At long last, Texans football is back. Houston hosts the Colts in the regular season opener on Liberty White Out Day presented by Community Coffee. Here are five things to watch when the AFC South rivals kick off at Noon CT Sunday inside NRG Stadium.
1) Pound It with Pierce
Rookie Running Back Dameon Pierce only played in a pair of preseason games this August, but the fourth-rounder out of Florida was electrifying. He averaged 7.8 yards per carry in August, and didn't shy away from contact. To nobody's surprise, he was listed as the starter on the team's depth chart earlier this week, and he's up for the challenge of his first regular season contest.
"Other than winning, I want to play the best ball I can play," Pierce said. "Stay healthy, stay happy and bring my teammates along the way."
His teammates, and coaches, have liked what they've seen from Pierce since he arrived in May. Improving upon an NFL-worst 3.4 yards per carry in 2021 is a must if this team wants to win more games in 2022, and Pierce will play a big factor in that, starting against Indianapolis. According to veteran Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks, the rookie's done all the right things so far.
"The way he's been coming to work from the moment he has stepped into this building, you can see he's about his business," Cooks said. "He's been running at a high level. One thing I continue to tell him is to never get comfortable, always find ways to improve, and I think he took that to heart because you see him go out there every day working on something."
2) Back together again
This will be the first game action since last season for Cooks, Pro Bowl Left Tackle Laremy Tunsil and Center Justin Britt. That trio, along with Tight End Pharaoh Brown, didn't play a snap in the preseason, but all four are expected to start Sunday versus the Colts. Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton didn't do anything exotic, offensively, during the thre preseason games, and Quarterback Davis Mills is looking forward to opening up the playbook a bit more, with all the starters.
"That's probably most what we're excited for," Mills said. "Obviously the stuff in preseason's a little vanilla. They're not trying to show too much. We're ready to just go out there and play fast."
It's Year 2 for Mills, who was named a team captain on Wednesday. He helped Hamilton install the offense during the run-up to Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and is in a system that's similar to the one he ran at Stanford.
3) New look for the secondary
The Texans defense has a slew of new faces, and they'll have a pair of starters at cornerback in veteran Steven Nelson and rookie Derek Stingley, Jr. suiting up for the first time as Texans. At the safety positions, Jonathan Owens and rookie Jalen Pitre round out a defensive backfield foursome that features a total makeover in terms of starters. Smith isn't worried that two of those starters are rookies.
"They've picked up everything quickly," Smith said. "We've been pretty basic on what we've done in the preseason, but with everything else, that's what I've seen from them. They're football guys. They're hungry. A lot of rookies are hungry and our rookies really are. Just don't think we're going to be limited with what we do with them."
4) Ryan's hope
Matt Ryan is now the fifth quarterback in as many seasons to start in Week 1 for the Colts. The 2016 NFL MVP comes to town after spending 14 seasons with the Falcons. The Texans have seen him three times with Atlanta, and Smith's coached against him in Tampa Bay and Chicago before that.
"I expect him to continue to play the way he's played and that's outstanding football. Played against him quite a few times and he's been one of the best quarterbacks in our league, and that's based on performance on the football field. He can make all the throws."
In 2021 with the Falcons, Ryan completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,968 yards, with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He comes to a Colts offense that features a dynamic running back in Jonathan Taylor. Linebackers Coach Miles Smith explained how the veteran signal-caller's wisdom is one of his most valuable qualities.
"He's a savvy vet who knows what he's doing," Miles Smith said. "He commands an offense. He really is a 'pro's pro' quarterback. When we play teams like this, you just have to be on point, on your P's and Q's because in the end, if you're not, he's going to make you pay for it."
5) Stout on the interior
The Colts defensive line, especially the interior of it, is outstanding. DeForest Buckner's played in four games against Houston since joining Indianapolis. He has seven sacks in that quartet of contests, along with 12 quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Alongside him, Grover Stewart's also been a problem for Houston since joining Indianapolis in 2017.
The Texans interior offensive line must be up for the challenge of blocking that duo, or it'll be a tough task trying to run the football.