Dramatic changes have hit the Texans’ offensive line during the past week involving an overhaul of both starting tackle positions.
Already mired in a four-game losing streak, the Texans lost Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil to a torn thumb ligament that requires surgery Thursday and will eventually prompt the team to place him on injured reserve.
Less than a week ago, the Texans placed veteran right tackle Marcus Cannon on injured reserve. Cannon, 33 has a painful herniated disc injury in his back that's causing sciatica symptoms and has prompted him to seek second medical opinions with surgery regarded as one of the potential options, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
Where this leaves the 1-4 Texans heading into Sunday’s AFC South divisional game against the Indianapolis Colts: Geron Christian Sr. replaces Tunsil as the left tackle with Tytus Howard remaining at left guard despite some early-season struggles in his transition from right tackle and towering former fourth-round draft pick Charlie Heck as the starting right tackle to replace Cannon.
“Geron is going to go right at that position and we feel good about that,” Texans coach David Culley said. “He knows he’s been the backup he’s actually backed up both sides. He’ll be on the left side and Charlie will be on the right side. In this league, the next man up has got to go and he’s the next man up.”
And Culley affirmed that Howard, a natural right tackle who played a lot of left tackle at Alabama State before being drafted in the first round, isn’t going to be on the move. At least for now.
“This week, he’ll be a guard,” Culley said of Howard.
A former fourth-round draft pick from North Carolina and the son of Kansas City Chiefs offensive line coach Andy Heck, Heck arrived at training camp with a new body and a different mentality.
At 6-foot-8, 308 pounds, Heck restructured his body and added a lot of lean muscle through long hours in the weight room with Texans strength and conditioning coach Mike Eubanks. Heck supplemented that with extra workouts with Billy Voltaire of Volt PT, doing Olympic lifts at Kinitro Fitness alongside veteran center Justin Britt and Howard.
After struggling with the speed of the game as a rookie, Heck has improved dramatically and is playing with better movement, technique and confidence. Heck was a strong candidate to be the Texans’ starting right tackle when the season opens against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Culley called him the most improved player on the roster.
Then, Heck tested positive for COVID before the Jacksonville game and was replaced by Cannon.
Now, Heck is coming off a 25-22 loss to the New England Patriots in a game he started and allowed one sack. He has a 64.2 overall blocking grade from Pro Football Focus, including a 68.7 pass blocking grade and 59.3 run blocking grade.
“I thought I played pretty well,” Heck said. “I mean, there is always stuff you can improve on. So, throughout this week we are going to look at the film, we are going to correct the mistakes. Getting out there for the first time, kind of adjusting to the speed of the game, it takes a little bit, but I felt I did pretty well out there.”
The sack happened on an overload against New England.
“That just comes down to communication up front,” Heck said. “We could have picked that up if we communicated right. We had the numbers, we have thrown hot. So that just comes down to pre-snap communication with us.”
The Texans, regardless of who’s playing offensive line, have struggled to run the football effectively.
They’re ranked 28th in rushing offense, with just 399 total rushing yards, led by running back Mark Ingram (212 yards, 3.1 per carry) with David Johnson ranked second with just 72 yards and rank last in the NFL in rushing average (3.1 per run on 128 carries).
“I think a lot of it is we are being our own enemy,” Heck said. “We’re not really able to get into a rhythm because of penalties, pre-snap stuff, lining up wrong. I think once we eliminate that we will be able to really get into a rhythm and get the run game going.”
Heck started one game and played in three as a rookie last season after being drafted in the fourth round out of North Carolina. This year, Heck looks like an entirely different player following a full offseason of training unlike last year during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.
A year ago, Heck struggled mightily during training camp.
Heck encountered a steep learning curve while adjusting to the superior speed of experienced pass rushers.
Heck made progress eventually after he allowed one sack and forced fumble, two quarterback hits and one hurry for in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Heck absorbed a lot of knowledge from Cannon, who owns three Super Bowl rings.
“I mean it was awesome having Marcus with us,” Heck said. “He was somebody I’ve really looked up to. He’s done such a good job in this league for a long time, so it was always fun kind of picking his brain, watching how he practices, kind of how he really is as a pro. It’s a long season, so I was always preparing each week like I was going to start.
“Because he’s had such a long career, he sees some things that he would do early on in his career that I would be doing. So, he says, ‘These are things I wish I had somebody kind of helping me with when I was younger.’ So, he’s been able to do that for me, seeing little things in pass protection or the run game that I think will go a long way.”
In college, Heck previously started at right tackle as a sophomore and a junior. Heck bench pressed 225 pounds 21 times at the NFL scouting combine and ran the 40-yard dash in 5.16 seconds.
“Strength is a big thing,” Heck said. “You know, confidence is big, knowing your job inside and out, trusting your technique, that huge for an O-lineman.”
With his father being a former NFL offensive lineman and first-round draft pick from Notre Dame, Heck gets a lot of valuable advice.
“My dad has been a great resource for me,” Heck said. “Football has always been a part of my life. What’s special to me is that my dad has always been my dad first. He wasn’t really that kind of coaching figure. I mean obviously as I got older, he was a resource for me but he was always a dad first.”
Not having Tunsil, a Pro Bowl blocker, is another difficult adjustment for the Texans. Christian is a former Washington Football Team starter and third-round draft pick from Louisville who was acquired off waivers this spring.
Christian has a 60.0 overall Pro Football Focus grade, including a respectable 76.9 pass blocking grade.
Not having Tunsil, though, is a blow for the Texans.
“It’s huge,” Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks said of Tunsil’s injury. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but if that is the case, it’s huge. You talk about a talent like that, I mean the guy is special.
“He’s been playing at a high level since the moment he stepped into this league. With the next man up, when your number is called, being ready. We’ll be ready for that.”
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.