Saints 31, Texans 23: Offense Shines, But Can They Stop The Big Plays?

Photo by Marco Torres
Matt Schaub had a productive outing, especially when targeting Andre Johnson.
The result by itself doesn't matter. Despite losing to the Saints, the Texans had a mostly good day from a big-picture standpoint.

They put up nearly 500 yards of offense (496) against a competent opponent. They came out without any significant injuries. Andre Johnson looked better than ever. They held the Saints scoreless on two of three drives with Drew Brees, including a three-and-out and a third-down sack from Jared Crick.

They have plenty to be positive about as the Sept. 9 opener in San Diego approaches. But if there's one lingering doubt from 2012 that's not related to Matt Schaub, it's the team's ability to prevent big plays -- often fluke-ish but usually game-changing.

"Offensively, we have to finish better," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "Defensively, too many big plays."

Those flaws were on full display Sunday, and despite the Texans outplaying New Orleans for most of the day, a handful of busted assignments from the Texans -- a Saints dump-off pass turning into a 51-yard touchdown after a missed tackle, a Texans punt return touchdown nullified by penalty, Johnathan Joseph falling asleep on an end-zone route, etc. -- were enough to give New Orleans the victory.

The preseason gaffes and lapses on defense and special teams wouldn't be that concerning, except that they're very reminiscent of the 2012 season finale in Indianapolis and a pair of November games against the Jaguars and Lions -- games which foreshadowed Houston's ultimate demise.

There's still two weeks for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and special teams chief Joe Marciano to clean up the issues, but they and head coach Gary Kubiak should have a busy week in the film room. Here's a guess as to what they may focus on:

5.) Poor clock management. It's well established that the Texans don't have Tom Brady or Peyton Manning under center. Having Schaub isn't a death sentence, but the team would benefit from adding creativity wherever it can.

One area where creativity is missing is in clock management. Too often over the years, the Texans -- namely, Kubiak -- have settled for field goals on two-minute drives by unnecessarily holding onto timeouts and running out of time. That mentality was evident in the final minutes of the first half.

The Texans started the drive on their own 20 with 1:14 remaining and all three timeouts, yet after completing a pass to Andre Johnson for 17 yards on first down, neglected to call a timeout and allowed almost 20 seconds to elapse.

More egregiously, on the other side of the field, Schaub found Johnson again for a 22-yard gain to the New Orleans 14 on a play that ended with 26 seconds left. Had the Texans called their final timeout then, they'd have had three chances to throw into the end zone and attempt to score a touchdown.

Instead, Kubiak conservatively opted to hold onto his last timeout, and it took the Texans until 11 seconds remained to spike the ball. Even though they held onto the timeout, it was practically useless because the time remaining dictated that the Texans had only one play to try and score.

Without an elite quarterback, the Texans need to be as efficient as they can from the standpoint of game management. When it comes to timeouts, that means using them early, when value is known and not a hypothetical.

4.) Specialists excel, but not the special teams units. Let's start with the good. Randy Bullock was spectacular -- connecting on 3-of-3 field goals, including two from 48 and 55 yards. His kickoff depth, which historically has been a major issue for the Texans, was also excellent. Most went for touchbacks.

"Bullock is gaining confidence every week," said Kubiak. "Excited to see his progress."

Shane Lechler made his punting debut for the Texans and was similarly superb, including both a 60-yarder and a 44-yard punt that was downed at the 2-yard line.

The bad -- and unfortunately, it's a long-established trend -- came with Marciano's blockers and coverage teams. Keshawn Martin's spectacular punt return for a touchdown was wiped away by a completely unnecessary block-in-the-back penalty from Brendon Harris (the New Orleans coverage man was already out of the play).

Later, the opening kickoff of the second half was returned 52 yards, setting up the Saints with a short field and a very quick touchdown drive.

3.) Run blocking improves. The biggest step forward for the Texans came in the running game. After struggling to establish any sort of presence against Miami, Ben Tate gashed the Saints for 74 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

"We had a big emphasis on getting back to running the ball," said Tate. "We had to step up as a unit, and we did that tonight."

Sure, Duane Brown and Chris Myers did their jobs, but that's to be expected. The keys were Derek Newton's improvement at right tackle and rookie David Quessenberry and sophomores Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks holding their own while rotating at guard - all against a fairly stout defensive front.

"We're more firm on the right side with Brandon [Brooks]," said Kubiak. "Newton is making progress. We're more balanced."

The increased production on the ground made the playaction game much more effective for Schaub, who completed 15-of-26 passes for 213 yards in his half of action.

"I feel as a unit we're where we want to be heading into Week 1, absolutely," said Schaub.  

Marco Torres, Houston Press
The Texans need Johnathan Joseph to make -- and defend -- more big plays.

2.) Can the Texans defend deep? The red flags for the 2012 Texans started appearing in late November, when Jacksonville (led by Chad Henne!) and Detroit torched them in the air. Much of the struggles were attributed to Brian Cushing's absence, but Johnathan Joseph also seemed to be a shell of his former self and safety play was abysmal whenever Shiloh Keo was on the field.

Joseph attempted to explain away his poor play by saying he was playing hurt, but early preseason results haven't been encouraging. After being torched by Mike Wallace in his quarter-plus of action a week ago, the Saints made him look absolutely silly on a touchdown pass to Kenny Stills. Stills, a rookie, exposed Joseph's poor technique and turned him around early in the route, leaving Joseph no chance.

Meanwhile, Pierre Thomas' 51-yard touchdown reception from Drew Brees came after a missed tackle from linebacker Joe Mays and an horrid angle taken by Keo on the back end. It's worth noting that J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith didn't play Sunday, which gave opposing quarterbacks more time than they will usually have. Nonetheless, giving up the big play is a lingering concern.

"We're giving up too many big plays," Kubiak said after the game. "We're a man coverage team. Those guys get put on an island and we trust them to make those plays."

Thankfully, Keo's snaps should go down with the return of Ed Reed, which appears likely by Week 1 or very shortly thereafter. The Joseph issue could be more significant. It is the preseason, and Joseph is a veteran, so it's possible he turns it on once the regular season begins. But his shaky start to 2013, combined with a lackluster finish to 2012, means Philip Rivers and the Chargers will likely target him often come the Sept. 9 opener.

1.) Andre Johnson remains, well, Andre Johnson. A year ago, the question was if Johnson, undoubtedly the greatest player in franchise history, could regain his elite form before transitioning into a secondary role for the twilight of his career. Now, in the 11th season of his career, his status as one of the league's most dominant weapons has been fully restored.

Jump ball in man coverage? Check -- Schaub tried that on the final drive in the first half, which Johnson caught for a 22-yard gain to set up the Texans in field goal range. Gain separation on 3rd-and-long? That's exactly what Johnson did on a 3rd-and-6 hookup in the first quarter that went for 39 yards. Take a tough hit below the knees and pop back up, without injury? Did that several times, too.

"I'm going to tell you a little secret," Kubiak said after the game. [Schaub's] going to throw it to [Johnson] some more."

All in all, Johnson finished with seven catches for 131 yards in only one half of football. The leading face on the modern Mount Rushmore of Houston sports keeps on ticking, and the Texans should have another of prime Andre to keep them in Super Bowl contention.

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