The Texans boast a dynamic quarterback, a solid receiving corps, and the ability to play a grind-it-out running game. All those elements make for a very dangerous matchup against a shorthanded Chiefs defense.
Let’s dig into the Texans personnel and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down.
Deshaun Watson is having an excellent year thus far, throwing for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns with only a single interception. Watson is solid inside the pocket and out, although he tends to hold onto the ball longer than most quarterbacks. He’s also not afraid to throw into tight coverage and allow his receivers to go up and make a play.
Carlos Hyde started the year on the Chiefs training camp roster before being traded to Houston for offensive tackle Martinas Rankin. Hyde has racked up 310 yards and two touchdowns on a 4.3 yards-per-carry average on the season. He splits time with Duke Johnson in the backfield. Johnson has a 6.4 yards-per-carry average and is a major receiving threat out of the backfield.
The Texans wide receivers are a very strong group, led by arguably the best receiver in the league in DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins is an elite route-runner and excels at the catch-point. Even if Hopkins is double-teamed, Watson will still target him — and it typically works out for the Texans quarterback.
Will Fuller IV lines up opposite Watkins and has fantastic straight-line speed. He’s also strong at the catch point, making him a terrifying vertical threat that requires safety help for most cornerbacks. As part of a trade with the Miami Dolphins earlier this season, Kenny Stills also joins this receiving group. He too, is a dangerous vertical threat, although he missed last week’s contest and officially listed as questionable to go. Second-year receiver Keke Coutee will get some run with the receivers as well.
The Texans routinely utilize two-tight end sets with Darren Fells and Jordan Akins. Fells is typically more of an attached blocker than Akins is, but both are dangerous pass-catchers. Fells, in particular, is a target for Watson in the red zone, while Akins has the athleticism to line up in the backfield and abuse linebackers in coverage.
Houston has a mix of established veterans and young players along their offensive line. The blockbuster trade with the Dolphins not only saw the Texans acquire Stills, but also Laremy Tunsil to play left tackle. He is a top-notch player at the position and has helped to stabilize Watson’s blindside. Across from him is rookie Tytus Howard. Howard is athletic and strong, but he needs plenty of technique refinement to play at a high level in this league.
On the interior of the offensive line, former Chief Zach Fulton lines up at right guard. He’s been a steady presence and has helped the rookie tackle adapt to the game quickly. Rookie Max Scharping starts at left guard and he too needs help, particularly with quicker rushers. If Chris Jones were healthy and active for this game, this would be a serious mismatch that favors the Chiefs. Four-year veteran Nick Martin anchors the interior at center.
The offensive concept: Empty Cover 2 Beaters
Houston knows that they have dynamic vertical threats and that they'll see lots of C2. They'll go empty and run three hitches to pull the 5 underneath defenders forward.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 10, 2019
Vertical releases outside keep the safeties honest. Hopkins' cut behind the LB's results in easy yards. pic.twitter.com/R8odas5cfY
Houston knows the kind of vertical threat that they present. Teams regularly defend their receiving corps with safeties shaded over the top of Hopkins and Fuller to try and limit their downfield effectiveness. That’s why they implement so many Cover 2 beating concepts, particularly from empty sets.
The above play has the Texans in an empty 3x2 formation on second-and-8. The Texans have their two best receivers lined up as the No. 2 to each side of the formation. The Atlanta Falcons have two deep safeties to keep a lid on the defense.
The Texans run hitch routes from both No. 1 receivers and the No. 3 receiver. Due to the coverage rules for Cover 2, this freezes both boundary cornerbacks to cover the hitches to their respective sides and sucks the linebackers up to the No. 3 receiver.
Hopkins clears linebacker depth and cuts inside on the dig route behind the sinking outside linebacker. With the No. 3 receiver pulling the MIKE linebacker to the strong side, the throwing window is open to hit Hopkins before the safety can get downhill quickly enough to break up the pass.
This is a tough concept for a Cover 2 defenses to counter. If the safeties begin collapsing on the dig route too early, Houston can adjust and have Hopkins attack vertically along the boundary, leaving the safety with more ground to cover. There’s also a wide-open Akins to the field if Watson is forced to continue through his progressions that the safety is late to rotate toward.
Defending this concept is entirely about trust. The center of the field is going to be stressed, with the strong apex needing to collide with the No. 2 and drive on the No. 3. The MIKE has to trust that the apex can get back to the No. 3, allowing him to stay in the middle of the field and shrink the throwing window. The hook and apex defenders also have to trust that the defensive line will keep Watson in the pocket, allowing them the ability to gain further depth on their zone drops to rob routes over the middle. Finally — as with any zone scheme — the players have to trust that they can pass off receivers to adjacent zones and that their teammate will be there and correctly defend the route concept.
The bottom line
The Texans are a bad matchup for a healthy Chiefs defense, let alone a banged-up version.
I expect Houston to dial up plenty of deep passing concepts without Chris Jones to collapse the pocket. That will stress the Chiefs safeties and cornerbacks vertically and force them to try to make a play on the ball. Thus far this season, that’s been a problem for the cornerbacks. I don’t anticipate that drastically changing this week.
The Texans will also attack the shorthanded interior of the Chiefs defense with the run game this week. We know that Carlos Hyde doesn’t have particularly great burst or acceleration, but his vision between the tackles could decimate a backup defensive line and linebacker rotation.
There are opportunities for the Chiefs to succeed, however. They won’t have to worry about the stretch run as much this week, allowing the linebackers to tee off on interior gaps and play between the tackles. Steve Spagnuolo has done well to give the Chiefs defensive backs opportunities to turn the ball over through late rotation thus far this year. It’s entirely possible that Watson may try to thread the needle and get caught by Tyrann Mathieu spinning down as a hook defender.
This game might come down to who makes the least mistakes. We know that Houston will probably put up points and find success on this side of the ball, but if the Chiefs can force a couple mistakes in front of a raucous Arrowhead crowd on Sunday, that might tip the scales in their favor.