St. Louis (4-6, 1-4 away) at Houston (1-9, 1-4 home)
Why To Watch
The Rams have lost two in a row while the Texans have only one win this season and already have their sights set on the first pick of the NFL draft. So what is the attraction of this game? Though it is hard to believe, St. Louis still has an outside shot of going to the playoffs, and a win in Houston would put them back on the right track. Dom Capers and nearly every coach and player are auditioning for their 2006 jobs in these last several games of the season for the Texans. However last week in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football, the Texans looked lethargic and continuously error-prone.
Marc Bulger re-injured his shoulder on Sunday and backup Jamie Martin could get the start this week. Martin is more than capable of getting the ball into the hands of the Rams' playmakers and generating plenty of points to win on the road against a hapless franchise.
When the Rams have the ball
Rushing: The Texans have the worst run defense in the NFL and although Steven Jackson only posted six yards on 12 carries against the Cardinals, Jackson is one of the top backs in the league. He blends exceptional power and balance with the ability to catch the ball and make big plays with his speed and elusiveness. The Rams should be playing with the lead for most of this contest, and Jackson will get plenty of carries to bounce back from the worst performance of his career.
DE Robaire Smith was injured late in the game on Sunday, and this is not a defense that can easily make up for his loss. Houston does not have the horses to play it straight in its 3-4 defense, so it's forced to take risks. This group often overpursues and loses gap responsibility, and that could be fatal against a back like Jackson, who is sure to playing with extra fire after his disappointing performance last week. The Texans allowed Larry Johnson to rush for 211 yards Sunday night and have allowed seven 100-yard rushers in 10 games. Expect an eighth on Sunday.
Passing: Regardless of who is playing quarterback for the Rams, they are going to throw with success against this defense and will not neglect the numerous receiving weapons. The Texans' defense has allowed 76 points over the past two weeks and only has three total interceptions on the season. One contrasting statistic is that Jamie Martin has thrown five INTs in just 90 attempts this season. St. Louis will operate quite a bit out of three-receiver sets to get its best players on the field and stretch the Texans' 3-4 scheme horizontally. With the exception of Dunta Robinson, the Texans do not have the personnel to keep up with Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis. What Bulger and especially Martin absolutely cannot do is force throws against an inferior football team. The Rams will have numerous mismatches in their favor, and patience will be key in making reads to find the correct target without risking turnovers.
When the Texans have the ball
Rushing: Houston has only run for 1,061 yards for the entire season, but it's running the ball at 4.1 yards per carry clip and the Rams are allowing rushers 4.6 yards per carry. It doesn't take an X's and O's guru to figure out that running the ball repeatedly makes sense for Houston in this matchup to keep pressure off of the Texans' woeful pass protection and to keep the Rams' impressive weapons off the field. Domanick Davis looked healthy last game and showed elusiveness and burst.
Houston needs to run the ball, run the ball and then run the ball some more against a Rams' defensive front that is sure to stack the line of scrimmage but has struggled all season long with a physical running attack. Houston might have success targeting the edge of the Rams' defense and their smaller defensive ends by utilizing nasty blocking TE Mark Bruener. Success with their running game may be the only way Houston stays close in this game.
Passing: Although Houston's pass protection has improved over the last few weeks, they still have allowed a ridiculous 47 sacks in 10 games. The Texans' offensive line is simply physically overmatched against every team it plays and cannot keep QB David Carr upright. Therefore, to compensate for this glaring deficiency, Houston now uses a ton of one- and three-step drops to get the ball out of Carr's hand quickly. Comparatively speaking, this strategy has not been terrible. However, the telling stat of this passing offense is that Andre Johnson, who is an elite wide receiver talent capable of stretching the field against any defense, is only averaging 8.9 yards per reception. He hasn't had a reception over 18 yards and has no touchdowns for the season.
Like every other team in the league, the Rams will pressure Carr if Houston tries to go deep downfield, and the Rams will be quick to tackle the underneath routes and keep their defense tight to the line of scrimmage. The Rams will then, in turn, take advantage of the Texans' mistakes, which they will surely make, and let the 1-9 team beat itself. If the Texans choose to max protect and take a few shots deep downfield, they could have success against a Rams' pass defense that allowed two 100-yard receivers last week against Arizona, but pass protection is paramount.