Updating the Houston Texans' Key Position Battles Halfway Through Training Camp
A head coach prepares for every game with a specific plan in mind. As Gary Kubiak starts his eighth season as the leader of the Houston Texans, his typical approach to a game is well-known by now.
He will want to establish the rushing attack, have his quarterback throw some short passes to a variety of receivers and rely on play action to open up the deep routes. Despite what the general public believes, the order in which these take place will change from game to game.
In the Texans' 27-13 win over the Minnesota Vikings, Matt Schaub started the proceedings by going 5-of-5 on a six-play drive that led to a Randy Bullock field goal. The rest of the first half was mostly airborne, as the offense ran just 11 times compared to 26 pass attempts.
The second half was perfectly balanced, with the Texans evenly dividing their 36 plays between the air and the ground.
Domination by the offensive line and the defensive front seven made it possible for the visiting team to outgain its hosts by a 174-yard margin (246 yards to 72 yards).
It is certainly true that the final 30 minutes amounted to a battle between the second and third strings of each team. According the Associated Press (h/t Vikings.com), Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Chad Greenway all sat out for the Vikings, and Toby Gerhart started in place of NFL 2012 MVP Adrian Peterson.
Houston decided to hold back even more players, and John McClain of the Houston Chronicle accounted for 10 missing starters. The final score may have amounted to nothing more than a victory over the bottom half of the Minnesota roster.
It still offered the Texans coaching staff a means to assess where its overall personnel stands midway through the preseason. Some upcoming decisions regarding certain positions will be influenced by the lopsided outcome of this contest.
T.J. Yates vs. Case Keenum
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At a statistical level, the competition for the backup quarterback spot looks like a dead heat. Both T.J. Yates and Case Keenum competed 13 passes, though Keenum had fewer attempts. The average per attempt was separated by a mere 0.3 yards: 7.2 for Yates and 6.9 for Keenum.
The 34-yard touchdown from Yates to DeAndre Hopkins was made possible by the acrobatic adjustment Hopkins made to the throw. It is hard to give much credit to the passer for this one, other than keeping the ball inbounds.
Keenum was more consistent overall, directing the offense to three scoring drives averaging 67 yards apiece. The one that ended in a two-yard pass to Lestar Jean for the score featured five straight completions for 56 yards.
The play action on that touchdown was so convincing that both the defense and the cameraman were convinced it was a running play over the right side. This kind of play is a huge part of the Texans' offensive arsenal.
It is too early for Yates to lock up the job. Keenum exposed his inexperience by calling the wrong play at the end of the third quarter and immediately drew the wrath of his coach.
There is a long way to go before the winner is declared, and neither player gave up any ground to the other guy this time around.
D.J. Swearinger vs. Shiloh Keo vs. Eddie Pleasant
The picture above shows D.J. Swearinger has yet to leave his college days behind him. He is falling back on a style of tackling pro scouts were warned about prior to the draft.
Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com summed it up by describing him as a “highly aggressive tackler who frequently targets the upper chest/head and has drawn several penalties for doing so over his career…”
Swearinger was ready to take down his intended target but aimed too high. By not breaking down at the moment of impact, he whiffed on the tackle. This time, the effect was not a penalty but a 61-yard touchdown by rookie fullback Zach Line.
Houston's second-round draft choice displayed good instincts the rest of the game and a knack for being around the ball. Based on what he said to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the missed tackle was an educational experience:
I should have gone for his legs and made the sure tackle instead of trying to blow somebody up. I’ll learn from that mistake.
It might not have turned into six points if Eddie Pleasant had not gotten tangled up in the block of a wide receiver. He tried to bring Line down by the shoulder pads and failed.
Pleasant had intercepted a pass earlier in the game, although the ball came his way because quarterback Christian Ponder’s arm was bumped at just the right time. The would-be strong safety also gave up a couple of short pass plays and was called for a 15-yard penalty on a punt return.
Keo picked off a pass of his own but was flagged for a defensive holding penalty that was declined. How these safeties are ranked will determine who fills in for Ed Reed while he recuperates, who plays in the dime package and who ends up stuck on special teams.
Pleasant is the most vulnerable, but it will take an undrafted free agent who really steps it up to get him off this team.
Derek Newton vs. The Field
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Gary Kubiak has made it clear that he wants Derek Newton to be his starting right offensive tackle. Yet general manager Rick Smith re-signed free-agent swing tackles Ryan Harris and Andrew Gardner. On top of that, Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry came on board via the draft.
Newton only missed two games because of his right knee, but it bothered him for the last seven games of the season. In that case, all this additional manpower seems like a good move.
Most teams will carry four offensive tackles on the active roster. Throw in All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown, and you have six names to choose from. Something has got to give.
Harris proved last year he has the goods to be a more-than-adequate substitute. Quessenberry and Gardner showed promise in the second half versus the Vikings, though the former spent as much time at guard as he did at tackle. Williams is on the active roster but only recently has been healthy enough to get off the bike and onto the field.
As for Newton, he seemed to be moving all right up in Minnesota, but he looked a bit beefy as compared to 2012. Despite the abundance of his physique, the job is his to lose.
Williams seems destined for the practice squad and could be joined by Quessenberry. At the first sign of trouble, the latter would be the choice to move up due to his versatility.
Terrell McClain vs. The Field
When Shaun Cody was released in the offseason, Earl Mitchell became the default starter at nose tackle. The Texans’ 2012 roster listed David Hunter and Terrell McClain at the position. McClain bagged a measly 10 snaps for the season, according to Football Outsiders, while Hunter never played a down.
Another contender was added when Chris Jones was drafted from Bowling Green in the sixth round this year. This one-man spot in the 3-4 defense was suddenly looking crowded coming into the new season.
Defensive end Jared Crick slid over into that spot on occasion and seemed poised to reprise that role in 2013 as Mitchell’s relief. Why take up another place on the depth chart that could be devoted to a linebacker or defensive back?
McClain is on a two-year contract and Hunter has a three-year deal. Neither contract is saddled with any dead money at all. Both could be dumped without causing any concerns for the Texans’ stressed-out salary cap. If Jones panned out, he could be groomed as a backup for a season or two.
Then McClain came into OTAs “and played like a man fighting for a roster spot” in the eyes of Patrick Starr with the State of the Texans blog. Against the Vikings, he proceeded to look like no one was going to take the job from him.
He recorded 2.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. His opposite number was rookie center Camden Wentz on most of those plays, making his total supremacy over him quite understandable.
Whatever the circumstances, if you are out to make your mark, this is the way to get noticed.
All salary information courtesy of Spotrac.com (subscription needed for Premium Stats)
Dennis Johnson vs. Cierre Wood vs. Deji Karim
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There were high hopes for little (5’7”) Dennis Johnson. His skill as a punt returner was supposed to supplement his jitterbug style of running the ball. His average of 11.3 yards per return confirmed the first ability, but the second came up woefully short.
Three carries were for no gain, two netted minus-four yards and his only positive gain went for 13. The second and third preseason games usually get more veteran participation. Johnson may not make it to the fourth game to fight for one of the final roster slots.
Wood turned out to be everything as a runner that Johnson was not. He not only found the holes, but he also knew when to make the cut. This was best demonstrated on the back-to-back runs on which he gained 19 yards, then 20 yards. His overall output of 10 carries for 59 yards included just one attempt for negative yardage.
Perhaps the veteran Karim received fewer opportunities because he is more of a known quantity. He did not disappoint, with six carries for 37 yards, although his running technique is more direct and less instinctive than what Woods displayed. The next game will probably include a longer look at what he has to offer.
Bryan Braman vs. Willie Jefferson
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These two outside linebackers are cut out of the same mold. Both are long and lean, speedy and intense.
Braman can both bull rush and sense when to change direction and evade the block. While only credited with a half-sack against Minnesota, Braman heaped a load of abuse on tight ends Chase Ford and John Carlson, both of whom are in their second year with the Vikings. To his credit, they appeared powerless to slow him down at all.
Jefferson was not taken seriously for much of the game. He was left unblocked by the left tackle and tight end on many plays, forcing a running back to pick him up. By the time he did get noticed, it was too late.
Jefferson spent almost every snap of the fourth quarter in the Minnesota backfield, mucking things up. The tipped pass he recorded was not done in the manner of “J.J. Swatt,” with his arms fully extended. He was so deep in the backfield, he just happened to be between QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson and his intended target.
Houston has long list of outside linebackers in camp, but does it have enough playmakers? If Brooks Reed fit the prototype, would there be all this talk about moving him to the inside? Rookies Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams are converted defensive ends who are finding the leap to OLB a long one. Whitney Mercilus has the talent but cannot do it all by himself.
Braman is a lock based on his prowess with special teams. If Jefferson shows the some kind of aptitude at pursuit and tackling, he could take over on kick coverage so the linebacking corps could bring Braman in for pass-rushing purposes. It seems like a natural progression for both players.
Randy Bullock vs. The Expectations
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You would think Bullock has it easy. No one is breathing down his neck, ready to take his job. His chief burden is the responsibility weighing upon him.
This is how his first appearance as a professional went down:
- Two kickoffs reached far enough into the end zone for touchbacks.
- Two kickoffs went five yards deep, and one was returned for 50 yards by Cordarrelle Patterson.
- Two other kickoffs were caught at the 1- and 5-yard lines.
Bullock was 2-of-3 on field-goal tries, his longest coming from 48 yards. His 54-yard attempt came to rest right on the end line, indicating it needed at least 10 more feet of elevation to make it over the crossbar.
It was a competent opening act by the only placekicker in camp. Nothing to shout about, but also nothing that would serve to undermine his confidence.
When a team loses its kicker, there does not seem to be a shortage of replacements ready to take the job. If Bullock were to falter before the start of the regular season, Nick Folk, Ryan Longwell or Olindo Mare would be ready to take the call.
Fans may find this reassuring, but knowing he can be so easily replaced may not console Bullock. This is what happened last season, when Shayne Graham took over for him and scored a team-record 138 points.
Just as Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone in Godfather II, “This is the business we've chosen.” Welcome to the NFL, Randy.