Houston Texans running back Carlos Hyde has served as a far greater fantasy option over the course of the first half of the season, but Duke Johnson has been coming on hot as of late.
Physical, downhill running dominated Texan’s gameplans early on in 2019. During the span of the first 10 weeks the Texans were averaging 140.7 rush yards per game, mostly behind running back Carlos Hyde. Hyde and and quarterback Deshaun Watson had catapulted Houston into a top 5 rushing offense and a 6-3 record heading into their bye week. Although the Texans pulled out wins against the Colts and Patriots at home during the last two weeks, the Houston run offense has been a far-cry from from the powerhouse it was over the first 10 games. In the last 2 contests the Texans have only averaged 75.5 yards per game behind the duo of Hyde and Johnson. Watson has only rushed 11 times for 21 scoreless yards in that span.
Let’s take it back to the opening Monday Night Football game in New Orleans. After tallying 9 carries for 57 yards and 4 receptions for 33 in his debut against the Saints in Week 1, fantasy owners were expecting Duke Johnson to finally shoulder the main RB duties for Houston and become a budding superstar and potential league winner. It seemed as though the cries of “FREE DUKE!” that could be heard from Cleveland had at last been answered.
Then it happened again, like his days in Cleveland, Johnson’s usuage became sporadic with the insertion of Carlos Hyde. Duke didn’t register more than 10 total touches for the following 5 straight games. Despite the low volume and to the frustration of fantasy owners, Johnson flourished in yards per touch and elusiveness metrics, all the while providing a low-ceiling flex option for managers. Interesting enough, the Texans have won all 4 games in which Duke scores a touchdown, but the volume could simply not be trusted for fantasy purposes.
Is it Finally Duke Johnson Time?
The Houston Texans broke what seemed to be a season long trend of sporadic volume and gave Johnson a season high 14 total touches in their win over the New England Patriots in week 13. He was able to turn that into another season high in total yards at 90.
Johnson rushed 9 times for 36 yards and caught 5 passes on 6 targets for 54 yards and the first touchdown of the game. Keep in mind Johnson did this versus one of the leagues top overall defenses in the Patriots. In two previous games where Johnson saw 9 carries he tallied 57 and 59 rush yards, so this effort on the ground was not his most effecient. Depsite that fact, Johnson was the more effective back on the night. Duke had only had 5 receptions once before this season when he caught 5 for 68 on 5 targets against Jacksonville. Most of Johnson’s damage has come off mismatches and schemed plays that got the 5th year pro out into space against linebackers, as was the case on his touchdown reception early in the first half versus New England. Duke saw a season high 67% of snaps in week 13 despite Houston leading for most of the game in what would be considered a negative script for a back of his skill-set.
Time to Run and Hyde?
Carlos Hyde on the other hand was virtually non-existant and was seemingly not part of Bill O’Brien’s game plan against his former employers. He was only on the field for 38% of the team’s offensive snaps. Hyde rushed 10 times for a measly 17 yards and added another 5 yards on one catch. Over the last two weeks Hyde has averaged 3.2 yards per carry and has zero rushing scores. He has 4 TDs and a 4.6 yards per carry average on the season. If you remove a chunk 33 yard gainer Hyde ripped off against the Colts, his average yards per carry dips to 2.0 over his last two games. On the season Hyde has 184 carries for 853 yards, good enough for 11th and 10th in the NFL respectively. He’s a grinder that can handle a full workload and that’s how the Texans would like to use him, but he doesn’t seem to offer what Johnson can in a true three-down role.
The Texans are massive home favorites in week 14 according the Vegas implied point totals. The Broncos have an implied line of 14.5 points while the Texans come in at 25.5. Projecting the Texans to play with a lead would figure that they intend to lean on the run late into the game, which bodes well for Hyde and his style of play. After not having great success lately we can assume that Houston tries to heavily establish the run in this game, although we can’t be certain on the personnel they plan to acheive that with.
For fantasy purposes you simply can’t trust the coaching staff to give Duke Johnson a sizable amount of touches to make him a safe play, but even in a limited role he has reached the endzone in three of the Texans’ last four games played on Sundays and is entereing week 14 having set career highs in both rushing at (5.2) and receiving (9.8) yards per attempt. That boils down to a league best 6.5 yards per touch at the running back position. Touches for Johnson are critical to the Texans success on offense as he has proven to be a mismatch for defenders and allows the offense to be less predictable than the one-dimentional Hyde. Unfortunately for this first week of the fantasy playoffs neither back is more than a dart throw flex play against a formiddable Denver Broncos defense.
Follow Miles on Twitter @ff_peacock