The Houston Texans are the pinnacle example of just how fast things can change in the NFL. Head Coach Bill O’Brien took over the job for the Texans in 2014 after putting himself at the top of the next “Belichick Disciple” list that had not been working out very well despite coming from the most dominant franchise in the game. Houston was coming off a 2-14 season but once O’Brien took over, the team went 9-7 three straight years, made the playoffs twice, and even won a post-season game. There was something missing, however. Brock Osweiler, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Fitzpatrick were the primary quarterbacks for those squads and the organization knew it would not get over the hump without a real player under center, a long-term solution. In the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Houston gave Cleveland a call and offered #25 overall in round one and their 2018 first rounder to move up to #12. Cleveland accepted and allowed O’Brien to get his quarterback, Deshaun Watson from Clemson. Watson tore his ACL halfway through his rookie year and the team went 4-12. But from there, HOU went on to win 22 games in two years including another post-season win, Watson made the Pro Bowl three straight seasons, and he led the NFL in passing in 2020 with just under 5,000 yards. They were on a steady ascent with one of the game’s young stars at quarterback. Fast forward a couple years and Watson forced his way out of town for multiple off-field reasons, HOU is on is third coach in three years, and they’ve won 8 games since the start of the 2021 season. Peaks and valleys.
NYG came into this game off their bye week with a 6-2 record ready to face off against the 1-7-1 Texans. The bye week is used for self-scouting, and it also allows injured players another week of recovery without missing game action. With this staff and the current NYG injury situation, that actually meant something. That showed on the first drives of the game as the NYG defense forced a three-and-out of HOU and the offense responded with a 10-play, 68-yard touchdown-scoring drive that ended in a short pass from Daniel Jones to Lawrence Cager. HOU went on to post two more three-and-outs as Wink Martindale seemed to put all his attention on stuffing HOU rookie running back Dameon Pierce. The first quarter ended at 7-0 and on HOU’s tenth offensive snap of the game, they finally got past the first down marker. That drive, their fourth of the game, ended in a 38-yard field goal by Ka’imi Fairbairn as the game was into the second quarter in a hurry.
Both teams exchanged sloppy offensive drives from there until halftime. Poor snaps, penalties, broken plays, sacks. All of the above were on display between the two teams as both were showing their colors. They came into the game ranked in the bottom third of yards-per-play and points, respectively league-wide. It was discouraging to watch and Daboll was visibly angry with the performance of the offensive line.
The second half began, yet again, with a new form of NYG offense. For the fifth time this season, their opening possession of the third quarter put points on the board. It was a highlight-reel play on 3rd-and-9 where Jones had to fall back with multiple HOU pass rushers bearing down on him as he threw the ball to Darius Slayton just beyond the line of scrimmage. Slayton made safety Jalen Pitre miss and then he turned on the burners, out running most of the HOU secondary to the end zone with some blocking help from by tight end Tanner Hudson.
The HOU offense, as it did for the entire second half, easily moved the ball downfield. They put up seven points of their own on a pass from Davis Mills to Nico Collins for a 12-yard score.
NYG had a 14-10 lead, and the offense came back on the field and put together a beautiful drive. 12 plays, 74 yards, and two 3rd-and-7 conversions on passes led to a 2-yard Barkley touchdown run. After a ten-point first half by the two bottom-third offenses, the second half opened with 21 points in three possessions. HOU drove down the field and found themselves 1st-and-goal from the NYG 9-yard line. Leonard Williams, part of the two-headed monster along the inside of the defensive line, forced a Pierce fumble that was recovered by linebacker Jaylon Smith. The NYG offense did not capitalize, however, as they went three-and-out, but they were able to somewhat reverse the field position.
Once again, HOU was in the red zone with a first down after just two plays. Once again, HOU turned the ball over on a pass into the end zone. Dane Belton came down with it, ensured his feet were in bounds, and stepped out of the field of play in the end zone for a touchback. This time, the offense gained two first downs that helped the field position battle, and more importantly, took time off the clock. HOU was down 11 points with under five minutes remaining. Their offensive surge stayed alive and well, starting on their own 8-yard line and ending up in the red zone with a first down for the fourth time in four second-half possessions. With time running short and the need for two scores no matter what, HOU opted for a 34-yard field goal by Fairbairn.
NYG recovered the ensuing onsides kick. Barkley was stopped two yards shy of the first down marker and HOU used their remaining two timeouts to force NYG into a field goal attempt. Graham Gano nailed a 49-yarder to give them another 11-point lead. HOU, again for the fifth time, made their way back into the red zone and had a first down. Questionable clock management in a game where they absolutely needed to score a touchdown at some point helped NYG seal the deal. Fairbairn hit a 46-yarder to get the game within 8 points again but with just :07 left. Jones took the knee and NYG improved to 4-1 at home, the most wins at MetLife since 2016.
NYG wins, 24-16.
-Daniel Jones: 13/17 – 197 yards / 2 TD – 0 INT / 153.3 RAT
Jones added 24 yards on the ground. Because the situation called for it, Jones was not needed much. Do not mistake this for a lack of ability. Do not mistake this for a lack of confidence from Daboll/Kafka. They were up against the 32nd-ranked HOU run defense (29th-ranked in yards per attempt). NYG had the early lead and never let it go. He is still working with a poor group of pass catchers. He is still playing behind a poor pass blocking offensive line. All these things add up to the reasoning behind Jones only throwing the ball 17 times. In addition, keep your attention on the 11+ yards per attempt and 153.3 QB rating. Both led the NFL in Week 10. Number one in the NFL. Beyond the stat sheet, Jones made good decisions and maneuvered well around pressure. The play he made on the Slayton touchdown was overlooked by some because of the fact Slayton ran a long way to the end zone. That play was more on the shoulders of Jones because of what he did in the pocket, no question.
-Saquon Barkley: 35 att – 152 yards – 1 TD / 1 rec – 8 yards
As noted above, the situation called for a “lean on Barkley” kind of offensive approach. By lean on Barkley, I mean jump on to his back and ride him through the fire. His 35 attempts were a career-high, and those yards were tough-earned. The number one rusher in the NFL did something off the radar I was happy to see. Early in the game, in the red zone, he bounced a run outside that he shouldn’t have. It was the last time he made that mistake. One of the keys to Barkley’s ascent this season is how willing he is to take the two-to-three yard runs rather than sit behind the point-of-attack hoping to create something on his own. Sure, the offensive line has been better and so has the scheme, but Barkley’s aggressive downhill approach has made a huge difference. Lastly, his blocking was on point. He was a weapon against the HOU blitz-heavy attack with violent hits and sustained contact.
-Matt Breida added 20 yards on 6 carries.
-The Bad News Bears got their poster boy back. Kenny Golladay returned to the field for the first time since October 2. He was targeted twice. He dropped both targets. The first one was a tough ball away from his body, but it was catchable. The second one was as bad of a drop as you will find in today’s NFL. Even his teammates and coaches cringed on the sideline. He was soon taken out after that and did not come back into the game.
-Darius Slayton is the group’s saving grace. He had 3 catches for 95 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown emanating from his speed, out-running angles of the HOU secondary. He and Wan’Dale Robinson (2 rec / 20 yards) are both dangerous in their own way. If this offense needs to go more pass happy at some point, they need to be the focal points moving forward.
-Isaiah Hodgins was signed off of the BUF practice squad, where he had previous experience with Daboll, and played a key role right away. He had 2 catches for 41 yards, both resulting in a first down. His separation is limited, but just like he did at Oregon State, he played the ball well in the air and understands the importance of body positioning. With the way Golladay played, I expect Hodgins to get his snaps in the coming weeks.
-Tanner Hudson tied Slayton with the team lead 3 receptions. His went for a combined 24 yards. His biggest play of the day was a downfield block he made on the Slayton touchdown. He stuck to his man, and it also took out a second HOU defender who had a good shot at catching Slayton from behind.
-Hudson was third in snaps at the group, as he is the worst in-line blocker of the trio. Chris Myarick and Lawrence Cager saw more snaps, but both struggled at the point-of-attack. It did not impact the running game badly, but Myarick did allow 2 pressures and dropped a pass. Cager allowed a TFL and a pressure but caught a touchdown in the first quarter two plays after being penalized for an illegal formation. This is going to be an underwhelming group until Bellinger returns and expect to see the high number of extra linemen on the field to help combat that.
-From a macro perspective, the NYG offensive line got the job done. It took a few extra guys at times and their pass protection was below average. But when looking at what they had to do, they won the battle against the HOU front.
-Andrew Thomas graded out well above average, as he threw another shut out in pass protection. He did, however, allow 2 TFL. From a season full of elite grades, this was Thomas’ second-worst game of the year. The thing that made me smirk was that no other lineman on this team has graded as high as Thomas’ second-worst game this season. His high floor is as impressive as his high ceiling.
-The interior of this line was a major weak point when Jones threw the ball. Of the 23 drop backs, the combination of Joshua Ezeudu, John Feliciano, and Mark Glowinski allowed 5 pressures and 2 sacks. Glowinski was the weak point, as he was responsible for 2 of those pressures, a half-sack, and missed a block that ended up causing the TFL on the Robinson rush attempt that lost five yards. Feliciano also allowed 2 pressures but he was in on several key runs as a lead blocker. His athleticism to the outside was a big factor and he played sticky on linebackers. Ezeudu allowed 1.5 sacks but the one at the end of the game I did not count against him. That had more to do with Jones taking the sack on purpose to keep the clock running and it was far away from the point-of-attack. Ezeudu finished as the second-best lineman in the game as his speed and power to the second level factored in on Barkley’s big runs. He was also a key contributor to Barkley’s touchdown. I am encouraged by the fact his play appears to be on an upward track.
-Right tackle Tyre Phillips had a few bad looks. He allowed a sack, a TFL, and was flagged for a false start. His game looks very “all or nothing.” He has tremendous power and size, but if the accuracy is not there, he is an easy guy to beat.
-The extra three lineman that saw snaps were Jack Anderson, Nick Gates, and Matt Peart (just activated for the first time this season). Anderson made a bonehead mistake on a crucial 4th-and-1 that would have been converted. He was flagged for a false start, and it pushed NYG far enough back to force a punt. In a tight game, that could have been a huge mistake.
-Kayvon Thibodeaux finished with 4 tackles and 2 pressures. He made a key 3rd-down stop with an aggressive, physical hit at the point-of-attack and started to break through late in the game. He was held twice (neither were called) late in the game. I’m not sure why he isn’t getting these flags. I never expect the refs to see everything, but these are pretty obvious and they’re right in front of the QB. It’s odd. This was a solid game for Thibodeaux even though he did not fill the stat sheet. More on his first 7 games below.
-Oshane Ximines had a tackle and a pressure along with a PD. He nearly had a sack-fumble, but the call was overturned, rightfully so. Jihad Ward had 1 tackle, 1 sack, and 1 pressure. Tomon Fox added an untouched pressure on his 13 snaps. I still think we are going to see him factor over the second half of the season.
-Just when we thought it couldn’t get better for Dexter Lawrence, he comes out and has arguably his most dominant game of the season. 5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 6 pressures, 1 sack, 2 pass breaks ups. He also forced two holding penalties. This defense is performing at a high level but I’m not sure everyone realizes how much of it points back to him and Leonard Williams, who I will get to next. Lawrence is winning with sheer physical dominance. His hand placement, along with his lockout and lower body leg drive, is simply too much for a lone blocker to handle. It is a lot of fun to watch.
-Leonard Williams was right on par with Lawrence. He had 9 tackles, 4 pressures, a half-sack, and a forced fumble. Williams created big plays for the defense. Two of his pressures led to sacks and his forced fumble was recovered by NYG as HOU was approaching the end zone. Safe to say he is fully back. More on these two monsters down below.
-Henry Mondeaux was back on the field after missing time with a knee injury. He saw 22 snaps and added 1 tackle and a half-TFL on an impressive play on the first drive. Justin Ellis was on the field for 11 snaps and missed a tackle. The game looks a bit too fast for him.
-One casualty of the bye week, regarding playing time, was Tae Crowder. He played just two snaps. Jaylon Smith (41 snaps) and rookie Micah McFadden (36 snaps) were the main second level defenders. The veteran of the pair had 5 tackles and a pressure in addition to a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. He also had 2 missed tackles. McFadden had just 2 tackles and struggled on runs to his outside shoulder. I would not count Crowder out yet based on how much this coaching staff will move guys in and out of roles, but I do think they trust Smith more.
-I liked what I saw out of Adoree’ Jackson and Darnay Holmes. Jackson has 2 pass break ups in addition to 6 tackles and Holmes finished with 3 tackles, and an outstanding TFL. He did allow a couple of big plays in the passing game, but I thought his coverage underneath was solid.
-Fabian Moreau got off to a nice start, breaking up a pass on third down but later he allowed a touchdown to Collins. I normally like and even prefer him in those match-ups against the bigger, more physical wideouts. He simply just lost that battle, nothing to be overly concerned about.
-Because of the unfortunate hand/finger injury to Xavier McKinney over the bye week, Julian Love and Dane Belton were expected to step up. They both played 100% of the snaps. But it was Jason Pinnock, a waiver claim from the Jets prior to the season, who saw the big tick up in playing time. He was on the field for 23 snaps (36%), the second-most of his career. He was one of the surprise big contributors to the game. 4 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a pressure. Huge opportunity for him and this is a guy who I know the Jets really did not want to lose.
-Belton did have a big interception in the fourth quarter, but overall it was a poor game for the rookie. He led the team with 3 missed tackles and was roasted in coverage. HOU went after him hard and had a lot of success with it. Curious to see if that is a trend we see in the coming weeks. Love added 5 tackles.
-K Graham Gano: 1/1 (Made 49)
-P Jamie Gillian: 6 Punts / 40.3 avg – 34.2 net
-DT Dexter Lawrence, DT Leonard Williams, QB Daniel Jones
-P Jamie Gillian, OG Mark Glowinski, WR Kenny Golladay
3 THOUGHTS ON HOU
The reason why I discussed the demise of the Houston franchise at the start of the review is simple. Building a winning franchise in the NFL is hard. HOU had what everyone wants. A young superstar quarterback. An elite left tackle. An elite wide receiver. A face of the franchise on defense who was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Imagine that. Elite players everywhere but they couldn’t even get to the AFC Championship Game. Suddenly the bottom falls out and all but one of those pieces are currently playing elsewhere. It is rare to have the personnel, coaching, and front office all on the same page. Every move is important. Every interaction is important. Every game is important. Whether you’re in it, or not.
Where does this HOU franchise go from here? I’ve seen enough of Davis Mills to know he won’t be the guy. I think he can be “good enough” with the ceiling of a Jimmy Garoppolo. But the HOU team has a long, long ways to go before they are in the same stratosphere as SF when it comes to a support system. Mills does not have athletic ability to make up for the average passing traits. They will be high enough (and with some extra capital) in the draft to take their next quarterback. It is a no brainer if you ask me. Get him in town, hire the right head coach (a spot I can see Sean Payton landing), and go from there.
Lovie Smith took away the captain tag from receiver Brandin Cooks because of how he acted after not getting traded. Cooks does not have a strong reputation in NFL circles. “Diva” may not be the right word, but to make it simple, he just isn’t a team-first guy. I never thought NYG was in the running for him in the trade market (mainly because of the money owed to him). I also don’t think he would have made the difference that some think he would have. Even though some of his numbers say otherwise, he is a number two at best. My opinion comes from watching his tape over the years. A very inconsistent player who is owed a lot of money and who does not have a strong reputation in the locker room? Pass.
I know there is some chatter circling around the #5 overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux. He has 1 sack in 7 games. If that is all you look at, a strong case can be made for disappointment. I challenge you to look a little deeper, however. Thibodeaux is averaging 1 pressure every 11 pass-rush snaps. #1 overall pick Travon Walker? 1 every 13. #2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson? 1 every 11. Thibodeaux has a forced fumble. Walker? Zero. Hutchinson? Zero. Thibodeaux has hit the quarterback 3 times on 205 pass rushes. Walker has hit the quarterback 3 times on 299 pass rushes. Hutchinson 4 times on 298 pass rushes. I could go on with a few more but my point is, trust me on the fact that Thibodeaux is playing better than his sack number will lead you to believe and he is on par with other rookies at the position. He is actually off to a much better start than what we saw out of Azeez Ojulari last season when looking at the big picture beyond only sacks.
So, I did a little quick study on defensive tackle pairs in the NFL. Not only is the Lawrence/Williams combo the best in the league, I don’t think any are even close. Tennessee and Baltimore are the closest, but their coaches wouldn’t even take them over what NYG is playing with. This is a special pair. I’m not sure if they will stick here long term because of Williams’ contract, but be sure to keep appreciating what they’re doing for this defense. It is special.
Sticking with the defense for the trifecta. The parting thought will not be a positive one. Against one of the worst offenses in the NFL, the NYG defense allowed 18 first downs, 2-of-3 third-down conversions, 301 yards on 34 plays (8.6 per), and 13 points in the second half alone. Those numbers are better than the best offenses in the NFL when it comes to a per-half basis. While the unit came up big when it mattered, this was an alarming defensive performance from a macro perspective that can and should cause some concern. Something to keep an eye on as they have some productive offenses coming up (DET, DAL, PHI, MIN are all top half in league).