3TFO: Seahawks @ Texans, Week 4
Fresh off another convincing win, Seattle must this week travel south to face the Texans. Doing nothing to dampen their potential as a Super Bowl favorite, Seattle is one of three unbeaten teams remaining in the NFC. Leading the league in total defense and passing defense, the Seahawks look every bit the favorite in the NFC West. They complete their tour of the AFC South with a trip to Indianapolis next week, followed by playing host to the Titans in Week 6.
Houston is in a very similar position, leading the AFC South with the league’s second-best defense and second-best passing defense. Division winners from a year ago, the competition seems to have improved, and after an embarrassing loss in Baltimore, a win against Seattle would go a long way toward earning the Texans their third straight division title. With a visit to the rebounding 49ers next week, Houston is in a tough stretch and will have to snatch a few wins to prove they belong with the cream of the crop. Here are a few matchups they should try to exploit.
Texans Wide Receivers vs. Sehawks Cornerbacks
For years the Texans have been seeking a receiving threat opposite the great Andre Johnson, and though we’re only three weeks in, rookie DeAndre Hopkins appears to be the real deal. A first-round pick out of Clemson, Hopkins made a few clutch plays to claim the overtime win against Tennessee. His +5.3 grade on the season is seventh-best among WRs, and even a shade ahead of Johnson (+5.2). Hopkins may have had the late-game heroics, but it’s Johnson near the top of the leaderboard in Yards per Route Run at 2.61, a tick off his league-leading 3.01 YPRR of 2012. Neither one has dropped a pass on their 43 combined receptions — by far the most catches by a wideout tandem without a drop.
If there’s a cornerback pairing in the NFL to shut these guys down, Seattle may have it. The always vocal Richard Sherman has been a pain for opposing quarterbacks, who have a paltry 49.0 QB rating when throwing at the third-year corner. Walter Thurmond has played well opposite Sherman, but with Brandon Browner returning to action last week, expect Thurmond to see snaps mainly in nickel packages. Browner was eased into action, playing a hair over half of the snaps against Jacksonville, but expect this to increase dramatically as he recovers from injury. Both Sherman and Browner gave up receptions sparingly in 2012, each averaging over 13 snaps in coverage per reception.
Michael Bennett vs. Texans Tackles
Perhaps it’s because he’s in a one-year “prove it” contract, or perhaps it’s part of Seattle’s game-planning, but Michael Bennett is one of the increasingly rare pass rushers that attacks the quarterback from both sides. Preferring to rush from the left, Bennett has still seen just almost 40% of his pass rushing snaps come against left tackles. Houston should be thankful it’s that high, as right tackle Derek Newton has surrendered 15 pressures already this season, leading to a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 91.5 (57th of 69 tackles). When rushing from the defensive right, Bennett will see either Duane Brown or Ryan Harris, depending on the condition of Brown’s injury. Outside of an unexpected flop against the Chargers, Brown has been everything you could hope for and more since finding his form in 2011. You’d have to go all the way back to Week 8 of 2010 to find the last time Brown gave up multiple sacks in a game, and he’s one of the best run blocking tackles as well. He’ll have to be at the top of his game to shut down Bennett, whose Pass Rushing Productivity of 15.0 is third of 35 defensive ends. If Brown is unable to play, or if he’s too hampered by injury, Bennett could create some nice game tape for those looking to sign him in 2014.
The Watt Factor
As talented as the Seahawks are, any team would be remiss to go into a game against the Texans without a plan to deal with J.J. Watt. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year already has three sacks and 14 total pressures rushing primarily from the interior of the line. Throw in a couple of batted passes, and the third-year Wisconsin product is back on track to repeat at DPoY. His +19.3 grade on the year is tops at his position by a considerable margin, and the 15 stops he’s recorded are three more than any other defensive lineman in any scheme.
The Texans typically start Watt over the right guard, so for Seattle that will mean sending aid to J.R. Sweezy. In spite of some growing pains as a rookie last year, Sweezy has been solid in his three performances this season, allowing an acceptable five hurries. Max Unger should come to support Sweezy on the inevitable double teams that Watt will face. Should Watt find his way into the backfield, Seattle’s passing game could be smothered in a hurry. Fellow Badger Russell Wilson’s QB rating drops from an eye-popping 131.3 with a clean pocket, to a pedestrian 74.7 when under duress. Seattle’s line has set a high bar where pressure is concerned — 31 quarterbacks have seen more pressure than Wilson despite his well above average time of 3.24 seconds from snap to throw.