This Is The Year The Offensive Line Takes A Step Forward, Though

Through two weeks, C.J. Stroud has shown a lot of upside. He’s also been sacked a league-high 11 times. Some of that is because the Texans have been trailing a lot, and his 10.8% sack rate is not indistinguishable from, say, Deshaun Watson’s 2018 season. The trailing has led to more passing attempts. Some of that is because the Texans have played their hand-selected starting linemen for a grand total of 3 of their 10 starting opportunities. And some of that is because, just like every year since Carlos Hyde ran for 1,000 yards, the Texans are pathologically unable to run the football.

The Texans have run for 124 yards this season in two games, the fourth-lowest in the NFL and stone cold last in yards per attempt. It is early, but it is a continuation of norms for a team that finished 31st in rushing yardage in 2022 and last in 2021. That is even more harmful than those numbers indicate because the Texans were trying to run a lot. They were 24th in running attempts in 2021, and only 30th in 2022 because Pep Hamilton abandoned it entirely after Dameon Pierce was sent to IR. (Isn’t it funny how a team can run the ball just 22 times in a Week 18 win over the Colts that they barely ever trailed in, then learn the lesson that they have to run the ball?) They’re 22nd in attempts through two weeks despite never leading a game, and game script is essentially the only thing driving them off their quest of Establishing It.

Now, it would be nice if the offensive line that I’ve read so many good things about was actually intact. That doesn’t appear to be the case after only Shaq Mason started both games. But let’s be honest about this: Kenyon Green may have been a first-round pick, but even a healthy Kenyon Green wasn’t necessarily likely to be good based on his first season. Juice Scruggs may have been a second-round pick, and I don’t think we have enough evidence one way or another to say how he’ll play, but there is a long history of rookie offensive linemen not playing well right away. He wasn’t exactly a known upgrade. Shaq Mason (the personal angels looking out for the betterment of my mental health are begging me not to post this) posted his lowest PFF grade since he was a rookie in 2022 and was literally given away by the Buccaneers. He’s also 30. I don’t think he’s a “bad” player, but my evaluation of that trade at the time was more stopgap than linchpin. After two weeks, I think I’m closer to right than Nick Caserio — the man who signed Mason to an extension this offseason — was.

The punch I pulled post-draft, knowing that this kind of take is inevitably received by the True Fans as an Unfair Shot: Despite the hype, there wasn’t much reason short of Scruggs coming in and being a great center instantly for the offseason hope to hold up. It was always likely that we’d see some rough patches, and the only questions were: Where and how many?

This rock keeps tigers away

The Houston Chronicle’s finest states what I’ve begun to see become an established fact, and my response is: Uh, do they?

Stroud took five sacks in Week 1 with Tunsil playing. I’ve spent a lot of time marinating in the mindset of the Texans fan over the past 21 years. There seems to be a large collective consensus that bad offensive lines ruined David Carr, and that thus the Texans must make sure it never happens again. But every time Tunsil has missed a game in his Texans career, the greater tenor of the results doesn’t exactly seem to change much. When I was covering literally every game intently, I remember the Texans just destroying the Jaguars in London without Tunsil. I remember him sitting out a few games towards the end of David Johnson’s first season, and Roderick Johnson’s run blocking suddenly unlocking the rushing attack. Let’s go back to Tunsil’s mostly lost 2021 season. He started the first five games — two Tyrod Taylor starts, three Davis Mills starts — and those teams managed one game of over 168 passing yards. Mills took 2.3 sacks a game without Tunsil and averaged 230.7 passing yards per game. Deshaun Watson didn’t instantly take a leap when they added Tunsil, and if you look at the on/off splits nothing really seems to come out and say “Tunsil made him who he was in 2020” either. Did Stroud struggle to throw the ball in Week 2?

None of this is to say that re-signing Tunsil was a mistake — I was leery about paying market-setting prices, but the Texans didn’t have to do as much as I thought they would to retain him — but he’s never been a one-man offensive line. He’s a fabulous player who is a pass-protection savant. He’s not the tone-setter in the run game that this team desperately needs, and he’s also not five guys all playing well together. The reality of having Laremy Tunsil, as I’ve learned over these five years, is that he can both be one of the best players at his position and not really change a lot without help around him from both the scheme and his fellow blockers. Pay him, praise him — he’s not doing anything wrong. It’s just how football is.

Nick Caserio’s backup plans

Caserio sent two draft pick swaps away to acquire stopgap solutions for an obviously beleaguered offensive line in Kendrick Green and Josh Jones before the season started. After which, the burning quote to me was him saying it “was a matter of when, not if” on putting Green on IR.

So, let me get this straight. I want to put the facts out here and make sure I get them right.

-The Texans were going into a season in which they do not control their first-round pick, giving them effectively zero incentive to tank.
-They knew in early August that Scott Quessenberry was headed to IR, but even before that, should not have been counting on him for real play as he was a disastrous starter in 2022.
-The only other experienced backup on the interior line they had in camp all offseason that has made the 53-man roster was Michael Dieter, who has had zero good seasons with Miami and was available to the whole league with no takers at final cuts.
-They were aware that Kenyon Green might miss extra time and had no urgency to get anyone in camp earlier to get up to speed for the start of the regular season, at all, in a season in which they are starting a rookie quarterback who they don’t want to develop any bad habits.
-They’ve given up 11 sacks in two games.

I’m curious — is it strictly apathy, or does Caserio not have a goal to save his job at this point? Because they are 7-29-1 under him and there is not a single person in front of him for the chopping block. I guess I kind of assumed when I wrote about the Will Anderson trade that the Texans would proactively be looking to make some more win-now moves in what looked to be an easier division. But DeAndre Hopkins — the obvious win-now play — is a Titan (gross), and the entire offensive line seemed to come apart the moment that Scott Quessenberry, of all people, was sent to IR? That just isn’t a very good plan, if that’s the shape of it.

What will Bobby Slowik do?

It’s tough to be too upset about an offensive coordinator two games into his career, and I liked the Slowik hire. I’m not going to destroy him for saying the same things any offensive coordinator would; every OC wants to run the ball 40 times a game en route to a win the same way every child wants ice cream.

But when that hypothetical ice cream to be eaten wasn’t bought at the store, and your child really wants some. And you have an ice-cream making machine, but only some chocolate chips, a gallon of milk, and a bag of pretzels … is that ice cream?

The Texans have spent three years pounding the rock fruitlessly under rookie head coaches. They spent seven years pounding the rock fruitlessly under Bill O’Brien, with only Hyde’s weirdo 1,000-yard season to show for it. I’ve watched Alfred Blue carries until my eyes bled, and remember names like Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes. Nobody’s saying they should outright abandon the run ala Steve Slaton’s bizarro 2009 season that finally ended with Arian Foster’s emergence. But lemme level with you: I’m a little tired of hearing about the goddamn run game. Even the beats are tired of hearing about it!

How about the No. 2 overall pick, a good quarterback prospect, gets to throw the ball to Nico Collins and Tank Dell as a main plan, and we see what happens and go from there?

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