Sunday’s matchup between the Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers features two teams still trying to find their identities after lackluster Week 1 starts. The difference is, though, the Panthers won their Week 1 matchup, albeit against the perennial bottom dwellers, Jacksonville Jaguars. The Texans' season opener couldn't have gone much worse. Starting quarterback Brian Hoyer was pulled after three and a half quarters of inadequacy and a 12.3 QB rating to go with two turnovers that quickly turned into 14 points against the Texans.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien previously told Hoyer, as seen on Hard Knocks, he wouldn't have a short leash, but that he needed to produce. Apparently less than one game was all it took for O’Brien to make up his mind as Ryan Mallett will start his third career game this Sunday against the Panthers.
The Panthers topped the Jags last week in unconvincing fashion, 20-9. Carolina struggled to move the ball offensively, especially with the run game, totaling just 105 yards rushing as a team. Cam Newton wasn’t much better, completing 18 of 31 passes for 175 yards with a TD and a pick. The Panthers are without top WR and playmaker Kelvin Benjamin for the year with a torn left ACL and are looking for new playmakers to step up.
Three Things To Watch
- 1. Texans’ QB Ryan Mallett
As mentioned previously, Ryan Mallett is making his third career start at quarterback on Sunday. O’Brien said his decision to start Mallett over the journeyman Hoyer was due to the spark his team showed once Mallett entered the game late in the fourth quarter. Last week against the Chiefs, Mallett was in on two drives, one resulted in a touchdown and the other a field goal. Mallett finished the day by completing 8 of 13 passes for 98 yards and a TD.
The question must be asked, how short is O’Brien’s leash with Mallett running the show? If the decision was to pull Hoyer after less than four uninspired quarters, what is O’Brien looking for exactly from his quarterbacks, especially with a porous offensive line and a lack of weapons to throw to? Mallett will have plenty to keep himself occupied as he faces one of the NFL’s best returning defenses from a year ago in the Carolina Panthers.
2. Both Offenses Looking For Identities
As bad as the Texans offense looked through three and a half quarter last week, the Panthers' offense looked just as measly, scoring just one touchdown against a less-than-stellar Jacksonville defense. Quarterback Cam Newton had trouble moving the ball through the air, and he didn't have much help from the running game as leading rusher Jonathan Stewart totaled just 56 yards on 18 carries. The second leading rusher was none other than Newton, who ran for 35 yards on 15 carries. Without WR Kelvin Benjamin, Newton’s playmaking options are limited to receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Jericho Cotchery and tight end Greg Olsen.
The Panthers' defense, even without star linebacker Luke Kuechly (doubtful, concussion), will be all over the Texans' shoddy offensive line, putting pressure on Mallett and forcing him to make quick decisions. But making quick decisions is one area where Mallett surpasses Hoyer. Hoyer takes too much time in the pocket waiting for plays to develop, Mallett is better at anticipating and throwing receivers open — at least he was in his two drives last week. Mallett knows he has surging wideout DeAndre Hopkins to throw to as a primary target, but Mallett also has Nate Washington as a reliable second option. But in order for the Texans to be successful this week, they must establish the running game and limit the number of passes Mallett is throwing. The Texans posted just 98 total rushing yards last week against the Chiefs. Houston will be without star running back Arian Foster for a second straight week, so backup Alfred Blue is going to be called upon to improve his marginal Week 1 performance.
3. Utilizing The Tight Ends
Last week was a boring week for both the Panthers’ and Texans’ tight ends. Houston tight ends Ryan Griffin and CJ Fiedorowicz were targeted just five times for two total catches against the Chiefs. That isn’t going to cut it for the second straight week against an attacking Panthers’ defense. Mallett’s throws are probably going to be limited, but when he does drop back, his progression and check downs are going to be vital. Finding his tight ends for easy yards could be the key for the Texans’ offensive success.
Panthers’ All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen had just one catch last week against the Jags for 11 yards. This week Olsen has to be salivating after Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce lit up the Texans’ vaunted defense for over 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns in Week 1. With the Panthers’ offense limited with a lack of weapons and a shoddy offensive live, getting Olsen involved will be essential for Cam Newton to open up the rest of the offense. Olsen has the ability line up next to the tackle as a blocker and receiver or also in the slot as a premiere offensive asset.
Even without All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly the Panthers’ defense is going to attack and put as much pressure on Ryan Mallett and that delicate Texans’ offensive line. The Texans weren't able to run the ball last week and surely will struggle against this week establishing a ground game against a similar Panthers’ defense. The bottom line is, Mallett is going to have to make plays and find ways to get DeAndre Hopkins the ball in space — a tough task for the fifth year QB from Arkansas.
Cam Newton finds himself in a similar situation as Mallett, an O-line that lacks push upfront and a lack of playmaking options. Newton, like Mallett is going to have to make plays in order for his team to win. Newton has that playmaking ability, Mallett’s ability is still unknown. Cam Newton’s capacity as a quarterback and his capability to spread the ball around should lead the Panthers’ to a 2-0 start and hand the Texans their first 0-2 start since 2008.