The time for talking is over. After roughly six weeks of preparation, including three preseason games, the NFL regular season is here, and the true beginning of the DeMeco Ryans Era is here. The former Texans standout linebacker has proven himself to be one of the best position coaches in the NFL, and best coordinators in the NFL. Now, the head coaching chapter begins.
The Texans head up to Baltimore for a noon kickoff on Sunday as the biggest underdog on the board for Week 1, as they've been a 9.5 point underdog from about the time the schedule was released in May. Given some of the Texans' injury issues, the spread could very well go up to ten points by kickoff, but I'd be surprised to see it go higher than that.
The Texans come into this game with some serious injury issues, and that's probably a good place to start in our four things to watch for. Here we go:
4. What will the Texans' offensive line look like?
Right now, the offensive line is basically in shambles. The area of the team into which Nick Caserio invested most heavily this offseason now has three of its five forecasted starters on injured reserve. Kenyon Green is out for the year, while center Juice Scruggs and right tackle Tytus Howard are set to miss at least four games, if not more. They'll be replaced, respectively, by four-year veteran Josh Jones, rookie Jarrett Patterson, and veteran George Fant. This is a troubling development, given how valuable C.J. Stroud is to the team's future. Stroud is going to have to find a way to navigate messy pockets, and the Texans will need to find a way to run the football. If the game gets ugly early on, it will likely be breakdowns on the offensive line as the cause.
3. Tav vs Zay
One of the more curious cuts by Caserio and Ryans was veteran slot cornerback Desmond King being let go. King quickly found a home in Pittsburgh with the Steelers, and this left the Texans with Tavierre Thomas as the slot corner. Thomas has been a pleasant surprise his first two seasons in Houston, but he had a rough training camp, and now here comes Baltimore, in a new offense where they're expected to use three wide receivers quite a bit. Their slot guy is expected to be rookie WR Zay Flowers, the best of this rookie crop of receivers in my opinion. If the Ravens are looking for areas to attack, they may seek out where number 4 in a Texans jersey is on each play.
2. Special teams
When you're a big underdog like the Texans, if you're going to pull off the upset, you'll probably need a big play or two from your special teams — a big return, a blocked punt, a turnover, something. The good news is that special teams are the one area in which the Texans have been elite the past couple seasons, under the watchful eye of special teams coordinator Frank Ross. Rookie Tank Dell will return punts. He had a 27 yard punt return against the Saints in the preseason to set up C.J. Stroud's only TD pass. The Texans will be without the services of punter Cam Johnston, who is on injured reserve with a calf injury. If the game is close, the Ravens have the advantage at placekicker, with future Hall of Famer Justin Tucker.
1. Containing Lamar Jackson
For the first time in a long time, the biggest story surrounding Lamar Jackson has nothing to do with his contractual situation. He got that resolved this offseason to the tune of $185 million guaranteed. So now it's all about football, and how Jackson will perform with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. The stated goal is to get Jackson to lean more on throwing the football, as opposed to scrambling, an approach that is about self preservation for Jackson as much as anything, as he's missed significant time with injuries the last two seasons. The Texans are catching Jackson at a good time, in that he played exactly zero snaps in preseason games, so the first chance he will get to run this new offense against real opponents is Sunday. Expect some disjointed play early from Jackson. That said, it's the improv skills of Jackson that are the killer, and the Texans can't allow more than one big "playground style" scramble play from Jackson in this game.
PREDICTION: Ravens 24, Texans 10
SPREAD: Texans +9.5
SEASON RECORD: 0-0 (0-0 ATS)
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