We all recognize the pre-season is little more than a warm-up with teams playing their second and third teamers more than projected starters. Teams like the Indianapolis Dolts are infamous for having poor pre-seasons, especially their offense (Curtis Painter, anybody?).
But there's a difference between the Texans and the Dolts, one that is sharply contrasting.
The Dolts have been there. They are a veteran squad led by a veteran quarterback. While the first team is in, they can experiment and test. To a large extent, our offense is much in the same position. We're holding open tryouts at guard, but the competitors are largely experienced players. And, let's be honest here: holding tryouts at guard is about the best thing this offense could've done.
Defensively, though, it's a different story. Working from back to front, our starting cornerbacks - Glover Quin, Brice McCain (nickle), and Kareem Jackson - are all first or second year players. They need reps and work. Against the Saints, Brees really didn't need to pick on Jackson as Quin was his whipping boy. And Eugene Wilson. Before the draft, a lot of us were wringing our hands regarding the safety situation. Not only did we fail to address free safety in any meaningful way, but it's readily apparent that Wilson has lost a step or two or three. Bernard Pollard remains a force against the run game, but a decent set of receivers is going to exploit his coverage holes.
At linebacker, we're trying to find a four-game replacement for Brian Cushing. Darryl Sharpton has been a pleasant surprise, but that's still a tremendous drop-off we're talking about. Cushing's 2009 was elite in his ability to create turnovers and havoc. To even duplicate those numbers would be a feat, but to do it with Sharpton or Danny Clark? Unpossible.
Antonio Smith and, of course, Mario Williams anchor the ends of the line. Connor Barwin should be able to improve, from last year, but he's proven he still struggles against the run in any form.
That leaves defensive tackle, the black hole of talent on the Texans squad. Let's put this into perspective: the man who has proven completely incapable of running between tackles, whose team had to address this inability to actually rush the ball by taking a primary running back, ripped us apart on Saturday. That's not an accident.
Sure, the Saints have an outstanding guard tandem, Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, but there's more at play here. We do not have an NFL quality starting defensive tackle on the team. Unless something suddenly clicks for Amobi Okoye, he's a bust. Frank Okam is done, if he ever wasn't. Shaun Cody carries the burden of playing like Shaun Cody, and Earl Mitchell is young and could improve, but he's still not starter quality.
Scheme-wise, we continue to roll-out the Red Carpet Zone to our opponents, one even Chase Daniel was easily able to exploit against our starters. We over-pursue, bite on play-action every damn time, and screens kill us. There's our much talked about blitzing schemes, which I believe Rivers will hit on shortly.
No, this pre-season matters for this team, for our defense. The same problems we saw last year continue to smack us about the head like we're so many Okoyes being suckered into a screen pass.
Feel free to call me Chicken Little, but I haven't for one moment bought into "the greatest defense ever" hype. Best case, last year's defense won the "Tallest Midget" contest. We played a long line of crappy quarterbacks and generally just crappy teams. That won't be the case in 2010. We need to improve to break even, and I don't see it.
We and Pollard and whomever can talk about attitude and swagger and whatever buzzword of the day. But you know what would be nice? Performance against a quarterback who's not JaMarcus Russell or Matt Leinart. It's time for our defense to nut up. Otherwise, I'm already having nightmares we'll kick off this season - a game against the aforementioned Dolts - the same way we did against the Jets last year...against a rookie quarterback.