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Keying in on the Texans’ defensive tendencies

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What to expect when the Eagles have the ball...

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NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Texans’ defense presents unique problems for the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Their run defense is near tops in the league, as I’ve documented, so Nick Foles will need a big game for the offense to be productive. To do that, the Eagles will have to be cognizant of the Texans’ tendencies and craft a solid gameplan around them.

What are those tendencies? In the run game, the Eagles could have issues staying ahead of the sticks if they try to hard to be “balanced”. One reason for that is how the Texans deploy Jadeveon Clowney in running situations.

STAND UP FREAK...

The Texans don’t care that Clowney is a defensive linemen. They make that clear when they move him all over, which they do often. When he’s standing up and in the middle of the formation, there’s a very clear tendency. They have him smash through brick walls to create disruption with his power and freakish athleticism.

Trying to block Clowney in these situations is a gigantic task and only accentuates what’s already a very good run defense for the Texans. My advice to Nick Foles if he sees this look and a run play is on would be to check out of it and change the protection. There’s no sense trying to slam into that front for the sake of balance.

LORD HAVE MERCILUS...

Another tip-off the Texans have is in their pass rush plan and the use of their linebackers. On obvious passing situations the formula is simple. If Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham and/or Dylan Cole are in they game, they are very likely dropping into coverage. Out of those three the most likely to come is McKinney, who has blitzed on 12% of his pass snaps and has 2 sacks.

Whitney Mercilus subbing in for a defensive lineman in their “Big Dime” packages is the real key; chances are he’s blitzing. Mercilus was coming off two years with a combined 19.5 sacks before missing most of 2017 with a torn pectoral muscle. This year he’s only accumulated 3.5 sacks, but he’s been effective with 36 pressures.

Make no mistake, Mercilus is an edge rusher, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he rushes the passer 69% of his pass snaps.

The Texans don’t just use him on the edge either. In their money down blitz packages they’ll move him around the formation and utilize him on stunts and twists. The problem isn’t necessarily knowing that Mercilus is coming, it’s identifying where he’s coming from, who else is coming with him, and what kind of games they may play throughout their rush.

THE WRIGHT WAY...

The Texans have been trying to solve their coverage issues in the nickel for most of the season and seem to have landed on what they feel is best. Cornerback Jonathan Joseph sticks on the outside, Kareem Jackson kicks into nickel, and Shareece Wright comes in for Jackson on the outside. They’ll remove a linebacker and add safety Andre Hal to complete their “big dime” package but the main point here is Wright.

Per Pro Football Focus, in 327 coverage snaps Wright has allowed 28 catches for 363 yards with 4 touchdowns and an opposing QB Rating of 119.8. That QBR ranks last in the group. He’s the mark on this defense and offenses are finding that out.

If Foles sees a pre-snap look that has an individual matchup he likes against Wright, he shouldn’t hesitate to take it. Jackson and Joseph aren’t exactly shut down corners but they combine for 4 interceptions on the season and are much more reliable in coverage. Force them into big dime, target Wright, and prosper.

The Eagles offense has an uphill battle against the Texans defense, but if they can plan around their tendencies and make them work in their favor, they can create opportunities. If they’re able to move the ball well from 20-to-20, they’ll find an easier time of things inside the red zone where the Texans rank 30th on the year. It will likely have to be done through the air, which means a lot of it will be on Foles to be efficient and effective.