Houston Texans: Buckle up

alex-smith

One quarter of the season has been played, with the Texans sitting atop the AFC South and a 2 game cushion, at 3-1. Not a bad start, with a brand-spanking-new offense and some key injuries on both sides of the ball. The offensive line is still shaky, with Duane Brown hinted at coming back this week, after his season-ending injury last season, and the defense lost their top player, JJ Watt, for the season. O’Brien has taken play-calling duties over for Godsey, who couldn’t figure out a way to use the running game’s biggest weapon, Lamar Miller, in 3 games.

The team is finally showing some flashes of greatness, stalled by some bad decision turnovers from Osweiler. Hopkins hasn’t yet been utilized to his 2015 playtime, with most of the turnovers coming off of forced passes to him. The stumbles and stalls haven’t stopped the Texans from picking up a winning record so far, and gaining that 2-game cushion on the rest of the flailing AFC South (including what shouldn’t have been such a nail-biting game against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday). Each game brings a few signs of improvement (we’re not going to talk about that one game).

The Texans have a powerhouse defense that can keep the offense in the game. Even with the loss of JJ Watt, the Texans have bounced back with other key players like Mercilus, Clowney, Cushing, and Simon, with Wilfork putting in a heck of a season so far. The CB depth is enough to keep the passing game in check (although there are still some tackling issues being settled). The offense, however, doesn’t create a march down the field with the same ease, and has had some pretty rough turnovers in the interim. And special teams is finally figuring out that you get 25 yards on a return by taking a knee.

If you’re like me, you’ve been scratching your head at the ST kickoff return game plan in the first few games of the season, considering the new touchback rule that adds 5 yards to the line of scrimmage. In at least 1 game when we’ve seen turnovers after a returning from the endzone, you’d think the Texans ST coach is crazy. They’re not alone, though. Despite the rule’s intentions of lessening the chance of injury in those rough, full velocity return tackles, returns have actually increased throughout the league. That hasn’t worked well for the Texans, though, and it looks like they’re finally getting wise to this.

But the meat of the schedule is about to start, and we’re left to wonder if they’re ready for it. The Texans are next facing the undefeated and rather mesmerizing Minnesota Vikings, who lost both Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson within a few short weeks. Despite losing their 2 top offensive weapons, they’ve managed to go 4-0 with Sam Bradford, now seemingly healthy and playing with a vengeance, without even a hiccup. Led by a top defense, the Vikings have capitalized on creating turnovers and then scoring on them, but can just as readily march down the field for a touchdown.

With Osweiler as a continuing work in progress (and I hate to break it to you, but this work in progress looks like it will be continuing throughout the season), are the Texans going to play conservatively to lessen the chance for turnovers, or keep forcing him into making better pressure decisions? I’d bet on a little bit of both. Duane Brown’s impending return will be a great help with keeping Osweiler out of such pressure situations, as it will open up the possibility of shuffling the line around to bolster it on both ends. This will open up the running game down the middle a bit more too.

That’s not likely to all click in place this Sunday, so I’d expect to see more conservative calls on offense to keep from giving the Vikings an opportunity to do what they do best – force a turnover and turn it into points. That may also mean that Hopkins will see a few more games without a target – which may work out best for him and the team in the long run. One of the keys to this offense is having limitless targets on field, and it seems to be working so far. That lingering if/when will Osweiler clean up his throws and make better decisions will decide what level the team will eventually play at this season.

Moving forward? Remain cautiously optimistic. Osweiler’s struggles with decision making under pressure are not an anomaly from a newer QB. I don’t care when he was drafted, he’s not even had a full season starting under his belt. That matters, because you don’t pick up experience to improve on the bench. He’s also got a brand new offense to work the kinks out with, as well. So, be prepared for this to be a season-long test. It should be, when you’re giving a new QB the opportunity to be the franchise QB. We’re well past the days of next QB up. It’s new territory, guys, and the rules are different.

And, at the end of the season if he doesn’t pan out, it’s really not as bad of a deal as you think. Osweiler is guaranteed for 2 seasons at 18 million per season. That’s the average pay for a starting QB in their second contract in the NFL. And if he still continues to have some of the problems under pressure, then the concentration in the free agency and draft for 2017 will beQB and o-line. He’s our guy for at least this season and next, so let’s get used to that. For the time being, recognize he’s in his 2nd year (and 1st full season) as a starter, and give him the room to improve.

Minnesota may not be a win, but it won’t mean the season is over. This won’t be an easy win for either team, and it won’t be another blow out embarassment for the Texans. I’ll put my predictions that far. What we’ll see from the Texans, hopefully, is an extension of the improvement on the running game seen last week, with some quick, up-tempo short passes to move the ball down the field. If Duane Brown returns, that puts a little more strength on the o-line (especially if Clark can slide down to RT for a few plays). I’d really like to see some movement on the o-line with Brown’s return.

Defense needs to keep being defense. They’ll have a tough time getting to Bradford, but should have some success shutting off the running game. Time to start forcing some turnovers, as well. The Vikings haven’t faced a defense like the Texans just yet, so that should shake up Bradford and co, and make them reach outside of the comfort zone. This will be another game where the defense will be counted on to carry the load, but I’ve got the confidence they can step up and do this. Secondary will have to make some leaps in this game as well, because Bradford can use his arm effectively.

And the Fuller on ST was a nice trick, but I wouldn’t use it for this game.

I predict the Texans will come out of this with their second loss, but still sitting on top of the AFC South in 1st place (and it’s quite possible to keep that same 2 game cushion). This is an early test for the readiness of the team, and it’s fine if they don’t pass. There’s still a lot of season left to improve on offense (which is the game changer), and like I said, it will take the season to vastly improve. The next few games should show whether or not Osweiler begins to make better decisions under pressure, and I’d expect him to. But if he does, and starts throwing it away, don’t scold him for that.

Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got.

In the long run, if the Texans can manage to dominate the AFC South (and currently signs point to that being quite possible) then they have some wiggle room to improve the offense overall. They’re actually quite fortunate with that this season. It’s the same circumstance that has put the Andrew Luck Colts in the playoffs practically every year, but the key difference is that the Texans have actually build a team. This next game may not be pretty, and the season may not be pretty, but it’s a season going on a learning curve that will eventually pan out.

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