A big reason why the Houston Texans' schedule is significantly easier this season compared to 2013 is they aren't matched with the most daunting conference in the NFC. Instead, the AFC South faces the NFC East, a matchup which begins this week with Houston and Washington.
What's considered a tough game and what's considered a not-so-tough game, though, changes throughout the season. Both teams have a clean slate. Both teams have new head coaches in their first year at the helm of an NFL team. Both have questions about their quarterbacks, albeit very different questions.
John Keim and I break down this week's matchup.
Tania Ganguli: So John, how has Jay Gruden adapted to becoming an NFL head coach?
John Keim: So far, quite well. Then again, he has zero career losses so we'll learn a lot more about him once the Redskins hit a rough stretch or have their usual drama. How well he handles those situations will be revealing. But, to date, Gruden has come across like he belongs in this job. I do think he's also having to balance being the offensive coordinator while still making sure he pays attention to the defense and special teams. It's quite a juggling act. But he brings a different sort of energy -- and sought coaches who do the same -- to practices and meeting rooms. More passionate than most coaches. Gruden knows he must coax more out of Robert Griffin III in the passing game, and he knows the problems that existed here a year ago. But while Gruden seems to have a strong relationship with him, he definitely will not coddle him. He doesn't offer stinging criticism, but he will be honest -- there are no free passes for the quarterback. Gruden is a nice guy; I don't view him as a pushover by any means.
He's not the only new coach in this game, though Bill O'Brien at least was a college head coach. How has he handled it and what qualities of his jump out at you?
Ganguli: His intensity and energy jump out at me. He's very organized. Practices run smoothly and quickly. Sloppiness results in running laps. He likes to control the flow of information much more than the previous regime, and he makes very sure that rookies know they get nothing until they've earned it. Like Gruden, though, he's undefeated right now and we'll really learn more about his effectiveness once games begin. Last season's Texans had a tendency to fold when things went south, and I'm expecting the new coaching staff to improve that mental toughness. With that added element, this team, which has a lot of talented players, should win many more games than last season.
The talent is there, defensively. They just made defensive end J.J. Watt the richest defensive player in the NFL. They took outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney first overall in this year's draft. Those are two ferocious pass-rushers who should cause problems for opponents this season.
How will the Washington offense fare against them?
Keim: They have some routes that take a little longer to develop; not sure they can run those efficiently against this defense because of those two pass-rushers. They benefit in having Trent Williams at left tackle against Clowney, allowing them to give more attention to Watt. Williams is an athletic tackle who faced Brian Orakpo every day in training camp, so he's well prepared to face Clowney. But Williams might not get a lot of help and it's not as if he never gives up sacks. I'll be curious to see how much the Texans move Watt around, but he can find a mismatch anywhere. Redskins right guard, Chris Chester and right tackle, Tyler Polumbus are not known for being strong, so if they're facing Watt, they will need help. The Redskins' protection hasn't been that great, and Griffin needs time in the pocket. Watt's ability to collapse the pocket will impact the game by preventing Griffin from stepping into his throws. My guess is they'll have to abandon, for a little while at least, thoughts of longer developing routes and use shorter, quicker passes, some draws and even the occasional zone read to cause the rushers to hesitate. Anything to buy more time in the pocket against those two.
Ganguli: That'll be a big challenge to start the year for the Texans' secondary. It's going to look very different from how it has in the past, with starter Kareem Jackson taking a lot of slot responsibilities. He is a more physical corner, well suited to playing inside, where those defensive holding penalties are a little more forgiving. Johnathan Joseph is the Texans' other starter and he missed the entire preseason while managing his recovery from foot surgery in January. Joseph says he's ready to go, but how much he does isn't yet clear. Beyond those two players is A.J. Bouye, a talented but unproven cornerback who was an undrafted rookie last season. How he does against Washington's speed will tell me (and him for that matter) a lot about who he is as a defensive back.
We've talked coaching and offense. Let's wrap this up with some thoughts on Washington's defense. It ranked 30th in points allowed last season. Has it improved?
Keim: It should be improved for a couple of reasons. But how much so? There are enough concerns entering the season to be wary of a huge improvement, likely keeping them middle of the pack. But they focused hard on the pass rush in the offseason, signing Jason Hatcher to provide help inside. They also hired outside linebackers coach Brian Baker, who worked every day on pass-rush techniques with his players -- much more so than they've been taught in the past. They also were playing faster this summer, in part because of new inside linebacker Keenan Robinson (taking over for London Fletcher). But this group largely has been in this system for a while and it shows. Also, safety Ryan Clark has helped in this area -- Pittsburgh used the same system and did it better. This summer, they did a better job tackling and surrounding the ball -- two areas they failed at in 2013. But I still worry about this group's long-term durability and about the penchant for allowing big plays. If they improve their tackling, they'll cut down on the latter.
Ganguli: You're right, there are good pieces in place around the quarterback. Johnson and Foster are stars. DeAndre Hopkins, last year's first-round pick, had a terrific offseason and training camp. He has long arms, really good hands and excellent leaping ability. He's learning to become a better route-runner, which will help him reach the potential the Texans saw when he played at Clemson. Foster will be very involved in the passing game. My only concern about him is his health. He turned 28 last month and had back surgery in November. I expect the offensive line to be solid, too. Of course, we can't discount the quarterback position. Ryan Fitzpatrick had an up-and-down preseason and will need to keep the ship steady.