A lot like Case Keenum, I'm a little at a loss for words after what I saw on Sunday. Let's see if I can put this in perspective, here's what the Texans had going for them on Sunday...or didn't.
• The third different starting QB on the season.
• No Garrett Graham.
• No Mike Mohamed.
• An injury to RG Brandon Brooks forced a significant shift on the right side of the offensive line.
And, oh did I mention said starting quarterback hadn't taken a regular season snap in a year and was in a hunting blind seven days ago? And, he had to stare down one of the best front sevens in the NFL? I didn't, did I?
Yet, when it was all said and done, the Texans beat the formerly 9-5 Baltimore Ravens 25-13...and it probably wasn't even that close. How? I'm still scratching my head but here's what I saw throughout Sunday's win in NRG.
- Let's start with Keenum. After the game, I had the chance to interview him on the field after the game and he was truly overcome with emotion. When I essentially allowed the crowd to shower him with thunderous applause, he smiled from ear to ear and the response blew him away. I've been lucky this year to share THAT moment for a minute or two after games with Ryan Mallett in Cleveland and Keenum today.
The city of Houston means so much to Case and that was so evident at the end of this one. It may take a few days for it all to sink in and there are no guarantees that it'll happen again. But, on this one day, this one time, he had a day he'll never forget.
- His first throw of the game was a dime to Andre Johnson down the left sideline. Just a brilliant throw to kick start the day and the Texans were off and racing. I said to Rich Lord and Seth Payne that if Case had success it would be short and long, but rarely in the intermediate areas. That was pretty much his game today. He took a few deep shots at big times, as in the start of the game, and then controlled the game with his short passing game in the third quarter. It wasn't the prettiest performance but…
a. he took no sacks.
b. he limited negative plays
c. he made impact plays when the Texans needed it
d. he ran the offense smoothly even though he hadn't been here since August.
In other words, he did his job and even he'd admit it was much better than hunting.
- It was clear early in the game that the Texans defense just wasn't going to let the Ravens run game thrive. The defensive front did a solid job against cut blocks in the zone blocking scheme. The perimeter defenders held strong on the edge. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing was strong in his run fit gaps and when DJ Swearinger moved into his usual ILB spot in dime personnel, he was strong in his run fits as well. Tackling was at a premium all day long, with the exception of one Ravens screen play that turned into a touchdown.
- DT Jerrell Powe made a brilliant play early in the first half. C Jeremy Zuttah attempted to cut block the former Ole Miss Rebel. Powe gave a little bit of ground, used his hands to put Zuttah into the turf and then pursued to help on a tackle for no gain. That was teaching tape worthy, just perfectly played.
- It was comforting to have OLB Whitney Mercilus back in the lineup. If there's a player that's truly emerged throughout the year, it's Mercilus. He continues to play the run much better and has rushed the quarterback effectively. He's still not completely comfortable playing in space but he's much more adept out in open area than he'd been. His hustle and effort were evident when he ran down Ravens QB Joe Flacco to prevent a first down at a key point in the first half.
- That said, when he came off to the sideline with a dislocated finger, I about threw up. I'm always in Marc Vandermeer's ear so I can whisper sweet football nothings about tacklers, penalties, whatever. Well, when Mercilus ran off the field with a member of the Texans training staff, I just reacted and grunted "OH GOSH" into Marc's ear as he's trying to describe the action.
He popped it back in place and went back onto the field shortly thereafter. He told me that he hurt it earlier this year but then again on Friday and TWICE during the game. I just happened to see the one moment in which his finger pointed west by northwest.
- In my pre-game chat, I got a submission that I had to read at least three times to make sure I was reading it properly. I'm paraphrasing but it asked "what's wrong with Jared Crick? It's time to kick him to the curb". I nearly choked on my water because I couldn't believe what was in front of me. Crick's been brilliant this year and his performance today followed right in line with his strong season. He had one of the Texans two sacks (guess who had the other one?), two tackles for a loss, two hits on the quarterback and one pass knocked down. When he was healthy at Nebraska, playing next to Ndamukong Suh, he was as disruptive as Suh was in the middle. This year, he was given the opportunity to replace Antonio Smith and has been even better than anyone expected.
- I thought there was some pretty intense talking last week at Indianapolis, but that was elementary school compared to the PHd back and forth between these two teams. The Texans got caught up in it near the start of the third quarter as Powe shoved a Raven in the back and got a silly 15 yard penalty. Instead of facing a 3rd and goal from the 18 yard line, Powe's penalty put the ball back at the eight and QB Joe Flacco threw a TD pass two plays later. It didn't haunt the Texans...this time, but they've got to maintain their cool a bit better, especially if they're going to talk the walk or walk the talk or talk...whatever, you get the point.
- Along those lines, one of the best moments of the day was when a handful of Ravens defenders got in Arian Foster's (among others) face to ardently discuss current events in the world. There was a bunch of jawjacking going on when, with the Texans ahead 16-0, I saw a red gloved hand rise out of the melee and point at the scoreboard. Foster essentially ended any discussion with his less than subtle point. #Scoreboard.
- RT Tyson Clabo and Duane Brown held Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil sackless. Repeat that sentence five times and get back to me.
- In all seriousness, I was legitimately worried when Brandon Brooks left the game with an apparent ankle injury. Heck, I was worried about Suggs and Dumervil BEFORE Brooks left the game. But, the one non-QB that was the scourge of this city last year moved over to right guard and played extremely well - Derek Newton. Newton and Clabo were solid with some tight end help on the right side after Brooks went to the locker room. Bill O'Brien said it after the game "the more you can do" and Newton proved that he could do WAY more than anyone ever thought after last year. It's been a pleasure watching that man grow as an NFL player each and every week.
- Oh and if you're holding on to the narrative that the Texans need a different right tackle then you haven't watched one snap this year. Trust me, there are plenty out there still telling me Newton isn't the answer. It shows me who watches games and who doesn't.
- In the days after the loss to Indianapolis, there were a few outspoken voices in the Houston community that said the Texans' head coach had a tendency to get "too cute". So, when the Texans lined Foster in the shotgun early on, I thought back to that criticism...and then watched it work handsomely. Now, let's be clear about this part of it, the TRUE wildcat formation includes moving to an unbalanced formation with both tackles on one side of the formation...okay, I'm not going to get "too cute" myself with the designation. The main thing was that it worked well enough for the Ravens to have to gameplan to stop that look throughout the rest of the game.
- Now, it worked because the OL stayed on blocks long enough for Foster to weave his way through the first and second levels to find room to run. In the end, the Texans star running back took a pounding and will be "feeling it" throughout the week. But, he pounded out 96 yards on the ground, threw a TD and caught one pass for 23 yards. Another performance that should lock down another Pro Bowl trip.
- My first words to O'Brien at halftime were "halfback pass, really?" Seriously. Halfback pass? I just happened to be on the perfect angle to see that Foster wasn't making ground and KNEW he was throwing it. Many throughout the stadium couldn't tell and neither could the Ravens. Foster was tackled right near me so I almost missed the catch by CJ Fiedorowicz. There's such a thing as "right place, right time" and that play was just cute enough...at the right place, right time. Ha, see what I did?
- The one thing I noticed about the touchdown completion after the fact was Andre Johnson. The Texans WR knew Rashaan Melvin was in tight man coverage and as Dre saw the ball in the air, he didn't want Melvin to be able to redirect to knock it away. So, Dre ran three to four yards out of the back of the end zone to force Melvin to follow him, instead of jumping onto Fiedorowicz. It worked and the rookie made the catch.
- Also, so we're clear...one Texans quarterback threw his first career touchdown pass this season to a defensive end (Ryan Mallett to JJ Watt) and one rookie tight end caught his first touchdown pass from a running back (Foster to Fiedorowicz). Normal, no?
- Last Thursday, CB Kareem Jackson visited Deepi Sidhu in the Hyundai Texans Radio Studio for her weekly Deep Slant interview. After about 20 minutes, I figured they'd be done so I sauntered back in and the two were still talking. I'm going to force those two to have weekly discussions if the result is another two interception game like this one. I've said this a hundred times if I've said it once, Jackson is one of the most important assets on this defense. His first interception showed his burst and ability to break on the football and the second one showed his football intelligence as he essentially anticipated and ran the route for Ravens WR Torrey Smith.
- It's a feel good win but six field goals must turn into three field goals and three touchdowns going forward. That said, K Randy Bullock had a record-setting day. As our friend Robert Henslee surmised, Bullock was spurred on by fellow Klein HS graduate Lyle Lovett who sang the national anthem. Hey, again, whatever works.
- Seven. At various times in the second half, the Texans played that many defensive backs on the field. DC Romeo Crennel spun the dial all game long and no matter what the wheel landed on, it worked. Zone blitzes. Fire zones. Show six, drop eight. It didn't matter what he called, it was executed brilliantly. Of course, it helps when JJ Watt, Brooks Reed, Crick, Mercilus and others are pursuing the quarterback.
- Speaking of Watt, he didn't spend many snaps on the sideline and he was spent with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter. So, prior to a Ravens fourth down attempt, O'Brien took a time-out to give his defense a rest, in particular Watt who was clearly gassed. Watt then sacked Flacco to end the last true Baltimore threat. That gave Watt 17.5 sacks on the season and 54 in his career. To gain some perspective, he has more sacks than the entire Atlanta Falcons defense and half a sack less than the Cincinnati Bengals.
- During halftime as I walked down the NRG Stadium corridor, I ran into a former Brown University teammate/friend of both O'Brien and I. Dave Gardi was a quarterback for us and is the current Senior Vice President for Football Operations for the NFL. He told me he doesn't get to watch much of the games that he visits but remarked that the Texans defensive performance was as good as he could remember throughout the league. Think about it...the Texans defense held the Ravens to 211 total yards and 13 points. It held the Colts to season lows in points and yards last week, including three points in the second half. It's a unit seemingly hitting its stride in December, noticeable to more than just diehard Texans fans.
As great as this win was, it'll be tough to leave this one in the rearview mirror. However, any hope for postseason football will demand that the Texans do. It was fun, more than any of us ever imagined, and hopefully next week will provide similar outstanding moments.