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

Deshaun Watson
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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The NBA Draft takes place this Wednesday and Thursday. Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images.

This year's NBA draft features potential starters and valuable role players more so than no-doubt future stars. That becomes evident when looking at the headlining prospects among big men.

French teenager Alexandre Sarr from France could go No. 1 overall with his length and defensive potential, key reasons why he has thrice topped the AP's NBA mock draft. Meanwhile, Donovan Clingan from two-time reigning national champion UConn also will likely be a high pick as a rim-protecting force.

It's just unclear how quickly any will be ready for a leading role in the league, particularly offensively.

Here's a look at some of the top players in the position:

Alexandre Sarr, France

STRENGTHS: The athleticism, mobility and length offer significant upside at both ends of the court for the 7-footer, whether as a rim protector and versatile defender or as a rim-runner off pick-and-rolls for lobs on offense. Sarr, 19, spent two seasons with the Overtime Elite developmental program for top prospects in the United States, then last season with Perth in the Australian-based National Basketball League as part of its “Next Stars” program. He ranked tied for second there by averaging 1.5 blocks despite averaging just 17.3 minutes.

He finished strong by averaging 10.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.3 assists in his last six games with Perth. He also ranked among the best at the combine with a wingspan of better than 7-4.

CONCERNS: He'll need time to add bulk to a lean 224-pound frame and handle the rigors of an NBA season. Developing more consistent 3-point range (he shot 29% in the NBL last season) will be key to fully realizing his defense-stretching potential.

Donovan Clingan, UConn

STRENGTHS: He is big, strong and surprisingly nimble for his imposing 7-2, 282-pound frame, which made him an interior shot-blocking force in the Huskies' run to college basketball's first repeat men's title in 17 years. He ranked eighth in Division I by averaging 2.5 blocks per game despite playing just 22.6 minutes, then had some massive games in the NCAA Tournament. That included eight blocks and 14 rebounds in the second-round win against Northwestern, followed by 22 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a regional final against Illinois (the Illini were 0 for 19 on Clingan-challenged shots ) and four more swats against Alabama in the Final Four.

The 20-year-old sophomore runs the floor well despite his bulk and is a strong finisher. He also was tied for first at the combine in standing reach (9-7) and was second in wingspan (nearly 7-7).

CONCERNS: It's unclear how well he might handle switches to defend outside the paint in space. While he shot nearly 64% to rank among the national leaders, he has rarely had to produce much outside of the paint. He also shot just 55.8% from the line in two seasons.

Kel'el Ware, Indiana

STRENGTHS: The 20-year-old sophomore has flashed intriguing two-way potential to make himself a first-round prospect, first in a season at Oregon and then last year at Indiana. He averaged 15.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season as a starter for the Hoosiers. He made 17 of 40 3-pointers (.425), indicating the potential for growth in terms of pulling defenders outside.

The 7-footer has a nearly 7-5 wingspan and tested well at the NBA combine by ranking second among bigs in the lane agility test (second at 10.97 seconds) and shuttle run (second, 2.91).

CONCERNS: He'll need to add strength to his 230-pound frame and improve at the line, where he shot just 63.4% last year.

Kyle Filipowski, Duke

STRENGTHS: The 6-11, 230-pound sophomore could play either forward or center as a first-round prospect. He was a steady producer by averaging 15.8 points and 8.6 rebounds with the Blue Devils. He also more than doubled his shot-blocking totals last year (54, up from 26 as a freshman) when having to work as Duke's interior anchor after Dereck Lively II's departure for the NBA. He has shown improved mobility and footwork after surgery on his hips before last season, and he has improved as an outside shooter (34.8% from 3 last year, up from 28.2% in 2022-23).

CONCERNS: Filipowski isn't an elite athlete, so he could be vulnerable defensively in space as well as struggle against physical play. He slipped at the foul line last year, shooting just 67.1% after checking in at 76.5% as a freshman.

Others of Note

—ZACH EDEY: The 7-4, 299-pound Purdue center is a two-time Associated Press men’s college basketball player of the year who led the Boilermakers to last year’s NCAA title game as the national scoring leader (25.2) and Division I’s No. 2 rebounder (12.2). He closed his career with 37 points in the title-game loss to UConn. He has a ridiculous wingspan of nearly 7-11 to go with the ability to shoot over any defender. There is uncertainty whether the first-round prospect is athletic enough to handle defensive switches or guarding in space.

—DARON HOLMES II: The 6-9, 236-pound junior from Dayton spent the past two seasons putting up big numbers, averaging 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 56.7%. He also hit 38.6% of his 3s last year and averaged 2.1 blocks for his college career. The Atlantic 10 co-player of the year and league defensive player of the year could go in the back half of the first round, though he is a bit undersized among bigs.

—YVES MISSI: The 6-11, 229-pound center from Baylor came on as the season went on as a one-and-done prospect with bouncy athleticism, helping him finish at the rim (61.4% shooting) and block shots (1.5). That could make him a pick-and-roll or lob threat in the pros, though the 20-year-old from Cameroon will have to expand his offense beyond those crowd-charging dunks and improve at the line (61.6%).

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