In many ways, the Texans' Week 8 win over the Detroit Lions was a perfect microcosm of the first half of their season — there wasn't anything the Texans did in an exceedingly superior fashion; they just seemed to make enough plays to have more points on the scoreboard at the end of the game.
Similarly, through their first eight games, the Texans have not really done anything in an exceedingly superior fashion as a team — actually, there are a handful of things on offense that they have done worse than almost any other team in the league — yet here they sit at the halfway point, somehow with more wins (five) than losses (three) and in first place in an admittedly wretched AFC South.
There is a ton to fix with this football team, some of which may get better as the season progresses, some of which will require a draft, an offseason and a ton of injury rehab (pouring ANOTHER one out for you, J.J. Watt!) to remedy. For now, let's take a fine-toothed comb to Sunday's win over Detroit. In a game largely devoid of big plays, sacks and turnovers, those normally "underrated" plays that blend into the stat sheet become a tad less underrated.
Let's go find five of them that were difference makers on Sunday, shall we? Here we go...
* 1st quarter, 1:46 to go
HOUSTON 3rd and 8, DET 44 yard line
PLAY: Ryan Griffin 23-yard catch
After taking over the football on their second possession, with decent starting field position (HOU 39) after a Matt Prater missed field goal, the Texans were on the move into Detroit territory, trying to take an early lead. Following a 2nd and 8 play in which a pressured Brock Osweiler missed a wide-open C.J. Fiedorowicz, the Texans' signal caller followed that up with a confident, perfectly thrown ball down the seam to Griffin, who three plays later picked up another 3rd and long with a tough 12-yard catch and run, breaking tackles (and getting a nice block from Jonathan Grimes). Appropriately, the Texans capped off the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Fiedorowicz. I say "appropriately" because, on that drive, the Texans' tight ends combined for four catches for 46 yards, three of the catches coming on 3rd and 6 or longer. This drive was a perfect representation of the larger role that the tight ends are playing in this season's offense. We had Ryan Griffin on the postgame show on Sunday on SportsRadio 610, and he admitted (for himself, at least) that he was never really able to build chemistry with Brian Hoyer, in part because the two had injury issues that limited their time together. Osweiler clearly has a comfort level with Griffin and Fiedorowicz that Texans fans hope he eventually has with DeAndre Hopkins. (More on that in a moment.)
* 2nd quarter, 12:56 to go
HOUSTON kickoff following Fiedorowicz TD (7-0), HOU 35 yard line
PLAY: Antwione Williams HOLDING penalty on Andre Hal
Texans special teams were absolutely brutal on Sunday, there's no getting around it. Bill O'Brien was caught on camera screaming at special teams coach Larry Izzo after the return team only had ten men on the field following Detroit's first points of the game, with two seconds left in the half. Truth be told, there were any number of plays on special teams for which O'Brien could have ripped Izzo, and the scary thing? It could have been much, much worse. Plays like this one — a shaky holding penalty on an Andre Roberts return that flipped field position from Houston's 40 yard line all the way back to the Lions' 14 yard line — gave some "stat sheet camouflage" to what aesthetically was even worse special teams play on a second watch of the game than the first, live watch at the stadium.
* 2nd quarter, 7:50 to go
HOUSTON 1st and 10, DET 13 yard line
PLAY: DeAndre Hopkins' 12-yard one-handed catch
While the seemingly once-a-game (at least) play in which the synchronicity between Hopkins and Osweiler would seem to indicate that the two absolutely hate each other (I know, they don't) is disturbing — Sunday, it was Osweiler's ninth pick of the year where the two are clearly on different pages — Hopkins is still making occasional plays for which there are a short list of guys capable of making them. On this play, Hopkins set up the Lamar Miller one-yard touchdown run (and holy smokes, a DOUBLE-DIGIT LEAD!) with this splendid catch down near the goal line. While Hopkins's numbers yesterday were fairly pedestrian, especially for a Pro Bowl talent, 4 catches for 44 yards, the catches were in fairly high leverage situations:
1. Ten-yard catch on 3rd and 5 to get Houston's first third down conversion of the game, a drive that led to a 7-0 lead;
2. The one-handed, 12-yard catch outlined above;
3. 14-yard catch on first play of a drive to move the ball from HOU 24 to HOU 38 yard line;
4. Eight-yard catch on 1st and 10, in between a slew of Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue runs, in the Texans' first clock-killing drive of the final ten minutes.
For those wondering how all of this effects Hopkins's desire to be a Texan long-term, keep in mind that the Texans are the only team that can offer him a contract after this season (the team has exercised its fifth-year option), and I'm guessing that with all the moving parts in a new offense, including a QB that the owner himself said Sunday is "basically a rookie," the Texans brass views Hopkins as a huge part of the solution, not a potentially expensive part of the problem.
* 4th quarter, 7:34 to go
HOUSTON 2nd and 2, DET 31 yard line
PLAY: Alfred Blue 19-yard run
I wanted to make sure to use one of the "five underrated plays" as a chance to admit that Alfred Blue has played pretty well as a complement to Lamar Miller these past couple of games. I have not been on the Blue bandwagon, to say the least, but on Sunday, he was a gigantic part of the Texans' close-out on the Lions. On two drives where the Lions knew the Texans wanted to run the ball, Blue and Lamar Miller combined for 72 yards on 13 carries, and, more important, the two drives ended 1) in a field goal that kept the margin at two scores and 2) with three Osweiler kneel-downs to kill the clock. Lions QB Matthew Stafford has been phenomenal bringing his team back in the final two minutes of games this season. However, Blue, Miller and the offensive line ensured that Stafford never got the ball within one score of the Texans after the 10:14 mark of the fourth quarter.
Alfred Blue's 19 yard run on the second to last drive of the game ... I'd say well blocked .:. pic.twitter.com/rFea9hdBkj— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) October 31, 2016
* 4th quarter, 2:53 to go
DETROIT kickoff following Prater FG (20-13), DET 35 yard line
PLAY: Robert Nelson's onside kick recovery
All of that said regarding Blue, Miller and the running game, they don't get an opportunity to close out the game if Robert Nelson doesn't alertly dive on this ball on the Lions' onside kick attempt. This is what I meant when I said earlier that the day for the Texans' special teams could have been so much worse. Watch the video of the onside kick below...
Look at THE DON Jones at the bottom of the screen.. waving up HOU ST guys! If Nelson mishandles, there are three Lions waiting for the ball pic.twitter.com/ATyYrwG6bf— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) October 31, 2016
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Safety Don Jones, who was basically picked up in the past couple of weeks off the street, is the only one on the Texans seeing that the Lions were lining up to kick onside, and he is waving like crazy for the back group of Texans return unit guys to move the hell up! If that ball skips past Nelson, the Lions likely recover fairly easily and Stafford WOULD have had that elusive chance, down one score, to add to his "last-minute heroics" résumé.
Yeah, Izzo could have seen a lot more of this on Sunday...
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.