The Buffalo Bills travel to Houston, Texas to take on the Texans at NRG Stadium this Sunday. It’s the second straight week the Bills take on an AFC South opponent, and the away team is looking for the same result this week. Both teams sit at 2-3, but the Bill O’Brien-led Texans have been in every game. Each game of theirs has been decided by seven points or fewer.
As always, the Bills are underdogs on the road, and rightfully so. The Texans boast a wealth of talent. In order for the Bills to pull off another upset, they will need to execute the following:
Contain QB Deshaun Watson
The second-year quarterback is listed as questionable with a chest injury, but after seeing him run around at practice, catching bombs down the field, I expect him to play. When you look at the list of the top passers in the NFL right now, Watson sits at number six. He has completed passes at a 65% rate while throwing for 1,621 yards and eight touchdowns. He has a plethora of weapons, including one of the premier wideouts in the game, DeAndre Hopkins, whose 594 yards lead the NFL. Wide receivers Will Fuller and Keke Coutee are two guys who can take a short pass to the house at any given moment. While I expect Nuk Hopkins to get his touches, Buffalo needs to focus on keeping Watson in the pocket.
His legs are as dangerous as his arm. He leads all QBs in rushing yards with 201 and one touchdown so far this season. He can extend plays with his mobility, but most of all, he looks to escape the pocket often and make plays outside the structure of the play call. His yards per attempt nearly doubles to 15.9 when he makes throws outside the pocket, and he leads all QBs in passing yards with 207 and two touchdowns when he plays outside the confines of the pocket. Much like he was in college, he continues to show himself as a playmaker in the NFL. This is why Leslie Frazier and the Bills will need to contain him as often as they can.
Bring the Pain
The Bills’ 6th-ranked defense is a confident and disciplined unit, so they aren’t going to just sit back and let Watson pick them apart. They will continue to play fast, rally to the ball, and attempt to create turnovers. The defense is led by defensive end Jerry Hughes, who looks to be in vintage form as he sits third in total pressures among edge rushers with 25. His resurgence has a lot to do with the upgrades in talent along the defensive line. Adding Trent Murphy, Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Phillips, and mixing Lorenzo Alexander in as rusher has made it difficult for teams to double Hughes or slide the protection his way. When the Bills get Watson and the Texans’ offense in third-and-long scenarios, they need to execute some of their interior stunts and zone blitzes to rough the young QB up. If they can get him to drop the ball low as he attempts to leave the pocket, the ballhawk Bills could make another appearance by forcing several turnovers.
Win First Down
Winning first downs is always part of a coach’s mantra, but when you have one of the worst statistical offenses ever, it carries a lot more weight. With a very green quarterback in Josh Allen at the helm, and only Charles Clay and LeSean McCoy to claim as mismatches, the Brian Daboll-led offense must show up on first down, and that is where the Texans appear to be most vulnerable. According to Football Outsiders (FO), the Texans’ defense is ranked 27 in their DVOA metric on 1st down passes. The problem is that the Bills are ranked 32nd on offense in that same category.
Allen is dead last in yards per attempt on 1st down with a lowly 4.1 yards to go with 51.2 completion percentage (among QBs with at least 20 attempts on 1st down). Bills fans should expect the Bills to run the ball a majority of first downs, like last week, where they pounded the rock 21 times, compared to four passes. So don’t expect them to dial up empty formations or full-field reads on first down; first down will be the money down to get a few explosive passes. But getting to 3rd-and-shorts (1-3 yards) should be the goal, as they are fifth in DVOA in that category.
Give the Offensive Line Some Help
In the offseason, teams will put together general scouting reports on opponents for the upcoming season, especially against opponents that are from outside the division. Based upon these scouting reports, there will be consequent schemes or tactics that the staff wants to install. Well, I hope the staff has come up with some sort of plan to combat JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, because even with months of prep, I’m not sure that they have a chance to slow them down. Back in 2011, the Patriots had this as part of their plan to slow down the Colts and Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, Jerry Hughes, and others.
While Watt and Clowney line up all over the front seven, the Bills will need to employ similar rules and/or formations that will account for a running back or tight end to give the offensive line some help.
Having these calls tagged onto any pass play will give the offensive linemen peace of mind knowing that they have help outside and only have to worry about the inside rush. The Bills obviously run these, and I am sure most of your remember Logan Thomas’s big block in the preseason vs. the Panthers, but he also had one last week.
The Bills’ screen game has disappointed me this year from the standpoint that I thought they would have run more of them. With the pass rushers that Houston has, screens and draws should be aplenty in this gameplan. The Texans have surrendered 172 yards (3rd-most) and one touchdown on 19 completions on screens. The lone touchdown was on a WR screen to Titans WR Taywan Taylor, but they also gave up a 43-yard tight end screen to Geoff Swaim last weekend.
It’s possible that Daboll limits WR screens because of Allen’s struggles throwing them, but there is no excuse for not calling more RB screens. Figure out a way to get an offensive line that isn’t really known for their athleticism out on the perimeter. Having an effective screen package is critical to this offense going forward.
These keys to the game will really determine whether the enigmatic Bills can get their second win in a row to put them back at .500 for the season.