The Houston Texans are set to play their season opener against the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football. The Texans have a big opportunity in front of them playing one of the favorites in the NFL to play in the Super Bowl potentially.
With plenty of changes already in the AFC South, the Texans have a chance to make a mark if they can find a way out of New Orleans with a win. Here are some things to watch for the Texans heading into their regular-season opener:
What to Watch Against the Saints
Deshaun Watson Needs to Take a Step
Talent is not the issue with Deshaun Watson. He has all of the athletic ability, smart to run the offense, and the leadership the Texans want in the position. Where Watson needs to clean up his game is holding the football too long when he is in the pocket.
In 2018, Watson was one of four quarterbacks in the NFL that have over 3.00 seconds to throw the football. That number is high for various reasons, holding the ball in the pocket or just Watson extending plays for the offense. Either way, there is a time and place to extend plays, but this number has to drop for the upcoming season.
For comparison's sake, Watson average time to throw was 3.01 seconds. New England Patriots Tom Brady and Los Angeles Chargers Philip Rivers averaged 2.62 seconds while New Orleans Saints Drew Brees was at 2.59 seconds.
Watson is going to have to shrink that number this season. He is going to have to do it with presnap decision making understanding what the defense is throwing at him.
Tackle, Tackle, and Tackle
The Texans are going to have to tackle well on defense and not give up free yards on defense to the explosive Saints offense. Across the NFL on Sunday, missed tackles were prevalent, leading to big plays that resulted in touchdowns. There is limited contact during camp, and the core of the team is not getting much tackling in during preseason games which leaves many defenders at a disadvantage.
The secondary will be under the microscope in this area against the Saints. Johnathan Joseph, Justin Reid and Tahsuan Gipson did not get much work during the preseason, but they will get plenty of snaps in the opener.
Tackling is paramount for the Texans.
Offensive Line Front and Center
The biggest story all off-season was the Texans and their offensive line and if they could improve from a disappointing group in 2018. Bill O'Brien saw enough of his left tackle group during camp to make the big move for Laremy Tunsil. Adding Tunsil next to rookie first-round selection Tytus Howard instantly upgraded the left side of the offensive line athletically. The rest of the offensive line is exactly like last season's week one opener with Nick Martin, Zach Fulton, and Seantrel Henderson.
This group will be depended on to take the pressure of Watson with cleaning up their communication in pass protection and opening holes in the run game.
Whitney Mercilus Time
All eyes will be on J.J. Watt, but Whitney Mercilus is back where he belongs, off the edge. The exit of Jadeveon Clowney has allowed the Texans to put Mercilus back in his position of comfort, the JACK position. A hybrid position that will see Mercilus play both outside linebacker and defensive end during four-man fronts.
Mercilus has been clear that he wants to get back to the 2015 form that saw him post 12.0 sacks and in two seasons post 19.5 sacks.
He has to provide the pass rush opposite of Watt with the attention that he will get from offensive game plans. Mercilus has to win one on ones, and it starts on Monday Night.
New Look Running Back Group
The Texans enter the season with no running back on the depth chart that had a carry from last season. The two top backs against the Saints will be Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde. With Johnson being the jack-of-all-trades back and Hyde being the grinder between the tackles. It is expected some sprinkling in of Taiwan Jones in certain spots in the offense.
Over the seasons O'Brien has trusted Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue to a fault. Due to both Miller and Blue knowing the offense, this is the first time during the O'Brien Era that the duo is not on the week one roster.
Bill O'Brien is going to have to trust these new backs to do the job, and the group has not been here long.