Photos of Texans' projected starters as listed on team's depth chart.
On Sunday, the 1-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 0-2 Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. It will be just the fourth meeting between the Bucs and the Texans, and only the second regular-season trip to Houston for Tampa Bay since the Texans arrived as an expansion team in 2002. The Bucs would like even the all-time head-to-head series, move over .500 on the season and potentially grab a share of first place in the NFC South.
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To accomplish all of those goals, the Buccaneers will have to try to withstand the pressure from a star-studded defensive front seven operating out of a 3-4 base alignment. Houston's offense could be dangerous too, though a number of injuries threaten to limit its firepower. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they take on J.J. Watt and company in the Lone Star State.
Like Lovie Smith in Tampa, Bill O'Brien is in the second year of installing his program in Houston, having been named the third head coach in Texans history on January 3, 2014. That was one day after the Buccaneers announced the hiring of Smith.
Of course, also like Smith, O'Brien had a long and distinguished coaching career, both in college and the pros, before he arrived with his current team. In O'Brien's case, that included a very successful two-year stint as the head coach at Penn State after a five-year run on Bill Belichick's staff in New England. After spending 14 season coaching a variety of positions (mostly on offense) at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, O'Brien joined the Patriots as an offensive assistant in 2007 and began a rapid rise up the ranks. He was the wide receivers coach by 2008, the quarterbacks coach by 2009 and the offensive coordinator by 2011.
O'Brien's work at Penn State following the painful end to the Joe Paterno era put his impressive leadership skills on display and it earned him a variety of honors, including the Bear Bryant Award. His offensive acumen was reflected in the results from his one year as the Patriots' offensive coordinator, as New England finished second in the NFL in total offense and third in scoring and advanced to Super Bowl XLVI.
O'Brien has been described as intense and passionate on the job. His drive and forceful approach were considered one of the reasons the Texans were able to rebound from their 2-14 record in 2013 to a 9-7 mark in his first year at the helm, a record that just missed putting the Texans in the playoffs. Houston's 0-2 start to the 2015 campaign has evened O'Brien's record as a head coach at 9-9 as the Texans await the Buccaneers in Week Three.
Through the first two weeks of the season, Houston's offense ranks 12th in the NFL in yards gained but tied for 26th in points scored. The two most important developments so far – and the issues the Texans will likely need to resolve in order to get more production are upheaval at quarterback and an unfortunate rash of injuries.
Houston is one of only two teams in the league, along with Cleveland, that has already started two different quarterbacks (though that number will go up in Week Three with changes coming in Chicago, Dallas and potentially Detroit and New Orleans due to injuries). Brian Hoyer won a preseason battle for the job over Ryan Mallett but the two flipped late in a season-opening loss to the Chiefs and Mallett got the start in Week Two at Carolina. The two have combined for a 68.7 passer rating, largely due to a 50.5% completion rate and a low 5.5 yards per pass attempt, but that is in a small two-game sample size. The 6-6, 245-pound Mallett is a prototypical pocket passer who was drafted by New England in the third round when O'Brien was the offensive coordinator, and he has a very strong arm.
The injuries have struck all over the Texans offense, beginning with the groin injury that star running back Arian Foster sustained in the preseason. Foster has just started practicing with the team again, and while he appears to be a long shot to play against the Buccaneers he would give the Texans a much-needed boost. Foster had nearly 1,600 yards from scrimmage in just 13 games last year and is equally dangerous between the tackles or out on the edges catching passes.
Photos of Texans' projected starters as listed on team's depth chart.
In Foster's absence, the team has used Chris Polk and Alfred Blue out of the backfield, with Jonathan Grimes in a third-down role, but the results haven't been strong. The Texans have averaged 79.5 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry so far, both 24th in the NFL. Some of that can also be attributed to injuries and upheaval on what could be a very strong offensive line when healthy. Standout left tackle Duane Brown missed the last game with a thumb injury he first sustained in the summer and didn't practice to start this week. The Texans also flopped Jeff Adams and Derek Newton from Week One to Week Two, with Adams going from left guard to right tackle and Newton making the opposite move. Adams then suffered an apparently serious knee injury against Carolina, so the shuffling may continue. That line has allowed six sacks of Mallett and Hoyer through eight quarters, but on a sack-per-pass-play basis that's right in the middle of the league.
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The pass-catching trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington has already combined for 33 receptions, 410 yards and two touchdowns, but Hopkins is also on this week's injury report with a concussion. He is one of the Texans' most obvious rising stars and he owns two of the team's four touchdowns so far. Washington had one 32-yard catch in Week One and a 48-yarder in Week Two at Carolina, but other than that the Texans have not been able to get the ball downfield. They rank second-to-last in the NFL in completions of 20 or more yards, with the only other one being a 20-yarder by Hopkins. The tight ends have not been a factor, combining for just three receptions so far, but as mentioned the team does make good use of its running backs in the passing attack, and would do so even more with Foster on the field.
Pictures from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, September 23rd at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
With all of its key players healthy, the Texans would have the potential for a very strong offense, particularly if Mallett or Hoyer settles in as an above-average quarterback. Last year Houston had the league's fifth-best rushing attack and was 14th in scoring despite using four different quarterbacks along the way. It's still very early, but this year the Houston offense is struggling in quite a few categories, including first-down efficiency, or how often a first down play gains at least four yards (28th); third-down conversion rate (30th); passer rating (31st); and yards per play (30th). Finally, the Texans haven't helped themselves in the giveaway/takeaway categories, tying for 24th with a -2 ratio, and they have yet to score off a turnover.
If Houston's offense has the potential for good things with some better injury luck, the defense is loaded with stars and potential stars. In terms of the top-level rankings of yards and points, the results have been similar to the Houston offense – 12th in yards but tied for 19th in points – but there are more specific numbers that suggest a stronger unit. For instance, Houston is third in defensive third-down percentage, allowing only 26.9 of them to be converted, and tied for eighth in completions of 20 or more yards allowed. Houston's run defense has allowed 11 carries of 10 or more yards, but none that have gone to 20 or more.
The Texans' defense starts with the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end J.J. Watt (he also won the award in 2012). The most dominant defensive player to arrive in the NFL in years, Watt has put up numbers no other player can touch. Since he was drafted in the first round in 2011 he leads the NFL in sacks (60.0) and stuffs (62.5) and he's tied for sixth in forced fumbles (12). He's also knocked down 39 passes in that span, another one of the ways he disrupts opposing offenses with regularity. From 2012-14, Watt was the highest-rated 3-4 defensive end in the NFL every year on Pro Football Focus, and it wasn't even close; his average rating in that span was 100.5 and the average rating of the player who finished second each year was 37.1. Watt's PFF rating last year was 107.5; no other player at any position graded out higher than 55.3 (Oakland LB Khalil Mack).
Through two games, Watt is tied for second in the NFL with three sacks, accounting for 75% of his team's total, and he also has seven tackles for loss, five quarterback hits and two passes defensed. While the pass-rush numbers aren't there yet for his teammates, Watt is surrounded by potential stars, beginning with "JACK" linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft. Clowney had an injury-plagued rookie season and didn't suit up in the preseason but he's gradually gaining strength and becoming more productive. The Texans were pleased with his Week Two performance when he was on the field for 63% of the snaps and had two tackles and two passes defensed.
During the offseason, the Texans made a very big addition to their defensive line – literally – signing long-time Patriot defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. The 325-pound Wilfork (as listed) plays nose tackle in the Texans' 3-4 front, occupying blockers and freeing up one-on-one opportunities for the likes of Watt, Clowney and pass-rushing linebacker Whitney Mercilus. With Wilfork in the middle it can be tough for an opposing team to get its running game going early; Houston ranks ninth in the NFL in percentage of runs that are allowed to gain four or more yards.
Those backs who get to the second level usually meet inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who leads the team and is tied for 14th in the NFL with 17 tackles. A former Pro Bowler and Defensive Rookie of the Year, Cushing has always been productive when he's been healthy and on the field, though that was the case in only one of the previous three years. He led the team in tackles in 2009 and 2011 and already has 513 stops in his career. The other starting inside linebacker is former Falcon Akeem Dent, who came over to Houston in a 2014 trade and was a part-time starter last year.
The Houston defense features a pair of very experienced starting cornerbacks in Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph. Neither Jackson (5-10, 188) nor Joseph (5-11, 188) are as big as the corners that the Bucs faced in New Orleans but Bucs' wideout Mike Evans calls them "smart" and "crafty." Joseph has split his 10-year career between Cincinnati and Houston and he went to the Pro Bowl in his first two years with the Texans. He has 25 career interceptions and has more passes defensed since 2006 than any other active player in the NFL. Jackson is a former first-round pick for the Texans who got off to a rocky start in the league but has since developed into a very dependable player for Houston. After struggling in 2010 and 2011, Jackson found his way beginning in 2012 and last year was the 11th-rated cornerback in the league by Pro Football Focus. He ranked seventh in the league specifically in pass coverage.
The safeties are experienced and proven as well. Rahim Moore came over to the Texans this offseason after starting for most of four seasons in Denver and needed only one game to get his first interception in Houston. Quintin Demps has bounced around the league a little bit since arriving in 2008, and this is his second stint in Houston, but he started nine games in each of the last two years for the Chiefs and then the Giants.
Houston's special teams strength begins with one of the greatest punters in NFL history, long-time Oakland Raider Shane Lechler. Lechler is the league's all-time leader in gross punting average (47.5), and he's still at 47.0 in his two-plus years in Houston after 13 years in Oakland. He is the only punter ever to average over 50 yards per kick in two different seasons, as he did in 2009 and 2011. Lechler's 43.9-yard net average in 2009 was also an NFL record at the time, though it has been topped twice since. He has a streak of 208 consecutive games played and so far this year is averaging 47.8 yards per kick with a 38.1-yard net. Lechler has managed to down four of his 15 punts inside the opposing 20.
Randy Bullock is in his third season as the Texans' placekicker, and while he struggled some as a rookie, making just 14 of his first 23 tries, Houston is glad they stuck with him. He hit on 12 in a row to finish that 2013 campaign, then last year hit on 30 of 35 tries. That means, with a three-for-three start this year, Bullock has missed only five field goal attempts in his last 50 opportunities. He was also four of five from 50 yards and beyond last year, though he hasn't had to try one from longer than 47 so far in 2015. Bullock has missed one of the league's new longer extra point tries this year, however, pushing one wide right last weekend in Carolina.
For the most part, the kick return game has not been a winning edge for the Texans through two games. Houston does rank 11th in kickoff return average, but that's on a single 27-yard runback by rookie running back Chandler Worthy. Rookie wide receiver Keith Mumphery has handled the punt return duties, getting an average of 7.2 yards on 10 tries, which puts the Texans 21st in the league. Houston's punt and kickoff coverage, however, ranks 29th and 28th, respectively. Opponents are averaging 13.9 yards per punt return despite not having one runback longer than 19 yards.