10 Things We Learned from Houston Texans' OTAs
The second round of organized team activities (OTAs) for the Houston Texans concluded on May 30.
The biggest news revolved around the injury report. Arian Foster and his strained calf had his name added to the list, where he joined recovering starters Brian Cushing and Ed Reed, along with fringe players tight end Phillip Supernaw and defensive tackle Sunny Harris.
Not much was decided during those three days, but that does not mean nothing happened. It might take listening to every sound bite and reading each quote to make sense of what was going on. Upon closer inspection, there were more than a few things worth reporting.
OTAs Are Not Football
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According to Ben Tate, who is now the first-team running back, they are virtually meaningless. Via texans.com:
“It’s not really a big deal to me. No pads on, what is there to judge? It’s not football. I mean it’s not really a big deal to me. I know what I’m doing.”
This is just one player’s perspective. When compared to the six weeks of two-a-days in full pads that made up training camp decades ago, Tate may have a point.
Today’s coaches would say there is more to football than an endless series of collisions. OTAs allow rookies and veterans alike to practice their footwork, work on offensive and defensive techniques, review their playbooks and ramp up their overall conditioning.
There is a faction of former coaches who believe the lack of contact is why tackling is in decline. In the NFL of the past, those weeks of full speed drills were essential to mastering this lost art. The counter argument is those drills are why the league is being sued by thousands of player-litigants for the cumulative damage of all those impacts.
Is two weeks of full-contact work in training camp enough time for the Texans to prepare for some real football? The answers to these and many other questions will be revealed over the coming months.
Yates vs. Keenum Competition for Backup QB
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One of the standard lines of coach-speak uttered in the preseason is “Every position is up for grabs!” This cliché does not apply to the Texans’ depth chart at quarterback.
Matt Schaub is safely entrenched as the starter, and T.J. Yates will remain the backup unless he is physically unable to take the field. Both Yates and Case Keenum have caught the eye of Gary Kubiak, but have yet to swap places on the roster.
That makes this tweet from NFL: AroundTheLeague misleading at best:
Gary Kubiak said Tuesday that Case Keenum will have chance to unseat T.J. Yates for Texans backup QB spot.— NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) May 22, 2013
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk also misconstrued the nature of this battle when he discussed the possibility Gary Kubiak was showcasing Yates as trade bait. The truth was Matt Schaub was scheduled to take the day off, putting the No. 2 and No. 3 QBs at the helm of the first-string offense.
When the news gets slow, some will misread the landscape and turn a mound into a mountain. There is nothing to see here, folks, so everyone can just move along.
Brian Cushing Has Been Sorely Missed
When Adam Schein of NFL.com came up with his list of the NFL's most indispensable defensive players, his choice from the Houston Texans was not the incomparable J.J. Watt. It was their punishing inside linebacker who was lost for the year in Week 5.
The evidence presented by Schein was the Texans' slow but steady descent down the defensive rankings after Cushing was lost for the year. He was not expected to join in at OTAs and has spent his time on the sidelines working under the supervision of the training staff.
Cush’s workout regimen is legendary, as seen in the above video. He will make the most of whatever his current condition allows. Hopefully, he will be available by training camp.
Brandon Brooks Is Large and in Charge at Right Guard
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Zone blocking as practiced by the Houston Texans is not based on sheer power. It relies on footwork and agility, requiring coordination between the offensive linemen.
In most cases, massive physical specimens need not apply. Your feet have to be quick enough to rapidly alter your direction. That is why the selection of Brandon Brooks in the third round of the 2012 draft was so unusual.
His official weight of 346 pounds was up to 360 by the time he joined OTAs last season. Even with all that extra poundage, he showed the ability to “do the dance” this system demands.
He eventually worked himself down to 335 pounds, then worked his way into the lineup for a handful of snaps from Week 12 till the end of the year.
Brooks was at a slender 325 pounds for the start of OTAs and is poised to end the rotation at right guard. Former starter Antoine Caldwell was not re-signed in the offseason, and Ben Jones can now return to his natural position at center and offer some depth at guard.
If this pared-down battering ram can open holes as wide as his frame, the Texans’ running game could be in for a banner season.
Ryan Harris Is the Only Reliable Right Tackle
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If the season started today, Harris would be the only player with the experience and requisite health to man right tackle.
Derek Newton is still on the mend, with an unknown timetable for his return.
The other candidates are two rookies, Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry. Williams had his senior year at North Carolina cut short by a shoulder injury and was hurt again at the Texans’ rookie minicamp. Quessenberry has only played with the second team at OTAs and cannot be counted on to pull his weight in a live game.
That leaves Andrew Gardner as the only backup, and he has totaled fewer than 50 plays over his two NFL seasons. If Harris goes down before Newton recovers, look for fullback Greg Jones in a lot of strong right, offset-I formations. The man who plays right tackle will need someone to watch his back.
Brooks Reed Will Play Inside and Out
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Gary Kubiak had this to say about where Reed stands during the second week of OTAs:
Well, we’re not very flexible with him right now. He’s lining up inside and working inside. We think that’s important for his development, to get the reps there right now. Obviously, he can go back and play SAM any day, so that’s a good thing. (OLB) Brooks (Reed) is going to be a good player wherever we put him, whether inside or outside.
Since Brian Cushing is off working on his own, someone has to take his place at left inside linebacker for OTAs. Reed occasionally moved over into the Cushing role on passing downs in 2012 when Bradie James went to the sidelines.
This led to a lot of guesswork in the last few weeks about Reed’s assigned position. Could the former “Sam” LB handle the angles and tangle of blockers he would be dealing with on the inside?
The Texans’ version of the 3-4 defense as coached by Wade Phillips is closer to a 5-2 formation. Brett Kollmannon of the Battle Red Blog broke down the philosophy and many of the permutations in his treatise on the subject. If you have the interest, reading his analysis is definitely worth your time.
Kollmannon projects Reed into his usual assignment at left outside linebacker for the coming season. But Reed could also end up on the inside on short-yardage passing downs against quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
These two passers, along with a growing number of their peers, are just as likely to throw on 3rd-and-3 as pound the ball between the tackles. If both your ILBs are equally proficient against the run and pass, can drop into coverage or shoot the gap, then your team has the best of both worlds.
The Depth at Linebacker Is Shallow and Callow
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Sorry readers, but the rhyme needed “callow,” a synonym for “inexperienced,” to make it work.
We can all appreciate the shallow part. With Tim Dobbins MIA for OTAs, the Texans have had to rely on their most experienced outside linebacker to practice on the inside. There are three veteran ILBs under contract: Cushing, Dobbins and Darryl Sharpton. They have a combined 14 years in the NFL.
On the outside, it is hard to avoid labeling them as the “Kiddie Corps.” Reed, Bryan Braman, Whitney Mercilus, rookies Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams total five years as pro players. This amounts to very a neat average of one year’s experience per player. Yikes!
Their youth might not matter if the pass rush were not so dependent on pressure from the edge. The lack of production from this area killed the effectiveness of the secondary from Week 11 through the playoffs.
The best remedy is for at least one of the Kiddie Corps to prove he has first-round talent. This spotlight shines most on Mercilus, who was taken at No. 26 in the 2012 draft.
Braman has to take his intensity on special teams and turn it into a more strategic approach to the overall game. Williams and Montgomery must shorten their learning curves so they can be counted on come the playoffs.
Has the Curse of 370 Depreciated into the Curse of 351?
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Knowledgeable NFL fans understand the importance of running backs has faded over the last decade or so. This trend was confirmed in the latest draft when nary a one was selected in the first round. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, this has never happened.
The explanations surrounding this decline start with the emergence of the pass as the primary means for moving the ball. The discussion often turns to the short shelf life of the average running back.
When Arian Foster hit the turf with a non-contact injury on May 29, the issue of his workload in 2012 immediately jumped to the fore. By Week 11, he was on pace for exactly 400 carries by Week 17.
If Foster had hit this number, it would have been the sixth-highest total in league history. Due to down and distance considerations from that point on, his numbers fell until the playoffs.
By the close of the regular season, his count was 351 carries. Is that all it takes in the age of the depreciating halfback to incur the wrath of the curse?
This Curse of 370 has a well-documented history at Football Outsiders. The premise is that, in most cases, as soon as a player exceeds this number of carries in a single season, his career is headed downhill.
The data cited in the referenced article includes postseason work. Throw in the 54 carries for Foster from the Wild Card Game and divisional round game, and his total of 405 takes him well past the mark of the damned.
A calf strain is a minor injury when expertly treated and given sufficient rest. As a result, Foster will miss the remainder of OTAs and the mandatory minicamp. Will it be enough to reverse the curse?
Andre Johnson Is Gary Kubiak’s Obsession
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If you think Houston’s over-reliance on Andre Johnson should be reconsidered, think again.
Stephanie Stradley, the esteemed Texans Chick blogger with the Houston Chronicle, seems to think so:
She had the stones to ask Kubiak if targeting Andre 58.1 percent of the time was pushing the envelope a bit far. All it took was a look from the coach to turn his answer into a rhetoric glance:
Kubiak's facial expression to my q turned into words -> RT @davidmillican: This is ANDRE FREAKING JOHNSON guys. You give that guy the ball— Stephanie Stradley (@StephStradley) May 30, 2013
The Q&A session at the close of the week’s OTAs was already winding down when the question was posed. Ms. Stradley implies Gary's reaction indicated he had reached his limit for overly obvious queries.
It is a given Johnson will draw double coverage the vast majority of the time and still make the catch. Therefore, this should mean the other, younger receivers would draw the attention of a single DB.
Deception is a necessary part of the game. Coach K might be trying to pull a Jedi mind-trick by insisting, “Yes, this is the droid we will be throwing to most of the time.”
Brice McCain Is Inching His Way Back
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The return of Brice McCain, Houston’s top nickel back, has received less notice amidst all the gushing over Cushing.
Every team in the league has plays using multiple receiver sets. A top-flight cover man to handle the slot receiver is often the most valuable defensive player off the bench.
Unfortunately, McCain broke his foot in Week 13. His replacement, Brandon Harris, had been in for only one play in 2012 when he had to take over for his injured teammate.
Harris was thrown into a “sink or swim” scenario and barely kept his head above water. Hopefully, his trial by ordeal will yield some dividends this year.
As far as McCain is concerned, he is getting the same kid glove treatment as Cushing. According to the State of the Texans, he was working his way back in some “individual drills” on May 29. The next day was spent “resting his foot,” a sign that training camp will be his earliest appearance in team drills.
The first game of the regular season is over three months away, so what’s the hurry?
None at the present time, but McCain was re-signed as an unrestricted free agent coming off a serious injury. His $2.25 million in guaranteed money would look better backpedaling in press coverage than being on the field one day, then off the next.