A WEEKLY REVIEW OF O'BRIEN'S COACHING

Not my job: Texans had no answers for the Vikings

Texans Bill O'Brien
O'Brien was outcoached yet again. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Texans fell to 0-4 with a 31-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The loss can be largely pinned on Bill O'Brien. If there was an award for WTF decisions, O'Brien would be the winner by a couple country miles. He's been making them his whole tenure as Texans coach. Sure, the game came down to the final possession and was pending a review of an amazing almost catch by Will Fuller (as well as a two-point conversion if it stood), but O'Brien was the impetus behind much of went wrong.

For starters, it was revealed that O'Brien would be taking over play calling duties from offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Citing the struggles of the offense in the first three games, O'Brien chose to open his burger-chan play calling menu (sponsored by Culture Map) and did nothing too different from what we saw in the first three games.

The offense continued to look disjointed. They would look good getting off quick throws, then would bog down trying to run or go for long developing routes. I thought the empty backfield "Run N Gun" formation was effective. It spread the Vikings' already thin defense and allowed Deshaun Watson to throw the ball to wherever he saw a mismatch. Going up-tempo keeps the opposing defense off balance. They can't sub and it makes it tougher to adjust or catch a breath. This also helped utilize the speed at receiver the Texans have. Alas, O'Brien went away from it.

Right before halftime, they had an opportunity to score a touchdown and cut the lead to seven. Instead, they had to settle for another field goal. The fourth highest paid kicker in the league kicked three field goals in all. The sad part is that the last two were from 28 and 25 yards respectively. Translation: the offense stalled in the deep inside the red zone. Who's at fault for that? The easy answer would be O'Brien. One could blame Watson for not making the proper reads or throws. Ultimately, O'Brien is the head coach and called the plays.

There are some positives. It seems as if O'Brien has gotten better with the two-minute drill. Despite not being able to punch it in at the end of the first half, he called the right plays. He even put them in position to potentially tie the game at the end of regulation. That's where execution comes into play. The up-tempo style works best on offense. Sure it may put the defense at a disadvantage when it doesn't yield long drives, but the defense isn't good anyway so give the offense all the chances you can. I also like the commitment to the run. Even though it may not produce as many yards, you have to keep the threat alive. The threat of a run game feeds play action pass, sucks the defense closer to the line of scrimmage, and opens up passing lanes.

O'Brien definitely has some work to do. At 0-4, this team has almost no shot at making the playoffs. Given that there's an extra playoff team starting this year and there's still 75% of the season left to play, there's hope. Not much hope, but it's there. It's akin to a firefly flying solo in the woods. It's lighting a path, but a very dim light on a dark path. Here's to hoping that light gets brighter.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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