Minnesota Vikings vs. Houston Texans: 10 Keys to the Game for Houston
The home boys are vying for the top seed and hosting all their playoff games at Reliant Stadium, an opportunity made more likely by the San Francisco 49ers' defeat of the New England Patriots in Week 15.
The visitors currently have a hold on the second wild card spot in the NFC. To maintain their hold, they will probably have to win out. That means beating Houston and division foe Green Bay in their final two games.
The Vikings' postseason quest has an added dimension to it. RB Adrian Peterson is less than 300 yards away from breaking the single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards set by Eric Dickerson in 1984.
But thwarting the individual and team goals of Minnesota is more involved than stopping one man from setting a new rushing mark.
Keep Adrian Peterson off the Field
If you want a 2nd-and-short situation, give the ball to Peterson. He will gain an average of 6.8 yards with every first-down carry. What can the Texans do to prevent that seeming inevitability?
The simplest answer is to play J.J. Watt as a 4 technique DL, where he can take on either C Mike Sullivan or RT Phil Loadholt. Peterson has run up the middle or to the right almost 70 percent of the time in the last five games.
The Texans could resort to playing a more conventional 3-4 and bring Connor Barwin off the line so he can back up the run defense at the second level. For good measure, keep Glover Quin at his usual position of playing the run on first and second down.
Keep Christian Ponder on the Field
Head Coach Leslie Frazier and his offensive staff have so little faith in Ponder that he is allowed fewer than 30 passing attempts per game.
His average per-pass attempt (5.9) pales in comparison to Peterson’s rushing average (6.3), a good indicator as to why Minnesota is dead last in passing yardage.
In seven of the 14 games in 2012, the Vikings' starting QB has thrown for less than 150 yards. When the team is winning and your star running back is flirting with the single-season rushing record, why mess with a good thing?
The Texans should mess with it by sending a minimum of five pass rushers and daring Ponder to beat them.
The Vikings Lack Receivers
Christian Ponder’s favorite target, Percy Harvin, is out for the year, and the starting wide receivers have a combined 54 receptions. The one pass-catcher to look out for is TE Kyle Rudolph, with 30 of his 48 catches netting a first down.
Six of Rudolph’s eight TDs are in the red zone, so keep the Vikings between the 20-yard lines and everything should work out fine for Houston.
Peterson gains over 60 percent of his yards after contact, so Wade Phillips could decide to put eight men in the box. That would leave a solo safety responsible for the bomb.
Houston will probably stick to its base defense and count on gang tackling to stop the top running back in the league. Single coverage is too tempting for any quarterback, even one with a shortage of targets.
Dump Demps from the Dime
Pro Football Focus gives Quintin Demps a 127.5 completion rating. Completion rating is similar to passer rating for a quarterback, except for defenders a lower figure translates to better performance. It is the sixth-worst rating in the league for safeties with over 300 snaps.
For the entire secondary, the last three games have been a coverage disaster for passes attempted over 20 yards. Opposing quarterbacks have gone 8-of-17 for 360 yards, four TDs, no INTs and a 133 passer rating.
It has already been established the Vikings are not much of a threat through the air. The Texans' coaching staff must have seen this vulnerability on video, but will they make plans to use it to their advantage?
Over the second half of the season, the Texans FS has let receivers repeatedly beat him in the deep zones. Demps is not the only guilty party, but No. 27 has been seen repeatedly chasing scoring plays to no avail.
It is hard to believe the recovering Alan Ball or special teams stalwart Shiloh Keo might be an upgrade when Houston goes to six DBs. But something, or someone, has to curtail this trend.
No Special Teams Penalties
Bryan Braman made a fantastic play in the Colts game by blocking a punt, then taking it into the end zone. For one shining moment, the fans and players could forget a season full of special teams missteps.
Most notable is the succession of penalties committed by this unit. They have been as ridiculous as Connor Barwin and his leap on J.J. Watt’s back to block a Packers field goal. And as mundane as blocking below the waist on punt returns that they get called for on a weekly basis.
Since it seems kick returns for touchdowns by the Texans are unlikely, the most that can be hoped for is to reduce or eliminate the infractions—a tall order for a team that has been called for at least two special teams penalties in all but two of its 14 games.
Barwin’s penalty turned a missed field goal into a first down, and ultimately a touchdown that permanently shifted the momentum of the game. Should this occur during the playoffs, there will be no chance to make up for it the following week.
Now is the time to start treating this phase of the game as a difference-maker, because that is what it becomes when every contest is either win or go home.
Gain Over 150 Rushing Yards Again
So much has been made about chasing Eric Dickerson’s record, little attention has been paid to the rushing circumstances of the Texans. Arian Foster had his best outing of the year last week, and it could not have come at a better time.
Foster finally came across with the one element that has been missing all season: the long run. In the second half of the Colts game, he had gains of 31, 26 and 25 yards, and a 27-yard touchdown sprint nullified by a holding penalty.
A quarterback operating at a high level is essential to winning the Super Bowl. However, five of the last six Lombardi Trophy winners have out-rushed their competition in the postseason.
Whether Houston uses the run to set up the pass or vice versa, they will not go all the way without their running game going at full throttle.
Texans Twinkie Run Defense
So is the way Houston has defended the run like that nearly defunct junk food? Is it soft and squishy up the middle?
The loss of Brian Cushing, injuries to Shaun Cody and Tim Dobbins, the lackluster play of Bradie James, all these inside players were the issue, right?
Since the high point of the year, the 30-point blowout of the Baltimore Ravens, the weak spot has actually been over the right side.
In six of the seven games since that trademark win, most of the yardage gained by running backs has been over the right side of the opposing offense. The exception was Jacksonville in Week 11, where the Jaguars accumulated every yard over the left side.
As previously cited, Minnesota loves to go in that direction. If they have been paying attention, they will continue to go in that direction this Sunday. Coach Phillips, you have been put on notice.
The Red Zone Equals the Dead Zone?
It took until Week 7 vs. the Ravens for Texans to break into the top 10 in red-zone touchdown percentage. They are now listed eighth, but check out the leaders in Week 15 and their records:
Red Zone %
No-huddle New England occupies the top rung, but positions two through four all have losing records. Throw in Carolina along with Baltimore and their three straight losses, and the correlation between winning and red-zone success becomes a 50-50 proposition.
In the last 10 seasons, only one Super Bowl winner was in the top three: Indianapolis in 2006. Over that period, an NFL champ has ranked as low as 28th: New England in 2003.
Houston may have only scored one touchdown in five red-zone penetrations against the Colts, but it is not cause for alarm. Scoring inside the 20-yard line is more important than whether it is three points or six.
Kubiak Should Loosen Up in the Red Zone
Now wait just a minute, you say. Leaving points on the field is somehow a good thing? If Kubiak would just open up the playbook when the team is that close to the goal line, the Texans would be truly dominant.
If the Colts game is any indication, that may be a valid point. Of the 17 plays executed inside the 20, 11 were runs.
Houston has 523 running plays and 485 passing plays in 2012. This makes them one of the most balanced offenses in the league. A league where the average team would have at least 100 more passes than runs by this point of the season.
One of the key features of the Texans offense is using play-action passes. The key to selling play-action to the defense is making a pass play look like a run. If your team is a likely to do one thing as the other, it makes it more difficult to predict what will actually happen.
The flash of indecision created by that confusion has helped Houston compile a win-loss record matched by just one other team. Is Gary Kubiak too conservative? In some situations, the answer is yes. But it is difficult to argue with the results of that philosophy.
Stick with a Third Wide Receiver
With the playoffs right around the corner, the importance of the pass will grow. Since the five-yard chuck rule instituted by the NFL in 1978, only one Super Bowl winner had more rushing than passing yards in the postseason (NY Giants 1990).
When Houston has its running game going, Matt Schaub can use play-action to freeze the defense and get Andre Johnson or even slow-footed Kevin Walter open deep. If Arian Foster and Ben Tate are stuck in neutral, a deep threat for three-wide formations is essential.
Every defensive coordinator that has faced the Texans is aware of their fondness for using three tight ends, but those featuring multiple wide receivers have been less frequent. When they are run, the third member has been a pick ‘em.
Will it be Keshawn Martin, Lestar Jean or DeVier Posey? Posey had 36 snaps in the Colts game and caught all three of his targets for 46 yards. Is he now the chosen one, or is it someone else? Now is the time to decide.