After starting the season 3-1, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have fallen victim to an abysmal three-game losing streak, including a controversial Thursday Night Football loss to Buffalo last Thursday. As a result, the Bucs have dropped to third place in the NFC South standings and currently sit two games back of the first-place Atlanta Falcons.
With this said, the Buccaneers have a prime opportunity to turn their season around in Week 9, as Tampa Bay will travel to NRG Stadium to play standout rookie quarterback CJ Stroud and the Houston Texans in a matchup with notable playoff implications.
Despite starting the season off with double-digit losses to Baltimore and Indianapolis, Houston managed to win three of their next four games to unexpectedly surge into the AFC Playoff picture, largely due to the play of Stroud. Through his first seven NFL starts, Stroud has completed 143-237 (60.3%) pass attempts for 1,800 passing yards, nine touchdowns, and one interception for a 94.9 passer rating, which led all rookie quarterbacks.
Bucs secondary will be tested by a pair of standout WRs
In addition, Stroud has thrown two or more touchdowns in three games and has eclipsed the 240-yard threshold in five games, including a career-high 384-yard and a two-touchdown outing in Week 2 against the Colts.
Through the first half of the season, Stroud has relied heavily on the wide receiver duo of Nico Collins and 2023 third-round pick Tank Dell.
Collins has caught 29 passes for a team-leading 547 receiving yards and three touchdowns, while Dell has posted 19 receptions, 324 receiving yards, and two touchdown catches. Tight end Dalton Schultz has provided Stroud with a reliable receiving threat down the field, as the free agent signing has caught 21 passes for 215 yards and a team-high three touchdowns.
The immediate stability of Stroud and Houston's passing attack has proved to be valuable in the midst of the Texans' weak rushing attack. As a team, Houston has recorded 197 rushing attempts for 643 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns, and 3.3 YPC, all of which rank in the bottom third of the league.
The main reason for this is a major sophomore slump from running back Dameon Pierce, who has struggled mightily after a super rookie season. After running for 939 yards, four touchdowns, and 4.3 YPC on 220 carries, Pierce has run for just 327 yards, one touchdown, and 3.0 YPC on 109 rushing attempts.
Houston's defense is going to be a problem for Baker Mayfield
Although Houston has allowed just 18.3 PPG to their opponents, the sixth-best mark in the league, the Texans' defense has been hit or miss all season. Just two weeks after giving up a season-worst 31 points to Indianapolis in Week 2, Houston held Pittsburgh to six points en route to a 24-point triumph. With a turnover differential of plus-five -- the fifth-best mark in the NFL -- Houston's ability to win the turnover battle has been a key factor to their success this season.
As good as their defense has been, Houston's front seven hasn't been able to force consistent pressure, with just 15 sacks on the season. Outside of defensive end Jonathan Greenard, no Texan has more than one sack this season, and 2022 No. 3 overall pick Will Anderson has notched just 24 tackles and one sack this season.
For Tampa Bay, this will be more than welcome after offensive lineman Cody Mauch and Luke Goedeke struggled mightily versus Buffalo, allowing three tackles for loss and three sacks.
Even with the steady coverage of veteran cornerback Steven Nelson (5 PDs, 3 Ints), Houston's secondary has still allowed 1,653 passing yards, the 15th-best mark in the league. Coupled with the play of middle linebacker Blake Cashman (37 TCKLs, 4 PDs, 1 Int), cornerback Shaquill Griffin (28 TCKLs, 3 PDs), and 2022 second-round pick Jalen Pitre (27 TCKLs, 2 PD), the Texans' secondary may give the Buccaneers' passing game issues on Sunday.
The Bucs need a bounce back game after losing three straight, but avoiding a fourth is going to be a lot harder than it initially appeared. Houston isn't unbeatable, but Tampa Bay has its work cut out this Sunday.