Just when I thought there was a hope for improved special teams, the opening kickoff happened. Cordarrelle Patterson broke through the middle of the coverage unit and was but one juke away from a touchdown before getting inexplicably tripped up by kicker Randy Bullock. That same Randy Bullock would then go on to boot a touchback on his very next opportunity to signal what I fear might be the mantra of the Texans' special teams in 2013 – either get it through the end zone or give the other team 30 yards. Penalties amassed both on kicking and coverage teams did not help the situation either, and by the end of the first half I was appropriately disgruntled that literally none of the issues that plagued Houston’s special teams last season seem to have been fixed. I can only hope that the numerous blunders in Week One of the 2013 preseason were the product of this being the team’s first real football game in over six months. I cannot help but be concerned – very concerned.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, DeAndre Hopkins played well enough to not only encourage optimism, but to leave me wanting more going in Week Two’s matchup with the Miami Dolphins. Early in the second quarter, I saw Hopkins throw down a nasty outside jab step before cutting back inside to get free down the sideline. T.J. Yates, who had a troubled outing to say the least, missed the open Hopkins and inaccurately tossed the ball to Garrett Graham for a miniscule gain. Considering how few and far between opportunities for big plays come in the NFL, I stewed in frustration at Hopkins’ loss of potential glory.
Just a few short plays later, Hopkins not only broke free yet again, but made one of the most impressive, Andre Johnson-like, borderline unfair catches by a Texans rookie in recent memory. To have a receiver besides #80 that can be "open" without actually being open is both unfamiliar and extremely exciting. It takes a lot to make a grown man giddy like a school girl, and yet here I am smiling ear to ear at a preseason highlight. DeAndre Hopkins is the real deal, everybody. Adjust your fantasy rankings accordingly.
Brandon Brooks had a similarly impressive outing at right guard, though I admit that I was paying most of my attention to Dennis Johnson, Keshawn Martin, and DeAndre Hopkins. Luckily enough for me, DVR was invented a few years back and I can more thoroughly examine the right side of the offensive line later on this week. For now, I will say that Brooks held up very well in pass protection in the few snaps I saw. He also flashed agility and power in the run game. In particular, I enjoyed Brooks’ obliteration of Vikings linebacker Larry Dean after passing off a double team on a third and short attempt, paving the way for Cierre Wood to convert for a first down. I cannot wait to give him proper grades with HD and slow motion after NFL Network’s replay tomorrow night.
A lot of other young players made appearances throughout the game, some better than others. Dennis Johnson looks the part of the lightning in a bottle change of pace back. Jared Crick seemed to be inconsistent, as I noticed him only when he was four yards in the backfield or blown four yards back off the line of scrimmage. Lestar Jean had some nice catches mixed in with some terrible drops. Keshawn Martin ran some great routes but suffered from terrible ball placement by T,J. Yates. Willie Jefferson was interesting to watch, considering Wade Phillips dropped him in coverage with a bit more regularity than the likes of Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus. Jefferson's fluid athleticism and long frame helped in tipping a couple passes, and I really want to go back and watch more of his snaps on replay to see if his much reported pass rushing prowess translated into the game. If Jefferson can show he is more than a one dimensional player and contribute on special teams, I would not be surprised if he forces his way on to the final 53 man roster as a sixth outside linebacker.
D.J. Swearinger and A,J. Bouye will both be nigh impossible to fairly grade without All-22 footage. When they were on the screenm it was very hit or miss for me (literally). Swearinger in particular had a rougher first half than second half from what little I could see. Not only was his blown tackle on Zach Line the most direct cause of an embarrassing 61 yard touchdown, but one of Vikings' first rounder Cordarrelle Patterson’s longer receptions was because of an apparent miscommunication between Swearinger and the aforementioned Bouye. Again, it is hard to tell exactly who is at fault for what without the eye in the sky, but Swearinger seems to still have some learning to do.
The star of the night for me was easily Earl Mitchell. He has apparently been eating his Wheaties by the truck load this summer. What a first quarter that was. In just a couple series, Mitchell racked up three tackles for loss and a sack. His motor was running high, he flashed lateral agility to get around blocks and collapse back side running lanes, and that swim move on the goal line stand – oh baby, that swim move! What excited me most about Mitchell’s performance was not the results, but the fact that those results came against John Sullivan, one of the best centers in the league. I have bagged on Earl Mitchell a lot in the last two seasons (though not as much as I bagged on Shaun Cody). If he continues to win one on one matchups while sandwiched in between J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, the Houston D-line just got downright disgusting.
Overall, I found a lot to be happy about in my brief observations of this first preseason game. Hopkins showed he was worth a first rounder, Brooks and Mitchell showed they could be ready to take a step up, Terrell McClain put on a clinic with 2.5 sacks. Dennis Johnson and Cierre Wood might have turned the third running back spot into a two horse race. There are definitely some players that need to show some improvement before the start of the regular season (I’m looking at you, Roc Carmichael), but considering this is the first actual football game the Texans have played since January and no major injuries occurred, I suppose I do not have any complaints. On to next Saturday’s home game against Miami!