Photos of Texans' projected starters as listed on team's depth chart.
Midway through the third quarter of their Week Two game at Carolina, the Houston Texans were tied with the Panthers, 10-10. In the time that remained, each team would embark on one extended, 80-yard touchdown drive. The possession that made the difference in the end, however, was just one play long.
In the fourth quarter, Carolina linebacker A.J. Klein intercepted a Ryan Mallett pass that was intended for tight end Garrett Graham, giving the home team possession at the visitors' 36-yard line. On the next snap, Cam Newton threw deep down the middle to Philly Brown for a touchdown that made the score 24-10. Mallet would lead the Texans 80 yards for a score on the next possession and then get Houston back into Carolina territory in the closing seconds, but a fourth-and-16 pass from the Panthers' 20 was incomplete.
The Texans are 0-2 on the young season after twice losing by a single score. They have allowed three of what Statspass refers to as "quick-strike drives," possessions that produce scores in four or fewer plays. That's the most in the NFL through two games. All three came after turnovers in their own end of the field, which has obviously put the Houston defense in some difficult situations. Despite that tilted field of play, linebacker Brian Cushing says his crew has to do more to even it out, specifically by eliminating those quick strikes and creating some turnovers of their own. Houston has just one takeaway so far, and it did not result in points.
"I think we need to get better on first down and just stay consistent and play four quarters of football," said Cushing in advance of taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week Three. "You watch the film and it's kind of, 'Really good, really good, really good' and then a big play is given up. We've just got to eliminate that. A big way to do that also is get more turnovers, get the ball back for our offense – [that] will be really critical and really important for us as well. Any time we can do that, that would definitely benefit our team. I would say eliminate the big plays and get the ball back more and win the turnover battle [are the keys]."
Cushing might be the one to provide some of those key plays. He has eight interceptions, eight forced fumbles and 12 sacks in his career, and is usually in the middle of the action as the Texans' leading tackler. A former Pro Bowler who has missed a significant amount of time in recent seasons due to injury, Cushing is fully back in the mix now and surrounded by such potential big-play makers as J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Vince Wilfork. The Texans want that star-studded group to take control of the game early so they don't have to fight back at the end as they did the first two weeks.
"Both games for us have come down to the last possession and we just haven't been able to get over the top." Said Head Coach Bill O'Brien. "We have to play better in the first half of these games. We dig ourselves too big of a hole."
Now Houston's defense steps into a situation that is often thought to be conducive to big defensive plays; that is, they're facing a rookie quarterback who is still learning his way in the NFL. Of course, that rookie just got his first professional win last Sunday in another hostile road environment and Cushing thinks it's paramount that the Texans not let young Jameis Winston build on that first win and find a lasting rhythm.
"I think [you see] the maturity," said Cushing of Winston. "Now it being game three, he's going to be more comfortable. Got a big win on the road, it's never easy in the NFL, so he's got that under his belt. He's going to be feeling a lot better going into this game and, like I said, once he gets into a groove and starts running a little bit and making plays and extending plays is when he's really dangerous. Obviously, [we're] going to try to get after him as best as we can – disguise some coverages and obviously not make it easy for him."
Winston did offer up a big-play opportunity in the Buccaneers' first game, and the Tennessee Titans took advantage with a pick-six at the front end of a first half onslaught that put the game out of reach. He was far more in control in Week Two, however, and that's the player Cushing expects to encounter at NRG Stadium Sunday.
"I think that he looks a lot more comfortable, in terms of Jameis [Winston] going into his second game and kind of finding his groove and figuring out how he wants to attack defenses," said the Texan defender. "I think they got so far behind [in] the first game, it was kind of just trying to come back and overcome that deficit the entire game. For the second game, he felt more comfortable, got in a groove, got some plays going. Obviously [they've] got Doug [Martin] running well with the ball and [he] was able to make some critical throws."
Those Buccaneers who were around for the 2014 season know how Cushing feels after the Texans' first two outings. The 2014 Bucs played a series of games that went down to the wire and in virtually all of them it was the other team that made the huge, outcome-deciding play at the end. The Bucs finished 2-14 with a team they believed to be more talented than that. The Texans, on the other hand, are a long way from 2-14, and there is still a lot of time for a potentially outstanding defense to turn the tide.
"I mean, yes and no," said Cushing, when asked if the Texans were frustrated at their start. "Yes, obviously, because we're 0-2, but, no, because every single game is important. We know that. Just looking at our division, too, it hasn't been as successful as everyone would like. But you know for us, it's pretty good for us, knowing that we're not far behind and can still come back. We've got a lot of football left. We approach every single game as a must-win. It's the next game and no one goes out there with the objective to lose."