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Texans 26, Panthers 13: Five Things We Learned

Schaub looked ready in camp, at game
Schaub looked ready in camp, at game
Photos by Marco Torres

It takes looking at just one final box score to show the relative importance, or lack thereof, with early preseason scores.

Patriots 7, Saints 6.

So the Texans' thorough road dismantling of a capable Carolina team may not signal much, particularly considering most first-teamers played less than a quarter. Any judgments on eventual team success will wait until the next two weeks, when starters will presumably play two-to-three quarters against heavyweights San Francisco and New Orleans.

That said, the play of individuals and some units can prove telling. In the 2011 exhibition opener, then-unknown rookie quarterback T.J. Yates showed poise beyond his years in rallying the Texans to a late win over the Jets.

Five months and two injuries later, Yates guided the Texans to the first playoff win in team history.

Here's a look at several standouts from the 2012 preseason debut.

5.) The kicking competition that isn't.

In the absence of Neil Rackers, it's understandable why the Texans brought in veteran placekicker Shayne Graham to "compete" with rookie draftee and former Aggie Randy Bullock. On a Super Bowl contender, head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith don't want any position to be decided without competition, especially with unproven talent.

But this is Bullock's job to lose, and he doesn't appear likely to do that. Kickers are rarely drafted, so when they are, the team has high hopes and plans on them making the roster. Bullock went 2-of-2 on both extra points and field goals on Saturday, including a 52-yarder drilled straight down the middle that would've been good from 60. Field goals beyond 40 yards were an adventure for the Texans last year, and it caught up to them with a crucial miss in the playoff loss to Baltimore. With Bullock, it shouldn't happen again.

4.) Matt Schaub looks healthy. After his Lisfranc foot fracture, some wondered if Schaub would fully regain his mobility for use in Kubiak's bootleg-heavy system. So far, so good

In six attempts, Schaub rolled out on three occasions, once eluding a defender and routinely throwing off his repaired plant foot with full velocity. Much was made of the interception on his final attempt, in which a hit caused the ball to flutter and land in the lap of Carolina linebacker Jason Phillips. The most noteworthy aspect of the play, at least to me, wasn't the interception -- because Schaub probably would have tossed the ball away if the stakes were higher. For me, it was that Schaub took his first big hit and bounced right back up. For a Texans' team that needs Schaub healthy to be Super Bowl caliber, it was a welcome sight.

 

3.) Kareem Jackson may complete Wade Phillips' defense. If you had to nitpick a weakness on the Texans' star-studded 2011 defense, it was the No. 2 cornerback spot opposite Johnathan Joseph. Jackson improved significantly from his awful rookie campaign in 2010, but opposing quarterbacks still had a rating of 111.4 when throwing in his direction. As a result, he split time with Jason Allen.

But Allen departed for Cincinnati in the offseason, giving the reps exclusively to Jackson. Making matters worse, he missed several training camp practices with a hamstring injury. But on Saturday, Jackson returned and looked better than ever against star Carolina wideout Steve Smith, successfully knocking away multiple Cam Newton passes. One in particular was impressive, considering it saved a touchdown and showed the precise "ball skills" that so many worry Jackson lacks.

2.) Depth, depth, and depth. The Texans dominated throughout Saturday's win, but the second-half performance was suffocating. Second- and third-team defenders held Carolina to just 13 yards and no points, led by 1.5 sacks from rookie pass-rushing specialist Whitney Mercilus as well as inside linebacker Tim Dobbins. (Dobbins, by the way, also had an impressive tackle in the backfield on a 3rd-and-1, forcing a Carolina punt -- just like his game-saving stop against Baltimore's Ray Rice on 4th-and-goal in January.)

The Texans have spent enormous draft capital in recent years to fix the defensive side of the ball, to the point where prized prospects like Mercilus, 2011 second-round cornerback Brandon Harris and 2010 third-round tackle Earl Mitchell comprise the second units -- even while playing well. It showed on Saturday, as the Panther backups were unable to generate any type of offensive rhythm. The Texans were able to survive the loss of Mario Williams in 2011 because of that depth. If needed, they may be able to survive more injuries in 2012.

1.) Calling all playmakers. Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, you're needed at the red zone. The Texans stalled out three times inside the 10, each trip resulting in a Bullock or Graham field goal. The strength of Kubiak's offense is in its diversity and creativity, particularly in design. However, that advantage is somewhat limited around the goal line, where defenders have fewer spacing issues to be concerned with. In short, the goal line is where star players are called on to win individual battles or draw enough attention to open up the field.

With Foster, he needs to secure the ball. He fumbled six times in his final eight games of last season, had similar issues early in training camp and dropped it on his first carry of this preseason. While he remains the league's most talented running back, it's hard to play a turnover risk near the end zone. That said, Foster had zero fumbles in his first 10 games of 2011 and only three for all of 2010, so the issue should be fixable. In an ideal world, the next two weeks can restore Kubiak's confidence in his ball security.

Meanwhile, Johnson needs to see the field, period. The decision to sit him Saturday was understandable, considering a wet playing surface, limited first-team reps and his recent groin pull. On the other hand, Johnson missed enough games in 2011 that the team could use game practice with him. Young receiving targets like Keshawn Martin, Garrett Graham and Devier Posey should have more end-zone openings once Johnson lines up across the field and draws ample attention.

With the 49ers -- one of the league's best defenses -- coming to Reliant this week, it seems a great opportunity for a test drive.

Be sure to check out our 4 winners, 4 losers from Saturday's game.

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