On September 8, 2002, the Houston Texans played their first game in franchise history in front of their home fans and their brand new stadium. The opponent and the result could not have been more perfect for the Houston faithful as they stomped Emmitt Smith and the Dallas Cowboys by a final of 19-10. Most of us remember that game as a whirlwind of momentum in which the Cowboys never really threatened winning. In reality, it was two teams who were going to be really bad in 2002 (they would sport a combined record of 9-23) playing a game that only mattered because of the historic ramifications of having 2 teams back in Texas.
9 seasons and 130 games later, the two teams meet again back at the same stadium for a game of much greater stakes. It should be noted that the only other time the two teams have met in the regular season was in 2006 in Dallas, a game that the Cowboys would win easily, and a game that is best known for being the game BEFORE the Tony Romo era began for Dallas.
But this game is significant to the whole league. And for wildly different reasons.
For Houston, the league wants to know if the Texans are finally "playoff worthy". They have been building and rebuilding now for almost a decade, and judging on the quick rise of the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars - who both went to conference championship games in their 2nd year of existence, it is surely time for the Texans to play past week 17. Despite the idea that they are obsessed with all things Cowboys, the true target of their obsession would certainly be AFC South bully, Indianapolis - a team that have beaten only twice in franchise history in 17 attempts. But the 2nd win over the Colts was just 2 weeks ago, and now the sky seems the limit to not only make a playoff push, but perhaps even compete for the divisional crown.
But for Dallas, the league wants to see if this is the end already of a promising campaign. Less than a month ago, it seemed a popular premise to link the Cowboys to Super Bowl 45 and the dream of hosting a Super Bowl on your home turf. Now, 2 weeks later, there is all manner of discussion regarding the well being of this franchise. 0-3 seems to be an unthinkable hole to dig out of, and to call the Cowboys desperate in this difficult road test would be an understatement. We have always known the Cowboys under their current leadership to be poor "front runners", but they do seem to occasionally shock us when their backs are pressed against the wall. It would be foolish to assume they don't have the guts to compete at a very high level against a very talented opponent after what we saw last December in New Orleans against a 13-0 Saints team that very much wished to remain undefeated. The Cowboys were coming off back to back defeats to the Giants and Chargers and were being left for dead all week by the entire football world. But, they certainly made a point that launched them into a month of very high quality football at the most crucial time of their year.
And that is why I am having an extremely difficult time sorting this game out. On one hand, we have a Texans team that certainly is playing in front of a massive crowd in a loud stadium that wants desperately to beat the Cowboys. While the players may see the Colts as their main adversary, the residents of Houston have Cowboys fans as neighbors and co-workers and that seems to generate a great deal of venom we have found. The stadium was electric in pre-season, so it would certainly stand to reason it will be kicked up a notch or two on Sunday. But, on the other hand, we have no idea how the Texans play as favorites. They haven't had very many high stakes games in their life cycle, and to wonder if they will come out and play tight is a fair question it would seem. They are expected by most to beat a talented Dallas Cowboys team, and that is a position that would seem rather foreign to those who comprise this youthful Houston squad.
From a Cowboys standpoint, we have seen them wither way too often in hostile road environments under Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett. In 2008, they had disappointing road performances in St Louis, Arizona, Pittsburgh, New York, and Philadelphia. In 2009, it was Denver, Green Bay, New York, and Minnesota. Many of those places we could surmise the crowd and the momentum started surging in the wrong direction and the Cowboys couldn't stop it (except St Louis - we blame Brad Johnson for that one). The offense, in particular, has not made a great living in places where hearing the snap count and dealing with an aggressive defense are issues. We have detailed how difficult the road schedule is in 2010, and this match-up at Reliant Stadium is no exception.
For all the reasons above and many reasons below, we have a very big game on our hands this weekend.
Let's look at ways for the Cowboys to get a win before the bye week.
The Texans have spent 7 of their last 8 years trying to fortify their defense in the first round of the NFL Draft. That is an extreme way to emphasize your talent distribution, but when you play the Colts twice a year, you understand the logic here. The only way to ever deal with your division is to stop Peyton Manning, and the Texans have invested heavily in their top tier talent:
2004 Dunta Robinson Cornerback South Carolina
2004 Jason Babin Defensive end Western Michigan
2005 Travis Johnson Defensive tackle Florida State
2006 Mario Williams Defensive end North Carolina State
2007 Amobi Okoye Defensive tackle Louisville
2008 Duane Brown Offensive tackle Virginia Tech
2009 Brian Cushing Outside linebacker Southern California
2010 Kareem Jackson Cornerback Alabama
Dunta Robinson has left via free agency, and Babin (Tennessee) and Johnson (San Diego) are long gone, but the core has been built with young high-end talent.
Add to that group DeMeco Ryans, a player taken with the 1st pick of the 2nd round in 2006, and you can see why people now consider their front 7 a very formidable unit to deal with. And if you watched the Cowboys try to run the ball against them in August, you know that it is not an easy task to run on this group. Luckily for Dallas, Brian Cushing (and Duane Brown) will both miss this game as they are serving performance-enhancing drug violations.
To further demonstrate why this might not be the game of the Dallas running resurgence, consider this: Washington attempted to run the ball just 8 times on first down against the Texans last week. They gained a total of 6 yards on those 8 carries.
1) - M-A-R-I-O - The idea of the best DE in football is a purely subjective discussion, and while I don't think I would have quite put Mario Williams in that class in 2009, there is no doubt that he is at the top of my list in 2010. In watching every snap he has taken against the Colts and Redskins, it is clear that he now knows all of the tricks and has all the ability to absolutely demand a double team. If you don't respect him, he will kill a drive and perhaps a game plan all by himself. I expect the Cowboys to give him plenty of attention every time they attempt to pass the ball, but the key here will be to mix play calls enough to keep him honest. If the Cowboys fall behind early and resort to passing the ball out of necessity, then the job will become much more difficult. Julius Peppers was not allowed to cause chaos last week (unlike Brian Orakpo the week before) and they will need to employ plenty of chip blocking again to ensure protection for the QB.
2) - Romo/Garrett Must Be Efficient - When you go on the road in the posture of a team that is not favored to win, I think we can all safely agree that this is where you cannot blow chances. At home, when you are better, you might get away with stalled drives or the occasional giveaway. Not here. Against the Texans, in a game where we believe that Houston will be able to score plenty on their own, the Cowboys game plan must be most efficient. And then the QB play has to improve on what we have seen so far. Here is the list of qualifying QB's that Tony Romo (31st in the league) is ranked above in the category of 3rd Down passer rating: 32. Charlie Batch, 33. Matt Moore, 34. Jason Campbell, 35. Derek Anderson and 36. Trent Edwards. That should certainly make you nervous, despite the very small sample size of 2 games. That has to change very quickly. This is the type of game where your franchise QB has to win a game for you - in a stadium where Peyton Manning tried and failed 14 days prior. We need a big day from Jason Garrett and Tony Romo for the Cowboys to have a crack at this contest.
3) - More Dez/Felix; Less Marion/Roy - The Cowboys have spent 1st Round Picks on skill position players in 2 of the last 3 drafts - yet, neither is on the field enough for my tastes. Now, I want to see more of Felix Jones and Dez Bryant, and I believe the Cowboys do, too. Here are the potential problems for such a move: With Dez, in a hostile, loud road stadium, you run the risk of Tony Romo not knowing how he will react if the Texans throw a coverage look at him he has never seen. Can the Cowboys afford to have him on the field on crucial downs if they are not sure he is 100% sure of where he should be. And, with Felix, aside from not being positive how to use him correctly (Did you see the Saints use Reggie Bush on Monday Night in the red zone against Patrick Willis?), there is the issue of the blitz pick-up and chip blocking. If you watched Sunday, he tried to chip Julius Peppers on a number of occasions, but I am not sure Peppers felt any of them. There is a clear result difference when Barber or Choice chips a DE, than when Felix tries it. All of that being noted, Felix and Dez can both turn a non-descript play into a Touchdown with their explosiveness. The Cowboys will need explosives (20+ yard plays) to win.
4) - Control the Front Lines - Here is the thing about running the ball. We cannot get hung up on the idea that we have to get this ratio back to even. Some weeks, you want to establish the run, but I don't believe that is Houston's weakness - their secondary is where they have been leaking oil. The Cowboys have run the ball fewer times than any team in the NFL (percentage wise: 29.6%, League average is 43.4%) - but the name of the game is to get a win, not to balance the stats. The truth of the matter is that Houston has a very difficult front to run against and rather than making a point with power football this week, the object of the game is to figure out how to get 24-28 points on the board. For this to be possible, the front line is going to have to make sure that Antonio Smith, Amobi Okoye, and Mario are not devastating your offense - regardless of play calls. After a week in which Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis did not look to be worth their "pro bowl" quality, it would be very important that this OL proves it can play to its paper. Whatever the play call, these guys cannot get their rears beat by the man in front of them. Win the block, win the game.
The Texans are an offensive fan's and a fantasy football owner's dream. They roll up yardage and points with great regularity. They have an offense that seems to live for the explosive. They have silly rankings up and down the board. They are very good.
Much of it comes down to personnel. Andre Johnson is not a well-kept secret anymore, but he is surely not a guy who gets the hype that he would be due if he was a bit more expressive. Kevin Walter is a perfect compliment threat and Owen Daniels can cause issues in your secondary. Their offensive line - which was once made famous for almost getting David Carr killed - has improved to a point where they are solid.
They will play without their LT this week, as 2008 1st Rounder Duane Brown is down with a suspension, but they still are confident in their system - that same offensive system that the Denver Broncos used for 2 Super Bowls in the late 1990's under Mike Shanahan. If you want to know what the Texans do offensively, watch Denver film or even watch the Redskins game a few weeks ago. Rollout passes, Alex-Gibbs' zone running schemes, and a proper diverse mixing of run and pass.
So how do you attempt to frustrate their offense? Good question. But, it all starts with pressure without blitzing - something the Cowboys obviously could not pull off against Jay Cutler last week.
Here is a statistic that you may not be aware of from this year's Football Outsiders Almanac: Do not big blitz Matt Schaub: The Texans’ quarterback averaged a league-best 10.7 yards per pass against big blitzes, which may be why only Indianapolis and Tennessee faced fewer big blitzes than Houston did.
1) - Stop Arian Foster - 1 year ago today, Arian Foster was a member of the Houston practice squad. Today, he is the NFL's leading rusher and he has a 60 yard lead on 2nd place. He makes $395,000 and while you may not know much about him (and if you don't, read this great feature), know that NFL types are wondering how a guy that big and strong fell through the cracks of personnel evaluation. But, he is a real weapon that should not be underestimated or called a fluke. Traditionally, teams don't try to run against the Cowboys front, but after the success they had in demoralizing the Colts in the opener, I believe chances are very good that they will feed him the ball 20 times. Here is the name I want you to know: #44 Vonta Leach. You don't need to know many Fullbacks in the NFL anymore (many teams don't have any) but Leach is awesome in the way he is utilized in their running attack. He takes on your LB at the point of attack and seldom seems to lose.
2) - Schaub Rollout Right - If you want to read up on this vital weapon to the Texans attack, you need to read this comprehensive breakdown from TC Fleming. Here is a taste: While in Denver, they carved out a pretty distinct sort of identity. The idea, if I could simplify way down, is to use their zone blocking system to get Terrell Davis going on the ground. Then with the defense keying on him, have John Elway fake the handoff to Davis and roll to the opposite side where he had the option to either throw to a receiver whose defender had bit on the fake to Davis or run it himself into the areas voided by the over-pursuing defense. That's why Shanahan and Kubiak worked so hard to get Jake Plummer as a free agent and why they traded up to get Jay Cutler in the draft: the general system is predicated on having a quarterback who can throw well on the run, pick up yards himself when needed and just generally execute this style of play-action pass known as the bootleg.
Watch for this play on Sunday - it is a Houston favorite:
3) - Expose an Under Manned OL - I have to stop people who want to tell me that the Cowboys defense is good enough to take the Cowboys on a Super Bowl run because I don't believe it is true right now. They are getting 1 sack a game and 0 takeaways. It is nice to have impressive stats in terms of stopping this and stopping that, but a truly explosive defense (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York Jets) can not only stop you, but they can beat you up and take the ball. I was very disappointed in the lack of pressure in the final 3 Quarters against the Bears and the comfortable way the Chicago offense marched down the field with several explosives mixed in on busted coverages or tackles. I need the Cowboys front to show some domination and even after the Bears lost their Left Tackle, the Cowboys couldn't get there with 4. That needs to change this week if the Cowboys are going to have a chance. Now, you play another team without its Left Tackle. This should be a perfect time for 93/94 to show what they can do. But, we haven't seen enough of it yet. And don't be afraid to mix in a takeaway either. Not every QB is so accurate and so sharp that they just don't throw a pick against you. At some point we have to ask why the Cowboys cannot force a pick.
4) - Won't Stop, But Try To Contain - The Cowboys corners think they are pretty good. And so do we. But, are they up for this challenge? In the last five years, how many players have been targeted more than Andre Johnson? None. How many have more yards than Andre Johnson? One, Reggie Wayne. How many have more catches than Andre Johnson? One, Wes Welker. How many have more yards per game than Andre Johnson? None. You are getting the picture here, right? He is awesome and you won't stop him. You just have to make sure he doesn't do what he did last week against Reed Doughty on 4th and 10. I do know that he has an ankle issue right now, and Mike Jenkins is dealing with that knee bruise so I wonder if that match-up will materialize. I do know this - we should have a pretty good idea of the quality of the Cowboys safeties by the end of the game as double teams over the top are expected all day. I still wonder why the Cowboys did not pursue OJ Atogwe this summer when he appeared to be a bargain. I also wondered why they didn't think Nate Allen or Morgan Burnett were worth the picks in the April Draft. Perhaps Ball will silence my skepticism soon enough.
I think the Texans are the real deal this year. I expected this to be a match-up of 2 playoff-bound teams who both should be in the mix to win their respective divisions. The Texans have proven worthy of that praise, and the Cowboys look like a team that is just not all on the same page. 75% of teams that start the year 3-0 make the playoffs. Less than 3% of teams that start 0-3 make the playoffs. I keep referencing the Saints game last year, because the circumstances are quite similar in the idea of jobs being at stake and in that game the Cowboys were so efficient and so precise in their execution in taking down their foe... But, I try not to get caught up in hoping and believing here in this blog entry. The pick at the end is a firm belief of who is actually better, despite the fact that I haven't picked a game right yet (0-2).
Texans 27, Cowboys 21