Published September 23, 2015
Jameis Winston showed marked improvement from his NFL debut to Week 2, leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to victory in a hostile environment.
The challenge appears even greater for Winston on Sunday in Houston against a Texans team motivated to earn its first win and committed to cleaning up the mistakes of a J.J. Watt-led defense.
Winston's first career start could not have gone much worse as he completed 48.5 percent of his passes, threw two interceptions and was sacked four times in producing a 64.0 passer rating in a 42-14 loss to Tennessee. He didn't let that performance linger, however, completing 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards with a touchdown to help the Buccaneers stun New Orleans 26-19 last Sunday.
He also ran for a score and didn't throw an interception to record a 114.6 rating.
''I will never lose confidence. Confidence is who I am,'' Winston said. ''I'm just pleased with how we played, but my confidence will always remain the same and even get higher if we hopefully get on a streak."
Winston still has plenty to fix - he was sacked three more times, fumbled once and missed some throws - and now he'll be tested by one of the league's more intimidating - and determined - defenses.
Despite having Watt, a healthy Jadeveon Clowney, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork and Brian Cushing, the Texans have been vulnerable defensively. They've forced just one turnover and have been burned for 32 plays of more than 10 yards - tied for third most in the league.
''I think we're close, but I think it's easier said than done,'' cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. ''I think for whatever reason, we have a couple lapses here and there. If you want to be a great and dominant defense, you can't have those lapses anytime throughout a game.''
Putting some pressure on a rookie quarterback playing behind an offensive line that has the league's second-worst protection index at 16.0 seems like the perfect elixir to solve some of those issues. However, Winston has shown some poise under duress, compiling a 130.2 rating while being blitzed - the NFL's fifth-best mark.
Houston's offense is also far from clicking on all cylinders, though help could be on the way.
Arian Foster, who finished sixth in the NFL in rushing a year ago with 1,246 yards, could return after missing the first two games with a groin injury. The Texans have struggled mightily to move the ball on the ground, using Alfred Blue, Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes while averaging 79.5 yards. They were fifth in the NFL a year ago, rushing for 135.1 per game.
Foster had 84 rushing yards and 102 receiving yards in Houston's last meeting with the Buccaneers, a 37-9 road win in 2011.
Not helping matters up front, tackle Jeff Adams will miss the rest of the season with a torn patellar tendon. Tackle Duane Brown is day to day after missing last week with a thumb injury and guard Xavier Su'a-Filo has missed the first two games due to an injured calf.
An inability to run the ball has put added pressure on the quarterback - a position where the Texans are ill-equipped to handle pressure right now.
After an ineffective showing by Brian Hoyer in a season-opening loss, Texans coach Bill O'Brien opted to go with Ryan Mallett in Week 2, but the result didn't change. Mallett completed 46.6 percent of his 58 passes - the second-most attempts in a single game in Houston franchise history - for 244 yards with a touchdown and a fourth-quarter interception in a 24-17 loss at Carolina.
''I thought he played a tough game,'' O'Brien said. '' ... There were times where he really did a good job, and there was some things, like all of us, that he can improve on but I think he hung in there."
Off to their worst start since dropping their first four in 2008, the Texans have been hurt by slow starts and poor efficiency on third downs. They've totaled 261 yards and 12 first-half points and rank 30th in third-down conversions at 24.2 percent.
''We're a resilient team,'' O'Brien said. ''I don't think we're anywhere where we need to be, but we're tough. We've got to stop digging ourselves into these holes.''
Houston will have its hands full against a Tampa Bay defense that sacked Drew Brees four times and forced three turnovers. The Buccaneers held the Saints to seven points through three quarters after allowing 35 first-half points in Week 1.
''We needed to cross that hurdle because we haven't been able to," coach Lovie Smith said. " ... It should definitely give us confidence.
''Now, for us, that next step - based on what we've done in the past around here - is follow that up with another good performance this week. That's our plan.''