The majority of preseason analysis is cute, empty, and downright meaningless. I can’t name a single player or team who wowed in the preseason, and continued to into the regular season, as some August landmark signifying the things that were to come. Ryan Mallett wasn’t a moster. LeStar Jean was a perennial. Bill O’Brien’s mock game super genius super cool offense existed on Iphone camera rolls, and Iphone camera rolls alone.
That being said, with so much new taking place for the Texans organization, and the roster in general, some of the glitter may have some luster once week one comes around. This is what I picked up on from last Saturday.
- Out of the 127 brush fires that led to an entire roster conflagration, Desmond King was my favorite. He’s a unique player, something that is hard to find in a league based around prototypes and roles. He’s a leg sweeping tackling, zone coverage ball hawking, punt returning, slot corner and overhang defender, who can do a wide variety of things, except for what is thought to be the most important aspect of the position—playing press man coverage. As long as King isn’t playing press man in the slot, and is doing what he’s better at, spilling the run, chasing and tackling, and reading the quarterbacks eyes, he’s a difference maker. Lovie Smith’s cover two defense should provide plenty of chances for this.
King played in the slot. Even when Houston went to Nickle packages they kept two linebackers on the field. He had a pass break up on third down, playing man coverage against a trips formation, and he wiggled inside of a slot wide receiver block to make a short run stop. His biggest play was in the kicking game when he took a punt back for 42 yards, the only Texans return man to offer something in this department.
Maybe later in the preseason we will see King play some Buffalo linebacker, instead of merely playing the star overhang defender. It was only a little bit, but King was a joyous and raucous to kick off his time in Houston.
- Smith’s defense was kind of fun to watch too. Houston looks slow—see the screen pass turned into a touchdown—but they were aggressive, and weren’t missing assignments. A different reality from last year. I enjoyed how they changed their depths at the line of scrimmage to defend the midzone, the combination of stunts and blitzes to create pressure in the center of the line of scrimmage, and the defensive line combinations that were used on the interior.
The big fear of this defense was already seen by an easy seam shot completed by Jordan Love. In this defense, the middle linebacker will typically carry the seam, to defend the gap between the safeties and the linebackers. The Texans currently deploy a ton of linebackers, but none of them have the acumen to carry out this role well. See Eric Kendricks, Fred Warner, Bobby Wagner, not Christian Kirksey.
The only hope is getting Justin Reid back at deep middle to narrow the gap and make this throw difficult. Lonnie Johnson Jr. is a right fielder and doesn’t know how to play the ball. For now, with linebackers like Kirksey, and Kamu Gruiger-Hill in this role, these throws are going to be wide open, and I’m expecting for it to be like this all season long.
- Chris Conley is the Texans second outside wide receiver. The only consistent passing game threat were comeback and curl routes ran by him. When Houston goes 11 personnel it’s going to be him, Brandin Cooks, and whoever wins the slot wide receiver battle-here’s to Keke Coutee over Alex Erickson.
- The biggest story coming out of this game was Davis Mills. From fist pumping and screeching in the draft room, to Saturday, it was about the same. Mills didn’t have the down to do down accuracy at Stanford to be a great quarterback, and it was seen again. Inward breaking passes were scattered all over the place. His feet were wonky after taking a kill shot, thanks to a Justin McCray blitz pickup miss, and he even missed an easy screen pass.
His arm is easy though. He’s at his best throwing towards the sideline. He can make throws from the opposite hash out to this direction. This idea will be dragged down by his freelance deep shots though. He left the pocket twice and heaved two incompletions to fettered wide receivers.
Quarterbacks don’t have to have perfect accuracy to be NFL starting caliber. Intelligence, and athleticism, can create plays to make up for the occasional ‘he wished he had that one back’. That’s the problem for Mills though. He doesn’t have these two traits either. The same feelings and play he showed in Stanford were here once again.
Don’t take this the wrong way. This is his first preseason game. I don’t think Mills is going to be anything more than a whatever backup quarterback, but this isn’t based on Saturday, just the entire body of his work. This is here mainly to temper expectations, and this bizarre idea that Mills somehow showed off a lot of promise last weekend. This Tyrod Taylor’s team. Just keep that doctor from Los Angeles away from Houston.
- Houston can’t run block. They haven’t been able to since 2015, when they won games because of their offensive line. Without Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard, the run blocking was a mess, but it was even with them on the field last season.
The Texans primarily ran midzone, and they couldn’t block it well again. They don’t peel off blocks well, understand head placement, and struggle at the second level. The first half was an atrocity.
They had more success on power run plays that acted as a counter to the 2.3 midzone yards per carry—I am an intellectual, I don’t pay for PFF’s premium stats, don’t look this up. It’s no different than last season so far.
You don’t want to see Taylor carrying the ball in the preseason, or in the regular season very much either. He was abhorrent on in his one start last year against Cincinnati as a runner. But this idea of the Texans running some Baltimore esque, power read run scheme looks to be silly, even though David Culley knows how it works. Get ready for more of the same midzone floundering.
Houston’s third string offensive line did block it better though. Hopefully we’ll see some rejuvenation with Tunsil and Howard back, and hopefully with Howard playing right tackle instead of guard. Hope is plentiful this time of year.
- Pharoah Brown is the only secondary blocker the Texans have signed who can actually block some. Year after year, they try out six offensive linemen, new fullbacks, and tight ends to add some oomph to the run game, and year after year it fails. This offseason Houston signed Ryan Izzo, David Quessenberry, who played fullback, and Antony Auclair to do the same. Aside from a Quessneberry open field block on a hapless defensive back, all three of them struggled at what they came here to do. The more things change the more they stay the same.
- Most NFL teams have understood how to field the running back position, by taking flyers on young players, and using picks past the third round to build out their room. The Texans are built different. They kept David Johnson around, who was suffocated on his one third and one rush attempt, and signed Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsey, and Rex Burkhead, a trio of players who were bad last season.
Their best running back was Scottie Phillips. A nasty stiff arm broke a big gain, he plowed his way despite poor blocking for a redzone touchdown, and he caught the ball surprisingly well. He’s an undrafted free agent from Ole Miss, who survived on the practice squad last season. Now, I don’t think Phillips is a running back number one, but the contract you pay him for his level of production, beats, let’s say, David Johnson at $4.7 million.
In a crowded running back room, I’m hoping Phillips can make it, and add some level of intrigue and potential, over the has beens the known knowns. Getting carries against the swashbuckling Tampa Bay front could seal his status with this team. For a run heavy offense, there’s a chance four backs can make the roster, opening the door for Phillips to be one of them.
- The pass protection didn’t have any problems against a Green Bay rush that goes four deep, with their four best pass rushers on the sideline. Even without Howard and Tunsil they held up. Maybe it’s the limitations of the screen, but I really enjoyed Charlie Heck’s pass sets at right tackle. He has a great bounce out of stance. The WWF leather elbow braces are straight from a Playstation Two. The stunts Green Bay ran were passed off well. The hands are a little off, and he was terrible at left tackle in North Carolina, but he has gotten better already at this side. He’s looking more like a swing tackle, than a swing tackle prospect.
- Vernon Hargreaves III is going to start at outside cornerback week one. He gave up two easy slant receptions in this one. There’s been no improvement. He’s going to give up 175 passing yards against D.J. Chark and Marvin Jones. What seemed like a terrible joke in February, is going to be a hilarious reality next month.
- Sorry Lonnie Johnson Jr. szn. The move from cornerback to safety was the right one, for a team that isn’t going to play cover three or cover four. Last season Johnson Jr. showed some propensity as a blitzer, and was a much better tackler. Without Justin Reid, as a deep middle safety, he was disoriented once again. He struggled to find the football with it airborne, the pursuit angles were messy, and recognizing and driving routes weren’t there, aside from a play that King broke up. It’s going to be hard for Houston to play cover two if they can’t exchange the safety roles in run fits, and if they can’t rely on him to play the deep middle half.
- In 2020 Bill O’Brien looked at this bottom ranked defense, and thought he was a healthy J.J. Watt and an Eric Murray away. He wasn’t. Murray not only signed a ridiculous contract, but was a Jack-Of-No-Trades. It was all bad. All of it.
He made two nice tackles in this game. That was pretty cool. You have to start somewhere.
- The biggest play made by a Texans defender was Jonathan Greenard dodging an offensive tackle with a leap-rip. It was similar to the move Yannick Ngakoue carries out year after year to pick up near double digit sack numbers. A Jaleel Johnson recovery capitalized his strip sack.
Greenard primarily played defensive end, along with Jacob Martin, who had the same problems—tackles keying on his outside rip and taking a deep pass set to overcome it—Derek Rivers, and Shaq Lawson. Of the four he was the only one to make a play. Even stranger, was seeing Lawson still getting reps well into the third quarter. Reports coming out of camp are that Whitney Mercilus is a step slow, never reclaiming that step he lost two years ago. Maybe Greenard can play his way into being an every down defender to start week one. At a minimum, he should be an occasional pass rusher, and isn’t a threat to miss the roster.
- For years we lambasted the all-field goal offense. Here it was already once again. Kai’imi Fairbairn made all four of his field goals, and was the difference maker until a Darius Jackson touchdown run ended it. David Culley, even in a preseason game, opted for the stereotypical kick instead of going for it. Get ready for more nauseating field goals. What is dead can never die.