This is the second in a series of previews that will take a closer look at each divisional-round matchup, using advanced metrics and game tape observations. We continue with the matchup that will see the Houston Texans in Baltimore to face the Ravens in a rematch of the Week 6 game that Baltimore won, 29-14.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Where: M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore's win over the Texans provided several instructive schematic tips that should stick, whether Houston's quarterback is Matt Schaub as it was then, or T.J. Yates as it is now. The Texans don't run the traditional West Coast Offense Gary Kubiak helped Mike Shanahan run in Denver for many years, but they are fond of many passing aspects of that system — specifically, the slants, screens, crosses and stick routes to the backs, tight ends and H-backs Kubiak uses with such multiplicity.
The first thing that was very apparent on tape was that whatever people may say about Ray Lewis' best days being behind him, Houston very clearly based their intermediate throwing concepts on where Lewis was and what he was doing. Without Andre Johnson in the game, the Texans had to rely more on accurate stuff underneath the coverage. When Lewis stuck in position and read the play, the Texans could occasionally get him to chase with play action. In those cases, intermediate passes worked. But when Lewis dropped and the Texans didn't run to take advantage, Schaub looked totally flustered. Even simple screens to Arian Foster were catch-as-catch-can't.
If you're looking for signs of encouragement regarding Texans backup quarterback T.J. Yates, there are some to be found. He's one of the best quarterbacks through the 2011 season in sets with two wide receivers on the field, and we don't have to worry too much about sample size alerts because the Texans go with two backs and multiple tight end/H-back looks so often. Out of that particular personnel package, Yates has a passer rating of 112.2 — only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford were better in the regular season. Yates is comfortable with Houston's base passing concepts — boot action out of run-blocking, and short passes to a series of "joker" receivers out of the backfield and tight on the formation.
The Texans also rely on their star linebacker to determine the pace and effectiveness of the running game, and that star is Brian Cushing. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips runs a lot of one-gap 4-3 sets out of what looks like 3-4 or 5-2 alignments, and undersized (6-foot-4, 301) nose tackle Shaun Cody was washed out quite frequently by Baltimore's power blocking for Ray Rice -- especially when mega-fullback Vonta Leach was bulling up the middle. They need Cushing and DeMeco Ryans to flow through the gaps and take care of what Cody can't -- especially since, per ESPN Stats & Info, Ray Rice ran between the tackles 256 times this season. Only Maurice Jones-Drew did so more often.
The Texans' offensive line is slightly better than Baltimore's, both on game tape and in the stat sheets, and their defensive line is set up to harass Joe Flacco mercilessly — even more than in Week 6. That game was the first the Texans played without Mario Williams, which means that J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin have had more than half a season to get acclimated. They beat Andy Dalton up in last week's wild-card win over the Bengals, and Joe Flacco is far less mobile than Dalton — he's not nearly as good on the run.
Flacco was sacked 31 times on 542 pass attempts, but he also took 82 quarterback hits, sixth-highest in the league. The Texans racked up 44 sacks and a league-leading 115 QB hits. Flacco was hit nine times in Week 6; you could expect that number to climb unless the Ravens go with a run-heavy approach. That might be the best way to start; the Ravens really struggled with protection when Houston went with a five-man front — it was only when Houston went to more of a base defense that Flacco was able to get in any sort of rhythm. Against those Texans wide sets, the Ravens frequently left at least one defender unchecked as receivers released to their routes. That can't happen again.
Another reason for the Ravens to run — they've seen a serious uptick in their run DVOA (Football Outsiders' per-play efficiency metric) in the second half of the season — from 22nd to third. When the Ravens test the Houston secondary with the deep pass (and make no mistake, they will), the Texans will have to align their zone timing to avoid the 52-yard pass interference penalty called on Glover Quin against the Bengals. On that play, cornerback Johnathan Joseph handed coverage of A.J. Green off to Quin early, and Quin had to fight to catch up. The Ravens don't have any threats like Green, but Anquan Boldin is a physical underneath receiver who could benefit from Houston's blitz tendencies, and Torrey Smith is the speedster who will hit the deep route.
For Yates, Arian Foster and the Texans' offense, the guy they really have to watch for is Terrell Suggs, noted Ball So Hard University alum. Suggs' 14-sack total is the flashy number, but make no mistake — this guy is a complete player. He also picked off two passes and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles. Foster has fumbled five times this season, and all five have happened in the last five weeks. The fact that they'll have Andre Johnson back is huge, and the Ravens will need the best from underrated (and recently injured) cornerback Lardarius Webb, who has five picks and 20 passes defensed this season.
Yates has been a game manager (yes, I hate that term, but it applies in this case) whose efficiency has gone down the more he throws downfield. However, against the Bengals, he completed four of the eight passes he threw for over 15 yards, including a touchdown to Andre Johnson. If Yates can maintain his development and the Texans can keep Ray Lewis on any kind of string, Houston has a good shot at taking this game. As it has been with the San Francisco 49ers, the Texans don't get the credit they deserve for being creative in their offense because they put the run first. Baltimore should be favored, but to underestimate the Texans would be a fool's errand. They're a different -- and better -- team than they were in Week 6.
Other Smarter Stats, Divisional Round
New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers
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