Stonewalling the Cleveland Browns’ formidable pass rushing tandem of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney kept the Texans’ quarterbacks standing tall in the pocket Sunday, earning praise for the handiwork of Pro Bowl left offensive tackles Laremy Tunsil and Marcus Cannon.
Now, the job is arguably even tougher for the Texans’ offensive line Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers’ top-ranked defense coached by Phil Snow and headlined by twitchy pass rushers Haason Reddick and Brian Burns. They’ve combined for five of the Panthers’ NFL-high 10 sacks and have plenty of speed and moves in their repertoire.
“They're fast and they run to the ball,” Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. “At every level, they’ve got guys that can fly. Their two ends are as good of a speed rusher as we’ve seen. Obviously, we saw two good rushers last week, but they're totally different. Got really good athleticism, they can bend, they’ve got good counter moves to the inside.”
At 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Reddick is a compact, speedy pass rusher who had 12 ½ sacks last season for the Arizona Cardinals and is now playing for Matt Rhule, his college coach at Temple University, after signing a one-year, $8 million contract.
“I played with Haason, so I know how good of an athlete he is,” Texans running back David Johnson said. “They're good guys. We're just going to try to run at them and not let them use their speed, and we'll see what happens.”
At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Burns’ game is all about speed and quickness.
Reddick has three sacks, Burns has two sacks. He had nine sacks and 21 quarterback hits last season and 7 1/2 sacks and 16 quarterback hits as a rookie two years ago.
The Panthers lead the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game (190.0), points allowed per game (10.5), passing yards allowed per game (143.5), rushing yards allowed per game (46.6), quarterback hits (21) and third-down percentage (25.0) and sacks.
“They fly around the ball,” Texans coach David Culley said. “They remind me a lot of how our defense plays. Their upfront guys really get after it. Those guys all fly to the ball, they have done a good job of doing that and we have just got to be on our P's and Q's and make sure we take care of that.”
The Panthers held the New Orleans Saints to just 128 yards of total offense on Sunday, their fewest gained in the past two decades. They had six first downs as Jameis Winston was intercepted twice.
“We have great rushers on the field,” Burns told Carolina reporters. “They take a lot of that attention away from me most of the time. And when I can depend on somebody else to get pressure, it messes up their protection.”
The Texans, who are starting rookie quarterback Davis Mills for the first time with starter Tyrod Taylor out roughly a month with a Grade 2 strained hamstring, are dealing with a tough blocking assignment.
Reddick has 15 ½ sacks in the past 17 games and 10 ½ sacks in his past six contests.
“I think they've got some pretty stout guys in the middle,” left offensive guard Tytus Howard said. “Some pretty fast edge rushers outside. Yeah, they have a pretty talented front seven, powerful inside. Linebackers are fast, edge guys are fast. Going to be a challenge.”
The Texans allowed just one sack against the Browns and that was on an unblocked safety blitz from Grant Delpit, who forced Mills to fumble with Cannon recovering. They had just three quarterback hits and only two sacks in two games.
“Yeah, the ultimate goal is no sacks,” Howard said. “The No. 1 job for us while we're here is to protect the quarterback. So that's our ultimate goal, to keep him clean, and I think this season we're doing a pretty good job of that. But we can only get better for our last two performances, so I look for us to be better this weekend.”
The Panthers’ defense also has playmakers in linebacker Shaq Thompson and safety Jeremy Chinn. They allowed 45 rushing yards to the New York Jets and 28 rushing yards against the Saints as Alvin Kamara had five yards on eight carries.
“Shaq runs all over the place, he runs and hits,” Kelly said. “The Chinn guy flies around, he's blitzing, he sticks his foot in the ground. All of them play really, really hard. You feel their team speed when you watch them play.”
Howard expressed confidence in the Texans’ pass protection scheme, but noted that the Panthers’ scheme creates a lot of one-on-one blocking situations.
“We've got to play hard, play to the whistle, and we've got to win the one-on-ones,” Howard said. “That's the biggest thing. They create a lot of one-on-one with their front. They control the edge guys and keep the guys inside from pushing the pocket. I think we should be good to protect Davis all game.”
One week after containing Garrett and Clowney, this is a different kind of challenge based more on reacting and staying square against a speedy front seven as opposed to the power style of the Browns.
“It helps, but it doesn't,” Howard said. “Like you can't compare those two fronts because it's a whole different type of rushers. You've got two speed guys outside and you've got the bigger guys inside here on the defense. It's a totally different defense, so you can't compare how they rest to how these guys go this week. So, I think you've just got to watch the film and practice how you're going to play against those guys, because every week is a different challenge.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.