Attack Houston’s CBs
The 2019 Houston Texans currently have the 3rd ranked run defense in the NFL. Unfortunately for them, their defense is also currently ranked 29th in the NFL against the pass. At fault for most of their woes against the pass has been a lackluster CB group. A starting group comprised of Johnathan Joseph, Lonnie Johnson and Bradley Roby gave up 300-yard passing games to Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Jacoby Brissett.
With an eye towards the playoffs and looking to shore up their back end, the Texans recently brought in former 1st round picks Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves as reinforcements. With Johnson (concussion) and Roby (hamstring) inactive due to injury in Week 10 against the Jaguars, the Texans started Joseph and Conley on the outside. Johnson has cleared concussion protocol and is expected to play against the Ravens, but the statuses of both Roby and Hargreaves are uncertain. The bottom line is that the Texans have been awful against the pass and are frantically shuffling their roster in a desperate attempt to find a remedy.
Against the Bengals in Week 10, the Ravens came out throwing the ball all over the field. Lamar Jackson ended his day 15 of 17 passing for 223 yards with three passing TDs and a perfect passer rating. Greg Roman’s game plan against the Texans should be similar to the game plan that they used against Cincinnati. In addition to deploying their signature rushing attack, the Ravens should look to throw the ball more than usual.
The Ravens should feel confident that their now completely healthy (well, assuming Hollywood, who missed practice Thursday, is a go) group of WRs and TEs can take advantage of a well below average group of Texans CBs.
Run at Mercilus
In the wake of yet another season-ending injury to three time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus finds himself filling some big shoes as the Texans top pass rush option. Mercilus, a former 1st round draft pick himself, has tallied 5.5 sacks for Houston through nine games this season. He is also tied for 2nd in the NFL with four forced fumbles in 2019. With Brennan Scarlett, a former undrafted free agent with 5.5 career sacks, manning the other OLB spot, the Ravens should be focused on slowing down Mercilus’ pass rush on Sunday.
There are a number of ways to slow down an opponent’s best pass rusher. A team can “chip” them with a RB. The Ravens have two bigger backs in Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards who are well suited for that task. A team can also give their offensive tackle extra help with a TE or a FB. In Nick Boyle and Patrick Ricard, the Ravens arguably have the most bruising blockers at those two positions in the NFL. Finally, a team can run the ball toward the side of the pass rusher.
Having Ronnie Stanley, one of the best left tackles in football, isn’t a bad start in the Ravens’ quest to keep Mercilus away from Lamar Jackson, but running the ball at him won’t hurt. Running directly at Mercilus ensures that he can’t “pin his ears back” and rush full speed without considering the threat of a run coming his way. A steady dose of down blocks by Boyle and kick-out blocks from Ricard should wear quickly on Mercilus. If the Ravens can put together a few of their now signature long drives by pounding the rock, they may tire Mercilus out and severely limit the impact that the Texans’ best pass rusher has on the game.
Get Creative in the Run Game
While the Texans pass defense is one of the worst in the NFL, their rush defense is one of the best. Despite starting a relatively no-name defensive line, Houston ranks 3rd in the NFL, allowing only 84.1 rush yards per game. Even without Watt, their OLBs do a good job setting the edge and their athletic ILBs run sideline to sideline making tackles. They have held opponents to under 100 yards on the ground in seven of their nine games to this point in the 2019 season.
Against the Bengals, the Ravens broke out their now infamous “Heisman” package. Flanked in the shotgun by fellow Heisman trophy winners Mark Ingram and Robert Griffin III, Jackson faked a handoff to Ingram before breaking towards the right sideline with Griffin III close behind him. Positioned in a perfect option pitch relationship, Jackson pitched the ball back as tacklers closed in around him and Griffin III finished the play with a run along the sideline for a 12-yard gain. With that play, Greg Roman called a true triple option run rarely seen in the NFL.
With each passing week, Roman seemingly adds a new wrinkle into the Ravens’ already advanced and tough to defend rushing attack. The Ravens’ unique personnel and the shared vision of the entire Ravens organization to invent a modern rushing attack makes that possible for Baltimore’s offensive coordinator. Against the Texans and one of the toughest run defenses that the Ravens have faced this season, Roman needs to get creative and give the Texans every wrinkle he has.
Ends around, run-pass options and the triple option are a few ways for the Ravens to keep the Texans uncomfortable and on their heels against the run.
After Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson may be the best QB in the NFL when it comes to using his legs to extend the play and make a throw. When the pocket breaks down, Watson usually looks like a bit of a magician as he finds a crease, resets his feet and completes a pass downfield. When he needs to, the Clemson product is also not afraid to tuck the ball and run. After Jackson and Kyler Murray, Watson has the 3rd most rushing yards by a QB so far in 2019 with 279.
The danger that Watson presents when he’s throwing on the move or taking off running down the field is no excuse to not attack. While he is best known for the highlight-reel plays that he makes when he is forced to improvise, Watson can absolute carve up a defense when he’s given time in the pocket. Watson currently ranks 12th in the league with 2432 passing yards and owns a 107.1 passer rating.
When teams can get to Watson, though, they have a much better chance at earning the victory. In the Texans’ six wins this season, Watson has been sacked an average of 1.7 times per game. But in the Texans three losses this season, he has been sacked an average of 5.0 times per game. Against Houston, the Ravens have to do everything they can to make Watson uncomfortable and sack the superstar QB. Regardless of how talented the Ravens defensive backs are, if Watson is allowed to sit comfortably in the pocket on Sunday, he will pick the defense apart.
Help on Hopkins with Thomas
Marlon Humphrey is one of the premier CBs in the NFL. If there was any doubt about it in the lead up to 2019, he has erased it. He’s an opportunistic playmaker who has two defensive TDs in the last month and, when targeted in coverage, is allowing the 7th lowest passer rating in the league. Sunday, however, will be Humphrey’s biggest test of 2019.
DeAndre Hopkins is, in the minds of many around the NFL, perhaps the league’s most complete WR. The former Clemson Tiger is a two-time 1st team All-Pro WR who has spent his seven years in the NFL honing his craft to complement his outstanding physical traits. He is extremely proficient in running the entire route tree and puts up stellar numbers every week despite either drawing double teams or the opponent’s best CB.
Humphrey is expected to travel with Hopkins against the Texans on Sunday. That means that, no matter where Hopkins goes, the Ravens best CB will follow. Having Humphrey travel with Hopkins means that the Texans can’t hide Hopkins in the slot or put him in motions that get him away from Humphrey and into a more favorable matchup.
Even with Humphrey traveling with Hopkins, the Ravens would be smart to give their young CB some help in the form on Earl Thomas. Having Thomas play over the top to help or shade towards Hopkins’ side of the field would go a long way in giving Humphrey support and confidence. If Wink Martindale can vary and disguise the coverages that he is deploying to limit Hopkins, the Ravens may even be able to bait Watson in making a few bad decisions with the football and cough up a rare turnover.
Giving a CB help on a superstar WR takes away from a team’s ability to help against the opponent’s other weapons, but limiting Hopkins is crucial enough to warrant plenty of extra attention on Sunday.
Deploy Balanced Personnel Groups
The play of RB Carlos Hyde has been a pleasant surprise for the Texans through 10 weeks in 2019. Hyde, now playing for his fifth NFL team in the past two seasons, has rushed for 78.2 yards per game (10th in the NFL). With assistance from Duke Johnson and Watson, Hyde has propelled the Texans to 142.8 rush yards per game (4th in the NFL).
Some of Houston’s success running the ball comes as a result of their ability to spread defenses out and run the ball. Watson, Hopkins and a stable of fast WRs including Will Fuller, Keke Coutee and Kenny Stills cause many defenses to deploy personnel groupings heavy on defensive backs. With those weapons at the hands of an All Pro-caliber QB, it’s not hard to see why teams might have Hyde and the Texans run game way down the list of things to be worried about.
But, the Ravens should be worried about Hyde. Against the Texans, Martindale needs to be constantly working to find the right balance in his personnel groups. The personnel that he has on the field must be able to stop both the run and the pass. If Houston catches Baltimore with too many defensive backs in the game, Watson may go to the hurry-up offense and run the ball right up the middle. If the Ravens deploy too many run stoppers inside, Watson will find a Ravens safety lined up on a speedy Texans wideout and take advantage of a favorable matchup.
To stop the high-powered Texans offense, it’s critical that Martindale find the right balance and put his highly versatile defenders in positions to succeed.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
CB Johnathan Joseph vs WR Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown
The Texans CB situation leaves much to be desired. Joseph, a 14-year veteran, has been the Texans’ number one CB so far in 2019. While Joseph is a former 1st round draft pick who has made two Pro Bowls over the course of his long career, there is no doubt that the now 35-year-old has lost a step and is not the player he once was.
Due to the movement that they’ve had at the position, it’s impossible to know how exactly how Houston will deploy their CBs against the Ravens. It seems highly likely, however, that Brown will be matched up with Joseph at some point on Sunday. At just 22 years old and with only seven games of NFL experience to his name, there is no question that Brown falls far short of Joseph in terms of experience. As for speed and quickness, there is no doubt that Brown has a real leg up. If Jackson finds Brown matched up one-on-one against Joseph on Sunday, I have no doubt that the Ravens will be looking for a quick-strike TD.