Houston begins the 2019 campaign on Monday Night Football in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It's the first meeting between these squads since a 2015 victory by the Texans at NRG Stadium. Here are five things to watch when the Texans and Saints square off. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) Tunsil Time – Of the eight new players who joined the team last weekend, left tackle Laremy Tunsil will have the brightest spotlight on him. 2019 will be his fourth season in the NFL, and after watching the blindside of Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler and Matt Moore and Jay Cutler, he’ll help keep quarterback Deshaun Watson upright. Watson’s glad Tunsil is now a Texan.
“Just a guy that has great football IQ, very athletic, who just loves the game of football,” Watson said. “He's already fitting in with the whole locker room and everyone is talking to him, making him feel at home and comfortable. As far as on the field, he's a professional, he's a great left tackle, he's a great teammate and he's a guy that works hard every day.”
Tunsil, who was acquired via trade last Saturday, wasted little time in diving into the Texans offense. While the Dolphins were different, they’d implemented a similar style of offense to Houston’s this offseason, so that’s helped Tunsil’s adjustment.
"One thing about the NFL is it's a copycat league for sure,” Tunsil said. “It's the same concepts, just different terminology, and that's what makes it easy."
Head coach Bill O’Brien said Tunsil has put in “double time” trying to pick things up, and described the learning curve in front of the offensive lineman.
“That's going to be a challenge early on here because he just got here, but I think that he's played a lot of football and maybe what somebody calls an apple, we call an orange,” O’Brien said. “It's just different terms but it’s the same blocking assignment.”
2) Fuller Dimension – Tunsil’s addition changes the complexion of the offense, but so does the return of receiver Will Fuller, V. A knee injury in Week 8 submarined what had started off as a promising season. Fuller was en route to over 1,200 yards had he kept up the numbers he’d averaged to that point.
In 11 games played with Watson, Fuller’s caught 11 touchdowns. Those touchdowns have gone for just over 29 yards per catch. The threat he poses to defenses is big, and it alters the way they cover the rest of the Texans’ options, which include All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins. Watson believes there’s no ceiling on the possibilities for Houston’s offense with Fuller on the field.
"There's really no limit on what we can do,” Watson said. “There's opportunities all out there on the field and ever since I got here we just had that connection. We understand each other just like how me and ‘Hop, and we just go out there and kind of perform.”
In the 11 games Watson, Fuller and Hopkins played together, Watson’s thrown 25 scores to the duo and the Texans have averaged 30.8 points per game.
“We always are on the same page so whenever he's running a route and he's downfield, I know exactly where he's going to be at before he even makes that move versus his coverage,” Watson said. “So, we just kind of communicate and continue to build that chemistry on and off the field."
3) Duke’s up – For the first time since he was traded to the Texans in early August, running back Duke Johnson will take the field for Houston. Never the primary back during his first four seasons with the Browns, Johnson was still able to average 59 catches per year. He picked up 9.2 yards per reception, and gives the Texans a versatile weapon they can use out of the backfield and elsewhere. Johnson is ready to contribute, and especially ready to do so in the passing game.
“I kind of pride myself in that big time,” Johnson said. “It’s something I think I'm exceptionally well at, and I just try to go out there and show it.”
Although he’s excelled in the passing game, and saw limited touches on the ground as a ball-carrier, O’Brien still thinks Johnson can be a complete back.
"With us he'll be used in a lot of different ways, and he's had a lot of snaps,” O’Brien said. “I think we'd have to go back and look exactly how many snaps he's had, but he's played 16 games I think three years in a row. He’s been out there playing a lot.”
4) Have Merci – Whitney Mercilus will be used differently in 2019. He’s said so. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said so in August. So has O’Brien. The outside linebacker, who tallied a career-high 12 sacks in 2015, is going to line up in different spots than he did last season.
“He's playing more off the edge of the defense, but he still plays at the second level sometimes,” O’Brien said. “He's doing more of what he did two or three years ago, no doubt.”
Crennel, who calls Mercilus “an ultimate team guy”, is optimistic about 2019.
“He'll do whatever we ask him to do,” Crennel said. “I think that we're going to try to move him around a little bit more this year than we did last year, and see what that does for him.”
Mercilus is excited about all the places he’ll be in the defense.
"Being over the center,” Mercilus said. “Being over the guards, and things of that nature. Just really disrupting some weaknesses in the offense that we see."
5) Cool Brees – The defensive backfield will get tested against Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense. Receiver Michael Thomas has tallied 90 or more receptions for 1,100 or more yards in each of his first three NFL seasons, and he’s coming of a 2018 in which he caught nine touchdowns. He played his college ball at Ohio State, so Texans cornerback Bradley Roby knows a thing or two about Thomas.
“We went to the same school, so I’ve played against him a lot,” Roby said. “Played him once already in the league. I’m looking forward to the second time. He’s a big target, great hands, great size, has a great relationship with Drew and he’s very successful.”
Defensive end J.J. Watt sacked Brees twice in 2015, when these two squads last met. He has the utmost respect for the veteran signal-caller.
"He's one of the best to ever do it,” Watt said. “The level that he's done it at, for the amount of time he's done it at, and he's a guy who's so well respected around the league because of the way he attacks the game and the way he respects the game and the way he goes about his business.”
Brees tossed 32 touchdowns last year, and was picked off just five times. He completed 74.4 percent of his passes.
The Houston Texans roster in photos. (Updated 9/12/2019)