Peyton Manning vs. the Texans Secondary
After a miserable performance in their first game against Arizona, the Texans secondary rebounded well in the Week 2 preseason game against Atlanta. The game with the Falcons was a big test for a secondary that was still missing key players and appeared to have lost confidence.
However, to the surprise of many the Texans held Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan to an ugly stat line of 3-of-7 for 37 yards passing. Pro Bowl receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones were also held in check with only one catch each during the game.
Facing the Falcons was an important measuring stick, but no bigger test exists for NFL defensive backs than facing a team led by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
Manning was as sharp as ever during the Broncos' Week 2 game as he tore apart the San Francisco 49ers during his limited snaps to the tune of 12-of-14 for 102 yards and one touchdown.
While stopping the Falcons was impressive, their threats in the passing game almost exclusively come from their outside receivers; the Broncos attack is much more varied.
Manning will get the ball to Demaryius Thomas on the outside, but he'll also work the ball to the slot with Wes Welker, to the tight ends over the middle of the field and even get the running backs involved if the defense turns its attention away from them as they try to slow the other weapons.
If the Texans perform well again—which will likely come over three quarters instead of two—then I'd say it would definitely be time to get excited about the potential of this defense.
Texans Offensive Tackles vs. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware
We often talk about how big of a challenge it will be for Texans opponents to block both J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, but a similar concern and challenge awaits the Texans offensive line on Saturday when it faces the Broncos' pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
I'm not too worried about Duane Brown, who as a two-time Pro Bowl tackle can handle himself, but the same can't be said for Derek Newton.
Newton has been the worst starter on the Texans offensive line over the last two seasons but was pushed back into the starting role again for 2014 after David Quessenberry had to leave the team with an illness.
The former seventh-round pick is healthier and in better shape, but he is still likely to be the biggest limiting factor on the Texans offensive line. His performance against two elite pass-rushers this weekend will be worth watching.
Chris Boswell Needs To Have a Big Game
I've thought since the beginning that veteran kicker Randy Bullock would have to perform poorly during the preseason in order to lose his job, but after the game against Atlanta he appears to be a lock.
The Texans signed Chris Boswell out of nearby Rice University as an undrafted free agent to push and compete with Bullock, who struggled badly during the first half of the 2013 season. However, Bullock finished last year strong, and Boswell hurt himself with two missed extra-point attempts against the Falcons.
Neither kicker attempted any field goals or extra points during his Week 1 game as the Texans were shut out by Arizona, so after Bullock clearly outperformed Boswell in Week 2, his spot on this roster is on very thin ice.
I'm sure the team would like to let the competition play through the end of the preseason, but if Bullock clearly outperforms him again, then it would be in the best interest of Houston to go ahead and let Boswell go.
That way when it makes its first round of roster cuts, it'll be able to give his spot to another player who has a better chance at actually making the roster.
Texans' X-Factor of the Week: Whitney Mercilus
The Houston Texans need more from their former first-round pick, Whitney Mercilus. He was drafted to be a hell-raiser as a pass-rusher at outside linebacker but has too often disappeared when watching the game during his first two seasons.
If Mercilus starts to play like a first-round talent, the Texans pass rush would be unstoppable with him complementing J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. There weren't many visible signs of improvement during the Texans' Week 1 loss to Arizona, which concerned P.D. Starr of State of the Texans.
Mercilus played in 23 snaps in the last preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals with the majority of those defensive snaps coming against the 2nd and 3rd offenses. His play looked uninspired at times and more than anything he looked like he was overthinking what he needed to do on the field.
Mercilus explained what he needs to do to get back to his former self,
“Just being able to be consistent in my pass rush. Also playing the run game and setting the edge and things like that. Just not a whole lot of thinking, that’s it."
Having to worry about the effort level from a first-round pick during his third year is a big red flag.
While drafting Clowney isn't necessarily an indictment of what the coaching staff thinks of Mercilus—his talent was too much to pass up—the fact that he's playing with the second- and third-string players should be viewed as such.
The struggle and underwhelming performance from Mercilus has been made even more glaring with how quickly Clowney has been able to make big, flashy plays on the field during just his first and second games.
I don't believe Mercilus is in danger of losing his roster spot, but he needs to perform very well over the next two weeks. If he doesn't, his snaps could end up being limited this season and make him a candidate to be released before the 2015 season.