Green Bay— It’ll be a two-time MVP against the NFL’s lowest-rated quarterback Sunday when the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans meet at Lambeau Field.
On Wednesday, three personnel men picked the Packers to handle their role as 61/2-point favorites. Their predicted scores were 24-13, 27-17 and 20-10.
“(Aaron) Rodgers is better than (Brock) Osweiler,” one executive said. “Houston’s defense is better than Green Bay’s, so it’s going to come down to quarterback play. Rodgers will have to manufacture big plays, and Green Bay has to get one turnover or special-teams boost to separate.”
The Texans, the AFC South leader at 6-5, have scored 16 offensive touchdowns, fewest in the league. One scout said the Texans don’t appear capable of breaking loose offensively.
“Not with that quarterback,” he said. “The matchups with the Green Bay cornerbacks are positive, but he just hasn’t been able to get (DeAndre) Hopkins involved. They have really struggled to move the ball and score, and most of that falls on Osweiler.
“I thought his signing was one of the biggest reaches in free agency at the time, and that has only been confirmed. I am sure there is some buyer’s remorse in Houston because I don’t think he has what it takes to lead a team.
“I still think their passing on Derek Carr in the second round for Xavier Su’a-Filo when they needed a quarterback is a decision that will haunt them.”
The Texans drafted Su’a-Filo, a guard from UCLA, with the first pick (No. 33) of the second round in 2014. The Raiders drafted Carr three picks later.
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On Monday, Texans coach Bill O’Brien said, “Look, we’ve got five games left. I know everybody out there has given up on us, but there’s nobody in here that’s given up on themselves or on this team.
“I think we’re a tough team. I think we play hard. I think we have a good defense that plays hard, I think we run the ball well on offense and I think, overall, we’ve been OK on special teams.”
Added one scout: “The Packers defense should pressure and confuse the Texans offense. The Texans defense is capable of frustrating the Packers because they can pressure and win one-on-one battles up front.”
Coach Bill O’Brien, the Patriots’ coordinator in 2011, and coordinator George Godsey collaborate on the play-calling. The Texans run more (zone, some power) than the NFL average and then try throwing off play-action. Explosive plays are few and far between, and red-zone efficiency ranks 30th. The Texans are tied for 24th in giveaways (19) and 29th in both yards (316.9) and points (17.6).
WR DeAndre Hopkins (6-1, 215), the 27th pick in 2013, has been held in check after his Pro Bowl exploits last year. Hopkins has long arms and strong hands, uses his big body well and specializes in contested catches. Although his routes are crisp, he runs just 4.54 and struggles against bracket coverage. Spindly rookie Will Fuller (6-0, 180), the 21st pick, appears fully recovered from nagging injuries and has the rare speed (4.33) to lift attention from Hopkins. As much as he can win on takeoffs outside, there remain questions about his hands and toughness inside. Rookie Braxton Miller (6-11/2, 205), a third-round pick, is an athletic but raw slot (ex-quarterback) with terrific ability after the catch. TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (6-51/2, 265), a third-round pick in ’14, is a big target with average speed (4.77) and inconsistent hands. His blocking is OK. Ryan Griffin (6-6, 265), whose 34 receptions are five fewer than Fiedorowicz’s total, is more receiver than blocker but also drops too many. Rookie free agent Stephen Anderson (6-2, 235) runs 4.64, catches and moves well but is continuing to feel his way.
Two starters are out: rookie C Nick Martin since August and RT Derek Newton since Game 8. This patchwork unit, however, has been adequate. LT Duane Brown (6-4, 315), a nine-year starter and Pro Bowl selection in ’12, is the best player. He’s smart (Wonderlic of 29) and athletic, slides well and punches hard. He will get beat by quickness and speed. There’s a significant dropoff after him to RG Jeff Allen (6-4, 325), who made 39 starts in Kansas City from 2012-’15. There’s nothing pretty about his body or playing style, but he usually finds a way to succeed. His upper-body strength enables him to create movement for the interior run. LG Xavier Su’a-Filo (6-4, 320), a two-year starter, runs well (5.02) and has balance. He lacks power, stops his feet in pass protection and struggles with lateral agility. Greg Mancz (6-41/2, 310), a second-year free agent, has been a pleasant surprise replacing Martin, a second-round pick. Slow to recover and problematic when isolated, Mancz is tough, smart (Wonderlic of 35) and competitive on double teams. Backup RT Chris Clark (6-5, 305), who had to start 36 games in Denver from 2010-’15, was destroyed Sunday by San Diego’s Joey Bosa. He shows adequate range and feet but bends at the waist and is stiff in the lower body.
Brock Osweiler (6-7, 235) arrived in March from Denver after starting seven games in four years as Peyton Manning’s backup. He has taken every snap in the Texans’ solid start. However, he has yet to throw for 300 yards and his passer rating is an NFL-low 72.2. He has a live arm and his release is fine. His problems have been accuracy, particularly deep, and making solid decisions under pressure. His Wonderlic score was 25. If he has improved from last year in Denver (seven starts, 5-2), it isn’t by much. Osweiler isn’t fast (4.97) but moves OK in the pocket and will take off. He’s also fiery and tough. He makes receivers work; he fires hard at point-blank range and doesn’t always lead them properly. The backup is Tom Savage (6-4, 230), a fourth-round pick in ’14 who hasn’t played in two years.
Unlike Osweiler, the Texans’ major free-agent investment (four years, $14 million guaranteed) in ex-Dolphin RB Lamar Miller (5-11, 220) has turned out swell. Fifth in rushing (881 yards), Miller has provided the much-needed speed that retired Arian Foster could no longer provide. Miller ran 4.36 in ’12, and even now he can go the distance. He’s a crease runner, not a downhill power back. Extremely patient, he waits and waits before accelerating. His receiving and blitz pickup are top-notch. Backup Alfred Blue (6-21/2, 225) is a rugged, decisive banger inside. FB Jay Prosch (6-1, 255), a sixth-round pick in ’14, makes solid contact on lead blocks.
Third-year coordinator Romeo Crennel, a disciple of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, runs a base 3-4 and likes to blitz (31%, eighth-most according to Sportradar). Crennel gets especially creative on third down. He prefers press-man and “quarters” coverage, but penalties downfield have been a problem. Houston is an excellent tackling team. The Texans rank fifth in yards (316.7), tied for 12th in points (21.5) and tied for 27th in takeaways (10).
NT Vince Wilfork (6-1, 360) waddles around, seldom leaving the tackle box and offering next to nothing as a pass rusher. Still, at 35, he remains almost immovable. The five-man rotation also includes Christian Covington (6-21/2, 305) and Antonio Smith (6-31/2, 288), who possess the athleticism to rush, and rookies Joel Heath (6-5, 300) and D.J. Reader (6-21/2, 335), who do not. Covington, a sixth-round pick in ’15, ran 4.90 and is quick. Smith, a 12-year veteran, might be running on fumes but is capable of several big rush moves each game that can get home. Heath, a free agent from Michigan State, has the ideal size and length (341/2-inch arms) for 5-technique but lacks quick twitch. Reader, a onetime baseball pitcher, is a fifth-round pick with shock-absorbing ability.
OLB Jadeveon Clowney (6-51/2, 275) gets most of the pub, but OLB Whitney Mercilus (6-31/2, 265) is the better player. The 26th pick in ’12, Mercilus is playing exceptionally well. He’s a terrific athlete who has the speed (4.68) to win off the edge and the rush arsenal to counter and spin back inside. He’s slippery and because of it messes up some run plays each week. Clowney, the first pick in ’14, was limited to 17 games his first two years by injury. He’s back now, and at times playing DE. Most significant has been his explosive work against the run. A physical specimen (341/2-inch arms, 371/2-inch vertical jump), Clowney is hard to block but doesn’t finish like an elite rusher. By playing out of control, he misses sacks. OLB John Simon (6-1, 260), a respectable player, is out (chest). WILB Benardrick McKinney (6-4, 260), a second-round pick in ’15, is playing very well. With his size and speed (4.65), he’s solid against the run. When pass shows, he’s better blitzing than covering. He just has a knack for rushing. McKinney and SILB Brian Cushing (6-3, 255), the 15th pick in ’09, are vulnerable in coverage: McKinney because of instincts, Cushing because of speed. Often injured, Cushing has lost a step but provides consistent take-on against the downhill run.
Probably the best CB, Kevin Johnson, was lost for the season (foot) after Game 6. Surprising RC A.J. Bouye (5-11, 190), a free agent in ’13, is playing the best despite a rash of penalties. He isn’t fast enough (4.55) for a steady diet of man coverage but knows what he’s doing, has ball skills and is an outstanding tackler. LC Johnathan Joseph (5-11, 185), the Bengals’ 24th pick in ’06 and a 151-game starter, can’t run like he used to (4.31) but probably man covers the best. He’s a student of the game and can still match up. Kareem Jackson (5-101/2, 185), the 20th pick in ’10, is adequate in the slot. He’s zone aware, tight in his movement and solid in run support. FS Andre Hal (5-101/2, 195) was drafted in the seventh round in ’14 as a corner. Size is a handicap inside, but he gets people down, brings 4.52 speed to the back end and doesn’t blow assignments. SS Quintin Demps (6-0, 210) played seven years for three teams before becoming a starter in ’15. He still can run at 31 and tackles well, but bites on doubles moves and struggles in space.
K Nick Novak, 35, on his fifth team, has made 82.1% this year (23 of 28) and in his career (161 of 196). He beat the Colts in Game 6 with a 33-yarder in overtime. His kickoffs are below average. P Shane Lechler, 40, has been in Houston since ’13 after 12 years in Oakland. His net average of 39.6 is tied for 20th. With dual returner Tyler Ervin (ribs) out, the Texans remain fine with Fuller on punts and RB Akeem Hunt on KOs. ILB Brian Peters is the top core player for coach Larry Izzo.
WR DeAndre Hopkins ranked third last season in receptions (111) and receiving yards (1,521). He also scored 11 touchdowns. Entering this season, Pro Football Weekly ranked him sixth behind Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall. Through 11 games, Hopkins is tied for 25th in receptions (55) and 41st in yards (610). He has just three TDs. Dropped passes haven’t been a problem. According to Sportradar, he has two for a low drop rate of 3.5%. Hopkins has been the subject of more and more double coverage, and the Texans just can’t get him the ball.
It was a weak year as usual for quarterbacks in unrestricted free agency. The only player with youth (he was 25) and potential was Denver’s Brock Osweiler. Broncos GM John Elway established a number for re-signing him, and when the Texans offered $72 million over four years ($37 million guaranteed) he was gone. He started one year at Arizona State and seven games in Denver, and was hurt a lot. Tired of playing with Brian Hoyer and T.J. Yates, management took a shot with Osweiler. He has the Texans atop the AFC South even though his best single-game passer rating has been merely 90.7.
Sometimes players just grow on you. Defensive lineman Antonio Smith has been one of my favorite players for years.
For a while earlier this season it looked as if Smith, 35, would be calling it a career. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Broncos in February and became an unrestricted free agent in March, but for six months he remained on the unemployment line.
When the Texans decided J.J. Watt had to go on injured reserve with a groin injury, they called Smith, worked him out and signed him Sept. 28 to a one-year, $985,000 veteran’s minimum contract.
It didn’t take Smith long to start contributing. He always has and always will. He played a game in four days, and two months later has one-half sack and four quarterback hurries in 134 snaps.
The Arizona Cardinals drafted Smith in the fifth round in 2004 from Oklahoma State. He was the 15th-rated defensive end in my draft series.
Of the all the defensive linemen drafted that year, the only two still playing are Smith and fellow Texan NT Vince Wilfork.
“He gives you veteran savvy and the ability to penetrate and rush the quarterback,” an NFL personnel man said Wednesday. “Has some third-down value. Great locker-room presence. Very good teammate.”
Smith has in-between size and 331/2-inch arms, so he can play almost any D-line position in any scheme. Counting playoffs, he has 511/2 sacks in 191 games, including 140 starts, for the Cardinals, Texans, Raiders and Broncos.
At the Super Bowl, Denver’s Bill Kollar, the consummate NFL defensive line coach, went on and on about what Smith meant to the Broncos’ great defense in his 32.9% playing time. Every time I saw Smith he was always playing extremely hard, mixing it up and making plays.
Interior pass rushers are worth their weight in gold. To do it for 12 years requires remarkable athleticism, skill, stamina and durability.
How has Smith managed to survive while almost all the others have fallen by the wayside?
“He doesn’t have much left in the tank, but whatever it is, he will use it all,” an NFC personnel director said Wednesday. “He’s a throwback without elite talent. He plays like football is all he has. Coaches, especially defensive coaches, love that.”
Smith was cut twice by Arizona before getting his career underway. He earned a starting job in 2005 and held one for the next decade. From 2007 through ’14 he never played less than 67.9% of the snaps. In his first tour of duty with the Texans, he logged a career-best 85.7% in ’10.
Don’t sleep on Smith. A year ago, when the Broncos wiped out the Packers in Denver, C Corey Linsley let him go on a stunt and he sacked Aaron Rodgers in 2.4 seconds.
Before the 2004 draft, Bears GM Jerry Angelo was asked about Smith’s effort. “That will never be in question with him,” he replied.
It will be a nice way for Smith to be remembered.