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Texans-Panthers Preview: Five Things To Watch

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Matt Weston gives you five things to watch for in Houston’s first preseason game of 2017.

Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

I dreamt I went home to West Texas on a highway that was underground. As I divulged earlier, I ain’t watching this game live. I’m a busy boy tonight, with things to write and a Friday night drive to prepare for. Despite this, despite me being a truant and ignoring bad football from many players who may never play a regular season professional down, I’ll end up watching the game eventually, thanks to the internet and the magic of condensed game broadcasts. Even though I will be watching Texans-Panthers later on a 35 minute cut, it doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the game at all. Here’s what I’ll be looking for once I’m back to my usual reality on Sunday afternoon.

1.) Tom Savage Versus Deshaun Watson Versus Carolina Panthers

I don’t believe Watson is going to be the Week One starter. I don’t think he’ll be the Week Six starter, even. It’s Savage Central for now. Houston probably has some super-smart plan on how they want to bring Watson along, and then they may actually give him a shot once they are out of the nightmare that is the beginning of their schedule.

That being said, we have seen what we need to see for Watson to play sooner rather than later. He was praised by everyone. All of the reports have been that he’s the most advanced rookie quarterback in the history of the league. He works hard and is a student of the game. He’s a natural leader. He already has command of the offense, and he is just the sweetest. That first box is crossed off with a red-orange crayon. Now here comes the next part: How each quarterback performs against an opposing defense.

When Savage is playing, I want to see accuracy. We know he has arm talent. He’s big, tall, and strong. But where he places the ball is something that has eluded all of the big tall versions of Houston’s quarterbacks over the last three seasons. More importantly, I’m interested in how quickly Savage gets rid of the ball. He’s taken some brutal sacks in his short stint on the professional level. Looking one way while a free blitzer explodes into him from the other. He doesn’t see the field quickly and holds the ball forever, like someone trying to make it to the Grand Canyon in a single day. It’s Savage’s fourth year in this offense. He’s either going to get it or he isn’t.

When the rookie is out there, I’m just looking for competency. It’s a big day for the young man. First trip to a NFL stadium. First kind of-sort-of professional snaps. Showing that he knows how to run an offense and leading a solid drive or two would be perfect. Also, I want to see Watson throw that back shoulder fade he’s so good at, and put some hot sauce onto those tight short to intermediate throws to push it past coverage.

We all probably know what’s going to end up happening regarding the quarterbacks and the regular season opener against the Jaguars. But the future is a snow globe, not a palm, this time of year. Regardless, it will be a sight to behold to watch both of these quarterbacks in this first preseason game.

2.) J.J. Watt Is Back

I missed him. I missed him so much. We’ve watched Watt do things from the defensive line position that I don’t think we’ll ever see another human do for three hours on a minimum of sixteen weeks of the year for the past six years. We’ve seen him pick-six E.J. Manuel and Andy Dalton, get down on a single knee to take on two blockers and explode past the man who stays for the tackle once the other heads to the second level, recover fumbles no one else has ever had, bat passes like Manu Ginobli, and swim over backside guards to make impossible tackles for a loss.

Then, last year he was out of our lives for sixteen weeks (including the bye). I didn’t know what to do during that time. I watched Jadeveon Clowney on run downs, scoured through the defense on passing downs, and drifted aimlessly when Houston’s offense headed back out there.

Now, J.J. Watt is back. This year, everything will be perfect and beautiful again. He’s going to play tonight. It doesn’t matter what he does or how much he plays. Whether he shows anything or not, if makes plays or not...it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that he is.

3.) Me-OW

Cam Newton is out. He had offseason shoulder surgery and Carolina doesn’t want to risk running him out there against the best front seven in the NFL. Even if that is true, Derek Anderson is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the National Football League and can still run the offense.

Carolina’s offense, in previous years, was all about running the ball in a variety of different ways, with and without Newton, making their runs look like their passes to catch defenses flexing in a public bathroom mirror, with Cam making some disgusting zipline intermediate to downfield throws. Then the Panthers’ offensive line got mangled. Newton was demolished in ways that were hard to watch last year. Then Carolina drafted some quicker running backs and wide receivers.

From this swampy point in time, it seems like Carolina is going to run a lot of the same fakes, sweeps, powers, keepers, and options they have before, except this time Newton will probably be more of a decoy and less of a runner. The passing game will probably make a more dramatic change. The Panthers will probably follow the rest of the league and work on getting the ball out quicker, out in space, to shifty skill players. This way they can control the ball, complete easier passes, and protect Newton from blockers like Matt Khalil. Carolina drafted Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to take take pitches, catch screens, and then run through fields of green.

For Houston, this is the type of challenge that’s good for this defense. Houston was great at covering wide receivers and tight ends last year, but they were chewed up by running backs in the passing game. Last season they were 28th in DVOA when covering these types of receivers at 23.3%, and gave up an average of 41.6 yards a a game on 5.8 attempts. Benardrick McKinney became a force in 2016: a brute tackler, strong blitzer, and gap stuffer, but he struggled against covering running backs specifically. He had trouble keeping up in space and was attacked head on by New England in the divisional round with their pass-catching backs.

This year, McKinney and Brian Cushing will still have to cover backs at times. But now with the selection of Zach Cunningham, they may be able to get them off the field or remove them from having to cover receivers in space, depending on how they decide to roll out their sub packages. I’d love to see Cunningham cover backs out of dime or nickel formations to help fix one of Houston’s defensive flaws.

4.) Get Warmer, DeAndre Hopkins

I was miserable last year. Yet, as I slogged through the days, I don’t think I ever showed as much dismay on my face as Hopkins did last year. With [Name Redacted] at quarterback, Nuk was stuck running through bounced passes, overthrows, and checkdowns. He was miserable. He shook his head at the enclosed roof, looking for signs after passes landed at his feet. He snapped his helmet off and stared at his hands after three and outs continued to pile up. He looked like Andre Johnson in 2013 when he fought with Matt Schaub after losses and underthrown tosses.

Who knows what this year will bring? Hopkins has said that he likes Savage. He’s the quarterback and they get along great. It’s impossible for Hopkins not to like his quarterback as long as he gets it within the same galaxy, and so far it sounds like Savage has been able to do just that in practice. In a faux game, Hopkins gets the chance to start the year with minty breath and floss out last year’s plaque by taking on a bunch of no-named second year cornerbacks and Captian Munnerlyn on the outside.

5.) Carolina’s Front Seven

Thomas Davis. Luke Kuechly. Star Lotulelei. Charles Johnson. Mario Addison. Kawann Short. Vernon Butler. Shaq Thompson. Carolina’s front seven is just as impenetrable as Houston’s, and it has even more depth. They have the best coverage linebackers in the league. They can stop the run and rush the passer without stacking boxes or blitzing. They allow the Panthers to thrive without a secondary, giving them a short field and a short amount of time to cover.

For Houston’s janky offensive line, this is a fun day. They get some good tackle reps for all the spare parts they have laying around. Every tackle that plays will get to block some really good players for a really long time, with Tom Savage and a rookie quarterback around. Both Xavier Su’a-Filo and Jeff Allen will have to block some of the quickest linebackers in the league at the second level. Greg Mancz, Nick Martin, and whoever else plays center will be disgruntled having to go after Carolina’s grueling defensive tackles. And maybe we can see Lamar Miller break a tackle, or see Bill O’Brien call plays that actually take advantage of Miller’s skill set.

It doesn’t matter who wins tonight. It doesn’t matter how or if you watch. The only thing that matters is that football is starting and everything is almost right again.