Houston Texans vs. Atlanta Falcons: Texans Preseason Week 2 Game Preview
Every team in the NFL enters the preseason with questions that need to be answered.
How will the rookies adjust to the pro style? How will new free agents help the roster? How will a star player coming off an injury look in his return to the field? Did this weakness or that weakness from last year improve at all?
For nearly each question surrounding the Houston Texans going into the preseason, the answer was a loud and definitive no after the embarrassing loss to the Arizona Cardinals to open up their preseason schedule.
The offense was a mess, the secondary played awful and to label their execution as sloppy would be a severe understatement; the team had 13 penalties in Week 1.
The Atlanta Falcons come to NRG Stadium in Houston for the Texans' second preseason game and should provide a good test for the team as well as a nice measuring stick as another team who was very successful in 2012 but disappointed in 2013.
In particular I'll be watching for how well the Texans secondary plays against an explosive Falcons passing attack featuring Pro Bowl players Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones. I'll go more into this particular matchup on a later slide.
Both teams want to replicate what the Kansas City Chiefs did last year as teams with talented rosters who struggled in one season but managed to bounce back a year after losing 10-plus games to win 10 or more games the following year.
The preseason isn't everything, but we should have a better view as to who is more capable of reaching that goal after Saturday.
Houston Texans Week 1 Recap
Where do I even start?
The Texans were as bad as they could get; they were a dumpster fire during their first preseason game at Arizona. There were a couple minor bright spots, but those were a drop in a bucket compared to the ocean of flaws and weaknesses that were exposed by the Cardinals.
If forced to pick out and identify those bright spots, I would say that both the running game on offense and the run defense played pretty well. Neither unit was perfect, but each played well.
The pass coverage was nonexistent, the quarterback play was a joke and the discipline we kept hearing about during OTAs and minicamp disappeared with 13 penalties during the game.
No way around it: The Texans were a train wreck during Week 1 of the preseason. If I had been tasked with grading their performance, the only grade I could even consider would be an "F."
Looking forward to Week 2, the Texans have to see improved performances from the quarterbacks, the secondary and with mistakes, which will hopefully mean fewer turnovers and penalties.
The NFL has become a pass-first league over the last 10 years, so if you can't move the ball through the air or stop it on defense, your team is obviously going to be looking at a top pick in the next draft. Both areas were huge issues for the Texans during Week 1.
With key players such as Johnathan Joseph, Brian Cushing and Louis Nix III returning to practice, the pass defense and defense overall could improve in the near future. In particular when Joseph gets back on the field, that should mean Brandon Harris will be back on the bench. That's a good thing.
From an article of mine on State of the Texans, I looked at the Cardinals game by the numbers, so to speak, to see if I could find anything that stood out.
After re-watching every offensive snap of the Cardinals game on Monday I noticed a couple things: There was no tempo, and the offense used far more spread sets than I was expecting.
Excluding times when every offense in the league would either always huddle or always hurry—after timeouts, after change of possession, after an incomplete pass, two-minute drill, etc.—the Texans only used a no-huddle once during the game, which came during the first possession of the third quarter.
Considering how often tempo was stressed and taught during offseason practices, its absence struck me as odd. Of course, picking up first downs and developing a rhythm on offense will give the team more opportunities to play faster.
As to the spread sets, in previous coaching stops Bill O'Brien used two-tight end sets quite a bit, and after the selection of C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third round this year, it seemed like that would be the plan for 2014.
However, the Texans played with two-tight ends on the field in either 12 or 22 personnel on only 10 of their 41 plays. The Texans used 11 personnel—one running back and one tight end with three receivers—on 29 plays, which, on top of the confusion over style of play, was surprising to see with Andre Johnson out.
The Houston Texans need to establish an identity against the Falcons during Week 2 of the preseason. They don't have to win, but they do need to limit the mistakes and start to get comfortable in what they want to do.
The defensive backs have to play tighter, the pass rush needs to get home sooner and the quarterbacks need to play much more efficiently. Regardless of the score at the end of the game, if the Texans accomplish those three things the game will be a success.
News and Notes
Kicking Competition Remains Wide Open
According to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, the competition for the starting role as the Texans' place-kicker remains wide open. Veteran Randy Bullock struggled badly during the first half of the year before turning things around and making all 12 attempts of his final seven games.
The Texans added local product Chris Boswell from Rice University as an undrafted free agent. Just like Bullock, Boswell also had a strong leg but shaky accuracy during college.
In what has become the norm for Bill O'Brien, he didn't say much, but he did hint that the competition wasn't closed. Per the Houston Chronicle: "Both guys have kicked well at times, and both guys probably wish they had a few kicks back."
The competition for the job will likely run through Week 3 of the preseason before cuts have to start being made. My expectation at this point is for Bullock to win the job.
Kareem Jackson Plays Well in the Slot
From P.D. Starr of State of the Texans, veteran cornerback Kareem Jackson was one of the few bright spots for the Texans secondary during their Thursday practice with Atlanta.
Kareem Jackson had one of the best days for the Texans today and he was all around the football. Matt Ryan’s first pass of the day was batted down by Jackson and almost had another one intercepted by Jackson who couldn’t control it before he could get his feet inbounds.
During the team session, the Falcons were having their way with the Texans moving the ball, but Jackson, playing the slot cornerback position, Jackson came up with a diving interception in the middle of the field to end the Falcons threat.
It appears that Jackson and not Brandon Harris will be the corner asked to play the pivotal role of slot corner this season. Whenever the Texans go into a sub-package and bring on an extra corner, Jackson will slide over to the slot with A.J. Bouye likely to come on as the new boundary corner.
With the growing trend of teams moving around their best receiver to take advantage of mismatches against the other team's third or fourth corner, Jackson's versatility and performance in the slot will be key for the Texans. Jackson has also been physical in run defense, which is a plus for the position.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is Locked In as the Texans Starting Quarterback
Despite an awful performance against the Cardinals during Week 1 of the preseason, Coach O'Brien hasn't wavered from his selection of Ryan Fitzpatrick to be the team's starting quarterback, which I've said many times on here would be the case.
From Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, O'Brien was short but clear on who would be the Texans' starting quarterback.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien said a day after the loss that he would evaluate all spots on the team’s training-camp roster, including quarterback, in an attempt to improve from within. Monday, O’Brien used a one-word answer when asked whether Fitzpatrick is still locked in as the Texans’ starter.
“Yes,” O’Brien said.
The same brief answer was given when O’Brien was asked whether Case Keenum and Tom Savage are still battling for the backup spot.
The Case Keenum faithful seemed to get excited when news came out that the third-year quarterback got reps with the first-team offense on Thursday, but O'Brien quickly shut that down.
Bill O'Brien said Case Keenum will not get any first team reps Saturday— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) August 14, 2014
Like it or not, Fitzpatrick will be the guy for Week 1 of the regular season against the Washington Redskins.
Veteran Running Back Ronnie Brown Still Believes He Has Plenty Left in the Tank
From Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle, recently signed running back Ronnie Brown, who previously played with both the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins, believes he can still contribute after not seeing the field much in recent years.
Brown totaled only 133 carries from 2011 through 2013, although he did catch a personal-high 49 passes with San Diego in 2012.
"Going through two-a-days, we'll see," he said, smiling. "(But) health-wise, I feel pretty good. It feels good to get back on the field, get in the work, and get back into football shape. Obviously, it's a lot different working out at home (Atlanta) than being here in the Houston humidity."
I like the signing of Brown. Don't get me wrong: At age 32 he's not going to come in and make a huge impact, but he should be reliable, which is something the Texans need.
The big hit taken by rookie quarterback Tom Savage on the safety late in the Cardinals game was largely due to a missed block from second-year running back Dennis Johnson. It was an inexcusable mistake that cost Johnson his spot on the roster; as a longtime player Brown won't make that mistake.
Brown knows his role, knows what is expected from him, knows what it takes to prepare and get ready for a game and should provide good veteran leadership to young backs like Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Julio Jones and Roddy White vs. Texans Starting Cornerbacks
The Texans' starting secondary struggled badly last week—especially fourth-year corner Brandon Harris—so fans will want to see a better performance in Week 2. Good news for the Texans secondary: It has nowhere to go but up after its dreadful showing in Week 1.
No better way to test and find out if any improvement has been made than to go up against an elite group of receiving threats. The Falcons arguably have the best wide receiver combination in the league with Roddy White and Julio Jones, so the Texans will find out exactly where they stand when the game is over.
Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt vs. Falcons Offensive Line
One thing that can help the performance from a struggling secondary is a great pass rush. In the limited time that both J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney were in the game together against Arizona the results were encouraging.
Watt had a sack, and later Clowney made a tackle for loss in the backfield on a running back. Unfortunately they weren't able to make a big enough impact to slow down the Cardinals' passing attack, but they did show flashes of being a disruptive duo.
Texans Kick Returners against Falcons Special Teams Cover Team
The Texans special teams have been a mess for several years. In particular the guys occupying the kick returner role have struggled since Jacoby Jones left for the Baltimore Ravens. Jones was nowhere near perfect, but he was much more consistent than the group that has attempted to replace him.
One particular thing that annoyed me last season and then showed up again against the Cardinals was the decision-making from the returners on when to take the ball out of the end zone.
It must be coaching because the returners, whether it was Dennis Johnson, Keshawn Martin or the newly acquired Joe Adams, were all taking the ball out after the kickoff went way too deep. Not surprisingly, those returns never got past the 20 and put the offense in a bad starting position.
On the kicks that were returned, the Texans started with the ball at the 18-, 13-, 16-, 10- (after a holding penalty) and 7-yard line. The kickoff went at least six yards deep into the end zone each time with an average of minus-seven yards deep; why the hell did the Texans not take a knee?
I hope it can be explained as just the coaches wanting the players to get some experience and not worrying about the result, but after seeing similar things last year under a different staff, I'm skeptical.
Having a guy like Devin Hester, who is a threat to return it all the way each time, would be great, but more than anything else the Texans need returners who make better decisions.
Returning it from six yards or deeper in the end zone is almost never a good idea. Your most likely best-case scenario is to get just past the 20, so why take the risk for injury, a turnover or not getting back to the 20 for such little potential gain?
Better field position will help a struggling offense.
Texans' X-Factor of the Week: A.J. Bouye
The Texans are going to be playing in a lot of nickel or sub-packages this season, which is quickly becoming the new normal for the NFL. To do so effectively will mean they'll need a corner besides Kareem Jackson or Johnathan Joseph to step up and play well.
The corner most likely to do that appears to be former undrafted player A.J. Bouye.
Bouye has played physically during camp and has even made a few plays. He still has plenty of room for further development, but I trust him more at this point than Brandon Harris, Elbert Mack or other young guys like Andre Hal or Marcus Williams.
The final score doesn't matter in the preseason.
The Texans can't afford to lose 32-0 again, but all the coaching staff and any reasonable fans want to see is progress and improvement.
Did they make strides in areas they struggled during Week 1? Did the secondary get a few stops? Did Ryan Fitzpatrick lead a couple scoring drives? Did they turn over the ball less and commit fewer penalties?
If the answers to all those questions is yes, then they did their job. Really, who will remember the score of a preseason game a month later? Competitiveness and execution count more than the score.
For the sake of this article however...
Prediction: Falcons 23, Texans 13