PFF 3TFO: Rams @ Texans, Week 6
Gordon McGuinness | October 11, 2013

With both teams perched precariously at 2-3, this Sunday’s game between the Houston Texans and the St. Louis Rams will likely see the loser staring at the prospect of missing the postseason as we pass the one-third mark of the season. Dropping to 2-4 for either team would mean they’d need to go 7-3 over the remaining 10 games just to finish with a winning record, a run that neither team has looked capable of this early in the season.

The Rams weren’t expected to be Super Bowl contenders this season, but they’ll still be disappointed with how the season has gone so far with only really one or two players giving fans any reason for any real excitement. Meanwhile the Texans have quickly gone from contenders to a team with major questions, with their quarterback currently gifting his opponents seven points off an interception return in their past four games.

It’s a game that both teams really have to win if they want to make something of this season, so with that in mind, let’s take a look at three key matchups to focus on this week.

Can the Rams Slow Down J.J. Watt?

The answer to that question is probably not, but they’re going to have to do their best to limit him as much as possible. After last season when J.J Watt (+35.1) finished the year with a ridiculous PFF grade of +101.6, it was natural to expect even a slight drop off this year, right? That just hasn’t been the case however, with Watt already slightly ahead of where he was at this time last year. His sack numbers are down, he had nine at this point last year compared to four so far this season, but his 27 total pressures are five ahead of last year’s pace and have actually come on slightly fewer pass rushes — 155 compared with 160 a year ago. He’s off the pace when it comes to batted passes, with two so far this season but when you look at his total number of defensive stops he is again slightly ahead of the curve, with one more than the 22 he had by the end of Week 5 last year.

In looking to slow him down, the Rams have to deal with questions along their offensive line with the most intriguing decision being who starts at right tackle. Regular starter Rodger Saffold (-2.1) returned to practice on Thursday and is listed as questionable for the game, but his replacement Joe Barksdale (+8.1) has outplayed him since taking over for him during the Week 2 game in Atlanta against the Falcons. At right guard Harvey Dahl (+2.8) has graded positively in four of the opening five games but the worry for Rams fans will be that going up against Watt will make him look more like the player we saw against Dallas than the one against Atlanta, his lowest and highest graded games of the season so far.

Exploitable Matchups in the Slot?

In losing Glover Quin to the Detroit Lions via free agency, the Texans have had their struggles filling the his role on obvious passing downs, where rookie D.J. Swearinger (-4.0) hasn’t looked great in that safety/linebacker hybrid role. The bulk of Swearinger’s 133 snaps have come here, with 84 snaps as a safety within 8 yards of line the of scrimmage compared with just eight in the free safety role. The rest of his snaps have generally come from the slot, with just two snaps as an outside corner and, while team’s haven’t really picked on him yet, his results in coverage indicate that they should be. Allowing six of the seven passes thrown into his coverage to be caught, and allowing an average of 10.3 yards after the catch, this rookie is definitely having struggles early in his career. Brice McCain (-3.1) remains as their primary slot corner and has had his ups and downs early this year, already having allowed two touchdowns from the slot after allowing the same amount all of last year.

The question, however, is if the Rams have the ability to exploit that potential weakness in the Houston defense. On paper heading into the season, with the additions of tight end Jared Cook (-6.8) and rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin (-4.1), you’d think they would but what we’ve seen on the field so far this year has left a lot to be desired. Austin has run 146 of his 164 pass routes from the slot through five weeks of the season, but has managed just 137 yards. He has scored two touchdowns, but has forced just two missed tackles and has five drops already, giving him a disappointing Catch Rate from the slot of just 59.4. Cook, who has run just shy of half his routes from the slot, started the season with a bang, with 141 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener, but has just 125 yards and two drops in the four games since.

Can Matt Schaub Rebound?

While he was under heavy criticism heading into last week’s game in San Francisco, Matt Schaub (-6.3) hadn’t looked completely dreadful in the first four games of the season, with a strong showing in the season opener followed by three mediocre ones, with his run of consecutive games throwing a pick-six skewing the picture in my opinion. However there is no denying how poorly he played on Sunday Night Football against the *****, with the lowest grade (-8.9) we’ve given to a quarterback since Week 1 of the 2012 season.

As bad as his stats looked, with no touchdowns and three interceptions, his play was actually worse. As Sam Monson pointed out in his ReFocused article for the game, he was lucky not to have another interception to his name, with a drop by rookie Eric Reid, and “was only a clean catch away from one of the others becoming a second interception going back for a score.” Understandably the question now becomes if, or perhaps for how long, Schaub will remain the starter, with head coach Gary Kubiak admitting it was a tough decision to name him the starter this week. The problem their however, is that with T.J. Yates waiting in the wings, it’s hard to see how a change at quarterback would get the Texans back on track to the contenders so many of us thought they’d be this year.