The Houston Texans travel west to take on the San Di... ahem... Los Angeles... Chargers on Sunday afternoon for the first time since 2016 and for the first time ever at the StubHu... Dignity Health Sports Park. Both teams are off to somewhat disappointing 1-1 starts and are trying to establish themselves before the season reaches a fever pitch.
After a Week 1 shootout loss to the Saints, the Texans not only proved that they could rebound from a tough defeat, but they also showed they could win ugly, holding off the Jaguars, 13-12, in last week’s home opener. A win is a win in the NFL, no matter how unattractive, but the victory against Jacksonville re-exposed the Texans’ lingering offensive issues, mainly protecting Deshaun Watson.
The Chargers performance in Detroit last week was flat-out weak. They looked nothing like a team that could compete with the Chiefs for the AFC West title. The Bolts were their own worst enemy with careless penalties, negated touchdowns, turnovers and missed field goals. With an injury-riddled roster, head coach Anthony Lynn is trying to find the right guys to fill the gaps and fix the mistakes before hosting the Texans.
Houston at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 22 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Los Angeles -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Texans’ offense out of rhythm
The Texans will take the W, but the Week 2 win against Jacksonville left a lot to be desired from a Houston offense with great potential. As usual, everything starts up front with the offensive line. First-round pick Tytus Howard made his debut at left guard, and Roderick Johnson got his first career start at right tackle. The shuffled line performed better, but for the eighth straight game, Watson was sacked* at least four times, tying an NFL record — and all with Jacksonville’s best pass rusher, Yannick Ngakoue, not playing.
(*Two of the four “sacks” were bad plays that counted as sacks. Watson fell on a fumble and then ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage. “Sacks,” technically.)
Despite the line's improvement, the timing of the Houston offense was still off, averaging just north of four yards per play, converting only 6-of-15 third downs and scoring just one touchdown. Much of that ineffectiveness falls on Watson’s shoulders, but more on him in a bit.
Houston’s offense is still trying to incorporate three brand new pieces in Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, and Duke Johnson, all of whom were added a week before the season opener. Working in the new skill guys has been an issue. Stills has been targeted just six times in the first two games, while Johnson has only 19 total touches.
Running back Carlos Hyde, another newcomer, has been the Texans' most reliable weapon so far this season. With 30 carries thus far, Hyde is averaging nearly 6.0 yards per attempt for 173 total yards. If Bill O’Brien decides to attack a Chargers run defense that allows 4.8 yards per carry, a heavy dose of Hyde and Johnson would be in order.
2. Can sloppy Chargers clean it up?
Next man up” is far and away my least favorite sports cliché. Every team, in every sport ever played, uses it and abuses it as if lesser players automatically fill the void seamlessly. The Chargers are learning the hard way that “next man up” works as often as my pickup lines on a Saturday night.
No one was excluded from the Chargers no-good-very-bad day against the Lions. Six starters were out of the lineup, and it showed with painfully sloppy play. The Chargers had two touchdowns called back by penalties on a single drive. That same drive ended when Austin Ekeler lost a fumble as he leaped across the goal line. Punter Ty Long filled in again for injured kicker Michael Badgely and missed field goal attempts of 39 and 40 yards. Chargers receivers dropped five of Phillip Rivers passes. And Rivers himself threw a terrible game-ending interception on the Chargers' potential game-winning drive.
The Bolts head into Week 3 still aching and missing key pieces, especially in the defensive backfield. All the while, Melvin Gordon is still doing his best Le'Veon Bell impersonation by holding out for a better contract or a trade — probably the latter. With the wounded on IR and backups filling out the depth chart, the Chargers have to play near mistake-free football against the Texans on Sunday to avoid falling below .500.
3. Deshaun Watson vs. Chargers’ depleted secondary
Offensive line issues aside, Watson was pressing against the Jaguars. He finished the day 16-of-29 for 159 yards and no touchdowns. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Watson threw 24 percent of his passes into tight coverage, the third-most attempts in Week 2 behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum.
Watson especially struggled throwing the ball downfield against the Jaguars’ secondary. He completed only two passes of more than 15-yards and was just 4-of-13 on throws longer than 10-yards. Watson’s performance was especially surprising after he torched the Saints for 181-yards and two touchdowns on similar throws the week before.
Watson has an opportunity this Sunday to rebound against a depleted Chargers’ secondary. Reserve safety Adrian Phillips broke his forearm last week filing in for starter Derwin James. Both safeties are now on injured reserve, as is starting cornerback Trevor Williams, all while fellow starting cornerback Michael Davis is slowed by a lingering hamstring issue.
With a fully healthy Houston receiving core and a Chargers’ defense with only two sacks, Watson could have a field day.
Facing a battered Chargers defense is as close to as ideal as Bill O'Brien and the Texans offense could hope for after last week’s poor showing. If the Houston offensive line can continue to jell, Deshaun Watson should have plenty of opportunities to find DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Kenny Stills open downfield. Philip Rivers might have close to 45 passing attempts to keep his Chargers in it.
Prediction: Texans 24, Chargers 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.