Saints 34, Texans 27: Five Things We Learned

In name, Saturday did represent the clichéd dress rehearsal for the Texans. In practicality, it was only the case on one side of the ball.

With the defense missing Shaun Cody, J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing, there isn't that much use to reading fortunes on that side of the ball. The Saints are an elite offense, especially at home, and the Texans didn't have the personnel to accurately gauge their readiness.

On the other hand, the Houston offense was largely healthy. Led by a resurgent Matt Schaub (15-for-18, 194 yards, 1 TD), the Texans put up 24 points in their first-team half, all on the road against one of the NFL's elite.

It was an encouraging performance for a likely Super Bowl contender, but it didn't come without any question marks. Here's a look at what stood out, the good and bad:

5) Run blocking remains a work in progress It's time for the Texans to pick a right tackle and stick with him. Arian Foster and Ben Tate rushed a combined 13 times for 42 yards -- barely over three yards per carry for the best running-back tandem in football. On several occasions, the Saints blew up the revamped right side of the Houston offensive line and were in the backfield before the play could even start.

The guess here is that Rashad Butler is the guy. The Texans want to believe Derek Newton, a 2011 late-round pick, can carry the load. That's because Newton is under contract for multiple seasons on the cheap, while Butler's deal expires after this year.

It would be nice for the future to begin now, but Newton doesn't appear ready to be a starter on a Super Bowl contender. In fact, Newton struggled to hold up against New Orleans' second- and third-team linemen late in the game. Butler isn't elite, but he proved capable as a starter in 2010 when he replaced Duane Brown during a four-game suspension. There isn't the same downside risk.

"I think where we're at right now, we need to make a decision and move on and see how they handle it," head coach Gary Kubiak said Sunday.

Whomever the choice, he needs to get full-time repetitions with the first team in practice and early in the regular season, as opposed to the 50-50 split that has gone on this preseason. It won't be easy to replicate the production of Eric Winston, but consistency may help.

4) Keshawn Martin faces first adversity The fourth-round rookie has been the talk of exhibition play for the Texans. Matt Schaub found instant chemistry with Martin in the slot during training camp, and it continued into Saturday, with a 10-yard scoring strike that put the Texans up, 14-0. But Martin then fumbled twice and only had one additional catch for two yards to show for his night.

The quickest way to get into Gary Kubiak's doghouse is through turnovers. For better or worse, Kubiak has repeatedly turned away explosive-but-risky young wideouts for Bryant Johnson-type veterans that he can trust not to make critical errors. One game isn't enough to put Martin in the "risky" category, but it's the first true adversity he'll face after an almost flawless training camp. Kubiak will closely watch how he responds. 3) Garrett Graham ready? Graham has an important role to fill as the second tight end, replacing Joel Dreessen. That said, Texans fans haven't seen too much of him. James Casey is penciled in as the starting fullback, but he largely played with the tight ends in training camp and preseason because of the battle between Moran Norris and Derrell Smith to take the other roster slot at fullback. That limited the repetitions that Graham had with the first-team group.

Things changed, however, in Saturday's dress rehearsal. With Casey taking some snaps at fullback, Graham lined up in Dreessen's old role opposite Owen Daniels and excelled, catching four passes for a team-best 97 yards. Kubiak has long lauded Graham's practice work, and now Texans fans are finally seeing the results on the field.

2) James remains a liability As promised, we won't talk too much about defense, but there's one exception. In this column last week, we identified aging linebacker Bradie James as a potential liability. He looked that and then some on Saturday. It's a bit unfair to expect any linebacker to stick with Jimmy Graham, but James' attempts in coverage were laughable. Yes, it's true that backup Tim Dobbins isn't likely to be much better in that capacity. But unlike James, Dobbins does consistently stop the run -- something the Texans again struggled to do on Saturday, with Chris Ivory rushing 8 times for 57 yards.

The Texans' rush defense will be much improved once Cody, Watt and Cushing return from injury (all are expected back for the September 9 opener). But if there's a weak link in the Texans' star-studded defense, it appears to be James.

1) Special teams come into focus The kicking competition came to a quick end, with Randy Bullock going down with a season-ending groin injury. The news isn't too surprising, considering Bullock has struggled with the injury for much of the past month and again was unable to drive kickoffs through the end zone. That gives the job to veteran Shayne Graham.

The return job, however, remains very much up for grabs. Five-foot-five Trindon Holliday, after back-to-back weeks of return touchdowns, had the opposite result on Saturday -- a fumble that was taken back for a New Orleans score. Of course, with the Texans' other leading return option (Keshawn Martin) fumbling twice, Holliday may have a bit more leeway.

Thursday's preseason finale with Minnesota is largely irrelevant. Most starters won't play, instead resting up for the regular season opener a week later. Some second-teamers won't suit up, either. One huge exception, though, is special teams. Kubiak says that Holliday will get all of the return work, and his performance Thursday could very well determine if he finally wins an opening-day roster spot.

Check out the four winners and four losers from the Texans-Saints game, special Trindon Holliday edition.

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