EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Houston Texans offensive line coach Mike Devlin extended his hand.
“Way to keep fighting, bro,” he told left tackle Julie’n Davenport. They bumped fists.
The Texans had blown a 13-point lead. They converted just one of nine third-down tries. And if not for a seven-play, 75-yard game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter – capped by a 14-yard pass from quarterback Deshaun Watson to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins – they almost certainly would have lost Saturday to the New York Jets.
But the Texans prevailed 29-22. And though players and coaches celebrated their 10th victory of the season in the locker room and contemplated what’s looking more and more like a third AFC South championship in four seasons, there’s one problem that could derail the team’s hopes of a deep playoff push.
Sacks. More specifically, the abundance of them the offense is allowing.
Houston gave up six to the Jets and now rankins last last in the NFL with 52 on the season.
But one potential solution may have been on display during that game-winning drive. The Texans operated primarily out of empty sets, with Watson several yards behind the line of scrimmage, scanning and diagnosing the defense.
“Obviously we wished the whole game could go as smooth as that drive,” Davenport told USA TODAY Sports. “But we knew that on that drive it was nut-up time. All or nothing. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and leave it all out there. I’m not saying we can’t do that on every drive, but it was time.”
The drive started with five minutes left to play in the game and with Houston facing a three-point deficit. It took just 2:45 off the game clock.
“I thought the line did a great job on that drive,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “They protected well. We just tried to spread them out and let Deshaun see some things and he delivered.”
Said Watson: We were empty. That was pretty much it. They had to line up and play ball. We were tempo in empty. The other drives, we were kind of in bunch. But the ball was getting out quick. In the third quarter, we were doing a lot of dropbacks and letting them load up, and we started behind the sticks after first down. Once you get in second-and-long it’s tough to recover.”
The Jets did its part to generate pressure from different areas. Safety Jamal Adams had a pivotal third-down sack in the fourth quarter that pushed Houston out of the red zone and forced the Texans to kick a field goal.
Three of New York’s sacks came on third down. Two of them came when Houston was in the red zone.
“I just like the ball in my hands,” Watson said. “I just like when they give me the opportunity to makes some plays.”
That may be part of the problem. While Watson is an exceptional playmaker and has plenty of athletic ability to extend plays, several of the sacks Saturday night could be blamed on him for holding onto the ball too long. Granted, if receivers don’t get open, Watson may have been looking to extend plays a little longer to find targets. But throwing the ball away might be a necessity.
“There’s no doubt that there were too many sacks,” O’Brien said before acknowledging that he wants to watch film before offering a full assessment. “I don’t put all of that on the offensive line. It’s offensive line, some of it is route running, some of it is holding the ball too long, some of it is play calling.”
For the moment, the Texans jumped into the No. 2 seed in the AFC. But now they have to wait and see what happens with Saturday evening’s game between the Patriots and the Steelers, and it’s safe to say they’ll be pulling for Pittsburgh.
If the Patriots (9-4) lose, then Houston will remain in the second seed heading into Week 16. New England holds the head-to-head tiebreaker after vanquishing the Texans in Week 1.
But before Houston can think about any potential playoff run, it needs to figure out how to handle opponents’ pressure. Against the Jets, the issue didn’t prove to be fatal. But when facing higher competition in the playoffs, though, the Texans could be undone by such lapses.
“We don’t go into a game wanting any of that to happen,” Davenport said. “And any time it does, it’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s technique issues, or maybe the defense had a good play for what we had called. But we’ve got to do everything we can to keep that number as low as possible.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.