(SportsRadio 610) - The oddsmakers in Las Vegas have moved the Texans from favorites to underdogs and back to favorites by one point in Sunday’s home opener against the Colts at NRG Stadium.
The game features rookie head coaches DeMeco Ryans and Shane Steichen and rookie quarterbacks C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson.
This game is the first of many between Stroud and Richardson, the second and fourth picks in the draft.
Both teams are coming off terrible seasons and opening losses by double digits – the Texans at Baltimore and the Colts at home against Jacksonville.
The Jaguars were the only AFC South team to win on opening weekend. They host Kansas City this week. If the Jaguars lose and the Texans win, they’ll be tied for first place going into their game at Jacksonville on Sept. 24.
NRG Stadium should be rocking with a sellout crowd that isn’t dominated by fans from opposing teams. Fans are excited about the improvement the Texans are expected to make in Ryans’ first season, and that hope has skyrocketed even more by the additions of Stroud and defensive end Will Anderson Jr.
The Texans were 1-0-1 against the Colts in 2022, Lovie Smith’s only season as head coach. If they’re going to defeat Indianapolis again, there are five things they have to accomplish.
PROVIDE PASS PROTECTION FOR STROUD
An offensive line that’s experienced unprecedented injuries this early in the season has to give C.J. Stroud time to throw. He was sacked five times for 46 yards in losses at Baltimore, where he finished with 28-of-44 (63.6 percent) for 242 yards without a touchdown pass or interception.
According to Sharp Football, he was the first rookie quarterback in league history to drop back more than 45 times and not throw an interception. He also ran four times for 20 yards.
The line should have the same five starters in left tackle Laremy Tunsil, left guard Josh Jones, center Jarrett Patterson, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle George Fant. Tunsil and Jones were whistled for two penalties apiece. The linemen don’t want a repeat performance with Stroud getting hit another 10 times.
Obviously, Stroud would like to throw his first touchdown pass on Sunday and improve his 78.0 rating. One of the most impressive things Stroud was able to achieve was not to force the ball into coverage. His timing and accuracy were terrific.
When throwing from the pocket, he took a short drop and threw quickly. When throwing on the run, his ball placement was also impressive. Expect similar strategy on Sunday.
OFFENSE HAS TO OPERATE MORE EFFICIENTLY
Not only was it C.J. Stroud’s first game against the Ravens, but it also was offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik’s debut as a play-caller.
Because they were too slow getting out of the huddle and getting their signals called, the Texans were out of timeouts with 8:12 left in the first half. They have to make substitutions faster.
Playing faster is something the offense worked on extensively this week.
“The biggest improvement I’d like to see from the offense is their tempo – getting the play call in, getting in and out of the huddle faster and just playing faster,” DeMeco Ryans said. “It’s very encouraging to see what C.J. did when throwing the football. He’s very talented (but) we have to play better around him. And we can play better around him just by increasing the tempo and playing with more urgency.”
That “urgency” begins with Slowik and Stroud.
As they pointed out this week, improving the tempo starts with repetitions. No matter how smoothly things go in practice, the game speeds up, and rookies have to adjust – players and coaches. It shouldn’t be an issue in the second game.
PIERCE NEEDS TO BE FEATURED IN RUN GAME
Nobody had to tell Bobby Slowik how crucial it is to run the ball more against the Colts than they did against the Ravens. And it starts with Dameon Pierce.
Baltimore has a stout front seven, and the Texans generated only 72 yards on 23 carries. They have to improve their 3.1-yard average per carry, but the Colts also have a good front seven, especially their four-man front that’s created a lot of problems for the Texans because they’ve been able to overpower the blockers too consistently.
Unless the Texans fall behind and are forced to play from behind, Pierce needs to get at least 20 carries. He was limited to 11 for only 36 yards, a 3.5 average, against the Ravens. His longest run was 7 yards.
The problem starts up front, of course. The line is missing three starters, so expecting consistent run blocking against the Colts could be too much to ask. If it doesn’t work early, Slowik can’t get away from it. If they can make the run work, it benefits C.J. Stroud and the play-action game.
Pierce, who takes pride in his receiving ability, should be utilized as a runner, not as a receiver. He wants to catch some passes, but Devin Singletary can handle that responsibility. Pierce is a physical runner who needs carries, not catches, and that strategy needs to be used against the Colts.
PASS RUSHERS GET PRESSURE ON RICHARDSON
The defense did an excellent job against Lamar Jackson, and it has to do the same thing against Anthony Richardson.
Led by ends Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard, the Texans sacked Jackson four times. One of Anderson’s six pressures led to Steven Nelson’s interception. Jackson was limited to 169 yards and a 79.5 rating. He ran for 38 yards on six carries.
Now the defense has to play that well against Richardson, who’s 6-4, 244, fast and physical. In the Colts’ loss to the Jaguars, Richardson completed 24-of-37 (64.9 percent) for 223 yards. He threw one touchdown pass, ran for another and was intercepted once. He was sacked four times for only 8 yards.
Obviously, DeMeco Ryans and defensive coordinator Matt Burke don’t want to let Richardson stand in the pocket and locate receivers. The Texans’ pressure and coverage were good against Baltimore.
They need to do that again Sunday. That might be a more difficult assignment considering safeties Jalen Pitre (lung) and Jimmie Ward (hip) aren’t expected to play. That puts a lot of pressure on veterans Eric Murray and M.J. Stewart.
Richardson was more accurate against Jacksonville than he was at the University of Florida in his only season as the starter.
Most rookie quarterbacks are impatient and take off before going through their reads. If Anderson, Greenard and Jerry Hughes can set the edge and help keep Richardson in the pocket, they’ll have opportunities to sack him. Because he’s big, strong and athletic, getting to him is one thing, but bringing him down is another because he can break tackles. The key is to keep him bottled up and have multiple players get a shot at him.
RUN DEFENSE NEEDS REPEAT PERFORMANCE
The most encouraging thing on defense against Baltimore was improvement against the run. The Texans allowed 110 yards rushing. The front seven was smart, disciplined and physical. The players tackled well for the most part. It was so much more impressive than last season when the Texans had the NFL’s worst run defense. Lamar Jackson was Baltimore’s leading rusher.
Anthony Richardson was the Colts’ leading rusher against Jacksonville with 40 yards on 10 carries. He absorbed a lot of punishment. The coaches expect the Colts to work hard on getting the ball to their running backs. Fortunately for the Texans, Jonathan Taylor is on PUP and not available. He’s obliterated them since he came into the league.
Deon Jackson got 13 carries against Jacksonville but gained only 14 yards. The Colts will be determined to do better against the Texans because they need for the backs to take pressure off Richardson.
John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on SportsRadio 610 and Monday, Thursday and Sunday on Texans Radio, also on SportsRadio 610. He writes five columns a week and does three Houtopia Football Podcasts for SportsRadio610.com.