The Texans (1-1) host the Panthers (2-0) on Thursday Night Football at NRG Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:20 p.m. CT, and here are five things to watch when the action gets going between Houston and Carolina.
1) First Start – Davis Mills starts his first regular-season game at quarterback for the Texans. A third-round pick out of Stanford last spring, Mills played the second half of last week's loss at Cleveland after starter Tyrod Taylor exited with a hamstring injury. Head Coach David Culley is confident in his young signal-caller and pointed out that while the playbook won't change, there will be a few tweaks to what the Texans do with Mills.
"We'll use the things that fit him more so than what we did with Tyrod," Culley said. "Some of the things we did with Tyrod we may not do with him in the run game, but as far as the pass game, it will basically be the same thing."
Mills completed 8-of-18 passes for 102 yards against the Browns, with a touchdown toss and an interception. Carolina Head Coach Matt Rhule called Mills "an excellent young quarterback" but said the Panthers will also be ready for backup QB Jeff Driskell.
"He's run some zone-read, so we're preparing for all the zone-read stuff," Rhule said. "I don't think too much changes on our end. It really can't because it's such a short week."
This will be the first start for Mills since he guided Stanford to a 48-47 overtime victory at UCLA on December 19, 2020.
2) Panther Protection – The Carolina defense has allowed the fewest points and yards in the NFL through the first two weeks of the season. The Jets and Saints combined to score just 21 points and rush for 93 yards against Carolina, and the Panthers have rung up a total of 10 sacks thus far. Being able to run effectively and protect Mill is of paramount importance for the Texans.
"They've got some pretty stout guys in the middle," Texans OL Tytus Howard said. "Some pretty fast edge rushers outside. Yeah, they have a pretty talented front seven, powerful inside. Linebackers are fast, and edge guys are fast. Going to be a challenge."
Through two contests, Houston's allowed just a sack in each game but that's too much, according to Howard.
"The ultimate goal is no sacks," Howard said. "The number one job for us while we're here is to protect the quarterback. So that's our ultimate goal, to keep him clean, and I think this season we're doing a pretty good job of that, but we can only get better for our last two performances, so I look for us to be better this weekend."
The Texans running backs combined for 25 carries last Sunday at Cleveland, after combining for 37 carries in the Week 1 win over the Jaguars.
3) Dinged Up – Taylor wasn't the only Texan who got hurt at Cleveland. WR Nico Collins went on the injured reserve earlier this week. DB Terrance Mitchell is in the concussion protocol and has been ruled out for Thursday. WR Danny Amendola won't play either because of a hamstring injury. DB Justin Reid, OL Laremy Tunsil, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, DL Charles Omenihu, TE Antony Auclair and DL Roy Lopez were all injured during the game.
Culley was optimistic that most of the players who weren't placed on IR will be available Thursday night. Playing on just a few days rest is always a challenge, but the Texans are a more veteran squad. DL Whitney Mercilus explained how that can be a bonus.
"It's reassuring, honestly," Mercilus said. "A lot of people have tasted what a Thursday night game looks like throughout the week, being able to take care of their bodies, knowing where they need to be at and where to play at the high level that they need to on a Thursday night game from a short turnaround from a physical Sunday game. You have a lot of trust knowing that guys are going to be there, be able to play, and play at a high level, as well, too."
4) Keep Taking – The Texans came up with two more takeaways last Sunday, running their season total to five. But they also turned the ball over to the Browns twice and sit at plus-3 in 2021 turnover differential. That's tied for the second-best mark in the NFL, while the Panthers are tied for ninth at plus-1.
Defensive Coordinator Lovie Smith isn't satisfied with the five takeaways, though.
"That was good getting a couple last week, and every time you see the defense taking the ball away, it kind of helps, but there's so much more that we can do," Smith said.
Panthers QB Sam Darnold has been picked off just once in 2021, and he's also lost a fumble this year. Getting pressure on him could help in making those numbers rise.
"We've got to be able to get back there, get him flustered," Mercilus said. "We've got to try to get him to make some mistakes and all that, but also, we've got to be able to contain him in the pocket because he has deceptive speed, too."
5) Get Special – The Texans had a tough go of it on special teams in the loss to the Browns, as WR Andre Roberts fumbled a punt in the first quarter, and K Joey Slye missed a 41-yarder in the fourth. Roberts has been to the last three Pro Bowls as a returner, and it was a rare mistake by him.
"Listen, it's Andre Roberts, everybody knows this guy puts in the work, has done it time and time again, no secret to myself, to him or anybody that we will play," Special Teams Coordinator Frank Ross said. "Nobody wants to get that right more than him, so we'll get that corrected."
Ross, Roberts, and the rest of the Texans put the miscue behind them and focused on the next play.
"It's our job as special teams to always get the ball back to the offense and make sure we maintain the flow of the game," Ross said. "Any play, whether it's a turnover, a sudden change in the game of football can happen any point in time. It's the NFL, things do happen, and we've got to make sure that we just continue to play our game and not let any of those things kind of spiral, and I think we did that."
If you can't be here in person, you can catch the game at 7:20 p.m. CT on NBC, NFL Network and SportsRadio 610. Click here for tickets.