After Week 1, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like the worst team in the NFL. Jameis Winston looked confused and overmatched against a decent-at-best Titans defense. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota put up Madden-like numbers against the Bucs' revamped defense, throwing for four first-half touchdowns.
Week 2 was the perfect storm for the Bucs to get rolled for the second straight week, traveling to New Orleans to face a Saints team coming off a big loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The Bucs spoiled the bayou party with a 26-19 win in hostile territory. The Bucs defense looked nothing like the team that surrendered 35 first-half points to the Titans the week before, as the D only allowed seven points through three quarters, and held Drew Brees to 255 yards passing and a 29.4 QBR. Offensively, Winston improved from his Week 1 performance drastically, completing over 66 percent of his passes, throwing and running for a touchdown with no picks. Lovie Smith’s Bucs were showing signs of life.
The Texans were back to square one after a second straight loss, this time to the Carolina Panthers. Quarterback Ryan Mallett made just his third career start last week and the inexperience showed. Mallett was put in a no-win situation as the Texans were without All-Pro running back Arian Foster and stuck with an injury riddled offensive line. The Texans lack of a running game was obvious as the team rushed for just 61 total yards and Mallett was forced to throw 58 times in the 24-17 loss to Carolina.
To compound the offensive woes, the Texans defense, which was supposed to carry this Houston team, surrendered 172 rushing yards to Carolina, and for the second straight week allowed the opposing team’s tight end to burn them. In Week 1 the Chiefs' Travis Kelce torched the Houston D for two first-half touchdowns and over 100 yards receiving, last week it was Carolina’s only receiving threat, Greg Olsen who led the way with six catches for 70 yards. The Texans cannot only not stop opposing tight ends, but they aren’t putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks either. Last week the Texans hit Cam Newton just six times, and sacked him only once. The underperforming Texans defense is only making things worse for a Texans offense that is in desperate need of relief.
Tampa Bay at Houston
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Houston -6.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Establishing The Running Game
Things keep getting worse for Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. He is already without his leading running back, star Arian Foster, and now will likely be without current NFL leading receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has been sidelined from practice this week with a concussion and is listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game. With no offensive firepower to speak of, establishing a running game for the Texans is imperative, because forcing Mallett to sling the ball 58 times is not the formula to success — although it may be the only option for the time being.
With no Foster, back up running back Alfred Blue was expected to make the most of the opportunity. Blue rushed for six yards on five carries last week and consequently found himself on the bench, replaced by fourth year undrafted free agent Chris Polk. Polk wasn't any better than his predecessor, rushing for 38 yards on 14 carries. Granted, it is hard to run the ball behind an offensive line that is completely beat up and out of position.
First year Tampa Bay offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, did a much better job of putting Jameis Winston in more manageable situations, throwing just 21 times for a 9.9 yard average. The Bucs ran the ball a little-more efficiently between running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims against the Saints last week than they did Week 1 against the Titans. Initiating a run game, even if it means utilizing Winston’s legs, is going to be of upmost importance this week against a Texans defense looking to reestablish itself as one of the league’s best.
2. Winning Third Down
Both of these squads are two of the worst in the league when it comes to converting third downs on offense. The Texans only convert third downs 24.2 percent of the time and now are at even more of a disadvantage without their two biggest offensive weapons in Foster and Hopkins. Establishing a run game is going to be vital in order to protect Mallett and keep him from too many third-and-long situations. Mallett must, must, must utilize his tight ends. Last week Mallett spread the ball around to nine different receivers, but tight ends Garrett Graham and C.J. Fiedorwicz were only targeted six times for two catches.
The Bucs aren’t much better when it comes to third downs, converting just 28.6 percent of the time. Winston does have a better running game behind him than that of Mallett, but he also has his best receiving target in Mike Evans back and ready to contribute full-time after being limited last week thanks to a troublesome hamstring. Look for a heavy dose of running back Doug Martin on third and short situations in order to keep the number of throws Winston attempts in check against the Texans pass rush.
3. Pressuring The Quarterback
The Texans defense has under performed so far this season — which is weird saying. How does a defense with JJ Watt, Brian Cushing, Vince Wilfork, and Jadeveon Clowney underachieve? It is baffling, yet true. The Texans are 30th in getting off the field on 3rd downs, stopping offenses just 27 percent of the time. The Texans have a great opportunity this week to get back on the right track against the Bucs. Winston has shown though that his decision making on drop backs can be shaky, often throwing into double coverage or holding on to the ball too long. Winston also has trouble hanging on to the football as he has fumbled three times in the first two weeks. In addition to Winston’s early learning curve, the Bucs offensive line has allowed seven sacks so far this season. Expect Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to dial up plenty of blitzes, forcing Winston into more hurried decisions.
On the other sideline, Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has to be licking his chops. The Texans offensive line is a mess, and with no running attack, Mallett is going to be forced to throw the ball too many times as is. The lack of viable targets and Mallett’s limited ability could inspire the Bucs defense to a second straight week of dominant play.
The Texans are approaching desperation time after just two weeks, as they’ve gotten off to their worst start since 2008 when they started the season 0-4. In order for the Texans to avoid 0-3 the defense is going to have to make plays and force Jameis Winston into turnovers — which they can. If the D plays as poorly as it has the past two weeks, the Texans have little chance.
The key for the Buccaneers is to control the clock by running the ball and putting Winston in the most manageable situations possible on passing downs. Even though WR Mike Evans is expected to be more useful this week, I wouldn't presume that he will be more productive, as Winston may not have the time to find him against the Texans pass rush.
Prediction: Texans 17, Buccaneers 14
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.