When the 2016 schedule came out for the Minnesota Vikings, it was the consensus that the most difficult stretch of the schedule was coming early. In the span of four games, they were going to face four teams that many national analysts viewed as the favorites to win their respective divisions – the Packers, Panthers, Giants and Texans.
As the Vikings prepare for their final game before heading into their bye week, they have beaten three of the four teams on that list and all that remains are the Houston Texans.
Houston has already built a two-game lead in the AFC South and has come out of the gate strong with a combination of a strong defense and a newly formed offense.
The biggest change on the offensive side of the ball has been the free agent signing of quarterback Brock Osweiler. Mired behind Peyton Manning for most of his four seasons, he had a 4-2 record with the Denver Broncos, including wins over division champions New England and Cincinnati. He took a back seat when Manning returned for Denver’s run to a Super Bowl, but Osweiler had earned his opportunity and he has found it in Houston. He has had some struggles – six interceptions in four games and at least one pick in each of them – but he is a decisive quarterback capable of making big plays and, given the turnover of QBs in Houston over the last three years, he appears entrenched as the leader of the offense.
Another big shift has been the acquisition of running back Lamar Miller. Like the Vikings, Houston has a longstanding reputation of being a run-first team and, with Arian Foster allowed to leave, Miller has taken over that spot. He has 93 carries for 351 yards in his first four games and has become the centerpiece of the offense. The Texans have an offensive line, led by veteran Duane Brown, designed to run the ball 30 times a game and, even when the team is struggling to move the ball, they won’t abandon the run.
Yet, when they pass is when the offense is at its most dangerous.
For the last three seasons, the Texans have had one of the league’s most dynamic receivers in DeAndre Hopkins. He has been able to thrive despite playing with numerous quarterbacks who aren’t of NFL starting vintage. Last season, without Andre Johnson by his side, Hopkins still posted huge numbers, but was constantly blanketed in coverage and needed help. He got that in the draft when the Texans used two of their first three picks on wide receivers – Will Fuller in the first round and Braxton Miller in the third.
To date, the speedy Fuller has been the more dangerous receiver. He leads the Texans with 19 catches for 323 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 17 yards per reception. Hopkins has 17 receptions for 227 yards and two touchdowns and the two of them are every bit as dangerous as the receivers Osweiler had in Denver – Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The Vikings have done an excellent job of stopping elite wide receivers this season, but they haven’t faced a dynamic a duo of receivers the level of Hopkins and Fuller.
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What has made Houston the top dog in the AFC South has been a defense that can be stifling. J.J. Watt has been the faceplate of it, but he’s on injured reserve. However, Watt is far from the only star on the defense, which is ranked fifth overall in the NFL and No. 1 against the pass.
The Texans’ 3-4 defense is still very strong, headed up by run-stuffer Vince Wilfork in the middle and veteran Antonio Smith at the right end spot. They have struggled at times stopping the run – they’re on pace to allow 2,000 yards rushing – and the Vikings will look to exploit that because the second two lines of defense are about as good as any in the league.
Opposing quarterbacks have completed barely 50 percent of their passes for just 707 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of just 67.4. Much of that credit belongs to the secondary, but the unsung heroes of the defense are the linebackers, which are all homegrown talents that have been developed in the system.
The linebacker corps includes three first-round picks and one second-rounder who have all excelled in the Houston defensive scheme. On the outside there is Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick in 2014 and Whitney Mercilus, the first-round pick in the 2012 draft. Both of them are tenacious pass rushers and each have recorded two sacks and numerous QB pressures. On the inside, the Texans have 2009 first-round pick Brian Cushing and 2015 second-rounder Benardrick McKinney. Both of them are solid in run support and chase plays to the sideline. This is one of the most talented and deep groups in the league.
The same goes in the secondary, where the Texans have yet another former first-rounder – cornerback Kareem Jackson – who is a perfect complement for veteran Johnathan Joseph. Both are capable of being left out on an island and have the cover skills and playmaking ability to dominate matchups. They have played well enough to keep 2015 first-rounder Kevin Johnson as a part-time corner, a testament to the skill level of the starters. With safeties Quintin Demps and converted cornerback Andre Hal the Texans have a pair of physical players who can get the job done over the middle.
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The Texans are still settling into their identity as a team in 2016. The offense is still getting acclimated to each other and the defense has been carrying a lot of the load early. Sound familiar? It should, because the blueprint the Texans are using isn’t all that dissimilar to what the Vikings are doing and the results speak for themselves.
As they meet Sunday, they have combined to play eight games and have won seven of them. Something will have to give Sunday, but this one has all the earmarks of a defense-dominated battle that likely won’t be decided until the fourth quarter.