The Houston Texans are showing signs of life. After the first two weeks of the season, the Texans were already on life support. Last week’s 19-9 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave the Texans a jolt to the heart and has at least put them in stable condition — for the time being.
This week the Texans travel to Atlanta to face the revamped Falcons, fresh off their third straight come-from-behind win in as many weeks. Matt Ryan is starting to look like Matty Ice again after a couple of so-so seasons. Ryan has established a rapport with wide receiver Julio Jones that looks unstoppable. Jones leads the league in receiving yards and catches after his 12-reception, 164-yard and two-touchdown performance against the Cowboys last week, while Ryan is second in the league in both passing yards and yards per game behind the super-human Tom Brady.
The Falcons are hitting on all cylinders heading into their Week 4 matchup against the Texans who are attempting to piece together an offensive identity. Houston may have won their matchup last week against the Bucs, but it wasn't pretty — far from it. If Bill O’Brien and company are looking to stay afloat in the meager AFC South, a road win in Atlanta would be a great momentum boost before facing division rivals Jacksonville and Indianapolis the next two weeks.
Houston at Atlanta
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Atlanta -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ryan Mallett’s Third Straight Start
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien liked what he saw out of Mallett last week, “I think he understood how we wanted to manage the game better today,” said O’Brien. And that is all O’Brien can really ask out of Mallett — manage the game. Don’t do too much, just manage the game, Ryan.
Last week, Mallett did improve and definitely looked more poised in the pocket, throwing for 228 yards on 24-of-39 passes with one touchdown and one pick against the Bucs. Mallett did a better job of spreading the ball around as well, as four different receivers had at least four catches. But Tampa Bay really, really helped Mallett and the Texans out by missing three field goals and an extra point in the second half, points that would have put pressure on Mallett to make throws with the game on the line — especially on third down.
The Texans converted on just eight of their 18 third down attempts last week, a stat that would have been more glaring had Tampa’s kicker not suffered from the yips.
Much like his quarterback counterpart, Ryan, Mallett has realized he has a special wide receiver to target. DeAndre Hopkins has emerged as a game changer, averaging 11.5 yards per catch to go along with three touchdowns this season. While Mallett did a better job of spreading the ball around last week, getting the ball to Hopkins, especially on third down, will be vital for Mallett and the Texan’s success.
2. Which Defense Shows Up?
Neither the Texans' or the Falcons' defensive units have been the model of consistency so far this season. JJ Watt is still the only Texan to record a full sack through three weeks of football. The Texans simply aren't getting enough pressure on the quarterback, and that spells disaster against Ryan and a Falcons offense that has been playing better than in previous seasons. Ryan has been outstanding, but the ability to run the ball last week against Dallas was what won the game for Atlanta. Running back Devonta Freeman filled in for injured rookie Tevin Coleman and absolutely exploded, scoring three times on 30 carries and 141 yards rushing. Meanwhile, the Texans held the Bucs to just 57 yards on the ground last week after giving up almost 270 yards against the Chiefs and Panthers.
The Falcons' defense has been improved thanks to new, defensive-minded, head coach Dan Quinn. But last week Atlanta looked sorry against the Brandon Weeden-led Cowboys, surrendering four touchdowns and 295 yards of offense in the first half. In the second half, the Falcons' defense adapted and shutout the Dallas offense, giving up just 52 total yards. The halftime coaching adjustment of Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith was fantastic and exactly what Atlanta was missing under former head coach Mike Smith’s regime.
The Falcons need to come out with the right defensive mindset early and shut down Houston running back Alfred Blue and not allow another first-half performance like the one last week. The Texans don't have a defensive back that can matchup with Jones on the edge. If the Texans have any chance of winning on Sunday, putting pressure on Ryan is going to be priority number one.
3. Arian Foster, Game-time Decision
Nothing could impact this game more than the decision of whether Texans star running back Arian Foster will play or not. Foster has been out since the beginning of training camp after undergoing groin surgery.
Foster’s replacement Blue was hot last week when he rushed for 139 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown. But before last week’s win against Tampa, Blue was almost non-existent, rushing for only 48 yards on 14 carries in losing efforts against the Chiefs and Panthers.
If Foster can go, he is an obvious upgrade over Blue and gives Bill O’Brien a reliable weapon for an offense starving for an absolution.
A lot has to go right for the Texans to pull the road upset against the high flying Falcons. Having Foster would be a plus, but even without him the Texans are going to have to establish a reliable ground game with Blue, limiting the number of throws Mallett has to make. If Mallett has to drop back over 35 times again, I don't like the Texans’ chances, especially for an unreliable and beat up offensive line.
The Falcons are looking to build on last week’s 39-point performance in Dallas, and the way Ryan is finding Jones in space mixed with the Texans’ lack of pass rush, another high-scoring effort isn't out of the question.
Prediction: Falcons 28, Texans 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.