- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter
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He’s not a master of body language. Even when things are going well for Matt Schaub, his shoulders can slump.
It’s easy to read too much into such things. But when a ninth-year quarterback who’s played in 118 NFL games is preparing for his first playoff game, everything’s up for consideration. Especially because he’s headed a season-ending slump, during which the Texans lost three of their final four, booting multiple chances to secure a first-round bye and the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
In the three losses, he didn’t have a touchdown pass, threw three interceptions, posted a passer rating of 69.0 and was sacked nine times.
It’s not the sort of stat line one wants to carry into a playoff game against a tough defense.
Fair or not, Schaub is widely perceived as a guy who can’t get it done in a big game, who's not clutch.
(We explored much of that in September.)
He has not played in many big games. A serious foot injury cost him six regular-season games and the franchise’s two playoff games last season.
So we arrive at what’s without question the biggest game of his NFL life.
“There is no doubt that this is the biggest game to this point,” he said.
Last week was a giant game, with the No. 1 seed on the line, and he didn’t produce -- missing James Casey open deep for a touchdown and getting intercepted by Vontae Davis, then throwing another pick to Davis in the Colts' end zone.
That 69.0 passer rating in the three losses dropped his season rating to 90.7.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. is a former scout who watches tape and breaks down performances. His feelings about Schaub now reflect a widespread opinion.
“I can’t say I am excited about Schaub in this game,” Williamson said. “He is better than how he has played of late, but he is still a very limited guy. The Texans go as their run game goes, and I don’t see them being very successful on the ground against Cincy. Most of what Schaub does well stems off play-action, the right side of his line doesn’t pass block well, and he really only has one threatening receiver to throw to. He is also somewhat streaky, and he is on a cold streak.”
During the cold streak, Schaub has looked too much to Andre Johnson.
It’s a delicate balance. The Texans want to throw to their best guy, of course. But for the offense to really work, the ball needs to go other places, too.
Outside of the three recent losses, Johnson accounted for 24 percent of Schaub’s targets. In those three games, it was 37 percent.
“I think there are times as a quarterback you get so confident with a person that when your back is against the wall, when you need a play, you’re going to go that way,” Schaub said. “Sometime you may try to force a ball where you shouldn’t. Maybe just going the other way is the best thing.
“We’ve always been an offense that executes and plays at a higher level when we get a lot of people involved all while still getting him his touches, because he’s such a vital part of what we do.”
Johnson said after the loss in Indianapolis that for him and Schaub to connect well is not enough.
“All 11 of us have to click as a whole,” Johnson told Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. “It can’t just be one or two guys. If we don’t click together, then we’re not going to win. We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”
Although Schaub has not found any mechanical issues, he said he has passed on too many checkdowns. Instead of trying to attack good one-on-one coverage to allow for a play, he can turn to a guy underneath who can make one defender miss and gather some yards.
Like his coach, Gary Kubiak, Schaub is a levelheaded guy. When things are going badly, it’s easy and simple for outsiders to be turned off by that, to crave fire and brimstone. That’s not, however, where the Texans go when they are playing well, and they don’t believe it’s where they need to go to get back to playing well.
Schaub is aware how much this game and a playoff run can impact the perception of him around the league.
But it’s hardly his primary concern this week, nor should it be.
“Just trust your preparation,” he said. “You get yourself ready as you would for any other game. Trust in that preparation. Trust in your teammates. Trust in what you do throughout the week to get yourself ready. Keep your routine as normal as you can.
“When you do that, you keep your mind at ease and you just go out and cut it loose and play football. The things that got you to this point and the things that help you win football games are the same, regardless of what time of year or when or where or who you play. It’s all about staying on the field on third down, converting in the red zone, win the turnover battle and you’ll be successful. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
It’s basic. It’s sensible. It’s calm.
It’s not stirring. It’s not motivational.
Fans won’t read that and get fired up. It won’t bolster their confidence that the Texans are about to get back on track.
So be it.
The Texans beat the Bengals in big games twice last season with third-stringer T.J. Yates at quarterback. These teams are pretty similar to those. There will be plenty of reason to believe in the plan.
Schaub shouldn’t be thinking about how his reputation can be enhanced or suffer from what unfolds. That would only serve to distract.
As he walks out on to Reliant Stadium’s field for warm-ups, as he puts his hand over his heart for the national anthem, as he heads to midfield for the coin toss, he said, he won’t pause anywhere to consider the magnitude of the stage or the game.
“No,” he said. “It’s all about getting ready to go play, getting out there and cutting it loose. It’s going to be exciting and fun to get out there. But no, there’s not going to be any of that.
“It’s just not the way I’m built, it’s not the way I approach things. That’s not in my makeup to go and do that stuff. I want to keep everything the same.”
He’s not a master of body language. Even when things are going well for Matt Schaub, his shoulders can slump.It’s easy to read too much into such things.