Our 2018 Regular Season travels southward to the AFC South, where the Houston Texans look set to rebound from a disappointing 4-12 campaign that was dismantled due to injuries to a wealth of key figures on both sides of the football. Last season got off to a promising enough start for Bill O’Brien’s charges, who went 3-3 through the first six games, with their promising Rookie Quarterback, Deshaun Watson, exceeding expectations by a wide margin. The youngster exhibited all the traits that Houston had long been searching for in a Franchise Quarterback, which made his season-ending ACL tear, which he suffered in practice no less, all the more disappointing. However, Watson was far from the only high profile Texan to bite the proverbial dust, as perennial All-Pro Defensive Lineman J.J. Watt suffered a nasty broken leg in Week Five, followed shortly by Edge Rusher Whitney Mercilus, who tore his pectoral muscle in that same week. As a result, the Defense was porous, allowing a league-worst 27.3 Points per Game, while the Offense struggled to maintain drives. Heading into 2018, the fact that this team has a clean bill of health is by far and away the most important thing, as Watson looks to pick up where he left off, and the Defense looks to get back to where they were two years ago when they led the league in Total Yards Allowed. And with that said, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide whether or not the Texans will bounce back from a season decimated by injuries and retake the AFC South, or struggle to gain ground in what should be an improved division.
As we stated in the opening salvo, the Texans looked as if they were on their way to successfully defending their AFC South crown, only to collapse once Deshaun Watson’s season ended prematurely in a freak injury sustained at practice. Houston traded up to draft the former Clemson Tiger with the Twelfth Overall Pick in the 2017 NFL Draft with every intention of ending their search for a Franchise Quarterback, which had seen eight different starters at the game’s most important position since O’Brien was hired back in 2014. Making the situation all the more disappointing was how far ahead of the curve Watson actually appeared to be; through the first seven games of the season, he was largely impressive completing 61.8% of his Attempts for an average of 242.7 Yards per Game on 7.10 Net Yards per Attempt, along with a (at the time) league-leading Nineteen Touchdowns in comparison to Eight Interceptions, while sporting a ridiculous Quarterback Rating of 81.5. Furthermore, just as he did in his collegiate days, he made plenty of plays with his legs, rushing for 269 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns on 269 Carries, highlighted by an amazing 49-Yard Touchdown Run in his first career start, a 13-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in front of a Thursday Night Primetime Audience. And if you’re not sold on just important this kid was to his team’s fortunes, just look at how the Offense performed with him opposed to without him. In seven outings with Watson on the field, the Texans averaged 30.7 Points (scoring at least thirty in five consecutive games) on 367.4 Total Yards (totaling 400 or more on three occasions), with a Turnover Differential of Minus-1, only to see those figures take a nosedive the rest of the way, with the likes of Tom Savage and T.J. Yates guiding the Attack to 13.7 Points on 283.1 Total Yards with a miserable Turnover Differential of Minus-10. With that said, the most stark of contrasts came in the most important one: wins and losses. With Watson starting, Houston went 3-3 in comparison to 1-9 without him. O’Brien and his Staff have been very cautious with bringing him along through his rehab, and it appears that he will indeed be ready for the team’s Season Opener at New England. How long it takes for him to brush the proverbial dust off his shoulders is anyone’s guess (though he’s looked fantastic in Preseason), but when he does, it will likely be fireworks.
Off the Mend
As humbling as the season-ending injury to their young Franchise Quarterback was, the aforementioned Watson was far from the only Texans’ star to see their campaign end prematurely. Unfortunately, the heart and soul of the team, not just the Defense, suffered a similar malady, as J.J. Watt (15 TKL, 2 PD in 5 Games in 2017) sustained a broken leg in a Week Five loss against the Kansas City Chiefs. For the second consecutive term, the Three-Time Defensive Player of the Year saw his season end early, and unlike 2016 when they managed to circle the wagons and finish first overall in Total Defense, Houston collapsed on this side of the football, ranking dead-last in Points Allowed (27.3 P/G). Though a good deal of that had to do with the Offense proving to be anemic over the second half of the campaign, Watt’s absence loomed even larger. Simply put, when No. 99 is on the field, this unit can be special, for he opens up a wealth of opportunities for those around him. Consider this for a moment; former No. One Overall Pick Jadaveon Clowney (59 TKL, 9.5 SK, 2 PD, 2 FF, 3 FR, 1 TD in 2017) enjoyed his finest season yet without Watt chewing up blockers in front of him, while Inside Linebackers Bernardrick McKinney (95 TKL, 3.0 SK, 1 PD, 1 FF in 2017) and Zach Cunningham (82 TKL, 1.5 SK, 6 PD, 1 FF in 2017) have flown around the football in his absence. However, that’s not all folks, for Watt isn’t the only stud that the Texans will be welcoming back in the Front Seven, for Outside Linebacker Whitney Mercilus (10 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF in 5 Games in 2017) returns from tearing his pectoral muscle in that same fateful defeat against the Chiefs. Needless to say, this Defense is a prime candidate to rebound from last year’s dismal performance, and if that’s not enough, guiding them will once again be Romeo Crennel, who stepped away from his longtime post as Defensive Coordinator to allow his understudy, Mike Vrabel to call plays. Of course, Vrabel was hired by division rival Tennessee to fill their Head Coaching vacancy, which allows Crennel to slide back into that familiar role, which when last saw him, Houston yielded a league-low 301.3 Total Yards per Game.
Building a Juggernaut
As the defense returns to health, Bill O’Brien’s main focus will be cultivating an Offense that has a wealth of talent, though lacks the proverbial connective tissue to evolve into a dynamic unit on a consistent basis. Of course, O’Brien also serves as the Offensive Coordinator, so this attack should feature more than just a personal touch from the longtime playcaller. We’ve touched upon the impact that Deshaun Watson had on this group in the first half of the season, and his ability to get the most out of those around him over the duration of a full campaign could likely vault the Texans back into the Postseason. In the passing game, DeAndre Hopkins (96 REC, 1,378 YDS, 13 TD in 2017) is as dependable a Receiver as you’ll find, while Will Fuller (28 REC, 423 YDS, 7 TD in 2017) has plenty of speed to stretch opposing Defenses. Hopkins, who earned his first All-Pro selection in 2017, developed excellent chemistry with his former Clemson alumni, reeling in Thirty-Eight Receptions on Sixty Targets for 551 Yards and Six Touchdowns in the six games that Watson started. And then there is the running game, which was far more dangerous when the Rookie Signal-Caller was factoring into it; Houston churned out 145.8 Rushing Yards in that span, serving as a stark contrast to the dismal 96.7 without him under Center. Lamar Miller (238 CAR, 888 YDS, 3 TD in 2017) regressed as a rusher last season, with his Yards per Carry dropping to a career-low 3.7, though he has proven to be a solid receiver out of the Backfield, catching Thirty-Six Passes for 327 Yards and Three Touchdowns in 2017. He should form a solid triumvirate with the hulking D’Onta Foreman (78 CAR, 327 YDS, 2 TD in 2017) and the dependable Alfred Blue (71 CAR, 262 YDS, 1 TD in 2017) sharing the load. Foreman had his moments as a rookie before he tore his achilles, providing a physical presence between the Tackles along with the requisite speed to get to the perimeter and make plays. He could eventually become the team’s lead ‘Back, though we’ll have to wait and see how long it takes him to recuperate from injury. But what about that connective tissue we mentioned earlier? Well, the Offensive Line was certainly a piece of work in 2017, and remains a work in progress heading into 2018; the Texans made a concerted effort to improve this flailing position group which should feature as many as three new starters, including Left Guard Zach Fulton (signed to $28 million contract in Free Agency) and Right Tackle Seantrel Henderson (signed for $4 million), with Sophomore Julien Davenport likely earning the nod on the opposite flank after playing well late in the previous term. If the Offensive Line can come together, then this unit as whole can be dangerous, though it will likely take some time with so many new faces.
2018 Outlook: 9-7 (Playoffs)
As promising as things began for the Houston Texans in 2017, they faded just as miserably, and heading into this upcoming season Bill O’Brien and his charges hope that they can avoid the catastrophic rash of injuries that beset them so for a second straight term. In essence, much of this team’s fortunes are going to come down to health. Will Deshaun Watson recapture the electrifying form that made he (and by extension, the Offense) so explosive throughout the first seven games? Will a new-look Offensive Line develop the requisite chemistry to keep their Franchise Quarterback clean, while opening holes for a trio of talented Tailbacks? Will D’Onta Foreman heal from a torn achilles in time to establish himself as the team’s lead rusher? Will J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus return to their threatening ways and bring a sulking Defense back to their lofty perch among the league’s elite? That’s an awful lot of storylines predicated on staying healthy, folks, for if Houston struggles to meet any of those objectives it could be the difference between making the Playoffs or missing out for a second consecutive year. Fortunately, the schedule doesn’t appear to be to difficult, and while the AFC South figures to be more competitive than it was in 2017, it still lacks any dominant side. O’Brien and Romeo Crennel are two of the finest strategic minds on their respective sides of the football, with each benefitting greatly with the healthy return of a number of prominent figures. In our opinion, the Texans could very well win ten to eleven games, though due to their recent history with injury concerns, we’ll hedge our bets a bit and give them nine, though that should be enough to win the division and return to the Postseason.