In loss to the Ravens, Clowney is one of the few bright spots, as he has been all season

Jadeveon Clowney is one of the few bright spots in a lost season.

In this lost Texans season, one defensive player has consistently stepped up. Jadeveon Clowney has become the force the Texans envisioned when they drafted him No. 1 overall.

He has been nothing short of spectacular this season. Clowney picked up his ninth sack of the season in the 23-16 loss to the Ravens. The loss dropped the Texans to 4-7 and essentially ended their slim playoff hopes. But it was not on Clowney. He is second in the league in tackles for losses. He is constantly double teamed. Teams are game planning around him.

He did not get a ton of help Monday night. His special teams was caught off guard on a play that set up one touchdown. Tom Savage threw a terrible pick that set up another score, threw another one late and gave up yet another fumble on a sack -- his seventh of the year, which leads the league. Savage is good for at least two turnovers a game. Monday he had three. Those led to 10 points and would have been more if the Ravens had not run out the clock after the last turnover. That makes it almost impossible to win a game in Baltimore. The turnovers were the difference in the game. 

But Clowney more than did his part. While the stat line does not look all that impressive -- two tackles, both for losses with the sack -- he was constantly in the backfield, putting pressure on the Ravens offensive line and quarterback Joe Flacco. He forced players to run into tackles. He had one mistake late -- an offsides that gave the Ravens a first down -- but otherwise he was the best player on the field when the Texans were on defense.

Early in his career, injuries slowed him down. The “bust” word was being thrown around. But with J.J. Watt lost for the bulk of the season for a second straight year, Clowney has been one of the few bright spots on a defense that has struggled throughout the year.

The reality is the Texans simply suffered too many injuries this season. They lost two of their three best players on defense when Watt and Whitney Mercilus went down. Brian Cushing has missed 10 games because of another PED violation. They then lost one of the most exciting young QBs in football when Deshaun Watson went down.

Of the star players, Clowney and D’Andre Hopkins are the last men standing. Both have been phenomenal and were again Monday night. Both need help. It’s a shame that so many players have been lost. But as strange as it might sound, Clowney might be benefitting from Watt’s absence. The Texans have used Clowney the way they used Watt; lining him up in different places, moving him around, trying to isolate him in positive matchups. The results have been excellent. Unfortunately, the results as a team have not been as good, but that’s not on Clowney.

In a lost season, Clowney has been a rare bright spot.

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All systems go for the Astros!Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

10 days ago I noted that the Astros had finished an amazingly lengthy schedule stretch that would have needed to harden up to become powderpuff soft.
I Tweeted this:

Well, seven wins against just two losses later, whip up is what they did. Sweeping four games from the Mets in which the Mets never led at any point? Not exactly payback for older Astros' fans who remember 1986, but sweet nevertheless. Taking three of five from the Yankees in all compelling games looked like a fabulous precursor to a highly possible third Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series matchup in six years.

Despite their present 48-27 mark the Astros are still seven games behind the Yankees and their crazy 56-21 ledger. The Yanks are absolutely catchable though. Not because the Astros are the flat out better team, nothing indicates that. It's the schedule. There are four losing teams behind the Astros in the AL West. Behind the Yankees in the AL East, three winning teams (Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays). Even the woebegone for years Orioles are much improved, with the best last place record in Major League Baseball (as a reference point, the Orioles' record is 10 games better than AL West laughingstock Oakland). Over the coming dog days of summer the Yanks have the substantially higher intradivisional hurdles. The plot reeeeally thickens if the Astros sweep the doubleheader with the Yankees at Minute Maid Park slotted July 21 right out of the All-Star break. That's it for regular season matchups between them.

The Astros enter the weekend exactly as far ahead (seven games) of the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins as they are behind the Yanks. That's a very strong position for the Astros to secure a bye past the best-of-three Wild Card Series. Remember, with the newly expanded postseason format byes go to the top two division winners in each league.

Now for the Astros it's back to a marshmallow opponents parade. They have 16 games remaining before the All-Star break, all vs. losers: six with the Angels, six with the A's, four with the Royals. Let's reasonably posit that the Astros successfully take out the trash more regularly than they did in the 34 game stretch. 12-4 is certainly plausible. That would get the Astros to 60 wins at the break with a record of 60-31, which would be on pace for a season total of 106.8 wins. Let's round up. 107 wins is the franchise record they set in 2019.

This team is outstanding, but still can use an offensive upgrade. The lineup just had its best month of the season but that didn't take a whole lot. Alex Bregman has finally perked up some. Yuli Gurriel, not so much. Martin Maldonado, pretty much unperkable. Heed this James Click: more potent lineups than the 2022 Astros came up short in the World Series in both 2019 and 2021.

Barring a huge second half of the season, Gurriel should not be in the Astros' 2023 plans. I'd say the same for Maldonado but he is on course to have a five million dollar option next year become guaranteed. He's played in 54 games this season, the option vests at 90. Ideally he's a backup. At the risk of some charging heresy, Maldonado's defensive imperativity (is that a word?) is overblown. Pitch-framing metrics do not rate him highly. He does not eliminate opposition running games. One, very few teams run much at all. Two, Maldonado has thrown out 26 percent of would be basestealers this season. Jason Castro has thrown out 25 percent. The big one last. With Maldonado behind the plate this season, Astros' pitchers' earned run average is 3.23. With Castro, 2.37. Would that hold up for Castro if he was the primary catcher? No chance. But sample size issues accepted, that Maldonado's defensive savant-ness renders his offensive ineptitude inconsequential? Nah. Certainly not in a lineup not up to recent past Astro teams.

Two weeks ago, this column covered Yordan Alvarez's chance at the greatest individual offensive month in Astros' history. Yordan's June ended with his scary collision with Jeremy Peña that knocked both out of Wednesday's matinée at the Mets and kept both out of Thursday's win over the Yankees. That was a harrowing smash as opposed to the delightful smashes that Alvarez busted out all over June. He finished batting .418 with an OPS of 1.346. Real and spectacular, but not quite ultimately as awesome as Jeff Bagwell's June or July 1994, or Richard Hidalgo's closing month of the 2000 season.

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