The Texans (2-1) host the Panthers (1-2) on Sunday at NRG Stadium. Both squads are coming off road victories, and here are five things to watch when they kick off at noon CT. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) Throw Deep Strikes – As a team, the Texans are second in the NFL in reception of 30 yards or more. Receiver Kenny Stills is tied for first in the League among players, with four catches of 30-plus yards. The ability for the Texans to go deep, and their ability to get big gains after shorter throws, puts an extra level of stress on opposing defenses.
"Any chance they get open, I try to get them the ball as soon as possible so they can make plays, because that's what everyone does, especially on this offense," quarterback Deshaun Watson said. "Whoever has the ball in their hands can make something happen."
So far in 2019, Stills, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Jordan Akins have each caught a pass for 30-plus yards. The pass-catching crew for Houston has made quite an impression on Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
"It's a very dynamic, explosive group, and I think it all starts with Hopkins," Rivera said. "He's really one of the elites in this league. I do like their combination of guys. I think Kenny Stills is a tough, physical, aggressive guy."
Stills is averaging 18.2 yards per catch, while Fuller's going for 14.5 yards per. Hopkins has the most receptions and yards on the team, with 19 for 218.
2) O-line combo – After getting sacked six times in Week 1 at New Orleans, the Texans tinkered with the lineup up front on the offensive line, and Watson was dropped four times the next week against Jacksonville. Houston re-shuffled things again last Sunday in Los Angeles, and Watson was only sacked twice.
Left to right versus the Chargers, Laremy Tunsil was the tackle, with Max Scharping next to him at guard. Nick Martin played center, and Zach Fulton was the right guard with Tytus Howard at right tackle. That combo, with three key pieces that were added before the season, seemed to work well together against Los Angeles. O'Brien was happy with how the entire offense dealt with blitzes by the Chargers defense, and liked what he saw from the latest iteration of his line.
"Our offensive line did a good job of staying inside out," O'Brien said. "Meaning, giving him space in the pocket to be able to read plays and throw the ball into certain windows that if he had pressure up in his face he wouldn't be able to throw it into."
It was the first NFL start of Max Scharping's career, and the first time to start at right tackle for Tytus Howard. Both rookies were key contributors to the success up front, and offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said their versatility in playing all along the front during the preseason and training camp helped the Texans mix-and-match through the first three weeks of the season.
"That's the beauty of how we train those guys," Kelly said. "Being able to train them in multiple positions so they understand the whole scheme as opposed to just memorizing one faction of what we need them to do."
The Panthers defense is tied for third in the NFL with 12 sacks. Kelly said the Texans offensive line will be tested this week, again, by a defensive front in Carolina that has various skillsets across the board.
"You have all of these guys and they all have kind of different varying strengths and body types and thing along those lines," Kelly said. "So, it's a new unique challenge every week, and again, hopefully we're getting our guys ready to go and they'll be ready when they step on the field on Sunday."
3) Agitate Allen – Cam Newton won't play because of injury, so Carolina will go with Kyle Allen under center. It's NFL start number three for Allen, and he's coming off a four touchdowns and zero interceptions performance last Sunday in a win at Arizona. Allen completed 19-of-26 passes for 261 yards in the 38-20 win.
"He was accurate with the ball, he did a good job keeping the offense moving and he did a good job," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "So, it's going to be a good challenge for us this week and we'll see what he does here."
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has seen drastic changes week-to-week in 2019 when it comes to quarterback experience. In Week 1 and Week 3, the Texans defense faced Drew Brees and Philip Rivers respectively. That duo started a combined 470 games prior to when they faced Houston, and they'll both likely be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. In Weeks 2 and 4, Houston saw Gardner Minshew and Allen. That duo had a combined two previous NFL starts, as Minshew's first came at Houston.
Despite the experience gap, Crennel is impressed with how Allen performed.
"He's showed a lot of poise in the pocket, he has an arm, he can make the throws, he has some running ability as well," Crennel said. "I think he probably performed better than maybe some people thought he would, which then puts more pressure on us that we have to do a really good job against him also."
4) Account for McCaffrey – Crennel also pointed out how the Panthers' offense has quite a bit of firepower, and much of it starts with Christian McCaffrey. The third-year running back has gone for 100 yards on the ground in two of three games this year. He's always a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. Justin Reid, along with the rest of the safety group and linebacker Zach Cunningham, will likely have to account for McCaffrey.
"Super dynamic guy," Reid said. "Very athletic. They have him play all over the field. He'll play on the outside. He'll play in the slot. He'll play in the backfield. He'll run between the tackles. They'll have him run outside of the tackles. So he's really a guy we need to focus on and ID where he is, every single play."
Cunningham, who is third on the Texans with 19 tackles, said it's not complicated with a great talent like McCaffrey.
"He's definitely a great player," Cunningham said. "Going into it, I know what I've got to do to. I've got to stick to my fundamentals and see how it plays out."
In 35 career games, McCaffrey's caught 11 touchdown passes and run for a dozen more, with a combined 3,501 rushing and receiving yards.
5) Brothers don't shake hands – Including the preseason, this is the fourth time in which a Texans player will have a brother on the opposing team. This week it's the Reid's, as Justin the Texan will see his older brother Eric. Both play safety, and both are excited about the opportunity.
"Man, incredibly special," Reid said. "First time we'll be on the field at the same time. My whole life, we've been outside playing games and competing."
Eric joked that Justin's never beaten him in anything, but the younger Reid is hopeful that changes Sunday.
Last week, defensive end J.J. Watt and his little brother Derek squared off when the Texans faced the Chargers. In August, Texans safety A.J. Moore and twin brother C.J. Moore of the Lions matched up, and center Nick Martin saw his brother Zack and the Cowboys.
Outside linebacker Jacob Martin's brother Josh was placed on the Saints' injured reserve at the end of August, so that family reunion didn't get to happen in Week 1.
Also, tight end Darren Fells' brother Daniel played tight end in the NFL from 2008-2015.
The Houston Texans roster in photos. (Updated 9/7/2020)