NFL1000 Week 7 Weekend Preview: Texans Are the Next Evolution of NFL Offenses

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2017

NFL1000 Week 7 Weekend Preview: Texans Are the Next Evolution of NFL Offenses

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    The marquee game for Week 7 of the 2017 NFL season is the Super Bowl LI rematch between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. It probably doesn't help that, after months of hearing about 28-3, the Falcons enter this game having blown a 17-point lead to the Dolphins last Sunday.

    Still, the Patriots continue to struggle atypically on defense, so maybe it's the week Matt Ryan can get back on the good foot. So far, he's thrown six touchdowns to six interceptions and has not looked like the MVP he was last season.

    The other big game will happen Monday night when the Redskins take their improved defense and inconsistent passing game to Philadelphia to face the Eagles, who look as good as any team in the league. Carson Wentz is using a tremendous offensive line and revised rushing attack to riddle defenses with passing concepts that work. A win over the 3-2 Redskins would keep the 5-1 Eagles in the catbird seat—not just in the NFC East, but in the NFC overall.

    Of course, the NFC picture has changed drastically after Aaron Rodgers' broken collarbone, and it will be up to Green Bay backup quarterback Brett Hundley to test New Orleans' secondary. That's not as easy as it's been in previous years; the Saints' cornerbacks and safeties are playing well together in ways we've not seen in a long time.

    Great matchups abound in Week 7, and our scouts have worked hard to preview all the games based on tape and stat study.

    Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive Line: Ethan Young
    Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

    Here's what we've been watching in preparation for Week 7.      

Houston Texans May Be Starting the Next Wave of NFL Offenses

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    It's early yet, but it's indisputable that no 2017 draft pick has paid more dividends than Deshaun Watson. Through his first six NFL games, the Houston Texans quarterback has completed 107 of 174 passes for 1,297 yards, five interceptions and a league-leading 15 touchdown passes. He has shown amazing development in challenging NFL defenses—especially given the spread-based offense he ran at Clemson. But if you watched his college tape, it was also clear he possessed the pocket clarity and ability to make reads down the field that's common in all great NFL quarterbacks.

    Equally important to Watson's NFL development, though, is head coach Bill O'Brien's flexibility in installing plays that use his strengths. Houston's offense is no longer the static entity it was when O'Brien was stuck in quarterback purgatory; now, the coach enhances his traditional route concepts with run-pass plays and other option concepts designed to keep defenses on edge. We've seen these concepts in the NFL before, but few quarterbacks have been able to use them as well as Watson.

    Advanced play action is a huge part of the equation, as Watson will often fake a handoff to a back before throwing for a big play, knowing defenses already poised to stop him as a runner must commit defenders to the fake. This leaves Watson with more one-on-one opportunities downfield.

    In addition, the Texans aren't just using run-pass options, in which the quarterback reads the defense and decides whether to hand off or throw; they're also running pass-pass options in which the fake to the back is nothing but a fake (h/t Pro Style Spread Offense), and the idea is to give Watson two receiver reads from that. It's the next generation of the RPO concept and has taken over the NFL, and Watson is running it beautifully.

    Watson has thrown out of play action on 28.2 percent of his dropbacks, which is the second-highest in the NFL behind Denver's Trevor Siemian, per Pro Football Focus. He's completed 66.7 percent of his passes and thrown an NFL-high eight touchdown passes out of play action. But there's far more to this offense than a simple fake and throw; with Watson in the driver's seat, the Texans are running the next generation of fully developed option passing, and other teams are struggling to defend it.

    Invariably, other NFL offenses will implement more multidimensional RPO ideas, but you're seeing them in Houston first.

     —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar    

Super Bowl Rematch Highlights Week 7

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    Teams don't stay the same, even when they're successful. Injuries, coaching changes and free-agency attrition force franchises into different schematic boxes, and not always successfully. Sunday night's game between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots features a rematch of Super Bowl LI—the first overtime Super Bowl and a game in which the Patriots came back from a 28-3 deficit to win their fifth NFL title.

    That's what we know. What we see is two offenses in flux.

    When Julian Edelman went down for the season with a torn ACL in late August, Tom Brady lost a receiver who does two things well: He looks for openings in slants and drag routes, and he confounds slot cornerbacks with a ton of option routes. Edelman was the epicenter of New England's quick-passing offense, which allowed Brady to get the ball out at the back of a three- or five-step drop and negated some of the issues along the Patriots offensive line.

    With Edelman gone, two things are happening: Brady's throwing deeper a lot more, and he's getting hit with greater frequency. This season, he leads the league with 36 passing attempts of 20 air yards or more, and he's completed 15 of those passes for 511 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Last season, including the playoffs and Super Bowl, he had 70 deep attempts and completed 35 for 1,164 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception.

    Not bad at all, except that Brady is getting pressured on 32.3 percent of his passes this year as opposed to 30.5 percent in 2016, and his sack percentage is up from 12.8 percent to 19.5 percent. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels must find Brady another consistent intermediate option to stop the damage.

    As for Ryan, his numbers are way down as he struggles to come to terms with a new passing offense designed by offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. There are far fewer pre-snap motion concepts to create mismatches with linebackers and safeties—a hallmark of former coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense. And the route concepts aren't as well-designed to present Ryan with as many quick reads.

    Ryan has thrown more than one touchdown pass in one game, and that was during the Week 3 stinker against the Detroit Lions in which he also threw three interceptions. He has just six passing touchdowns on the season and has matched that with six interceptions.

    Both the Patriots and Falcons will have to alter their passing concepts if they're going to reach the Super Bowl or even make this rematch more than a midseason talking point.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

Can Brett Hundley Lead Green Bay Past the Saints?

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Brett Hundley has the ability to lead the Packers past the Saints. Whether he will remains to be seen.

    New Orleans' defense has been a thorn in the Saints' side the past few seasons, but with some recent additions, including rookie Marshon Lattimore, the unit is showing signs of improvement. It has been opportunistic in 2017, as it's 10th in takeaways with nine. It has seven interceptions, which is good for seventh in the league. So Hundley will need to take care of the football.

    But Green Bay will still have passing opportunities. New Orleans ranks 28th in the league in passing yardage allowed per game with an average of 268.4. Only Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and New England have allowed a higher average. It is surrendering 5.8 yards per play, which is fifth-worst in the league. Finally, New Orleans struggles to get off the field on third down, as offenses have converted almost 50 percent of third-down opportunities against the Saints, which is the worst in the league.

    Hundley, who's filling in after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, can capitalize on those chances.

    After entering the game against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6, Hundley delivered a number of throws from the pocket that showed confidence and poise. For example, on an out route, he threw to Jordy Nelson along the right sideline midway through the third quarter. Hundley froze the safety in the middle of the field and delivered a strong throw along the boundary with solid placement. He also showed great anticipation and feel on a comeback to Nelson along the left sideline in the fourth quarter.

    Now Hundley will get the benefit of a full week of practice as the starter and a game plan tailored to his skill set. Improvement should be apparent against New Orleans. In addition, head coach Mike McCarthy would be wise to add in some run/pass option elements, which Green Bay has done with Rodgers, and Hundley can run effectively.

    If he puts these pieces together, the 24-year-old should deliver against the Saints.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Cleveland Browns Need to Pick a QB and Stick with Him

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    An NFL team cannot have its quarterback looking over his shoulder. If you are worried every mistake, every missed read, every overthrown pass or every interception will send you to the bench, you will tighten up, play conservatively and hesitate to make throws.

    I do not have a problem with pulling a QB if his team is getting blown out. Doing so with a young quarterback if he is making mistakes and the game is getting out of hand is a good strategy. But when Hue Jackson pulled Kizer at halftime of a 3-0 contest, he sent the wrong message to his rookie: "I don't trust you to win."

    Quarterbacks are going to make mistakes. Rookie signal-callers are especially going to make mistakes. But benching Kizer at halftime of the Jets game and keeping him there last week against the Houston Texans showed Kizer his head coach has lost confidence in him. That's no way to handle a quarterback; especially one who went through similar patches with head coach Brian Kelly at Notre Dame.  

    Jackson is adamant that Kizer learned last week while on the bench, and that may be so. But it is time for both Kizer and Jackson to apply the lessons of the past two weeks. Kizer needs to improve his play on the field. But his coach needs to improve how he is handling the QB.

    Jackson needs to help him on the field schematically by incorporating motion and giving the QB some half-field reads on boot concepts. Some have argued that the Browns need to run more, and while there is truth to that (through six games the Browns are 18th in rushing attempts but third in passing attempts), Cleveland is also fourth in the league in first-half rushing attempts. So there have been situations where games have gotten out of hand and turned Cleveland into a one-dimensional team. But there is room for improvement.

    Kizer may be Cleveland's quarterback of the future. But the only way to find out is by putting him out there, showing confidence in him and seeing how he develops. But putting him in situations where he is looking over his shoulder stacks the deck against him.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Can the Panthers Do More with Christian McCaffrey?

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    It's fair to say Christian McCaffrey has yet to deliver on the lofty expectations placed upon him when the Panthers drafted him eighth overall in April. As a runner, he's yet to establish himself, as he's managed just 104 yards on 38 attempts and 2.7 yards per carry. In the last two weeks, against the Lions and Eagles, McCaffrey had a combined seven carries for 15 yards.

    But look at the Panthers' overall run game, and the picture doesn't look much better. Jonathan Stewart, the starting back, has 247 yards on 85 carries at just 2.9 yards per attempt. Only quarterback Cam Newton has managed a respectable four yards per carry as a runner.

    The Panthers aren't blocking well up front. They run a power-heavy scheme that involves a lot of moving parts. If one player takes the wrong angle on a down block or a pulling lineman isn't quick enough to kick out the edge defender, the whole play can get blown up.

    They've not managed to move defenders off the ball well this season, and it leaves their backs little room to work with. The 240-pound Stewart, as the bigger-bodied back, can pound out a slightly better yards-per-carry average than the 205-pound McCaffrey, but neither is getting consistent blocking up front.

    Carolina has done a good job of feeding McCaffrey the ball in the passing game, though. He leads the team in receptions with 37, 10 more than wide receiver Devin Funchess. Those 37 catches are tied for fifth in the NFL, too, so the Panthers are clearly intent on getting him the ball.

    Most of his receptions come on screen passes or choice routes out of the backfield. The screen passes haven't been successful for the same reason the run game has struggled: the failure to win blocks. The choice routes have been excellent, but they take longer to develop out of the backfield than they would out of the slot, where McCaffrey is capable of lining up.

    The Panthers should use him in route combinations more regularly. Just last week against the Eagles, he motioned from the backfield to a tight split to the left of the formation on the goal line. He and tight end Ed Dickson combined on a rub route, and Dickson ran a slant to create traffic while McCaffrey ran to the flat underneath. McCaffrey was schemed wide-open and Newton delivered an easy touchdown pass.

    Perhaps the Panthers could look to use McCaffrey as a more traditional slot receiver in route combinations, instead of running screens or trying to isolate him constantly. Adding this variation will make McCaffrey's targets less predictable and perhaps boost the potential yards he can gain after the catch.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock     

The Rams Can Get Sammy Watkins Back on Track

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    When the Los Angeles Rams traded for Sammy Watkins in August, they believed they acquired the true No. 1 receiver they have lacked since Torry Holt departed in 2009. And after his massive Week 3 performance against the San Francisco 49ers in which he caught six passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns, the gamble to trade for him seemed to be paying off.

    But after that, his struggles began. Over the past three weeks, Watkins has had two catches for 28 yards on 10 targets. He has almost been unusable since Week 3. He is too talented to be held to 28 yards in a single game, let alone over multiple weeks.

    So what is causing Watkins' slump?

    First, quarterback Jared Goff's skill set doesn't mesh with Watkins'. The Clemson product is a true outside receiver who needs to play with a signal-caller who isn't afraid to drive the ball down the field and to the sidelines. Watkins' game is built off his speed and ability to win with his feet. His ability to win on the sideline with awareness and body control make him the perfect go-to receiver in today's NFL. But he's not paired with a quarterback who can utilize his talent.

    At this stage of Goff's career, he is more likely to throw to open receivers in the short to intermediate parts of the field rather than go down the sideline. That could be part of the reason Watkins has struggled to see consistent targets. According to Pro Football Focus, Watkins has run just 43 routes out of the slot this season. For the most part, Tavon Austin and rookie Cooper Kupp run most of the routes from that area.

    The other problem is the Rams aren't giving him many layups early in games. I charted all six of his outings, and they have failed to target him once on a screen or comeback route, both of which have fairly high success rates in the NFL. Sometimes those easy catches early in games can give both the quarterback and receiver confidence for the rest of the game.

    If the Rams are to get their best receiver back on track, they could move Watkins into the slot more often on passing downs to free him up against the top cornerback from every team. That should allow him to get into a rhythm earlier in games, which in turn, should make the Rams offense more dynamic.

    Head coach Sean McVay is one of the most brilliant minds in football, so expect the Rams to figure out a way to allow Watkins to reach his potential.

    —NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Chargers' Banged-Up and Miscast OL Holding It Together

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    Coming into the season, I did not expect much from the Chargers offensive line. Their two early O-line draft picks got banged up in camp, as a torn ACL knocked out second-rounder Forrest Lamp for the season, and third-rounder Dan Feeney battled nagging injuries throughout camp. Although the team made a clear effort to shore up the blind side by making Russell Okung the highest-paid tackle in football, he was coming off a down year and had durability concerns.

    The Chargers' opening day crew of Okung, Matt Slauson, Spencer Pulley, Kenny Wiggins and Joe Barksdale looked weak on paper.

    Not only did their personnel worry me, but the schematic and stylistic fit of this group in new head coach Anthony Lynn's run-heavy scheme also did so, where physicality is at a premium with all the outside-zone concepts the team deploys. The play style of the group, and the interior especially, leans closer to finesse-based than toward dominant short-set power, so it had that mountain to climb as well.

    In spite of all this, the unit has been solid in 2017, especially in pass protection. Okung has flashed the dominant mirroring ability from when he was healthy, and the rest of the group has strung it together to give Philip Rivers consistently clean pockets. You have to give credit to Lynn and Chargers O-line coach Pat Meyer, as they have squeezed every drop they can out of this unit.

    This group always seems prepared, and it knows how to counter whatever opponents throw its way. It's worth noting Hunter Henry and Keenan Allen have both gotten after it as blockers, too, which always helps. It hasn't been pretty at times, and the stylistic concerns can rear their head in the run game, but it's been better than expected in that area as well.

    The L.A. front will face a big test this week, though, in a rematch against Von Miller and a Broncos defense it held at bay in Week 1. In a crucial matchup between teams that are fighting to stay in the playoff conversation, the Chargers' ability to keep Rivers clean again will be key to the their chances.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young     

Dolphins Defensive Line Led Miami Through Brutal 5-Game Stretch

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins have had one of the most action-packed first six weeks of an NFL season in recent memory. After signing their starting quarterback, Jay Cutler, in August, the Dolphins had to delay their opening game due to a hurricane, have played in five cities in five weeks (Los Angeles, New York, London, Miami and Atlanta) and have watched their offensive line coach resign.

    Through all of that, they still have a 3-2 record, with their wins coming by a combined 11 points. In the AFC, only the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers have a better win percentage than the Dolphins (.600).

    One of the main reasons for the team's success, despite the conditions, has been that its defensive line has traveled well. The starting unit is made up of two potential Hall of Famers in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Cameron Wake, along with starting defensive end Andre Branch, rookie starting nose tackle Davon Godchaux, 2017 trade acquisition (and defensive end) William Hayes and 2017 first-round defensive end Charles Harris.

    According to Pro Football Reference, the team has made 39 tackles of zero yards or fewer, not including the 12.5 sacks that Miami also has registered. Those six defensive linemen listed above have accounted for 19 tackles of zero yards or fewer and 11 sacks this year, not including plays they influenced but didn't finish. At this point, only one team is better than the Dolphins in not giving an inch in the ground game defensively, per Setting the Edge.

    By next Thursday night, this Dolphins front will have played in Baltimore against the Ravens, who have a solid offensive line, and at home against the New York Jets. Between now and then, expect to hear about Wake's dominance late in his career or to see highlights where Suh pulls down running backs with one arm.

    Many were shocked when Miami pulled off the 20-17 upset against the reigning NFC champion Atlanta Falcons last week. Key moments in big games can sometimes get lost, such as Hayes' tackles in the backfield after being shot out of a cannon, but the importance is there nonetheless.

    Every week we ask, "how did X lose to Y?" In the case of Miami, if you're paying close enough attention, the answer is clear: The Dolphins' six difference-makers up front, who combine for 1,664 pounds, are why the team is 3-2.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda     

Can NaVorro Bowman Help Oakland's Underwhelming LB Corps?

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    It wasn't long ago that NaVorro Bowman spearheaded a San Francisco 49ers defense that nearly won Super Bowl XLVII. Bowman was the rare linebacker who could stop the run, play in coverage and blitz at an elite level. Then-defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could ask Bowman to do anything. His versatility and sheer dominance meant the conversation about the league's best inside linebacker often started with him.

    Misfortune has had its way with his career over the past few years, however. A torn ACL during the 2013 playoffs sidelined Bowman for the 2014 season. The veteran linebacker came back fresh in 2015 only to tear his Achilles in the early portion of the 2016 season. Bowman entered the 2017 campaign with two major lower-body injuries over the past three years, and he has not looked the same.

    Bowman is slow. In his prime, few linebackers could cover large tracts of ground in a few steps the way he could. He could close rushing lanes or cut off passing windows in an instant. This rundown version can no longer do that. Bowman lumbers around. It is clear he still processes the game quickly and understands his assignment, but without the speed to get there, know-how only gets Bowman so far.

    His diminished play resulted in his release from the 49ers on Oct. 13. He then signed with the Oakland Raiders, a team desperately in need of linebacker talent. Cory James, Nicholas Morrow and Marquel Lee have received the lion's share of snaps this season, and all of them are recent late-round or undrafted players who play to that standard. Bowman will likely start next to James, who has received the most snaps of the trio (289).

    Bowman's signing will not fix the Raiders' problem. He should be at least marginally better than Lee or Morrow, but his impact will not be enough to change the overall construct or effectiveness of the defense. Bowman is a Band-Aid solution for a long-neglected linebacker problem in Oakland.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

Buccaneers Secondary Must Improve to Help Save Season

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The 2-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers sit at their first major crossroads of the season. With their bye week moved from Week 11 to Week 1, they don't have an extended readjustment period to fix their issues. Despite this unique situation, the team must focus on getting more out of its secondary, which was a strength in 2016.

    The Buffalo Bills will host the Buccaneers this week. The Bills cause a host of problems for opponents—despite one of the league's weakest receiving corps—due to an effective power running game, a dynamic quarterback in Tyrod Taylor and a scheme that preys on safeties in coverage and isolating corners on crossing routes.

    One of the biggest problem areas for the Buccaneers has been the ineffectiveness of the secondary—besides cornerback Brent Grimes. The 34-year-old veteran has been his usual self, as he's blanketed most receivers and won with a rare sense of timing, positioning and ball skills. But his protege, Vernon Hargreaves, has yet to show any semblance of that same talent and feel for the game.

    Hargreaves has been disastrous in man coverage, allowing 23 of 32 targets to be completed for a total of 311 yards and one touchdown, per my own charting. Now five games into his second year, Hargreaves has shown no growth, and it's alarming how he continues to give so much space to receivers in an attempt to hedge against deep routes. His confidence in route recognition and his ability to recover is nearly zero, which causes him to allow easy completions that rack up quickly.

    The safety position has been inconsistent as well. Rookie Justin Evans has been exposed the last two weeks, especially in man coverage, where he's still catching up to the speed of NFL receivers. Veteran T.J. Ward split time with Chris Conte in Week 6, so there's another lineup change that may be affecting the unit's cohesion.

    The Bucs must find their footing soon, or else they'll continue to hemorrhage yards as the 31st-ranked passing defense and fall out of playoff contention.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton