Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos: Report Card Grades for Each Texans Unit
Another week, another win.
The win over the Denver Broncos in Week 3 of the preseason wasn't nearly as impressive of a performance as the game against the Atlanta Falcons, but there were still many encouraging signs of improvement that can be built on as the year progresses.
By no means is a preseason win over the Broncos—in which Peyton Manning only played the first half—proof that the Houston Texans are poised to make a playoff run, but thankfully the loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1 seems more like the outlier than the blowout victory over the Falcons.
Next week during the Texans' final preseason game you're unlikely to see many if any starters in the game, so this was it in terms of getting a look at their performance to base a prediction off for their regular-season success.
I'm still thinking they'll land somewhere between six and nine wins but won't make the playoffs. They've looked better these last two weeks than I was anticipating, but there are still obvious holes on this roster that will limit their success.
Back to this current week, on to the slideshow to grade each position unit on the roster!
Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn't as sharp as he was last week against Atlanta, but he wasn't as bad as he was against Arizona; he was somewhere in between, which is likely where he'll sit during the regular season as well.
Against Denver, Fitzpatrick was just average, which is what he's been over the majority of his career.
With the exception of one pass that should have been picked near the end of the half, he didn't force many bad passes but also didn't show the same playmaking ability as last week when hit passes down field and made plays with his legs.
His pass protection wasn't great at times, but Fitzpatrick definitely took a step back from last week.
Now to Case Keenum.
Let me just get this out here no matter how unpopular the opinion might be: The Texans cutting Keenum would be a reasonable move.
He was outplayed by rookie Tom Savage in the game against Denver and has shown no visible signs of improvement going back to his final five games last season when he struggled to the tune of two touchdowns with six interceptions.
Keenum still misses what should be easy blitz pickups, holds on to the ball way too long, creates pressure by unnecessarily moving outside the pocket and makes too many poor decisions with passes attempted into double, triple and sometimes even quadruple coverage.
Such a mixed bag with Keenum. Outside the numbers efficient, inside the numbers struggles. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) August 24, 2014
If you just look at Keenum's stat line it doesn't look that bad, but what that stat line doesn't show you are the three to four passes he threw into tight coverage that should have been picked.
Two near-picks on that drive by Case Keenum. Had been moving pretty smoothly, though, until the end of that drive. #Texans— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) August 24, 2014
He does some things well, but he doesn't do them frequently enough, and he still has major flaws that don't appear to be improving at all. Savage is the future among this group of quarterbacks, so if he's already playing equal or better than Keenum, then why keep Keenum? Save the roster spot to use elsewhere.
On the other hand, the stat line from Savage was a sparkling 5-of-6 for 68 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a nearly perfect 153.5 QB rating. Yes, it was against backups, but Keenum was also playing against backups. Savage played well; Keenum did not. End of story in my opinion.
Nothing explosive from the running backs, but they all played pretty solid. Hard to judge the position completely while Arian Foster is still out, but he should be back in time for the Texans' Week 1 game against the Washington Redskins.
Jonathan Grimes and Ronnie Brown both averaged over four yards per carry on their nine combined carries, while sixth-round pick Alfred Blue saw his average drop to just three yards per carry.
I still think Blue will be the guy to back up Foster once the season starts, and we caught a glimpse of why when the Texans scored their first touchdown of the game.
On 4th-and-1 the Texans decided to go for it, and on a handoff to Blue, the former LSU Tiger was able to break a tackle and pick up a huge first down. Some of the holes he had in previous weeks weren't there tonight, but his vision and ability to hit the cutback lane is obvious even to the untrained eye.
Not a great night for the backs, but I still feel comfortable with Grimes and Blue in the event Foster goes down with an injury during the regular season.
I like Brown's ability as third-down back with his receiving skills and ability as a pass protector, but it's hard to imagine a scenario where the Texans keep four running backs. The role of a third-down back is important, but Foster has those same skills. Better to keep the reserve backs with better upside.
Wide Receiver and Tight Ends
The return of Andre Johnson was already a win for this position group.
Overall the receivers played solid, but they were held back at times by the play from their quarterbacks—at least the ones who aren't named Tom Savage.
In particular Ryan Griffin and DeVier Posey played well with a combined nine receptions for 92 yards during the game. Travis Labhart also played well with a couple receptions on the last drive, not including the pass he caught for the two-point conversion.
Labhart seems to have knack for getting open quickly and finding holes in open space like other slot receivers who have excelled in this offense, but making the roster will still be tough. Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Thomas and Posey are all either locks or at worst near-locks.
I think the Texans will keep five receivers, which means the final spot would come down to Keshawn Martin, Labhart and his former Texas A&M teammate, Uzoma Nwachukwu.
Rookie tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz also showed some of his ability against Denver with a couple catches and several nice blocks. His upside is clear, and I don't think it will be long until he becomes the Texans' No. 1 tight end.
Like other positions, it was a win for the group just to see Brandon Brooks—who I think is a future Pro Bowl player—back on the field; he actually ended up playing the majority of the game as he gets back into football shape.
The first unit on the offensive line played pretty solid, but that performance level dropped off when the backups came in. Certainly Case Keenum created some of the pressure with his movement in and out of the pocket, but the Texans will be in big trouble if any of their starters misses time during the regular season.
Kupper run over for the sack and Clabo just run by on the edge. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) August 24, 2014
Not surprisingly, with more losses to the line than quality additions over recent years, the depth up front is a serious question.
Back to the first group for a moment: I'm not worried about its production as a run-blocking group. Where I do start to worry is with its pass-blocking ability, especially with Derek Newton and second-round pick Xavier Su'a-Filo.
Thankfully Ryan Fitzpatrick is light-years more mobile than Matt Schaub ever was, but pressure speeds up the clock of the quarterback, which usually leads to more turnovers. As a quarterback who has been turnover-prone in the past, Fitzpatrick needs better play up front.
Virtually no pressure was created against Denver up front, which is a concern. Certainly J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney will provide pressure, but I'm not confident in any other player in terms of getting after the quarterback.
The Texans need someone else to win their one-on-one matchups—which they will have plenty of with double-teams being sent at Clowney and Watt—to create pressure and hopefully cause turnovers and loss of yardage.
In particular I've been disappointed in Jared Crick; the next time he makes a play this preseason will be the first time. The former fourth-round pick played really well at Nebraska, but that same penetrating ability has disappeared since becoming a pro.
Crick recorded 9.5 sacks in both his sophomore and junior season for Nebraska, but he rarely pushes the pocket and too often seems glued to his blockers.
A player I wouldn't be shocked to see take some snaps away from Crick is Ricardo Mathews. The former Indianapolis Colt was one of the few bright spots on the line and impressed many, including P.D. Starr of State of the Texans.
Ricardo Mathews was productive in the trenches for the defense, and put together a 3 tackle evening with 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit and 2 TFLs in limited work. His size to play the run or pass is making him vital piece for the defensive line and looks like he is solidifying his spot on the 53 man roster.
With Clowney and Watt both on the field at the same time—hasn't happened in the last two games—and a hopefully healthy and in shape Louis Nix III at nose tackle, this unit should start to look pretty good up front.
That wasn't the case tonight, especially with the backups who allowed Juwan Thompson and Kapri Bibbs to combine for 57 yards on just eight carries. The run defense wasn't as stout against Denver.
Regardless of performance, the return of Brian Cushing was great to see. He didn't play much, but he did seem to move around easily and had a tackle for loss, so overall a solid first game back for the Pro Bowl linebacker.
I also liked what I saw from a couple other inside linebackers with Jeff Tarpinian and Max Bullough. Tarpinian was around the ball when he was in the game and still looks more comfortable in coverage than most of their other linebackers.
While Eddie Pleasant was credited with the official interception, Bullough was the one who caused it with a nice tip of the pass from Brock Osweiler. One of the big knocks on Bullough coming out of college was his lack of ability in pass coverage.
He looked pretty good on that play dropping back and could unseat veteran linebacker Akeem Dent for a spot on this roster.
My big disappointment with the group is with the same player it seems to be with every week, that of course being Whitney Mercilus.
He did have a sack against Denver, but it didn't come off some great pass-rushing move or anything else created by great skill or effort. Mercilus just disappears when you watch the team play. He's glued to his blocker and makes virtually no impact.
Mercilus is still on the field. You probably haven't noticed.— Paul Gallant (@PaulyGSays) August 24, 2014
Not sure what can be done with him, but I doubt he sees much time this season outside of obvious pass situations on third down.
The good news? They played pretty well as a group except for two possessions.
The bad news? On those two possessions the Broncos scored quickly on long passes from Peyton Manning to Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders beats Pleasant and Bouye again for another touchdown. That got out of hand quickly. #Texans— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) August 24, 2014
The celebration of one of those touchdowns led to this interesting confrontation.
The good news? The two players who were torched on the touchdown passes will not be starting come Week 1 against the Washington Redskins.
The bad news? Their depth in the secondary—especially safety—is reason for concern.
#Texans so thin at safety. Chris Clemons playing way too much for my liking.— PDS (@PatDStat) August 24, 2014
Silver lining: Before the two late touchdowns in the second half, the Texans forced a turnover, a punt and two field-goal attempts on the Broncos' first four drives with the first-string players on the field.
The secondary will also improve when Johnathan Joseph returns and J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are harassing quarterback for all four quarters.
The Texans should be able to put out a solid group when they go with five defensive backs in a nickel or some other sub-package. With Chris Clemons and A.J. Bouye they won't have glaring a weakness that other quarterbacks are able to exploit.
However, if they ever want to go into dime with a fourth corner or safety, every fan should cross his or her fingers and hope that the sixth man doesn't allow a touchdown.
Not much to report here. The Texans had just two kickoff returns and no punt returns during the game against Denver. They also weren't able to make any spectacular plays like the blocked punt and field goal from the game with Atlanta.
They were solid in their coverage units, and the kickers made everything they attempted, so it was a solid effort with limited playing time.
Rookie Chris Boswell punted in place of a resting Shane Lechler Saturday night and performed well with four of his six punts downed inside the 40-yard line.
He won't make the roster, but his versatility as both a kicker and punter should make him an attractive option for a team with a player struggling at one of those positions or if a team's starter gets hurt.
What I Did Like: Going for it on fourth down three times during the game. The Texans practice situational football all the time during practice, like most teams do, so what better way to work on those plays than in live games that don't actually count?
What piece of valuable information will you gain from watching a kicker attempt what should be an easy field-goal attempt? Why not get your team some reps in fourth-down scenarios and get a look at what plays work best?
I wouldn't have gone for it in the regular situation on all three plays in question, but I love the aggressive approach during the regular season. Not exactly breaking news, but Bill O'Brien does appear to be more aggressive than former head coach Gary Kubiak.
What I Didn't Like: Why did William Powell receive multiple carries on the final drive?
It just didn't make any sense. Not only were the Texans in a late and trailing situation, but it would also be beneficial to see your rookie quarterback and possible future at the position get a few more reps.
Powell isn't going to make this team. Why would he be given carries over letting Tom Savage air it out; he needs as much experience as he can get. Not only do you need to see him play to evaluate him in regard to the backup spot this season, but the Texans will have a big decision next year depending on where their draft pick is.
Maybe running Powell could be argued in terms of trying to win the game—though I would disagree with it—but that goal shouldn't necessarily be the top priority during the preseason.