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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2023 Opponent Preview: Houston Texans, Week 9

The Texans have won a total of 11 games over the past three seasons but have made some dramatic changes in 2023 to reverse course, starting with a well-regarded new coach and a highly-drafted quarterback


As the NFL enters its fallow period between the end the teams' offseason programs and the start of training camp, we are taking a closer look at each of the opponents the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face during the 2023 regular season. From how those teams fared last year to what they've done with the roster since to some as-yet-unanswered questions, we want to get a better feel for what the Buccaneers will be up against this fall. Today we look at the Houston Texans, who charted a new course for the franchise this offseason by hiring DeMeco Ryans and drafting C.J. Stroud.

2022 Results

Houston finished 3-13-1 in 2022, marking the franchise's third straight season with four or fewer victories. As it turned out, they probably would have been better off winning one fewer contest.

The Texans actually started the season with neither a win or a loss, as they coughed up a 17-point lead over Indianapolis in the fourth quarter to go to overtime at 20-20. The Colts' Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 42-yard potential game-winning field goal with two minutes left in the extra period, after which the Texans advanced just across midfield but chose to punt on fourth-and-three with 26 seconds left.

The next time the Texans and Colts met, this time in the final week of the regular season, the game had a much different ending. Quarterback Sam Mills converted two long fourth downs on an 83-yard drive late in the fourth quarter, including a 28-yard touchdown strike to tight end Jordan Akins on fourth-and-20 with one minute left. Mills also connected with Akins on the ensuing two-point conversion to give Houston a 32-21 victory. That win, coupled with a loss by the Bears on the same day, pushed Houston out of the top spot in the 2023 draft.

In between those two bizarre finishes against the Colts, Houston got division wins over Jacksonville and Tennessee but also suffered through a nine-game losing streak that included one-score decisions against eventual playoff teams Kansas City, Dallas and the New York Giants. Just before its comeback win over the Colts in Week 18, the Texans were thrashed, 31-3, by the rising power in their division, the Jaguars.

On offense, the Texans spent most of the season auditioning Mills, a 2021 third-round pick, as a potential long-term solution at quarterback. Mills had some bright moments but ended up with a pedestrian 17-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 78.8 passer rating. In Weeks 15 and 16, Houston took a brief detour and gave two starts to Kyle Allen, losing both of those outings. Mills then got his starting spot back but for two more weeks split snaps evenly with Jeff Driskel.

Rookie running back Dameon Pierce, a fourth-round pick out of Florida, had a strong debut season, rushing for 939 yards and averaging 4.3 yards per tote. The team's top pass-catcher was the well-traveled Brandin Cooks, who caught 57 passes for 699 yards and three scores. Wideout Chris Moore was next with 48 grabs for 548 yards, and Akins led the team with five touchdown receptions. Overall, the Houston offense finished second-to-last in the NFL in both yards (283.5) and points (17.0) generated per game.

The Texans' defense fared just a bit better, ranking 30th in yards allowed per game (379.5) and 27th in points allowed per game (24.7). Free safety Jalen Pitre led the team with 147 tackles and also picked off a team-high five passes. In his first season with the Texans, 13th-year veteran Jerry Hughes had a resurgent season with a team-leading 9.0 sacks.

2023 Arrivals

The Texans efforts to rebuild in 2023 began with the very well-regarded hiring of DeMeco Ryans as the team's new head coach. Ryans, who played six of his 10 NFL seasons for the Texans and earned a pair of Pro Bowl invitations, had risen quickly through the coaching ranks with the 49ers. In his two seasons as San Francisco's defensive coordinator, the team ranked fifth and seventh in the NFL on defense. Bobby Slowik followed Ryans over from San Francisco to be his offensive coordinator and the team hired former Cardinals assistant Matt Burke to run the defense.

The Texans also made a big move at the most important position on the field, using the second-overall pick in this year's draft to land Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud. Houston's quarterback depth chart now features Stroud, Miller and veteran Case Keenum, who was signed away from the Bills to replace Allen.

Perhaps at the urging of their new defensive-minded head coach, the Texans made a dramatic trade to move up from the 12th-overall pick (which they had acquired from Cleveland in the 2021 Deshaun Watson trade) to the third spot, where they took the first defender in the draft, Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson. That trade cost the Texans a 2023 second-rounder and 2024 first and third-round selections.

The 2023 draft also yielded second-rounder Juice Scruggs, who will probably start at center as a rookie, and third-round wideout Tank Dell, who is small but adds a dose of speed and quickness to the offense. In need of several additions to the receiving corps, particularly after the trade of Cooks to Dallas, Houston gave its biggest free agency deal (two years, $15.25 million) to former Titans wideout Robert Woods. Headed in the other direction across Texas was former Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz, who got a one-year, $6.25 million contract from Houston. Noah Brown, another Dallas defector, adds depth to the receiving corps, and the duo of Devin Singletary (Buffalo) and Mike Boone (Denver) do the same in the backfield.

Ryans added four more likely starters to his defense in free agency, reuniting with former 49ers safety via a two-year deal and landing former Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, former Raiders linebacker Denzel Perryman and former Panthers linebacker Cory Littleton with one-year pacts. Perryman could be pushed early for playing time by potential fifth-round steal, linebacker Henry To'o To'o. Houston also fleshed out its defensive depth in free agency with the likes of cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin (Jacksonville) and Darius Phillips (Denver), defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway (San Francisco), defensive end Chase Winovich (Cleveland) and outside linebacker Jake Martin (Denver).

The Texans also used the trade market to add a starter, getting guard Shaq Mason from the Buccaneers for a pick swap.

2023 Departures

The Texans obviously dismissed Lovie Smith after one season as head coach before hiring Ryans. Smith was the second straight one-and-done head coach for the franchise after David Culley in 2021.

Two of Houston's more productive players in 2022 left to sign with the Browns in free agency: Akins, who as noted led the team in touchdown receptions and was third in receiving yards, and edge rusher Obgonnia Okoronkwo, who was second on the defense with 5.0 sacks. Okoronkwo got a three-year deal in Cleveland after just one season with the Texans.

Moore landed a deal with the Titans and, as noted, Cooks was dealt to Dallas for fifth and sixth-round picks, which means the team is without its top three pass-catchers from last season. Two other pass-catchers from last year's squad, wideout Phillip Dorsett and tight end O.J. Howard, both signed with the Raiders. Cornerback Tremon Smith, who had two interceptions last year and also handled most of the team's kickoff returns, left for Denver and a two-year deal. Safety Jonathan Owens started 17 games in 2022 but was not re-signed and eventually landed in Green Bay.

Kyle Allen switched places with Keenum, going to Buffalo to back up Josh Allen (no relation). Driskel also won't be back after jumping to Arizona. Guard Justin McCray, who started 10 games over the past two seasons in Houston, left for Carolina.

Other Noteworthy Developments

Though there was a lot of free agency movement in and out of Houston, the Texans were able to re-sign a pair of depth defenders in cornerback Tavierre Thomas and linebacker Neville Hewitt.

Houston released starting guard A.J. Cann in March after the first season of his original two-year deal with the team. Cann, who started 16 games in 2022, has not yet signed with another team. The same is true for center Justin Britt, who was also released in March after starting 11 games over two seasons in Houston. Defensive end Mario Addison, who had a limited role in his one season in Houston – his 15th season overall – was also released at the start of the new league year. Two other well-season veterans on the other side of 30 hit free agency and, as of yet, have not been re-signed or signed by another team: running back Rex Burkhead and linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis.

Pressing Questions

How soon will the Texans turn to C.J. Stroud?

When the Texans drafted Stroud in April, General Manager Nick Caserio said the 21-year-old passer had "a long way to go" and that the team would not be putting out a timetable on when he would take over the starting job. Of course, the Carolina Panthers have said essentially the same thing about Bryce Young, whom they took one spot ahead of Stroud, and it's certainly a common refrain with teams onboarding rookie quarterbacks. In reality, most quarterbacks drafted as high as Stroud was are on the field in Week One in today's NFL era.

That said, the Texans still have Mills, who now has a reasonable amount of NFL experience, and they've added Keenum, who won both of his most recent starts with Cleveland in 2021 and owns a respectable 85.2 career passer rating. Outside expectations for the Texans in 2023 are not overly optimistic – they have a projected win total of about six games – and if their season does start out poorly that could affect their decision on when to get Stroud onto the field.

Will DeMeco Ryans' presence have an immediate impact on the Texans' defensive output?

The Texans have known about Ryans' beautiful defensive mind since he was a star player for them and the proverbial "coach on the field." It only took him six years after retiring to ascend to the coordinator level, and he quickly became a rising star at that job, too. San Francisco allowed the fewest points per game in 2022 (16.3) and Ryans was one of the hottest head coach prospects as the 2023 offseason began.

Houston, meanwhile, has finished 27th, 26th and 27th in points allowed the last three years, and the team's strategy of signing a multitude of bargain-level veterans in recent years hasn't led to any improvement. There will be quite a few new starters on defense this year, including some more veteran additions (Rankins, Perryman, Littleton, Ward, etc.), but that also includes recent high first-round picks Anderson and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.

In San Francisco, Ryans and company built a great defense by starting up front, and it looks as if that philosophy is in play in Houston now, too. The Texans paid a steep price in draft assets to get Anderson, and he, Hughes, Winovich and Jonathan Greenard could form a productive edge rush rotation. The Texans were porous up the middle last year but added Ranks and Ridgeway next to Maliek Collins to strengthen the interior. Can Ryans put all these pieces together into a much stingier defense in 2023, or is this a multi-year rebuilding project?

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