Texans must face their failures right off the bat in Kansas City opener

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  • Marquette University graduate

HOUSTON — When the 2020 NFL schedule came out in May with the Houston Texans opening at the Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Deshaun Watson saw a chance to send a message.

“We have an opportunity to go into the defending Super Bowl champs’ home stadium right off the bat and compete with a great team,” Watson said of Thursday’s season opener (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). “This is the best opportunity you can have to be able to start the season off.”

After all, the last time Houston played at Arrowhead Stadium against the Chiefs, the Texans walked off the field after a 51-31 loss in a playoff game they led 24-0 early in the second quarter.

“When you play these guys first, you’re forced to peel back some of those scabs and relive those moments,” Texans defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver said. Weaver, the Texans’ defensive line coach last season, was promoted after the season, replacing Romeo Crennel, who stayed on Houston’s staff as associate head coach.

While the Chiefs celebrated winning Super Bowl LIV, the Texans had an offseason of change: They traded star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, chose not to re-sign running back Carlos Hyde, then traded for David Johnson to take Hyde’s place. Houston also added Brandin Cooks to provide even more speed at receiver, across from Will Fuller and Kenny Stills.

Perhaps the bigger changes came on the coaching staff. Although coach Bill O’Brien was not at risk of losing his job — and in fact added the title of general manager — he handed off playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. When special-teams coordinator Brad Seely retired, it meant the Texans would have all three coordinators in new roles or with new responsibilities in a year when there was no in-person offseason program, a shortened training camp and no preseason games because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texans have never won a Super Bowl — they’ve never even made it to an AFC Championship Game in 18 years of existence — but they’ll get a chance to see if they have made progress this offseason toward being an AFC title contender early on against the Chiefs and in Week 2 against the Baltimore Ravens.

“It’s obviously frustrating,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “There’s one goal and one goal only, and that’s to bring a championship to this city. That’s what we continue to work for. That’s why we continue to put in the work and continue to do what we do. The goal has not changed.

“Obviously, to accomplish a goal that you haven’t been able to accomplish yet, you have to change things, figure things out and do things better.”

And while there have been a lot of changes on offense — whether or not that’s positive with Hopkins’ departure remains to be seen — there haven’t been many changes to the defense, and perhaps that should even be a bigger concern. After all, this is essentially the same defense that allowed Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes to throw for 321 yards and five touchdowns on Jan. 12 in a game in which Houston had a 93.9% win probability with 11 minutes and 46 seconds left in the first half, according to ESPN analytics.

In his new role as defensive coordinator, Weaver spent time this offseason figuring out how to slow down this Chiefs’ offense. He knows the Texans aren’t going to be able to totally shut down Mahomes and an offense that includes tight end Travis Kelce, receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman, as well as rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Kelce was a game-changer that January afternoon, catching 10 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns, but Houston knows that if you stop only one of Kansas City’s threats, there’s another star player who will take advantage and make you pay.

“You can’t have two guys on all of them,” Weaver said. “So, they present a tremendous challenge, and we’re going to just do our best to try to keep them in front of us and limit the explosive plays that they feed off of and try to get every time they touch the ball.

“You know they’re going to make plays — that’s how their offense is built. But if you make them go the full length of the field, you also hope they make some mistakes. That’s the game of football. It’s the game of human error. We feel like if we can force them to drive the length of the field and not get these chunk, explosive plays — which they crave and feed off of — maybe they present us with some opportunities for us to make plays.”

The goal against Kelce, Weaver said, is to keep him “uncomfortable,” whether that means chipping him with an extra player or putting multiple players on him in man defense “so he can’t get used to one guy and how he’s going to attack him.” That means making sure Kelce doesn’t feel like he can “go out there and feel like he’s running through the defense and can do whatever he wants,” Weaver said.

“I think just if you can attack him in multiple ways, multiple coverages, multiple people, you have a better chance,” Weaver said.

Despite how close Watson was to taking Houston to an AFC Championship Game for the first time, he knows that the loss, like the playoff defeat to the Indianapolis Colts the year before, has helped him grow and there’s no point in fixating on it.

“It’s always in the back of my mind, but it’s something that I didn’t dwell on,” Watson said. “I didn’t get upset about it or constantly think about it all the time. It’s definitely a motivational factor, but what I wanted to work on this offseason was to get my craft down and continue to be ready for big-time moments like that and figure out what happened for that situation to change.

“Of course it’s been on my mind, but it wasn’t the main factor for this offseason.”

The Texans could take away a lot from the game, everything from needing to “play four quarters” and finding a way to “switch and stop the momentum from a great team,” according to Watson, to making sure you not only have to “start fast, but you have to finish strong, too,” according to safety Justin Reid.

Tracy Smith, the Texans special-teams coordinator who worked under Seely for the past two seasons, said that postseason loss showed him the “emphasis that special teams can swing the game and you only have one shot” at making each play. In that playoff game, the Chiefs took advantage of a long kickoff return, stopping a fake punt attempt and a Texans muffed punt to get back into the game in the second quarter.

Yes, the Texans spent their offseason learning from that game. They’ll have a quick test on Thursday night to see if those lessons make for a different outcome.

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