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Houston Texans Preseason Viewing Guide: We Talking About Practice!

Are you ready for some football? I never thought I would relish reciting Hank Williams' Monday Night Football battle cry as much as I have today. It's funny what a lockout, a new defensive coordinator, tons of new talent (especially on defense) and a rare appearance on MNF by the Houston Texans can do. So what if it's preseason? I'm more excited about this upcoming Texans season than ever before, and the reasons why have a lot to do with how I'll watch tonight's game. Please allow me to offer some of my viewing tips.

First off, ignore the scoreboard. I'm sure many of you are saying, "Thanks, Captain Obvious!" While most people know that results of the NFL preseason are meaningless, I thought I should stress that they are particularly meaningless with all the lockout-shortened training camps this year. Wade Phillips is going to need all four preseason games to evaluate who to keep and who to release and I'm sure Kubiak could use the time as well. The last thing either of them will be concerned with is the final score of the next four games. Take the jump and I'll share some of my slightly less obvious tips for watching the 2011 Texans debut.

In addition to evaluating talent, Phillips also needs to teach his defense. The next four games will be invaluable for installing his 3-4... or 5-2. Whatever you want to call it, I can't wait to see it in action. To me, the most compelling aspect of the Texans new defense is the front 7. Instead of presenting a fixed 4-3 front with no effort made to confuse opposing QBs as the Battle Red Carpet defense did last year, this new one will shift DEs to OLBs and back as needed and disguise frequent blitzes from a variety of positions. At least that's what I'm expecting based on Wade's resume. Starting with the front 7, here's what I'll be looking for by position while watching Wade's new defense and the talent involved:

  • OLB: Watch the movement of the outside LBs. Mario Williams (#90) will be the starter on the weakside and Jesse Nading (#72) will most likely be next on the depth chart. Another DE from last year (and another player returning from a severe injury), Connor Barwin (#98) should be the starting OLB on the strongside and rookie, Brooks Reed (#58) should be his backup. Williams/Nading will most likely rush the passer nearly every down as they move along the line looking for the best mismatch. Barwin/Reed will rush often, but will also cover their zone and drop into coverage when required. Keep an eye out for undrafted rookies, Bryan Braman (#50) on the weakside and Steven Friday (#61) on the strongside. UprootedTexan reported that Braman in particular has been a wild man in practice. I'm not sure how many LBs Phillips plans to carry, but I'm assuming the first four OLBs I mentioned are locks to make the roster.
  • ILB: My two biggest concerns about our defense this year are no longer defensive backs nor OLBs; they're our projected starting inside LBs: DeMeco Ryans (#59) and Brian Cushing (#56). We've all been agonizing over DeMeco Ryans' recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon since week six of last season, but now I'm actually more worried about Brian Cushing and his recovery from off-season knee surgery. Cushing just started practicing on a limited basis last week and he's 10 pounds lighter than last season. He still has time to get ready for the regular season but the clock is ticking. I'm not sure if Kubiak will try to get Cushing a lot of snaps to make up for lost time or if he'll give Darryl Sharpton (#51) more snaps to prepare him instead. Watch Darryl Sharpton's performance at ILB in Cushing's place, because he may be more than just depth at some point during the season. Either way, he has impressed coaches and he is sure to see significant playing time this season, even if it's just part of the ILB rotation to relieve Ryans and Cushing. Unfortunately, we don't have much ILB depth after Sharpton, so let's hope Ryans' Achilles tendon isn't our Achilles Heel. Watch veteran Xavier Adibi (#52) at your own risk to see what I mean. Other ILBs to watch: Mr. Irrelevant, Cheta Ozougwu (#57); undrafted rookies, Mister Alexander (#54), Stanford Keglar (#53) and Matt Marcorelle (#63); and 5-year veteran, Tim Dobbins, who played for Phillips as a rookie in San Diego.
  • DE: Speaking of movement, watch LDE J.J. Watt (#99) as he slides to DT on passing downs. Watt will dominate inside and out. I cannot wait to see Mario and J.J. line up on the same side. I'm not sure how many reps the starters will get, but watch for a rejuvenated Antonio Smith (#94) at the RDE spot. He should be lined up more inside than he was in Bush's 4-3 and his pass rush should be more effective now. Veterans, Damione Lewis (#97); Tim Bulman (#93); and Tim Jamison (#96), have the best shot of making the roster as DE backups. Un-drafted DE rookies, John Graves (#60); Zane Parr; and Scooter Berry (#79), are long-shots to make the roster.
  • MOAR NT!!! The NT battle seems open and shut to most outsiders, but for some strange reason the Texans list Shaun Cody (#95) as the starting NT ahead of hometown favorite, Earl Mitchell (#92). Most reports (and most importantly, the ones from BRB members and staff) indicate that Mitchell is outperforming Cody soundly in training camp. Tonight we all get to judge. Get ready, because I think Earl Mitchell is going to blow your minds. Undrafted rookie Guy Miller (#68), is also trying to make the roster at the DT spot. Again, I'm not sure which ratio of DLs to LBs to DBs Phillips is going to use, so I'm not sure if Miller has a chance at a third NT spot or if he has to beat out Cody or Mitchell to make the roster. No matter who is lined up at NT, look for them to shoot a gap to either side of the center quickly and disrupt plays. That's the way Phillips usually has NT's play in this scheme.
  • Front 7 summary: This defensive front seven is like a re-tooled motor with tons more horsepower and torque than the previous edition, but also with a few questions about the durability inside. Those questions at ILB might prove to be the Achilles Heel of this defense, but they should not stop the hard-charging pass rush. I think QBs are going to circle their games against the Texans on the schedule for a whole other reason this year. Hopefully, the Texans front 7 will dirty Mark Sanchez up before Ryan pulls him tonight. Oh yeah, did I mention we're playing some team called the Jets? I think they play in New Jersey somewhere. If it were a regular season game that counted, I would read up on them or visit their blog.

Speaking of re-tooling, the secondary has been rebuilt from the ground up. Both of last years' starting safeties are no longer on the roster. Since free agency blessed the Texans with former Chicago safety, Danieal Manning (#38) and they found another one already on the roster masquerading as the Texans' best CB last year (Glover Quin- #29), the Texans have already found the replacements for those two starting safety spots. Another free agent blessing, Johnathan Joseph (#24- formerly of the Bengals) was paid big bucks to be the #1 CB (replacing Quin), but that doesn't mean there are no positional battles in the secondary. On the contrary, there are no less than 14 defensive backs battling for about a half a dozen roster spots (again, I'm guessing Wade's going with 8-9 DBs.) There's lots of competition for these other spots in the secondary:

  • CB2: This may be the only position in the secondary that ends up with the same person from last year, which I find extremely ironic considering Kareem Jackson's (#25) performance last year. Instead of citing more statistics that illustrate how badly Jackson faired last year, I'll try to focus on how he does with a new DC and DB coach guiding him. Thankfully, it doesn't appear that they are ready to just hand him back the CB2 job, and last year's free agent pickup from Miami, Jason Allen (#30), appears to be giving him a run for his money in training camp. Johnathan Joseph sat out Friday's practice with a groin injury, so we might see a lot of the other guys man the CB1 spot tonight. Whatever it takes to make sure JoJo is healthy for Week 1 against Indy. Besides, this will give Phillips more opportunity to evaluate the other corners...the ones he needs to evaluate.
  • Nickel CB: krkenney called it back in April: watch the rookie from Miami, Brandon Harris (#26), take this position. The way Vance Joseph has been raving about him, I think he starts as the nickel CB in week 1 against Indy. The Texans were high enough on him to trade back up into round 2 to get him, and the coaches have been impressed with his football IQ and his performance in training camp. Vance Joseph thinks he's ideal for the slot, like any good nickel CB should be.
  • Dime? Quarter? Veteran holdovers from last year, Brice McCain (#21), Sherrick McManis (#22), and Antwaun Molden (#28) will be competing against rookies, Jason Teague (#35) and Roc Carmichael (#36), for those last two (or three?) CB spots. I don't believe Phillips will make a final decision here for at least a couple more pre-season games, but I think Roc Carmichael will stick. That's just a hunch based on Phillips wanting him in the 4th round and some of the feedback on him from training camp. While Harris is suited to the slot, Roc has the skills to provide depth on the outside.
  • Backup Safeties: We know Quin (SS) and Manning (FS) are the starting safeties, but there's a ton of bodies fighting for the backup spots. 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). At least four of them won't make the final cut.
  • Have jam with your toast: With Phillips evaluating all that talent (or lack thereof?), the abbreviated training camp and Johnathon Joseph suffering from a minor injury; expect somebody to get burned in the Texans secondary tonight. Stay strong and try to resist the urge to reach for the bleach (sorry, Rivers). Just remember that this defense will look a lot different by Sept. 11 and that pre-season games don't matter. It might help to revel in that pass rush I mentioned above as much as possible.

Man cannot live by defense alone, so I'll give you a few things to look for when the Texans have the ball tonight also:

  • FB Specialists: FB Vonta Leach was one of the only losses suffered by one of the league's best offenses this off-season. Finding his replacement is important for an offense that uses FBs more than most others. Kubiak told TE James Casey (#86) to bulk up for the role and the Texans also picked up free agent,Lawrence Vickers (#47) from Cleveland. Vickers has blocked for three different 1,000 yard rushers in 4 seasons in Cleveland. He excels as a a lead blocker (like Leach), while Casey provides more of a receiving threat out of the backfield. Lots of reps for either one doesn't necessarily mean that player has the starting job. I suspect Kubiak will carry both and try to use their strengths situationally. Watch to see if Kubiak uses Casey more as a receiver out of the backfield and Vickers as blocker.
  • WR Battledome: Jacoby Jones looks to have the WR3 spot sewn up (in spite of some fans' spite), but since the Texans released David Anderson, the WR4 and WR5 spots are still open. Like the secondary, there's lots of competition for just a few spots. There are at least 7 WRs battling for only two roster spots: veterans Dorin Dickerson (#19), Derrick Townsel (#14), Paul Williams (#17), Trindon Holliday (#16), plus rookies Terrence Toliver (#82). Jeff Maehl (#15), and Lester Jean (#18). Some have return skills, but I doubt Kubiak keeps someone like Holliday for returns unless he also values them as a WR. Dickerson seems the favorite for the WR4 spot and made the roster last year. According to reports, Maehl has been stellar in camp, but watch for big plays from any of these guys as they try to make the roster.
  • QB Backup Upgrade: Hopefully, Kubiak plans to feature Matt Leinart (#11) extensively in testing those WRs rather than Matt Schaub. It might be cool to see the new kid, T.J. Yates (#13), a little, but it's time to see what we're going to have if Schaub is sidelined. This isn't really a battle so much as it is a coming out party for Kubiak's latest rehab-QB project. Leinart's got the job, and now Houston fans finally get a chance to see if he's an upgrade over recently-departed Dan Orlovsky. The rest of the NFL gets to see if Leinart's rehabilitation with the QB Whisperer has upgraded his skills since Arizona. As much as I ridiculed him before, I think Leinart's story is compelling and far from over. He doesn't need a big arm in this offense and I think he can excel under Kubiak's tutelage. Maybe we'll see some of that tonight.

By no means is my guide complete. I haven't even covered the punter battle and how moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line could impact it, but I have to save something for next week. What are you most looking forward to watching in tonight's game?