The time is now for Whitney Mercilus to step up for the Texans

The time is now for Whitney Mercilus to step up for the Texans
It's now or never. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Houston Texans defenders will have their hands full against the Minnesota Vikings, noon Sunday at NRG Stadium.

Both teams are in a "must-win" situation entering the game with distressing 0-3 marks.

Vikings offensive coordinator and former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak will look to use their vicious run attack (146.7 rushing yards per game) to assault the Texans frontline that has given up 160 or more rushing yards in each game this season.

History buffs will note the last time the Texans did this was 2008.

Much of the Vikings run workload will be on the back of Dalvin Cook, coming off a career performance, 181 yards on 22 carries, including a 39-yard touchdown.

Texans defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver has yet to muster a scheme to stop the run. The defense has allowed 4.49 yards per carry playing in 4-3 (base), and 6.19 yards per carry in nickel. These numbers demonstrate issues defending the run, with Whitney Mercilus as a prime culprit.

For the Texans to have a chance Sunday, it's time for Mercilus to step up and prove he's worth the 4-year 54 million dollar contact Bill O'Brien signed him to this past off-season. Against the Steelers last week, Mercilus failed to set the edge against the run, the third game in a row he's failed to get the job done. With only five solo tackles on the year and no quarterback hits, Texans fans' patience is running short with Mercilus.

It is clear that O'Brien is missing tackle D.J. Reader as part of the box that could slow a heavy run game. O'Brien obviously valued Mercilus over Reader, who left the Texans to sign an almost identical contract with the Bengals (Four-year 53 million).

One strategy that has been floated in preparing for Minnesota is loading the box with safety Justin Reid to shadow Dalvin Cook.

If the Texans had another veteran in the secondary this could be a workable proposal (cough cough Earl Thomas), but seriously they don't have another skill player in the secondary that can be trusted to defend deep pass routes.

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is starting to develop chemistry with former national champion LSU burner Justin Jefferson. Cousins has connected with Jefferson 12 times for 245 yards and a touchdown in just three weeks with the rookie.

Jefferson and Pro-Bowl receiver Adam Thielen rank fourth and fifth in Pro Football Focus' Week 4 wide receiver grades. Texans cornerback Gareon Conley remains unavailable, but the young secondary has stayed consistent, ranking fourth in the league in efficiency against the deep ball. Regardless, Texans safety Justin Reid needs to hang back to lock down deep threats against Cousins and his core of receivers. Weaver should plan to have linebackers Zach Cunningham (team leader in tackles) and Bernardrick McKinney stack the box to contain Cook. Hopefully Mercilus shows up to the party.

Hopeful: Texans defensive end Charles Omenihu returned to practice Thursday after nursing a knee injury. Omenihu's return will be an essential cog to stopping the run and applying pressure on Cousins. Omenihu is tied with J.J. Watt for team leader in sacks (2).

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96 games down, 66 games to go as the Astros tackle a fairly significant series in Seattle to open up the figurative second half of the season Friday night. It’s actually just over 40 percent of the schedule remaining. With the Astros having closed within one game of the Mariners in the American League West it’s the biggest series possible for them as the season resumes. But it’s not remotely make or break. Measuring by run differential the Astros should already be out front. They have outscored their opponents by 49 runs while Seattle is just plus-19. The actual standings can be explained in no small part by this comparison: in one-run games the Astros are a pitiful 7-17 while the Mariners are 19-14.

The spectrum of outcomes this weekend ranges from the Astros sweeping and leaving the Emerald City two games on top, to getting swept and heading down the coast to Oakland four games behind. Of note, the Mariners beat the Astros in five of the seven meetings to date this season. So if Seattle wins this series it clinches the season series and playoff tiebreaker should a spot come down to it. The Astros and Mariners have another series to come after this one, three games in Houston the final week of the regular season.

Trade deadline looming

What may be even more important than this weekend’s games is who gets what done between now and the July 30 trade deadline. With Justin Verlander clearly not close to returning, Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss both performance question marks, and both Ronel Blanco and Hunter Brown being asked to handle unprecedented workloads for them, the Astros’ rotation needs obvious fortification. The Mariners’ rotation is second to none in the American League and their bullpen is good. Seattle’s lineup is atrocious. The Chicago White Sox are on pace to be one of the worst teams of all-time. The ChiSox’ offense is a joke with a team batting average of .220. The Mariners’ team average is .219. Only the White Sox and pathetic Marlins are scoring fewer runs per game than the M’s.

The Mariners have 11 players with at least 100 at bats this season. Eight of them have an OPS of .690 or lower. Cal Raleigh has the highest at .734. The Astros have 12 guys with at least 100 at bats including Jose Abreu. Abreu, Chas McCormick, and Mauricio Dubon are the only .690 or worse OPS guys. Kyle Tucker is the Astros’ OPS leader by a significant margin, .979 to Yordan Alvarez’s .912. What’s that you ask? Who is this Kyle Tucker? 35 missed games and counting for “Tuck” with his leg bone bruise, with return not imminent. T-Mobile Park is a notably better pitchers’ park than is Minute Maid Park, but not enough to shrug off the Mariners’ offensive ineptitude. The Mariners team payroll is more than 100 million dollars below the Astros’ payroll. The Mariners have the clearly better farm system from which to deal. If Seattle doesn’t add offense, its ownership and front office will deserve a continued fade in the second half, on top of the Mariners’ 8-15 gimp into the All-Star break.

Don't forget about the Rangers

With the Astros and Mariners going at it this weekend with the division lead in the balance, a reminder that this is not a two-team race. The Texas Rangers rallying to take the final two games at Minute Maid Park last weekend sent up a flare that the reigning World Series Champions are definitely still in the picture. The Rangers sit four games behind the Astros, five back of the Mariners. If the Rangers manage to win their series in Arlington with the Orioles this weekend, they are guaranteed to gain ground on at least one team ahead of them. The Astros-Rangers season series sits tied at five wins apiece with three games left, it will be decided in Arlington the first week of August. The Rangers and Mariners play seven more times.

In broader view, as measured by opponents’ records, the Astros have the toughest remaining schedule among the three. Among the 30 big league clubs the Rangers have the fourth easiest slate left, the Mariners have the fifth easiest, the Astros have the 15th easiest. If the Astros ultimately are not to win the West, there is the Wild Card race to keep in mind. The Astros are seven games behind the Yankees, four behind the Twins, and three and a half back of the Red Sox. Those three currently hold the Wild Card spots. The Astros are also a game and a half behind the Royals. The Astros have already lost the season series and tiebreakers to the Yankees, Twins, and Royals. The Astros and Red Sox have all six of their meetings yet to come.

Remembering Ken Hoffman

This is my first column since the passing last Sunday of my friend and eventual colleague Ken Hoffman. I originally learned of Ken’s quirkiness and wit through his columns at the Houston Post. He was a big sports fan. Our friendship was driven in part by our shared passion for tennis. We played probably more than a thousand times over nearly 20 years. Tennis and baseball were Ken’s two favorite sports. His two favorite athletes were Roger Federer and Jose Altuve. Well, after he and his wife Erin’s son Andrew, who was a pitcher on Trinity University’s 2016 NCAA Division Three national championship-winning team.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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