Game Preview: Panthers at Texans

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers vs. Texans game is previewed ahead of the Thursday night showdown in Houston.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

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Houston Texans

So the Houston Texans are perhaps an injury away from being 2-0. Just as we all expected. In all seriousness the Texans have looked better than many, including myself, thought they would ahead of the season. A relatively old roster without a franchise quarterback and a lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball will yield those predictions. But to David Culley’s credit, his club is a respectable 1-1 and they almost defeated the Cleveland Browns last week. A hamstring injury to Tyrod Taylor at the end of the first half helped seal their fate as the Browns pulled away from the halftime tie to win 31-21.

In steps Davis Mills, Houston’s first selection in the 2021 NFL Draft (3rd round, #61 overall). The rookie QB out of Stanford will get his first start Thursday as Deshaun Watson remains a healthy scratch given the various allegations against him. Mills did see action in second half of the Browns game and connected with Brandin Cooks on a fourth-quarter touchdown, but also threw an untimely interception that led to a Cleveland field goal. He finished 8-18 for 102 yards, one touchdown and one interception. As expected, he’s going to have some up and down performances throughout the season. A matchup with the aggressive Panthers defense, though, doesn’t bode well for his chances to rebound from an underwhelming outing.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 19: Davis Mills #10 of the Houston Texans plays against the the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won the game 21-31. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

As for the rest of the offense, Cooks remains one of the most underrated receivers in the league. Yes, he’s on his fourth team in eight years, but he has produced consistently over that span. He has at least 1,000 yards and five touchdowns in five seasons, and has quickly established himself as the top target in Houston. A burner, Cooks is a deep threat on any given play. And they aren’t afraid to attack deep and utilize the middle of the field. Their 8 adjusted net yards per pass attempt ranks 7th in the league. Also to this point they’ve converted over 57% of their third downs, which is second best in the NFL. Situational play has been a strength of theirs, but will that change with Mills under center?

The running back corps is hard to predict. Made up of several veteran players beyond their prime, the Houston backfield can look different from drive to drive. At times Mark Ingram has looked to be the main back, averaging 20 touches per game. But Phillip Lindsay can often be seen on passing downs and the occasional drive, along with David Johnson. If one thing is for certain, the Texans will have fresh running backs to work with throughout the game.

Defensively, the team has struggled thus far. In a league where a competent pass rush is almost a must, the Texans have recorded just three pressures and are also credited with 19 missed tackles, both among the league-worst. And they’re allowing over 4.5 yards per rush, also towards the bottom. But much like their offense, they’ve been good on third down. The Houston defense is yielding conversions of just 37% of opponents third downs. Their strength is largely in their secondary with the likes of safety Justin Reid and cornerback Desmond King III.

Carolina Panthers

Another week and another fantastic performance by the Carolina defense. The unit shut down a Saints offense that made the Packers defense look pedestrian in the opener, granted New Orleans was missing a large chunk of offensive assistants. But still, the Panthers took care of business and are now 2-0 with a tie-breaker against NO in their back pocket (at least for now).

It was a game that featured Christian McCaffrey heavily once again, as should be the case every week this season. He recorded over 130 yards from scrimmage, including a touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter. The dual-threat playmaker continues to impress. Meanwhile D.J. Moore showed why he’s still the number one target on the team, leading all receivers with eight catches for 79 yards and a score. He and Darnold will look to continue their connection on the road this week. Dan Arnold also showed why the team picked him up in the offseason, hauling in a nice 19-yard pass finishing the day with 55 yards.

The story was that of the defense for a second-straight week, though. The front made life difficult for Jameis Winston all afternoon with four sacks and collecting two interceptions off of the seven-year pro. And Jaycee Horn continued to develop, grabbing his first NFL interception. So far, this Panthers defense ranks best in the league in several categories. They’re allowing just a 25% third down conversion rate, 10.5 points per game, 2.7 yards per rush, and sacking the quarterback on 14.5% of dropbacks, all best in the NFL. It’s probable they’ll continue that pass against Houston this week.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 19: Cornerback Jaycee Horn #8 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates with cornerback Donte Jackson #26 in the game against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Keys to the game

  • Pressure the rookie: With a league-best 21 quarterback hits, the Panthers are among the best at dialing up pressure. This defensive line should feast and disrupt the rookie quarterback this week. Not to mention Hassan Reddick is 1.5 sacks away from tying Julius Peppers for the team record of at least 1.5 sacks in three straight games.
  • Keep everything in front: The easiest way to let Houston stick around or even take a lead is to give up the big play. Mills has impressive arm skills and Cooks has a 52-yard catch and is averaging 15 yards per reception. If Carolina can pair the pressure with eliminating deep shots, they’ll be set up well for a win.
  • Run it early and often: There’s no question the Panthers have the weapons to attack the secondary with, but given Houston’s vulnerability up front there’s no reason to overthink things. This is a prime opportunity to establish the line of scrimmage and run it with one of the best running backs in the league. It wouldn’t hurt to get Chuba Hubbard more involved, either. A good run game will also set up some great play-action opportunities for Darnold and company.

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