Houston Texans 2020 Team Study

Offense

The 2020 Texans were completely average offensively, ranking 15th with an Adjusted Rating that rounded to zero. At their best, Deshaun Watson was making superhero plays, typically escaping pressure to throw deep to Fuller or Cooks. But this style of offense that led to several huge plays also lent itself to inconsistency. They did not run a lot or particularly well, so their success frequently came down to whether or not Watson was able to convert on splash plays.

This led to some strange statistical results. Despite averaging the NFL’s highest yards per play and recording a below-average number of turnovers, they only finished 12th in scoring percentage.

Texans Offensive Stats 2020

CategoryHOURank
Yards Per Play6.41st
Scoring %42.9%12th
Red Zone TD %54.0%25th
Rush Yds1,46631st
ADOT8.93rd

The Texans implemented a deep passing game that led to inconsistency in the red zone where the field was shortened. Without a strong running game or a consistent short passing game, they preferred to score on big plays than grinding out long drives. As a result, their offense performance typically did not depend on how well the opposing defense tackled.

*Omitted Week 14 v. CHI because of an inordinate amount of offensive absences (Fuller, Cooks, D. Johnson, etc.)

This chart tracks Houston’s offensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s missed tackles on the season. Houston struggled relatively against teams that missed a lot of tackles, such as BAL (-0.61) and MIN (-0.41), because their offense did not take advantage of this defensive weaknesses. By contrast, some of their best performances came against IND (+0.94) and NE (+0.81), who had much fewer missed tackles. When an offense is built around throwing deep as opposed to running or getting yards after the catch, opposing defenses that tackle well do not typically press their advantage.

Heading into the season I expected Watson to have a drop-off in production without DeAndre Hopkins to throw to. I expected him to struggle in particular during the stretch of games where Fuller and Cobb, two of his best weapons, were unavailable. But Watson seemed impervious to these downgrades. He set career bests across the board in 2020 in passing yards (4,823), completion percentage (70.2%), touchdown passes (33) and interceptions (career-low 7). And at the tail end of the season, without Fuller and Cobb, he arguably played better.

Watson in Games Without Fuller & Cobb

 GamesAvg. Off. Adj. Rating
With Fuller/Cobb11-0.13
Without Fuller/Cobb5+0.28

In other words, the evidence suggests that Watson’s value is not tied to the quality of his available receivers. He does most of the work himself. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but it suggests that if Watson is available to play for Houston in 2020, they likely can continue to be a moderately successful offense even without Fuller. But it’s obviously difficult to project that right now with his off-season troubles and the uncertainty of his status. This offense would become a complete unknown with Tyrod Taylor and will likely take a big step back without Watson’s play-making ability.

Defense

The 30th-ranked Texans defense routinely lost in 2020, but did have a small stretch of games in the middle of the season where they performed relatively well. They opened the season getting burned by a series of good offenses (and Jacksonville), then saw an uptick in production after Bill O’Brien was fired, then suffered a few too many personnel losses due to injury or suspension and finished the season with several particularly poor performances.

The defense did not do anything particularly well and at times appeared to lack effort. Their performance even prompted an uncharacteristic rant from long-time team leader J.J. Watt in the middle of the season about effort. I’m not sure how I feel about a team leader calling out his teammates publicly, and I’m sure he did not endear himself to them (he has now moved on to Arizona). But he wasn’t wrong.

The Texans were particularly bad against the run. They routinely got gashed by running backs throughout the season, leading to several huge performances by top backs or committees.

Huge RB Performances v. HOU

Player(s)CarriesYardsYPC
D. Henry342507.4
Chubb/Hunt382306.1
D. Henry222169.8
Dobbins/Edwards/Ingram211768.4
Perine/Bernard291605.5
C. Edwards-Helaire251385.5
D. Cook271304.8
D. Montgomery1111310.3
J. Conner181096.1

Receivers also had some massive games against Houston. With Aaron Jones hurt, Adams racked up 13 catches for 196 yards. And several players who did not frequently eclipse 100 yards receiving in 2020 did so against the Texans, including Anthony Firkser, D.J. Chark, Damiere Byrd, and T.Y. Hilton.

The one thing the Texans did well was stop mobile quarterbacks from running efficiently. Lamar Jackson had his least efficient rushing game of the season against the Texans, gaining only 54 yards on 16 carries. And Cam Newton, who was 3rd in the NFL in quarterback rushing yards, had only 3 carries for 6 yards. But both these quarterbacks burned Houston in the passing game.

Their issues in the pass game stemmed from not being able to pressure the quarterback, despite having J.J. Watt healthy all year. It was too easy for teams to negate Watt without threats coming from anywhere else. So they did not take advantage against teams that gave up a lot of pressures.

This chart shows Houston’s defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s pressure rate allowed on the season. Their defensive performance trended positively as teams were better at combatting pressure, because the Texans did not pressure anybody. This may sound counterintuitive, but Adjusted Rating factors in strength of opponent so it means they failed to capitalize against teams that allowed pressure relative to other defenses.

Like many of the poor defenses in 2020, the Texans were not great at pressure and coverage to begin with and suffered several injuries and/or suspensions by season end. That’s how to ensure you have a poor defensive showing in today’s NFL. And without a lot of draft capital to spend they did not improve and look destined for another poor defensive season in 2021.

Putting it All Together

Betting Takeaways

  • Overall, the Texans are underrated heading into the offseason. They had a tough schedule and suffered several really unlucky losses. They were up 7 on the Titans before a last-second touchdown sent it into overtime and the Titans scored before Houston saw the ball. They lost two games to Indianapolis on red-zone fumbles at the end of the fourth quarter. And they took the Titans to the brink again in Week 17. They should have been more like a 7-9 team, but they are being treated as utter garbage. That said, without Watson they likely are the worst team in the NFL.
  • If Watson plays, they should be considered great backdoor cover candidates with his ability to score regardless of weapons and they maybe spring some surprise upsets in games where those long connections work out.
  • Without Watson, this team will likely look completely different. I would target Under in point totals, because they would likely move from a deep passing team to a run-heavy team that aims to control the clock.
  • On defense, do not expect the Texans to capitalize against teams that allow a lot of pressures. Expect them to get burned by running backs and by play action.
  • Although they are bad, the Texans are still an NFL team. There is no such thing as a free win.

Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways

  • Someone will get stats on this team, even without Watson. But I’m not gambling on who it may be. There is a potential split backfield now, which makes me shy from David Johnson and the projected downtick in the passing game with Tyrod Taylor likely playing makes me want to fade Brandin Cooks. Avoid in drafts but keep on speed dial if you can spot the talent emerging to fill the void.
  • Play any and all players against the Texans in DFS, especially running backs. Also play Overs on running back yards against Houston, unless the offense slows the game down significantly.

Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year

In Week 3, a healthy Pittsburgh Steelers team was only a 4-point home favorite against Houston. The Texans had just lost badly to the Chiefs and Ravens, and everyone was anticipating they would bounce back. But I had seen nothing in the first two games to think they had played well and just lost to superior competition. They were just bad. Without being able to pressure the Steelers or stop the run, I expected the Steelers to build a lead and then crush them with their stifling defense, and bet PIT -4 for 2 Units. In a game that appeared closer than it really was, the Steelers took care of business and covered, 28-21.

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