While neither the St. Louis Rams nor the Houston Texans have had especially inspiring seasons, for Houston, the start has seemed more dramatic given preseason Super Bowl expectations.
There have been no concessions in Houston, though. The Texans still believe they can do it, and they believe quarterback Matt Schaub can recover from his slump.
ESPN.com Rams team reporter Nick Wagoner and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss the Texans' matchup against St. Louis this weekend.
Is the Rams' defense a good one for Schaub to recover against? Or will it pose more of a challenge than its statistical rankings suggest?
Wagoner: If you'd asked me before the season, I would have said it certainly wouldn't be the right week for Schaub to get back on track. As we sit here today, it's hard not to think the opposite. For all the Rams' struggles this season, I believe the defensive performance is the greatest disappointment. It was a group that had aspirations of being among the top 10 but has been far from that. The run defense has been gouged lately (save last week against Jacksonville), and it seems the secondary is good to give up a handful of big plays in the air each week. The front four's pass rush is still pretty good, but there are a lot of questions in the secondary right now.
Speaking of defense, obviously the Texans are playing really well right now. Do you see any obvious weaknesses the Rams might be able to attack?
Ganguli: A lot of people point to their red zone statistics and points allowed, which are among the worst in the NFL. But those are misleading numbers that have more to do with the Texans' offense sticking the defense in difficult positions. Three of San Francisco's touchdowns resulted from interceptions thrown by Schaub. A fourth came after a 65-yard drive following a Texans missed field goal. If an opponent can get into a rhythm on a drive against the Texans, it often finds success. Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards in its first five games.
The Texans' defense did give up 177 rushing yards last weekend, 81 of which were to 49ers running back Frank Gore. How has the Rams' running game changed with the departure of Steven Jackson. Do you see someone emerging as the starter?
Wagoner: To be blunt, the Rams' running game was nothing short of awful before last week against Jacksonville. As has been the case elsewhere, playing the Jaguars served as a tonic for that, and the Rams ran for 143 yards. They switched to rookie Zac Stacy for that game, and he showed the ability to hit the hole and get some yards after contact. His performance was better than any of the other backs through the first five weeks. He's a little banged up and missed the end of the Jacksonville game because of it, but the Rams expect him to be ready to go this week. Stacy, with Daryl Richardson as a change of pace, is probably the team's best option right now, but Richardson has been banged up, too, and because of it has not been as effective as he was last season.
Obviously, the hot topic down there right now is Schaub. Not to ask you to play Dr. Melfi, but where is his confidence right now, and what do you think is at the root of the problem?
Ganguli: Against the Seattle Seahawks he threw a pick-six that tied the game. That was his third in three consecutive games, and it was a costly one. I believe he got past it during a week of practice and regained his confidence, but the pick-six he threw on his first pass against the San Francisco 49ers sent him back down the rabbit hole. I can't answer whether or not his confidence is back, but he'll start again against the Rams and his play will make it clear. The situation in which he finds himself is most certainly mental, though. He's shown the ability to be much more productive in the past.
Schaub has had some success this season throwing to his new toy, rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who, having been drafted 27th overall, is looking like a steal. Hopkins actually thought the Rams were going to pick him, given their pre-draft interest. Of course, the Rams instead took receiver Tavon Austin with the eighth pick. What is your assessment of him so far?
Wagoner: Austin's impact has been limited for multiple reasons, some of which are out of his control. First, he's been victimized by an astounding number of special-teams penalties that have wiped out some impressive punt returns. He had 81 return yards wiped out last week alone, and the Rams' 17 special-teams penalties have cost them 306 yards in field position. Second, the Rams have not found creative ways to get Austin open in space as a receiver and let him do what he does. He catches short passes and gets swallowed up. Third, he's had some issues with drops. He had two more last week to bring his total for the season to six. He seems to be pressing a little bit. The talent is there, and I think it will surface at some point, but there's a lot that needs to happen before we see it.
Unfortunately, we may not get the opportunity to see a Cortland Finnegan-Andre Johnson rematch this week because Finnegan has been dealing with a thigh injury. Still, Johnson looks like he's playing at a high level. The Rams have struggled to defend the pass, particularly against elite receivers. Is Johnson still in that category, and what have you seen from him this season?
Ganguli: He's definitely still in that category when he's fully healthy, but he wasn't last weekend. Johnson suffered a shin injury in the second quarter against Baltimore in Week 3 and since then has been managing it.
Overall, the Texans have had to throw the ball a lot more than they'd like to because they've been behind so much. It's affected their play-action passing game, which used to be one of the best in the league.