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Without J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, Texans pass rush ain’t what it Houston be

Defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel will shuffle his lineup and his exotic blitz looks to overcome the loss of Houston’s two biggest threats to the Seahawks offensive line

Cleveland Browns v Houston Texan Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Remember when the worst thing Houston had to worry about was a lil old hurricane and the ravages of flooding? Well now the sixth largest city in America is crawling with flesh eating bacteria and its football club the Houston Texans have to go match up with the Legion of Boom and a revitalized Death Row defensive front in Seattle. Yes, those are worse problems. This is a football blog.

And yes, Deshaun Watson has been every bit as fantastic as I anticipated when I feared he might land with the Arizona Cardinals during the 2017 draft (thanks Browns), but Watson also hasn’t yet played a defense like the Seattle Seahawks (currently No. 9 by DVOA, and rapidly improving).

The team Watson started against but Mr. B doesn’t mention there is the Cincinnati Bengals, who are right behind Seattle in DVOA. But versus the Bengals (in his first career start) Watson was just 15 for 24 for a net 98 yards after subtracting his three sacks for 27 yards. The rookie also added 67 yards rushing but 49 of those came on one scintillating touchdown scamper. Otherwise Cincy contained Watson, relatively speaking, on four more runs (and held Houston’s running backs to 3.3 yards per carry).

Were Deshaun Watson to beat the Seahawks in their (our) building, he would be the first rookie starter to do so since Andy Dalton in 2011 and the second ever since the stadium opened in 2002. Seattle is 18-6 against rookie quarterbacks overall since that time, and even more dominant under Pete Carroll (with four straight including wins over Carson Wentz and Jared Goff in 2016).

Anyway, quarterback wins depend on total team performance and the Texans have more recently lost their defining strength when J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus both had to go on season-ending injured reserve after getting hurt on the same drive against the Kansas City Chiefs three weeks ago. The prospect of Watt facing off against Ethan Pocic or whoever he lined up against on the Seahawks’ offensive line could have been a game-tilting matchup, so it’s relieving to see that dynamic removed. At right side outside linebacker in Houston’s 3-4, Mercilus against Rees Odhiambo would have been equally if not more terrifying—because Mercilus rushes literally without mercy and like Uncle Jesse Odhiambo needs all the mercy he can get.

Now he may find some. Watt and Mercilus had combined for just one sack in the first five games of 2017 but were responsible for the great majority of the Texans’ pass pressure before they went out, ranking one and two on the team in hurrying quarterbacks. Jadeveon Clowney, the former No. 1 overall pick, had only 3.5 pressures playing opposite Mercilus to that point and then had little impact on the Cleveland Browns in Houston’s only full game since those two line-wreckers went out.

The Texans did manage four sacks in that game, but did not get much pressure on Cleveland QB Kevin Hogan otherwise—especially from the front five. Instead, defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel called a number of cornerback and safety blitzes to successfully generate free rushers, including one drive killing sack by nickel safety Kurtis Drummond, and otherwise funnel Hogan into interior pressure. Apart from an intentional grounding in the end zone that cost the Browns a safety when he was harried by defenders, however, most of Hogan’s errors (three interceptions including one returned for a touchdown that was badly overthrown) were his own doing, and considering Houston went ahead 24-3 and eventually 33-3 it is surprising the Texans couldn’t load up more pass rush given the extended opportunity in the second half (Hogan dropped back 41 times).

More intriguing, Watt’s absence could have an even greater impact in opening up Seattle’s opportunity to run the ball. Despite his high sack totals from 2012 to 2015, Watt was probably even more disruptive against opposing rushers. With Watt missing most of 2016, Clowney moved inside to take his place at defensive end and was a similar force of havoc, holding rushes aimed in his direction to 3.25 adjusted line yards according to Battle Red Blog’s Matt Weston. Against Cleveland, Vrabel opted to keep Clowney at outside linebacker and the Browns rushed only 22 times but still managed 134 yards.

To take the place of its lost starters, Houston signed Kendall Langford, a bad defensive end for the last two years with the Indianapolis Colts who was released earlier this month by the New Orleans Saints, and Lamarr Houston to play outside linebacker. Houston, in his first game since tearing an ACL in 2016, forced a fumble late which earned him the highest pass rushing grade for the Texans by Pro Football Focus at 79.2, whatever that means, but only played nine snaps. Langford didn’t play at all that week. (By the way, if Justin Houston going against the Houston Texans when the Chiefs played them was a little bit odd, a guy named Houston actually on Houston gets downright confusing when trying to write about it.)

If the Browns game is the model for how the Texans will line up versus the Seahawks, they will rely on Brennan Scarlett to fill Mercilus’s role outside and a combination of Christian Covington, Joel Heath and rookie Carlos Watkins to replace Watt. Heath has just seven tackles on the season, Covington nine, and were overshadowed by Watkins who played solid run defense but neither he nor nose tackle D.J. Reader got after Hogan much. Maybe we’ll see Langford in action this time, which bodes okay for Seattle’s interior line.

Scarlett also did little, owing mostly to his playing opposite Joe Thomas probably, but Ufomba Kamalu recorded a sack from the offense’s left edge. It will be worth watching those two try to rush against Odhiambo, but either way it’s a hugely more optimistic outlook than had Mercilus not torn his pectoral. As a whole Houston’s defense is scrambling to try to keep its strength from flipping into its greatest weakness, and may have come up with new solutions following its bye. Expect a lot of creative blitzes from Vrabel to overcome the lack of talent, but the Texans lineup looks a whole lot less worrying against the Seahawks’ greatest vulnerability on Sunday.

Hopefully, that means Russell Wilson and Thomas Rawls can stay upright which can help keep Seattle’s training staff focused on Michael Bennett’s plantar fasciitis instead of treating any of the necrotizing fasciitis running rampant in Houston.