3TFO: Texans @ Cardinals, Week 10
There is a noticeable pall that hangs over this game as Texans’ head coach Gary Kubiak recovers from his mini-stroke he suffered at halftime of the Texans’ Sunday night contest against the Colts. Thankfully Kubiak appears to be recovering nicely, as Wade Phillips takes over as interim head coach for Houston’s trip to Arizona. All appeared to be going well for the Texans in the first half against the Colts, as they built an 18-point halftime lead, before the shock of Kubiak’s illness seemed to numb the team and Andrew Luck led a huge comeback to pull out the victory for Indianapolis. Houston now stands at 2-6 and has to be one of the league’s biggest disappointments halfway through the season.
The Cardinals are coming off their bye week, but hope to maintain the momentum it had with a lopsided victory over Atlanta two Sundays ago that saw rookie Andre Ellington breakout with a terrific rushing performance. They should be plenty rested, having played just one game in the last 16 days. Let’s examine some matchups the could be the deciding factors in the game.
J.J. Watt vs. Arizona Interior Offensive Line
Anytime you face the Texans, the first player you have to account for on defense is J.J. Watt, plain and simple. He has been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise disappointing defense so far (he grades out at +51.0; the rest of the defense has combined for a cumulative -49.3). Among his gaudy statistics, he has terrorized quarterbacks for six sacks, 15 hits, and 20 hurries. That adds up to a Pass Rush Productivity of 13.6, second in the league at his position. His excellent work in the run game makes him the complete player that he is, with a Run Stop Percentage of 12.1, thanks to 23 total stops, tops among all defensive ends.
Whenever you go against Watt, the biggest strain is put on the guard position. He has shuffled often between left and right end in Houston’s 3-4 scheme, so really the whole interior of the offensive line will have their hands full with him. He definitely tends toward the left side (235 snaps at LE versus 106 at RE), although in Week 7 against the Chiefs, he played more snaps on the right. Look for him to revert to favoring his left, however, given the matchup potential with the Cardinals. The Arizona offensive line as a whole this season has had more than its share of problems, but left guard Daryn Colledge has so far provided the stabilizing force they had been looking for ever since they gave him a big free agent deal in 2011. He has graded positively in the last six games for Arizona, only one of which was under +2.0. He even beat out some tough competition to make our 2013 Midseason All-Division Team for the NFC West. Right guard has been a completely different story for the Cardinals, which is why you will likely see Watt try and exploit that side of the ball. Paul Fanaika has been in for every snap this season, but his play hasn’t been nearly as reliable. He has graded out at -15.0, with the majority of the damage (for Arizona) done in pass blocking, having allowed four sacks, four hits and 18 hurries on Carson Palmer. Lyle Sendlein at center has done a reasonable job so far this year (-2.0), so he may be called upon to help Fanaika often during Sunday’s game.
Case Keenum vs. Todd Bowles
Since taking over for the injured and generally downtrodden Matt Schaub, second-year undrafted free agent Case Keenum has turned into a rather pleasant surprise for the Texans in an otherwise dreary season. He’s only played two games, but after a solid showing against the Chiefs, he put on a great show against the Colts last Sunday, and certainly had his team in position to win. So far he has been a terrific deep ball thrower; on passes 10 or more yards downfield, he has a rating of +9.8, while garnering a -3.3 on anything shorter. Overall he is already seven of 12 on Deep Passing (20+ yards), one more completion than Schaub had in his six starts combined. One reason for his fast start may be attributed to his offensive line, who have given him an average of 3.20 seconds to throw, one of the highest in the league.
Charged with game-planning against Keenum and forcing him into mistakes will be Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. He has done a terrific job scheming this year to get pressure on the quarterback, all while lacking an elite pass rusher that offenses must key on every week. One of his favorite blitzes to call has been the double A-gap blitz, where both inside linebackers rush to either side of the center. Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby have created a lot of havoc on opposing QBs on these, so keep an eye out for it on Sunday when Bowles will likely try to rattle Keenum early and often in just his third ever start.
Andre Johnson vs. Patrick Peterson
This game will feature a premier matchup in the passing game, as Andre Johnson and Patrick Peterson face off against each other for the first time in their careers. Johnson has been quietly having another great season, largely overshadowed by the Texans’ problems in general. He has had trouble finding the end zone, more due to the problems at the quarterback position rather than any slip in his game. In fact, he has been playing as well as ever (+16.3), which is indicative of what can happen when a team is unsettled at quarterback. He is, however, coming off his best game by far, having scored his first three touchdowns of the year against the Colts last Sunday. So far in just half a season, he already has 57 catches (on 82 targets) for 813 yards with just two drops, and Houston quarterbacks have a solid 98.3 QB rating when throwing his way. Impressively, while teammate DeAndre Hopkins has been getting the majority of the Deep Passing attempts (13 vs. seven for Johnson) in Houston, Johnson still leads the league in Yards Per Route Run at 2.86.
Peterson, who will likely shadow Johnson the entire game, has played 584 out of 586 defensive snaps for the Cardinals, and has been playing especially well of late after a slow start. He has not allowed a single touchdown pass in the last five weeks, during which time he has given up just 14 completions on 38 targets. That being said, this will be his toughest matchup since facing Calvin Johnson in Week 2, when he gave up two touchdowns that day. Peterson is among the league leaders at cornerback this year in Cover Snaps Per Reception (14.7) and Yards per Cover Snap (.91), so something will have to give against Andre Johnson on Sunday.
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