Houston Texans vs. Detroit Lions: 10 Keys to the Game for Houston
The Houston Texans must have felt equal parts depleted and elated after their most dramatic win of the season, a 43-37 overtime win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Their reward is little opportunity to savor the comeback as they travel to meet the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day.
Injuries going into this game are as much a concern for the Texans as their two-day work week. Shaun Cody, Tim Dobbins, Ben Tate, and most importantly Johnathan Joseph, all figure to be game-day decisions.
Playing on this holiday may be a new experience, but winning will depend on what this organization has learned in recent years. And what it will take to succeed going forward.
Rapid Recovery vs. the Longer Layoff
The biggest concern regarding this Thanksgiving game is the quick turnaround. The Texans had to board their flight to Detroit 64 hours after they walked off the field defeating the Jaguars.
A couple of days are not nearly enough time for players to recover from an NFL clash. Or make the necessary physical and mental preparations to get game-ready for the next opponent.
The bonus for playing on Thursday is a few more days off before they get back to a normal week’s worth of practices and meetings. However, this has not proven to be much of a bonus.
This year is the first season the league has scheduled so many Thursday games, 14 in all. Of the eight games this year, the combined record for these teams in the following contest is 4-12. The Thursday schedule has included seven teams with losing records, which somewhat explains the disparity in wins and losses.
The Texans may crave the national exposure they will receive from playing on Turkey Day. But the win is the prize and not the additional down time. Concentrate on getting out of Detroit with the “W” and forget about the “rest.”
Visualize Better Tackling
When a defense that was averaging 195 yards passing per game gives up nearly double that figure, something must be wrong. When they also surrender four touchdowns in the process, their failures must have occurred on multiple levels.
In the Jaguars game, there were too many completions where the coverage was good but the defensive back did not make the stop. The touchdown to Cecil Shorts was a perfect example.
Kareem Jackson was right where he needed to be to bring down the receiver. Instead, he looked as if a sniper’s bullet had struck him in the head as he immediately fell to the ground. Jackson barely laid a finger on him.
Could it get any worse? Refer to the picture above, if you will. How is it possible that Justin Blackmon could even make the catch with two DBs right on him? Not only did he hold on to the ball, he made it all the way to the end zone for an 81-yard score.
This week, the Houston secondary faces the most physically formidable receiver in the league, Calvin Johnson. He tops the league in receiving yardage, with 1117 yards on 65 catches. They will likely do so without the services of their best cover man, Johnathan Joseph.
The short week offers them no chance to strap the pads on and polish up their technique. They will have to rely on visualization. Maybe dig deep into their memories of Pop Warner practices and college drills with position coaches.
If they cannot do a better job of wrapping up and bringing down their man, the audience could be in for another day of astronomical passing yardage.
Which Texan Will Play Optimus Prime?
When the Seattle Seahawks were about to face Detroit and Calvin Johnson, CB Richard Sherman changed his Twitter handle to “Optimus Prime.” What better name to adopt than the long-time nemesis of Megatron?
When asked what kind of challenge the 6’5” Johnson presented, Sherman replied, “Nothing to a guy who's 6-foot-3.” He responded by holding Johnson to three receptions for 46 yards and no touchdowns.
The obvious candidate to pick up the mantle for the Texans is J-Jo, a.k.a. Johnathan Joseph. But he may be on the sidelines with a sore hamstring, so who will take his place?
The tallest defensive back for Houston is Alan Ball, who stands but 6’1”. This may be a tall order for a man who has been on the field for a mere 17 snaps this year. But someone has to pick up the slack, so into the breech he goes.
If you thought it got ugly with Chad Henne and Justin Blackmon, that may have only been a preview.
Cut Back on the YAC
YAC stands for “yards after catch,” which accounted for 194 of Jacksonville’s 372 yards through the air in last Sunday’s game.
The fact that Calvin Johnson has YAC total of 358 for the season seems like more bad news for the Texans at this point. But there is hope.
Titus Young, the No. 2 receiver for the Lions, has been benched for this game. His replacement is Ryan Broyles, an undersized rookie still learning the pro game. Wade Phillips may still have enough confidence in Kareem Jackson to let him handle Broyles all by his lonesome.
This will allow more coverage to roll towards Megatron. This may not prevent him from making the catch, but could keep him from tacking on additional yardage.
Then again Brandon Pettigrew, the tight end for the Lions, has 216 YAC of his own. Nearly half of his 439 receiving yards have been gained after the reception. Strong safety Glover Quin and the Texans’ linebackers have a full day’s work ahead of them, too.
Crank Up The Pass Rush
All this blather about the passing game of the Lions sounds like the rushing attack is being intentionally ignored. That seems to be the way their coaching staff wants it.
QB Matthew Stafford does not mind if he has to pitch the pigskin two-thirds of the time. But now, Houston’s pass rushers know they can afford to back off their run defense and hound Stafford instead. This strategy is also aided by the status of LT Jeff Backus, who appears likely to miss the first game in his 12-year career.
J.J. Watt has faced double-teams on an almost constant basis the last three games. This has freed up Antonio Smith to wreak more havoc. The time has come for Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed to join in the fun and sack Detroit.
Detroit’s Front Four Is a Mixed Bag
Simply put, the tackles that man the interior of the Lions defensive line are superb. The bookends on either side of them are anything but that.
The defensive ends are the worst quartet of any in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, with an average rating of minus-7.4 as weighted by snaps. The esteemed Kyle Vanden Bosch, a 3-time Pro Bowler, is the worst of the bunch. They have nine sacks between them, less than the 10 sacks DTs Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh have recorded.
Overall, their defense is 10th in yardage allowed, but 23rd in points allowed. Translated, this means you do not need to gain a lot of yards to score on them. Moreover, their turnover differential is a minus-7, not a very good mark for what is supposed to be top-10 defense.
Can Arian Foster Have a Holiday?
Now that the most famous vegan in football has decided he can take a break from his herbivore diet, maybe he can take the weight of the Texans’ ground game off his shoulders.
Foster is still on track for 400 carries, but his average just cannot seem to remain at the 4.0 mark. No doubt he is willing to run the rock 25 times per game, but is it wise to keep doing so?
Ben Tate is still listed as day-to-day and could as easily miss this one. If this is not the game for him to return to the rotation, the let Justin Forsett take over. Detroit is better against the run than Jacksonville, so another 8.4-yards-per-carry outing for him may not be in the cards.
One more win will clinch a playoff spot for Houston, so it is not too soon to start planning for the postseason. If the Texans get any kind of lead that allows them to burn the clock, bring in Jonathan Grimes, or get James Casey a carry or three.
Foster may not be a racehorse, but he is certainly not a plough horse. Please do not use him like one.
Take Advantage of Defensive Depth
Darryl Sharpton is back, and it could not have come at a better time. Tim Dobbins can now spend a little more time on the bench so his shoulder can mend properly.
Since Detroit is so pass-happy, bring Whitney Mercilus in for more than the eight snaps he got vs. the Jaguars. He showed such promise against the Ravens and Bills, and will not get any chance to build on it by sitting on the bench.
Barrett Ruud was once a tackling machine with Tampa Bay, and he is still on the right side of 30. His experience has been helpful on special teams, and could be just as useful against opposing offenses.
Even if Shaun Cody is ready to resume his duties, Jared Crick should be up for 15-20 snaps per game at any of the defensive-line positions. With J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith occupying multiple blockers much of the time, he can use his quickness to create rushing lanes for the linebackers and Glover Quin.
Matt Schaub Is More Than a Play-Action QB
It had been a while since we had seen Manic Matt, the furiously flinging field general with little conscience and even less chance of winning. But surprise! Here he was leading a fourth-quarter comeback and a game-winning drive in overtime.
Since the Texans had become a contender, the formula for the passing game was simple. Lull the defense to sleep by pounding the ball on the ground. Then break it up with some short and intermediate passes here and there. When it came time to strike deep, use play-action to freeze the pass rush and buy time to go long.
That works unless the team is behind by two touchdowns with 12 minutes to go. Then your opponent knows you are going to be throwing and play-action will be less effective.
During the fourth quarter and overtime, the Texans ran 43 plays and 29 were passes. Most of the throws were strictly of the drop-back variety, many out of four and five receiver sets.
What does this mean when the Texans face Detroit? The Jaguars game showed a side of the Texans the rest of the league had not seen since 2010. They were so successful at changing their identity due to circumstances, who knows what they are capable of now?
Jim Schwartz and his staff understand they must be ready for anything.
Houston Has the Thanksgiving Mojo
While the Texans are playing in their first Thanksgiving Classic, the city does have a history in this game. And it is a winning one.
The Houston Oilers played in three of these games and won each of them. The most famous was a defeat of the hated Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 22, 1979. The last one took place in 1992, a win over today’s opponent, the Detroit Lions.
Not only that, Wade Phillips compiled a 3-0 Thanksgiving record when he was head coach of Dallas. With all that momentum behind them, what other outcome could there be?
It may be the worst day of the year for turkeys, but it should be a good one for the Bulls on Parade.