The Texans (2-2) host Atlanta (1-3) in a Week 5 matchup this Sunday. Here are five things to watch when Houston and the Falcons kick off at noon CT inside NRG Stadium. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) Watson's growth – Deshaun Watson wasn't happy with his performance last Sunday against the Panthers, and he's looking to improve this weekend versus the Falcons. But that approach isn't new, and his work on the field after the Carolina contest wasn't new either. He said he does that after every game, whether it's in the stadium or in his neighborhood or elsewhere.
Reading defenses, gaining knowledge about the game, and striving to master his craft will always be at the forefront of his goals.
"However long I play this game, I'm always going to continue to learn and continue to grow in that area," Watson said. "I'm never going to be perfect or feel like I've got it. I'm going to always find new pieces and techniques that the defense is doing to try to help myself see what they're doing and try to execute."
Watson grew up outside of Atlanta, and was a ball boy for the Falcons during his high school years. Head coach Dan Quinn thinks the Texans quarterback is a "tough competitor", while Atlanta defensive assistant Jerome Henderson detailed the ways the Falcons hope to defend Watson.
" He's a problem," Henderson said. "You hope that we can keep him in the pocket. That we can get pressure on him. Hit him. Confuse him a little bit. You hope that we can frustrate him and that he won't have a good day."
In his nine starts after a Texans loss, Watson is 7-2.
2) Run duo – Last week in the loss to the Panthers, running backs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson combined for 114 yards on 18 carries. Before the season began, Hyde was characterized by many outside the organization as a back who mainly ran, and wasn't a third down option. Conversely, because he has so many career receptions, Johnson was identified as a "third down back".
Head coach Bill O'Brien pointed out after each of the two were acquired, that they were complete backs. Through four games, that's been the case.
"They don't just use him on third down," Hyde said. "He plays first, second down also. And sometimes I might go in there on third down. I think we've both done a good job here so far, with the opportunities we've been given. We just have to keep building on it though."
Hyde also explained that much of the success on the ground has come from simply getting reps together with a new offensive line.
"I think we have a good understanding of how the o-line wants to block and what plays suit them, and what plays suit me," Hyde said. "I think we definitely gel together good."
Quinn said Hyde is a player who's been "under the radar", and doesn't understand why.
"This guy is legit tough and can drop his shoulder, he can put his foot in the ground to try to break you off," Quinn said. "He was somebody from San Fran that we played a few years ago, and we had real respect for him there. Then Duke Johnson, the passing game is probably the thing that, you get him into space like our running backs, it's a hard matchup because it's a hard tackle."
Combined, the duo is averaging 5.3 yards per carry in 2019.
3) Elite receivers – Two of the best pass-catchers in the game take the field Sunday in Houston's DeAndre Hopkins and Atlanta's Julio Jones.
Like Hopkins, Jones has been named a first-team All-Pro two times. He's also been selected to six Pro Bowls. Jones has a pair of 100-yard receiving games this year, and he's snared four touchdowns.
Hopkins, meanwhile, has 24 catches for 259 yards and a pair of scores.
Quinn sees a lot of similarities between the two.
"Both players can really go after it," Quinn said. "In other words, you and I are up fighting for the same pass, one comes down with it. It just seems more often, guys like DeAndre and Julio – and some of it is their size, but some of it's their aggressive nature to go make plays too, where if it's up in the air, both players have the mindset like 'that pass is for me.'"
The Texans pass-catcher had good things to say about the Falcons' secondary, which is led by Desmond Trufant.
"They've got some talent over there," Hopkins said. "They've got Trufant. They've got some tall guys. They've got a little bit of everything."
4) Keep forcing turnovers – The Texans have forced and recovered five fumbles this season, and also have picked off one pass. They've turned the ball over four times, so they're at plus-2 in turnover differential. That's tied for the ninth-best mark in the NFL.
On the other end of the spectrum, Atlanta's tied with three other teams in the League at minus-5. Only the Dolphins have a worse turnover differential, at minus-7.
Keeping that going, would go a long way towards helping Houston get its third win.
"Turnover numbers are important, because when you turn the ball over you take points away from the opponent, take field position away from them, you give the ball to your offense and allow them to take advantage of it," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "So, it's important."
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan's been picked off six times in 2019, and he's thrown eight touchdowns. Getting more picks is something Crennel would like to see, but he'll take the takeaways any way he can.
"The DBs have had a couple of balls hit them in the hands and we couldn't hold on to it, but the rushers are the ones who are causing most of the fumbles right now," Crennel said. "Sometimes things go in trends, and if they start trending toward the interceptions, I'll take that as well. But right now the guys causing the fumbles are – they're ahead on that curve right now."
5) Harass Ryan – The Falcons' offensive line has moved some pieces around because of injury this season, and Ryan was dropped for five sacks last Sunday against Tennessee. The Texans pass rush has generated 13 sacks this year, as Whitney Mercilus has accounted for five, and J.J. Watt's picked up three.
"They're both really physical," Ryan said of Mercilus and Watt. "They play with great effort. They get a lot of attempts at rips around the passer. They're very good at getting the ball out in the pocket and causing sack-fumbles."
Another player who's helped cause problems up front has been nose tackle D.J. Reader. With 1.5 sacks, three tackles for loss and three quarterback hits, Reader's helped disrupt things in the middle.
"He clogs up the middle, and when you clog up the middle nothing can kind of get through," Crennel said. "Then it has to go outside to J.J. or the linebackers. He's an important piece to the puzzle, to be able to do what he does."