The Texans (3-4) host the Buccaneers (3-4) on Sunday in Houston. This is the first regular season meeting between the franchises since an AFC South-clinching victory by the Texans at Tampa Bay in Week 16 of 2019. Here are five things to watch when the two clubs kick off at noon CT inside NRG Stadium.
1) Mirror images – These two teams share many similarities. They have the same record. Their head coaches—DeMeco Ryans and Todd Bowles--both played on defense in the NFL, and then coached on that side of the ball as assistants in the league. Both clubs are also near the top of the NFL in the turnover differential category.
The Buccaneers are the best in that category heading into Week 9, as they've taken the ball away eight more times (plus-8) than they've turned it over. Houston's tied for sixth in that category at plus-5.
"That's going to be the matchup this week," Ryans said. "I think the team that wins the turnover battle will win the game."
Houston's the cleanest team in the league when it comes to ball security, as they've only fumbled it away three times and Stroud's tossed a lone interception. But Tampa Bay is third in the NFL in takeaways, while the Texans are 22nd.
"The Bucs have done a great job of taking the ball away," Ryans said. "That's their strength, that's where their team thrives. Just all across the board you see that they're well coached and it's emphasized that they should attack the ball and they're the best in the league when it comes to taking the ball away. I think that's why they're a top defense in the league because they do a great job of taking the ball."
2) C.J.'s Day – Quarterback C.J. Stroud is back at NRG Stadium for the fourth time in 2023. Through his first three home games, the rookie's completed 57 percent of his passes for 889 yards, with six touchdowns and an interception. Even though he and the Texans lost last Sunday, the Buccaneers believe Stroud's playing far beyond his years
"He's not playing like a rookie quarterback," Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David said. "He's very poised in the pocket. He can make all the right decisions. He can make all the right throws. He knows where guys are supposed to be. He doesn't make the silly mistakes that you kind of see out of young quarterbacks. He's controlling their offense really well. He's definitely holding up his end of the bargain as the number 2 overall pick."
One area in which Stroud's excelled has been the deep ball. According to NFL Research, on passes of 20 or more yards in the air, he's completed 56.3 percent and has a 140.6 passer rating. Both those marks are best in the league.
"He makes very good throws, he's got a very good arm," Bowles said. "He's got a very quick-flick wrist, he's very accurate all the way around. He knows where to go with the football, he has a good grasp of the offense. That's rare for a rookie."
3) Shuffling in the run game – The Texans are still seeking improvement on the ground, as they're averaging 3.3 yards per carry as a team. Starting center Jarrett Patterson went on injured reserve earlier this week, and Michael Deiter played the final snaps of the game offensively for Houston at Carolina. He'll likely start in the place of Patterson this weekend.
"Mike has been in there," Ryans said. "He's played a lot of ball, so Mike's experience will help us. He's been out there before, guys have played together, so we feel comfortable with Mike stepping in there for us."
Running back Dameon Pierce didn't practice this week because of an ankle injury, so Devin Singletary and Mike Boone will likely get more chances in the run game. Offensive Coordinator Bobby Slowik doesn't just think Singletary is capable of stepping in. Slowik thinks Singletary's one of the best football players on the roster.
"Without a doubt, Devin Singletary is one of those guys," Slowik said. "He does everything. He does everything really well, he does it very smooth and with the right mindset. He's aggressive in everything he does. He's confident. I think he's one of everyone's favorite people on the team for that reason. So, we have the upmost confidence in really that whole group."
Singletary's thrown a touchdown pass this season, but has yet to run for one or catch a score.
4) Stingy up the middle – The Buccaneers have an excellent defense. They're allowing just 18.3 points per game, which is sixth-best in the NFL. Nose tackle Vita Vea leads them in sacks with 3.5 this year.
"Vita is a problem," Ryans said. "Big fellow inside – he's a problem. When it comes to disrupting the pass-game, his strength and his ability to knock the pocket back, that's where it starts with him and also the run-game. He's a problem in both."
Behind Vea is David, who continues to thrive in his 12th NFL campaign. David already's logged 67 tackles this year.
"I know it starts with Lavonte David," Ryans said. "He's done it for a long time in this league and whenever you look up a highlight, he's always finding a way to force the ball out with Devin White in there."
5) Baker and Evans – Like many quarterbacks before him, Baker Mayfield is connecting often and successfully with wide receiver Mike Evans. Through the first seven games, the Galveston Ball High School product has caught five touchdowns and is averaging 15.4 yards per catch.
Linebacker Blake Cashman isn't surprised, as Evans has cranked out 1,000-yard seasons in every one of the previous nine years.
"That's a Hall of Famer in my eyes and defensive players eyes and a lot of people around the league," Cashman said. "Everyone knows that Mike Evans is a great player and he's had a tremendous career."
Mayfield, meanwhile, has completed 64 percent of his passes and has thrown 10 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
"He's in command of the offense," Texans Defensive Coordinator Matt Burke said. "You can see that he's doing a lot at the line – checking in the plays that they want. They give him some freedom, or they help him to do some of those things. He's just doing a really good job of like 'A' – getting them into plays. He's really, really good at buying time with his feet."