Many weeks ago, when the summer heat was beginning to fade into a crisper autumnal breeze, the NFL regular season was just beginning. In September, we really had no idea what this season would be like for the Houston Texans. We had ideas, reasonable assumptions, predictions ranging from 5-12 to 12-5, and everything in between.
Little did we know of the historic season that was upon us. Pass after pass, rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud would prove he was the real deal. Snap after snap, rookie edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. was showing the makings of a perennial pro-bowler. Week after week, we bore witness to big games from wide receiver Nico Collins, then tight end Dalton Schutlz, then linebacker Blake Cashman, then rookie wide receiver Tank Dell, then running back Devin Singletary, then edge rusher Jonathan Greenard, then cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., and on and on and on.
This is a truly unbelievable season for the Houston Texans, who have launched themselves back into relevancy in the span of just a few months. And, it’s shaping up to have just as unbelievable of a finish, with the Texans heading up north to try and even the series against the rival Indianapolis Colts. Both teams will be playing for a a playoff berth, making this a must-win game to end all must-win games.
Tomorrow is, for all intents and purposes, a playoff game for the Houston Texans. So…who will step up? Who do we need to step up? Who can we expect to have a big game, and save the season. Well, lucky for you, I’ve got answers! Here are the five players I believe will be most essential to Houston securing victory over Indianapolis in their win-or-go-home finale against the Indianapolis Colts:
5. Sheldon Rankins
36 Tackles, nine TFLs, 10 QB Hits, 6.0 Sacks, one FF, one FR, one FR TD, 65.7 PFF
This year, Houston’s defense is currently ranked 13th in the league, a remarkable improvement from the last few years. Their above-average coverage from last year has improved this year, and, more importantly, their pass-rush success has improved dramatically. Edge rushers Jonathan Greenard and Will Anderson Jr. have stolen the show on this front, but with Greenard now ruled out for tomorrow’s game and Anderson still on a snap count due to his ankle injury, their contribution to the game will be diminished. Without them wreaking havoc, Rankins’ success at doing so up the middle will have amplified importance.
The Indianapolis Colts have a surprisingly prolific offense this season, led by quarterback Gardner Minshew and a loaded offensive line. Minshew is no world beater, but he’s had a few of his best games in December and is more than capable of scoring when pressure is lacking. Rankins has similarly been playing better down the stretch, and he’s going to have to keep it rolling against the Colts if the season is to continue.
4. Devin Singletary
192 Attempts, 835 Yards, three TDs, 4.3 Y/A, 29 Rec, 191 Rec Yards, 71.2 PFF
Running back Devin Singletary has been a revelation for the Houston Texans during the second half of the season. He’s averaged over 4.5 yards per carry in seven of the last eight games, displaying his stunning acceleration that often bailed his former team, the Buffalo Bills, out of close contests. He’s shown a few times now that he can take over a football game, which is bad news for the Colts’ 27th-ranked rushing defense.
Despite Indy’s ferocious pass rush led by Samson Ebukam and DeForest Buckner, their ability to defend the run has suffered. Utilizing Singletary early and often to control the ball and force the Colts to deal with their greatest weakness right from the start may keep the game from spiraling into a track meet. And even if it does, Singeltary’s versatility as a runner or receiver makes him a great weapon for Stroud. He doesn’t have to have a huge game for the Texans to win, but he’ll need to continue to be a safety valve for Stroud in order to keep the game on track.
3. Blake Cashman
93 Tackles, nine TFLs, five QB Hits, 2.0 Sacks, one FR, one INT, 86.9 PFF
It can be argued that Blake Cashman has been one, if not the glue player to this defense. His coverage skills, instincts for the ball, lateral range, and run-defense abilities have made him a completely different player from last year. He’s become basically the only consistent linebacker the Texans have!
Currently, Blake Cashman has a PFF grade of 86.9, good for sixth best in the entire league. Sixth best! The only linebackers ahead of him that have more snaps are Demario Davis and Fred Warner! He’s a Pro Bowl linebacker, putting Minshew’s hopes of an effective game targeting 5-10 yards in front of him in serious doubt. But, Cashman is still no stranger to getting beat in coverage or getting tricked by motions, and he’ll need to be especially careful when watching running backs Jonathan Taylor and Zack Moss. Much of the game will likely come down to how good Moss and Taylor play, and how good Cashman is at stopping them.
2. Nico Collins
71 Receptions, 1,102 Yards, seven TDs, 71.0 Catch%, 90.0 PFF
In order for this season to be considered a success, we needed to see encouraging play from the rookies, a consistent quality of play that is indicative of solid coaching, and evidence that some of our previous draftees were legitimately developing. This was Nico Collins breakout season. This was the season he realized his high ceiling as a tall, fast, and lanky receiver, and the Texans were exponentially better this season because of it. Think about it: if Collins hadn’t become a true #1 this year, how much more difficult would it have been for C.J. Stroud. For fellow receiver Tank Dell? For Dalton Schultz? For Noah Brown? Nico’s emergence as a star receiver was the impetus to getting the passing game going in Stroud’s first few games, helping it take flight far ahead of schedule.
We always talk about how much better Houston is this year than we’ve all expected, and why is that? The rookies playing well is obviously a major part, but Blake Cashman and Nico Collins have been the keys that both sides of the ball moving in the right direction right away.
1. C.J. Stroud
63.2% Cmp%, 3,844 Yards, 21 TDs, five Ints, 8.5 AY/A, 99.0 Rate, 81.1 PFF
Here he is! You knew he’d be here! The golden goose, the silver tuna, some other third thing, C.J. Stroud has it all. The quarterback is by far the most important player on the football field, and when they’re balling out, everyone is. C.J. Stroud hasn’t just been balling out, he’s been making passes never before seen by a rookie quarterback before. He’s making accurate, anticipatory throws that you’d be more likely to see in a Tom Brady highlight reel than from a rookie quarterback that just turned 22. How is this even possible?
The Texans team goes where Stroud leads. If we want to win this game, it’s going to be because of him. The offensive line plays better with him, the rushing attack is better, and the passing attack is top ten in the NFL when he’s on the field. And if this game plays at all similarly to the first matchup in Week 2, then the Texans will need to score over 30. It’s been over a month since the Texans have scored over 30 points, so despite Stroud’s prowess, scoring is still uneven. That can’t be the case in this game, because Minshew and the Colts are going to be firing on all cylinders. Stroud is going to have to return to that MVP-caliber player he was in November and December, and he’s going to have to do it without Tank Dell. That is why this is his greatest challenge yet, and when he shied away from a challenge before? He’s going to need a great game, and he’s going to have one.
And there’s your top five! For tomorrow’s game to be a success, I feel like all five of these players need to show up in a big way. They’ve defined Houston’s success up to this point, so it would be fitting for them to cap off the resurgence with a regular season victory to enter the playoffs…
…the playoffs…the playoffs? The Houston Texans? Making the playoffs? This year? It still feels surreal typing that out, like our wishes were filled with suspicious accuracy. But, this is not a dream, this is reality. As Stroud said, the time is now, not next year. Tomorrow, history will be made.
But what do you think? Will Stroud & Co. lead us to a big game, or will someone else I didn’t mention show up. Will this be Dameon Pierce’s triumphant return, or Jalen Pitre’s big game? Let us know what you think down in the comments below! Until then….LET’S GO TEXANS!!!!!