Ten long months, we'd waited for real football to return. Not that Tom Savage-led muck that was trotted out there after Deshaun Watson tore his right ACL, but the competitive, scintillating, high-octane offense that gripped us for those six Watson starts. Actually, this version of real football would be even better, since it would include a healthy J.J. Watt and a newly acquired Tyrann Mathieu.
It all started very nicely, with the Texans' defense forcing a three and out on the Patriots' first possession. Then came the Texans' first play from scrimmage, a Watson fumble and turnover, and it wasn't ALL downhill from there, but it was a subsequent 58 minutes or so in which the Texans were largely paddling upstream, eventually losing to the Patriots by a final score of 27-20.
In some ways, it was eerily similar to the 2015 season opener, a home game against the Kansas City Chiefs. That game saw the Texans' first play from scrimmage wind up as a turnover (Brian Hoyer interception), then saw the Chiefs build a 27-6 lead (Pats built a 24-6 lead), and in the end, the final score was wildly deceiving (an identical 27-20 final), as the opposition largely held the Texans at double digit bay for most of the afternoon.
After losses, Bill O'Brien typically will tell us that there's a lot to clean up and it starts with him. He needs to coach better, he will say. Well, this time, as has been the case many times, he is absolutely right. Bill O'Brien isn't solely losing games for the Texans, but he sure is getting in the way of winning. Regularly. More on this below, as we assess winners and losers from yesterday's game .....
4. Texans special teams
It was a strange game, insomuch as for most of the first three quarters, the parts of the team we expected to carry the Texans — Deshaun Watson, the pass rush — were awful, and parts of the team we expected to struggle — the secondary, special teams — were holding up their end of the bargain. The first game of special teams under position coach Brad Seely was very encouraging if you're a Texans fan. The coverage units were solid and penalty free, and Tyler Ervin was productive and, at times, explosive returning kicks and punts. Ka'imi Fairbairn made both of his field goals. The only negative was Trevor Daniel was inconsistent in his first game after replacing Shane Lechler. Of all the positive developments from this game, and there weren't many, special teams play is one that I hope has legs.
3. Rob Gronkowski
Truth be told, the Texans have never really had a good answer for Rob Gronkowski. Gronk has faced the Texans five times in the regular season. One of those was the 27-0 loss in which he was a decoy for a few plays as he came back from injury, but in the other four games where he was at full strength, including yesterday, he's averaged 6.3 catches, 106.5 yards, and a touchdown per game. What was disappointing about yesterday's game is that Gronk was largely the only heavy weapon that the Texans had to deal with, and he was beating double teams and causing all sorts of havoc. One of his catches (which should have been ruled incomplete) flipped field position and caused game management aftershocks for which O'Brien had to answer in the postgame. More on this in a moment.
2. Texans safeties
Last season, the Texans starting safeties in the Patriots game were Corey Moore and Andre Hal. This year, the were Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson. The upgrade was quite evident. Mathieu was able to get his hands on the ball a couple of times, with an interception and a fumble recovery, and Jackson had one of his best games in recent memory, leading the team in tackles with eight total and causing the Gronkowski fumble that Mathieu recovered. Even rookie Justin Reid got into the act with a nice pass defensed while covering Gronkowski.
1. Ryan Fitzpatrick
Well, if you are in a suicide pool (for those who are risk-averse, this is a pool where you pick one team to win each week and can only use them once per season, and when you get a pick wrong, you're out), there's a good chance you took the Saints, favored by 10 points, to beat the Bucs, who are being quarterbacked by Run Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately for you, Saints picker, you were the victim of the front end of the Ryan Fitzpatrick Cycle, as he threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-40 win.....
4. Deshaun Watson
This is new territory, a game in which Deshaun Watson was a reason the Texans lost a game, as opposed to the three losses that he started last season, where his efforts were the main reason the Texans were even competitive. It started with the fumble on the opening play, and was shaky throughout the day. Watson' 50 percent completion percentage was a spot on indicator of what Watson as on Sunday. He was an inaccurate, hesitant mess for a big portion of the game, holding onto the ball in the pocket too long, and misfiring wildly on several throws. HIs interception that he threw was into double coverage and targeting rookie Vincent Smith. In his defense, Watson absolutely missed Will Fuller, who sat out with a hamstring injury, and it showed in the yards per catch for his top two receivers, DeAndre Hopkins (9.8) and Bruce Ellington (9.3). There was no way to stretch the field and open things up for this offense on Sunday.
3. The three headed pass rush monster
Every season, we talk about how awesome it's going to be to have J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus on the field together and every season, something eventually happens to curtail the dynamic, usually an injury to one or more of the group. However, the odd truth in all of this is that even for the few games they've been out there together, the whole thing has been underwhelming, like the pieces just don't fit for some reason. Yesterday, the only one of the three who felt impactful was Watt, and that was only in the second half. For the game, the three combined for seven tackles and no sacks.
2. Kevin Johnson
I hate to pick on Kevin Johnson after a game in which he suffered a wicked concussion that could have him in concussion protocol for a long, long time, but prior to getting concussed, Johnson unfortunately was having a 2017 Kevin Johnson kind of game, getting worked over repeatedly by Patriots receivers, missing tackles, and blowing assignments, one of which led to this hilarious Mathieu blow up on the sidelines:
Honey Badger is the entire timeline the past few seasons regarding Kevin Johnson. pic.twitter.com/tkAJyOZlMU— Cocky Astros Fan (@astros_dude) September 9, 2018
1. Bill O'Brien, game manager
Leading up to this game, my contention was that there was no scenario under which the Texans could lose to the Patriots and Bill O'Brien would NOT be put squarely in the circle of blame. If it was a close loss, chances are O'Brien would have made a decision or two that negatively affected the outcome, and if it was a blowout, then O'Brien would have bigger issues of "same old Texans." As it turned out, it was a one score loss in which O'Brien made several head scratching decisions that greatly contributed to the loss. Here are the most egregious:
1. Late in the first half, Gronkowski made a 28-yard catch down to the Texans' 31 yard line that was questionable, at best. Replay showed that it was probably incomplete. Unfortunately, replay challenges in the final two minutes of each half come from the booth, so O'Brien couldn't challenge the call. The Patriots quickly got to the line to snap the ball before the replay booth could grasp if the play should be reviewed. It wasn't, and the pats went on to score a TD to go up 21-6. O'Brien could have used one of his three timeouts to at least stop the game and give the replay booth a chance to catch up and look at the catch. He didn't, although he should have, and after the game O'Brien was indignant about his responsibility in that situation, putting the onus on the replay officials to "do their job," ignoring that he had a way to help them do their job that would have cost him nothing. Instead, this sequence wound up costing the Texans a touchdown.
2. Down 21-6 with 9:32 left in the third quarter and facing 4th and 5 at the Patriots 17, O'Brien decided to go for it on fourth down, and skip kicking an easy field goal. Watson sailed a pass intended for Ryan Griffin, a recurring theme throwing to Griffin throughout the afternoon, as Griffin was catch-less on five targets.
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3. Down 27-13 with 4:32 remaining and facing 4th and 9 at the Texans 36 yard line, O'Brien inexplicably opted to punt the football back to the Patriots. I'm not exactly certain what O'Brien saw as the path to victory by giving Brady the ball up 14 with four minutes left, but whatever that path was had to have a significantly lower percentage chance of happening than converting a 4th and 9. That said, Riley McCarron, Pats' punt returner, was kind enough to muff the pun, which was recovered by Johnson Bademosi, giving the Texans a 1st and 10 at the Patriots' 16 yard line. That led to....
4. ....somehow the Texans needing to use 2:24 to move the ball SIXTEEN yards and score a touchdown. The most bewildering play call was a QB draw on 1st and goal at the one yard line. Watson was knocked back for a five yard loss, then burned off 40 seconds huddling and gesturing at the line of scrimmage. Those 40 seconds would have come in handy on the team's final drive.
Oh well, onto the Titans next Sunday, a team that is more in the Texans' weight class. Maybe O'Brien will be better off in the teacher role of "teacher versus pupil" because God knows that the pupil role has not been working for some time now.
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.