In one sense, the 2023-24 season for the Houston Texans is about to come full circle. Back on September 10, the Houston Texans opened their season with a visit to the Baltimore Ravens. As previously noted on this site, M&T Stadium is one place where the Texans have never won. That trend continued as Houston left after a 25-9 loss. By all rights, Houston did not figure to return to Baltimore for at least another season. Instead, Houston now finds themselves back facing Baltimore in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs.
As both team gear up for a rematch, some may look back upon that 1st game to see what, if anything, will carry over into this matchup. The easy answer is that both teams have changed significantly since that opening day. Baltimore and Houston debuted new offensive coordinators and personnel. It was the 1st live game action for many players. Even those who played consistently in the preseason did not have the full game experience, and nothing can match the intensity or speed of a pro football matchup that counts for real.
However, a review of that first game can offer some glimpses and considerations into how the season evolved for each team, and what might happen for each team as they play on a far colder game with a lot more attention from a national audience.
What that game foretold and what is likely to matter this time around:
- Defensive Pressure: The game’s first defensive possession for Houston offered fans a glimpse of what to expect from the defensive front, especially defensive ends Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard. On a third-and-2, after Houston surrendered a four-yard run to J.K. Dobbins and a short pass to Isaiah Likely for four yards, Jackson dropped back to pass, but heavy pressure from the Houston defensive front overwhelmed the Baltimore offensive line, containing the normally explosive Jackson enough to allow Greenard to clean up on a sack. Will Anderson Jr. would later claim his first sack, albeit when Baltimore was further ahead in the game, but both men would get significant pressure on Jackson throughout the game.
Significance to the Rest of the Season: Given how Houston would be among the league leaders in pressure rate, especially from the defensive line, this game would be a harbinger of what other teams could expect. Jonathan Greenard ended the regular season with 12.5 sacks in the regular season, and Will Anderson, Jr. added 7.0 sacks in the regular season (1.0 post-season). The team would be in the top three in the NFL in pass-rush (52% (third)) and run-stopping win rates (35% (second)), much of that due to the pressure from the defensive line. You could also look at the Baltimore defensive line and the pressure they put on Stroud (five total sacks), also foreshadowing the strong season their defense would have (a league leading 60.0 sacks).
- Improved Rush Defense: The 2022-23 season for the Texans was historically bad for many reasons. Chief among them was the rush defense, or lack thereof. The 2022-23 Houston Texans ended the season with the worst rush defense in the league, allowing nearly 2,900 yards on the ground at 5.0 yards-per-carry (YPC). Coming into that Baltimore game, there were fears that Houston might just give up another 200+ yards rushing to the powerful Baltimore ground game. They ended the day surrendering 110 yards and 3.4 YPC. While Houston did surrender three rushing TDs, no Ravens rusher broke 40 yards on the ground and the longest run allowed was 14 yards by Jackson.
Significance to the Rest of the Season: One could argue that Baltimore was shaking off some offensive rust. However, Houston’s run defense would show remarkable improvement for the rest of the season. In 2023, Houston surrendered only 1600+ yards on the ground and 3.5 YPC. That has the squad up to the sixth best rush defense in the league.
- A Whole Lotta Laundry: On this day, Houston got more than their fair share of attention from the refs. Houston logged nine penalties for 88 yards, allowing three first downs for the Ravens. Given that Houston was playing in one of the toughest places to play for any team, a high number of penalties is not completely unexpected. Yet, it was Baltimore that won the flag party, being flagged 13 times for 106 yards and allowing four of Houston’s 18 first downs. Again, being the first real game action for many players, sloppy play and penalties are not completely unexpected.
Significance for the Rest of the Season: Unfortunately for Houston, games with high numbers of penalties, especially on the road, became a trend. Houston would finish the season as the fourth most penalized team in the league. For reference, Baltimore ended up 13th in the league for penalties, so they appear to have cleaned up from that disastrous first game.
- Nico Collins being a leading receiver. Coming into this season, a big question for the team was “who was [the Texans] WR1?” A key candidate was Nico Collins. While you could argue that Robert Woods had the bigger receptions during the game (three third down reception conversions in the second quarter), Collins would finish the game as the Texans leading receiver in catches (6), yards (80) and targets (11). No touchdowns, but at times during the game, Collins made some big receptions in the heart of that Baltimore secondary.
Significance to the Rest of the Season: Seeing Collins at the top of the Texans reception charts was also set to be a trend. Collins ended the season with 80 receptions for 1,297 yards and eight TDs. While Collins has done most of his damage at NRG (55 receptions for 906 yards and seven TDs), his last road game, a de facto play-off game at Indy to close out the regular season, saw him go off with nine receptions for 195 yards and a TD. Especially with all the injuries to Houston WRs this season, Collins has become the primary weapon in the Houston passing attack.
Zay Flowers, Baltimore’s #1 WR. Collins wasn’t the only receiver that day who had a great start. Rookie WR Zay Flowers was Baltimore’s leading receiver on the day, with nine receptions for 78 yards. Of note, his last two receptions in the game cost him nine yards in his totals (one reception for -3 and one for -6 yards respectively on some curiously conservative play calling that lead the final Baltimore FG). He showed why Baltimore made him their top draft choice in the course of this game.
Significance to the Rest of the Season: Flowers would continue to be the leading receiver for the Baltimore passing attack. He finished the season with 77 receptions for 858 yards and five TDs; and this is on a team with Odell Beckham Jr., Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely. The Baltimore offense runs totally through Lamar Jackson (as he was also the team’s leading rusher); but part of that attack includes Flowers.
What does all of this mean for Saturday’s game? One can go back to the earlier pronouncement that these teams have evolved since they last met in September. Stroud has definitely evolved, and this might be Jackson’s best season. If you look at all the aforementioned items from the first matchup, most would say those concepts still apply for playoff rematch (Houston will need the D-line to continue the pressure and stop the run, they must reduce the penalties, get Collins going while keeping Flowers in check). Additionally, Houston will need the right side of the offensive line to hold up (Baltimore exploited weaknesses, especially at the RT position, to hound the Texans’ offense) and Houston can expect more production from the Ravens’ TEs (one reception for four yards from Likely, who has improved, and should be joined by primary TE Mark Andrews).
Admittedly, previous performance is not indicative of future results. Certainly there are probably more trends that can stand out, and there are other considerations to factor in, from the inexperience of the Texans in playoff and cold-weather conditions to likely league MVP Jackson having to answer for his 1-3 playoff record. Still, even if history doesn’t repeat, it can rhyme, and when these two square off, some things may yet be the same (although this site will clearly hope for a different conclusion).