After a much-needed first-round bye, the Kansas City Chiefs face a familiar foe in the Houston Texans. The Chiefs will attempt to avenge a Week 6 loss and advance to the AFC championship game — this time with a significantly healthier defense. The Texans appear to be getting healthier as well and look to have their full offensive attack at their disposal.
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.
The Texans personnel is largely the same as the Week 6 matchup, as I detailed in my advance scouting article that week.
Kenny Stills did not play in the first matchup, and he looks to be ready to go for this Sunday’s contest. Rookie right tackle Tytus Howard left the Chiefs game due to injury and was replaced by Chris Clark. Clark is nursing a concussion but has been a full participant in practice this week.
Will Fuller, Kenny Stills and Jordan Akins have all been limited with leg injuries in practice this week.
The offensive concept: Attacking two-deep and single high safeties
When HOU has Fuller on the field w/ Hopkins, life gets a lot easier on Watson. Single-high vs Two-deep are both gambles.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 9, 2020
1st clip, RB and TE pull the LB's out of the MOF. Hopkins beats press to wide open space. 2nd clip, Watson makes sure safety stays put, hits the go to Fuller pic.twitter.com/x2wneBAmJs
While most of the concepts this year have come from play calls, this week’s effort is the talk of the city: How are the Chiefs going to stop Will Fuller and Deandre Hopkins without Juan Thornhill?
Will Fuller changes this Texans offense drastically. He’s got speed to burn and can threaten deep, forcing defenses to cover the Texans with an extra safety over the top. This lightens the box and allows Houston to generate yards in the run game, making the balance for defensive coordinators very tedious.
Houston is also able to make life easier on Watson when Fuller is on the field by dialing up his first read, depending on the deep safety count. In the above two clips, Watson is able to dial up the play pre-snap and doesn’t have to come off his first read. Two deep safeties? Use the leverage from the tight end and running back to get Hopkins open in the middle of the field. Single high safety? Attack downfield and throw the go route to Fuller.
It seems simple, but time and time again this year, the Texans have attacked defenses in similar ways with success. Not only does it play to the strengths of the offense, it makes Watson comfortable in the pocket. When Watson has to move off his first read, that’s when he pulls the ball down and becomes much more aware of the pocket collapsing.
Steve Spagnuolo has thrown a lot of coverages at teams this year, with many have post-snap rotation. That will be absolutely key for disrupting the read for Watson on Sunday against the Texans. A pre-snap single-high look can evolve into a Tampa 2 shell quickly with Spagnuolo’s coverage call, and that will make Watson have to take an extra beat to make sure his read is correct — or potentially throw into a coverage he shouldn’t.
The bottom line
The Chiefs defense is a completely different animal than the last time these two teams met. Chris Jones’ availability is massive, as the Texans guards struggle with the exact type of skill set that Jones brings to the table. He has the potential to completely wreck the game plan and force Watson into running for his life for most of the game.
Frank Clark is significantly healthier than the last time these two teams played. Clark has become a bit of a game-wrecker in his own right over the last month of the season and is playing his best in a Chiefs uniform at the right time. The Chiefs also added Terrell Suggs and Mike Pennel since Week 6 — two key ingredients in stopping the Texans rushing attack.
Anthony Hitchens also wasn’t involved in the Week 6 matchup. Spagnuolo was quick to point to Hitchens as a key piece missing from that first Texans game, and for good reason. That Week 6 defensive performance was arguably the most disorganized that the defensive front had been all year. Players were in the wrong gaps, stepping all over each other’s assignments, and seemed disconnected from the secondary. Outside of the Tennessee Titans performance, every game Hitchens has called since returning has been a significant step up for the Chiefs defense.
The Texans offense is no pushover. Fuller and Hopkins are special talents that can wreck a game. Akins, Stills, Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson Jr are also dangerous secondary pieces that can play a big factor. On top of all of that, Watson is a good, young quarterback that deserves to be mentioned alongside our own Patrick Mahomes and this year’s probable MVP in Lamar Jackson.
I don’t foresee the Texans being able to milk the clock like they did in the previous matchup. Hitchens’ alignments, coupled with stronger defensive line play should help corral Hyde and force more negative plays on early downs. Getting ahead of the sticks should allow Jones, Clark and Suggs to truly tee off in their four-man rushes and should let Spagnuolo dial up some more exotic coverages on the back-end.
Finally, expect the blitz and expect it often. We know that Spagnuolo likes to be aggressive and send the house to throw quarterbacks off their game. That marries well with the Texans’ poor protection scheme. Watson and his offensive line can seem disjointed at times, and protections don’t get shifted correctly. That leaves free rushers to hit Watson too many times. Against the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round, Watson was sacked seven times and took 12 quarterback hits. Ultimately, the excellent play to free himself from a sack was the tale of the game, but even on that play, the blitz wasn’t properly identified.
I expect to see a fired-up defense that wants to prove the previous matchup was a fluke. They should be able to stop the rushing attack from Houston early, forcing the Texans to throw to keep up. While the passing attack could definitely turn this game into a shootout, I expect a strong four-man rush and a diverse pressure package from Spagnuolo to be the difference in this game and keep the Texans offense from keeping up with the Chiefs offense.