Aside from the obvious benefit of just getting the win on Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles against the Chargers, there were other good long-term takeaways from that game, if you're a Houston Texans fan. Primary among those observations would be the fact that there seemed to be a different, more aggressive nature to Bill O'Brien's play calling and decision making.
With the Texans' 2019 schedule as difficult and chock full of elite quarterbacks as it is, one thing that O'Brien was going to have to do this season was reevaluate and tweak (if not, significantly alter) his conservative nature as a head coach. In 2017, overly cautious play calling and in-game decisions may have cost his team wins in New England and Seattle.
Well, if Sunday is any indication, O'Brien has done some serious self-evaluation when it comes to handling the play calling flow of the game, especially in one particular area — second down and long yardage situations. Consider the following, coming into the season:
Bill O’Brien is one of the NFL’s most sub-optimal play callers. These facts are mind-blowing, especially behind a bad OL. Via @SharpFootball:— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) August 4, 2019
- Run on 62% of first-downs in first halves of games last year (NFL-high)
- Run on 53% of plays after 1st down incompletions (NFL-high)
Now, let's look at Sunday, and not just 2nd and 10 after an incompletion, but every situation of 2nd and 7 yards or longer during the game. There were 18 such situations in the Texans' victory, and they handed off to a running back exactly ZERO times. Yes, you read that right, Deshaun Watson dropped back to pass in EVERY 2nd and long situation on Sunday.
Analytically, throwing on 2nd and long is the right thing to do (which is what has made O'Brien's decisions to run on 2nd and 10 so exasperating through the years), and it's ESPECIALLY the right thing to do when Deshaun Watson is your quarterback. So let's go look at these situations during the game, and see how O'Brien affected winning on Sunday:
2nd and 7 at HOU 39, 11:19 left in Q1 — Watson FUMBLE
With the Chargers completely sniffing out this screen pass, Deshaun Watson tries to spike the football at the feet of Duke Johnson, and the spike bounces backwards right into the arms of DB Desmond King. The Chargers get the ball at the Texans' 15 yard line and score three plays later.
2nd and 14 at HOU 21, 8:43 left in Q1 — INCOMPLETE pass
This came one play after a holding penalty on Zach Fulton. TE Darren Fells drops an easy crossing route over the middle. This would be the last incomplete pass Watson would throw on second and long situations all day.
2nd and 10 at HOU 36, 7:32 left in Q1 — COMPLETION short right to Hopkins for 2 yards
This was a short completion, but worth noting that Watson did a nice job of hitting the hot receiver on a corner blitz. This is progress. The Chargers played good team defense on the play.
2nd and 8 at HOU 27, 9:54 left in Q2 — COMPLETION short left to Fells for 7 yards
This was a nice little pass to the tight end off of a read option look. Set up 3rd and 1 on the next play, a flea flicker downfield completion to Kenny Stills, another out of character, aggressive play call by O'Brien.
2nd and 12 at LAC 16, 8:18 left in Q2 — COMPLETION to Fells for 16 yds TOUCHDOWN
Empty backfield, great protection, Watson hits Fells on a rope.
2nd and 9 at HOU 7, 4:30 left in Q2 — COMPLETION to Stills short middle for 11 yards (1st down)
Kenny Stills has been such a nice pickup, more than just a throw into the Tunsil deal, clearly. This helped the Texans get out from under the shadows of their own goalposts a little bit, and moved the chains.
2nd and 7 at HOU 21, 3:17 left in Q2 — COMPLETION to D. Johnson for 15 yards (1st down)
Nice little swing pass to Duke Johnson, who always seems to make the first guy miss. As second string running backs go, Johnson is the anti-Alfred Blue, who seemed to actually have a gravitational pull TOWARD tacklers, as opposed to making them miss.
2nd and 10 at HOU 25, 0:11 left in Q2 — COMPLETION deep down the middle to Stills for 37 yards (1st down)
Even the announcers were fooled here, as they assumed Watson would take a knee to burn out the clock. Instead, AGGRESSIVE O'BRIEN shows up again, and Stills puts the Texans in position for a Ka'imi Fairbairn 56-yard field goal attempt (which was unsuccessful).
2nd and 12 at HOU 23, 13:57 left in Q3, COMPLETION short left to Akins for 5 yards
Standard check down to Akins to get some penalty yardage back from a false start earlier on second down.
2nd and 10 at HOU 45, 11:03 left in Q3 — COMPLETION short left to Fuller for 10 yards (1st down)
Good pickup into Charger territory, just cherry-picking a big cushion from the Chargers DB on the speedy Fuller.
2nd and 9 at LAC 44, 9:54 left in Q3 — Deshaun Watson SACKED for -5 yards
Watson tried to scramble out of the pocket, but Zach Fulton didn't stay on his block on DT Brandon Mebane, and Mean was almost functioning like a spy on Watson, and was able to tackle the Texans' QB unfettered. (NOTE: The next play after this one, 3rd and 14 from the LAC 49, was the most important first down pickup of the game for the Texans, a 15-yard strike to DeAndre Hopkins to keep the drive alive.)
2nd and 9 at LAC 33, 8:16 left in Q3 — COMPLETION deep right to Fuller for 30 yards (1st down)
Another great job by the offensive line protecting Watson, who might have been able to toss a TD pass here if he puts a little more air under the ball. No matter, as Carlos Hyde scored on the next play.
2nd and 8 at HOU 29, 3:09 left in Q3 — Roughing the passer PENALTY on LAC (1st down)
Questionable roughing the passer call, but even if the referees didn't call it, there would have been a hands to the face penalty on Desmond King.
2nd and 10 at HOU 44, 2:52 left in Q3 — COMPLETION short middle to Hopkins for 7 yards
This was a nice positive pickup on second down, and set up a 34-yard catch and run by Hopkins on 3rd and 3, which eventually set up the Texans next touchdown.
2nd and 10 at LAC 15, 1:30 left in Q3 — COMPLETION to Akins for 15 yards TOUCHDOWN
Good, quick, decisive throw from Watson for the touchdown. When you're watching a game on TV with Watson under center, where you can't see downfield on the screen, if Watson gets rid of the ball quickly, then chances are good things are about to happen and someone is wide open. In other words, if a guy weren't open (in this case, Akins) Watson would probably hold onto the football and try to extend the play.
2nd and 10 at HOU 35, 11:06 left in Q4 — COMPLETION short middle to Fells for 9 yards
Another GREAT pickup of the blitz by Watson, setting up 3rd and 1 (a conversion to Fuller), and eventually....
2nd and 10 at HOU 47, 9:43 left in Q4 — COMPLETION short middle to Akins, catch and run 53 yards TOUCHDOWN
It's a game of inches, man. The previous play was an incomplete pass that was nearly picked off. Instead, the Texans live to fight on second down, and Watson executes one of those plays where you can see why his college coach, Dabo Swinney, said Watson is "Michael Jordan".
2nd and 12 at HOU 34, 6:00 left in Q4 — Watson SCRAMBLE for 3 yards
The fourth quarter, after the second Akins touchdown, was a little rough for the Texans. This scramble maybe should have been a personal foul for helmet to helmet contact on Chargers LB Thomas Davis. The next play would result in the Chargers second sack of the day, and the Texans defense would have to hold on down the stretch and bring home the win.
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So, if you're keeping track at home, here are the numbers for Bill O'Brien's offense on second down and seven yards or longer to go for a first down:
* Watson: 13-14, 217 yards, 3 TD's
* Perfect 158.3 passer rating
* 6 first downs, 3 touchdowns
That's pretty good, maybe enough to make Bill O'Brien wonder why he hasn't been attacking second down more aggressively all along. Better late than never, I suppose.