There were moments in the first half Sunday in Pittsburgh that Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson appeared primed to steer the Texans' offense out of its early-season funk.
But then the second half commenced and the Texans (0-3) scratched out just 51 yards and were shut out the rest of the way in the 28-21 loss to the Steelers.
Houston will host the Minnesota Vikings (0-3) on Sunday seeking not only its first victory but some semblance of normalcy for an offense that was dynamic at times in 2019.
"I think that we haven't thrown the ball downfield as much and we've always been known to do that, so we haven't done that as much," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "Really that hasn't been anything that's been part of the plan, it's just been the way we felt the game was going, what was the best play call for that situation. We have to do better."
Although Watson is actually passing for more yards per game than last season (264 yards a game, up from 256.8), his longest completion in this season is just 38 yards. Houston's inability to stretch the field can be linked in part to the offseason trade of three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals.
The Texans also have struggled mightily running the ball this season. They rank 31st in the NFL and ahead of only the New York Giants with 198 yards, and tied for 29th at 3.7 yards per attempt.
That Watson, who has just 49 rushing yards through three games, hasn't been featured more in the running game is just one of several curious developments for the Texans' offense. That 16-yard average is less than half his career norm.
"I mean, my first instinct isn't running," Watson said. "Just giving those guys a chance when the receivers are open. I don't want to force a ball. There's a difference between throwing, anticipating guys being open and then forcing a ball into a tight window and causing a turnover.
"You've got to pick your spots and make sure that you're comfortable with those spots and then react after that."
The Vikings returned to practice Thursday after receiving zero positive results from multiple iterations of COVID-19 tests over the previous three days. The exacting protocol measures followed a COVID-19 outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, whom the Vikings played Sunday. Following that 31-30 loss, the Vikings held virtual meetings Tuesday and Wednesday while awaiting test results.
"Obviously it's been a little bit unusual. It's been busy," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "Sometimes the uncertainty of everything tries to creep in, I guess. Just not knowing exactly how the protocol is going to change the next day. Like I've had to change the schedule for every day this week just because of the different things."
Considering their surprisingly ragged start to the season, the last thing the Vikings needed was an unexpected distraction serving as an obstacle between their first victory. But, given the challenges the NFL faced to get its season off the ground, this week was just another hiccup.
"It's similar to how we approached much of the offseason program and training camp," Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I think it's been handled well and we'll just keep at it.
"Just do the best you can. Cover everything in meetings, get on the field (Thursday) obviously and throughout the rest of the week and still get all your work in and then go to Houston and the goal is to get the job done regardless of what the weekly schedule looked like."
--Field Level Media