The Houston Texans went without head coach Gary Kubiak Sunday afternoon, and they also went without a win.
Heading into Arizona, the Texans were keeping positive despite suffering another loss last week against the Indianapolis Colts. Leaving Arizona, it was the same old story—a strong first half and a few nervous moments in the fourth quarter that amounted to nothing.
Overall, there was once again a lot of good to take from this game. Most of it came from Case Keenum and J.J. Watt, but against a team like Arizona that is so heavily stacked with offensive weapons, the defence just wasn't up to the challenge.
Here's the takeaways from the Texans' seventh straight defeat.
Quietly, J.J. Watt is having an awesome season.
Sunday saw him come up with two of the Texans' biggest plays of the game, a sack fumble on Carson Palmer late in the second half to set up a field-goal attempt and again another forced fumble late in the fourth quarter to take the ball away from Rashard Mendenhall.
Both plays set up potential game-changing scoring opportunities, while Watt also played a huge role in limiting Arizona to just 97 total rush yards.
It's not the first time this season he's kept Houston in the game, but with so many injuries and guys falling behind, relying on Watt to be the game changer isn't an ideal long-term plan.
Ben Tate has been brilliant all year, but on the back of a decent performance last week, he struggled to assert himself on Sunday.
Winding up with just 56 yards and averaging 3.7 per carry, Tate was harassed through most of the game by guys like Darnell Docket and John Abraham, who shed blockers like it was nobody's business.
All season long the Texans have relied on the run game to set up the passing game, and it's worked pretty well. This week, however, Tate's lack of yards threw the whole plan out of whack, and the play-action passing game struggled as a result.
It could be due to the rib injury or just that Arizona possesses a powerful middle defense that harassed the Texans pocket all season long. Whatever it is, there's no more Arian Foster to rely on, so Houston might have a bigger problem on its hands than it realizes.
The stat sheet doesn't show much, but third-year defensive back Brandon Harris played perhaps one of his best games in battle red this week.
It seemed like Arizona's main game plan was to pick its moments when throwing to Larry Fitzgerald, trick the defense into overcommitting and then find the open man on the opposite side. For most of the game that strategy worked, but Harris had two big plays that should stand out to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips when he watches the tape.
The first was on Fitzgerald midway through the second quarter, where Palmer threw a high ball up toward the sidelines, only to have Harris throw some good body work in and get his hand up to block it.
The second was in a much more crucial part of the game, late in the third quarter on third down. Palmer sighted Andre Roberts in the corner of the end zone and threw a tight pass, but Harris adjusted and slid over to get his hand up again.
That last play forced the field goal, and in the end still kept the Texans in it.
The loss can hardly be pinned on Case Keenum, because he played a pretty good game on paper. With 201 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, Keenum still continues to impress—it's just in a few crucial moments on Sunday that things got a tiny bit ugly.
The final drive of the game saw a lot of useless deep shots down the field, and to go with all of those overthrown targets were three sacks and a first-quarter fumble that gifted the Cardinals a touchdown.
Those imperfections do fall back on the offensive line and the blockers, but we saw a lot less scrambling from Keenum this week and a ton of risky passes that realistically could have resulted in two or three interceptions.
In comparison to what we expected from Matt Schaub, Keenum's "all or nothing" approach is appreciated, especially when he keeps finding Andre Johnson in the end zone.
Keenum struggled with the Cardinals nickel package on Sunday, and after all of the pressure and hits he'd felt, it was no wonder the final drive of the game completely fell apart.
Larry Fitzgerald finished with just 23 yards on Sunday, perhaps a credit to the secondary. Tight end Rob Housler finished with 57 yards and a touchdown, though, and that's where the problem lies.
Carson Palmer did a fantastic job of spreading the ball around in this game, and Housler was the main guy who kept popping up on short to intermediate routes and chugging through first downs. Whitney Mercilus struggled to contain Housler late in the second half, and he even managed to work over Shiloh Keo a few times as well.
For Arizona, the main point of attack was to set up the play action going left, and then look right to find an open guy down the sidelines. Pretty much anyone who was in that area for the Texans secondary felt the burn, and with such good blocking down the field, Bruce Arians' tight end screens were executed perfectly.
It almost seemed like the defense hadn't seen much of this at all on the year, because even guys like Johnathan Joseph were biting on the plays. But who would have expected anyone other than Fitzgerald to put up big numbers like this?
Aside from Brandon Harris and D.J. Swearinger, the rest of the secondary put in a pretty mediocre performance this week.
The biggest problem was seen when the Texans were playing man-to-man coverage early, and the Cardinals were targeting guys like Andre Ellington when Larry Fitzgerald was drawing too much attention.
Guys like Brice McCain again struggled to keep up, and when the Cardinals chose to run the ball, they found no problem cutting back to the weak side and taking full advantage of their strong blocks.
Shiloh Keo filled in nicely for Ed Reed, who will now assume a much lesser role. He had a big play late in the fourth quarter, denying Fitzgerald of an extra yard needed to convert on third down and milk more of the clock.
It was also the first time Swearinger had made a big-time play this season, and his interception down the sidelines over Housler showed why he was drafted for his athleticism.
Case Keenum has found his go to man, and even though on paper it looked like a quiet night for Andre Johnson with just 37-yards, his two touchdowns kept the Texans in the game when it mattered.
Credit to Patrick Peterson for playing tight coverage on Johnson all night long, but when Keenum threw a high lob to the corner of the end zone intended for Johnson, it all came down to who had the better set of hands on the play.
Sunday night marked a special occasion as Johnson passed Hines Ward on the NFL's All Time Receiving list. Unlike Schaub, Keenum has the guts to throw those risky balls towards the end zone, and so far it's been paying off.
Maybe the only problem here is when defenses begin to realize how predictable the Texans offense is becoming in the redzone.
And we're back to square one.
Special teams was bad on Sunday night. Not last week kind of bad, but bad enough to see a field goal blocked just before half time that pretty much meant the difference between a tied game and a loss.
It's hard to pin this one on Randy Bullock though, because he didn't miss the kick. Overall it was an ordinary special teams effort though, and aside from field goal kicking, field position was also an issue for most of the game.
Ideally, the Texans would have preferred to have started their final drive of the game from somewhere other than the 17-yard line, but Keyswhawn Martin's safer approach to kick returning was probably for the better.
Punter Shane Lechler remains the one positive from the entire special teams unit at this point. But again, it was a measly three missed points that could have meant the difference between a loss and a trip to overtime.