They say, "When it rains, it pours." I've forgotten what rain is, but I'm familiar with pouring. It's like when you wait over seven months to watch the Houston Texans and then get to see them twice in one week. Yep, just five days after sacking the Jets (seven times!) on Monday Night Football, the Houston Texans are hosting the team from the City of New Orleans (and they'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.) Two of the NFL's most potent offenses for the last few seasons will be on display at Reliant Stadium tonight, but the defensive squads could steal the limelight.
The Saints are coming off a dominating 24-3 win over San Francisco last week. Their blitz-happy defense held the Niners to only 234 yards of total offense while racking up six sacks and two interceptions. [Insert Alex Smith joke here.] Normally the Texans and the Saints would have already seen lots of each other since they usually hold joint practices in the off-season. That was another casualty of the lockout this year, so this is their first meeting since last preseason. I'm not sure if that means a delayed kickoff as we wait for all the hugs and kisses to be doled out, but they also meet again on September 25th during the regular season. That makes this preseason game more interesting than last week's. (Honestly, it's hard to be less interesting than the Jets.) Take the jump and I'll share my Houston Texans Preseason Viewing Guide: Part Deux and a drinking game in honor of tonight's opponent.
Saints QB Drew Brees is one of the best QBs in the NFL in my opinion and I also have a lot of respect for their coach, Sean Payton. I would have more Saints info for you, but when I tried to go to Canal Street Chronicles I was ear-boarded with a podcast for which I wasn't prepared. It sounded like good stuff but was an inappropriate accompaniment for Willie Nelson's cover of "City of New Orleans". (I had to listen to it after I wrote that first paragraph.) Luckily, Tim and Dave Cariello from CSC already covered the recon here. Since it will be Saturday night and we're hosting our good neighbors from New Orleans, I propose a drinking game for the occasion:
The QB Sack Knock-One-Back Drinking Game: Drink whenever either team's QB gets sacked and holler the sacker's name or appropriate nickname.*
With the Saints' blitzing and the Texans' pass rush, designated drivers will be required. (*Participants must be at least 21 years old...for the drinking part; everyone can holler.) Now that we have paid homage to refreshments and legal obligations, let's get to the viewing guide. I'm going to break it down by position and give my take on who's looking good and who's on the outside looking in for a roster spot. Since everyone is dropping their projected, 53-man rosters these days; I'll give my best guesses on that too. So, this is going to be long(winded)...
Let's get started with the defense again:
Outside LBs: I know it's been said a thousand times on this blog, but the weak side OLB in Wade's system is the featured pass rusher. It's the position that made DeMarcus Ware the scourge of QBs far and wide, and it's usually good for lots of highlights and sacks. So, what better place to start than the Elephant? Don't worry about Mario Williams (#90). Ignore Ron Jaworski and other talking heads who pretend to understand Wade's defensive scheme when they tell you Mario looks lost. If the Saints are anything like the Jets, they will steer plays away from him and send cut blocks his way when he's not in a three point stance. I don't blame them. I doubt any coach in the NFL wants to see their starting QB hammered by a 6'6", 280 lb. Elephant in the preseason. Just because he doesn't get any sacks or make plays that are not his assignment does not mean Mario is lost or struggling at the position. Monday night's game provided us with a woefully small sample from which to extrapolate, and the Jets made it a point to run away from him or add blockers to deal with Mario's standing rushes. Due to the quick turnaround from MNF, I think the Texans will be forced to play many of their starters for more than the 15 or so snaps they got on Monday night. Mario might be one of them. If so, we should get a better look at how he's coming along at the WOLB spot. If not, then there will be more Jesse Nading (#72) and Bryan Braman (#50) to pore over. Or should I say pour?
Look for the Saints to adjust their play calling to the WOLBs' presence and avoid any chance of Brees being trampled. Look for more draws, screens and quick slant routes like we saw on MNF. If Mario has another quiet night statistically (and highlight-wise) while the defense racks up another seven sacks and a win, I'll be satisfied. Besides, like Rivers said in his excellent post yesterday, Mario can always go back to DE if he stinks it up as an OLB. Although Rivers was talking about next season, I could see Wade working Mario back into the DE rotation with J.J. Watt (#99) and Antonio Smith (#94) this season (if desperately needed) or move Watt to NT (with Earl Mitchell backing him up and playing DT in the 4-3 sets) and bookend Smith and Williams at the ends.
Of course, moving Mario back to DE would require someone else to step up and start at WOLB. Are Nading and Braman good enough to hold down the weak side? Connor Barwin (#98) and Brooks Reed (#58) looked promising on the strong side on Monday night, but could either of them be moved to the weak side? Is there another Elephant lurking on the roster? I stress already on the roster because the Texans are real close to the salary cap and an offensive lineman is the only position I see them addressing via trade or free agency before the start of the regular season (the ankle injuries to Antoine Caldwell and Kasey Studdard scared the crap out of Kubiak). This is all just conjecture at this point because we still have to give Williams a chance to play. Phillips will figure out how to get his best defenders on the field one way or another.
As I said before the Jets game, I think Williams, Barwin, Nading and Reed are locks to make the roster, and Monday night only confirmed it. That leaves two undrafted rookies battling for a roster spot at OLB. Since everyone knows to watch Braman the Berserker at WOLB now, I should mention that the rookie on the strong side, Steven Friday (#61), also had a good game against the Jets. He had 2 tackles (1 solo/1 assist) and 1.5 sacks, so he didn't have quite the night Braman did but he looked promising. Was Braman's performance Monday night a fluke? I doubt it and I expect to see at least another sack or two for Braman in his second preseason game. I would love to see him and Nading get a few snaps against the Saints' second and first teams respectively.
Inside LBs: The Texans needed someone to step up at ILB Monday night, and Xavier Adibi (#52) and Darryl Sharpton (#51) answered the call. Adibi didn't step up so much as he leapt up Monday night. I'm sure that's how Greg McElroy would describe it. Sharpton looked competent, but I think we'll see him progress with more reps. Hopefully both of them continue to impress this Saturday. With Cushing still recuperating and Ryans nursing what we hope is a minor elbow injury, they should get lots of snaps. At this point I don't see anyone taking the second team spots from Adibi or Sharpton (unless its Cushing swapping places with one of them due to his rehab), but there are still a lot of bodies at ILB on the roster. Although he had a good game Monday night, Adibi still has a lot of proving left to do and he could still lose his spot if he doesn't continue to play the way he did Monday.
Mr. Irrelevant, Cheta Ozougwu (#57), suffered a concussion against the Jets and even spent Monday night in the hospital; it remains to be seen if he'll play against the Saints. Undrafted rookies, Mister Alexander (#54) and Matt Marcorelle (#63), and four-year veteran, Stanford Keglar* (#53) were pretty quiet Monday night and recorded no tackles or sacks. Five-year veteran Tim Dobbins (#91) was active in run support and recorded 3 solo tackles and 1 assist.The performances by Braman and Friday and the opportunities afforded OLBs in Phllips' system could make it tough for these backup ILBs to make the roster. (*I misidentified Keglar as a rookie in my previous guide. Sorry.)
How many LBs on the 53-man roster? In his four seasons as head coach of the Cowboys, Phillips usually carried 8 or 9 LBs on his roster (he had 10 on his final roster in 2008). I have a feeling he is going to carry 9 this year. I add Ryans, Cushing, Sharpton and Adibi (provided Adibi continues to show he can thrive in this system) to the four OLB locks to make the roster I mentioned above. If that's the case, I think it could be a duel between Braman and Friday for that last spot. They both showed lots of intensity Monday night and I expect to see more of the same from them again on Saturday. Maybe the veteran Robbins can convince Phillips that his experience trumps the athleticism of some of the rookies. I think the LB roster battle is the most competitive one in camp and I suspect Wade likes to go with the better player rather than fill out his position depth chart neatly. Maybe Wade will consider carrying 10 LBs again (especially with questions about Ryans and Cushing still remaining). I doubt it works out that way, but if it did I think that would be bad news for at least one of the DBs trying to make the roster.
Defensive End: I thought J.J. Watt looked great Monday night. He abused OT Vladimir Ducasse (then again, who doesn't?) and disrupted the Jets line nearly every play. He looked tenacious inside and reminds me a lot of former Oiler Ray Childress with his size, motor, use of hands and ability to slide between DE and DT as needed. Hopefully, he'll look as good against better linemen than Ducasse tonight. I didn't notice Antonio Smith much in the opener, mostly because he didn't get a lot of snaps and I was too busy trying to watch Watt. As I have said before, Smith plays the three technique on the right side (over the shoulder of the guard), while Watt plays the five technique (over the tackle) on the left. This allows an OLB to line up outside of him, while Smith pushes from the inside where he is more effective. Barring Mario being reassigned to DE (an astronomical long-shot at this point), I think Smith and Watt are set as our starting DEs.
As I said last week, veterans Damione Lewis (#97), Tim Bulman (#93), and Tim Jamison (#96) have the best shot of making the roster as DE backups while undrafted rookies, John Graves (#60), Zane Parr, and Scooter Berry (#79) are long-shots. Bulman and Jamison both had tackle assists against the Jets, but I didn't notice either of them a whole lot on Monday night. Bulman has been with the Texans since 2006 but spent last season on the IR. Jamison has been with the Texans the past two seasons but hasn't done much. Lewis is a former first-round pick, but he's 33 years old. He played 10 games for the Texans last year and notched 13 tackles and 1 sack.
Nose Tackle: I'm done with the Shaun Cody (#95) vs. Earl Mitchell (#92) NT debate. I'm moving on. I think Phillips only has Mitchell on the 2nd team at the moment for preseason reps. Maybe Phillips wants to test his endurance so they can figure out the NT rotation. From what Kubiak is saying and what I saw Monday night, Mitchell's conditioning and the situational use of a 4-3 front (which involves Watt sliding inside to DT) should reduce Cody's playing time significantly. So now the debate should switch to how many snaps Cody should get: few or far between?
How many DL on the 53-man roster? Which brings me to the this question. I'm assuming Phillips will carry six defensive linemen and include two NTs like he usually did in Dallas. Unless he counts Watt as one of the NTs (again, that's a long-shot), we're probably stuck with Cody. That leaves only two roster spots for the six previously mentioned DEs in training camp. My guess for the six on the 53-man roster: Watt, Smith, Mitchell, Cody, Bulman and Lewis.
CB1: Texans fans may have to wait at least another week to see their new, best CB. Kubiak said there's a 50/50 chance Johnathan Joseph (#24) will play against the Saints. So theres a 50/50 chance we'll get to see more completions as the scrubs try to cover the CB1 spot in his absence. Why am I thinking there's zero chance he plays given Kubiak's estimate? I would rather JoJo be 100% when we face the Colts on September 11th than get lots of preseason snaps.
CB2 a/k/a Jason Allen (#30) vs Kareem Jackson (#25): Hopefully round two of the CB2 battle is more decisive than round one was on Monday night. Although they both allowed completions, at least they made their tackles and limited yards after the catch. And unlike another CB, they did not give up a TD or long completion. Maybe Kubiak can meld them together into a decent CB2 like he did for the WR3 spot.
Nickel Back: Although the nickel package was rarely deployed against the Jets, Brandon Harris (#26) looked good in his limited time and racked up three solo tackles. The dissappointing play of guys like Brice McCain (#21) and Antwaun Molden (#28) on Monday night only make me more certain that this second-round draft pick will end up as the starter here. Unless the Saints plan to go with max protect packages the majority of the game like the Jets, I expect that we'll see the nickel package more tonight and get more chances to evaluate this promising CB.
Dime, Quarter, etc: As I said in my review of the game, I think Molden played himself out of a roster spot Monday night. I could be wrong, but I hope not. Hopefully we'll get to see fourth-round draft pick Roc Carmichael (#36) get a lot of snaps in the next three preseason games. Otherwise, its going to be too easy for McCain to make the roster. I don't recall seeing Roc play Monday night and I can't find his current injury status. Second-year CB Sherrick McManis (#22) looks to have the skills to play safety or CB and has been impressive in camp. Undrafted rookie Jason Teague is a long-shot to make the roster.
Safeties: Unlike CB, the starters are set at safety: converted CB Glover Quin (#29) has moved to SS and free agent prize Danieal Manning (#38) is the starting FS. Coaches have been thrilled with both in training camp, and they both looked solid against the Jets. Veterans Troy Nolan (#33), Quintin Demps (#39), Dominique Barber (#34), Torri Williams (#42), and Antonio Baker (#37) are competing with rookies Shiloh Keo(#31) and Maurice Rolle (#41) for the backup safety spots. I thought Barber looked good at times on Monday night, and Troy Nolan has gotten some good reviews from secondary coach Vance Joseph during camp. Nolan can also lower the boom with some big hits. Demps' and Townsel's return games aren't helping them so far. If fifth-round pick Shiloh Keo wants to make the squad, he'll need to tackle better than he did on Monday night.
How many DBs make the 53-man roster?: I think Wade goes with ten defensive backs to open the season. My guess for now: Joseph, Allen, Jackson, Harris, McManis and Carmichael at CB and Manning, Quin, Nolan, Keo at safety.
Although it doesn't have as many positional battles or the novelty of a new scheme like the defense, there are still some interesting things happening on the other side of the ball as well:
Offensive Line: As I said before, the ankle injuries to offensive guards Antoine Caldwell (#62) and Kasey Studdard (#64) are a big deal and I'm sure weighing heavily on Kubiak's mind. The offensive line has been one of the positional strengths of the Texans the last few years and losing Caldwell would threaten that. Studdard's injury on the other hand, could be a chance to upgrade the depth by allowing second-year OG Shelley Smith (#71) or undrafted rookie Darius Morris (#68) the chance to make the roster. Smith and Morris should see lots of snaps Saturday night. My guess for the OL lineup for the 53-man roster: Duane Brown (#76), Eric Winston (#73) and Rashad Butler (#78) at OT; Wade Smith (#74), Mike Brisiel (#65), Caldwell and Shelley Smith at OG; and Chris Myers at center. Depending on how long it takes to get Caldwell back, Kubiak might hedge his bets and carry an extra lineman this year.
QB: Matt Schaub (#8) should get more snaps and hopefully he'll look better than he did against the Jets, but he's the starter. Look for Matt Leinart (#11) to improve as well. Although I think he showed good poise most of the night, he was jumpy at times and checked down too quickly. Still, I'll take checking down too quickly over getting sacked almost any day. He also stared down his receiver a few times and threw a tipped pass for a pick. I still think he looked better than Dan Orlovsky ever did and I expect him to have a better game against the Saints after he studies the film and talks it over with QB-iak. I hope to see T.J. Yates (#13) take some snaps in the second half. He impressed a lot of people Monday night and he had a lot of poise in the pocket for a rookie, but he won't supplant Leinart as the #2. The Texans seem set with some nice depth at QB.
RB: Injuries have plagued the Texans deep RB pool. After Derrick Ward (#32) went out with a head injury Monday night, Chris "Oingo Boingo" Ogbonnaya (#27) went from fifth on the depth chart to playing almost the entire game. Although Oingo Boingo impressed with his receiving ability out of the backfield and his endurance, it's going to be almost impossible for him to make the 53-man roster. His fate rests in large part with Tate and his ability to stay healthy. Hamstring injuries have limited playing time for Arian Foster (#23), Tate and Steve Slaton (#20) the last couple of weeks. Foster and Tate were back at practice yesterday and Tate declared that he will play tonight. Kubiak sounds anxious to see Tate in action, but said he isn't 100% sure Tate will play tonight. He seems irritated that it has taken so long to get Tate back on the field after his ankle fracture in last year's preseason opener. Assuming Tate is finally healthy and can stay that way while earning his #3 spot, I expect the RB lineup to look like this: Foster, Ward and Tate. Sorry Oingo Boingo, but hang in there because crazier things have happened.
FB: I thought the tryout to replace our beloved and departed Coke Machine was a two-man race between TE James Casey and former Browns FB Lawrence Vickers. Then Kubiak went and told Pancakes that he likes him some Zach Pauga (rookie free agent) at FB and wants to see more of him. Apparently, FB analysis is not my thing. I told you last week to watch for Casey catching the ball out of the backfield while Vickers would be used mostly as a blocker. Then Casey started blowing people up with monster blocks and Vickers did his best Marshall Faulk impersonation with a 22-yard reception in the Jets game. I'm not sure what Kubiak plans to do here, but I'm guessing he keeps Vickers as the FB and Casey as a TE who he also uses as a HB/FB.
TE: Speaking of TEs...not much to see here, except how deep the Texans are at this position. Kubiak keeps these four: Owen Daniels, Joel Dreessen, James Casey and Garrett Graham. Keep an eye out for Kubiak's three TE sets, where Casey's flexibility will really shine. Not that it has anything to do with the preseason, but I predict Owen Daniels and Schaub are going to have a huge year.
WR: Another position of depth for the offense (see a theme here?) where the starters are pretty much set in stone already: Andre Johnson (#80), Kevin Walter (#83) and Jacoby Jones (#12). As I said last week, there are seven players competing for the last two WR spots, but it's probably more accurate to say there are six players vying for one last WR spot. Dorin Dickerson (#19) seems to have the inside track for the fourth spot after impressing coaches last season and this training camp. The six WRs competing for the fifth and final WR spot are: Derrick Townsel (#14), Paul Williams (#17), Trindon Holliday (#16), Terrence Toliver (#82), Jeff Maehl (#15), and Lester Jean (#18). The rookies (Jean, Maehl and Toliver) are probably ahead of the veterans in this race at the moment. Jean helped himself a ton with a couple of big catches Monday night and Maehl has gotten the most rave reviews in practice. Toliver is the tallest receiver in camp at 6'5", but unless he can come up with some catches to outshine Maehl and Jean, he is not likely to make the team. Kubiak has been gushing about Jean in particular since the Jets game.
Special Teams: I'm going to ignore the horrific ST play until at least the final preseason game. Until teams start trimming rosters, there are just too many stiffs taking the field to fairly appraise special teams. I'm going to pretend for now that the return game will miraculously get better at that time also. Neil Rackers (#4) has the place kicking job (and is the best tackler on ST), so the real ST battle this preseason is the punter position. Undrafted rookie Brett Hartmann (#2) has a strong leg and is a kickoff specialist. Former Chicago Bear Brad Maynard (#7) lacks Hartmann's leg strength, but is a veteran who is more adept at placing the ball.
During Monday night's game, Hartmann had four punts (avg. 44 yds, long of 52 yds) and placed one inside the 20 yard line. Maynard had 3 punts (avg. 45 yds, long of 46 yds) and placed one inside the 20 yard line as well. Considering those numbers, I'm tempted to call it a draw at this point. However, if Hartmann can consistently boot the ball out of the end zone with the new 35 yard line kickoff spot, I would rather see him get the job. These punting battles are riveting, huh? That brings my roster count to 52, and I'm assuming Kubiak keeps Jon Weeks (#46) as the long snapper as usual (talk about a dream job!).
Thanks for reading this epic post and please pour responsibly tonight if you play the QB Sack Knock-One-Back Drinking Game. Laissez les bons temps rouler!