In the course of a full NFL season, rare is the team that doesn’t get hit by injuries. In a sport where men are going at high speed carrying incredible mass, there will be collisions, with injuries to follow. Sometimes injuries disrupt the overall season for a team, sometimes not. The better teams in the NFL tend to be those that can avoid suffering high quantities of injuries to key personnel.
For the Houston Texans, it is remarkable that they were able to do as well as they did, given all the injuries they encountered. While the primary narrative for the team is that they exceeded expectations, they also had their depth severely tested. By the end of the season, 19 players were on Injured Reserve. Some of those players were big-time contributors (WR Tank Dell, OT/OG Tytus Howard, S Jimmie Ward, OG/C Jarret Patterson) and some were more depth pieces (DL Jerry Hughes, S Eric Murray, DB Traverious Thomas). This is not even counting the non-season ending injuries that impacted the team throughout the course of the year, from the IR stint that kept Derek Stingley Jr. off the field for several weeks to the injuries from MetLife Field that would sideline QB CJ Stroud, WR Nico Collins and DE Will Anderson for a few weeks towards the end of the season.
However, if there was one injury that more impacted the Texans above all others, it was from a player that never saw a down on the field for the 2023 season. That would be projected starting LG Kenyon Green. The second year offensive guard out of Texas A&M was seen as a critical piece of the offensive line that not only looked to protect rookie QB CJ Stroud, but help evolve a running game that was armed with rookie sensation Dameon Pierce.
Injuries to the interior of the offensive line seemed to start early for Houston, as one-time projected starting center Scott Quessenberry was lost for the year well before the start of the season. That notwithstanding, Houston expected to go into the season with the following as the starters for the offensive line:
- LT Laremy Tunsil
- LG: Kenyon Green
- C: Juice Scruggs
- RG: Shaq Mason
- RT: Tytus Howard
If you forgot about those projections, we don’t blame you. You never saw it on the actual field of play. Not in the preseason and never in the regular season. Maybe you saw it in Madden, provided you wanted to fork over the money to actually play it.
Granted, Green’s injury was not the only one that would impact the Texans on the offensive line. Scruggs and Howard both suffered injuries that would force them out of the lineup for the first four games of the season. Thus began the great Texans offensive line shuffle. The revolving door of linemen never seemed to stop as the season progressed. No sooner do Howard and Scruggs come off the IR than Patterson, who showed promise at center, went on it. Dieter logged time at RT, which, uh, did not go well (best not to watch what the Baltimore Ravens did to the right side of the Texans’ line in the fourth quarter of Week 1). He did play better in the interior, but still, rough sledding.
While the Texans did find some eventual OT depth to help out with Fant and to a smaller degree, Heck, the guard spot that Green was slated to man was the Achilles’ heel for the offense. It got so dire at guard that the Texans resurrected the old experiment we thought dead, buried and descended into Hell: converting Tytus Howard into a guard. The nice contract extension he received before the season was given to him in the expectation that he would man the right tackle spot. Yet, the guard depth was such that the team felt it had no choice but to move him to that spot. It worked for a couple of games before Howard went down with a season-ending injury.
Eventually, the team settled on Juice Scruggs, with mixed results for the rookie. His first game against Cleveland was one to forget, but he rebounded nicely in the Wild Card round. Still, a weakened offensive interior would be the bane of the Texans, as the Baltimore defensive front feasted on them in the Divisional Round. All told, 17 different players started along the offensive line, with the LG the most unstable (4 total, as Josh Jones and Kendrick Green also logged starts along with Howard and Scruggs).
Perhaps it is remarkable how well the line did play at times, even with all the injuries and shuffling of personnel. The Texans surrendered 11 sacks on Stroud in his first two games. However, Stroud finished the season sacked a mere 38 times in 15 games (zero in the playoffs). He did lose two games due to concussion from a sack, but his mobility in the pocket did not solely account for the decrease in the sack rate. For all the missing pieces and parts, the line’s pass protection was fairly solid.
However, the Texans’ run game left some things to be desired. The struggles of the line early contributed to the struggles of the Texans’ run game, and Dameon Pierce went from rookie sensation to arguably the biggest sophomore slump in the league. The run game did have its moments under Devin Singletary, whose shifting style of running seemed to work better with this offense scheme. However, the unit finished 22nd in rushing yards/game (96.9 yds/game) and tied for 28th in yards-per-carry (3.7). In the playoff loss to Baltimore, Houston could only muster 38 yards on 14 carries, effectively ending the upset chances. Throw in the fact that the team could not control the clock with an ineffective run game and that would put much more pressure on a defense that really bent a lot, and in the losses, break.
Would Kenyon Green have made a difference? Possibly. While his rookie season didn’t offer much validation, it is also possible he could have had a leap like his first round counterpart Derek Stingley Jr. Certainly, line stability would have gone a long way to aiding the run game, offering much needed offensive balance. If Green could have locked down the left guard spot, then Houston could’ve moved Howard back to his natural right tackle, offering far more vital continuity, which all offensive lines need. Then Patterson, Scruggs, et. al. could have evolved into quality depth pieces/stronger starters without the nightmare Darwinistic season they all suffered.
If Houston wants to take that next step into title contention, the run game must drastically improve. A far more difficult schedule awaits, and Stroud, while he should improve, will not be sneaking up on anyone. The team somehow survived the offensive line shuffle caused by the Kenyon Green injury. For 2024, the pressure will be on Green to stay healthy and play to his potential, as a shuffling offensive line cannot help Houston achieve its championship goals.