The Texans (2-2) face the Falcons (2-2) on the road this Sunday for the first of four consecutive games against NFC South opponents. Houston is rolling after back-to-back double-digit wins, while Atlanta has been blasted by two touchdowns or more, on the road, in consecutive weeks. Here are five things to watch when they kick off inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium at noon CT.
1) Familiar faces return – A wave of previously-injured Texans should be back on the field this week. Offensive lineman Tytus Howard and punter Cam Johnston spent the first four weeks of the season on the injured reserve, and they're now off it and practiced all week.
Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil was absent the last two contests with a knee injury, and he practiced this week on a limited basis. Offensive lineman Josh Jones was also out in Week 4, but he was a full participant Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Defensively, linebacker Denzel Perryman and cornerback Tavierre Thomas returned to the Houston Methodist Training Center fields for work.
It's the closest to full strength the Texans have been in the regular season, health-wise. Safety Jalen Pitre, who came back last week after missing Weeks 2 and 3 due to a chest injury, explained how the time away can add a mental fuel.
"I think it just makes you hungry if you aren't playing," Pitre said. "I sat out for two games. It just makes you ready to get back and be able to contribute to the team. You see that the team is having success, so you want to just continue to help out as much as possible and continue to bring that good energy. That's what it's ultimately about."
2) Score quickly – In the last two victories, the Texans have gone into halftime with leads of 17-0 and 16-0, respectively. That first half domination has been instrumental in allowing the offense and defense to operate creatively and effectively after the intermissions as well. At Jacksonville, Houston still outscored the Jaguars 20-17 in the second half. At home against the Steelers, the Texans were better by a 14-6 margin following the intermission.
Head Coach DeMeco Ryans has liked those fast starts, and he's especially liked the way the Texans didn't let up once they gained multi-score leads.
"Overall, for our entire team, the first two weeks has been dialed in to the details of our assignments and how we need to finish," Ryans said. "As a team, I think everybody understood that we had to learn what it takes to win, and that's everybody being dialed in, everybody finishing the proper way, everybody playing with a relentless mindset, and that's what changed for us after the first two weeks."
The Falcons have been on the other end of the spectrum in their last two contests: they've entered halftime in those games down a combined 30-3.
3) C.J. Day – Quarterback C.J. Stroud now has attempted an NFL rookie record 151 passes without throwing an interception. He's thrown six touchdowns to three different players, and 14 different Texans have caught a pass from him.
Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik wants his signal-caller to quickly have easy options.
"A lot of what we do when we structure plays is we just want answers so the quarterback can go out and play pretty fast and get to his answer as quick as he can," Slowik said. "A lot of times, when they overplay something, it opens something else up, so we'll have offsets to that, if they do decide to double any of our receivers, really."
Stroud continues to grow on the field, and despite the early successes, he's not satisfied.
"I have a lot of work to do, a lot of growing still to happen," Stroud said. "I have to get a lot better in multiple areas, but I think that's going to be every year."
4) Rattle Ridder – Atlanta quarterback Desmond Ridder has started eight games in two seasons. So far in 2023, he's thrown three touchdowns and three picks. He's also been sacked 16 times this year and completed 62.8 percent of his passes.
Ryans explained the challenges Ridder presents to the Texans defense.
"He's doing a really good job of putting the ball where it needs to be and getting it into his playmakers hands," Ridder said. "What they've done there in Atlanta is they've surrounded him with a ton of playmakers, so it's not just on the quarterback, there's a lot of playmakers he can get the ball to. Tight ends, wide receivers, the backs – a lot of dynamic playmakers that surround Ridder, and they've done a really good job."
In the last two weeks, Ridder's been sacked 11 times combined.
5) Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood – Falcons running back Bijan Robinson is special. He already has a pair of 100-yard rushing games as a rookie and he's averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
The Texans are all well-aware of him, and well-aware of the Falcons' run game as a hole. As a team, they're averaging 128 yards per game, which places them in the top half of the NFL.
"They're trying to out-physical teams and run the ball," safety Jimmie Ward said. "We're going to have a tough, tough task at hand stopping them from running the ball."
Ryans said Head Coach Arthur Smith's offense is one of the best in the league on the ground.
"I have much respect for their running game and what they do," Ryans said. "That's where it's going to be a big task for us this week when it comes to stopping the run, because they do a really nice job of running it. And if you do stop it, they're going to continue to run. They're going to make you stop it for four quarters, so we have our hands full there."