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Houston Texans: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action

Jeffery RoyContributor IIIAugust 8, 2014

Houston Texans: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action

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    University of Phoenix Stadium
    University of Phoenix StadiumStephen Dunn/Getty Images

    The Houston Texans open the 2014 preseason against the Arizona Cardinals this Saturday, Aug. 9, at University of Phoenix Stadium. The game features two teams that had entirely different experiences in 2013.

    The Cardinals (10-6) placed third in the ultra-competitive NFC West, the division with the highest winning percentage (.656) in the league. They just missed out on the playoffs to the 11-5 New Orleans Saints.

    The Texans (2-14) were two final-play wins away from becoming the second team in NFL history to compile an 0-16 record. The 10-win negative differential from their 12-4 mark in 2012 represents the worst single-season turnaround since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

    Both clubs are anticipating better things for the upcoming campaign. To get there, they both need their quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Ryan Fitzpatrick, to continue resurrecting their careers.

    But just like their teams, Fitzpatrick and the Texans have much further to go than Palmer and the Cardinals. What follows are the members of each Texans unit who will be the focus of attention during the course of the game.

Missing in Action

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    Arian Foster
    Arian FosterPat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Three of the five best players on the Texans have struggled with injuries since the start of camp. Arian Foster and Andre Johnson are contending with hamstring issues, while Brian Cushing is taking the long but safe road back from the torn LCL and broken fibula he suffered in Week 7 of 2013.

    The two remaining stars, J.J. Watt and Duane Brown, have been the fortunate ones and will play in however many series head coach Bill O’Brien will allow. The other three will be sitting the game out.

    The time missed by Johnson is not a matter of great concern. Matt Hammond of Sports Radio 610 in Houston quoted the seven-time Pro Bowler as being confident he can adapt to the new offense.

    When you’ve been around the game for a while, you’ve seen a lot of things, you’ve seen a lot of offense… You just have to try to get that old stuff out of your head. I was in the same offense for eight years. When you hear something in this offense, it’s like, OK, we had it last way this year, so I’ve got to think of this word.

    When the subject turns to Foster, his physical well-being can be as tough to pin down as his state of mind. Last week, he turned into a human Vine by giving the same answer 11 times in a 90-second interview.

    The running back followed up with the revelation to ESPN’s Hannah Storm that he considered retiring after last season’s back injury. Fox Sports Net analyst Shaun King subsequently questioned Foster’s dedication to his team and the game he plays for a living.

    If Bill O’Brien holds the same reservations as King, he’s not about to admit to them. Or if keeping Foster sidelined while his maladies mend is strictly a precautionary measure or an indication of something more serious.

    Fortunately, questions of this type have never been associated with Cushing. His presence throughout training camp has been a reassurance that he is ready to hit the field at a moment’s notice. Houston Texans analyst John Harris commented in his Day 8 training camp observations that the leader of Houston’s defense has been showing up dressed as if he is ready to hit somebody.

    There were a number of big names sitting out on Sunday and one of those was LB Brian Cushing. But what I loved seeing was Cushing with his ankles taped up and shoes spatted up as if he were ready to play tomorrow. Maybe it was just a fashion statement and if so, count me in. I've got no problem showing up at practice spatted up ready to go.

    Right guard Brandon Brooks and nose tackle Louis Nix III are two other non-participants that hoped to be big contributors to the rebirth of the Texans. Brooks was placed on the active/non-football injury list on the opening day of camp. 

    Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com disclosed in her Camp Confidential of Aug. 6 that “Brooks began training camp on the list for what appears to be a back injury.” It took the No. 1 spot in her “Three Reasons for Pessimism” in the upcoming season. Based on Brooks' play in 2013 and a redesigned offense centered around running the football, it is easy to why.

    Nix had surgery on his torn meniscus in November of 2013, which consisted of repairing the torn cartilage, as reported by David Corzo of SB Nation. The type of surgery Nix received prior to training camp has not been divulged to the media but may have instead consisted of removing the cartilage to reduce the recovery time.

    In Corzo’s article, Dr. David Geier said, “Trimming out the torn portion often allows an athlete to return to sports within 4-6 weeks, while it can take him 4-6 months to return after a meniscal repair.” While this could permit Nix to join the team in time for the regular season, the rookie will not be in the proper condition to be part of the defensive line rotation.

Quarterbacks

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    Case Keenum
    Case KeenumUSA TODAY Sports

    The hierarchy at the most critical position on the team was established back in June when Ryan Fitzpatrick was named the starter. This was shortly followed by the trade of T.J. Yates to the Atlanta Falcons for linebacker Akeem Dent.

    These moves made Case Keenum the obvious backup, since no head coach in his right mind is going to hand the No. 2 quarterback job to a fourth-round draft pick like Tom Savage. Although Bill O’Brien had insisted a few weeks earlier that the competition would be “wide open,” it looked as if the die had been cast.

    At the same time, the competition must be allowed to play itself out to see how each contestant responds to the pressure.

    The stock NFL script for the first two preseason games is to play the starting quarterback for a large portion of the first quarter. The backup takes over for quarters two and three, while the No. 3 QB completes the closing stanza.

    This will give Keenum ample time to keep Savage entrenched as the third-string quarterback. To stoke the fires of this rivalry, O’Brien took advantage of an interview by Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com to inject a measure of uncertainty into their battle.

    "Right now I’d still say Case is a little bit ahead of Tom. I’d say Tom’s improving. I think Tom’s definitely improving. It’s a battle, it’s definitely a competitive battle, but Case is still slightly ahead of Tom," he said.

    When Ganguli checked with O’Brien to confirm if he was certain whether Keenum, Savage or some other player could be brought in to fill the position, the answer was, "Right now I see it, as we stand here right now, I’d say one of those two will back up.”

    For Keenum to maintain his edge, he must display more accuracy, better touch and the ability to work through his progressions before abandoning the pocket.

    His only game in 2013 with a 60 percent completion percentage was the very first one versus the Kansas City Chiefs. He was great getting the ball downfield early on, with an adjusted yards per pass attempt average of over 10 yards in his first two games. But after throwing seven touchdowns in his first three games, he could only manage one in the next five before being benched.

    Passes of less than 10 yards are a quarterback’s best friend when nothing else is available. Keenum’s completion percentage in this range was 58.3 and his passer rating 61.3, according to Pro Football Focus (aka PFF, subscription required for premium stats). Compare this to Tom Brady, the prototype passer for O’Brien’s offense, who completed 70 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 91.3 in what was an off year for him.

    Keenum was at his best throwing on the run, where he could get a better view of the field and improvise. This tendency was a remnant of his days at the University of Houston. His college coach, Kevin Sumlin, does not believe in a hard-copy playbook full of set plays and an abundance of clever formations.

    To emphasize the visual aspect college coaches like Sumlin and Art Briles rely on, virtually the entire league has uploaded their playbooks to iPads and utilize video replays as much as X-and-O schematics. Keenum has absorbed most of the new playbook, but will he be able to make his second and third read before rolling out in a desperate attempt to create a play out of the seeming chaos?

    What O’Brien would like to see out of Keenum is a concerted effort to maintain pocket discipline and scan the whole field before deciding which option would yield the best result. But he does not have to completely forsake running play action.

    As measured by PFF, in 2013, Keenum ran play action at a rate of 26.3 percent, while Brady did it at 24.9 percent. He does not have to do less of it, just do it within the structure of the offense.

    Savage will not be held to as strict a standard. With only one full season of college football on his resume, the most that can be hoped for are some decent mechanics, not too much reliance on his cannon arm and no reckless turnovers.

    Players with his velocity think they can put the ball into tight windows that close a lot faster in the pros. Savage can leapfrog Keenum if he can keep mistakes to a minimum and show he has more upside that would be revealed with more playing time.

Running Backs

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    Andre Brown
    Andre BrownRick Osentoski/Associated Press

    No Arian Foster, no matter at all.

    The eccentric ball-carrier did not play a down in the 2013 preseason due to his too-tight hamstrings. They may have affected his back to the point that surgery was required halfway through the regular season to repair a bulging disc.

    It was just as well. The shelf life of a running back is too short to waste it on a lost season.

    Adrian Peterson reminded Brian Murphy of TwinCities.com he makes it a habit to keep from playing in the preseason: "It all depends on how I'm feeling. I haven't played a preseason game in two or three years, so we'll see. With the new offense, I might want to go out there and get a few plays in, but I'll sit down with Zimmer and see what he thinks."

    The preseason for running backs is similar to that for quarterbacks. This is the time for the lower levels of the depth chart to get their work in.

    Andre Brown, Dennis Johnson, Alfred Blue, Tim Cornett and Jonathan Grimes are currently listed behind Foster in order of preference. The ultimate arrangement of this group is what will be decided over the course of the next four games.

    The career of Brown is the textbook definition of “injury-plagued.” In his four years as an NFL player, he has been available for 22 out of 64 games and started a total of 10 games over that time.

    Dennis Johnson and Jonathan Grimes were called upon for mop-up duty last season after Foster and Ben Tate were placed on season-ending injured reserve.

    Alfred Blue and Tim Cornett are a couple of rookies who arrived in Houston by different means. Blue was selected in the sixth round of the 2014 draft out of LSU, while Cornett was signed as a free agent after leaving UNLV as their all-time leading rusher.

    Brown and Blue, a color-coded combo of unknown significance, have attracted the most attention in training camp and look to get a lion’s share of the carries versus the Cardinals. Each weighs in at over 220 pounds, ideal size for a team that looks to run out a lot of power- and iso-blocking schemes. Houston Texans analyst John Harris remarked on “the ease with which both caught the ball out of the backfield,” an important trait for a coaching staff that values versatility.

    Grimes has not gone unnoticed by his head coach/offensive coordinator. As reported by Deepi Sidhu, columnist for the Houston Texans, Bill O’Brien appreciates Grimes’ package of skills:

    I see Jonathan as a three-down back. I do. I see him as able to play on third down, catch the ball out of the backfield, protect. He’s a smart, dependable guy when he is in there. So yeah, I see him as a three-down back.

    If Grimes shows the ability to pass protect and be an effective receiver, he would be a formidable complement to the larger backs. 

    Cornett is a recent addition to the squad and would seem to be best suited to make his mark on special teams. His draft profile on the NFL’s website by Nolan Narwocki says otherwise:

    A one-cut zone runner lacking ideal balance and competitiveness desired on the front lines and the temperament for special teams. More of a workout warrior than football player at this stage of his development and will be challenged to produce against better competition.

    It sounds like Cornett should not unpack his bags anytime soon.

    Jay Prosch is the only fullback on the roster and injured his hand recently. His duties could be limited against Arizona to prevent the damage from getting worse. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, the best blocking tight end in the 2014 draft according to the Sports Xchange, might be pushed into an H-back role if Prosch is held out. 

    The other possibility is using some empty sets with the running back in motion. It will be interesting to see if O'Brien is willing to be that creative so early in the preseason. It may be too soon to put something on display that could be buried deep in the playbook.

Receivers

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    Mike Thomas
    Mike ThomasMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    This cast of receivers is similar to the running backs, except the playbill is a bit longer.

    The one through five slots on the depth chart are occupied by Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Keshawn Martin, DeVier Posey and Mike Thomas. However, Thomas is the top kickoff and punt returner, which could prove to be a make-or-break advantage over Martin when the final cuts are made.

    The slot receiver in the Erhardt-Perkins pass offense that O’Brien will be implementing is equal in importance to any other pass-catcher on the field. For the offense to function as designed, there has to be a receiver who is quick enough and tough enough to work the short zones, where roving linebackers and downhill safeties are always hunting for prey.

    The NFL preseason was called the “exhibition season” once upon a time. Martin will have to “exhibit” whether his hands have finally caught up to his speed. Thomas is just 5’8” compared to Martin at nearly 6 feet tall, but he has the experience navigating the crosstown traffic that is the playground of the slot receiver. It could end up being a “Highlander” situation by the season opener: “There can only be one!”

    The sixth and likely final spot on the active roster will be filled by either Alec Lemon, Lacoltan Bester, Anthony McClung, Joe Adams, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Travis Labhart or Kofi Hughes. The decision could come down to choosing between a pair of former Texas A&M teammates, Nwachukwu and Labhart.

    At 5’9” and 182 pounds, Labhart is a Wes Welker type who is also an undrafted free agent from a Texas university just like the two-time All-Pro. Nwachukwu is bigger (5’11, 198 pounds) and was clocked in the high 4.4s for the 40-yard dash during his pro day.

    Houston Texans analyst John Harris has mentioned Nwachukwu numerous times in his training camp observations. Labhart got the equivalent of a verbal fist bump from Harris when he “laid out” for a 40-yard gain on Day 10 of camp.

    As early as Day 2, these Aggies presented a possible dilemma in the opinion of Harris: “I don't know what the future holds for EZ Nwachukwu and rookie Travis Labhart, but both of them are going to make roster cut time extremely difficult for the coaching staff.”

    Absent Johnson, there are 11 wide receivers fighting for playing time in Arizona. There also five tight ends looking for some targets themselves.

    Garrett Graham, Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz are all assured of making the active roster. Anthony Denham or Zach Potter could be the fourth tight end, or in Denham’s case, a candidate for the practice squad.

    The debate in NFL circles over whether the run should be used to set up the pass or vice versa will not be settled in this game. If the Texans are tempted to use all the receiving weapons at their disposal, the running backs will barely break a sweat.

Offensive Line

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    Tyson Clabo
    Tyson ClaboRob Carr/Getty Images

    This is the most stable position group on the team, which isn’t saying much right now.

    Three starters are certain: Duane Brown at left tackle, Chris Myers at center and Derek Newton at right tackle. With Brandon Brooks out and second-round draft pick Xavier Su’a-Filo still getting up to speed after missing some of OTAs, Ben Jones and Alex Kupper have vaulted up the depth chart to become the starters at left and right guard.

    The lack of depth in the O-line has to be a concern. The arrival of offensive tackle Tyson Clabo was supposed to be reassuring. Clabo had previously worked under offensive line coach Paul Dunn when both were part of the Atlanta Falcons organization.

    Rivers McCown, formerly of Football Outsiders, spoke with Stephanie Stradley of the Houston Chronicle and referred to the 32-year-old Clabo as “washed up.” Someone on the Texans must believe he has something left to give; otherwise, they would not have signed him to a two-year, $2.4 million contract.

    Jayson Braddock of Sports 790AM in Houston thinks 26-year-old Will Yeatman may turn out to be the better pickup.

    He's been a forgotten man since the Texans signed Tyson Clabo, but the O-lineman that jumped out to me was Will Yeatman.

    — Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) July 30, 2014

    The player profile for Yeatman at Rotoworld describes the former tight end as “a better fit for zone-blocking teams.” This sounds like a square peg in a round hole, but that assessment may be based on his athletic ability and the fact he played in one system for one team, the Miami Dolphins.

    The rest of the names on the depth chart are so unfamiliar they could have been members of various World Cup teams. Sam Longo, Conor Boffeli, Bronson Irwin, Mike Farrell and Matt Feiler were all complete unknowns until just a few days ago. Their chance to stick past the first cutdown to 75 players on Aug. 26 is as unpredictable as Lady Gaga’s next outfit.

    The protections against a pretty good Arizona Cardinals defense are likely to be plain vanilla given the relative inexperience and the short time these new additions have spent with the team. Their main job will be keeping the skill players on offense from ending up on the waived/injured list.

Defensive Line

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    Ricardo Mathews
    Ricardo MathewsPat Sullivan/Associated Press

    The composition of this unit could be described as “Watt and What Else?”

    “The most valuable non-quarterback in the league” as described by Rivers McCown, J.J. Watt is at present accompanied on the D-line by third-year defensive end Jared Crick and journeyman nose tackle Jerrell Powe. With Louis Nix III on the mend with his second meniscus surgery in eight months, the second-team nose tackle is Ricardo Mathews, a 4-3 defensive tackle by trade.

    The first-line reserve defensive end is five-year veteran Tim Jamison, who has bulked up to 300 pounds in hopes of converting from a situational pass-rusher to an all-purpose 4-technique lineman.

    Jeoffrey Pagan and Julius Warmsley may be on the third team, but Pagan looks like an unmovable gap-plugger and Warmsley has done something special almost every day to impress Houston Texans analyst John Harris.

    The unasked question is whether there are any plans to put Jadeveon Clowney in a three-point stance on passing downs.

    The smartest tactical move would be to keep that option under wraps until the hitting starts for real. When defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel calls a four-man line on 3rd-and-long, positioning Clowney as a wide-nine pass-rusher with only a tight end between him and the quarterback could be a devastating wrinkle.

    Crennel will show Arizona as little as possible while he tries to figure out who is capable of what in a game situation. Only Watt can be expected to perform as advertised but will have only a handful of snaps to show it. The rotation could go deep enough to use nose tackles Austin Brown and David Hunter as 3-technique defensive ends on first and second down.

Linebackers

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    Whitney Mercilus
    Whitney MercilusAssociated Press

    The quantity in the linebacker corps is inversely proportional to its quality.

    Case in point: Disregard Brian Cushing, and the inside linebackers are composed of six undrafted free agents (Justin Tuggle, Mike Mohamed, Jeff Tarpinian, Max Bullough, Terrance Lloyd and Chris Young) and a third-round pick (Akeem Dent) who has never started 16 games in a season.

    The outside linebackers have more of a pedigree, with two first-rounders (Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney), two second-rounders (Brooks Reed and Quentin Groves) and its own complement of undrafted free agents (Jason Ankrah, Lawrence Sidbury, Chris McAllister and Paul Hazel).

    All in all, a tool kit stocked with a few Craftsman items from Sears and a lot of stuff from the dollar store.

    Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will have to cobble together a stable fulcrum for his style of defense. The line is supposed to sacrifice itself so the linebackers can make plays. Without consistent pressure on the quarterback coming from the outside linebackers, the secondary will be left to fend for itself.

    How Crennel makes this all work will test his 30-plus years of working in the trenches as an NFL coach. The able assistance of linebackers coach Mike Vrabel will make his job a little easier. He must pull this off with Cushing on the sidelines and Clowney battling injuries on an almost daily basis:

    Jadeveon Clowney, who was icing his upper right leg near his waist, leaves practice field on a cart.

    — Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) August 2, 2014

    Lawrence Taylor was drafted by the New York Giants in 1981, Crennel’s first season as their special teams coach. Some pundits, along with Clowney himself, have been bold enough to predict Clowney could have the same impact as Taylor. If you are in Crennel’s position, you need to have history repeat itself.

Defensive Backs

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    Shiloh Keo
    Shiloh KeoPat Sullivan/Associated Press

    The secondary has the best overall balance of talent and experience on the defense.

    The starting corners, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, are in their fourth season together. The starting safeties, D.J. Swearinger and Kendrick Lewis, have a ways to go to catch up with the firm of Joseph & Jackson. Collectively, they have the chance to be better than the sum of their parts.

    This can be accomplished by mixing up their looks. The Texans defense under Wade Phillips played Cover 1 the majority of the time, with the cornerbacks in press man coverage, one safety with his eyes fixed on the tight end, the No. 2 safety playing the deep middle and the No. 3 safety responsible for the intermediate zone.

    Get one of the safeties to overcommit in one direction or the other and one or more receivers is guaranteed to be open.

    Disguising this type of coverage can be as simple as having the corner give his man enough of a cushion to create a zone look. Or funnel the X and Z receivers to the sideline so it can act as an extra defender and let the safety handle the coverage while cornerback takes the slant, curl, hook or dig routes over the middle.

    Cover 2 may be falling out of favor, meaning that safeties can no longer afford to just sit back and time their break on the ball. They have to play closer to the line of scrimmage and commit to coverage as soon as their man gets into his route.

    The slot cornerback, or nickel corner, has become as important as the starters on the outside. Jackson has been pitched by Bill O’Brien as the man to take over that role from the overmatched Brandon Harris.

    But Jackson is not the long-term solution. A.J. Bouye, Elbert Mack or Andre Hal would find guaranteed long-term employment in the NFL if any one of them could master this underappreciated role.

    Likewise, the ideal dime safety would possess a specialized class of talents. He would be just fast enough to bring down runaway receivers and big enough to match up with actual tight ends or those Calvin Johnson-Vincent Jackson types that would have been molded into tight ends 15-20 years ago.

    Lonnie Ballentine became Mr. Irrelevant by being chosen last in the 2014 draft. There is nothing irrelevant about his exceptional physical gifts of size (6’3”, 219 pounds), speed (4.39 40-yard dash, hand-timed!), and explosiveness (38-inch vertical) he was unable to translate into football production at the University of Memphis.

    Eddie Pleasant is not a potential decathlete like Ballentine, just the only Texans safety that received a plus rating (1.8) from Pro Football Focus last season (subscription required for premium stats).

    After Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd of the Cardinals take their turn with the ones, Houston will face a retinue of no-name receivers led by Ted Ginn, a DeSean Jackson lookalike but not a play-alike. A thoroughly ordinary bunch the secondary and the rest of the Texans defense should be able to dissect like a frog in biology class.

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