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2016 Houston Texans Preseason Notebook (Week 1): 38 Thoughts From Texans-49ers

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I may not be John Harris just yet, but I’ve got some notes of my own on Houston’s first actual football game of the year.

Houston Texans v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It took a few days longer than I would have wanted due to spending most of this week unpacking boxes (moving sucks), but I have finally finished taking notes on the Texans’ first preseason game of the year. Overall, this was a very uneven performance both offensively and defensively. The only reason why the Texans won is because Tom Savage is clearly a better backup quarterback than Thad Lewis or Jeff Driskel. Even then, this was still a close game for most of the evening. The defense could not tackle, the offense could not consistently run the ball, and special teams almost fumbled away three separate possessions. As you may have guessed, this team still has a lot of things to clean up before they will be even close to ready for the regular season.

And with that, here are my real-time notes that were taken while watching the game.

1. On Lamar Miller’s first run of the day that went for 14 yards, the real heroes of the play were Xavier Su’a-Filo and Will Fuller. Both of them threw excellent blocks at the point of attack, with Su’a-Filo in particular crushing his man as the pulling blocker. Fantastic work.

2. Brock Osweiler’s first pass attempt was not a bad decision, but he did miss on the throw itself in my opinion. He wanted DeAndre Hopkins on a back shoulder fade against man coverage – which I agree with as the read, by the way – but he just left the ball a bit too far up field and didn’t put it in a great spot for Hopkins to box out his defender. Again, the decision was correct, but the throw was off.

3. Ignore Spencer Tillman’s comments about Will Fuller being "wide open" when Osweiler decided to throw it to Braxton Miller on Houston’s first third and long opportunity of the day. There was a high safety sitting on Fuller’s 9-route the entire way. He was not even close to open. To be honest, giving Miller a shot at it was not a terrible idea when he had a step on his defender over the middle. The catch would have been a very difficult one, but it sure had a better chance of being completed than lofting up a deep ball to a clearly-bracketed Will Fuller.

4. And speaking of Fuller, my goodness, he has some wheels. There are players that clock fast and players that play fast, and Fuller might play faster than any young wideout I’ve ever seen in a Texans uniform…and that includes Trindon Holliday. This dude eats cushion for breakfast.

5. Carlos Hyde ripped straight through the middle of the Texans’ defense for a big gain on the first play of San Francisco’s second drive, and that falls squarely on both Benardrick McKinney and Max Bullough. Both of them were cheating their respective B-gaps from their inside linebacker positions rather than reading and scraping as the play developed. If they had just remained patient rather than trying so hard to "out-guess" the offense, they would have been in a better position to make a tackle and limit Hyde’s damage. Christian Covington also needs to do a better job of stacking and shedding to stick his nose in there when he is given a one-on-one opportunity like that. He needs to cover for his linebackers just as much as they need to cover for him.

6. On the very next play, Bullough left Andre Hal out to dry on a zone coverage concept. Bullough assumed that Vance McDonald was running a deeper route past his zone, but instead of getting depth and turning his head to the quarterback to get eyes on the ball, he sprinted out to a hitching Bruce Ellington in the slot. Yet again, he’s guessing too much. As soon as Bullough got to his marker at the edge of his zone, he needed to get his hips square to the line of scrimmage, get depth underneath McDonald, and track Gabbert’s eyes to put himself in a position to undercut the throw. Instead he was locked in on Ellington from start to finish and took himself right out of position to help Andre Hal underneath. McDonald would go on to move the chains on a simple in-route over the middle. Mike Vrabel won’t like that on film, that’s for sure.

7. Christian Covington did a hell of a job crashing down on the back side of a zone run when he forced the fumble that would eventually be returned for a touchdown by John Simon. He never let the right tackle get a clean shot at his chest; as a result, he basically had a free run straight to the ball. It pays off to have that kind of quickness as a big man in the middle.

8. Kevin Johnson might not be that big, but you can tell he loves contact. He had zero hesitation taking on Blaine Gabbert’s big frame out in space one on one. When he did finally make the tackle, he did so with uncommon aggression for a cornerback. That’s the same fearlessness we saw from him as a rookie, and I’m happy to report that it has not gone away.

9. Devon Still looked stout in those first few drives against the Niners’ first team offense. I think he has a real shot to see some significant playing time as a 5-technique defensive end in base packages and as a 1-technique nose tackle in sub packages. The pass rush isn’t really there from what I’ve seen so far, but I suppose penetration and interior pressure aren’t really "his game" in the first place. He is in Houston to stop the run, and that is what he has been doing.

10. Whitney Mercilus was the best player in the Texans’ front seven in this game, and it wasn’t particularly close. He generated pressure off the edge, did a great job making plays against the run as the "read man" on zone read runs from San Francisco, and just seemed to be near the ball on every single snap. He’s gotten so good at using his power and leverage to overcome his slight deficiencies in pure vertical explosiveness. If he keeps playing like this, he has a great chance to lead this team in sacks in 2016 (assuming J.J. Watt misses significant time to start the season, of course).

11. Lamar Miller has got serious speed for a 220 pound running back. If he gets clear to the second level, there might only be a handful of linebackers in the entire league that have a realistic shot at running him down in the open field.

12. The acquisition of Jeff Allen is going to be a really, really good thing for Houston’s run game. He’s thick and powerful, obviously, but his hand usage is really solid as well. Allen is always looking to control the frame of his man and let his lower body do all the heavy lifting – a hugely important aspect of run blocking that seems to gets lost on a lot of guards these days. If only I could say the same thing for Greg Mancz, who just got ragdolled by Quinton Dial on Lamar Miller’s second carry of his second series.

13. On the play where Osweiler was sacked by Ahmad Brooks, it seems as though he wanted to throw a quick hitch to Fuller against bump and run coverage, but Fuller had yet to actually hitch on his route. Osweiler must have expected Fuller to run to a much shallower depth than he actually did, because he immediately moved on to try to find someone else and get the ball out. Unfortunately for Osweiler, before he even had a chance to move to another read, he had Brooks in his face (thank you, Kendall Lamm).

14. I do not really understand the decision to throw five yards short to Braxton Miller on third and nine when you’ve got DeAndre Hopkins one on one outside and Will Fuller presumably coming open over the middle on a dig route. I obviously cannot see the whole field without the All-22 camera angle (which is not available in the preseason), but Osweiler’s body language in the pocket suggested that he was locked in on Miller from the start. That was…let’s say puzzling, to say the least.

15. Kevin Johnson seems to make it his mission in life to allow zero yards after catch. He closes on underneath passes so quickly and tackles with such physicality that quick hitches are almost pointless to his side of the field.

16. Covington flashed some nice power on a T-E stunt to collapse the pocket, but unfortunately while doing so, he was working the wrong shoulder of left tackle (inside half instead of outside half) and lost contain. That allowed Thad Lewis to escape out the backdoor and scramble for a first down.

17. Corey Moore missed a crucial tackle on a cutback by Shaun Draughn that he then took for 15 yards and another first down. Moore did not collapse down far enough as the read man on the play; as a result, he put himself in a really difficult position to actually finish the tackle. By the way, at the end of this run, Andre Hal got absolutely demolished by Draughn in the open field. He’ll be feeling that one all week.

18. Tony Washington, Brandon Dunn, and Christian Covington missed three straight tackles on Thad Lewis on the very next snap. I can already tell that this is going to be a point of emphasis all this week before Saturday’s game against the Saints.

19. Andre Hal did a really bad job on his backside fill responsibilities on Mike Davis’ 44-yard scamper. It looked as though he saw the cutback really late and gave himself no time to react in space. He never even touched Davis. Were it not for Corey Moore running Davis down from behind, that might have been a touchdown.

20. Max Bullough struggled to get off blocks a little bit in the first quarter. He’s got to be able to deliver a quick punch and scrape to the edge rather than getting hung up inside on guards and centers. If he can’t get outside cleanly off the snap, teams are going to exploit his weakness for huge gains out on the edges.

21. Xavier Su’a-Filo, who weighs 310 pounds, somehow just got literally tossed through the air by the 220-pound Ray Ray Armstrong at the point of attack. On a related note, I have now decided that the laws of physics are no longer valid.

22. Lamar Miller is a really slippery back. He broke multiple arm tackles in the first quarter, and he seems to have excellent balance after contact. When Miller gets free into the second level, it’s a hell of task to try to bring him down on your own.

23. Jaelen Strong finally made an appearance in the second quarter, and I’m pointing that out because it could potentially mean that Will Fuller is already this team’s number two receiver. I had maintained all offseason that Strong had the inside track to the number two job because of his experience in this very complex offensive system, but if Fuller is seeing this many snaps with the starters, it could indicate that he is picking up O’Brien’s offense much quicker than anticipated.

24. On a fourth down early in the second quarter, Osweiler yet again had Hopkins one on one outside and yet again he opted to throw it short to Braxton Miller on a quick out route to the sticks. It fell incomplete due to some great coverage by Chris Davis. My problem with Osweiler’s decision making thus far is that I feel like he did not take advantage of his best weapon often enough despite San Francisco essentially daring him to do so. Brock had one of the best jump ball receivers in the NFL sitting right there on the boundary for an easy back shoulder throw, and for whatever reason he just never pulled that trigger. Hopefully those two can get together in the film room this week and come to an understanding that a fade to Hopkins in a one on one situation is always going to be the best read on the play. Always.

25. The Texans’ second team defense missed an insane number of tackles. Nobody seems to be able to take a good angle. Tony Washington in particular is really struggling to stay on his feet and wrap up ball carriers.

26. Jaelen Strong seems to be hitting his second gear three steps faster than a season ago. His feet are quicker to break down in his cuts as well. Strong still has that same long stride that he did as a rookie, but his sessions with "The Footwork King" have clearly helped him to refine his skills as a route runner.

27. Kenny Hilliard really runs hard between the tackles. I’m not sure if there is enough space for him on the 53-man roster with Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue, and Tyler Ervin already locking up the first three slots on the depth chart, but he has to be on the shortlist for that fourth running back spot. He’ll have to go through Jonathan Grimes first, though.

28. Will Fuller got annihilated by Dontae Johnson on his first career punt return. To his credit, he still hung on to the ball. Silver linings, I guess.

29. Jaelen Strong did a really nice job beating press coverage on Houston’s first drive of the second half, but unfortunately Tom Savage didn’t look his way. His noticeable increase in speed this year really helps him get over the top of corners if they miss that first jam. He could become a legitimate deep threat this season.

30. D.J. Reader had three straight positive plays on his first series of the third quarter. It was against backup offensive linemen, of course, but he held strong in the run game and got some push to the pocket in the pass game. I saw a little rip move on third and long as well. If he ever becomes a starter, I think he could become this defense’s version of Brandon Mebane; a squatty, powerful nose tackle who does the dirty work in the middle and lets the stars get all the glory. I like those kinds of players.

31. Tom Savage’s ball to Braxton Miller on that deep out route was an absolute beauty. He needed to hit the inside of a coffee can to complete that pass, and that’s exactly what he did. Miller showed excellent hands and body control to haul that thing in as well. Perfection all around.

32. Tyler Ervin did not have a ton of success on the ground. To me, the biggest reason for that was the 49ers’ front seven. In particular, linebacker Nick Bellore was all over the place for the Niners making plays. He seemed to make it his mission in life to never let Ervin get to the edge.

33. If Brock Osweiler does happen to get injured and needs to miss some time, this team should be just fine with Tom Savage at the helm. He’s going to start somewhere in this league – you can count on that. It probably won’t be for Houston, but it will be somewhere.

34. Stephen Anderson is already the best receiving tight end on this roster by a considerable margin. He’s a terrific athlete, and I have yet to see a linebacker or safety on the Niners defense cover him effectively. Anderson’s diving touchdown catch was awesome, by the way. The kid’s got a nice pair of hands on him.

35. This game has convinced me that the Texans’ offensive line is dangerously thin. Outside of Chris Clark, I don’t think I can say that I have any level of confidence in any of the backup linemen. Their run blocking has been…uh…less than adequate.

36. Josh Lenz has a deadly combination of sure hands and yards-after-catch ability. I’m not sure if there is a spot for him on the roster considering how deep the Texans are at receiver, but he certainly has an intriguing skill-set as a slot receiver and gadget player. If Houston does keep six wide receivers, Lenz has a legitimate shot to make the team.

37. Akeem Hunt is not a particularly strong runner between the tackles, but man is he slippery as a receiver. He and Tyler Ervin are very, very similar players, so it remains to be seen if Bill O’Brien will keep both of them on the roster. If Hunt does stick on the team, that would give the Texans no fewer than three running backs who can catch the ball, and all of them run at least a 4.4 forty. Good luck covering that.

38. The Texans escaped the first week of the preseason with no major injuries to their core players, so I consider that the ultimate success. Hopefully their luck will continue this weekend against the Saints, who unfortunately have been hit hard by the injury bug as of late. No whammies, no whammies, no whammies…

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. What did you see as you watched the game last weekend? Do you disagree with any of my observations, or perhaps did you notice something that I did not? Sound off in the comments below and give us a list of your own thoughts, as well as what you will be looking for in Week Two.

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