It's not regular season football by any stretch, but we've reached the two preseason weeks where starters appear for more than a cameo and meaningful trends can be deciphered.
In the case of the Texans and Dolphins on Saturday night, that comprised much of the first half. For the home squad, results were mixed.
The good? On offense, Matt Schaub's playaction bootlegs, a long-time staple of the Gary Kubiak-designed offense, were incredibly effective. On defense, linebacker Brian Cushing played in his first game after suffering a torn ACL last October and seemed spry as ever.
The bad? A Miami team that didn't make the playoffs in 2012 battled the Texans to a near stalemate (7-7 after one quarter, 17-14 Houston at the half). A handful of concern spots from the late-season collapse a year ago, including right tackle and cornerback, appeared similarly problematic.
Here's a look at five specific trends that stood out:
5.) Lestar Jean makes his case. A year ago, Jean secured his roster spot based on a dearth of receiving talent in Houston before posting an underwhelming season. He always looked the part physically with an imposing 6-foot-3, athletic frame. He also drew rave reviews in training camp and practices. But in meaningful games, the Texans desperately needed another playmaker, and Jean's six catches in 14 games didn't provide it.
With the addition of rookie DeAndre Hopkins and impending activation of DeVier Posey, four of likely five receiving jobs are taken (Andre Johnson, Hopkins, and second-year WRs Posey and Keshawn Martin). There's room for one more, but Jean will have to earn it, especially with a lot of hype surrounding sixth-round rookie Alan Bonner.
On Saturday, Jean staked his claim by leading all Houston receivers with 57 yards on three catches. Most impressive was his 38-yard touchdown catch from Case Keenum early in the second quarter. On a key 4th-and-2, Jean created separation from the Miami defensive back, hauled in a beautiful touch pass from Keenum in stride and showed the breakaway speed to take it the rest of the way. Jean probably remains the favorite in the No. 5 receiver battle, and plays like that are what he needs to secure it.
"Lestar has come a long way," Kubiak said after the game. "And that is going to be important, because we can't overload Hopkins as we go into the season."
4.) Is Johnathan Joseph who we thought he was? First, the obvious disclaimer. Ex-Steeler Mike Wallace is one of the most physically talented receivers In football, and he'll make a lot of receivers look bad. But he torched Joseph on a series of plays early on, catching three passes (on three targets) for 58 yards and a touchdown.
Joseph was a lockdown corner in his first Houston season in 2011, leading many to declare him a defensive cornerstone. But he struggled a bit in 2012, particularly in the Sunday Night Football disaster against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, offering some pause to that theory. Joseph cited physical issues that affected his performance, including two sports hernias, and said in camp this year that he was finally healthy. But what if he's simply not that good anymore? One shaky preseason game isn't worth losing sleep over, but it's worth monitoring in the weeks ahead.
The upshot is that Kareem Jackson continues to develop, and Jackson largely blanketed his receivers on Saturday night. But for the Texans to reach their 2011 form on defense, they probably need Joseph to recapture his magic from two years ago.
3.) Offensive line woes continue. With the line, we know left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers are among the best at their positions. It's the other three spots, two of which were vacated by the March 2012 departures of Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, that contributed to a large falloff in Houston's running game and pass protection.
The Texans are counting on continuity to help the problem, but it didn't help much on Saturday night. On an obvious passing down, right tackle Derek Newton was beaten embarrassingly by Miami's Cameron Wake for a sack of Schaub.
On the ground, Ben Tate rushed four times for just 12 yards. Deji Karim got most of the looks behind Tate, but the majority of his success (nine carries, 55 yards) came in the second half against Miami's third- and fourth-stringers. Ben Jones, who started at right guard in 2012 and is currently at left guard due to Wade Smith's injury, was pushed into the backfield far too easily.
"I was disappointed on how we ran the ball in general," Kubiak said.
At tackle, the most viable alternative is likely veteran Ryan Harris. At guard, it could be rookie David Quessenberry. It wouldn't be a surprise if Kubiak gives both more time against the Saints next Sunday, because the status quo is concerning. 2.) Keenum shines. It was Keenum's night to take No. 2 reps in the backup quarterback derby, and he did little to quiet the fan fervor for his promotion. The UH product completed 11-of-18 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown, with a rating of 106.3.
"I think Case is making a big push," Andre Johnson said following the game.
T.J. Yates hasn't done anything to lose his job, per se. But in his third year, he is what he is. He has the size and arm strength to make most throws, but he's a bit mechanical and generally relies on the system to create plays. On the other hand, Keenum is more of a true playmaker. While undersized, his mobility and ability to improvise gives him a chance to make off-script plays - something the Texans desperately need. He also masters the touch pass, an element on display when he flicked a lob pass to Jean for a touchdown.
Quite simply, Yates offers stability while Keenum shows more upside. If Keenum's performance remains consistent in the final two preseason games, he could steal the job.
1.) Cushing lives. It was a quiet night statistically for Cushing, with one tackle in less than a quarter of action. But in the big picture, it was a defining moment for the Texans and their Super Bowl hopes. When Cushing went out a season ago, the Texans suddenly found them sliced and diced on passing routes in the middle of the field.
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On Saturday, it took only three plays to see significant improvement. Facing a 3rd-and-11 on the initial drive, Miami called a beautifully-executed screen to Lamar Miller. It fooled almost the entire Houston defense... except for Cushing, who read it perfectly and wrapped up Miller in the backfield for a five-yard loss.
Flash forward a quarter, and with the Dolphins in a similar spot on 3rd-and-13, a simple shovel pass to Daniel Thomas went 27 yards and set up Miami for a touchdown. That's the value of Cushing, one of the NFL's top linebackers and defensive leaders, and it's what the Texans played without for the final 13 games of the 2012 season and playoffs.
Said Gary Kubiak: "I told him going out of the tunnel today, 'Welcome back. I'm proud of you. You worked your tail off.' He's got a lot of confidence right now and for him to get out there and get hit on again and all that type of stuff is a big step in the right direction."
It's a step that is an absolute necessity for the Texans to win a Super Bowl. With a non-elite quarterback, it's up to the rest of the team - notably, the defense - to carry its share of the load, as they did for most of 2011 before falling off late in 2012. The return of a healthy Brian Cushing is enormous progress toward that goal.