The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't have to face Arian Foster on Sunday in their Week Three game at NRG Stadium, but they still expect the Houston Texans to emphasize their running game.
For one thing, the Texans have an unsettled quarterback situation, with Ryan Mallett starting last Sunday after Brian Hoyer carried the job into the beginning of the regular season. There's also the matter of the Texans' surprising 0-2 record, which might make them go back to the basics in an effort to get their team back on track.
"Every running attack is better when you have a guy like Arian Foster carrying the ball," said Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith. "When things aren't going the way you like you have to lean back on your running game. We feel like that will be a big emphasis for them. It doesn't matter who the tailback is. We have to just be sound in our gaps and not let them get both the run and pass going."
The Texans haven't had much luck running the football through the first two weeks, ranking 24th in the NFL in yards per game and 23rd in yards per carry. The absence of Foster, who is battling back from a groin injury, has obviously played a significant role in those struggles. Chris Polk, who leads the Texans with 60 rushing yards on 19 carries, will start in Foster's place. The team also got good news on pass-catching back Jonathan Grimes, who was on the injury report all week but has been cleared to play. No matter who gets the carries, the Buccaneers hope to stop them early so that they can put more pressure on the quarterback.
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That quarterback will be Mallett, who will get his second straight start. If the Texans go back to Hoyer at some point, the Bucs will be ready for that challenge, as well.
"Hoyer's a good football player," said Smith. "He had a couple of unfortunate turnovers early but we know what he brings to the table. And Mallett can throw as well as anybody around. Great size in the pocket, strong arm. We'll be ready for both of them."
Though Mallett is a relatively inexperienced quarterback, the Buccaneers' game plan against him is the same as it was against Drew Brees last week: Stop the run first so that they can dial up the pressure in obvious passing situations. It worked against Brees and the Saints because the Bucs' defensive line took control of the trenches early.
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"Each week it's important," said Smith of taking over the line of scrimmage. "It's no secret – our defensive line has to set the tempo. They set it last week throughout the game. Jack Smith was very good. He can rush from outside, it's as simple as that. It helps when you have a player like Gerald McCoy on the inside. T.J. Fatinikun will be another guy that we've been waiting to get healthy again. He's ready to go. The line will need to play well."
In New Orleans, the Bucs' defense kept the Saints in check long enough for their own young quarterback to get into a groove. Superb touchdown drives right before and after the half gave the Bucs' their most critical points in a seven-point victory.
"He didn't play like a rookie," said Smith of Jameis Winston, who is a rookie and is about to make just his third NFL start. "He was poised and under control from the start. It still was loud there and you have a lot of checks on the line. He was able to do that. And then it was about completing balls and being in control of the offense. He was that way throughout the day."
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Winston will have a new center delivering the football to him today, as Joe Hawley will stand in for the injured Evan Smith. Hawley actually relieved Smith during the Saints game after the starter injured an ankle, and he performed well. Hawley and the rest of the Bucs' front line will have to deal with the oppressive noise of a dome for the second straight week, as the retractable roof at NRG Stadium is closed for the game.
"Evan Smith is making progress but he won't be able to go today," said Lovie Smith. "Joe Hawley played well, came in and didn't miss a beat. He played so well that guys almost voted him a game ball.
"It helps getting your first win in a dome like that. It will be just as loud [this week]. We have a routine we go through whenever we're on the road and we feel like it shouldn't be an issue."
In addition to Evan Smith, the Buccaneers will also be without starting tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and starting strong safety Major Wright. Luke Stocker has been identified as the starter in Seferian-Jenkins' place but the Bucs are likely to make heavy use of Brandon Myers and possibly Cameron Brate as well. Chris Conte will start at strong safety for the second straight week after a very good performance last Sunday in New Orleans. The Buccaneers will also give the start at left tackle to Tim Jennings over Alterraun Verner.
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Tampa Bay's inactive players for the game are Smith, Seferian-Jenkins, Wright, QB Ryan Griffin, RB Mike James, WR Adam Humphries and OL Matthew Masifilo.
Houston came into the game with 52 players on their roster and thus only had to declare six inactives. They are Foster, WR Jaelen Strong, S Lonnie Ballentine, LB Mike Mohamed, G Xavier Su'a-Filo and T Duane Brown. Chris Clark will start for Brown at left tackle. Starting left guard Jeff Adams was placed on injured reserve, and while the Texans didn't announce a replacement before the game it is anticipated that Oday Aboushi will take Adams' place.
The Buccaneers take on the Texans on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at NRG Stadium and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. The Buccaneers are seeking to go over .500 for the first time since 2012.
"We talk an awful lot about starting fast and finishing strong, but it's really just about being consistent with your play throughout," said Smith. "We do want to start fast but we want to keep that good play throughout the game. It always comes down to how you finish though, especially when you're on the road. The home team is normally going to make a stand even as they're behind, but it's about us. We want to make improvements from last week."