The Houston Texans should be looking forward to facing the Seattle Seahawks this upcoming Sunday in Reliant Stadium. The prospect of playing the team that occupies the top position in most power rankings must be more pleasant than reflecting on everything that went wrong in Baltimore last week.
Certainly, there were lessons to be learned from their 30-9 loss to the Ravens. However, the primary lesson is one drilled into every player from their earliest days on the gridiron: Don’t beat yourself.
The optimists will say it is just Week 3 and far too early to abandon all hope for this young season. If the last few NFL postseasons have proven anything, how you start the schedule does not matter as much as how you finish it.
The pessimists would respond by citing the 30-9 loss to the Ravens as the ninth game in a trend that began last year. Since the New England Patriots undressed the Texans 42-14 in Week 14, Matt Schaub has thrown for nine touchdowns and nine interceptions in those nine games.
When the three pick-sixes Schaub has thrown during that period are deducted, the leader of Houston’s offense has accounted for 36 points.
On the defensive side, the production of turnovers flipped around that same time. From the beginning of the 2012 season through the Tennessee Titans win in Week 13, the differential was plus-14.
As of the Ravens game last Sunday, that figure has dipped to minus-3. Their won-loss record has followed suit, going from 11-1 to 4-5.
The next opportunity to reverse this slide into mediocrity comes against the hottest team in the league. There are two factors that represent something of an advantage for the downtrodden Texans.
Since the installation of Russell Wilson at quarterback, the Seahawks are 4-5 on the road. Seattle seems to fare better in the thunderous atmosphere of CenturyLink Field.
The other advantage is that the offensive approach of both teams are almost identical. Each likes to rely on a zone-blocking running game combined with a West Coast passing attack that relies upon play-action execution. When your defense faces this sort of offense in practice, it should have a clear idea of how to stop it.
If those aspects lay on the plus side of the scale, they are counterbalanced by a highly mobile quarterback and a defense with no obvious weaknesses. To the faint of heart, this game would seem unwinnable.
The truth is head coach Pete Carroll has his team playing at a very high level behind patchwork offensive and defensive fronts. Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung was placed on injured reserve after the San Francisco 49ers game and left guard Paul McQuistan has taken over at his position.
Defensive end and 2012 sack leader Chris Clemons is just getting his game legs back after suffering an ACL tear in the playoffs last season. Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin is sitting out the final game of his PED suspension and will be unavailable.
How much the Texans are able to benefit from these personnel disruptions will spell the difference between this team heading in the right direction once again or facing an uncertain future.
Offensive Game Plan
A closer look into the defensive statistics for Seattle reveals some interesting contradictions. They may be first in both yardage and points allowed, but are closer to average against the run. For a team that counts on its own running game to set the pace, they gain fewer yards per carry (3.7) than they give up (4.1).
The key to their entire game plan revolves around defending the pass. They are almost impossible to throw on, even with their backs to the end zone.
Early in the 49ers game, San Francisco is 3rd–and-goal at the five on an obvious throwing down. Cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell are playing far enough off the "X" and "Y" receivers, Colin Kaepernick cannot be sure they are in man or zone coverage.
Once the ball is snapped, Kaepernick looks right but then zeroes in on Vernon Davis who has just tiptoed over the goal line. Thurmond ignores Quinton Patton and is prepared to sandwich Davis along with strong safety Kam Chancellor.
The collision sends the ball flying and Chancellor comes up with the interception.
The Seahawks will let you run a bit and then dare you to beat them with the pass. The Carolina Panthers averaged 5.2 yards on 26 carries but could only throw for 125 yards. The 49ers had similar success on the ground but had just 100 yards through the air.
The key for the Texans ground game is the return of left tackle Duane Brown. Mark Berman of Fox26 Houston confirmed that Brown would be a game time decision.
Gary Kubiak says LT Duane Brown (sprained toe) did do individuals and worked with the trainers. Will be a game-time decision.— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) September 25, 2013
The Seattle right defensive ends are on the small side even for 4-3 linemen. Clemons weighs in at 254 pounds, his fill-in O'Brien Schofield is built like a linebacker at 242 pounds, and Cliff Avril tips the scales at 260 pounds. Kaepernick gained most of his 87 rushing yards over this side of the defensive line.
Richard Sherman can blanket receivers but at 6’3” does not like to break down that lanky frame and tackle ball carriers. The best way for the Texans to get less Cover 2 from the Seattle secondary is to get one of their safeties closer to the box. Let Arian Foster and Ben Tate have at least 30 combined carries and they will not have any choice.
The Seahawks’ armor has a soft spot that can be exposed by running right at the aforementioned players.
Defensive Game Plan
The Seattle offense looks like a carbon copy of what Houston runs, with two notable exceptions. Their quarterback is a threat to take off with the ball, and their receiving corps is deeper.
That might be based more on reputation than facts. The quarterback has gained a total of 54 yards rushing this season, and their top receiver, Golden Tate, has just 10 receptions on the year.
Russell Wilson may have the ability to make plays with his feet, but has not been asked to do the same with his arm. He attempted the fewest passes in the league last year, and is on pace to do the same this year. But when he does put the ball up, good things happen.
His average per attempt is 9.1, third in the league, and has six touchdowns in just 73 attempts. When your team has yet to fall behind at any time this season, you can afford to be sparing with your passes.
But there could be trouble ahead. The loss of Okung has made the left side of the offensive line a swinging gate. Moving a guard like McQuistan to tackle is not as easy as it sounds.
In pass protection, a guard moves backwards most of the time. A tackle has to be able to slide back in the pocket as far as necessary to keep the pass-rusher out of the quarterback’s kitchen. The angles are different, as is the footwork, and the speed of the opposing player is a much bigger issue.
Aldon Smith is a handful for any offensive tackle. His indoctrination of McQuistan to the position is rather harsh, as can be seen here.
Being under six-feet tall, mobility is very helpful when trying to get your passes over the linemen. But can Wilson move around enough to get the proper elevation over J.J. Watt’s outstretched arms?
The arc on Wilson’s throws is reminiscent of another pocket-sized passer: Michael Vick. There is a lot of air under his balls, particularly his deep throws. When combined with enough pass-rush pressure, the completion of those throws might come down to a battle of ball skills and not just man-on-man coverage.
This is all speculative since no team has been able stop the Seahawks running game. As long as they can move the ball with the same success, throwing it is just an unnecessary risk.
The Texans defense has been quite stingy on the ground, with only one rushing touchdown allowed and a 3.3 yard average per carry. But they have yet to face a team ranked in the top 10 in rushing yardage.
If Houston can keep Seattle from controlling the clock and tip the time of possession in its favor, it just might come away with the upset.
Games stats courtesy of ESPN.com
All other statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference