(SportsRadio 610) - After averaging 34.5 points in back-to-back victories over Tampa Bay and Cincinnati to elevate their record to 5-4, the Texans are favored by 5 ½ points over Arizona on Sunday at NRG Stadium. The odds opened at 4 ½ in favor of the Texans as they continue to compete for the playoffs. The latest over/under is 48.
The Cardinals are 2-8 in Jonathan Gannon’s first season as their coach. The former Philadelphia defensive coordinator impressed the Texans when they interviewed him for their head-coaching job. The Cardinals beat Dallas and Atlanta at home, and they’re 0-5 on the road.
First-year defensive coordinator Matt Burke knows a lot about the Cardinals because he was their defensive line coach last season when J.J. Watt recorded 12 sacks before retiring after playing two seasons with Arizona.
When preparing for this game, the Texans are looking at the Cardinals as if they are undefeated. That’s because quarterback Kyler Murray and running back James Conner make such a difference in their offense. In his first game back from surgery to repair a torn ACL last season, Murray led them to a victory over the Falcons.
Winning Sunday is essential to what DeMeco Ryans and his team want to achieve – a third consecutive victory going into the most important game of the season against Jacksonville at NRG Stadium. The Texans must defeat the Cardinals and quarterback Kyler Murray, who has never lost a game in his home state, to set up the AFC South showdown with the Jaguars.
The Texans are 5-2 in their last seven games, with both losses on the road on field goals with no time left on the clock. The Texans have had three games decided with no time remaining, including Cincinnati. The Tampa Bay game was decided with six seconds left.
Now, let’s check out five things to watch in Sunday’s game:
CAN STROUD CONTINUE TO EXCEL?
At some point, rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud is going to have a hiccup, right? He’s certainly not playing like it. With Stroud leading the way, the Texans have averaged 34.5 points in their last two games, victories over the Bucs and Bengals. Stroud averaged 410 yards passing in those two games.
The Texans are sixth in the NFL in yards (372.6), including second in passing (274.3). Stroud has been so good he’s running away with the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award and is being mentioned in MVP discussions. No quarterback in the NFL has played better than Stroud in the last two games, and his performance as a rookie stacks up with any veteran, including the most elite.
Check out where Stroud ranks in passing stats: 291.8 yards per game (1), 2,626 yards passing (2), 15/2 touchdown/interception differential (1), 15 touchdowns (9), 0.6 interception percentage (1), 8.3 yards per attempt (3), 13.4 yards per completion (2),
61.6 completion percentage (28), 101 rating (6) and 19 sacks (17th). It must be pointed out that Stroud has been sacked only eight times over the last seven games because the offensive line is doing a terrific job of pass protection.
It doesn’t seem to matter who plays at receiver, they all come through. A tip of the cap to Ben McDaniels, who coaches the receivers and is the passing game coordinator. Leading receiver Nico Collins missed the Cincinnati game, and Noah Brown stepped up with seven receptions for 172 yards. Now Brown is questionable for Sunday, but Collins is returning.
The Texans are the league’s only team with four receivers among the top 25 in yards: Collins (631), Tank Dell (510), Brown (439) and tight end Dalton Schultz (421). Brown’s 20.9-yard average is the league’s best. Arizona is 22nd in defense (342.6), including 11th against the pass (208.4).
OFFENSIVE LINE COMING OFF ITS BEST GAME
Despite changes made up front because of injuries, the pass protection has been excellent. But the line went above and beyond in the victory at Cincinnati, where they rushed for a season-best 188 yards. It was the best overall performance by Chris Strausser’s linemen this season. Now they have to do it again because the Cardinals are 28th against the run (134.2 yards).
Nobody was more excited about the performance of the running game at Cincinnati than Strausser and Danny Barrett, the assistant head coach who coaches the backs. Until Sunday, the Texans had failed to average even 4 yards a carry in any game this season. Led by Devin Singletary, who had 30 carries for 150 yards, the Texans averaged 5.5 per carry and ran for two touchdowns. According to NextGenStats, the Texans are 23rd in run block win rate (70 percent). They need that statistic to continue to improve.
DEFENSE MUST CONTAIN MURRAY
In his first game of the season, a home victory over the Falcons, Kyler Murray completed 19-of-32 for 249 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass and had one interception and a 71.0 rating. He ran for a touchdown and finished with 33 yards on six carries. Murray’s speed, quickness and mobility are legendary. It requires tremendous discipline for pass rushers to not lose containment and allow him to take off and run for a lot of yards. He’s as elusive as a running back and is dangerous throwing on the run.
The Texans, who are tied for 20th in defense (340 yards) and 24th against the pass (246.4), know that because Murray got his feet wet against Atlanta, he should be more confident in his surgically repaired knee at NRG Stadium. With running back James Conner healthy, expect the Cardinals to use a lot of play-action to freeze the linebackers and allow Murray to roll out, throw on the move or get outside and run. He’s slippery and difficult to tackle. When Murray and Conner are running, the Texans can’t afford to miss too many tackles, which has been a problem this season.
Defensive ends Jonathan Greenard and Will Anderson Jr. have done an outstanding job of setting the edge and not allowing running backs or quarterbacks to reach the outside. Anderson is questionable. If he’s unable to play because of a knee injury, Jerry Hughes and Dylan Horton will have to take up the slack. The Texans need to get a strong push up the middle from tackles Maliek Collins, Sheldon Rankins, Khalil Davis and Kurt Hinish. Rankins, who had three sacks, played his best game against the Bengals. Defensive line coach Jacques Cesaire has his linemen playing better than any time since J.J. Watt was dominating.
The plan is to keep Murray in the pocket, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans.
BOTTLING UP CONNER IMPERATIVE
The Cardinals should get a big boost with the return of running back James Conner, who was activated from injured reserve. Despite missing four games with a knee injury, Conner is still their leading rusher with 437 yards and a 5.2 average per carry. Arizona is ninth in the NFL in rushing with 126.5 yards a game. Conner also is a quality receiver.
Under DeMeco Ryans and defensive coordinator Matt Burke, the Texans have made unbelievable improvement against the run. Over the last three seasons, the Texans were the worst team in the league against the run. They were last in 2022, allowing 170 yards a game. Now they’re eighth, reducing that figure to 93.6, including 3.5 per rush.
RUN DEFENSE GETTING BETTER EVERY WEEK
Speaking of the run defense, it’s improving on a weekly basis.
DeMeco Ryans says that improvement begins with attitude and requires a lot of discipline for players to do what they’re coached to do rather than trying to do too much and committing too many mental errors. Ryans wants his players swarming to the ball and being physical when they arrive at players carrying the ball.
The Texans are second in the league in run stop win rate (34 percent), according to NextGenStats. Breaking down the run defense, they’re 5-2 after their 0-2 start. Allowing 93.6 yards through nine games is reduced to 86.6 over the last seven games and 75.2 over the last five. During that five-game stretch, the Texans haven’t allowed a team to rush for 100 yards.
In their first four games – losses to the Ravens and Colts and victories over the Jaguars and Steelers – the defense allowed 116.5 yards rushing. Not too shabby and definitely a sign of good things to come. The most yards they’ve given up over the last five games was 96 at Atlanta. No other team has reached 90. The best performance was surrendering only 44 yards in their loss at Carolina.
The defense is missing two linebackers, Denzel Perryman and Henry To’oTo’o because of injuries. Safety Jimmie Ward, a physical player who stuffs the run, also is out. Perryman and Ward bring that physicality Ryans demands, and they could be missed against the run. The front seven will get a workout against Arizona’s running game, and the defensive backs have to do a good job of supporting the front seven if they hope to control the Cardinals and win a third consecutive game.
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.