8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Texans -3.5, Over/Under: 45.5
It’s a Texas Two-Step this Sunday Night at NRG Stadium as the Dallas Cowboys make the short trip southward to face the Houston Texans in a matchup featuring two teams that are desperately in search of consistency and momentum. It’s safe to say that this season has not gotten off the start that was expected for the Cowboys (2-2, 2nd in NFC East), though given what they were bringing to the table in 2018, it appears that said expectations were rather outlandish. Dallas has alternated wins and losses trough the first four games of the campaign largely on the strength of an anemic, one-dimensional Offense balanced by a surprisingly stout Defense. On the offensive side of the football, Jason Garrett’s charges have been absolutely hamstrung by noticeable lack of weapons in the Passing Game, which has afforded opposing Defenses the luxury of loading the Line of Scrimmage against their vaunted Rushing Attack. Many would say that they saw this coming the moment that veteran targets Dez Bryant (69 REC, 838 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 6 TD in 2017) and Jason Witten (63 REC, 560 YDS, 8.9 Y/R, 5 TD in 2017) departed in the Offseason, with the former being released from the team and the latter calling it a career. The problem is that Dallas completely overestimated the talent that they had on hand, for they have done a disappointing job of replacing both players, with their successors struggling mightily to create an separation from the opposition. Brace yourself, folks, for these numbers do not paint the Passing Game in a flattering light; with a quarter of the season in the books, the Cowboys have ranked Thirtieth Overall in Passing Attempts (28.8 A/G), Passing Yards (188.3 Y/G), and Net Yards per Attempt (5.16), with Third-Year Quarterback Dak Prescott suffering for it, completing just 61.7% of his Attempts for an average of 188.3 Yards per Game on just 5.16 Net Yards per Attempt, with Four Touchdowns in comparison to Two Interceptions, all the while recording a Quarterback Rating of 40.6, a steep decline from the 69.5 that he posted in 2017, or the 78.8 he logged as a Rookie. Furthermore, few teams have found more difficulty in moving the chains, converting on a paltry 28.3% of their Third Downs (30th Overall), and even in the Red Zone for that matter, scoring a Touchdown on just 40.0% (29th Overall) of their trips to that particular part of the football field. With that said, all the blame can’t be laid at the feet of the Receiving Corps, for the Offensive Line has underperformed considerably thus far, with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick remaining sidelined suffering from the effects of Guillain Barre Syndrome, which effects his autoimmune system, while fellow All-Pro Left Tackle Tyron Smith struggling with nagging ailments. Predictably, this has had a negative effect on Pass-Protection, with Prescott getting sacked a whopping fourteen times thus far, or on an overwhelming 10.9% of Dropbacks. Granted, the Running Game remains one of the most prolific in the league, with Ezekiel Elliott (75 CAR, 426 YDS, 5.8 Y/C, 2 TD) spearheading an attack that has averaged 145.3 Yards per Game (4th Overall) on a league-best 5.8 Yards per Carry (1st Overall) despite only carrying the football 25.3 times per contest (17th Overall). It appears that Garrett’s solution to their stagnant Offense is to double-down on Elliott, making the explosive Tailback the focal point of the Passing Attack in last weekend’s 26-24 over the Detroit Lions, in which he caught all four passes thrown his way for Eighty-Eight Yards (in addition to 152 Rushing Yards), highlighted by a 38-Yard Touchdown Pass from Prescott shortly before Halftime. Fortunately for all parties in Arlington, Texas, the Cowboys’ Defense has been very impressive in the early goings of 2018, with the addition of Secondary Coach Kris Richard (imported from Seattle) augmenting a young Defensive Backfield flush with talent. Through four games, Dallas has allowed 19.3 Points (7th Overall) on 306.3 Total Yards (5th Overall), including 208.5 Yards against the Pass (6th Overall) on 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (7th Overall), and another 97.8 Yards versus the Run (12th Overall) on 3.6 Yards per Carry (5th Overall).
Meanwhile, Dallas may not be the most disappointing team in the state of Texas, for up until last weekend, the Texans (1-3, 4th in AFC South) were definitely among the league’s most dismal. Expectations were very high for Houston, who were absolutely decimated by injuries last season, with a return to health, particularly at Quarterback, causing many to predict them to be a borderline favorite for the AFC South Title, and in some circles even a darkhorse contender to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII. Of course, so much of that is projection, for before Sophomore Quarterback Deshaun Watson (62.2%, 311.5 Y/G, 7.04 NY/A, 7 TD, 4 INT, 64.4 QBR) went down with a freakish ACL Tear during practice, this team had the appearance of a juggernaut. Let’s rewind back to the early stages of the 2017 campaign, folks, where the Texans went 3-3 with him starting under Center, averaging a whopping 34.7 Points per Game on 394.3 Total Yards, in comparison to the scant 13.7 Points and 283.1 Total Yards they managed to post the rest of the way. However, with so much of their success predicted on Watson making a healthy return from injury, Bill O’Brien’s charges may have been doomed from the start. Needless to say, things started off rocky as the Texans lost each of their first three games of the season, in largely a repetitive manner: starting obscenely slow, before making things interesting in the second half. This was the case against the New England Patriots in the Season Opener (20-27), followed by the Tennessee Titans (17-20), and then the New York Giants (22-27) before finally flipping the script in last weekend’s thrilling 37-34 Overtime Victory over the Indianapolis Colts. In this one, Watson & Co. started things off quickly for a change, racing out to a 21-7 lead late in the Second Quarter, before the Hosts caught fire in the Second Half ultimately forcing Overtime. In the Extra Period, things got a little weird, as the Colts decided to go for it on a crucial 4th & 4 from their own 43-Yard Line, instead of punting the football away and effectively settling for a Tie. Andrew Luck, who at that point had been absolutely DEALING, having completed 40-of-61 Passes for 464 Yards and Four Touchdowns, dropped back and launched a pass to the short right flank intended for Chester Rogers, only for the young Receiver to fail to make the Reception. Gifted with remarkable Field Position, Houston marched towards the Red Zone, with Watson hitting DeAndre Hopkins (30 REC, 443 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 2 TD) for a 24-Yard Reception to get well within Ka’imi Fairbairn’s range, with the veteran Kicker eventually nailing the game-winning 37-Yard Field Goal to seal their first win of the campaign. Watson completed 29-of-45 Passes for 375 Yards, Two Touchdowns and an Interception, while also rushing for another Forty-One Yards and a Score, but was under fire throughout the outing, suffering Seven Sacks, while the aforementioned Hopkins exploded for Ten Receptions on Twelve Targets for 169 Yards and a Touchdown. Houston possessed the football for a staggering 40:04, went of 8-of-16 on Third Down, and posted a balanced 466 Yards of Total Offense, with 347 coming through the air and 119 coming on the ground. Perhaps this was the performance that O’Brien’s troops needed to round back into the form that they exhibited before Watson’s unfortunate injury a year ago. However, keep an eye on the play of the young Offensive Line, which was rebuilt in the Offseason, and has already suffered heavy losses, with Right Tackle Seantrel Henderseon landing on Injured Reserve with a Broken Ankle, and his replacement, Kendall Lamm, labeled as Questionable for this weekend’s tilt with the Cowboys, along with Interior Linemen Zach Fulton (Shoulder) and Senio Kelemete (Knee). Watson has been sacked seventeen times already this year, and must receive better protection if he is completely return to his Rookie Form, for a matchup with Dallas’ tenacious Defensive Line will likely cause plenty of problems for this unit.