Without a public training camp and preseason games, it still doesn’t feel quite real. But the Kansas City Chiefs defense will line up against Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans offense on Thursday night, as the Chiefs open the NFL season at Arrowhead Stadium.
The last time these two teams took the field, the headlines were about the Chiefs offense dominating the Texans defense. However, the Chiefs defense also played well, helping to shut down the Texans during a 51-7 scoring run to close out the game.
While the Chiefs defense has retained most of their personnel from that game, the Texans are a bit different than the last time they lined up in Kansas City. With that in mind, let’s dig into the Texans personnel — and a concept we may see on Thursday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and help kickstart the #RunItBack tour of 2020.
Fresh off a new contract signing, Deshaun Watson again helms the Texans in 2020. Patrick Mahomes notwithstanding, Watson is one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the league. With his arm talent and his mobility, he’s a difficult matchup for any defense — and is looking to continue his fantastic career against a young Chiefs secondary that is missing some pieces.
Perhaps the biggest offseason Texans news was the trade that sent stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for draft picks and running back David Johnson. Johnson is reported to be great shape — and is likely to get the lion’s share of the carries to start the season after the Texans parted ways with Carlos Hyde. Duke Johnson should continue to get significant third-down snaps — even though David Johnson is no slouch in the passing game.
Since the Texans also needed to fill the void left by Hopkins, they traded an early pick to the Los Angeles Rams for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Despite bouncing around to three different teams over the last four years, Cooks has been a productive receiver for most of his career — although last season, he struggled to make a major impact with the Rams. Will Fuller — a true deep threat — will line up opposite Cooks. Fuller is a fantastic vertical field stretcher, but he struggles to stay healthy. He will, however, be on the field against the Chiefs.
The Texans also acquired Randall Cobb in free agency — and still have wide receivers Kenny Stills and Keke Coutee, too. Even though the Texans traded away a wideout who is arguably the best in the league, their receiver group might be able to get it done — as long as Watson spreads the ball around.
Houston also loves to utilize multiple tight end sets to get good matchups against slower second-level defenders. Tight ends Darren Fells and Jordan Akins — two of their most-impactful players — are back. Fells had his best game of the season against the Chiefs linebackers in Week 6 of last year, and Akins made several key drive-extending catches as a move tight end.
Finally, the Texans boast a competent offensive line — one that is healthy to start the season. In the offseason, left tackle Laremy Tunsil received a big contract extension so he can continue to stabilize Watson’s blind side. First-round pick Tytus Howard is returning at right tackle after injuries shortened his rookie season. Zach Fulton, Max Scharping and Nick Martin are all solid interior linemen who will look to nullify the Chiefs’ Chris Jones.
The offensive concept: Play-action split zone concepts
KC's Week 6 matchup against HOU saw lots of split zone and split zone PA.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 6, 2020
OL zone block to strong side, TE back across formation. DE w/ eyes in backfield at the mesh point with small redirection of TE. WILL playing run can't get to flat, clearout verticals mean no DB in flat. pic.twitter.com/sFiwo6GgUg
Bill O’Brien gets a lot of derision for his abilities as a general manager, but he’s truly a fantastic offensive play-caller. You need to look no further than last season’s Week 6 game to see how O’Brien was able to manipulate the Chiefs front with split-zone play action.
Houston leaned on 11 and 12 personnel — with a tight end aligned as an H-back and a zone-blocking scheme. With the line blocking to the strong side of the formation, the tight end comes across the formation toward an unblocked defensive end. In a typical split-zone run, the tight end would seal the defensive end — and the running back would read his gaps and hit the hole.
But O’Brien recognized Spagnuolo’s tendencies early in the game. So he faked the tight-end block, had Watson pull the handoff from the mesh point and look for the tight end in the flat.
In this particular example, Fells matches up in man coverage from Darron Lee. Reading the keys from the offensive line, Lee initially plays the run — and was late to see Fells in the flat, resulting in a big play.
HOU used fast motion to cause misdirection at the second level as well.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 6, 2020
KC in their nickel and in zone coverage. Motion moves the BUCK to the flat. DE biting on the run action allows a free release to the flat by the TE. BUCK has back to ball and can't bring down short of sticks pic.twitter.com/6G6CD7orr6
O’Brien also preyed on zone coverage from this split-zone look, using fast motion by the wide receiver. Motioning the receiver across the formation helps to pull the apex defender — in this case, a linebacker — out wide, creating space in the flat with some vertical clear-out routes.
This play shows what can happen if the defensive end doesn’t identify the play quickly enough to get a piece of the tight end — like Frank Clark did on the previous play. Here, if the defensive end is able to get his hands on the tight end — delaying the release into the flat — Damien Wilson is likely turned back to the play and might have been able to make the stop short of the sticks. But as it stands, the quick release into the flat catches the defense off-balance, resulting in a first down.
With KC off-balance, the split-zone run game started chewing up yards and wearing out the defense.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 6, 2020
Over front leaves RT and RG free to climb to the next level. Unblocked DE stuck watching the mesh point as TE comes across formation. Giant hole and an easy read for the RB. pic.twitter.com/6JLKpRbhMD
Later in the game, O’Brien used the Chiefs’ adjustments and hesitation against these looks to run some split-zone rushing plays.
With the Chiefs defensive ends a little more tentative to attack the run — and delaying their attack to fully read the mesh — the Texans rushing attack became more effective. The linebackers were also hesitant to attack downhill, seeking out the tight end coming across the formation and allowing the offensive line to easily climb and eliminate them from the play. As we see here — with the defense was playing a step slower due to the early play action — the result is a big play.
The bottom line
There are a lot of big questions about where the Texans offense will funnel the ball to start the season. That alone makes it difficult to prepare for them.
But their dynamic weapons — and the quantity of those weapons — are what scare me. They’ll be playing against a secondary that could be starting a rookie corner — and may also have a starting safety on a snap count. There’s little doubt that the Texans will often throw the ball against this potential weak spot in the Chiefs defense — and Bill O’Brien is creative enough to keep the defense off-balance.
Still, in the playoff matchup, we saw defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo make adjustments to help facilitate the Chiefs comeback, so it’s not unreasonable to expect he can feel out the early part of the game and do it again. If the Chiefs can nullify some of the early miscues — like the pump-and-go touchdown over Charvarius Ward in the playoffs — then I think we can see the Chiefs defense grow into the game quickly.
As will be the case throughout the season, if the Chiefs defense can hold through the first half of the game — and the inevitable points scored by the Chiefs offense — they’ll likely have ample opportunities to pin their ears back and rush the passer; Clark and Jones will lead the way. In the secondary, it could also be a good early look at an improved Ward, rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and new addition Antonio Hamilton.
Back in January, the Chiefs’ defense played a big role in ending the Texans’ season. If the defense can return at that same level, we just might see that 51-7 run grow larger.