Mandatory Credit: Photo by Trask Smith/CSM/Shutterstock (13436021ae) Houston Texans running back Dameon Pierce (31) rushes for a 75-yard touchdown during the 2nd quarter of an NFL football game between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX NFL Chargers vs Texans, USA – 02 Oct 2022
On Sunday, quarterback Deshaun Watson makes his first appearance since Jan. 3, 2021, when he played his last game for the Texans. His 11-game suspension is up, and he replaces Jacoby Brissett for the 4-7 Browns. Watson and Kyle Allen, starting his second game for the Texans, squared off in 2019, also at NRG Stadium. The Texans lost to Allen and the Panthers 16-10 on the way to their last AFC South title and playoff victory. Here are five plot lines for Sunday’s game that’s attracted national attention because of Watson’s return.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM WATSON
It’s been so long since he played, it stands to reason Watson should be rusty. Coach Kevin Stefanski, who calls the plays, has an outstanding running game to provide balance for Watson. Nick Chubb, one of the league’s premier backs who has 1,039 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, might be able to defeat the Texans by himself by just pounding the ball against the NFL’s worst run defense.
One thing Stefanski must do is allow Watson to throw a variety of passes to help him get over any nervousness and knock off the cobwebs of inactivity. Expect Watson to throw from the pocket and rolling to his right and left. He’ll also take off when he’s under pressure and try to run for yards.
When the Texans are able to put Watson in long situations, they have to apply pressure. They had five sacks in the loss to the Dolphins, tying their season high. They’d like to set the edge, keep Watson in the pocket and get after him, but as Texans’ fans know, that strategy can often backfire.
WHO’S GOING TO COVER COOPER?
Amari Cooper was Jacoby Brissett’s favorite target. No doubt he’ll be Deshaun Watson’s favorite target, too. With rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. expected to miss another game because of a hamstring injury, coach Lovie Smith should rely on cornerback Steven Nelson and a safety to double Cooper.
Cooper has 57 catches for 792 yards and seven touchdowns. Smith, who calls the defenses, should try to make sure any receiver other than Cooper is going to beat them. The Texans have been successful at not allowing big pass plays. That’s one reason Smith likes to play so much zone coverage.
One problem has been the defense isn’t getting takeaways like it was through most of the season. The offense needs all the help it can get, and it hasn’t enjoyed the luxury of a short field provided by a defense with a fumble recovery or interception.
ANOTHER SLOW START COULD BE LETHAL
The Texans have a six-game losing streak and the worst record (1-9-1) in the NFL. They’ve embarrassed themselves in the first half of the last two games, losing to the Commanders and Dolphins 50-0 at halftime. They were outgained 533-37.
The slow starts are nothing new. They’ve scored on their first drive once this season. Playing from behind is not a strength for this offensively challenged team. If they allow the fast-starting Browns, who have outscored their opponents 65-36 in the first quarter, to get off to a quick start, the Texans are doomed.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton hasn’t been able to concoct a game plan that confuses opponents or keeps them off balance. The opponent’s game plan revolves around stopping running back Dameon Pierce and getting after the quarterback. In this case, that’ll be Kyle Allen for the second consecutive game. He was sacked five times at Miami. The Texans have allowed 10 sacks in the last two games. Expect more of the same against the Browns and end Myles Garrett, who has a team-high 10 sacks.
Somehow, Hamilton and Allen have to devise and execute a plan that allows the Texans to get an early lead rather than fall behind again and play catch-up, a strategy for which they’re not suited.
LINEMEN MUST CLEAR PATHS FOR PIERCE
The Texans are desperate for running back Dameon Pierce and his blockers to bounce back from the dead after their lack of production in the last two losses to Washington and Miami.
In losses to the Eagles and Giants, Pierce averaged 115.6 yards rushing. He was on a 17-game pace for more than 1,400 yards. After carrying 15 times for 16 yards in the last two games, he’s on a pace for 1,217.
Pierce hasn’t been the problem. The interior offensive linemen – guards Kenyon Green and A.J. Cann and center Scott Quessenberry — have been getting dominated by talented defensive tackles. The deck has been stacked against Pierce, and he’s been getting hit before he can take a step forward.
If Pep Hamilton can’t find a way to get Pierce some running room against a defense that’s 23rd against the run (131.5 yards a game), then the interior line will get dominated again. If Pierce can’t find room inside, then Hamilton has to find a way to get him in space outside, perhaps as a receiver.
THE OFFENSE’S WORST FEAR
When Jadeveon Clowney played outside linebacker in the Texans’ 3-4, he often would line up inside in running situations. Clowney was outstanding against the run. Defensive coordinators Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel would try to create mismatches with him, and sometimes, that would be moving inside to shut down the run or take a shorter path to the quarterback and disrupt the passing game.
Well, guess what the Browns could do? They could move Clowney inside, and they could move end Myles Garrett inside, too. With the trouble the Texans’ interior offensive linemen are having blocking talented tackles, imagine what could happen if Garrett and Clowney both move inside to go against guard Green and Quessenberry?
That strategy could be disastrous for the Texans’ running game with Dameon Pierce and passing game with Kyle Allen. If the Browns leave Garrett and Clowney outside to go against tackles Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard, that would be foolish, not to mention bad coaching.
No matter where Garrett and Clowney line up, Allen has to drop three steps and get rid of the ball. If he waits in the pocket to wait for a receiver to get open, he could get vaporized.
(John McClain writes four times a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).