You know what the best part of the regular season is? If you answered "the games matter", then you would be wrong, because the most amazingly exciting benefit of the regular season starting is that I finally get access to the All-22 camera angle on NFL Game Rewind. It is hard to truly appreciate the greatness of the "coaches film" feature until you have to do without it for four straight agonizing games, especially when that feature got a monumental improvement for the 2013 season – High Definition.
That noise you’re hearing is me squealing like a little girl.
I was not prepared for how big of a difference HD would make for how I see Texans football. Every calculated step by receivers, every little boxing match in the trenches, every subtle movement that tells the often unnoticed story of a football game is mine. This is, for people like me, the mountain top. It does not, and probably will not, get better than this. So what did the new and improved eye in the sky show me from the season opening Monday night matchup between our beloved Texans and the San Diego Chargers? Everything, that’s what.
As always, I will look at some second and third year players with limited experience in addition to the usual crop of rookies.
Let’s start off with a young Bull who made several appearances in this series last season, including a great two game stretch against Detroit and Buffalo that flashed everything Mercilus could be with the right amount of seasoning. Speed, balance, and some nifty hands all showed up at times in his surprisingly productive rookie season, but he never quite put everything together into a singular, breakout performance. Add on to his "rawness" a propensity to get swallowed up in the run game by offensive tackles and you had a young player with all the potential in the world to be something, but still with a lot of work to do.
If Mercilus’ showing against the Chargers is anything to go by, he has definitely put in some work.
Issue number one with "Nubs" in 2012 was easily his struggles at setting the edge against the run. He was a bit on the lighter side in terms of weight as he floated between 250-255 lbs. as a rotational pass rusher. His strength was evidently inferior to the much larger offensive linemen that he often found himself matched up against on early downs. When reports and tweets floated around throughout the summer about Mercilus’ apparent increase in both bulk and strength, I was intrigued to see him get some game action to prove he could be an every down player. An unfortunate hamstring injury shielded the new Whitney Mercilus from me this past August, but the regular season opener finally gave me a glimpse of what I can expect from #59 this coming season. All signs point to success.
I had hoped for Mercilus to at least not get blown off the ball with regularity as a sign of improvement. To my surprise, not only did he stand up against power, he used it as a weapon. Several times throughout the night, Mercilus was able to use fantastic leverage and his new-found strength to force himself into the back field. King Dunlap is not a good left tackle by any means, but having the ability to do this to a 6’8" 330 pound man is still impressive to say the least.
If Philip Rivers had not gotten rid of the ball in under two seconds here, Mercilus would have had himself a sack…from a bull rush. Who would have thought, right?
Mercilus’ power carried over well to the run game as well (Yay! Finally!), where I saw him stack and play great contain/force against both offensive tackles and tight ends throughout the game. Mercilus never once lost an edge, and a few times he even discarded his blocker and made the play himself.
And what’s this? Mercilus stoning and benching a pulling guard? That’s new.
Could Mercilus have turned a corner? Could he develop a Brooks Reed-ish affinity for run stopping and still package it with his untapped pass rush potential? Absolutely. Has he gotten there yet? Well, not yet, no. I love that Mercilus has rounded out his game to include a (at the very least decent) bull rush, but I have yet to see him flash the kind of hand usage and killer instinct that has made J.J. Watt into a virtual football deity. 2012 was all about the speed rush for Mercilus, and the Monday night opener was all about the bull rush. I never saw any moves built off of that power despite Dunlap practically asking for it during the entire game. No bull-jerks, no spins, no counter clubs, no rips, no swims, no anything. It was all power, all the time, and that is what is so darn frustrating about watching Mercilus play. Even Mercilus’ one sack was sort of fluky in nature; he was practically pushed into Philip Rivers’ legs.
He’s right there. He has the speed. He has the quickness. He has the balance. He now has the strength. For the love of Durga, just add some technical refinement to that package and you have yourself a world beater. Please, Whitney…please diversify yourself. That’s all I want from you.
MERCILUS OVERALL GRADE: B-
From one Rookie Review regular to another, let’s jump to Derek Newton and try to stomach what we are about to watch (seriously, some of you with high blood pressure might want to skip this part).
While still a big problem on this team, Derek Newton has noticeably improved his run blocking, especially in space. The Texans might actually have a shot at gaining yards on runs to the right again. He is by no means "great", or even "good" yet, but the step up in his ground game is evident. For now I will label Derek Newton’s run blocking as "serviceable".
In particular I really liked a pin and pull zone run to the right side in the fourth quarter, and I was especially impressed by how well Garrett Graham, Derek Newton, and Brandon Brooks can open up gigantic running lanes when everything is clicking just right. Graham, who has developed into a hell of a blocker himself, can be seen here standing up Kendall Reyes (not an easy task) while Brandon Brooks dominates stud defensive end Corey Liuget and drives him out of the way (again, not an easy task). Newton has the task of kicking out Jarret Johnson, and he does a good job at driving into Johnson’s inside shoulder, putting his post leg into his crotch, and wrenching him away from the running lane. Chris Myers gets blown up (again) on the second level and costs Foster a big gain, but the play was blocked very, very well by the right side of the line (for once).
Despite improvement on the ground, Newton has somehow gotten worse in pass protection. His footwork is so unbelievably ugly that by the fourth quarter he was literally backpedaling in order to set up some sort of futile defense against the Chargers' outside linebackers. That’s right - an offensive tackle backpedaling.
Look at the difference between Duane Brown’s smooth kick slide arc and Newton’s wobbly, unbalanced, flailing mess.
Hell, the guy knew he didn’t have the feet to keep up with a 9-tech on the edge, so at times he resorted to flat out turning and running at people.
That kind of awful technique was not just a one-time occurrence either.
Seriously, I wasn’t kidding about the backpedal thing.
NEWTON OVERALL GRADE: D
Now that we got that out of the way, I want to touch on the only offensive lineman not to have a string of colossal screwups against the Chargers front seven – Brandon Brooks. I saw something special in the very limited snaps that Brooks received as a rookie behind the more developed (at the time) Ben Jones. I knew that with some time this physical behemoth could become something otherworldly.
Yep, I was right.
Brandon Brooks downright dominated every Chargers pass rusher he could get his paws on. Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes comprise one of the best young 3-4 DE tandems in football, and Brooks made them look absolutely helpless when trying to get to the quarterback. Immovable in pass protection, and nigh unstoppable when engaged in run blocking, Brooks flashed absolute brilliance that made his few errors seem negligible. A couple misjudged cut blocks, a mistaken co-op call on an inside linebacker’s alignment that ruined a run play, and three phenomenal efforts to close the backside cutback lane by Liuget/Reyes put a couple "fix it" notes on what was otherwise as impressive a performance from the guard position as you could ask for. As bad as Derek Newton was in long yardage situations, Brandon Brooks more than made up for it. Interior pressure is a quarterback’s worst nightmare, and there was absolutely none coming from the right side of the line. Go back and look at all of the Derek Newton and DeAndre Hopkins GIFs from this article. Notice how Brooks is pretty much the only offensive lineman to not give up immediate pressure throughout the game? This kid’s going to be something.
Brooks even found a way to improve on his nagging preseason habit of diving way too early on cut blocks and subsequently missing on a lot of backside assignments. Either he would fall short of his man, make contact in the lower thigh or knee area instead of the up-field hip, or dive so early that defenders had time to react and they simply batted him down before he could ever touch them. It was one of the few flaws on Brooks’ game that I hoped would get fixed soon, and it seemed that for the most part it has. A couple cut blocks still were off target, but there was definitely an increase in gems like this one.
Even when no cut blocks were used, Brooks still regularly closed off the back side lane just by being a massive, immovable human being.
When Brooks was not sealing the back side, he was an extremely physical road grader on the play side, even picking up a few pancakes along the way.
I cannot speak highly enough about what Brandon Brooks has turned into in his second season as a pro. The scary part is that he can be even better. We still have not seen Brooks’ best game, and I pray for the players on the opposing defense on the day that we do.
BROOKS OVERALL GRADE: A-
As everyone’s favorite whipping boy in the preseason, D.J. Swearinger took a lot of heat for his reckless "tackles" (if you want to call them that) and seemingly weekly coverage lapses, but I must say that I saw a lot to like from the young ex-Gamecock safety last Monday night. For starters, Jungle Boi showed off his greatest asset as a hybrid-ish defensive back/linebacker in the Wade Phillips' dime package – footwork. His overaggressive nature can certainly cost him at times, but you can never, ever say that Swearinger does not have outstanding feet for a "box safety". His quickness, hip fluidity, stop-start, and change of direction ability are all superb for a man with his bulk. I think with more seasoning he can become every bit as effective, if not even more so, than Glover Quin.
This play in particular excited me. On first inspection it looks like just another J.J. Watt pass deflection, but pay close attention to Swearinger’s feet and hips. Notice how Swearinger slowly rotates his hips and keeps them square with Antonio Gates as their relative angles change to one another? See his short, quick-footed pedal from two yards inside? That’s the work of Vance Joseph, folks. No slide shuffle to give free releases, no guesswork with when to flip from a standard "catch" technique. All Swearinger has to do is keep his hips pointed at his man from seven yards off and have good enough feet to react to the receiver’s break. As long as his hips are pointed in the right direction, he will be successful. Swearinger has more than enough physical ability to keep up with the future Hall of Famer.
As with all rookie defensive backs, it will not always look like this, but when it works it’s damn pretty.
It would not be D.J. Swearinger if there was not some bad to go along with the good, but I am happy to see significantly less "bad tape" show up in Swearinger’s fifth professional game. There has been a steady improvement from the beginning of August, but lots of work still needs to be done. Little mental miscues still show up from time to time in Swearinger’s game, such as guessing wrong on a release instead of keeping himself pointed at the receiver and reacting to what he sees.
Or both guessing wrong on a release and flipping his hips way too early.
Swearinger was lucky that Rivers looked elsewhere on these two plays, or San Diego may have very well won that game. These mistakes should clear up in time as he gets pro techniques more ingrained into his psyche, but for now Swearinger will still be prone to the same boneheadedness that even the greatest defensive back prospects endure in the beginning of their rookie seasons. Swearinger can and will be better. He also could be so, so much worse. I will take that as a good sign.
SWEARINGER OVERALL GRADE: C+
This guy. This freakin’ guy.
I loved DeAndre Hopkins in college. I loved DeAndre Hopkins in the pre-draft process. I loved him even more in the limited time we got to see him preseason. I was not prepared for how awesome "Nuk" looks when you can see the entire field in HD. My God, he’s just…he’s just so good. How does somebody this talented at playing football fall all the way to twenty seven? How? This is absolutely mind-boggling, and the twenty six teams that picked before the Texans should be ashamed of themselves.
At the time of this writing, the Week Two contest against the Tennessee Titans has already taken place and Hopkins has already introduced himself to the world. I would argue that his Week One performance was just as impressive (Disclaimer: I might take that statement back when I actually watch the All-22 of the Titans game). Every route was crisp, and every catch more clutch than the last. Hopkins showed moves in the open field, tenacity when run blocking, and even broke a couple ankles while he was at it.
And did I mention that DeAndre Hopkins cares not for your puny attempts at press coverage?
One of my favorite routes of the night, a thirteen yard out route for a first down, highlights Hopkins’ maturity as a route runner. He works back away from the defensive back and naturally boxes him out of position to make a play on the ball. This makes it a much safer throw for the quarterback on a route notorious for producing interceptions.
But wait, there’s more! We haven’t even gotten to the best part - Hopkins’ thirty yard grab on third down to bail out a scrambling Matt Schaub. The Texans are in third and long and employ a very good route combination to beat a variety of coverages the Chargers may employ. Keshawn Martin is essentially being used as a decoy on the left side to draw the safety down field and clear a path for Owen Daniels on a deep crosser. Andre Johnson throws down a curl a yard or two short of the first down marker underneath the other deep safety, which then frees up Hopkins deep on the post provided he beats his man. Either the safety sits on the post and gives Andre Johnson single coverage with a free inside release to catch and extend for a first down, or he leaves his outside corner alone with no help over the top. It is a lose-lose all around, even with man coverage across the board.
Hopkins, on the bottom of the screen, jabs to the right to fake an outside release.
The corner flips his hips too early, and Hopkins makes him pay for it by cutting back underneath him and getting a free inside release on top of a good head start on his defender.
The corner is way out of position because of Hopkins’ great release at the line, and as a result Hopkins can do literally anything he wants downfield.
Such as run completely free on a post behind the deep safety. Still, there is a problem. Derek Newton gave up pressure on an inside counter (again) and forced Schaub to roll out of the pocket.
Hopkins sees Schaub scrambling right and recognizes that there is no way he will be able to throw that far across his body while moving in the opposite direction, so he smartly redirects himself towards Schaub to give him a better angle to throw. Because he beat the corner so soundly off the line, he is still in great position to make a play down field.
And to top it all off, he makes a great diving catch to scoop the ball up off the ground. That right there is what we call a "grown man play".
All put together, the play looks like this:
One game in and I’m ready for a jersey purchase. Rick Smith has nailed yet another first round pick.
HOPKINS OVERALL GRADE: A
Other Random Notes
1 - Jared Crick is not explosive at all. He can stack and shed against the run just fine, but do not expect him to make a lot of splash plays in the back field. Ever.
2 - Chris Myers was arguably the worst offensive linemen on the field, and that’s saying something.
3 - Garrett Graham needs a new contract.
4 - Shiloh Keo actually was not bad at all. Consider me pleasantly surprised.
5 - J.J. Watt is still amazing.