Five Underrated Plays that Helped the Houston Texans Win on Sunday
Whitney Mercilus's second sack was the beginning of the end for the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
A football game is a series of interdependent, symbiotic plays. Generally speaking, none of them occur in a vacuum. They all are affected by what comes before them, and in some way, oftentimes profoundly, they affect what occurs after them. However, some plays are more pivotal and important than others, and many times it's not the plays that score the points that are the most important, but the plays leading up to the scoring plays.
Yeah, yeah, I know...that was a profound first paragraph; get to the point. I hear you. That was my long way of saying that, on Sunday, as the Texans emerged victorious over the Chicago Bears by a score of 23-14, certainly the Texans' two touchdowns and three field goals were of great importance. However, there were other plays that managed to affect momentum and field position along the way, and without the positive impact of those plays, we might be discussing an 0-1 team instead of a team that is 1-0 and ALONE ATOP THE AFC SOUTH!
In observations culled from my being at the stadium for the game and my re-watching the game last night on DVR, here are five non-scoring plays that I felt were absolutely crucial to the Texans' coming out with a hard-fought win on Sunday:
1st quarter, 2:49 to go
CHICAGO 4th and 1, HOU 31 yard line
PLAY: Jay Cutler fumbles on QB sneak
Up to this early juncture in the game, consider all the things that had gone wrong for the Texans:
1. Brock Osweiler threw an interception in Chicago territory on his first possession as the "face of the franchise" quarterback. It wasn't eerily similar to Brian Hoyer or anything (largely because Osweiler appears to be good at football, and Hoyer is less than good), but it was the same outcome for their respective first possessions — an ill-advised pick targeting DeAndre Hopkins.
2. The Bears very casually marched down the field (Jay Cutler, 3/3 48 yards) and scored a touchdown that was set up by a Kareem Jackson pass interference inside the ten yard line.
3. The Texans proceeded to march backwards via penalties (Chris Clark, holding; Derek Newton, false start) and negative plays (Lamar Miller -6 yard catch on a screen play) and wound up punting to Eddie Royal, who promptly returned the kick 31 yards back to the Texans' 40 yard line.
So after a great open field tackle by Kareem Jackson on 3rd and 6 on Kevin White, the Bears went for it on 4th and one at the Texans' 31 yard line. Cutler fumbled the snap and was swallowed up by the middle of the Texans' defensive line, giving the ball back to the Texans and stymieing the Bears' early momentum in the game. The Texans would get a field goal on the ensuing possession to at least recalibrate the game a little bit and get their legs under them.
3rd quarter, 14:17 to go
CHICAGO 2nd and 5, CHI 22 yard line
PLAY: Andre Hal intercepts Jay Cutler
This was probably the most important non-scoring play of the game for the Texans. The disastrous final two minutes of the first half — Will Fuller's drop of a possible 83-yard touchdown followed by the Bears' marching down the field in under a minute to get a go-ahead score and go up 14-10 — could have easily carried over into the second half with the Bears getting the ball to start the third quarter. However, a miscommunication between Cutler and White on the second play of the half, along with a spectacular diving catch by safety Andre Hal, put the Texans back in business, and reminded the Bears that they are, indeed, the Bears. Underrated subplot to that interception was Hal quickly forgetting the 54-yard catch he allowed to Bears WR Alshon Jeffrey to set up Chicago's go-ahead touchdown late in the second quarter.
Hal's INT was followed by...
3rd quarter, 14:07 to go
HOUSTON 1st and 10, CHI 25 yard line
PLAY: Will Fuller snags crossing route over the middle
I'm not sure if this was by design, but it was good to see the Texans come right back to Fuller to start the second half after his drop at the end of the first half swung momentum in the game. This catch was a difficult snag over the middle, and it highlighted a trait of Fuller's that he hopefully is able to outgrow — a tendency to make the difficult plays look easy, and the easy plays look difficult. This catch was the beginning of a monster second half for Fuller that saw him:
1. Catch four balls for 100 yards and a touchdown
2. Catch three of those balls on third down for a total of 80 yards
3. Set up or score points on all four catches — the first catch setting up a Novak field goal, the second catch setting up his touchdown grab and his final catch, a 35-yarder, swinging the field position and setting up the final Texans points of the game.
I said it yesterday, and it is worth repeating — the Texans officially NOW have two guys in their receiving corps who require two defenders in order to give them the necessary attention. Again, this could get fun.
3rd quarter, 3:43 to go
HOUSTON 4th and 1, HOU 30 yard line
PLAY: Shane Lechler booms a 58 yard punt
With the Texans trailing 14-13, and the teams trading punts back and forth, the Texans' future Hall of Fame punter uncorked a 58-yarder down to the Bears' 12 yard line. A two-yard Royal return got it to the 14 yard line. This swing in field position was indicative of how the Texans' special teams played all day after that first Royal punt return for 31 yards in the first quarter. After that return, they allowed just 103 yards on five kickoffs and nine yards on three punts. This particular punt backed up the Bears to where, after a three and out, they punted the ball back to the Texans, who took over in healthy position at their own 36 yard line. Nine plays later, the Texans led 20-14.
4th quarter, 9:44 to go
CHICAGO 3rd and 6, CHI 45 yard line
PLAY: Whitney Mercilus strip-sacks Jay Cutler
With the game still within one score at 20-14 and the Bears moving the football from their own 17 yard line out to the 45 yard line fairly easily, Chicago was facing a 3rd and 6. The Texans needed a play, and on Sunday, the man who was their most impactful defender, Whitney Mercilus, made one, sacking Cutler and forcing a fumble that was almost scooped up by CB A.J. Bouye. (If Bouye had made the scoop, he would've waltzed into the end zone.) Instead, the Bears fell on the football, but had to punt back to the Texans, who were able to a) get three points to make it a two-possession game, and, b) more important, burn off about five of the seven minutes over two possessions in between the nine-minute and two-minute marks of the fourth quarter.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.