The battle of Texas between the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in Houston focuses on two key offensive players: Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie in 2016, is at the top again this season with 426 yards.
He had 152 yards on 25 carries in last week’s 26-24 victory over the Detroit Lions.
“I think we got back to our old self, you know what I mean, and it showed,” Elliott said. “We wore that defense down and we hit some big runs in the second half. And then we went out there and did what we had to do to win the game.”
Running against Houston will be a challenge, however, because the Texans allow just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt, which ranks fourth in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Texans (1-3) need to keep their quarterback upright. Watson ranks ninth in the league in passing yardage but just 24th in passer rating.
The chief problem is that he has not had time to throw.
Watson has been sacked 17 times through four games. Only the Buffalo Bills, with 21 sacks given up overall, have allowed more total sacks than the Texans.
That is not the recipe for success, especially for a quarterback who suffered a torn ACL last season and particularly against Dallas.
The Cowboys rank third in the league in sacks with 14, and Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence leads the league individually with 5.5 sacks.
Watson has been hit 43 times and is on pace to be hit 172 times this season.
“He’s a very tough guy,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said. “You know, some of it can be concerning, but it’s some of the design of the plays. That’s what we do. He’s got good physical strength. There’s certain things that we do not want him to take a hit on. There’s other things that we do that he loves to do, and we like to call them and that’s part of the way he plays.
“I think he’s really smart about it for the most part when you look at how he deals with those plays. He gets his pads down or he ducks out of bounds. He’s a very, very smart runner.”
One thing Watson can do is run when the situation calls for it. He has rushed for 161 yards this season, and that includes 41 in last week’s 37-34 overtime victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Dual-threat quarterbacks have given Dallas trouble this season.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett knows Watson can be as dangerous as Newton or Wilson.
“What challenges you most about him is he can play well within the scheme and then when things break down,” Garrett said. “He extends plays and makes these game-changing plays. We’ve got to do a great job of containing him throughout this ball game.”
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott also can run, although he had just two rushing yards in last week’s victory over Detroit.
He had his best game of the season passing, though, completing 17-of-27 passes for 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked three times in the game and 14 times this season.
That is a concern with defensive end J.J. Watt on the opposing team. Watt has five sacks this season and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Month.
The home field has not been a huge advantage for the Texans. They were just 3-5 at home last season and lost their only home game this year.
The Cowboys were one of the best road teams in the league last year, when they went 6-2 away from home, but they have lost their two road games this season.