NFL1000 Week 6 Weekend Preview: Texans Defensive Line Is in Serious Trouble

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistOctober 13, 2017

NFL1000 Week 6 Weekend Preview: Texans Defensive Line Is in Serious Trouble

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    While three NFL teams—the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers—stand at 0-5 with their seasons effectively over outside of the evaluation phase, there are 12 teams with three wins, trying to separate themselves from the pack.

    The most interesting divisional battle seems to be in the AFC East, where the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets are trying to put a stop to the New England Patriots' seemingly infinite dominance. All three teams have 3-2 records, and the Jets get their shot at taking down the Pats this Sunday. It's a weird situation for a team that was thought to be tanking with its lack of overall talent before the season began, but Josh McCown has an opportunity to dismantle New England's surprisingly poor defense.

    The AFC North sees the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens up top, which is normal, except for the fact neither offense seems to want to succeed. One week after his five-pick nightmare against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger has to deal with a hungry Kansas City Chiefs defense, while the Ravens get to pick on Chicago Bears rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

    The Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings are looking up at the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, and the big question there is when Sam Bradford may be available to play at his best again after a knee injury. It appeared head coach Mike Zimmer rushed Bradford to the field too early last week, and backup Case Keenum looks like the better option for now. But will Keenum provide enough offensive fireworks to counter what Aaron Rodgers does to Minnesota's defense this Sunday?

    Great matchups abound in Week 6, and our scouts have been working 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 6 of the 2017 season.          

Can Brian Hoyer Build on His Week 5 Performance vs. the Colts?

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Through five games, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer has been one of the least impressive players at his position. Unfortunately, he's a big reason the team is 0-5. Though the 49ers have estimable defensive talent and pieces with which to rebuild on the offensive side, they're not yet talented enough to hide their quarterback in the same way the Jacksonville Jaguars can with Blake Bortles.

    This season, Hoyer has completed just 59.3 percent of his passes—115 completions in 194 attempts for 1,211 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. Only Bortles (who's effectively been eliminated from his own offense) and benched Cleveland Browns rookie DeShone Kizer have lower completion rates.

    Hoyer's Achilles heel this year has been the deep ball; he's completed just four of 15 passes of 20 yards or more for 184 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has two options: He can take the deep ball out of the playbook, or he can create more hospitable situations for Hoyer when he does air it out.

    In the fourth quarter of San Francisco's Week 5 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts, there was a ray of hope. With his team down 23-9 with 9:51 left in regulation, Hoyer completed a 20-yard slant to receiver Marquise Goodwin that became easier with pre-snap movement that spread out the formation and stretched Indy's zone coverage. Goodwin had a space in the middle of that zone, and Hoyer hit him with good timing and anticipation.

    The 49ers then went no-huddle, aligning Goodwin to the left outside in a tight formation after placing him in the left slot on the play before. The Colts responded with their base nickel defense. Goodwin streaked up the numbers to the left side, beating cornerback Vontae Davis and safety Matthias Farley in a foot race. Hoyer put all he had behind the ball, and the result was a 51-yard catch.

    Those kinds of shot plays—a speed receiver beating bracketed coverage—are impressive, but the way in which pre-snap motion opened up the offense for Hoyer on the 20-yard completion was more repeatable and is a hallmark of Shanahan's style.

    On running back Matt Breida's shift from the backfield to the right outside position, and tight end George Kittle's move from left H-back to left outside, the Colts were forced to extend their coverage to an uncomfortable point. Linebackers Jonathan Bostic and Tarell Basham were forced to scramble to get over to cover Goodwin, which was a mismatch from the start.

    Against the Washington Redskins' impressive defense this Sunday, Shanahan might want to implement more of his specific pre-snap stuff. He's great at moving closely aligned players outside the formation, which makes defenses adjust to his concepts. Hoyer will need more of this to be successful—especially the easy reads and one-on-one matchups intelligent pre-snap motion tends to create.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar    

Ravens Defense Will Give Trubisky His Toughest Test Yet

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    It's now clear rookie Mitchell Trubisky is the future of the Bears' quarterback position. Though Chicago lost 20-17 to the Vikings on Monday night, and Trubisky's late interception to safety Harrison Smith was a big factor in the Bears' late unravelling, Trubisky showed far more mobility, arm talent and processing speed than veteran Mike Glennon ever had.

    Trubisky completed 12 of 25 passes for 128 yards, one touchdown and one interception, though questionable penalties eliminated several early big plays. That Trubisky was able to look like a functional NFL quarterback against one of the league's better defenses is a testament to his growth as a player—and not bad at all for a guy who started just one season at North Carolina.

    Now, Trubisky faces a more difficult intellectual test this Sunday as the Bears take on the Baltimore Ravens. The Vikings run some A-gap blitzes and advanced coverage concepts, but for the most part, they're an execution-based defense—they trust their players' talents in base schemes.

    Baltimore, under defensive coordinator Dean Pees, is a different animal. Pees is a master of presenting disguised coverages to opposing quarterbacks—what looks like Cover 2 could be 2 Man, and what looks like Cover 1 may be Cover 2. It's a primary reason the Ravens rank second in pass defense in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, behind only the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Compounding the problem for Trubisky is that he's more a boot-action, see-it-and-throw-it guy. He has the capacity to throw receivers open with anticipation, but for the most part, he needs easy reads on the move to succeed. The Ravens are excellent at presenting one coverage picture and switching to another.

    Trubisky will want to spend this week learning from the interception he threw to Smith with 2:32 left in last week's game. Tight end Zach Miller ran a quick wheel route to the right side and then angled back to the middle of the field at Trubisky's direction. The problem with that move was Smith saw Trubisky's direction as well and jumped the route easily.

    Against the Ravens, Trubisky must be less of a sandlot player and more covert in his intentions. It's his best chance against a defense that, at this stage of his career, has more football smarts than he does.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar    

How Will the Minnesota Vikings' Passing Game Fare Against Green Bay?

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The clearest answer to how the Vikings' passing game will fare against Green Bay might rest with how the Minnesota coaching staff and doctors feel about Sam Bradford's left knee.

    Bradford returned to action Monday night after a few weeks on the sidelines, but his knee limited him. In fact, it was clear on his first passing attempt. Bradford tried to hit Stefon Diggs on a quick out pattern to the right side, but the quarterback could not fully step into the throw and the pass sailed high and off the mark.

    Bradford also struggled to move in the pocket. In addition to the first-quarter sack that resulted in a Bears safety, there was also a second-quarter sack where Bradford lacked the ability to slide away from the pressure because he could not put that left foot in the ground. By halftime, head coach Mike Zimmer had seen enough and inserted Case Keenum.

    Keenum completed 17 of 21 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown, leading Minnesota to the win. When the backup came in, the difference was evident from his first offensive play (a designed rollout where he threw to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the flat). His ability to throw on the move, avoid pressure in the pocket and keep the timing of the offense intact was critical to Minnesota's victory.

    It is imperative quarterbacks trust their lower body. When it comes to avoiding pressure and generating velocity on throws, that part of the body is a critical component. Bradford does not trust his lower body, and it is hampering him.

    Sunday, the Vikings square off against a Packers defense that is one of the best in the league in terms of passing yards allowed but is more middle-of-the-pack by other metrics. While Green Bay has given up only 199.8 passing yards per game, which is sixth-best in the league, it is allowing an adjusted net yards per passing attempt of 6.2, which is 15th. It has also allowed a quarterback rating of 94.6, which is 18th.

    So there are plays to be made against this unit. Until Bradford trusts his body, however, he cannot deliver on those opportunities. Keenum will give Minnesota its best chance for a win Sunday.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield        

Can Adrian Peterson Jump-Start the Cardinals' Rushing Attack?

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Through the first five weeks, the Arizona Cardinals have had the worst rushing attack in the NFL, and it's not even close. They average a measly 2.6 yards per carry and just 51.8 yards per game on the ground, which is 23 yards fewer on average than the next-worst rushing team.    

    Clearly, losing David Johnson to wrist surgery was a huge blow, and it made sense that they were in the market for a running back.

    This week, the Cardinals sent a 2018 undisclosed draft pick to the New Orleans Saints for Adrian Peterson. Peterson is one of the best running backs in NFL history and is fewer than 500 yards away from entering the top 10 of all-time leading rushers. The Peterson of three years ago would have picked up those 500 yards comfortably. But he's no longer the same player.

    He's shown flashes of his former self. On one zone play against the Panthers, for example, linebacker Luke Kuechly challenged him. Kuechly went slightly too high on his tackle attempt and Peterson fought through it, driving the defender to the ground and picking up six yards before being brought down. Far more often, though, Peterson lacked the burst he once had to beat a linebacker to the edge or get through the hole before it closed.

    The 32-year-old has had just 27 carries for 81 yards this season, good for three yards per attempt. Granted, the blocking in New Orleans wasn't perfect, and Peterson often had little room to work with. But there were also missed opportunities. Schematically, he fits in better with the Cardinals, as they're more willing to run the ball from under center than the Saints. Drew Brees likes to be able to operate out of the shotgun and audible to passing plays if he likes certain looks, but Peterson has never been prolific running from the shotgun.

    For him to have success in Arizona, the Cardinals will have to block better. An average of just 51.8 rushing yards per game is historically bad, and it's impossible to put the blame on just one player or position for that.

    If the Cardinals can find cohesion up front and Peterson is able to knock off rust, then perhaps the team can find some semblance of balance on offense. But as it stands, Peterson alone won't be enough to spark the attack into life.

     —NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock

What's Going on with the Redskins' Wide Receivers?

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    After multiple years of consistent play from Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, the Washington Redskins wanted to get younger at receiver. While the veterans were talented, each lacked the upside and playmaking ability of a true No. 1 receiver. So the Redskins let them go in the offseason and rolled the dice with two players with more upside: Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson.

    Pryor and Doctson were expected to create explosive plays down the field and to be weapons in the red zone. And to their credit, they've done that. In the past two weeks, Doctson and Pryor have each caught 40-yard touchdowns. They are making exciting, game-changing plays. However, the inconsistencies of each have hurt more than the big plays have helped.

    Pryor has always been the most athletic player on the field. But now he has been pushed into being the No. 1 receiver, his skill set isn't enough to win consistently. For example, his athleticism allowed him to catch a beautiful 44-yard touchdown in the opening quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4, but his lack of refinement cost him throughout the rest of the game.

    On one third-down pass, Pryor ran a slant and separated from the defender but took his eyes off the ball as the safety was lining up to hit him. The drop was costly as the Redskins had to punt from inside their own 20. His inconsistencies and lack of experience have turned the Redskins into a high-variance offense rather than a consistent one.  

    Doctson's limited route tree is preventing him from being a full-time receiver. According to Pro Football Focus, Doctson has played on just 49 passing snaps this season. He has seen just six targets, and all have come by way of a simple route on which he doesn't need to read coverages.

    Like the 6'4", 228-pound Pryor, the 6'2", 206-pound Doctson is a big, athletic receiver who is still learning the nuances of the game. But his lack of refinement and experience showed on one of the final plays against the Chiefs, as he dropped the potential game-winning touchdown. He made a great adjustment to the ball but wasn't able to secure it as he went to the ground. It was a tough teaching moment for the former first-round pick from TCU.

    It will take time for the two receivers to jell with Kirk Cousins and the rest of the offense, so expect more up-and-down play from them. However, there is still time to cash in on their upside and prove the team's decision right.

    —NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Jaguars Offensive Line May Make or Break Their Season

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    When Tom Coughlin returned to Jacksonville in January, there was a strong sense he wanted to change the team's makeup. His first offseason running the show matched that, with the Jaguars' new ground-and-pound style spearheaded by many of Coughlin's moves.

    Rookie Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars' run game have been tasked with pacing the offense, as evidenced by Jacksonville's league-leading 175 rushing attempts that generate offensive stat lines that seem straight out of the football dark ages at times.

    It's worked well so far, though, and while Jacksonville's talented stable of backs and imposing defense look to be rock-solid, the big piece of the puzzle that needs to keep chugging along is the offensive line.

    The unit has been a huge success so far in opening big holes for Fournette. The tone-setter of the group has been rookie left tackle Cam Robinson, whose physicality is already among the best at the position. There is still some snap-to-snap inconsistency in his game, but the second-round pick has all the building blocks of a potential stud. Center Brandon Linder has also played well and has not skipped a beat since signing his five-year, $51 million contract extension this offseason.

    Robinson and Linder are linchpins, but the Jaguars' other personnel up front are the question marks that could decide the team's fate in the AFC South.

    Although Jermey Parnell can push people around at the point of attack, he has clear movement limitations that you have to play around. The body of work between guard duo Patrick Omameh and A.J. Cann doesn't lend itself to much hope of continued success, either. Between Omameh's struggles with cleanly getting out of his stance and Cann's propensity for lunging, both have problems that are hard to fix and easy to expose.

    Whether this group can hold it together is crucial to the team's offensive success, and the Jags will have their hands full as opposing defense key on the run more. Chris Ivory and Fournette already see eight or more men in the box at the highest and third-highest rates in the league, respectively, per NFL Next Gen Stats, and that number should only grow as teams adjust their game plans.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young

Texans Defensive Line in Serious Trouble

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    The Houston Texans kept pace with the Kansas City Chiefs in a 42-34 Sunday Night Football loss, but the Texans did not survive the moral victory without sacrifice. Defensive end J.J. Watt (tibial plateau fracture) and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral) are now on the team's injured reserve list and likely out for the season.

    With those two pass-rushers down, Houston is in a horrible position. It had top-end talent on its defensive line in Watt (76 career sacks), Mercilus (38.5) and Jadeveon Clowney (13.5 career sacks), but it has little depth in terms of pass-rushing ability behind the trio. Below are the available defensive linemen and outside linebackers for the Texans listed by the percent of defensive snaps they played in Week 5, per Football Outsiders, along with how many career sacks they've posted.

    • Clowney: 92 percent of defensive snaps, 13.5 career sacks
    • Brennan Scarlett (outside linebacker): 90 percent, 0
    • D.J. Reader (nose tackle): 62 percent, 1
    • Christian Covington (defensive end): 58 percent, 4
    • Joel Heath (defensive end): 45 percent, 3
    • Ufomba Kamalu (defensive end): 29 percent, 1
    • Brandon Dunn (defensive end): 23 percent, 0
    • Carlos Watkins (defensive tackle): 0 percent, 0

    Of those defenders, only Clowney has more than four sacks. That's a massive problem. Scarlett, a second-year former undrafted free agent, played 90 percent of the team's snaps in Week 5. He hasn't registered one sack in 12 games as an active player for the Texans.

    The team did bring in outside talent this week in the street free-agent signings of defensive end Kendall Langford (22.5 career sacks) and outside linebacker Lamarr Houston (25 sacks), but neither has recorded a sack in either the 2017 or 2016 NFL seasons. To put it simply: The drop of talent from Watt and Mercilus to Langford, Houston and Scarlett, especially early on, is going to force the Texans' hand.

    They will either have to:

    • Accept that they dropped from a top-10 defensive front to one that may be the worst in the league
    • Send more linebacker and defensive back blitzes to supplement their pass-rushing talent, which leaves their men in coverage in more one-on-one situations

    Either way, they're in a pick-your-poison position. NFL offensive coordinators won't let them off the hook, no matter what they choose. This will be a stark transition for assistant head coach Romeo Crennel and defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel.       

    —NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda     

Cleveland Needs Its Linebackers to Slow Houston's Offense

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Cleveland Browns head on the road to face the Texans. Through four-and-a-half games, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has thrown 12 touchdown passes and run for another two. Their ground game has been effective, too. As a unit, Houston ranks 12th in rushing efficiency, per DVOA. It is going to be strenuous for Cleveland to battle such a well-rounded offense.

    Linebackers Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert can be the key to Cleveland's defensive success. Up front, it has a dominant defense line that should be able to push around Houston's offensive line. There will be gaps to shoot, and the Browns' inside linebacker duo has to take those chances.

    On running plays, Kirksey is more inclined to be the aggressor. He is more athletic and experienced than his counterpart. That will leave Schobert to scrape over the top, fight through traffic when plays get messy and find clean-up tackles. Despite being a fourth-round rookie, Schobert has fulfilled that role quite well this season.

    The two inside linebackers will also need to be on their toes on passing plays. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is a heavy blitzer, so he may send either of them often. When they are in coverage, though, they will be in a tough spot. Balancing between zone coverage and watching the quarterback when the front is playing aggressively is a brutal task.

    Few linebackers have that level of awareness and athletic ability. It will be a true test of Kirksey's and Schobert's abilities, but they have been good enough this year to suggest they will be up for the challenge.

    —NFL1000 linebackers scout Derrik Klassen

Can Pittsburgh Slow Down the Chiefs Offense?

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    Fred Vuich/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are the next in line to face the NFL's best team, the Kansas City Chiefs. The 5-0 Chiefs have blitzed the league despite injuries to safety Eric Berry (Achilles), Chris Conley (Achilles) and Tamba Hali (undisclosed, PUP list). It hasn't mattered, as quarterback Alex Smith is playing the best football of his career and rookie running back Kareem Hunt is on pace to challenge 2,000 rushing yards.

    The Chiefs' dominance has translated statistically, as well. They're the NFL's top scoring team, second-best offense in terms of overall yards per game and rushing yards per game, and ninth-ranked passing attack. Football Outsiders' DVOA measurement, which takes into account quality of opponent and situational performance, ranks the Chiefs as the best overall team in the league and easily the best offense.

    They've been a powerhouse due to Smith's MVP-level play and the creative offense that coordinator Matt Nagy and head coach Andy Reid have concocted.

    The Steelers defense has also been excellent behind an improved pass rush and more mature secondary. Per Football Outsiders, their defensive rank is fifth, which echoes most raw statistics. The one concern is the run defense, which was gashed repeatedly by Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, who totaled 181 yards last week. Hunt and the Chiefs will present a similar challenge, except Smith and the passing attack are much more threatening than Jags QB Blake Bortles.

    Pittsburgh's defense has had issues with being predictably vanilla in big games with similar personnel over the last three years, so this will be their first real test of how additions such as cornerback Joe Haden add versatility to the scheme. If they trot out the same zone-heavy looks as they've used for years, Smith will carve them up with his newfound aggressiveness.

    Creating pressure with nickel cornerback Mike Hilton, who has emerged as a unique blitzer for the defense, could be a difference-maker for the Steelers. As Hilton has taken more snaps from William Gay, the Steelers have relied more on their secondary, and the results have been encouraging.

    This is an opportunity for the Steelers defense to change how it's viewed for the rest of the season and potentially for a playoff run. Failing to adjust to its opponent would only continue a trend that would stifle any Super Bowl hopes Pittsburgh may have.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton


    Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted.