ReFo: Texans @ Cardinals, Week 10
Ben Stockwell breaks down how the Cardinals picked up a big win over the Texans.
ReFo: Texans @ Cardinals, Week 10
There will certainly be better expositions of offensive football this season in the NFL but you won’t see many better games for one-on-one matchups and big-time players putting in spectacular performances. From the opening play of the game when John Abraham turned around Derek Newton to swat the ball out of Case Keenum’s hands, the stars in this game were making big plays, right until the very end when the Cardinals’ coverage and pass rush stood tall to preserve Arizona’s victory.
With a few notable exceptions, this game was about the defensive playmakers stealing the show with each team’s star lineman putting in an astonishing performance. Winning this game was all about maximizing your opportunities and in the end it was a standout play from a special teams ace that proved the difference with Justin Bethel blocking a field goal attempt as time expired in the second quarter which ultimately proved the difference between the two teams.
After their victory, the Cardinals now sit just a game outside of the playoff reckoning in the NFC in spite of the fact that their offense is really yet to fire this year. In what is now probably the best division in football (how quickly things change in the NFL) the Cardinals are right there with the 49ers in the race for the wild card. Meanwhile, the Texans are now firmly in damage limitation mode sporting a seven-game losing streak and seemingly tumbling interminably towards a high draft pick that no one would have predicted ahead of the regular season.
Houston – Three Performances of Note
Doing Everything He Can for the Cause
There is often conjecture about whether a player winning a major award like Defensive Player of the Year can come from a losing team but there should be absolutely no doubt that, emphasized with performances like this, J.J. Watt is the leading candidate to retain the award this season. In another stellar performance (+10.8) Watt was dominant both against run and pass, putting in not only consistent disruption but coming up with big plays to help keep the Texans in the game creating a turnover as both a pass rusher and run defender. The latter put Houston in position to bring the game back within one score as he tore the ball away from Rashard Mendenhall in the pile, showing sheer determination to end this losing streak. Watt’s chief victim was former teammate Eric Winston who surrendered two hits and two stops on the ground to him, but he spread his work around the Cardinals’ offensive line and tight ends who only very rarely had success containing him one-on-one. While some of his “base stats” such as sacks and batted passes might be down on last season Watt’s performance level and impact for the Texans’ defense is anything but as he continues the sort of defensive form we have never before seen in the PFF era.
Line Troubles Re-emerge
The Texans’ offensive line had made strides in recent weeks with some better performances in the face of continuing defeats but that came back down to earth as they struggled in a tough matchup against the Cardinals yesterday. Only Duane Brown came away with any real credit after a strong showing in pass protection (+2.4, one hurry allowed) but he shared in the struggles as a run blocker where every lineman (all six of them with Ryan Harris and Derek Newton continuing to rotate at right tackle) earned a negative grade. To an extent, this wasn’t a surprise with the firepower the Cardinals have up front, but it will have been a disappointing setback that the likes of Brandon Brooks (-2.6) and Chris Myers (-1.2) couldn’t build on their recent positive momentum and come out with a strong showing against top quality opposition. On the ground, Ben Tate and Dennis Johnson gained only 22 yards before first contact on their 19 combined carries while in pass protection the line was part of the problem that saw Case Keenum pressured on 25 of his 48 dropbacks. Recent performances have shown signs of growth for the Texans’ offensive line but this performance highlights the work that still lies ahead of them.
Poor Form Continues for Mercilus
Way back in Week 4, Whitney Mercilus took advantage of a favorable matchup against a subpar left tackle in the shape of Paul McQuistan to have something of a breakout performance against the Seattle Seahawks. Six weeks later, that performance is starting to look more and more like an outlier as Mercilus struggles to make a similar impact as a pass rusher. Yesterday going up against Bradley Sowell (who surrendered 24 pressures in three weeks when he took over the Cardinals’ starting job) should have been the opportunity for Mercilus to at least show that he could repeat a good performance in a favorable matchup but he did nothing of the sort. On 34 pass rushes, Mercilus registered only one pressure to earn a -2.5 pass rush grade, his fifth straight negative grade as a pass rusher since that game against the Seahawks. Mercilus is at least solid against the run but nothing that makes up for his lack of impact as a pass rusher in the last month.
Arizona – Three Performances of Note
Anything You Can Do…
While he might not have the unerring consistency of his Houston counterpart, Calais Campbell is probably the closest thing to J.J. Watt in terms of the scale and range of impact that he is capable of from a 3-4 defensive end spot. Yesterday’s matchup between these two had the air of two of the game’s best going back and forth in a game of one-upmanship, one setting the target and the other going out here to match that impact. Campbell’s performance was more about his pass rush with his 11 pressures (two Ht, nine Hu) a season high and lacked the turnover creation that Watt produced but his performance was on a similar level. Like his Houston counterpart, Campbell did his work all across the opposing offensive line but had his own focus like Watt, in Campbell’s case that was extracting plenty from a favorable matchup against Wade Smith. From that matchup, Campbell registered both of his hits and three of his hurries along with some strong work to do disrupt the Texans’ ground game. The whole Arizona defensive line had its way with the Houston offensive line but it was Campbell who led the way with a truly destructive performance
Peterson and Johnson Go Back and Forth
With Calvin Johnson and Charles Tillman squaring off in the Windy City, Lardarius Webb squaring off with A.J. Green in Baltimore, and Patrick Peterson and Andre Johnson squaring off in the desert, this was something of a vintage week for top-tier wide receiver versus cornerback matchups. In this encounter, the two scores that Andre Johnson snagged would suggest he won this matchup conclusively but Peterson had his moments as well in what was an entertaining matchup and it took two excellent pieces of footwork from Johnson to snag those two scoring plays. The first, a crossing route, saw Johnson get free in the end zone and outrun Peterson to the right sideline just stubbing his right foot down in bounds for the score while the second Peterson actually broke up before Johnson snagged it out of the air and dragged his heels in bounds to make it a one-score game later on. Peterson had his moments as well notably on the final drive taking Johnson down on a crossing route in the middle of the field to force the issue for the Texans’ offense before pressing Johnson out to the sideline on the ensuing third-down play to prevent any chance of a completion for Case Keenum up the left sideline. The two scores might suggest a conclusive victory for Johnson over Peterson but this was a far closer and more entertaining individual matchup than that.
Strong Run Defense Up Front
At their best, the Houston offense is fueled by its running game but the Cardinals’ defensive line helped ensure that the Texans never built up a head of steam in this one. Opposite the aforementioned Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett earned his highest run defense grade (+2.5) since Week 1 last season consistently besting Brandon Brooks en route to three defensive stops which included two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Over the nose, Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu again combined to halt matters through the middle for the Texans both head up against Chris Myers but also against the guards when the Texans tried to gain lateral movement against the nose tackle pairing. Combining to play in excess of 300 snaps this season, Ta’amu and Williams have a combined +5.2 run defense grade this season equally able to penetrate and finish plays themselves as they are able to hold up blocks and spill plays towards other defenders.
– We often talk about pass rushers talking advantage of favorable matchups but Bradley Sowell has turned the tables on that in his last two games. Having given up 24 pressures in three starts against the Panthers, 49ers, and Seahawks, Sowell has played well, surrendering only two pressures (one Sk, one Hu) in his last two starts against the Falcons and Texans subpar edge rushers.
– Last season J.J. Watt registered 76 total pressures in the regular season; at his present rate past the halfway stage of the season he is on course to exceed 80.
– Across from Peterson vs. Johnson was another dialed in one-on-one matchup with Jerraud Powers targeted seven times while covering DeAndre Hopkins surrendering only two catches for 22 yards and breaking up the fourth-down pass that closed out the Cardinals’ victory.
PFF Game Ball
Both Calais Campbell and J.J. Watt produced performances that are about as good as you’re ever likely to see from a 3-4 defensive end as all-around threats against run and pass. Both earn a game ball as a result.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.