A scouting report on the Carolina Panthers and the Houston Texans, who meet Sunday at NRG Stadium:
When the Panthers pass the ball ...
They need quarterback Kyle Allen to be as efficient as he was last week against Arizona. Allen threw four touchdown passes and was highly efficient against a pretty porous Cardinals defense. The Texans are allowing 277.7 passing yards per game, 10th-most in the NFL — but they also have 10 team sacks, led by Whitney Mercilus’ four. Carolina’s receivers will need to get open quickly to keep Mercilus and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt away from Allen. That will also require a solid first start from rookie left tackle Greg Little, as Daryl Williams slides to right guard to replace the injured Trai Turner.
When the Panthers run the ball ...
It’ll be the Christian McCaffrey show. The Panthers’ do-it-all back is averaging 150 total yards and a touchdown per game through three weeks, and that won’t change against Houston. The Texans have been average in run defense to date, allowing 108 rushing yards per contest. Texans safety Justin Reid — the younger brother of Carolina safety Eric Reid — will have to help cover McCaffrey both in space and by dropping into the box, but the Panthers back showed against Arizona what he can do to a safety in the open field.
When the Texans pass the ball ...
Deshaun Watson will be looking deep. The Texans are second in the NFL in receptions of 30 yards or more, and they have the speed at receiver to explain that. Between DeAndrew Hopkins, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, Watson has a plethora of options to spread the ball to. Panthers cornerback James Bradberry will likely draw Hopkins for most of the game, especially if injured corner Donte Jackson (groin) isn’t able to go. Coach Ron Rivera said he was “optimistic” Jackson would play, but even still, it’ll be tough containing Watson and his group of pass catchers.
When the Texans run the ball ...
They don’t have a single workhorse runner. Carlos Hyde operates as their primary back, and while he only has one touchdown in three games, his powerful style will test the interior of Carolina’s defense. Then there’s Duke Johnson, who is shiftier and better catching the ball out of the backfield. Combined, they average 94 yards per game rushing. That doesn’t even factor in Watson’s rushing abilities. The Panthers allow 129 rushing yards per game, but have only allowed four touchdowns on the ground. Houston’s luck running will improve if defensive tackle Kawann Short (shoulder) can’t play.
Joey Slye has turned out to be a revelation early on for the Panthers, as he has made 7-of-8 attempts this year. That includes a long of 54 yards — and Slye has the leg to convert from much further out if need be. Meanwhile, Ray-Ray McCloud came close to breaking a punt return last weekend in Arizona, and as he gets more comfortable, that bears watching. Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn has only made two field goals all season, and his longest is from 39 yards. The Panthers have a chance to swing the game without their offense or defense on the field this week.
When the Panthers built some cushion late against Arizona, Rivera turned up the defensive pressure — and it resulted in an eight-sack game and two interceptions. If he can call a similarly effective game against Watson, Carolina has a chance to create turnovers and steal a road game. But Bill O’Brien, one of Rivera’s friends, is an intelligent offense mind with one of the NFL’s best young passers.
This all comes down to how well Allen plays. If he turns in another four-touchdown beauty, it’ll be tough for the Texans to score enough points to keep up with a diverse Panthers offense. If he struggles and Houston gets up early, the Texans’ defensive pressure could completely torpedo what Carolina wants to do on offense. Realistically, Allen should play well, but any sort of inconsistency will open the window for Houston.
Texans 28, Panthers 23