Rested and refreshed, the Houston Texans return from their bye week to face the Buffalo Bills at Reliant Stadium. Matt Schaub and company had some extra time to celebrate their first win over the Baltimore Ravens. Their 43-13 domination of the perennial AFC power was a fitting sendoff to their week off.
Buffalo also had additional time to ponder the evolution of their season, which is headed in an uncertain direction after dropping a 35-34 heartbreaker to the Titans. They must be hoping to avoid a repeat of 2011, when they lost seven in a row in their last 10 games after the break.
The question should be not whether Houston wins, but by how much. The Bills are ranked dead last against the rush and seem like a pushover. But the uneven performance of the Texans’ offensive line has caused their running game to sputter at times, even when facing the below average defenses of Tennessee and Green Bay.
The strategy for the rest of the season should be part of the plan for this game and the balance of the schedule. To that end, there are ten key areas the team may want to take under advisement.
Gary Kubiak is 2-4 after bye weeks during his tenure as head coach. The win over Jacksonville in 2011 ended a three-game losing streak after the break. This is no time to start that trend all over again.
It would be easy to look down the road towards the tougher games still left to play. This is the NFL and no team should be taken lightly.
The Bills thought they had bolstered their defense in the offseason with the signings of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. It turns out their problems cannot be remedied by the addition of a couple of players, even one with a record-breaking contract.
Apparently, when owner Ralph Wilson finally spreads his money around he does not know where to put it. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick received a shocking seven-year, $62 million deal during last season, the team went into a tailspin that dropped them out of contention.
This may look a team in disarray, but Buffalo has won three games and could see the AFC-leading Houston Texans as the chance to turn their season around. Kubiak and his assistants must insure they return home disappointed.
So he took the money and forsook the balmy climes of southeast Texas for the six-month winters of upstate New York. Note to Texans fans: get your boos in early and move on.
There is little need to do anything more than acknowledge his return to the city that once tried to embrace him, but found it difficult to make a connection. His comments prior to this game will make their estrangement even harder to overcome.
In the process of recovering from wrist surgery, Mario Williams could be put on a snap count to see just how far he can push himself. As followers of his career are aware, that has been a problem over the years.
His impact on Houston’s game plan is likely to be as minimal as the numbers he has put up this season. Now playing on the left side of the defensive line, he can expect the usual double-teams from RT Derek Newton and whoever comes over to help out.
Arian Foster and friends tend to run towards the other side of the line anyway, so Mario will need every bit of his 4.7 speed to chase down the play.
As of publication, Ben Tate is listed as doubtful for the game on Sunday. It would be wise to resist the temptation to have Arian Foster head into the range of 20+ carries again.
The offensive masterminds directing Houston’s offense must have noticed Buffalo did not reach their league-worst position in stopping the run by accident. In four of their seven games, teams in the bottom half of the rushing ranks have gained 100 or more yards:
Jets: 118 yards (16th)
Cardinals: 182 yards (31st)
Chiefs: 150 yards (19th)
Titans: 197 yards (17th)
Justin Forsett is expected to pick up the slack for Tate. If he goes down or proves ineffective Foster should not be called on to shoulder the entire load. It only makes sense to have a third running back on call, and Grimes was second to Forsett in rushing during the preseason.
That 400-carry cliff Foster was racing towards in the first few games has slowed recently, and that needs to continue. Right now, Grimes is the best insurance available against that possibility. And keep him on the active roster until Tate is fully healed.
The frontrunner for Defensive MVP has had a slump-less start to his sophomore year in the NFL. The expectations started to reach unsustainable proportions. After four games people were projecting 30 sacks and enough tipped passes for an entire secondary.
He is both quick and strong enough to handle two blockers most of the time. As a 3-4 defensive end, it is part of the job description. But to think he will beat those blocks often enough to average a sack a game for the rest of the season is unrealistic.
The top 10 single-season sack leaders are all 4-3 defensive ends or outside linebackers. To accomplish what Watt has done from his position is phenomenal but almost impossible to maintain.
Almost everyone who starts out at this pace finishes with a more reasonable total at the end of the year. You get beat up as the season goes on, teams find ways to “chip” or even cut block you, or start to figure out your favorite stunts.
If he demands attention from both offensive coordinators and players alike, he will continue to influence the outcome of games even if it does not show up on the stat sheet. This attention will create opportunities for other players, and the outside linebackers should benefit most of all.
J.J. positions himself up and down the line, so the entire OL of the Bills are certain to be in preparations for a full frontal assault. For someone who only seems to know one speed, and that’s full bore, he will have to be accounted for on every single play.
On strictly a yardage basis, Buffalo has some kind of ground game. Just what kind seems to depend on what team they are playing.
They can rack up the numbers when the competition has no proficiency against the run. The Niners and Patriots both have top 10 rushing defenses and held Buffalo to 89 yards and 98 yards, respectively. In the other five games they have played, their lowest output has been 138 yards in Cleveland.
When the Bills get rolling, they are not choosy on which direction to go. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller will hit any gap and get some yards out of it. They average 5.3 yards per attempt as a team, far better than the run-oriented Texans and their 4.0 figure.
Just because the Texans have only allowed 83 rushing yards per game and not a single touchdown on the ground is no reason to get complacent. They are still trying to get over the loss of their best run-stopper in Brian Cushing and the sporadic play of Bradie James.
Tim Dobbins has been an excellent replacement for Cushing, but the release of Mister Alexander has cut into their depth at ILB. Part of the plan may be to slide Brooks Reed inside and bring Whitney Mercilus in at OLB when down and distance call for it. It seemed to work in the Ravens game, but Baltimore was on their heels after falling behind early.
Ryan Fitzpatrick takes a lot of abuse, and for good reason. He is on pace to throw for 30 touchdowns, a threshold that John Elway and Troy Aikman never reached.
The Harvard grad has the arm and the receivers, if not the ability to actually win the game on his merits. If Buffalo is unable to advance on the ground, they will have no choice but to go airborne.
WR Steve Johnson would probably thrive in a more consistent offense, but right now he is doing his best as Fitz’s go-to guy. Likewise, TE Scott Chandler is his quarterback’s security blanket when denied the deep pass.
Should the defensive backs of the Texans have one of those letdowns, like in the second half against the Jets, they might have to wake up in a hurry to slow the Bills' passing game. The word is Johnathan Joseph has gotten over his groin problem, so that explanation will not apply this time around.
The offensive line of the Bills is above average at every position, and just eight sacks allowed is adequate proof. They have yet to face J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith, the reawakened Connor Barwin, and the well-disguised Glover Quin blitz.
The Achilles heel of the Texans belongs not to one player, but their entire special teams unit. Their misadventures have given fans a dose of unneeded excitement almost every week.
Now they face the leader in both punt and kickoff returns. Leodis McKelvin tops the NFL with a 24.0 average on punts. He and Brad Smith lead the league with an average of 30.8 yards per kickoff.
What can be done about such a persistent bugaboo is debatable. Start from scratch, take it back to the basics, use starters instead of second- and third-teamers; all have been offered as possible solutions.
Whatever has been cooking over the two-week respite is about to be presented for our consumption. It could go down easy, or give all concerned a case of acid-reflux. Let us just hope whatever is served can at least be swallowed without coming right back up.
When the Texans get the lead, as they have done throughout most of 2012, Gary Kubiak has taken a single-minded approach: take no chances, just take prisoners.
In other words, keep the ball on the ground and keep the clock running. It has worked like a charm, but it has also prevented the offense from trying to exceed its limitations.
Now most observers would assume this means more passing, preferably that of the “bombs-away” variety. What about a change in how personnel are utilized, as opposed to a radical change in play-calling?
This could range from a few more handoffs for James Casey, to putting him in the slot more frequently. What about having Lestar Jean and Keyshawn Martin in the lineup at the same time for more than a single play?
Or consider the ultimate blasphemy, pulling Matt Schaub for more than a series and getting T.J. Yates some extended reps behind center? Years ago, when teams were safely ahead coaches would get their players off the bench and into the game.
It has become common practice to pull many of your key starters in the final game of the season if the team is headed for the playoffs. Why it is rarely done in a regular season blowout has yet to be fully explained.
Now let us evaluate the alternative scenario. The formula for winning a game, particularly for a successful outfit like the Texans, is a known quantity by now. What is unknown is how to pull one out when the situation appears desperate.
When faced with this prospect after falling behind to Green Bay, the Texans did not respond with the kind of poise any fan would hope to see. But what the fans may experience is secondary to what the players go through.
In all likelihood, every team that won a Super Bowl had to come back from a double-digit deficit sometime during the regular season. If any winner(s) of the Lombardi Trophy do not fit this description, that list is going to be a short one.
If you want to know what it takes to dig yourself out of that hole, it might be best to do so against a lesser opponent. Naturally, the ideal scenario is to never be in that position in the first place. A more realistic one is to pull it off during the regular season, and not have to wait until the postseason for that unfamiliar experience to present itself.
This may not be the game where it comes to pass, but this inevitability must be dealt with at some point.
41-38. For any Houstonian who remembers January 3rd 1993, this is a score which will live in infamy.
To the loyal followers of the Buffalo Bills, it is known as The Comeback. To the Houston Oilers fans that endured it, its various names are not spoken in proper company.
To surrender a 35-3 lead, even during a playoff game, was unthinkable to anyone at the time. That is because it had never happened in any NFL game. Yet Houston figured out a way to cough up the lead, then come back to tie the game 38-38 and send it into overtime. A sudden-death field goal won it for Buffalo, advanced them to the next round of the playoffs and eventually Super Bowl XXVII.
Little did anyone know at the time, that loss was part of series of events that resulted in the Oilers leaving Houston and relocating in Nashville. Why should a game from almost 20 years ago matter now?
To those who understand and appreciate history, there is a direct line from The Comeback to the game this Sunday. It plays a significant role in the very existence of the Houston Texans franchise.
What better way to repay Buffalo than to send them home with a loss they will never forget.