The Texans (1-2) host the Steelers (2-1) in Week 4 at NRG Stadium. Former defensive end J.J. Watt will get inducted into the team's Ring of Honor presented by Ford. Here are five things to watch when Houston and Pittsburgh kick off at noon CT.
1) Stroud's next step – Earlier this week, quarterback C.J. Stroud was named the Rookie of the Month for September. In one particular area he’s been remarkably consistent: improving.
Whether it's been practice-to-practice, or game-to-game, Stroud's done an excellent job at getting better and correcting mistakes. Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik explained how much of that improvement comes from Stroud's attention to detail in preparation.
"The amount of time he dedicates to football I think, is exceptional for a rookie," Slowik said. "He does not want to go out on the field and lack command of any kind. He wants to know where all the answers are to everything he could possibly get, and I think every week it just sticks more and more and more."
According to Stroud, his preparation and improvement is not "rocket science" and it's actually rooted in self-discipline.
"It's just my routine and turning around every week for that team we're playing and just working," Stroud said. "Working hard and being hard on yourself, being critical, being accountable on everybody – including yourself and holding everybody to a standard of what it takes to win and that's what it takes."
Receiver Nico Collins, who's caught 15 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown in three games this year, also sees a marked improvement in Stroud.
"You can tell it's getting slower and slower for him," Collins said. "The sky's the limit for him. I just can't wait to see everything unfold."
2) Spreading the love – Two weeks ago against the Colts, Collins exploded for 146 yards on seven receptions, one of which was a touchdown. Last Sunday, rookie receiver Tank Dell blistered the Jaguars with five catches for 145 yards and a score. Veteran wide receiver Robert Woods has logged 15 catches for 165 yards, and 11 of those grabs generated a Houston first down.
Stroud's spread the love, so to speak, throughout the receiving corps this season. Collins said the receivers all have their own unique skillsets that make it possible for Stroud to dial up something big, week to week.
"Anybody can go get you 100 yards or go crazy, any day, any time," Collins said. "There are a lot of different playmakers in the room. You can't stop everybody."
The early success of the receivers is something Head Coach DeMeco Ryans saw coming back in May during Organized Team Activities (OTAs).
"It's not surprising to me in what those guys are doing," Ryans said. "Their effort, their intent and how they were blocking in OTAs, how they were making plays down the field in OTAs. That showed me the confidence in who those guys were, and they've been consistent, and that's the one thing you have to do in this league."
3) Wat(t)ch out for T.J. – While his older brother will get recognized for a decade of brilliance in Houston, T.J. Watt will look to continue his season of brilliance on Sunday. Watt's atop the NFL in sacks so far with six. The 5-time Pro Bowler and 2021 Defensive Player of the Year has the attention of the entire Houston offense, and Slowik described the task ahead on Sunday.
"The challenge is about as high as it gets," Slowik said. "T.J. leads the league in sacks. I think he leads the league in pressures. We've talked about it a lot and we have a plan going into it to help everybody across the board on both sides and that impacts everybody. Like I said, it's not just up front. It's receivers, it's tight ends, it's backs, it's quarterback. We know what the challenge is and that's really in the pass game and the run game."
The Texans might be without Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil, as well as Josh Jones, who started last week in his place.
4) Pick on Kenny – In his second year of professional football, Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett has completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 689 yards, with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He's been sacked eight times in three games.
Defensive coordinator Mat Burke outlined, in general, the way the Steelers offense operates.
"In general, it's a quick passing game attack, but then – we just talked about Pickett – they're going to take their shots," Burke said. Those guys, 19 [Calvin Austin III] can run. [Pat] Freiermuth can get in the seam and those sorts of things, so it is a balance.
In the Steelers' lone loss this year, Pickett was sacked five times, picked off twice and forced to throw it 46 times.
5) Pitre's return – Number five is back. Safety Jalen Pitre, who left at the half in Baltimore with a chest injury, returned to practice this week and is ready to go. He missed 2.5 games, and now joins Jimmie Ward in the defensive backfield. Both safeties are team captains, and Pitre brings a playmaking presence to the secondary and defense as a whole.
"He's a stud," Defensive end Kurt Hinish said. "His energy is second to none. Even when he's not playing, you know where Jalen Pitre is on the field. He's always getting everybody hyped up. He's a little fireball out there. It's cool."