A detailed look at the key players and matchups for the Chiefs-Texans game at noon Sunday in Houston’s NRG Stadium. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5).
Coach: Coach Bill O’Brien (18-14) was a runner-up for NFL coach of the year in 2014 and rallied his team back from a 2-5 start a year ago to go 9-7 and win a division title. He is known for his bright offensive mind and past work with quarterbacks,
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Offense: George Godsey is in his second year as the offensive coordinator, but the offense certainly has O’Brien’s imprint. The Texans have run the ball as much as anyone in the league the last two years but have only averaged 3.7 yard per carry. The Texans were primarily an “11” personnel (three-wide) team a year ago, when they operated out of that formation 54 percent of the time.
Defense: Former Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel enters his third year in Houston after guiding a top-five defense a year ago. Crennel likes to bring the pressure; the Texans set a franchise record with 45 sacks last season. Like most 3-4 teams, they play a four-man front in nickel and dime situations and try to generate pressure with blitzes, upfield aggression and stunts.
Special teams: Fourth-round rookie Tyler Ervin brings some juice to their return units; he boasts outstanding speed and burst and is a home-run threat on kick and punt returns. Chiefs special-teams coach Dave Toub should be licking his chops at drawing up something for dynamic rookie Tyreek Hill; the Texans surrendered a 31-yard punt return to the Bears on Sunday.
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Mix up the coverage/manage DeAndre Hopkins
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound wideout (ranked No. 19 on NFL’s Top 100) is going to see the ball — he was third in the NFL in targets (192) a year ago — and there’s not much that can be done about that, especially if Brock Osweiler proves to be more competent than Brian Hoyer was last year. The key is containing Hopkins, which the Chiefs did in their 30-0 Wild Card Game win in January as they “limited” him to six catches for 69 yards. It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs defend him this time, however. In the Wild Card Game, Hopkins lined up on both sides and the Chiefs, who generally didn’t give their corners much help over the top on him until the game got out of reach, basically allowed Sean Smith to press him while Marcus Peters played more off coverage against him, with respectable results. But Smith is no longer a Chief, and it remains to be seen if the coaches have the same level of confidence in his replacement, Phillip Gaines, to repeatedly press a player of Hopkins’ caliber with little help, though Gaines did look fast, fluid and tough in the opener against San Diego. Hopkins makes a lot of easy catches against off coverage, as he’ll often eat up the cushion, use his athleticism to create separation out of the route stem and haul it in. Peters showed the physicality to play man coverage against Hopkins in the Wild Card Game, but the Chiefs often gave him help over the top when he did it. Hopkins is good enough to win anyway, as his ball skills allow him to win contested quarters. Remember, he beat Peters twice for touchdowns in press coverage in last year’s season opener. All the Chiefs can do is to mix it up, pray the pass rush gets home and hope for the best.
2. Put an extra defender in/around the box to stop the run
The Texans are committed to the run. They added former Chief Jeff Allen (6-4, 306) to bring an element of nastiness to the front, which he’s done. The Texans went shotgun 42 percent of the time last week, so they’ll also sprinkle in some of the shotgun draw plays that tortured the Chiefs against San Diego on Sunday. The Chargers repeatedly exploited a light box, as defensive coordinator Bob Sutton chose to make San Diego prove it could run on even numbers in the box in the Chiefs’ nickel and dime subpackages. This, when combined with the upfield aggression of the Chiefs’ defensive line, sometimes-shoddy tackling and occasionally-faulty gap discipline, made for a first-half nightmare that was eventually rectified in the second half. Still, San Diego, which rushed 32 times for an average of 4.8 yards per carry, also had plenty of success pounding the ball up the middle from under center with Melvin Gordon, and that’s something the Texans might be able to do. Against the Bears on Sunday, they ran 10 plays up the middle for a stunning average of 6.1 yards per play. Expect them to run at Justin March-Lillard, a first-year starter at inside linebacker, in an attempt to test the Chiefs’ gap discipline.
3. Work together upfront to stunt the stunts
The Chargers tortured the Chiefs’ youngish offensive line Sunday with an assortment of blitzes and stunts. Most of the effective ones were aimed at the right side of the line, specifically right-guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. He has a high ankle sprain and may not play, however, and the same goes for left guard Parker Ehinger, who suffered a concussion Wednesday. Their assumed replacements, Zach Fulton and Jah Reid, have lots of experience and might not be as vulnerable to the same line games, though they each have their issues. Still, if the Texans manage to get home against a banged-up line, quarterback Alex Smith needs to be ready to find a gap and scramble. Both inside linebackers Benardrick McKinney (6-4, 260) and Max Bullough (6-3, 245) can be outhoofed in space, and remember, Smith broke off a dynamite 60-yard scramble in January that was called back due to a penalty.
4. Test the Texans’ discipline on play-action
The Texans allowed a league-low 5 yards per pass attempt last year, but if they had one weakness, it was on play-action, where they allowed 9 yards per pass. Their trio of corners — Johnathan Joseph (5-11, 185), Kareem Jackson (5-10, 185) and Kevin Johnson (6-0, 185) is pretty good, but just like San Diego a week ago, the Texans’ assortment of stiff inside linebackers can be targeted in coverage. Veteran Brian Cushing, the heart and soul of the Texans defense, will miss the game with a knee injury, and his replacement, Bullough, is a classic inside linebacker with loads of football smarts but only average athleticism. McKinney is a size-speed guy who looks the part on the hoof but is much better going forward than he is side-to-side. Both can, and should, be targeted in the pass game with athletic tight ends Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris and Ross Travis. The Texans’ safeties — former Chief Quintin Demps (5-11) and Andre Hal (5-10, 195) — probably can’t match up with them, either. Johnson, the second-year corner, is thin-framed, but he’s tough with good hips and twitch and might be the best option for Kelce.
Four Texans to watch
No. 17, QB Brock Osweiler, 25 years old, 6-8, 235, 5th season
Went 5-2 as a starter with Denver last season, completing 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,967 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Is being counted on to distribute the ball to a very young (and very talented) receiving corps that features a legit star (Hopkins), two rookie speed merchants in first-rounder Will Fuller V (6-0, 180, 4.32 speed) and third-rounder Braxton Miller (6-1, 205, 4.5 speed) and a ’15 third-round possession receiver in Jaelen Strong (6-2, 215). Reportedly has two plays out of most huddles and can check to a third if he wants. Has more than enough height to see over the defense. Osweiler may be tall but he isn’t a bad athlete; will occasionally escape from pressure and scramble for positive yardage. Has a shot-puttish, three-quarters delivery and a strong arm; can really spin it and hum it in there when given time. Really trusts his arm and will occasionally stare down his top target and make some questionable decisions. Holds on to the ball too long (was sacked 23 times last season). Flashes the ability to throw with touch — especially on fades — but doesn’t always put the ball on the money, either short or deep, especially when forced off his spot. Pressure will be essential.
No. 26, RB Lamar Miller, 25 years old, 5-10, 220, 5th season
With Miami, Miller torched the Texans for 175 yards in 14 carries last year, so Houston gave him $26 million over four years as a free agent. Curiously had only 177 carries a year ago in Miami (709 yards, two touchdowns) but they are completely devoted to getting him the ball in Houston; he rushed 28 times for 106 yards in the Texans’ 23-14 win over Chicago. Traditional, slashing one-cut runner with good burst and top-end speed. Patient runner who is slippery in the hole but doesn’t always make defenders miss in space and isn’t overly creative. Decent route runner who catches the ball well enough and is targeted in the pass game. Tough guy who plays hurt and doesn’t miss games. Has improved in pass protection and is willing but can be a tad late to pick up the blitz. Might lose some juice as the game goes — seems to tire, a bit — and has yet to prove he can be a true, bellcow closer.
No. 99, DE J.J. Watt, 27 years old, 6-5, 295, 6th season
This Paul Bunyan-ish defensive end (No. 3 on NFL’s Top 100) who, at his best, consistently wins against the run and pass with rare combination of exceptional length, quickness, effort and power and is probably the best down lineman in football. Has a chirpy, competitive, on-field disposition and knows how good he is. Had back surgery in July, missed all of training camp and the preseason and played 88 percent of the snaps Sunday against Chicago. Showed toughness by playing all of 2015 with a torn groin and a broken hand and still dominating (76 tackles, 17 1/2 sacks) but did not quite look like himself against the Bears. Played lots of three-technique tackle, left and right end but generally did not show his typical burst and power. He was much more effective rushing from the outside Sunday, where he could repeatedly use his still-effective rip move to win on the edge vs. the right tackle. Was generally reached easier than normal, however, and did not flash the same balance; was also on the ground against the Bears much more than normal. Still had a tackle and a team-high three quarterback pressures.
No. 59, OLB Whitney Mercilus, 26, 6-4, 265, 5th season
Gets overshadowed by Watt but needs to be accounted for every play. Teams up with Watt and Jadeveon Clowney (6-5, 270) to form a dangerous, disruptive trio along the Texans’ front. Came into his own during a season in which he recorded career highs in tackles (52) and sacks (12). Is on track for another great season; was named AFC defensive player of the week for his two-sack performance vs. Chicago. Lines up everywhere; mainly plays on the left and right edges but will try to use his quickness and shoot gaps as a down three-technique and stand-up blitzer shaded on the center in passing situations. Will also play passing lanes, spy the quarterback’s eyes and try to deflect passes when aligned on the center. Stresses slow-footed tackles with his burst and quickness off the edge. Has a speed rush and an effective rip. Has quick, strong hands. Can lock out, extend and find the ball vs. the run. Largely-disciplined run defender who generally holds the edge but is subbed out in goal line. Holds up fairly well inside but can be pushed around by bigger players. Gives good effort and runs to the ball. Is aware of backs flaring out of the backfield and actually holds up OK in space.
Prediction: Texans 23-20
The Texans should be super motivated to win this game following their embarrassing 30-0 loss to the Chiefs in January, and from the Chiefs’ end, while they might be better on paper, it’s still very difficult to beat a good team three times in their home within 12 months. Houston made a number of improvements in the offseason, particularly on offense, as it upgraded at quarterback, running back and improved its team speed and nastiness up front. That might prove handy Sunday against a defense that looked vulnerable against San Diego. The Chiefs’ offense should be able to move the ball and put up points, especially with Watt looking less than 100 percent, but the Texans’ pass rush should still put up more resistance than the Chargers’ did against the hurry-up, three-wide offense the Chiefs rode to the largest comeback victory in team history Sunday.