Two quality playoff opponents from the Southern divisions square off Sunday. Frankly, this game was a lot more intriguing before Matt Schaub’s injury. If he’s healthy, we’re talking about the Texans as Super Bowl contenders. Now, with T.J. Yates expected to start, we’re talking about them as mere playoff contenders.
Of course, the Texans might argue that their first-ranked defense and third-ranked rushing attack can still sail the ship. Their Week 13 matchup versus Atlanta will put that theory to its first major test.
1. State of Houston’s No. 1 defense
After four years of changing schemes and coordinators, the Texans finally got it right by hiring Wade Phillips. Phillips is running the same defense he did in Dallas: a 3-4 alignment with a lot of 4-3 gap-penetrating principles. As he did with DeMarcus Ware, Phillips keeps his best pass-rusher on the weak side of the formation to help command one-on-one edge matchups.
With Mario Williams hurt, that pass-rusher is third-year pro Connor Barwin. Barwin can get after the quarterback, but Houston’s best all-around outside linebacker is second-round rookie Brooks Reed. Reed is fantastic at setting the edge and taking on blocks in the run game, and every down he brings the insane energy that all of Houston’s front seven defenders bring.
The same can be said about Reed’s fellow rookie, J.J. Watt. The powerful, long-armed first-rounder from Wisconsin has become nearly impossible to block one-on-one, both against the run and pass. In recent weeks, so has veteran Antonio Smith, a tenacious, crafty veteran who knows how to steer the action in ways that create opportunities for teammates (Smith was crucial to Barwin’s four-sack effort at Jacksonville last week).
A wrinkle Phillips has frequently used in Houston that he used only occasionally in Dallas is blitzing his inside linebacker. The incredible speed, burst, timing and innate playmaking instincts of Brian Cushing has likely been the motivation for that.
Good as this Texans defense – and especially the deep, high-octane front seven – has been, you could argue that it’s fool’s gold (it wouldn’t be a super strong argument, but it also wouldn’t be completely ridiculous). The Texans have held their last five opponents to under 14 points, but those opponents have been the Browns, Bucs, Titans and Jaguars (twice).
Those teams all have a paucity of receiving talent, which Houston’s secondary – bolstered by the magnificence of free agent pickup Jonathan Joseph – has easily exploited. Virtually all of Houston’s seven sacks at Jacksonville were coverage sacks.
The Texans defense will face its first true test in a month and a half this Sunday.
2. Falcons passing game
The past two weeks, the Falcons have broken off from their usual heavy two backs/two tight end formations to operate out of three-receiver sets. That could just be how they prefer to attack vanilla, zone-based 4-3 defenses (which their last two opponents, Tennessee and Minnesota, both run). Or, it could be a response to losing fullback Ovie Mughelli (on injured reserve with a knee). We’ll know more after we see how the Falcons choose to go after the Texans Sunday.
The prediction here is Atlanta will stay in three-receiver sets. Harry Douglas is getting very comfortable in his slot role. Roddy White and Julio Jones are hard to double-team when they’re lined up on the same side of the field (which is easier for them to do in three-receiver sets). And no defense yet has found a way to defend Tony Gonzalez in the short seam areas out of these three-wide alignments.
What’s more, Matt Ryan is most comfortable when audibling at the line of scrimmage. He loves to get to the line early and move his targets around. Three-receiver formations spread the defense and paint a clearer picture for the fourth-year quarterback.
3. Atlanta’s run game
The Falcons are still built to run the ball. That will be the case as long as they continue to trot a large but unathletic offensive line out on the field. Michael Turner, who has a surplus of patience but deficit of speed and quickness, is best equipped to run behind lead-blocking fullbacks and tight ends.
However, he’s proven capable of consistently gaining 4-6 yards out of single-back sets. Those formations usually put a defense in its nickel package, which gives Turner more opportunities to use his power against a defensive back instead of a linebacker. The Falcons can also run draws and delays with emerging lightning bug Jacquizz Rodgers when lining up three-wide.
The Texans don’t mind playing in their nickel, in part because the linebacker who comes off the field, DeMeco Ryans, has not been dazzling this season, and in part because they have relatively firm-tackling defensive backs (Glover Quin, in particular).
4. Houston’s run game
If last week’s Jaguars game is any indication, it’s fallacious to think the Texans can survive their quarterback woes by simply riding their top-ranked ground game. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are both dynamic enough runners to move the chains against an eight-man box (Foster, in fact, is the best all-around runner in the AFC; his fluid but powerful hips and tempo-changing aptitude leave him not far from Adrian Peterson’s level).
The Texans zone-blocking offensive line is cohesive and moves well at all five positions (center Chris Myers is having the best season of the bunch). But as we saw last week, it will be a tough go if that eight-man box is not at least a little bit concerned about getting beat through the air.
So much of Gary Kubiak’s offense is predicated on play-action and rollouts. Houston’s fleet tight ends and Andre Johnson give this method its venom. Overall, the system is intricate but actually puts few heavy demands on the quarterback (arm strength and pocket toughness, two critical attributes, are less significant). But a respectable quarterback is still vital because those play-action and rollouts also set up a lot of Houston’s ground game (namely the stretch handoffs).
5. Atlanta’s defense
Mike Smith started sprinkling more blitz concepts and disguises on his defense last season, but lately, he’s drifted back to execution-based schemes (i.e. fairly vanilla zones that rely on defenders being fundamentally sound and physically outperforming their opponents).
The Falcons could be more traditional if free agent pickup Ray Edwards weren’t so disappointing at defensive end. Edwards was supposed to bring a bookend pass-rushing prowess across from John Abraham. Instead, he’s been less explosive than last season’s underrated starter, Kroy Biermann.
Biermann, like Abraham, is a sinewy, versatile athlete. That’s important because the Falcons do a lot of zone exchange pass-rushes (this is rushing a linebacker on one side and having the defensive end on the other side drop into coverage; the idea is to confuse the quarterback into throwing a hot read into traffic). Speedy but strong linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has been a standout presence in zone rushes (and, for that matter, in general run defense).
In the secondary, left cornerback Brent Grimes is assertive and trusted with most of the solo assignments. Big-money right corner Dunta Robinson plays too far off the receiver to be considered anything more than “solid”. The Falcons frequently interchange their strong and free safeties. No. 1 safety William Moore is a thumper when healthy. In the last three weeks that Moore’s been out, replacement James Sanders has been serviceable as a third-level run defender. No. 2 safety Thomas DeCoud has been a liability in coverage.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 13 games.
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