5 key Texans players to watch against Cincinnati

The Houston Texans embarrassing Week One defeat against the Jacksonville Jaguars will need to be quickly jettisoned from the team’s mind as they make a tough trip to face the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

On a short week, and hampered by a number of injuries particularly at tight end and receiver, Houston faces a tough ask if they are to win their first road game, but do face a Cincinnati team who struggled in their season premiere against the Baltimore Ravens.

With games looming in New England and at home against Tennessee and Kansas City, the Texans know this game might represent their best chance of a win in a tough early season slate particularly given their strong recent history against their opponents.

If they are to prevail, here are 5 key Texans players to watch on Thursday night:

DESHAUN WATSON

While the team itself hasn’t (as of the time of writing) confirmed the news, it would be bizarre to see them revert to Tom Savage as the starting quarterback after benching him at halftime against the Jaguars. All chatter emerging from sources inside the organization suggests that the ankle injury suffered by Watson in that Jacksonville loss is minor and that the former Clemson star is in line for his first NFL start.

If the Texans are to succeed, the team obviously needs Watson to engineer scoring drives, but most importantly they need him to keep hold of the football and not turn it over. Bill O’Brien needs to develop an offensive game plan that better suits Watson’s skills, with more play-action and use of the dual-threat abilities that make him such a dangerous player. Watson needs to make smart decisions with the football and improve when throwing to his left, an area where he severely struggled in his NFL debut. Watson seemed to form a solid rapport with DeAndre Hopkins in Week 1; expect to see the Clemson connection again in Week 2.

JAELEN STRONG

Strong returns from a one-game suspension due to a marijuana related incident and makes a timely comeback given the soporific week one receiving output. Hopkins was the only wide receiver to register a single catch as Braxton Miller and Bruce Ellington were seldom open and rarely targeted.

Strong is the Texans’ best boundary receiver after Hopkins but needs to become a more consistent threat this year after a largely disappointing open two NFL seasons. His ability to box out smaller corners will be useful to Watson; he played alongside Mike Williams at Clemson, who similarly used his size to win in college. He needs to prove he can be a solid possession option across from Hopkins and contribute in the red zone.

With all three tight ends on the roster unlikely for the game, and the status of Evan Baylis unsure after his expected call-up from the practice squad, Strong’s ability as a run blocker will also help the team. Strong is willing and able in this area so it would not be a huge surprise to see the former Sun Devil lined up in tight to help out the run game

NICK MARTIN

Martin was the Texans’ most impressive offensive lineman in Week One, a title easily secured given the turnstile nature of those around him, including Jeff Allen who will miss this game due to an ankle injury. Martin, left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (benched until Allen’s injury in Week One) and new right guard Greg Mancz face another tough test against a good Bengals defensive line.

Geno Atkins is the star among the group, and his quickness and elite technique make him one of the most dangerous interior pass rushers in the league. Martin actually tends to fare better with speed on the inside compared to brute power (a trait he shares with Mancz) but Atkins is not the only rusher who will be sent his way.

Pat Sims and Andrew Billings are strong men capable of pushing the pocket, while long Michael Johnson is also sometimes used from the interior and offers a different threat should he recover from a concussion to play against the Texans. The whole offensive line needs to improve this week, but if Martin can open holes in the run game against Atkins and Co., and largely hold his own in pass protection, the Houston offense will be in much better shape.

DYLAN COLE

Cole was a preseason standout after being brought on board as an undrafted free agent. That’s good, because with Brian Cushing now suspended until late November, he’s a starting inside linebacker.

Cole is athletic and a strong tackler, and is expected to be utilized as part of the Texans base 3-4 against the run alongside Benardrick McKinney, with Zach Cunningham continuing his nickel or dime role. Cole needs to play more in control, but the gaudy tackling numbers he was able to put up in college suggest he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time in run fills.

With the three-pronged rushing attack of Jeremy Hill, Gio Bernard and rookie Joe Mixon offering a varied palate of power, agility and speed, Cole will have to play strongly to corral the trio and force Andy Dalton to throw behind a shaky offensive line.

KEVIN JOHNSON

Johnson was a disappointment last week, struggling both in coverage early and as a tackler later in the game. Usurping Kareem Jackson as the base starter across from Jonathan Joseph at some point during the summer, this decision was reversed as Johnson was targeted with success early on by Blake Bortles and the Jags offense, resulting in Jackson’s introduction for the second drive. Johnson would later miss wildly on a tackle attempt on Leonard Fournette, though he was not the only Texan to struggle in that regard on Sundays.

Johnson would later miss wildly on a tackle attempt on Leonard Fournette, though he was not the only Texan to struggle in that regard on Sundays.

Against Cincinnati, Johnson faces a tough test against an odd group of wideouts that the Bengals will look to utilize. John Ross is recovered from a knee injury and is expected to make his NFL debut, and the fastest NFL player ever (based on scouting combine 40-yard dash time) offers dangerous ability with the ball in his hand or as a downfield threat.

Johnson is probably the fastest of the Texans triumvirate of top corners with Joseph not as spritely as he once was. That means Johnson figures to be called upon to handle Ross. The Texans had preferred off-man coverage to prevent big downfield plays in Romeo Crennel’s bend-but-don’t-break scheme. New defensive coach Mike Vrabel will follow suit to curb Ross’s game breaking speed.

Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell both have reliable hands and will need to be tackled well as both offer some run-after-the-catch skills, as evidenced by the latter’s 86-yard touchdown catch on a slant route against the Texans last season (a game Johnson missed through injury). A.J. Green needs no introduction, and will likely be double teamed whenever schematically possible. Johnson will also look to improve his run defense for this week, as the Bengals may look to get Bernard and Mixon to the edge where both can excel in making defenders miss. It is important that he and the other corners make their tackles.

 

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