the NFL. Brandon Brooks (RG) and Derek Newton (RT) are both very young and wildly ineffective to this point in their careers. Newton is the lowest ranked player regardless of position on the Houston Texans. As a unit, they've allowed the second-most quarterback hits in the NFL, a major factor in the number of turnovers from their quarterbacks.
How to defend them
With so many variables at play regarding the quarterback position, this won't be an easy week of preparation for Chifes defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. One thing is certain: if Houston wants to turn this ship around and re-establish themselves as a competitive team, they better commit to the run game.
Mike DeVito has quietly gone about having a fantastic season but he'll have his hands full on Sunday with Brown and Smith. He and Tamba will need to anchor in the run game and keep Akeem Jordan free to make plays. Kendrick Lewis has a tendency to shy from contact, so when Houston runs left the Chiefs need to get after them in the first few yards ... otherwise, it could get ugly.
Regardless of who is playing quarterback this week, the Chiefs have a distinct advantage against the pass. The Texans may attack the right side in the run game, but the Chiefs will be relentless on the right against the two youngsters they have on the o-line. Did I mention the Texans right tackle was the lowest rated player on the team by PFF? Justin Houston is hungry, son. The combination of lethal pass rush and remarkable coverage has created a stunning number of turnovers. Meanwhile, Houston's offense has seen many a drive end in giveaways.
A little context: The Chiefs defense has allowed seven total touchdowns so far this season... Houston's offense has given up six of their own (5 INT, 1 FR).
One of the most puzzling units in the NFL, this Texans defense is putting up some oxymoronic statistics. Let's revert back to a couple numbers I presented to begin the article:
250 ... as in average number of yards the Texans defense is giving up, good for FIRST in the league. They're so effective in this category that second place in defensive yards per game is almost 40 YARDS behind them.
Then we have the number 30 ... as in the points per game for Houston opponents, a mark better than just two teams - the winless Giants and Jags.
Setting the tone up front for Wade Phillips' attacking 3-4 scheme are defensive end Antonio Smith, first year starter at nose tackle Earl Mitchell and reigning defensive player of the year / mythical warrior JJ Watt. In a perfect world, Watt would stay at right end and Branden Albert would win his fair share of battles against that behemoth but unfortunately, Wade Phillips likes to mix up his looks so we should expect to see Watt getting the better of all five Chiefs linemen at times on Sunday.
Houston's linebacking corps took a hit with the loss of Connor Barwin in free agency, leaving Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus as the primary pass rushers. Reed is known as a high motor player that always gives maximum effort, but he hasn't really found his place at this level yet. Mercilus was the Texans' first round pick in 2012 but only started a handful of games as a rookie. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks but seems to be running hot-and-cold on a game-to-game basis. Brian Cushing has played a tremendous season to date, making countless plays against the run and pass. Hard-hitting Joe Mays starts next to Cushing inside - Chiefs fans may remember his borderline dirty plays during his time in Denver, including that vicious hit on Tony Moeaki.
Starting strong safety Danieal Manning was placed on injured reserve this week, a loss that will be felt on both defense and special teams. Manning was an excellent returner and one of the true veteran leaders on this team. Shiloh Keo will be the starter in his place, but don't be surprised if the Texans look to rookie DJ Swearinger at some point. Ed Reed starts at free safety but has shown serious signs of aging, clearly losing a step this season. Corners Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are a fairly solid duo, but if we're being honest, neither of them have been challenged much this season.
Houston's pass defense is only surrendering 130 yards per game, far and away the best in the league. Second place? The Seahawks and Chiefs at almost 190 yards per game. That's a staggering lead on the rest of the NFL. There are a lot of contributing factors, but I have to save some of the fun for the end of this thing.
How to attack them
Stick to the blueprint: Get a lead and play defense.
Kansas City has been successful at this almost every week, leading to an UNDEFEATED record. Houston's defense isn't forcing turnovers (a comical two interceptions, one fumble recogery), largely because they have been playing from behind so teams are staying conservative against them. Their pass rush hasn't been nearly as impressive as you'd think with sacks and pressures down dramatically from last season.
While it may be futile, I'm going to keep calling for Dwayne Bowe to get more attention until it happens ... and then I'll clamor for it to continue. Last week against Oakland, Bowe was targeted just four times. I'm not sure how to diagnose this statistic floating around about Alex Smith leading the league in pass "drop backs", but the fact that it's only resulted in 20 catches for Dwayne Bowe is absurd. If Andy wants to pass so damn much, then by golly let's throw the ball to the best receiver. I'd test this top-ranked Houston unit early and often to see just what they're made of.
Why go begging for trouble, you ask? The Texans have seen the fewest number of pass attempts in the NFL this year at 137, hence surrendering the fewest passing yards by a strong margin. The Chiefs have had to defend 225 passes this season yet still have the second rated pass defense in the NFL. Battle tested, battle proven.
There is one negative to this approach - the Texans have 14 sacks on (basically) 140 pass attempts ... in case you were wondering, getting a sack on 10 percent of plays is ridiculously good. The way I see it: Alex is going to get sacked a few times regardless of the opponent, so we're not exactly playing with fire here.
PS: The Chiefs have 30 sacks on 225 passing plays, but who's counting?
Key advantages for the Texans
1. Running the football - Not only is Houston willing to commit to the run, they're extremely effective when doing so. The problem for them has been patience, mainly because they've played from behind so often this season. The Chiefs aren't an offensive powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, so if Houston leans on their ability to run the ball and plays the field position game, they certainly have a chance to hand the Chiefs their first loss.
2. JJ Watt vs. anyone - This man is essentially un-blockable. Multiple times in 2012 he completely took over games, flashing elite ability to stop the run, get after the QB and swat the ball down at the LOS. To say Kansas City's line has struggled would be kind, looking completely lost on occasion. The Raiders had three sacks in the first quarter last week and they don't have half the talent that Houston does. Kansas City has had issues particularly against stunts in pass protection and Wade Phillips like to get creative with his blitzing.
3. Andre Johnson - Few receivers in the NFL stand-up to what Johnson is capable of. The difference between him and a guy like Dwayne Bowe is that Schaub is never afraid to throw the ball to his top target. Johnson will get plenty of opportunities, so we'll have to see if Marcus Cooper and Sean Smith can continue playing at such an elite level.
Key advantages for the Chiefs
1. Arrowhead freakin' Stadium, ladies and gents - Loudest in the world, right? That happened. So did 10 sacks, 3 INTs and a defensive TD. Houston's line is allowing teams to get after their QB with ease, leading to their embarrassing -12 turnover ratio. It's finally back to the way it should be in Kansas City - a foregone conclusion that the Arrowhead crowd will be hostile for every single opponent.
2. Trajectory - These teams are headed in completely opposite directions. Everything seems to be going the way of the Chiefs while the Texans can't catch a break. Houston has been outscored 72-16 the last two games, one of which was a shameful home performance against the Rams.
3. Injuries - Losing Owen Daniels was difficult enough, but now that Danieal Manning is done for the season and Matt Schaub won't play Sunday, the losses may become insurmountable. Add in the Chiefs very minor injuries outside the tight end position and the deck looks to be stacked in Kansas City's favor.
The bottom line
If you want to beat the Chiefs, you have to be willing to stay patient for 60 minutes of football. Kansas City's game plans are so methodical and precise in all three phases, they leave their opponent very little room for error. We're talking field position, third and manageable, taking sacks when necessary. As soon as you start pressing - especially on offense - they will undoubtedly make you pay.
Regardless of whether it's Matt Schaub, TJ Yates or Case Keenum (Update: It's Case Keenum), the Sea of Red will rattle them, the Chiefs front seven will pressure them and the secondary will capitalize on any mistakes. Given how risk-averse Alex Smith is and how few turnovers the Texans have forced, I don't give Houston much of a chance on Sunday. This mountain looks far too steep for them right now.
Chiefs 23 - Houston 6 - Ryan 3 (extra hours of sleep thanks to the afternoon kickoff)
**Be sure to check out the Amateur Hour Postgame Show shortly following the conclusion of Chiefs vs. Texans this Sunday. Joel will join us with his thoughts from inside the stadium while HisDirknesS and I will wax poetic from my dining room table. See you there. Red Team GOOOOO!