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3 keys to Washington securing a win in Houston


The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.

The Washington Commanders will go on the road for the second straight week to play the Houston Texans. Here are three keys to the Commanders getting over .500 for the first time since Week 1, presented by KIA.

1. What is Houston's response to Washington running the ball 49 times against the Eagles?

Logan: After rushing the ball 49 times on Monday night against the Eagles, the Commanders have actualized their identity as an offense. For weeks, Ron Rivera has been calling for the team to run the ball. There had been signs of the game plan, but Monday Night was an expression of that in its truest from. 

This week against the Houston Texans, the margin for error is much larger. Houston is rebuilding, waiting to spend their cap space and extensive draft capital. In the meantime, the roster is meager, lacking the high-level skill to make them competitive.  

However, while having a losing record, the coaching staff has found ways to keep games close by understanding their opponent. In Washington's case, its offensive Identity was on full display on Monday. There is no question about who Washington wants to be offensively, but what will Houston's response be?

The current trend for NFL defenses is to play light boxes and focus on adding numbers in coverage. Houston does not frequently play light boxes, but when they do, it is usually backed by Cover 2. Smith helped develop the Tampa 2 defense under the tutelage of Tony Dungy, so this makes sense. 

Like most defenses that play line run boxes in Tampa 2, Smith had great interior players. That does not exist on Houston's roster. As a result, they rely heavily on line movement and run stunts, "pinching" the defensive line one way while "scraping" the linebacker the other. This can be extremely disruptive, especially when an offensive line is not prepared. It can confuse the offensive line, making it difficult to determine their assignments. Moving the defensive front can also create picks, which allows less athletic defensive linemen to be disruptive. 

However, if the offensive line is prepared, this can lead to big plays. Line stunts must be executed as a group, and if one defender is prevented from getting to their new gap, a hole can be created in the defense.

Consequently, as the season has progressed, Houston has bucked the light box trend by adding defenders to the box, which ensures Houston has more defenders than blockers. They do this by running more man and Cover 3 with a spot drop principle (the defenders drop to landmarks on the field as opposed to aggressively matching the offensive concept). This allows them to aggressively fit runs.

However, while these run structures are excellent at helping Houston stop the run, they expose them in the passing game. For example, against the Giants, on a second-and-12, New York ran play-action off a single back down hill action. Usually, a single back play-action is not effective at getting the linebackers and box safety to step to the run.

However, on this play as Daniel Jones hits the top of his drop eight of Houston's defenders are within a yard of the line of scrimmage. As a result, Jones can complete the ball to Darius Slayton without a defender within 11 yards of him.

I expect Scott Turner to try and run the football like they did against Philadelphia. However, I also expect Turner to take advantage of Houston's defense with play-action and man-beating concepts to put the Commanders' playmakers in space. If Turner can effectively walk that line, it will be a long day for Houston's defense.

The Washington Commanders have wrapped up their week of preparation for the Week 11 game against the Houston Texans. Here are the best photos from Friday afternoon. Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders

Zach: The Texans know that Washington is going to run the ball, although 49 attempts is far from sustainable. As Logan mentioned, Houston has started adding more players to the box, giving them more players to aggressively fit runs.

I am curious how much pressure Houston will bring against Washington to take away what has become a big part of their offense. Houston has one of the lowest blitz percentages in the league (18.4%), but they can bring pressure on occasion. For example, they blitzed linebacker Christian Kirksey six times against the Eagles, which was by far the most in the game.

Bringing pressure is one thing; recording tackles is another. The Texans are tied for the second-most missed tackles in the league (57), and we have seen teams like the Eagles and Giants take advantage of that (they had 143 and 191 rushing yards against the Texans, respectively).

I really like this matchup for Washington when it comes to running the ball. If Washington can replicate some of that success it had against the Eagles, it should be another great day for the Burgundy & Gold.

2. How can Washington's interior defensive line have success against the Texans' interior offensive linemen?

Logan: Houston's interior offensive line, specifically left guard Kenyon Green and center Scott Quessenberry, has struggled over the last five weeks. Houston has done a good job of finding ways to limit them as liabilities, but if Jack Del Rio can manufacture one-on-ones with these players, Washington will have a tremendous advantage.

Green, the rookie out of Texas A&M, is having a tough adjustment period. Characterized by his technique and power in college, Green has yet to find the same consistency at the NFL level, which is something Jon Allen will be able to exploit.

For example, when Green must reach the three technique, his goal is to get his helmet to the three techniques outside shoulder. While doing this, Green should gain ground on the defender.

However, Green tends to stay lateral, never getting his feet across the line of scrimmage. In college, this technique flaw is a non-issue, but when playing against Allen, this issue will become extremely pronounced.

Allen has tried to penetrate the line of scrimmage, which allows him to feel when an offensive player is too aggressive to his outside number. When the offensive player is overly aggressive, Allen simply stays on his angle to the ball and blows through the guard's inside shoulder or quick swims. Allen can execute this against technically sound offensive linemen. He will certainly be able to execute against Green.

Green also tends to "loop" his outside hand, finding a hold on the tip of the defender's shoulder pad. This exposes his chest in the run, negating his arm length and making it difficult to sit on power rushes in pass protection.

Allen has evolved as a rusher but is a power rusher at his core. His strong hands and excellent feel for when and where a pass protector is weak will take advantage of Green's inability to stop the power rush.

Quessenberry is another player Washington can tack advantage of. When uncovered, Quessenberry is fun to watch. He is lightning quick to his double teams, arriving with good strength. He understands where his helmet should go to cut his defender out of the defense.

But like most centers, he struggles against head up or shaded nose guards. This alignment is nightmarish for centers. It is extremely challenging to snap the ball then get your hands up to fight off a defender. Houston does a good job of insulating him in the run game, finding ways to give him back blocks and double teams. However, he has a challenging time winning one-on-one matchups against shades and nose guards

Playing a Cinco front would be advantageous in both cases. Against Green, it ensures a one-on-one matchup for Allen, while John Ridgeway against the undersized Quessenberry on early downs is something I think favors Washington.

However, the real advantage would be to overload on third down where Allen lines up on Green and Daron Payne lines up over the center. This allows Washington to get their best pass rushers on Houston's worst pass protectors. One of these individual matchups could wreck the game for Houston. The opportunity sounds like it would be fun to watch.

Zach: Logan briefly mentioned him, but I think this is another solid opportunity for Ridgeway to have a great game.

Like most interior players, Ridgeway's performances have not been sexy. None of his PFF stats reflect how good he has been, but he is a true definition of what Rivera calls a "space eater."

Since Logan believes Washington could line up in its Cinco front, let's take a look at how Ridgeway performed when lined up as a shade or nose. Against the Eagles, Ridgeway slung Jason Kelce off to the side and enveloped Kenneth Gainwell for no gain.

Kelce is a five-time Pro Bowler, so that alone is impressive, but Ridgeway did the same thing two weeks before against the Colts and brought Jonathan Taylor down for minimal gains.

Having Allen and Payne lined up against Green and Quessenberry would certainly be the best situation. However, having Ridgeway allows Washington to avoid relying on that all the time to stop the Texans' running game.

3. Who are some players to watch

Logan: If you listen to the national media, they would have you believe that the Texans are devoid of top-level talent.

However, these pundits have forgotten about one of the best players in football: Laremy Tunsil. To my eye, he is the second- or third-best tackle in the NFL. A man who passes sets with such consistent technique brings a tear to my eye. He understands how to use his length and can play strong through his long arms, and he is athletic enough to move in space and bend to violently attach his desired target.

Watching him alone would be worth the price of admission, but couple his play with his matchup with Montez Sweat and a game with very little star power now has the makings of a pay per view fight. How does Montez fair against a top-level talent at the Tackle position? I can't wait to see this weekend.

Zach: There is nothing flashy about Jerry Hughes. He has been around for 13 seasons, but age has not quite caught up to him, as he is one of the more productive pass-rushers this season.

Hughes is tied for sixth in the NFL with eight sacks. He does not have the same quickness as he did when was in his prime with the Buffalo Bills, when he had back-to-back 10-sack seasons in 2013 and 2014, but he has quickness in short bursts that can give unprepared offensive tackles problems.

Washington is rotating Sam Cosmi and Cornelius Lucas while Cosmi gets more acclimated to being in the lineup, but I like either player in their matchup against Hughes. His more blunt style should be enough to handle for Lucas, who can struggle against more athletic defensive ends, while Cosmi has enough quickness to limit Hughes' athleticism.

I still expect Hughes to have his moments, but if Cosmi and Lucas can handle their own against him, it would provide a big boost for the offense and take a lot of pressure off Taylor Heinicke.

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