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Preseason Flashbacks: Evaluating Texans' Starters in Saints Game

The Houston Texans' victory over the New Orleans Saints Saturday night showcased their potent offensive attack and shiny, new pass rush. With Andre Johnson and Arian Foster back in the lineup, the first team offense was able to rack up 283 yards and 24 points in the first four possessions while Wade Phillips' new defense racked up four sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception. It would be easy for many fans to walk away from that game satisfied with the current state of the Texans. Us Battle Red Blog fans, however, are not so easily sated. Let us see the teeth on that gift horse! That's why I went back and re-watched the game on my NFL Rewind service: to find the flaws and nuances that I missed Saturday night while I was moderating open threads, devising appropriate drinking games and reveling in nostalgic touchdown dances.

Although this was only the second preseason game, most of the first half featured the first teams from the Saints and the Texans (especially the Texans). That usually makes the first half of a preseason game sort of a decent barometer of what we can expect for the beginning of the regular season. However, since the Saints and Texans meet again in Week 3 of the regular season, we have to wonder how much of each teams' playbook was on display. Kubiak and Phillips have reiterated that the defense still has packages to implement, but they are waiting until the defensive personnel masters the ones currently in place. I'm sure the Saints kept some of their cards off the table as well. With that said, there was plenty of first team action to evaluate which is where I'm going to focus my review. Take the jump and I'll share my preseason flashbacks of the first half of the Saints game.

The first possession saw the Saints push the Texans down the field with ease until Drew Brees fumbled the ball in the red-zone and Mario Williams recovered it. In retrospect, I should have included Antonio Smith in the "Star of the Game" post-game poll. He forced the fumble and that seemed to spark a fire in the defense and shifted the momentum of the game. I think putting Earl Mitchell in for Shaun Cody at NT had a lot to do with Smith making the play. The first eight or nine plays saw Cody pushed around by the Saints' center, Olin Kreutz (he even pancaked Cody on the sixth play of the game with ease). This allowed the left guard, Carl Nicks, to help out with Antonio Smith or Connor Barwin or alternately, allowed the C to take on a LB while the LG dealt with Cody.

The Saints dominated the middle until Mitchell came in and kept the center and the LG busy. While he didn't get any tackles or QB pressure himself, he tied up the C and the LG almost every play when he was in the game. I'm not exactly sure when Mitchell entered the game at NT during that first series because my NFL Preseason recording has a glitch after play #8 when Quin was flagged for the hug, I mean, hold. (Maybe Cody's poor play caused a glitch in the NFL matrix and Wade had no choice but to make the switch.) I seem to be missing a play, but Mitchell was in for the next snap I saw, which was second and five I think (around the Texans' 15 yard line at least nine plays into the drive). Mitchell got pushed pretty hard by the C and the LG his first play and the Saints ran up the middle for four yards, but at least he was getting doubled off the line. (Cody was getting pushed around by the C or LG alone usually.)

The next play was third and one and Mitchell attacked the C off the snap, preventing him from taking off upfield to block an ILB like he did on the first play of the game. During that first play, the Saints C fired past Cody and took on ILB Xavier Adibi, who ran up on the line before the snap. That allowed the FB to take Brian Cushing head on and spring RB Pierre Thomas into the secondary for a fourteen yard gain. This time, the center was occupied with Mitchell and the LG tried to help him...but fell down (true story). The FB was forced to deal with Adibi (which he did with aplomb, I should add) and Cushing was able to bring RB Mark Ingram down instead of the secondary. They still gave up another six or so yards and a first down, but it was at least an improvement from Cody's play and a sign of things to come.

Third time's a charm? Mitchell did the same thing on the next play. This allowed Antonio Smith a clear path to Brees after he schooled the LT (Jermon Bushrod) one-on-one. The TE (Jimmy Graham) was busy with Connor Barwin, and the LG was busy helping the C with Mitchell. Smith grabbed Brees and caused the fumble that Mario recovered (after a tip by Barwin sent it his way). Smith made a great play but he needed his teammates to help him get the sack and forced fumble. Mitchell may not have dominated in the middle, but at least he kept the Saints from dominating it. As MDC so astutely pointed out yesterday, Cody's play is hurting his teammates and holding them back. Mitchell may not ever rival Dallas' Jay Ratliff, but at this point he is head and shoulders above Cody.

For the first time this season, the Texans' offense took to the field with Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. The offense looked pretty damn flawless on the first four possessions and Kubiak's use of James Casey was brilliant. I'm not sure if he's now a TE or a FB or a HB. Maybe he's a Full-TE-back. Maybe I need to re-read MDC's awesome game-day post about James Casey and his new role in this offense. Early in the game, Casey lined up as a FB, then moved to TE to slip out for short passes. I'm sure this will help confuse defenders this season. After a few completions to Foster, Casey and Johnson, Foster rushed for a TD on his second carry. Matt Schaub was sharp, completing his first seven pass attempts.

I doubt it was a coincidence that the Texans offense worked much better with Foster and Johnson than it did without them against the Jets. An odd, dropped pass notwithstanding, Andre showed that it will take more than a compound finger dislocation to keep him from his All-Pro form. 100 yards on four receptions in the first half may seem incredible for most WRs in the NFL, but it was just another day at the office for 'Dre. I know he should have been in the post-game "Star of the Game" poll, too (but then no one else would have had a chance). Foster's 47 yards on five carries and two rushing TDs in the first half suggested 2010 was no fluke. He showed that great vision and speed while making great open field moves and breaking arm tackles like a pterodactyl. I thought he was going to win the post-game "Star of the Game" poll for sure, but he only came in third. (Instead of detailing the Texans first team dissection of the Saints defense, I'm going to focus more on the defenses breakdowns and successes.)

To start the Saints' second possession, Cody actually got penetration (he was unblocked at the line) and pursued Brees. However, Brees was just setting up a middle screen and reeled in Cody like a 300 pound bass. Just as Cody was thinking sack, Brees dumped the ball off over his head and Pierre Thomas rumbled for 15 yards. In defense of Cody, he wasn't the only one fooled on that play, and he almost tipped a Brees pass that Mario almost intercepted a few plays later. Then again, what was he doing out there? He was lined up at RDE on that pass play, yet he was pushed out to the far, right edge instead of rushing the QB. If you thought Cody was bad at NT, watch him play DE.

Speaking of being unconventional, Antonio Smith cracked me up on the next play. He tackled RB Darren Sproles and wouldn't let him slip out for a middle screen pass on third down. After throwing the ball away, Brees went apoplectic and lobbied the officials for a defensive holding call to no avail. Not sure why they didn't call it, because it looked pretty obvious when I watched it again. Saints coach Sean Payton even called a timeout to discuss the non-call with the officials. As he did on the play where he forced a fumble, Disrupticon showed he's a crafty veteran and found another way to halt the Saints as they drove down the field.

The next Texans drive showed more reason to believe the offense will be even better in 2011 than 2010. Schaub used his picture-perfect bootleg to open the drive with a 42-yard completion to Johnson. Two plays later, Foster danced 28 yards through the Saints defense into the end zone. Saints safety Paul Oliver was left grasping at thin air when Foster put a move on him in the open field to get into the end zone. Offense working as intended, so let's get back to the less impressive improving defense:

Side note: What NT? I noticed Phillips interchanged the defensive linemen and OLBs more this game than the first one. I pondered the use of OLBs as DEs the other day as I tried to figure out the 53-man roster. Do you carry less defensive linemen when your OLBs also play DE? While I expected to see Mario and Barwin at DE frequently, I did not expect to see Cody out there. The other NTs (Mitchell, Guy Miller and Scooter Berry) were used the same way as well. I just checked the mothership's depth chart and noticed there are no NTs on the team apparently. Cody, Mitchell and Miller are listed as DTs and Scooter Berry as a DE. I'm sure many of you are laughing at me and thinking, "Of course there's no NTs on the Texans' roster! How did you not know that already?" Well, we do have people like Cody and Mitchell lining up at the 1-tech spot on the right side a lot (on the center's left shoulder- this post sums up tech jargon nicely) but they are usually flanked on both sides with at least two other defenders at the line of scrimmage. (That's quite different from most 3-4 defenses in the NFL and why I think it's really a 5-2, but who cares?)

If NTs are really just DTs that are also used as DEs, and the DEs can play DT, why don't we just call them defensive linemen and see where Wade puts them? If that's the case, I don't see any reason for Cody to be on this roster. Why wouldn't Wade simply take the best 6 or 7 linemen he has (which surely cannot include Cody) and slide them around as he sees fit. I think that's what Bum would do. ("What Would Bum Do?" should be the next internet/football meme.)

J.J. Watt was moved around the most in the Saints game, lining up at the 5-tech (OT's outer shoulder) and 3-tech spots (OG's outer shoulder) on the left and right sides during the first half. I don't know if Phillips is trying to test him at each spot or actually plans to move him around that much, but Watt seems up to the task. For example, I really liked the four man front (nickel package) when it consisted of Mario at LDE, Smith at LDT, Watt at RDT and Barwin as RDE. Not just because it was Cody-less, but also because it allowed Watt to shine. The Saints' next drive (the last one for Brees and the Saints' first team offense) started very similar to the first two, with Cody at NT and the Saints gaining big chunks of yards: a 19 yard completion and a 7 yard run up the middle. This brought up second and three. Mitchell came in for Cody at NT. Barwin got after Brees and he threw an incomplete pass. Wade sent in the nickel package, which included the aforementioned four man DL lineup for third down. That four man front got pressure and Watt batted down Brees' pass with authority. Unfortunately, that same nickel package gave up a three yard pass on fourth and three...barely- the Saints got the first down by the nose of the football. After giving up 24 yards on two plays, the defense only gave up three yards total on the three following plays (once Cody was safely on the sidelines).

The next play ended with a short gain by Saints RB Mark Ingram and an Alabama/LSU smack-down. Well, Kareem Jackson's tussle with Saints' WR Devery Henderson was more like posturing but Henderson struck KJax's facemask a couple of times and got a personal foul call. Way to help your starting QB's last chance to score in the game, Devery. Then again, Brees hit a wide-open Robert Meacham (WR) for a 43 yard completion on the next play (guess who was back in at NT.) Luckily for Jason Allen (who pulled a KJax and fell down on the coverage), Meacham stumbled as he made the catch and went out of bounds around the five yard line. That gave Allen a chance for some redemption and he took advantage. He tackled RB Mark Ingram for a short gain on the next play. On second and goal, he defended a pass nicely and Glover Quin stopped RB Darren Sproles just short of the goal line on third down. It could've been a nice goal line stand, but the Saints went for it on fourth down and Ingram got in...or would have, had the Saints not called a timeout first. So, Ingram ran it in again after the timeout. Well, at least it was a nice goal line stand for three downs.

The Texans trotted Schaub and the first team offense (sans Foster) out for another possession, so Ben Tate could take his turn at RB with the first team offense. And he played like he belonged there. As most of you know, he picked up 95 yards on 9 carries and a rushing TD. Even though Tate ran like a pro, the Saints were finally able to keep Schaub and company out of the end zone on their third possession. The first team offense had to settle for a 49 yard, Neil Rackers field goal. (You may have noticed I'm skipping the special teams again. They were bad and the return game was horrible, but I'm focused on the first teamers for this post. I suspect we won't see anything like our "first team" special teams until the last preseason game.)

Enter the Texan-killer, Chase Daniel: Coach Payton decided to bench his first team offense before Kubiak did. If I had Chase Daniel as my backup QB and I was playing the Texans, I would too. Speaking of backups, LB Tim Dobbins was in with mostly first teamers when the Saints second team offense took the field. While Dobbins seemed decent against the run in the Jets game, he was left in the dust by TE Jimmy Graham on Daniel's first play for a nineteen yard completion. I wonder if Dobbins was supposed to get help on that, because it seemed like a huge mismatch. Thankfully, Daniel handed it off to RB Chris Taylor on the next play for a five yard gain. Things didn't go so well on the next snap.

It was second and five at the Saints' 44 yard line and Phillips called a base 5-2 defense formation. The front five (Mario at WOLB, Tim Jamison at LDE, Mitchell at NT, Cody at RDE and Barwin at SOLB) got almost no pressure on Daniel. Mario was the only one who even came close to him before Daniel unloaded a bomb to rookie WR Joseph Morgan for a TD. The rest of them either got rolled by the Saints second team blockers or bit on Daniel's very, un-Oscar-worthy play-action. So much for the pass rush saving the day on this one.

Let's move on to the secondary on the play. Well, we'll do the best that the NFLN camera angles will allow. Yes, Kareem Jackson was back there and it sure looked like Morgan was his man when he left the line of scrimmage. However, as soon Morgan got to KJax, he just let him go. On one hand, it looked like KJax misread and played underneath on the out route while Manning didn't cover Jackson's mistake soon enough. On the other hand, it looked like he was supposed to read the deep route Morgan was taking and let the safety handle it. So, was one of our prized free agent acquisitions and first-ever real safety to blame?

Was Danieal Manning burned? On the replay it looks like it, but I'm not so sure the blame is all on him. I wish I had access to some better angles, but I saw one end zone shot that made me doubt the latter theory. It looks like KJax just turns towards the sideline and doesn't pick anyone else up. I did notice a RB slip into the flat on KJax's side of the field right before Daniel released the pass (on another angle), but he was far from KJax, even by KJax's cushiony standards. I just don't know. Maybe Phillips has designed his secondary with KJax's lack of "deep speed" in mind and has told KJax to let the safeties (or anyone else available) take those "deep routes". I hope that's not the case, because I think a corner with speed would be better than some kind of zone system that facilitates those kinds of completions. If it is as simple as Manning getting burned, I'm confident he is a better player for the experience and will learn from it. If KJax misread the route, I'm not confident of anything. Was anyone else bothered by the fact that our defense still had quite a few "starters" on the field when the Saints' second team rolled them for that TD?

Re-enter the Juggernaut: The Texans' first team offense (or the Juggernaut as one of the Saints' local announcers referred to them) took the field for a fourth time, still with Ben Tate and still moving the ball almost at will through the air and on the ground. This drive featured a rare dropped pass from Andre Johnson that broke Schaub's string of completions at seven. It's ok, because Schaub called his number again and 'Dre made the catch for a big gain and a first down on the next play. Schaub is cool like that. Speaking of cool, Jacoby Jones had a nice run after the catch on a quick, hitch pass on the next play for another first down.

Schaub fell down into a fetal position for his only sack of the game on the next play; Saints DE Turk McBride was credited with the sack. After an eight yard rush by Tate, the Texans faced third and six on the Saints' 12 yard line. Johnson saved the day with his fourth catch of the night inside the Saints five yard line for first and goal, just before the two-minute warning. Ben Tate bounced through a hole right up the middle untouched (like particles!) for a TD on the next play. He then performed either the worst TD dance of all time, a touching tribute to Billy "White Shoes" Johnson or a cultural reference to "The Little Giants" movie, depending on who you ask. One thing for sure, it concluded the first team offense's time in the game with a humorous exclamation point.

Re-enter the Texan-killer: We got to see Saints QB Chase Daniel run the two-minute drill...wheee! It wasn't as fun as it should have been. Mainly because of that BS call on Glover Quin on the first play of the series: "Leading with his helmet against a defenseless player". I've re-watched that play over and over and cannot wrap my head around the call. Quin clearly made an effort to lead with his shoulder and shifted his head away from Sproles as he timed his hit perfectly to break up the pass to the RB. These rules are getting ridiculous. (But Quin did deserve that holding call in the first quarter...actually, he deserved mugging charges for that one.)

Wade chose to mix some starters and backup DBs in a dime package (six defensive backs) with that four man front of Williams, Smith, Watt and Barwin. (Speaking of DB-heavy packages, I was surprised I didn't see Brandon Harris in the nickel or the dime packages. Maybe I'm wrong about Harris getting that starting nickel job. Is he injured?) I assume Wade was predicting a pass-heavy, two-minute drill from Daniel...or maybe he just didn't want to see another bomb to Morgan. Either way, we should thank the Saints for exposing our dime package's vulnerability to the run. Sproles ran for over 15 yards and a first down two plays later. Smith almost had Sproles at the line of scrimmage and Quin and Troy Nolan both missed tackles as he headed into the secondary. The good news? Barwin had enough hustle, conditioning and speed to chase down Darren Sproles from behind.

Wade subbed Jesse Nading for Williams at LDE and Bryan Braman for Barwin at RDE, but maintained a dime package for the next play. The fresh legs didn't get much pressure on Daniel, but I guess it was enough to convince him to throw into double coverage down field. (Nading got closest to Daniel before he released the pass.) Allen and Manning had Saints' WR Montez Billings well covered and Allen got to knock another pass away. That brought up third and ten with a minute and seven seconds left in the half.

Just as I was starting to think this was a second team defense (and I could end this post!), Wade subbed Mario back in for Nading at LDE and Barwin for Braman at RDE. He kept the dime package though. It seems Wade likes a heavy four-man DL rotation with six DBs during two-minute drills. Mario and Smith stunted and got pressure on Daniel and forced him to overthrow Saints' WR Jarred Fayson on the sideline. Good thing he was overthrown, because Fayson was wide open. Guess who was supposed to be covering Fayson, but couldn't keep up with him? I'll give you a hint--think "lacks deep speed". KJax might not have been able to cover Fayson, but he was able to help knock Bum Phillips down on the sidelines at the end of that play. So what if he lacks deep speed? KJax can pick fights with hot-headed WRs and knock down old men (if they trip over bags stashed behind them.) Either way, that forced the Saints to punt.

Kubiak sent in the second team offense led by Leinart after Jakespeare fair caught the punt with only 59 seconds on the clock. (I know I was only going to cover the first teams, but I might as well finish the half.) It looked like Kubiak told Leinart to hand it off to Tate and run out the half. Kubiak must have forgotten to tell the second-year RB, because Tate rumbled for 43 yards and ran out of bounds with 50 seconds still on the clock, "untouched again!" as the Saints' local announcer exclaimed on the NFLN replay. (I think Dr. Tillman said particles don't like being touched.) With 50 seconds on the clock and the ball on the Saints' 43 yard line, the Texans decided to try for another score. Leinart completed two passes to get them to the 20 yard line. He threw an incompletion on the next play, but the Saints were called for defensive holding. Leinart and the second teamers took a couple of shots at the end zone before settling for a 34 yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds on the clock. Although Neil Rackers was perfect on field goals under 40 yards last season, he missed his first kick of the preseason.

The Saints took a knee to end a half dominated by the Texans' first team offense. While far from being the finely tuned machine that is the offense, the Texans' defense continued to get pressure on the QB and got very lucky during this game with turnovers. It's tough to give a final grade to Wade's defense, because they are still installing packages and deciding who is going to do what and when. Instead, I find myself worried about particular players who don't seem to belong with the first team. I've already named names like Jackson and Cody and told you how they failed Saturday night, but I could also include our ILBs on my worry list. Speaking of ILBs, why were they so often showing blitz and playing at the line of scrimmage? It seemed to really make the defense vulnerable to the run. Although, I must admit that Cushing brought pressure on the QB the few times I saw him blitz. What did you see from the first teamers in the first half on Saturday night that made you hopeful and what made you horrified?