The Texans (2-8) are back home for the first time since Halloween. They'll host the Jets (2-8) to start a three-game homestand. The Texans have won the last three meetings between the two franchises. Here are five things to watch when Houston and New York kick off at noon CT inside NRG Stadium.
1) Take, Take, Take – The last two games have seen the Texans explode with takeaway bonanzas. Against both the Titans and Dolphins, the defense and special teams combined to get five takeaways each game. At Tennessee, Houston didn't turn the ball over, either. So that plus-five last Sunday helped swing Houston's season turnover differential rate from a minus-three in 2021 to a plus-two.
Getting the ball back from the opposing offense is a key tenet of Defensive Coordinator Lovie Smith's philosophy, and he's been pleased with his unit's performance the last two weeks, as well as this season.
"We preach it, we believe in it, and the guys believe in it," Smith said. "I just don't think you can say that you played a good defensive game unless you take the ball away. That's not anything new, that's how we've been for many years. It matters when you look at the reason why a team won, you look at turnover ratio, it kind of tells you about an awful lot. We know our part in that of taking the football away, so the guys are doing a great job of that."
It's been a remarkable turnaround compared to what happened in 2020. Houston came up with just nine takeaways last season. With seven games remaining in 2021, the Texans already have 19 takeaways.
Against the Dolphins, though, Houston coughed it up four times. Staying clean, offensively, against the Titans was a big difference-maker, according to Head Coach David Culley.
"The big thing was we did not play that well, but one thing we did do, overall, is we protected the football," Culley said. "When we have not protected the football, just like the team we just got through playing, they didn't protect the football. They had no chance at that point."
2) Run Game Shuffle – The Texans jiggled the running backs room this week, as the club parted ways with veteran Phillip Lindsay. That leaves Rex Burkhead, David Johnson and Royce Freeman as the only three ball-carriers on the 53-man roster. Burkhead saw a significant increase in touches last week as he carried the ball a season-high 18 times. Before the win at Tennessee, he had a combined seven carries in eight games played.
Freeman was added to the mix off waivers on November 9 and picked up 77 yards on 21 carries earlier this year in eight games with Carolina. Offensive Coordinator Tim Kelly described the fourth-year back out of Oregon.
"He's got good vision, he's got good patience, he runs hard," Kelly said. "Obviously, we haven't seen him here in a lot of situations, but going against our defense he's done a good job giving them looks. He's been smart, and he's diligent in how he prepares and the amount of time he's spent learning the offense. I've been very impressed with him so far."
That trio of Burkhead, Johnson and Freeman has a combined average of 3.1 yards per rushing attempt this year. Getting more effective results on the ground is something for which Houston is still searching in 2021. Culley would like to see a better job blocking from his offense in the run game.
"We were better last week, weren't where we needed to be, but we just need to be better at that," Culley said. "I think now we are doing things more, as I mentioned coming out of the Bye Week, we are doing things more that suits what we do upfront and what our backs do."
Another reason for the waiver of Lindsay was the return of Scottie Phillips. Culley said the second-year running back won't return for the Jets, but he should be back soon thereafter.
3) Time to Explode – An 'explosive play' in the NFL is a run for 10 or more yards or a pass for 15 or more yards. The Jets have allowed 46 explosive passes this season, and only two other teams in the NFL have allowed more.
Only one team has allowed more explosive runs than the 41 the Jets have given up in 2021.
Conversely, the Texans have struggled to get anything explosive this year on offense, as they've tallied just a dozen explosive runs and 23 explosive passes. They got neither in the rain and muck last Sunday at Tennessee and are looking to mix some explosion into their offense back at NRG Stadium.
WR Brandin Cooks is looking for the Texans to take advantage of what's been a Jets' weakness but also cautioned that Houston can't go overboard in thinking it can come easily.
"I mean you see that, but at the same time, it looks more like a communication thing because those guys fly around on that defense and they play at a high level," Cooks said. "When you see something explosive, obviously they are there, but those guys can run, and they also stop that consistently. We look forward to it."
4) Do it again, Tyrod – Tyrod Taylor bounced back last week after a rough outing in Miami. He tossed a trio of picks and was sacked five times against the Dolphins. In Nashville, though, he and the Texans didn't turn the ball over, he wasn't sacked, and he was hit just once. Cooks pointed out what he and his teammates gleaned from Taylor's game-to-game improvement.
"The biggest thing is that next game mentality," Cooks said. "Learn from your mistakes and get back at it, having that confidence that you belong and can play at a high level, sometimes games just happen. His ability to flush it, I think was huge for guys on the team."
The Texans have now won two games and lost just once when Taylor's started and finished a game. Going against a stingy Jets defense will be one of the big challenges in getting a third win this Sunday.
"They do a great job of rushing the passer, stout against the run as well, too," Taylor said. "Very strong upfront. We're definitely going to have to execute our game plan upfront in pass blocking as well as creating lanes for our backs to have some space to run."
5) Attack Zach – For the first time since October 24, rookie QB Zach Wilson will suit up and start a game for the Jets under center. He's been out with a knee injury the last month but is clear to go versus Houston. Veteran Josh Johnson will back him up, as Joe Flacco and Mike White are both on the COVID-19 list and unavailable against the Texans.
Before the injury, Wilson completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 1,168 yards, with four touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was also sacked 19 times in those first games. Despite his first-year struggles, the Texans respect Wilson's talent and described what they need to do to rattle him.
"He definitely has a talented arm, can make the throws that you want him to make," DL DeMarcus Walker said. "Just got to make him uncomfortable, get him moving back there. His first game back, get some pressures and make some havoc."
Coming off five takeaways in each of the last two games, the Texans believe they can keep the disruption going. DB Justin Reid shared his thoughts on getting after the young signal-caller.
"There is going to be some opportunity," Reid said. "He's a talented kid. Guy can make all the throws on the field. He does have a little more experience under his belt than he did earlier in the year. That should play in his favor a bit, but he's still a first-year guy coming off a knee injury. He hasn't played in a while."
The Texans have picked off a combined six passes the last two contests.
Catch the matchup on Sunday at NRG Stadium or on CBS and SportsRadio 610. Kickoff is set for noon CT. Click here for tickets.