I, the ultimate realist when it comes to my one and only sports team (possibly even a pessimist to avoid disappointment), have finally seen enough from the 8-3 Houston Texans to admit they just might be as good as their record shows.
The realization of this legitimacy has not come easily, especially since the season started (0-3) much like the last season ended (1-9.) The difference, and likely fuel to my Fire O’Brien now attitude, was not the fact that the Texans were losing, it was the fact that their young and medically unproven QB was getting hit way too much.
—And he still is, as Houston has given up 83 QB hits (about half Watson’s fault because of the way he plays the game.) Lately, however, it seems the QB hits have come from making plays and less from being hurried, as the offensive line has improved with Davenport back at left tackle and Lamm at right tackle, the middle anchored by the improving—but at times inconsistent—Martin, and Kelemete/Fulton playing solid football at guard. Has anyone else noticed just how well Lamar Miller has been running between the tackles lately? This was something the Texans have struggled with since Arian Foster left the team.
So, with praise comes concern, yet, I have found myself a bit less skeptical and a bit more confident in the 2018 streaking Texans.
The Texans had to win eight games in a row to earn my trust, and as I watched Deshaun Watson—seemingly back to his old physical form post-ACL injury—throw his second touchdown of the night to newly acquired Demaryius Thomas, I thought just maybe I was ready to put my trust into O’Brien and this offense.
The defense is solid, as it has been under O’Brien and Romeo Crennel. The Texans have the best safety group—and more importantly, best safety performances—with Tyrann Mathieu, rookie Justin Reid, and Andre Hal than ever before. Mathieu seems worthy of a three-year extension, Reid (how the hell did this man fall to the third round?) seems destined to be the play-making future at the position, and Hal has bounced back incredibly from a very serious illness to provide quality coverage. This unit has played so well, in fact, that Kareem Jackson, who looked like an all-pro at safety the first two games, was able to move back to corner where he is having the best stretch of his nine-year career.
Alongside Jonathan Joseph, Aaron Colvin, and a surprisingly solid Shareece Wright, the Texans not only have the best safety group in history, they also sport their best corner group since losing A. J. Bouye. Put these men behind second-year standout Zach Cunningham and veteran Benardrick McKinney in the middle, with Clowney and Mercilus rushing the passer behind JJ Watt, Brandon Dunn, Christian Covington, and D.J. Reader, and Houston may have the stingiest defense in the NFL.
It’s no secret the defense won games while the offense worked out its wrinkles, but now that Watson is back to form, the Texans are putting up 373.1 yards a game (just 13 yards behind Green Bay) and have the 14th scoring offense. But all credit cannot go to just Watson. Lamar Miller, whom I have been critical of his entire Texans career, is averaging 6.3 YPC over the last five games, with 502 rushing yards over that span.
What’s been the difference outside of solid offensive line play? The addition of Alfred Blue as a secondary back. Splitting carries between Blue (near 4.0 YPC over the last 5 games) and Miller has done wonders for Miller’s vision and big-play ability, and Miller now looks like the man who once ran all over the place for the Dolphins.
So why now? Why did it take eight games to put my faith into my beloved Texans?
- O’Brien had to prove he had taken the next step along with the rest of the team.
The first few games, which ended in close losses, seemed to be buried by a lack of general coaching fundamentals from O’Brien. Clock issues, wasted timeouts, not-used timeouts, bad play calls in the red zone, and predictable play-calling did not help the Texans as they struggled early in the season. But O'Brien has shown (maybe it’s the glasses he’s wearing on the sideline) over the last 8 games that he has the mind and guts to put pressure on opposing defenses with the playmakers on his team.
2. Not “settling” for the next man up. When Fuller went down, the Texans went out and got all-pro Demaryius Thomas from the Denver Broncos. While he does not possess the speed Fuller has, Thomas runs great routes and is a big-bodied receiver that can make plays. His two touchdowns against the Titans were both red zone out routes. The Texans were awful in the red zone earlier in the year. They took a weakness and made it a strength.
3. Consistency. The Texans are no longer only playing 30 minutes on offense. They’re coming out and scoring points, and they’re moving the ball on each drive. Punter Trevor Daniel is only averaging 4.6 punts a game over the last 5, and he’s averaging nearly 45 yards for the season. Field position has been critical in these close games.
The biggest battle I had with accepting the Texans legitimacy as contenders was their lack of opponents. Aside from New England, Dallas, Washington, and Indianapolis, none of their opponents have an above .500 record. Add the fact that new England beat Houston, and Indianapolis practically gave them a win, and Houston has only beaten two teams with a winning record (one on a missed field goal.)
How does this realistically affect the measurement of the Texans? Just because they’re not playing Kansas City or the L.A. Rams each week doesn’t mean they’re good? When you look at the grit and competitive nature of their opponents, the majority fight to the absolute end and possess close-to-some-qualities that produce a competitive team.
The real test is how will Houston handle themselves against an unpredictably-good Cleveland team that is hungry to prove that their coach held them back—not their playmakers. And if the Texans want 9-straight wins, they’re going to have to be perfect against a red-hot Baker Mayfield this Sunday in Houston.
All statistics from http://www.nfl.com/stats/