Thanksgiving Day Preview: Texans at Lions

Thanksgiving Football Preview: Texans at Lions


Brian Friedland

Week 11 marked the highest of the highs for the currently 3-7 Houston Texans as they were able to get a signature win over Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. But it marked yet another point of frustration in the tenure of Matt Patricia with the 4-6 Detroit Lions after getting shut out by the Carolina Panthers. Nonetheless, both of these teams have a chance to get their seasons back on track and at least get some confidence heading into next season if the playoffs are not the most realistic thought at this juncture in the season. Here are the keys to success for both teams:

Keys to the game for the Houston Texans:

1. Continue to play through Deshaun Watson

The key to the Houston Texans defeating the Patriots in Week 11 was due Deshaun Watson having one of his best passing performances this season, compiling a stat line of 344 passing yards and two touchdowns on 28-for-37 passing. The Patriots boast one of the better secondaries in the league and finally had 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gimore playing, yet Watson still figured out a way to pick this secondary apart. Houston has had many of its top performances this season when Watson has passed for over 300 yards. In games that Watson has thrown for 300-plus yards, the Texans have averaged 27.2 points. In fact, two of Houston’s three wins this season have come when Watson has thrown for over 300 yards. Houston’s best formula for getting a win on Thanksgiving will be through its $40 million QB. With Detroit’s pass defense currently giving up 258.4 yards per game, eighth-worst in the NFL, Watson could be in store for another huge day.

2. Shut down Marvin Jones and T.J. Hockenson

In Week 11, the Lions looked completely flustered in the passing game against the Panthers. Despite the Lions not having running back D’Andre Swift or star receiver Kenny Golladay, Matthew Stafford had a tough time connecting with Marvin Jones and T.J. Hockenson as he completed 18 of 33 passes for 178 yards and no touchdowns. A lack of weapons hasn’t been the biggest issue for Stafford this season as he currently stands as the 13th-best QB in passing yards and 14th-best quarterback in passing touchdowns. This season, Stafford is also averaging more yards per attempt (7.5) than he has throughout his entire career (7.2), so he is still having a solid season. With Houston’s pass defense getting shredded by Cam Newton and a weak Patriots passing attack to the tune of 365 yards, shutting down Stafford’s two best receivers on Thanksgiving will go a long way for Houston to secure a victory. Houston’s pass-defense has given up 252.4 yards per game, which is currently the 11th-worst in the NFL. Carolina was able to hold Jones and Hockenson to 119 yards on eight receptions, which accounted for about 67% of Stafford’s passing yardage. If Houston does not want to have a repeat of what Damiere Byrd was able to do to them in Week 11, stopping this duo will be essential, especially if Golladay is unable to play once again. Based on what Stafford has done throughout his career, Houston cannot afford to give up another big game through the air.

3. Don’t be afraid to use Duke Johnson in the passing game

Brandin Cooks has come on as of late for the Texans, which has helped with defenses being mainly concerned with Will Fuller; however, Houston shouldn’t be afraid to use its running backs in the passing game, specifically Duke Johnson. Despite the fact that Detroit is currently giving up 139 yards per game on the ground, third-worst in the league, Detroit has stiffened up the past two games — only giving up 116 and 89 yards, respectively. In Week 11, Houston tried to run the ball up the gut against the shorthanded Patriots, but to no avail — Johnson had 10 rushes for 15 yards as Watson ended up being the leading rusher. Detroit has been susceptible to running backs in the passing game, which was evident in its Week 10 win over the Washington Football Team. In that game, the Football Team did a good job of utilizing backs J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson in the passing game as the two combined for 63 yards on 11 receptions and 19 targets. McKissic had 15 targets alone, which shows that Alex Smith was seeing something with Detroit’s coverages that allowed the running backs to get open. Johnson has primarily been a pass-catching back for most of his career, so Houston should look to use him more in that aspect rather than as a downhill runner.

Keys to the game for the Detroit Lions:

1. Pound the ball early and often with their plethora of backs

One thing that surprised viewers of the Panthers-Lions Week 11 matchup was how little Detroit ran the ball. Despite the fact that second-round pick D’Andre Swift was out due to a concussion, the Lions still had Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson at their disposal. Against a mid-tier Panthers rush defense, the Lions only rushed the ball 13 times between Peterson and Johnson for 35 yards (2.7 yards per carry) and zero touchdowns. It certainly didn’t help that the Lions were down for the majority of the game, but they abandoned the run very early, only rushing five times in the second half after having only eight in the first. With the exception of a good chunk of the Week 11 game against New England, Houston has had a very hard time containing the run. Houston has the worst rush defense in the NFL as it is currently giving up 159.3 rushing yards per game. If Detroit wants to avoid getting down as big as it did against Carolina, the running game should be much more of an emphasis even if Swift is out again. There is a clear reason why teams like the Ravens and Browns were able to run roughshod all over the Texans’ rush defense, which is why Detroit cannot get complacent if it gets down early. Moreover, Detroit has three capable backs who all have a different skill set, which can prove to be hard for Houston’s poor rush defense to stop, especially if it is successful early on.

2. Take advantage of Houston’s shaky offensive line

Going into the Week 11 game against the Patriots, many people believed New England could potentially get a lot of pressure on Watson due to the absence of Laremy Tunsil and the rest of the left side of the Houston offensive line in that game. However, New England did a poor job of this, which is why Watson had such an easy time throwing the ball against New England’s secondary. This has been the case most of the season as Watson has been a much better quarterback when he has a cleaner pocket. Even at full strength, Houston’s offensive line has still been shaky in pass protection. Watson has been sacked 26 times, seventh-most in the NFL this season. The Lions have not been great at getting after the quarterback, as they currently rank 27th in the NFL in sacks with 13. They have to do something in order to take advantage of Houston’s offensive line, especially if the left side of the line is still not 100% healthy. Watson’s ability to scramble and move around the pocket is also key to his success, but most teams would rather force Watson out of the pocket instead of giving him all day to get rid of the football.

3. Prevent Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller from having big plays

Part of what plagued New England in its Week 11 loss to the Texans was big plays that were made primarily by Brandin Cooks. For most of the season, however, a lot of those big plays have been going to star wideout Will Fuller. The wideout coined “Flash” has averaged 15.1 yards per route this season and is currently averaging 14.8 yards per touch, which is the best on the team. Cooks is averaging 13.5 yards per touch, which ranks third on the team. Against Carolina, Detroit had a hard time stopping receiver D.J. Moore, who had 7 receptions for 127 yards. Moore’s longest reception of the game was for 52 yards. With Houston’s best offense coming when it is passing the ball effectively, Detroit is going to have to make sure that Cooks and Fuller do not get behind the defense in order to prevent potential game-breaking plays. Detroit cannot afford to have another receiver having a big game against the team, as that could be the formula for defeat.

Stats from: ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference

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