In just a few hours, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will be in the booth calling a football game — something that was in doubt for stretches of this offseason. NFL football being back is a beautiful thing.
The opener may not come on a Sunday night, but it will be called by the broadcast crew over at NBC. One of the main components of my work at PFF during the season is working as part of a team that provides weekly game preview information to NBC for the upcoming Sunday Night Football matchup. The Sunday Night Football production team then takes that information and uses it to supplement their weekly graphics package and commentary.
Each week this season, I’ll be leaning on the work that goes into those previews to stake my claim on three bold predictions for every Sunday Night Football matchup. The keyword there is bold. The hit rate is not going to be sky-high, but I would like to think mine will be higher than most given the amount of time that I put into this game each week. I’ll keep a running tally as the season progresses and revisit the previous week’s claims after the dust has settled. Let’s ride.
Bold Prediction #1: Deshaun Watson is sacked at least six times
There were 483 instances in the 2019 regular season where a quarterback dropped back to pass at least 25 times. And 31 of those instances resulted in the quarterback taking six or more sacks. Watson accounted for three of those 31 games himself, but I think this still qualifies as bold given that he took just four sacks across two games against the Chiefs last season.
At this point, Houston’s offensive line probably isn’t given enough credit for its improved pass protection last season. The unit ranked fifth in PFF pass-blocking grade, but Watson still managed to finish the season with 44 sacks taken (sixth-most in the NFL). As my colleague Eric Eager pointed out just over a year ago, quarterbacks control much of their own pressure rate. That means it isn’t unreasonable to believe that Houston’s offensive line is good in pass protection and that Watson is still going to take a lot of sacks in 2020.
Brandin Cooks replacing DeAndre Hopkins in the starting lineup could have an adverse effect on the number of sacks Watson takes for a couple of reasons. First, Hopkins was Watson’s go-to target when he was under pressure. Over the past two seasons, Hopkins saw 87 targets when the quarterback was under pressure — eight more than any other player.
Most targets with quarterback under pressure since 2018
Watson losing the receiver he could rely on with defenders bearing down on him could lead to more situations where he attempts to extend the play rather than getting rid of the ball.
The stylistic change that Houston’s passing offense will undergo with another deep threat joining Will Fuller and Kenny Stills should also factor in. Cooks, Fuller and Stills all rank among the top 12 wide receivers in the league by the percentage of their targets that have come 20 or more yards downfield since 2015. Randall Cobb is really the only guy out of the top four wide receivers on their depth chart who doesn’t profile as a primary deep threat.
Therefore, it stands to reason that Houston will be one of the more aggressive teams in the NFL at attacking defenses deep, particularly with one of the best deep-ball throwers in the NFL at quarterback. More long-developing routes for a quarterback who already holds onto the football with one of the longest average time to throw marks in the NFL will create opportunities for this Kansas City pass rush that returns Chris Jones — one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL — and a healthy Frank Clark.
Watson will make several big plays of his own. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and his playstyle — which borders on backyard football, at times — dictates that he will produce several “wow” plays per game. It also invites pressure, and my bet is that Jones, Clark and company get home often in this one.
Bold Prediction #2: David Johnson goes for 80-plus receiving yards in his Texans debut
Did any person in NFL circles get criticized more this offseason than Bill O’Brien? The DeAndre Hopkins trade was a head-scratcher for many, and Johnson was thought to be an undesirable asset given his contract and lack of production in recent years following several injuries. But as a key part of that deal, it’s clear that the Texans value what Johnson can still bring out of the backfield. It seems doubtful at this point that he will ever return to his former self from 2016, but he was winning in similar ways as a receiver prior to his injury last season.
The unique thing about Johnson’s 2016 season with the Arizona Cardinals is that he was being targeted downfield as a receiver at one of the highest rates we’ve ever seen.
Highest average depth of target for a running back in a single season since 2015 (min. 50 targets)
|Player||Season||ADOT in yards|
|Duke Johnson Jr.||2019||3.6|
The first thing that pops out is Johnson with the top two spots on the list in back-to-back seasons, but it’s also noteworthy that two Texans’ running backs — Ellington in 2017 and Duke Johnson last season — make an appearance. I think Houston could try to get both on the field a fair amount and that they give David Johnson snaps lined up at wide receiver, where he made multiple downfield receptions through the first six weeks of the 2019 season.
Johnson’s 677 receiving yards when lined up at wide receiver over the past five seasons are more than any other running back in the league, even with the missed time.
He has recorded 80 or more receiving yards just twice in the past three seasons and seven times total in his career, but this is a good spot for him to do it again. Johnson was getting back to the receiver he was earlier in his career before the injury last year, and no team allowed more receiving yards to running backs in 2019 than Kansas City (836). It doesn’t hurt that the game script should be in his favor, with the Chiefs projected to put up points early and often.
Rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. should help them in that department with his coverage ability and athleticism, but this will also be his first NFL game after limited playing time at the college level. This is a good opportunity for Johnson to silence some of his doubters in primetime.
Bold Prediction #3: Kansas City’s offense scores two touchdowns of 50 or more yards
Predicting good things from the Kansas City offense can hardly be considered bold, but I think this is far enough down the range of outcomes that it qualifies. Last season, the Chiefs' offense tied for third in the NFL with six touchdowns of 50 or more yards during the regular season, and there were only six instances where a team put up two offensive touchdowns of 50 or more yards in a single game — none of which involved Kansas City.
That said, this offense is as explosive as they come. Over the past two seasons with Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ offense has racked up 119 plays that netted 25 or more yards — 12 more than any other offense and just one of three teams at 100 or more. This isn’t all about the Chiefs’ offense seemingly being due for more long scores, though. The opening matchup against the Texans’ defense sets up well for Kansas City offensively.
Gareon Conley will start the 2020 season on injured reserve, which means Lonnie Johnson Jr. is the likely starter opposite Bradley Roby outside. Johnson’s rookie season — to put it politely — was disappointing. His 30.0 overall grade ranked dead last out of 115 qualifying cornerbacks. He was the only cornerback in that group to grade below 40.0.
Lonnie Johnson Jr.’s coverage stats as a rookie
|Touchdowns allowed||7 (T-6th most)|
|DPI and holding penalties||7 (T-3rd most)|
The numbers in the table above don’t even include his performance in the divisional round against Kansas City. He played primarily at safety, but it was arguably the worst game of his rookie season. Johnson allowed eight receptions on eight targets for 74 yards and two touchdowns while picking up three penalties. The Texans need more out of him in his second season.
In the slot, Houston will employ either Vernon Hargreaves (43.3 coverage grade) or fourth-round rookie John Reid. Eric Murray — who produced a 60.9 PFF coverage grade in 2019 while playing primarily slot cornerback for the Cleveland Browns — is projected to start at strong safety. There are pieces in Houston’s secondary that can be exploited, and the Chiefs are the best-suited team in the NFL to expose defensive weaknesses in the passing game.
One final layer that leads to this prediction is Houston’s tackling woes in 2019. Their 138 missed tackles as a defense last season were fewer than only the Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals. Missed tackles can turn a short gain into a big one in a hurry, especially with the kind of speed that the Chiefs have on offense.
2020 season record to date: 0-0