3TFO: Raiders @ Texans, Week 11
In their first return to Houston since the 2011 game immediately following Al Davis’ passing, the Oakland Raiders will take on the Texans in a matchup that carries a ton of meaning for two teams that have combined for a 5-13 record.
Oakland opened last season 3-4 before dropping eight of their last nine. Another 3-4 start this season has been followed by a pair of losses and creeping thought of duplicating the disappointment of 2012. Houston’s disappointment has been set in stone for some time now. A preseason pick to contend, they got out of the gates 2-0 before their current seven-game losing streak took hold.
As series of hard-fought losses with their new QB at the helm have Houston expecting to break through, while Oakland hopes to salvage some of the positive vibe they were riding after an unexpectedly competitive start. Here a few factors that will help determine how this one plays out.
Houston vs. Brown
Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston is enjoying the best season of his young career, boasting the sixth-best overall grade among 43 DEs (+12.4) and carrying the position’s top Run Stop Percentage (10.9). Oakland’s lone defensive holdover from 2012 (with Tyvon Branch missing much of this season due to injury), had been prone to stretches of positive play that wouldn’t sustain during his first three seasons, but he’s posted a page of nearly all green marks in 2013 — his first spent lining up on the right side of the line.
That switch was made about as abruptly and completely as could be, with Houston seeing 95% of his snaps on the right in 2013 after spending 96% on the left last year, and with the added tweak that he’s now standing up on 76% of plays when he spent 85% of the time with his hand in the dirt in 2012. The change of view helped him get off to a hot start as a pass rusher with +2.3 and +1.8 grades in that area in the season’s first two weeks, but he’s cooled now and hasn’t found a significant positive there since. That said, he’s still produced a Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 9.8, good enough for 15th at the position.
He’ll find Texans left tackle Duane Brown waiting on Sunday. Brown’s notable climb up our tackle rankings over the first five years of his career — from the No. 72 spot as a rookie in 2008 to battling for the ‘Top Tackle’ trophy each of the past two seasons — took a turn early in 2013. Brown found himself reeling after a -6.6 overall grade and eight total pressures allowed in the opener against San Diego, but has since regained his footing and, though he hasn’t been lights out all-around, his pass blocking has been back to form with just another eight pressures surrendered in the six games he’s played since.
If Houston was hoping for a tailor-made opportunity to score well against a talented tackle, this may be it, despite his recent drop-off (just one pressure logged in the past two weeks) and Brown’s recent stonewalling success (given up only two pressures in three weeks). A look into their pass rushing and pass protecting patterns shows Brown giving up 67% of the pressures he has allowed to his inside shoulder — a mark twice the league average for the position. For Houston? 51% of the pressures he’s generated have come by way of an inside move.
When a player brings as much destructive force as J.J. Watt does, it’s tough to leave him out of a game preview, especially when the team he’s facing hasn’t seen him since his rookie season. That year, 2011, Watt emerged as a force but was lost in the 3-4 DE conversation because of the remarkable season San Francisco’s Justin Smith was putting up. In 2012, of course, the incredibly hot Watt left no doubt and doubled the position’s runner up with a feverish overall grade of +101.6. What has he done as an encore? He’s now tripling the second-best 3-4 DE’s overall grade and is again leading by a far stretch in both run defense and pass rushing.
So, who draws the short straw this week for the task of standing in his way? He still primarily lines up as a left end (315 of his 531 snaps, 59%), but he’s spent 27% on the right and the other 14% either as a DT in a four-man front or on the nose. By this we can expect the largest chunk of Watt-stopping duty to fall on Oakland’s right guard-tackle combo of Mike Brisiel and, well… It looks like Tony Pashos might be making his way back to the lineup just in time for this challenge of all challenges. If so, he’ll be the Raiders’ third different starter there in three games and will be seeing his first action since leaving after 32 snaps in Week 6.
Pashos’ impressive start to the season was well documented – signed during camp after being cut by Washington despite a strong preseason, he immediately stepped into the starting spot on Oakland’s disintegrating O-line and performed well before falling to injury. Brisiel has done some surprising of his own, following a 2012 season that might have seen him pushed aside for new blood, he’s held ground, started all nine games and currently grades among the league’s Top 10 right guards.
You wouldn’t blame the Texans if they looked to the other side to see Lucas Nix at left guard and thought, drooling, “that’s a matchup we’ve got to force”. Nix, in starting seven games, is comfortably holding down the foot of the guard rankings — 71st of 71 qualifiers overall with run block and pass block grades each coming in 70th. They may have missed their chance, though, as news from Alameda on Thursday had Andre Gurode also possibly returning from injury and splitting snaps at the spot as the Oakland O-line shell game continues.
With 10 players already seeing time on the line (none named Jared Veldheer) and nine of them with at least 100 snaps, there’s been no time to build that cohesiveness O-lines crave. And, with things still in flux, facing Watt is not a recipe for confidence building.
PFF’s Sam Monson had a good look at Andre Johnson’s matchup with Arizona’s Patrick Peterson in last week’s Analysis Notebook. The takeaway message from Johnson’s perspective was that despite being blanketed by a one of the league’s most talented corners, he managed to secure a pair of dazzling catches for scores. That’s what he can do against the tightest coverage, and he’s done it in consecutive weeks heading into his face-off with the Raider secondary.
Rejuvenated since Case Keenum has taken the reins in Houston, Johnson has five touchdowns in the past two games after not scoring to that point, and his +15.5 receiving grade for the year now tops the league. Looking to limit him this week will be the Raider duo of Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins with, undoubtedly, help over the top. Both should get their shot at him as the Texans will move him around, but his most common alignment to date has been on the left (42% of snaps) which would send him Porter’s way most often.
The Texans, largely a two-back or two-tight end team, run a fairly even split of 12- (1RB, 2TE, 2WR) and 21- (2RB, 1TE, 2WR) personnel (32% to 27%) with another 8% coming in other double-tight variations. Compared to the league, both of those figures are far above the average. Taken together, this means that on nearly 70% of their offensive snaps, they have only two wide receivers on the field, and their use of three-wide sets significantly trails the average mark for the league’s favorite grouping.
As for the coverage’s concern, they can therefore expect the nickel and dime looks they’ve used on over 60% of their snaps this season to be in less demand, leaving their sub-package DBs on the sideline and the Jenkins-Porter combo doing most of the work. Of the two, Porter has played to the better QB rating against (74.6, to Jenkins’ 105.3) despite being targeted more often. Can he follow Peterson’s performance with something similar, this time keeping Johnson from the end zone?