Coming off a win that has a lot of good vibes going in Houston — taking out an elite quarterback, seeing visible improvement from a bad offensive line, and so on — Houston comes home to face a quarterback with two career starts.
You don’t need Admiral Akbar to tell you what kind of game this is. The Panthers were favored to make a lot of noise in the NFC South, and actually have played pretty well in most phases of the game. Week 2’s loss to the Bucs happened to coincide with their clearly-injured quarterback missing open throw after open throw. They also lost a nailbiter to a 3-0 team where their defense completely silenced an offense with good field position for most of the game. While this isn’t quite the game it looked like when the schedule was released, this isn’t exactly your average 1-2 team with a backup quarterback.
The last time these teams met was in 2015 — the famous Ryan Mallett start before he stopped checking his alarm clock. Houston’s last win against Carolina came in 2007, Steve Smith had 153 yards and three touchdowns. Andre Johnson had 120 and two.
Vegas agreed with the trap game and has placed the game anywhere from minus-4 to minus-4.5 for the Texans, entering the clearly established territory of throwing their hands up. Let’s dig a little deeper.
When the Texans have the ball
A very interesting side note to this game popped up on Wednesday during Bill O’Brien’s media interview, when he seemed to cast some aspersions on his team’s ability to run the ball against Carolina’s front.
“We definitely have to run it better, it was tough sledding. The Chargers did a good job with their game plan. I think in this game again it’s going to be tough sledding … it’s hard to run the ball in the NFL, it really is. …We got to get it more balanced than it was last week.”
That is the clear area of weakness the Panthers have created this year with their move for Gerald McCoy and utilizing their first-round selection on outside EDGE player Brian Burns. The Rams, Cardinals, and Bucs have all run for 100 yards on this Panthers front seven. They are overaggressive and that aggressiveness can be taken advantage of.
Houston’s running game has shown some competence this year, and I believe they need to do a lot more lifting in this game because as nice as that offensive line looked in Week 3, this game is a matchup against a more aggressive defense that can win one-on-one against any member of the offensive line. If the Texans get too pass-heavy, this will be another game where Deshaun Watson gets teed off on. Watson has the ability to play like he did in Week 3 and render all those concerns null. He also has the ability to play like he did in Week 2. The Panthers, for what it is worth, blitzed on 31.7% of their 2018 opponent dropbacks as compared to Los Angeles’ 14.3%. This is going to be a game where Watson and O’Brien are tested in handling the blitz.
Carolina’s most likely path to disrupting the pass is over right tackle Tytus Howard, who is going through ups and downs this season as he plays all over the offensive line. Lining over him will be Burns, who has set the league on fire to the tune of 10 pressures in his first three weeks. Howard is going to need to stalemate him — or get more help than he had last week — for the Texans to unlock the deep passing game.
The cornerback matchups will not lock on to DeAndre Hopkins like they have the last two games, so moving him around will create some easier matchups. Both Panthers cornerbacks are having pretty stellar years to this point. Sports Info Solutions lists Donte Jackson with an average of 7.2 yards per target, and James Bradberry with an average of 6.0. For comparison: Johnathan Joseph is at 9.4. I don’t think the Texans are afraid of Carolina’s corners or anything, but they’ll break up a few plays.
The only thing I can find that’s roundly in Houston’s favor is that Kawaan Short was a DNP on both Wednesday and Thursday and seems unlikely to play this week. That will at least make Dontari Poe play more on passing downs. Jackson also was down on Thursday.
Same as it ever was, this will be a week where the Texans are extremely reliant on Watson’s playmaking and (gulp) O’Brien’s ability to scheme them out of blitz problems.
When the Panthers have the ball
As alluded to earlier this week, Houston’s defensive line came back in a big way in Week 3. They’ll have to do it again here, and they will likely get some help with Panthers guard Trai Turner missing the first two days of practice and appearing unlikely to play in Week 4. The plan appears to be to move left tackle and Shaq Barrett beat-em-up Darryl Williams to guard to take Turner’s spot, then give the tackle job to one of Houston’s draft crushes, Greg Little. Williams had nine blown blocks at left tackle over three weeks, so Little may not be a downgrade at all. It is (checks notes) yet another game where Whitney Mercilus is put into the best possible position. Aaron Reiss wrote him up this week as being deserving of a contract extension. Mercilus continues to find himself in plum spot after plum spot early in the season.
Willams and Taylor Moton will do most of the work on J.J. Watt. Matt Paradis has been somewhat of a turnstile in pass protection early this season, and D.J. Reader has to be licking his chops on that potential matchup. While Moton and Paradis have careers that say they’ll play better than they have this year, both of them haven’t played up to their high standards.
The Texans will need the pass rush, because the Panthers have a number of different things that can harm them. Kyle Allen’s first start this year was heavy on Norv Turner’s play-action and read-option style, and created a lot of open passes downfield.
Allen had a fairly quick trigger on most of his throws — his 2.84 average time to throw was dragged up by his scrambling when Carolina allowed pressure. While he hasn’t exactly had an extended trial yet, both of Allen’s starts have been successes to some extent. (He led the Panthers to a 33-14 win over the Saints in Week 17 last year.) One thing that I wonder about coming into play in this game will be Allen’s deep ball — his couple against New Orleans looked quite good, but the Panthers barely utilized it in Week 3. The Texans are a downhill defense, so a lot of how aggressive they can be will be dictated by how Allen is able to punish them. The best bet otherwise with Allen is to Gardner Minshew him — sack and fumble. He fumbled twice last week, losing one.
Across the board, Allen has mismatches. DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel have both engaged in breakout campaigns to some extent. A healthy Greg Olsen is more than a mismatch for anybody in man coverage. Christian McCaffrey is probably the preeminent pass-catching back in the NFL. The Texans are going to want to stay in zone coverage because I don’t know if they can check a single one of these receivers man-to-man — maybe whoever Bradley Roby has. From what I have seen Allen won’t have problems releasing into holes in zones, and in fact does so with some anticipation.
In addition, Houston’s run defense is a little bit vulnerable right now as well. 14th in run defense DVOA oversells it a bit — Justin Jackson had a touchdown run called back for holding, but the Chargers rushed for about four yards a carry. Still, on the aggregate, Texans opponents have rushed for 5.4 yards per carry this season and that’s not all in the New Orleans game. McCaffrey had a 73-yard touchdown run last week. That belies the fact that they haven’t run the ball all that well this year, but they were second in rush offense DVOA in 2018 and could just be having problems making the new offensive line parts fit.
Joey Slye has hit 7-of-8 field goals, including three from 50+ yards. The Panthers have not shown much hesitance with him. Most of the poor punt return ratings for the Panthers are a lost fumble by Ray Ray McCloud.
Last week’s poor showing by Fairbairn dipped him into negative numbers. It’s probably not a huge concern long-term as he has missed extra points and long field goals before. The changeover to a new holder might affect him in the short-term.
I would dearly like to tell you that the Texans will get to 3-1, and I don’t think I would be surprised if they did. The clearly established formula at this point is Watson greatness + defensive turnovers. That can definitely happen in this game, with a quarterback making his third career start.
However, the more I reviewed this game, the more I found myself thinking that Carolina had matchup edges that the Texans just don’t. The Texans haven’t lost ugly in the O’Brien era while Watson was healthy — with the notable exception of the Colts playoff game — but I do think this is primed for a shocker. Give me Carolina 29, Houston 27. If I felt at all confident that Houston’s running game was going to work, I might choose differently. Either way, this team likes close games and they may be due to get bit for that again.