What to watch for in Dolphins vs. Texans on ‘TNF’

Texans fans might disagree, but it seems like eons have passed since the start of the Brock Osweiler era in Houston.

Osweiler’s signing in March of 2016 was supposed to signal the start of a Texans spring. Instead, it led to a winter of discontent that ended in the quarterback being traded the following year.

On Thursday Night Football, fans will see the journeyman signal-caller play in Houston for the first time since his 15-game stint with the Texans ended in disappointment and disaster. The Dolphins QB faces a formidable challenge against the Texans, who’ve won their last four games after starting out the season 0-3.

Here’s what to watch for when the Miami Dolphins (4-3) play the Houston Texans (4-3):

Will Brocktober rage on for another week?

Osweiler’s career continues to live within the shadow of his infamous 2016 campaign, but he has exceeded expectations since filling in for Ryan Tannehill, who’s missing his third consecutive start because of an injury to his throwing shoulder.

 

Osweiler threw for more than 300 yards in the Dolphins’ win over the Chicago Bears two weeks ago and has been a model of situational efficiency in his two starts. He’s the NFL’s highest-rated passer on third down (129.8) and in the fourth quarter (153.0).

Whether he can replicate those numbers against a ferocious Texans pass rush that knows his pocket tendencies remains to be seen. What likely will complicate his efforts will be his lack of viable targets.

Leading wide receiver Albert Wilson was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a hip injury and Kenny Stills won’t play because of a groin injury. DeVante Parker is expected to play after a drama-filled week that included his agent calling out Dolphins coach Adam Gase for benching a healthy player. Parker is on the trade block and is coming off a quad injury.

With the Dolphins benefiting immensely from Wilson’s league-leading 13.5 yards-after-the-catch average, Osweiler could be forced to throw deeper to help make up for his absence. That, in return, could make him more susceptible for interceptions since he has struggled to throw into tight windows from a 10-plus yard out (8.3 percent, per Next Gen Stats).

Texas-sized D in Houston getting it done

Houston’s defense has provided the foundation for its four-game winning streak — and prolific pass-rushers J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney have spearheaded the effort.

Over the first three games of the season, Watt and Clowney combined for three sacks, six QB hits and six tackles for loss. Since then, the duo has tallied 8.5 sacks, 16 QB hits and 11 tackles for loss. Watt is one of three NFL players with five-plus sacks (7) and four or more forced fumbles (4) this season.

Those efforts, coupled with the NFL-leading 10 takeaways the Texans have had since the start of their winning streak, has defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s crew giving up a very svelte 17.5 points per game over the last four contests.

If Watt and Clowney continue to keep it up, Osweiler could be in store for a scary Rocktober.

Texans need to protect Deshaun Watson

Last year’s injury-fest in Houston didn’t take a devastating turn until Deshaun Watson was lost for the season with a torn ACL, and the Texans’ spotty protection of the second-year quarterback this season has led to plenty of breathtaking moments for the team’s faithful fans.

While Watson won’t have to ride a bus to Thursday’s game in order to protect his rehabilitating lungs, the Texans will need to do everything they can to keep him upright. Going up against the league’s No. 27th defense might provide a little bit of relief for Houston’s offensive line, but it shouldn’t be underestimating anyone.

Despite his near-constant flirtations with danger, Watson is putting up numbers similar to his rookie season — outside of touchdowns.

Watson as a starter in 2017; 2018:

Pro Football Focus grade: 75.4; 75.1

Not bad for a QB who has been sacked a league-high 26 times and taken 68 hits this season and stayed upright to play another game.

Still, surviving usually doesn’t lead to thriving. While playing under pressure, Watson ranks 29th in completion percentage (41.0), is dead last in TD-INT ratio (0-4) and ranks 32nd in passer rating (31.8), per Next Gen Stats. When the O-line provides him decent time in the pocket, Watson has a 70.6 completion percentage, a 10-3 TD-INT ratio, and a 109.5 passer rating.

Sure, it’s not the biggest revelation in the world that Watson performs better when someone isn’t chasing him down to give him a bear hug, but the Texans are sitting on a potential leviathan of an offensive force if they just give Watson more time to throw.

What’s my name? What’s my name?

Perhaps the ultimate NFL trash talk burn comes when a star player claims he’s never heard of a potential up-and-coming player.

Earlier this week, Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard told reporters that Texans star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins “likes to push off a lot.” When informed of Howard’s observation, Hopkins responded, “Who’s Xavien Howard?”

Howard this season has made a name for himself as being a boom-or-bust player in coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, Howard has been giving up a whopping 10.7 yards per target in coverage (86th in NFL) and has allowed two touchdowns. Conversely, his three interceptions are tied for the NFL lead.

If Howard goes toe-to-toe with Hopkins, he should see plenty of work. The Pro Bowl wideout has seen 71 targets this season but has struggled to gain separation (2.2 yards per average). Still, Hopkins is averaging 101 yards per game — joining Adam Thielen and Julio Jones as the only players to eclipse the 100-yard average this season.

A stifling performance against Hopkins and Will Fuller could go a long way into helping Howard gain a bigger reputation among NFL wide receivers, and bolster the Dolphins chances of victory.

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