Scouting Report

3 key factors for the Texans to steal a win in Pittsburgh

Slowing down the Steelers passing game is critical. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The last time the Houston Texans dropped two consecutive games, it came during a Week 2 loss to their AFC South rival, the Tennessee Titans. Former kicker Ryan Succop connected on a 31-yard field goal to give his Titans a 20-17 victory over the Texans inside Lucas Oil Stadium. Following the loss, the Texans would go on to drop three consecutive games before reeling off nine straight wins to save their 2018 season at 11-5.

Their bounce-back performance was a testament to the team's resiliency, but the Texans (0-2) are not trying to replicate history two years later. On Sunday, Houston will try to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2018 during their Week 3 match against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I don't want to talk about two years ago back in 2018 when we started off 0-3," Justin Reid said via Zoom on Thursday. "I definitely don't want to do that again but it is about pride. That's what we said at the end of the game and even in the course of the game in the first two games. This is about pride. We're not a defense that's going to turn over and roll on our belly, be belly up, give up, play soft. We're going to fight tooth and nail regardless of what the situation is."

Can the Texans sustain their run defense through four quarters?

Four hundred and seven total yards. Two hundred and thirty yards on the ground. The final numbers displayed in Sunday's box score does not justify how well the Texans' defense played against the Baltimore Ravens. At one point during the game, Houston held Baltimore to 98 rushing yards — 44 at the half — while members of the Texans' defensive line accumulated four sacks on reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson.

Their impressive defensive performance against the Ravens lasted up until the 12:05 mark in the fourth quarter when Mark Ingram scored a 30-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1. Following Ingram's run, the Texans gave up a total of 102 rushing yards the remainder of the game.

Outside of the final 12 minutes — or just the fourth quarter alone — Houston's run defense was a silver lining during their 33-16 loss to the Ravens. The success they showcased for three quarters will be beneficial against the Steelers and running back James Conner.

Creating a defensive scheme for Pittsburgh's run game can go a tad under the radar. It may not be as dangerous as their five-year tenure with Le'Veon Bell, but the Steelers run game can still carry the team to victory on any given Sunday. Conner is one of the most underrated tailbacks in the league, and if not for a few injuries, he would be at the top of most team's scouting reports.

The 25-year-old running back made his return to the starting lineup during their Week 2 victory over the Denver Broncos. Conner carried the ball 16 times for 106 yards (6.6 AVG) and a touchdown. Since his lone Pro-Bowl performance in 2018, Conner has registered seven games of recording 100 or more yards on the ground — six out of the seven resulted in wins for the Steelers.

For a team that has given up nearly 400 rushing yards (396) through the first two weeks, the Steelers may look to exploit the Texans' run defense. Houston must find a way to successfully defend the run for four total quarters.

"To that point, I think we had done a good job as a defense of limiting their rushing yardage," defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver said. "What happens is you have so many competitive guys and when they see the game kind of slipping away, everybody wants to be the guy to make that play. When you come out of structure on defense, big plays happen and that happened a little bit. But it's better to learn the lesson now rather than in January and February."

Can the Texans contain the Steelers three headed monster at receiver?

The Steelers can attack the Texans in a multitude of ways, but none more so than with their receiving core. A wide-out group that features JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh's receiving group is swiftly emerging into a three-headed beast. Houston's secondary will have their work cut out for them inside Heinz Field. The trio of receivers has recorded a combined 393 receiving yards on 32 catches — with Johnson leading the way in targets (23), receptions (14) and receiving yards (149).

Bradley Roby and Vernon Hargreaves have had a less than stellar start to the season. The twosome is responsible for a combined 77.8 percent of completions on 18 targets in pass coverage — with Hargreaves accountable for the latter.

Hargreaves has been the most reliable corner through the first two games and may take on the assignment of containing Smith-Schuster. But the remainder of the Texans' secondary may not be enough to contain the likes of Johnson and Claypool.

If Robey continues to struggle, this could be an opportunity for Philips Gaine to reinsert himself back into the Texans' secondary rotation now that he is fully healthy. In 2019, Gaine appeared in six games for the Texans and allowed 58.3 percent of pass coverage completion on 24 targets, to go along with 13 tackles, 12 solo hits.

"Physical guy [JuJu Smith-Schuster], definitely at the bottom and top of the route," Reid said. "He loves to get handsy. Not afraid of a fist-fight at the bottom or top of the route. Good hands, catchability. He's definitely stepped up his game, especially with the departure of Antonio Brown from last season. I feel like he's stepped into that number one role a lot better starting off this year than he did last year."

Can the Texans get a win with their passing game?

The Steelers have arguably the best defensive line in the league, which will make it challenging for the Texans to establish a run game in Pittsburgh. For Houston to put points on the board, they will have to depend heavily upon their revamp receiving core. Pittsburgh has a trustworthy secondary, but their play can be inconsistent at times.

Against the Broncos, the Steelers gave up a total of 319 yards with 215 coming through the air. If the Broncos' second-string quarterback, Jeff Driskel, could put up over 200 passing yards against Pittsburgh, success for Deshaun Watson should come easy. The only problem, the chemistry between Watson and his new receiving core have looked disjointed thus far.

Against the Ravens, there was a glimmer of hope between Watson and Brandin Cooks, as the two connected for 95 yards on eight targets. Will Fuller had a noble season opener against the Chiefs, but a hamstring injury limited the Notre Dame product to 37 snaps (63%) with no targets on Sunday.

Although both receivers' best attribute is their ability to get down the field, the Texans should look to utilize shorter routes against the Steelers. Not only will it help against Pittsburgh's blitz defense, but it can help Watson get his primary two receivers on the same page — including Randall Cobb — who only has seven receptions through the first two games.

Following their last contest, Watson said he and his receivers are starting to pick up a rhythm, and each week is another opportunity to continue to grow. The Steelers secondary has a history of playing down to the level of their competition, and the Texans receiving group — and offense in its totality — is far from a threat.

"We want to do all the things that we need to do to get on the same page and make sure we're on the same rhythm," Watson said. "We're building that week to week and building that chemistry. We're just where we want to be and just going to continue to grow and get better."

Prediction:

Texans 20 Steelers 17

Coty M. Davis is a reporter for ESPN 97.5 Houston/SportsMap covering the Houston Texans. He is also the co-host of Locked On Texans, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network. Follow Coty on Twitter @CotyDavis_24.

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Let's make a deal. Photo by Getty Images. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

The NFL trade deadline is less than a week away, and the Houston Texans have a significant decision to make regarding their franchise star, J.J. Watt. The Texans are 1-6 through the first seven games of the season, and the next few years of the franchise seem a bit bleak.

No player or staff member has encapsulated Houston's frustration quite like Watt. Excluding the Texans' victory over the Jaguars, the future Hall of Famer has looked miserable in every post-game press conference. Each week, it's the constant look of despair. And in hindsight, closing the chapter on Watt's career in Houston seems to be best for both parties.

At 31-years-old, the All-Pro defensive tackle should be spending the twilight of his career competing for Super Bowls — not playing for a team who is clearly about to hit the reset button at the conclusion of this season.

By departing from Watt, it would allow the Texans to get a jumpstart on their rebuilding project — one that has the potential to bring back quality draft picks, a young prospect, and clear close to $20 million in cap space.

If they decide not to move on from Watt, the Texans risk putting themselves in a situation where they may miss out on obtaining higher draft picks and strapped for cash heading into the 2021 free agency market. And with one year left on his contract following 2020, the Texans also risk losing leverage in a potential deal if forced into trading Watt come next season.

At this stage of his career, the Texans may not receive a haul for Watt's services but could maximize his trade value by dealing him to a championship-contending team. A move that would give Watt the best chances of adding a championship title to his luxurious resume in return.

With the future of the franchise in mind, here are three potential trade ideas that would be best if the Texans are truly considering moving on from Watt.

Watt returns home to Wisconsin and joins the Packers

Texans receive: 2021 first-round pick and LB Kamal Martin

Packer receive: J.J. Watt

The Green Bay Packers are one of a handful of teams who has a realistic chance to stamp their ticket to Super Bowl LV. Following a win over the Texans on Sunday, the Packers stand first in the NFC North with a 5-1 record and possess one of the NFL's best offensive teams.

Green Bay's offense can compete in a shootout with just about any team in the league, but their defense may be the reason why they fall short of representing the NFC in Tampa Bay come February. They have only accumulated a total of 10 quarterback hits and are currently 30th in the league in pass rush through the first six games. The Packers' lack of ability to get to the opposing team's quarterback could be an immense problem during a playoff game that could feature Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson.

So what do the Packers have to lose by acquiring their Wisconsin native?

The addition of Watt would allow the Packers to add one of the best pass rushers of all-time. Although Watt is nowhere near the player that finished second behind Aaron Rogers for league MVP honors in 2015, he has illustrated that he is still a disruptive defensive lineman five years later.

Through the first seven games, Watt has accounted for 11 pressures, six quarterback hits and three sacks — which would make him Green Bay's second most reliable pass rusher trailing only Za'Darius Smith.

For the Texans, receiving a first-round pick for Watt is self-explanatory and would be the most suitable return for the aging star. However, for a team that is building for the future, the Texans should consider obtaining a young and raw prospect to evaluate.

Kamal Martin, a fifth-round draft selection in 2020, made his NFL debut against the Texans on Sunday and left an exceptional first impression. He recorded six tackles and one tackle for loss in 29 snaps inside NRG Stadium, and could be a building block should the Texans begin to make modifications to their linebacking corps.

Seattle sends multiple draft picks for Watt

Texans receive: 2021 second-round pick and fourth-round pick

Seahawks receive: J.J. Watt

If the Packers do not take advantage of improving their pass rush with Watt — perhaps the Seattle Seahawks will. Both NFC teams mirror each other with a high-powered offense, but a feeble defense may hinder one another from advancing to the Super Bowl. In a deal for Watt to the Seahawks, the Texans would miss out on the chance to acquire a first-rounder, but obtaining multiple picks would be just as prominent.

Seattle's general manager John Schneider is no stranger to taking a significant risk, and appears willing to make any moves that will put his organization closer to their long-overdue second title with Russell Wilson. Perhaps, Watt would be that missing key.

The Seahawks are pretty solid at stopping the run but need a tremendous upgrade in their pass defense. Seattle has given up the second-most passing yards on the season (2,212), and the reason seems to be their inability to get to the quarterback. Seattle has only implemented pressure to the opposing team's quarterback on 20.1% of their dropbacks, while only recording a total of nine sacks.

The Seahawks pass defense may not become elite, but the disruption of Watt on their defensive line could be enough to limit the devastation they have experienced through the first seven weeks of the season.

Watt to the Big Easy for Brees' last dance

Texans receive: 2021 second-round pick and Marcus Davenport

Saints receive: J.J. Watt

Seven weeks into the season, the New Orleans Saints are not sitting near the top of the NFC nor their division when compared to recent years. A bevy of injuries have been attributed to their minor decline this season — mainly to their All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas.

However, the Saints have prevailed through the injury bug to march their way to a 4-2 record. If New Orleans can get healthy during the second half of the season, they will be in the running to represent the NFC in Tampa Bay for Super Bowl LV. But unlike the Packers and Seahawks, this could be the Saints last chance to recapture the Vince Lombardi Trophy in what is likely Drew Brees' last dance.

The addition of Watt to the Saints would give general manager Mickey Loomis a chance to create the most disruptive defensive line in the league. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen would be able to shift the five-time Pro-Bowler to the interior — allowing the Saints to trot out a d-line of Watt, Cameron Jordan and Trey Hendrickson.

This trade would give Watt arguably the most help he has ever had on the defensive line — which would allow New Orleans to maximize what is left of his career.

This trade would have the Texans missing out on obtaining a first-rounder, but a sound-round pick would be just as valuable for Watt. However, Houston should consider adding a young prospect in a potential swap, and Marcus Davenport would be their best return.

Drafted in 2018, Davenport is a former first-round talent who can help transition the Texans into the post-Watt era. He has showed promise of a bright future through his first two seasons, but injuries have prevented the 24-year-old prodigy of San Antonio from establishing himself as one of the league's top young talents.

This season, elbow and toe injuries have limited Davenport to just a pair of games in 2020. Although there is an immense concern regarding Davenport's health, the Texans cannot pass on adding a player who has already registered 11.5 sacks and 31 quarterback hits through his first 28 career games.

Coty M. Davis is a reporter for ESPN 97.5 Houston/SportsMap covering the Houston Texans. He is also the co-host of Locked On Texans, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network. Follow Coty on Twitter @CotyDavis_24.

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