The Texans (4-10) host the Bengals (3-10-1) on Sunday in Week 16. It's the first time the two franchises have linked up since 2017, when Houston won at Cincinnati in Week 2. Including a pair of postseason wins, the Texans have taken eight of the last nine matchups between the two, dating back to 2008. Here are five things to watch when they kick off inside NRG Stadium at Noon CT. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) Dazzling Deshaun – Despite the Texans' double-digit loss campaign, quarterback Deshaun Watson has been a beacon of light. He was tabbed for a third straight Pro Bowl selection earlier this week, and has tossed 27 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Watson's also run for three scores, completed 69.9 percent of his passes and has a passer rating of 110.6.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is mightily impressed by the challenge ahead for his defense in Watson.
"He's unbelievable," Taylor said. "He's one of the best players in the League. There's no question about that. Every play is alive, until you see someone get him on the ground and the ball hits the turf. He just extends a lot of plays that you just don't think there's any way they could be extended. Tremendous playmaker and we've got a ton of respect for him. It'll be a great challenge for our defense."
Watson, meanwhile, won't have Duke Johnson on the field with him. The running back was ruled out with a neck injury on Friday. Receiver Will Fuller V was suspended after the Thanksgiving win at Detroit. Receiver Randall Cobb is on injured reserve. But the quarterback doesn't care if he's throwing to veterans, rookies or whoever. He said the standards remain the same.
"I step on the field and I'm just focusing on balling and just going out there and trying to win," Watson said. "I don't try to pick people in categories and level them up if they played a lot or not. If you step in the huddle with me, we're going out there to go win and ball and we're going to have a chance to try to get the W."
2) Young guns – Offensively, younger and less-experienced players continue to get reps at receiver, running back and tight end spots. In his second year, Kahale Warring caught a couple passes last week at Indianapolis and helped move the chains. The young tight end, according to interim head coach Romeo Crennel, is someone who can help this week and next, and perhaps even more in the future.
"I think he's making good strides," Crennel said. "He really is. He's got a good frame. Good size guy. Runs well. He's paying attention to detail more than in the past, and so it's beginning to show up and help us on the field."
Warring picked up first downs for the Texans with both receptions, as he caught a 9-yarder in the second quarter and a 23-yarder in the fourth quarter against the Colts. They were the first two catches of his career, and Warring hopes for more in the weeks, and seasons, to come.
"I'm looking forward to contributing, and I'll just keep doing my job," Warring said. "I'm just trying to take advantage of the opportunities I'm given. Wherever the coaches drop me, I'm going to be ready for it."
Receiver Keke Coutee is in year three as a Texan, and last Sunday he caught a touchdown and finished with five catches for 53 yards. His final reception of the day was a 13-yarder, but he was stripped at the 2-yard line. The Colts took over and ended the game in victory formation.
Building on the successes and putting the fumble in the rearview mirror shouldn't be tough for Coutee, according to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly.
"It wasn't like he was being reckless or being careless with the ball," Kelly said. "He's just going out there and trying to make a play and help our team to win. Obviously, ball security is paramount and the thing we stress the most. It's unfortunate that it happened but luckily we get another chance to go rectify that mistake this weekend."
3) Rookies on defense – On the defensive side of the ball, rookie outside linebacker Jonathan Greenard played 28 percent of the defensive snaps last Sunday. Defensive lineman Ross Blacklock was in for 13 percent of the snaps. Cornerback John Reid was inactive because of a neck injury, but he was able to practice fully on Christmas Eve.
The Texans might get a longer look at that trio of youngsters, especially Greenard. On Christmas Day, the team placed outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus on the COVID-19 reserve list.
Blacklock, meanwhile, has a bright future according to defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver.
"Ross has just scratched, obviously, just scratched the surface in what he can potentially be," Weaver said. "He is still very much a rookie and there are times where it shows on tape. He flashes his ability and you know it's there. For him it's just a matter on consistency. Now, that has nothing to do with his work ethic. At some point that lightbulb's going to go off and we hope to see the dynamic, dominant player that we drafted him to be. Right now he's just going through some rookie growing pains, which they all are, but he is going to be a good player because he does care and he does put the effort that's required to be that."
4) Rod is right – Tytus Howard was placed on injured reserve this week because of the concussion he suffered at Indianapolis. So Roderick Johnson will start at right tackle in his place. Howard held down the position and was the starter there for the first 14 games of the year. Johnson, meanwhile, started for Pro Bowler Laremy Tunsil at left tackle in the home win over the Patriots. He explained his mindset in helping protect Watson.
"It's all about opportunity and it's knocking," Johnson said. "I just have to make the best of it. Plain and simple."
In 2019, Johnson started a trio of games at right tackle. Those game reps, combined with the little things done in practice during the week, are key in getting his mind ready for Sunday.
"Confidence is good, always good," Johnson said. "It starts in practice, of course, you know that. It's just having a good week of practice and stacking those good days together. They don't just come on gameday. Being willing to put that work in day-in and day-out and stacking those good reps and good plays."
Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly complimented Johnson's preparation, and pointed out the value of having him on the roster.
"He's kind of been Johnny-on-the-spot for us over the past couple years and he's come in for the most part and done a really good job," Kelly said. "He's got a great opportunity on Sunday and we're excited to see him go out there and play well."
5) Takeaways, please – 2020 has been hard for the Texans in many ways, chief among them, in the turnover differential category. After finishing second in the NFL in that stat two years ago, Houston was dead even last year to finish tied for 14th in the League. With a pair of games remaining, the Texans are minus-8, better than only the 49ers and Broncos. The Bengals aren't much better, at minus-7, so Houston could really use more takeaways than turnovers on Sunday.
Defensive end J.J. Watt explained what the Texans could do to get the ball back from the opponent.
"There's obviously a whole lot of combinations of things that go into it," Watt said. "Fumbles require getting to the running back. Half luck, half-clean punch on the ball, trying to strip it out, putting your hat on the ball or whatever it may be. Interceptions are more of obviously tight coverage, good rush. Tipped balls help a lot with interceptions. Trying to get people flustered and make them make decisions they don't want to make, making them throw into tight windows. That's really what helps create turnovers."
The Texans are last in the League with eight takeaways. Interim head coach Romeo Crennel shared his theory on why Houston has had such trouble getting the ball back.
"This year we're playing a little bit more zone than we used to play," Crennel said. "When you play zone there are holes in the zone and they're able to find those holes. Good quarterbacks particularly are able to find those holes in the zone and they are able to get control of the ball before you can get to them. As a result of that, not as many balls get knocked loose or get tipped or get intercepted as a matter of fact. I think that probably that has something to do with it."
Offensively, and on special teams, the Texans have actually been okay in terms of ball security. Only eight teams in the League have fewer than the Texans' 16 turnovers.