WALK THE LINE

Here's where the Texans must find success against the Steelers

The O-line has to give Watson time to throw against Pittsburgh. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The offensive line for the Houston Texans made some significant improvements in 2019. A year after they allowed Deshaun Watson to take a career-high 62 sacks, the Texans' offensive line helped their franchise quarterback nearly cut his sack total in half (44), and entered this season with a top-20 O-line, according to Pro Football Focus.

The 2020 season was supposed to be the year Houston's offensive line took another step forward in the right direction, especially considering all five starters from the previous year were returning. A group of offensive linemen who posted a pass-blocking grade of 70.0 or above.

Two weeks into the regular season, that could not be further from the truth.

In some ways, Houston's pass-protection has reverted back to how they performed in 2018. They are currently tied for the most sacks allowed through the first two games of the season with eight, and their offensive line (or lack there of) has played a massive part in their 0-2 start. During their Week 2 loss against the Ravens, the Texans allowed Baltimore to rush Watson 14 times, which resulted in four sacks.

There is reason to be optimistic that the line will make positive strives as the season progresses following a shortened offseason. But Houston's Week 3 opponent featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0) could leave their offensive line in the most vulnerable position of the season.

"We're just building chemistry," Watson said via Zoom on Wednesday. "Some of that stuff is myself. Protect myself and get rid of the ball a little faster. Some of the stuff is the play call and sometimes I put myself in the run game to get hit and things like that. We're just coming along and that's just part of the game. I'm expected to take some shots because that's the game of football and the way I play the game. It's not a big issue for me."

Headlined by T.J. Watt — the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week — the league's best defensive line arguably resides in Pittsburgh. They have had a top-five defense in two of the past three seasons, and are on track to replicate their success.

During their Week 2 victory over the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh became the first of two teams to record double-digit sacks on the season (Washington) — as the Steelers totaled seven inside Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday. Their D-line excels in nearly every aspect Houston's offensive line has struggled with in their pass-protection thus far.

Throughout the first pair of games, the Steelers' defense has blitzed their opponents 61.7 percent of the time — more than any other team in the league. They have accumulated a league-best 40 QB pressures, 20 QB hurries and have tied for second in QB hits with 10. And with veteran defensive end Stephon Tuitt coming off the right side of the line, the Steelers have an opportunity to assail the Texans' most vulnerable section of their O-line.

"I think we've done some decent things," head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien said via a Zoom conference on Wednesday. "People look at quarterback pressures and quarterback hits. But a lot of that is not just the line. Everybody's involved in it. Everybody's got to improve. I think our line will continue to work hard and will continue to get better."

The tandem of Zach Fulton and Tytus Howard has been alarming — to say the least. Fulton appears to have regressed from the improvements of the previous season, while injuries have hindered Howard from returning to the player he was prior to his MCL tear in 2019. Together, both players have combined for a grade of 61.8.

The most dependable element of the Texans' offensive line has been their success in run blocking. Following Week 2, the Texans saw two of their linemen finish among the top players in run-game metrics. According to ESPN, Nick Martin placed in the sixth percentile among centers in run block win rating (98%), while Howard placed second among offensive tackles at 89 percent.

However, similar to their game against the Ravens, do not expect Houston to depend on their run game. The Steelers have given up the least amount of rushing yards so far this season — allowing an average of 66.5 yards on the ground.

So if the Texans have any chance to pick up their first victory of the season inside Heinz Field, they may have to do so while depending on their passing game. And it is going to take more than Laremy Tunsil to stave-off the Steelers front seven.

After all, a much improved offensive line who can protect Watson is the key to unlocking the Texans' full potential on offense.

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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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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