The last leg of an epic road trip for the Raiders unfortunately didn’t net a positive in the win column. Oakland fell at the hands of a phenomenal quarterback talent who ran around the defense and made just enough plays to vanquish the Raiders.
Paul Guenther received flack for the way his unit handled Deshaun Watson. However, the Raiders play caller added extra wrinkles throughout the game. The issue wasn’t the play calling, it was the discipline of his defenders executing those calls that ultimately decided the game for the Raiders. Let’s take a look at how it all went down.
The threat of QB run
Houston has an entire package of plays that revolve around the threat of Watson running the ball. They used these plays in short yardage situations to extend drives.
First, here’s an actual QB run. Watson pulls the ball on a zone-read and gets a lead block from a tight end crossing the formation. The defense is caught in a bind on this play because the defensive end is being asked to crash on the dive and the force player needs to stay outside of the block from the tight end. This leaves Nicholas Morrow in a tough spot, having to play both the inside run and the QB run.
Paul Guenther adjusts by peeling both players on the QB run, forcing Watson to give the ball to his RB Carlos Hyde. The difficult task of defending this offense comes when one problem is solved and another is created. This time, the two defenders keying Watson opens up a cutback lane for Hyde to exploit for 9 yards. Tahir Whitehead scrapes over to meet the ball carrier in the hole, but sloppy footwork leads to a missed tackle.
Running plays aren’t the only part of this offensive package. Houston can also use play action to make big plays. Same run action, same tight end coming across the formation makes Lamarcus Joyner think run. He loses his man because his eyes get caught in the backfield, opening up an easy TD pass. This is a crucial mistake in this part of the field.
Taking Hopkins away on 3rd down
All-World WR DeAndre Hopkins had over 100 yards receiving in this game, but the Raiders managed to hold him to only 1 catch on 3rd down for 7 yards on Sunday. Paul Guenther knew he was their biggest threat in the passing game and wasn’t going to let him have favorable looks.
Early in the game, the Raiders get into a 2-man defense to create a high-low bracket on Hopkins. Mullen sits in a trail technique on Houston’s main receiving threat and when Watson peeks at the coverage, he immediately looks away to scan the other side of the field.
There is risk when playing 2-man against a dual threat QB. With every defender focusing on a receiver, it often will lead to quarterbacks taking off with the ball. Guenther mitigates this potential issue by leaving Watson’s ex-teammate, Celin Ferrell, as a spy. Ferrell reads the passer and gets his hands up in the throwing lane to deflect this ball. A lot of Clemson on Clemson crime happening in this clip.
In the redzone, Paul Guenther likes to call Cover 4 concepts. The vast majority of red zone Cover 4 calls I’ve charted from Paul Guenther in the past two seasons will have the safety in Karl Joseph’s position look to take away an inside breaking route from the opposite side of the field.
This time, however, Joseph stays on Hopkins side and the coverage creates a natural inside-outside bracket on the Texans receiver. Watson is looking for Hopkins first, but before he can get to his second read, the pass rush arrives and it takes 3 defensive ends to sack the slippery QB.
The Texans have a plan to get the ball to their star receiver against the Cover 4 brackets the Raiders are calling. There are a lot of things happening in the play above. First, Hopkins lines up away from the 3 receiver side, meaning he will naturally be covered by a linebacker because the Nickel CB will always be on the passing strength (side with most receivers).
Contrary to what some casual observers believe, Nicholas Morrow isn’t in 1-on-1 coverage against Hopkins. The Raiders have a plan for this alignment — trap coverage. The CB nearest Hopkins will jump any outside breaking routes. The safety over the top will take vertical routes. And that leaves Morrow, whose only job is to take away inside breaking routes. The Raiders get into essentially a triple bracket on Hopkins, but it’s not enough.
The play call and ability the Raiders defense has to adjust their calls based on formation is good. The lack of situational awareness by Morrow is an issue, however. This is a learning experience for the young LB who will likely play this coverage closer to the 1st down marker in the future. This was Hopkins only 3rd down catch for what it’s worth.
With 6:34 left in the 4th quarter, the Raiders lose the lead on this circus play from Watson. Again, the Raiders get back to the exact same coverage check that created a natural bracket on Hopkins in Cover 4. The last example of this ended in an Arden Key sack.
Watson looks towards his favorite receiver, but can’t pull the trigger because the coverage is hell-bent on taking him away. The hesitation by the QB allows for the rush to get there. Key nearly doubles his sack count, but can’t quite get the passer on the ground. Because it was such a dramatic escape, Tahir Whitehead in coverage on the tight end lets up because he’s thinking the play must be over. Unfortunately, Watson isn’t finished, as he hits Whitehead’s man on the goal-line for just about as special of a walk-off touchdown as you’ll ever see.
The Raiders adjusted throughout the game to stop the multiple Houston attack. Sometimes the more adjustments made, the more mistakes are also made. This team is not yet capable of playing mistake free football on defense.
Nicholas Morrow easily had his worst game as a pro. The Texans put him in conflict in the pass and run. Morrow gave up 1 TD catch, several crucial completions, and big runs. It makes sense why the Raiders signed Brandon Marshall this week.
Lamarcus Joyner continues to disappoint. The high priced free agent gave up multiple catches, including a touchdown and a big 46-yard gain. Joyner’s lack of eye discipline has gotten him in trouble all year and this was a game where the defense needed to be mistake free. Joyner hasn’t delivered.