HOUSTON -- There are precious few Week 1 concerns so pressing that a team would consider its season a catastrophe should they manifest themslves. However, the Houston Texans' construction of their offensive line has laid bare issues at quarterback and put the viability of their season at risk.
Even after the franchise traded up in the first round of the draft to select Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson 12th overall, Texans head coach Bill O'Brien stood firm on his commitment to fourth-year veteran Tom Savage as his starting signal-caller, citing both experience and familiarity with the offense as primary reasons behind that decision.
Thirty minutes into the first game of the season, O'Brien flip-flopped, benching Savage at the intermission of the Texans' embarrassing 29-7 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and tossing his rookie feet first into the fire, a blaze raging behind an offensive line functioning more like a sieve. With Savage sacked six times in the first half, O'Brien deduced that the mobile Watson could effectively elude pressure and provide the Texans a sorely needed offensive spark.
The Jaguars dumped Watson four times in the second half. An offensive line missing right tackle Derek Newton, sidelined following surgery to repair both patellar tendons, and left tackle Duane Brown, holding out over a contract dispute, wasn't any more effective at protecting Watson than it was Savage. Guards Jeff Allen and Xavier Su'a-Filo and replacement tackles Kendall Lamm and Breno Giacomini underperformed badly, surrendering pressure repeatedly.
Now, with the Texans (0-1) set to face the Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) in Cincinnati on Thursday night, O'Brien appears poised to shift his allegiance to Watson despite there being no evidence that Watson will survive, let alone excel, behind the turnstiles charged with providing him a suitable pocket. O'Brien did not publicly commit to Watson as his starter, but according to published reports that is the direction the Texans are leaning as they strive to revive an offensive pulse.
"I don't think it changes that much for either guy," O'Brien said. "They both obviously have different skillsets. There's maybe three or four different plays that we run and vice versa that the other guy doesn't run, but it (the offense) doesn't really change too much."
Complicating matters should Watson earn his first career start is an avalanche of offensive injuries. Allen (ankle) will not play on Thursday, giving way to another backup, Greg Mancz. The Texans' tight-end depth chart was obliterated by concussions, with C.J. Fiedorowicz, who was on Tuesday placed on injured reserve, Ryan Griffin, and Stephen Anderson all concussed against the Jaguars. Houston also lost receiver Bruce Ellington, who enjoyed a productive preseason, to a concussion, but will welcome back receiver Jaelen Strong from his one-game suspension.
Whatever decision is made at quarterback, the offensive line remains broken and the depth chart compromised. That makes for a volatile mix liable to explode with additional agitation.
"No, I'm not waiting to have that conversation," Savage said. "I don't think he (O'Brien) owes either of us any explanation. We just have to be ready. That's called being a professional."
The Bengals aren't in the position to scoff at the Texans' struggles. In absorbing a home shutout loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati mustered a measly 221 total yards on 58 plays.
For all the promise assigned to rookie running back Joe Mixon, he produced just nine yards on eight carries in his debut. The Bengals' tailback depth, with Mixon supporting accomplished veterans Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, amassed only 75 yards on 21 carries, or 3.6 per rush.
However, the most galling development was the woeful performance of veteran quarterback Andy Dalton, who completed 16 of 31 attempts for 170 yards with four interceptions. He posted a 28.4 passer rating and, by that metric, delivered his worst showing since Nov. 6, 2014, when he passed for 86 yards with three interceptions in a 24-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Given their sub-.500 finish of 2016, their first following five consecutive postseason berths, the last thing Cincinnati anticipated in its opener was Dalton struggling so mightily in defeat.
"It happened," Dalton said. "Not the start that we wanted to have but for us, our mindset is we have 15 more. There's a long season ahead of us, and so we're pushing to do whatever we can to get a win this week on Thursday."
Said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis: "I'm very confident that Andy will (bounce back). That's uncharacteristic ... to his play. We need him to play better and I expect him to play better as we move forward."