Week 5 Game Review - Houston Texans v. Atlanta Falcons
Houston 21 - Atlanta 19
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The, first time in forever .500, Houston Texans suffered a tough loss in Atlanta, losing to the Falcons 19 to 21. Coming off the high of a two game win streak, Houston ran into a well coached and schemed Atlanta Falcons. This will go down as a learning moment for both the players and the coaching staff.
Every week won’t offer an efficient offensive output and stifling defense effort. The team will have to win ugly games. This can be difficult for young teams, learning how to work through the adversity, adjusting on the fly to make a critical plays, game changing stops, or big time scores.
Sunday’s game the Texans left multiple opportunities on the field for points, and missed on defensive stops at critical points in the game. Questionable coaching decisions along the way offering up a look at a rookie coaching staff vulnerabilities, specifically decision making with penalties.
Not All Negative
Not all hope is lost though. This type of game was bound to occur, and honestly probably needed to happen sooner rather than later. The players and staff will take this one in and learn from it. Develop ways to build off this loss in hopes of bringing home a win this coming Sunday with a week of rest to follow.
The defense was without two starters in LB Christian Harris and CB Shaquill Griffin. The linebacker group was manned by Denzel Perryman, Blake Cashman, and Henry To’oTo’o with the two latter names remaining on the field in sub-packages. Ka’Dar Hollman manned the boundary cornerback in reserve for Griffin.
On the offensive side of the ball, a few veteran names returned to the starting line-up in offensive tackles Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard. The “best 5 players” approach meant Howard would cover the left guard position. Tunsil looked to be back to his normal performance, however Howard was a bit rusty at times despite playing out of position. Howard just needs more reps and regain his true form. Let’s not forget he hasn’t seen NFL speed in 8+ weeks.
Four weeks of game film was enough to stifle the emerging Houston offense. Atlanta opted to drop 6 or 7 players in coverage to take away the middle of the field and the seam throwing lanes from Stroud. Atlanta, bringing 4 or less pass rushers on 80% of drop backs, generated a low 11.4% pressure rate and zero sacks. Their coverage plan was excellent leaving Stroud having to work on the boundary and take short check down opportunities.
Atlanta’s defensive backs showed press man coverage at a 35% rate, something Houston has not seen this season. Nico Collins was the main target with a 68% press rate in attempt to not give Collins running space and bump him off his timing. Collins finished the day with 3 receptions on 4 targets for 39 yards.
With the coverage scheme deployed by Atlanta this meant more opportunities for tight end Dalton Schultz who finished the day with 7 receptions on 10 targets for 65 yards including 1 touchdown.
Houston’s run game continues to struggle finishing the day with 23 carries for 64 yards, a 2.8 yards per carry average. To highlight the struggles Houston finished the day with negative 30 yards rushing over expected. The first four games of the season Houston was averaging negative 10.1 rushing yards over expected per game. To put that into context of per carry, weeks 1 through 4 the team averaged negative 0.4 yards rushing yards over expected; that number explodes to negative 0.6 once the fifth game is added. Primer on RYOE (rushing yards over expected) can be read here.
Atlanta was not loading the box against Houston either. Atlanta had 7 (neutral) or less players in the box on 90% of Houston’s rush attempts. There is no single party responsible for the poor rush attack. Something that I hope to explore during the bye week.
CJ Stroud had a more pedestrian type day (in comparison to the past two weeks) finishing the day 20 for 35 with 249 yards passing with one touchdown. Stroud continues his streak of zero interceptions, resetting the record once held by Dak Prescott, of 177 attempts now at 186 attempts and counting.
The offensive line for Houston held up providing Stroud with a clean pocket on 85% of his drop backs per PFF charting. The play action game was all but non-existent, coming as no surprise given the lack of success with the run game.
Stroud’s best work, again, came in the intermediate (10-19 yards) and deep (20+ yards) areas in the center third of the field, also known as between the numbers.
The Texans defense front continues to struggle in generating pressure with their front four. Head Coach Demeco Ryans continues to lean heavy on the front four, bringing 4 pass rushers on 84% of Atlanta’s drop backs. Resulting in zero sacks and a 23% pressure rate. Houston continues to lean on their Cover 3 zone scheme, this week running a version of zone on 81% of Atlanta’s drop backs. Four neutral zone infractions, for the defensive line, in the first half was troublesome. Luckily the team eliminated that issue in the second half.
The rush defense was the bright spot for Houston on Sunday. Atlanta came in with a Top 10 rushing attack with young star Bijan Robinson. Houston held Atlanta to just 96 yards on 36 attempts, their first time holding an opponent under 100 yards. Houston’s run stuff rate was 36% (per NGS) and held Atlanta to negative 28 yards rushing over expected. A few plays did break through for Atlanta for size able gains, but the run stuffs by Houston lowered the average yard per carry down to 2.7 yards per carry.
Houston’s missed tackle efforts continued against Atlanta with 16 charged missed tackles per PFF charting. Conversely the defense forced two turnovers, recovering both fumbles. Houston is currently the 3rd worst team in tackling efficiency.
Houston may want to consider a swap at starting defensive tackle between Sheldon Rankins and Khalil Davis in terms of playing time. Davis continues to excel with occupying blockers in space and has shown continued improvement in his run defense. Davis finished the day with 3 run stops.
Coverage was not what fans are used to seeing from Houston. The defensive backs were aligned farther away from wide receivers with an average cushion of 6.4 yards at snap. This could be a result of the team starting CB4 (Ka’Dar Hollman) opposite of Steven Nelson.
Desmond Ridder played the game of his life. Ridder was decisive, showed terrific arm strength, and showed poise in the pocket. Ridder’s stellar performance was not completely the result of poor defense by Houston. Players can have great days…it happens. Head Coach Arthur Smith schemed up solid throwing lanes for Ridder and leaned heavily on the run game to keep the Houston linebackers from dropping quickly in coverage on play action.
The theme this week is opponent defense. Specifically how Atlanta attempted to eliminate the middle of the field from CJ Stroud.
1st Quarter - 2nd & 5 - Atlanta 42
Atlanta started early with Cover 1/single high man coverage. Houston is in 21 personnel with Beck and Pierce on the field, Beck motioning from the trips side to the top slot. With Atlanta in their base group, this gave Schultz a favorable matchup against LB Kaden Elliss. The middle of the field LB (Landman) is forced the follow Andrew Beck on a clear-out route. Leaving an area for Schultz to work out of press coverage to the open area.
1st Quarter - 2nd & 16 - Houston 34
The next series we see Atlanta make a big shift to Cover 2 split safety zone look. Houston working in 11 personnel with an initial 2x2 wide receiver formation. Pierce motions from the back field out wide to spread the defense. Atlanta has 5 defensive backs on the field with their linebackers 6-7 yards off the line of scrimmage. Watch the linebackers drop their depth with the middle linebacker watching for the deep crossing route. The outside linebacker (top of screen) also drops in coverage to take away the underneath crossing route. Stroud did not have many options here without taking a chance and opts to take the underneath stop route with Dell.
1st Quarter - 3rd & 10 - Houston 40
The very next play Atlanta is now showing a blitz package with a Quarters/Cover 4 shell look. Atlanta brings 7 players to the line of scrimmage for a potential Cover 0 blitz. Woods motions out of the backfield to the duo formation with Schultz. This is Slowik using a 21 personnel look with their 11 personnel package. After the ball is snapped, Atlanta drops 4 rushers into underneath coverage bringing only 3 rushers. First read is Dell and Collins with Dell on a corner route with Collins on the crosser. The decision is based on the cornerback depth. Neither option is available because Atlanta drops their linebacker and nickelback into coverage eliminating the crossing route. The third option is Woods on an short comeback route but the 3 man pressure causes Stroud to flinch and go with the check down. Atlanta again taking away the middle of the field.
1st Quarter - 1st & 10 - Houston 26
Atlanta gets bold and circles back to man coverage, this time in a Cover 2 look. My guess is Atlanta wanted to give a zone look to Stroud with the split safeties. Game of chess going down here. Houston motions Pierce out of the back field forcing the linebacker to declare his coverage…it’s man coverage. Dell and Collins present initial go/post routes pushing the safeties back, and Schultz stops his route to pull the linebacker down creating the middle of the field void for Dell on the bang 8 in route.
2nd Quarter - 3rd & 9 - Atlanta 47
Stroud will bang the table after seeing this play. Houston is in 11 personnel with Woods motioning to the trips side with Schultz and Dell. Atlanta is trying to show a split safety look, but Woods motioning gets the safety to follow throwing an indication of man coverage. Houston used motion on 65% of their plays on Sunday, this type of motion helps Stroud make pre-snap diagnosis. After the snap Atlanta rotates to a Cover 1 man coverage with a safety robber. The robber drops down to the middle of field to take eliminate this area. Unfortunately Tank Dell gets away uncovered on a shallow crossing around behind Collins’ clear our go route. Calais Campbell gets free from the stunt route forcing Stroud out of the pocket leading to almost his first interception. Atlanta, potentially, had a miscommunication with two defenders on Schultz on the seam.
2nd Quarter - 3rd & 9 - Houston 21
The game of chess continues. Houston is in 11 personnel with 2x2 with Schultz as an inline tight end. Atlanta is pressing the wide receivers trying to show a Cover 2 man with a single robber in the MOF. New wrinkle from Atlanta, they are in dime with three safeties on the field. The MOF pseudo box safety inverts into single high cover with the two deep safeties inverting by dropping down into double robber. The two other linebackers at the LOS, perform a shallow drop for underneath routes. Stroud’s first read is Tank Dell, but Atlanta brackets him. Stroud takes the only available check down option.
2nd Quarter - 1st & 10 - Atlanta 29
Atlanta now shifts back to their split safety cover 2 zone work. Houston has 11 personnel on the field with Metchie motioning to the trip side. Collins working at the bottom as the boundary X receiver. Atlanta has their dime package with a linebacker and safety in the box at snap, both players drop into coverage post snap. Chess game continues with Slowik calling a play for Collins on a crossing route, but at a more shallow depth than plays before. Creating a nice void in the short middle of the field for Stroud. Slowik calls near identical design on the next play with Collins on a very shallow route based on linebacker depth.
3rd Quarter - 2nd & 11 - Houston 38
A few plays into the second half we see Atlanta back into their Cover 2 zone look. The first play of the second half was a play action with Atlanta in man coverage that had Metchie with a big gain. Did not take long for Atlanta to revert back to zone coverage. Atlanta is in their nickel package with two linebackers. Houston in their 11 personnel package with Stroud in shotgun, Schultz inline on the left side of the formation. We see a quick slide shift by Xavier Hutchinson prior to snap. Calais Campbell beats Fant causing Stroud to exit the pocket, this occurred right at 2.5 seconds after the snap. Atlanta’s back 7 keeps everything in front of them with their eyes on Stroud creating triangle brackets on multiple receivers. Stroud makes a great play exiting the pocket finding Schultz on a broken play. Again the 7 man drop in coverage did not allow Stroud to find an easy answer.
3rd Quarter - 3rd & 7 - Houston 42
Before we dive into this play. Keep this formation and play design in your mind for safe keeping. Atlanta shifts to a single high safety in Cover 3 zone, while presenting a 6 man pressure package along the defensive line. Atlanta has shown similar looks during the game but had not yet pulled the trigger on a full on blitz. Houston in 11 personnel with trips right with Schultz, Hutchinson, and Metchie. Nico Collins is the boundary X at the top with press man coverage. Stroud had two options here opting with the bang 8 route to Schultz, getting the ball on site before safety Jessie Bates can make a play. Nico Collins had a step on his defensive back, but that was not the read here for Stroud with a single high safety. This high low trips concept with an X go route is meant to stretch the safety into a quick decision. Again keep this play in mind (I won’t show it but Houston runs this exact same play about 6 minutes later in the 3rd quarter).
3rd Quarter - 1st & 10 - Atlanta 46
Double box view special.
In this sequence Atlanta is showing Cover 4 with one defensive back near the line of scrimmage, and with 6 man pressure package presented. Atlanta once again backs out bringing just 4 pass rushers. Houston brings in their 21 personnel with Schultz inline on right side of the formation. Watch the play unfold from both angles. Collins and Metchie run clear out routes hoping a safety would be baited by Schultz. Schultz takes the 8 yard in route with good depth behind the linebacker. I am not sure what made Stroud squat on throwing to Schultz, perhaps the other linebacker (on the left) caused Stroud to hesitate. Stroud might have had room to layer this one over the linebacker while flattening Schultz’s route out from the safety.
4th Quarter - 2nd& 9 - Houston 39
PFF Bobby pulls out the Cover 2 beater on this play. Houston brings in the rare 22 personnel with an empty backfield. Quitoriano is the top as the X receiver, Metchie is in the slot with Pierce at the bottom of the screen. Schultz is inline tight end with Beck off the line of scrimmage as an additional tight end. Metchie’s go route drags one linebacker out of the MOF. Appears that Schultz and Quitoriano are both open on this play with Stroud electing to go with Pierce on the late breaking in route for the first down. One of the first passing plays in awhile where Stroud had available options.
4th Quarter - 3rd & 9 - Atlanta 18
Ok time for memory recall. Remember the trips right high low concept from the third quarter? Schultz, Slowik, and Stroud discussed a modification on the sideline to put together what we see here. Safety Jessie Bates had been baiting Stroud throughout the second half with a few different potential interceptions and pass break-ups. This would be the third time Houston ran this concept, and Bates was ready to pounce. Only Schultz used a double move up field for an easy touchdown. Great in-game adjustment by Houston.
Four weeks of game tape was enough for the league to start adjusting to Houston’s play calling. There has been plenty of evidence with how teams attempt to manage San Francisco and Miami with the middle of the field and spacing. Slowik has some growth to obtain with his play calling.
The run game needs to find more ways to work. Houston abandoned the zone scheme mid-way through the third quarter finding success with the power pull runs. The run game setup a successful play action play midway through the fourth quarter. This is a topic I am hoping to dive into during the bye week.
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