It's never truly Texans season until there's the first Matt Schaub injury scare. This year, it came before the season even started -- when the Texans' QB ran out of bounds and turned his left ankle in Monday night's 17-10 preseason loss to the Vikings.
But Schaub recovered, and so did the Texans, who despite a disastrous start finally showed a few glimpses -- emphasis on "few" -- of the winning team so many expected them to be in 2009.
Adrian Peterson's 75-yard romp through the Texans defense on the first play from scrimmage brought flashbacks to the New Orleans game, where the Saints ran roughshod over the Texans' starters throughout the first half. (By the way, it was mildly surprising that ESPN didn't try and credit Peterson's 75-yard TD to the presence of Brett Favre.)
But unlike the Saints game, the Texans' starters pushed back, limiting the Vikes' dynamic ground game to 63 yards on 14 carries for the duration of the half. Ends Mario Williams and Antonio Smith routinely harassed Favre, while third-year tackle Amobi Okoye showed a pulse and got into the backfield -- something he rarely did a week ago.
Most impressively, linebacker Demeco Ryans was all over the field, collecting 13 tackles and a sack in the first half alone. Think he wants that new contract?
"The first play of the game was obviously a disaster," coach Gary Kubiak said. "It's the same scheme we saw last week and we really made the same mistake which just boggles your mind a little bit, but they buckled down and they played pretty darn good defense the rest of the way."
The spectacle of Favre and Monday Night Football brought a few unusual visitors to Reliant Stadium, beginning with exiled football pundit and resident right-winger Rush Limbaugh. And in the opening quarter, the Texans offered an offensive gameplan conservative enough to make him proud.
Third-and-8, on the first drive? Dumpoff to Steve Slaton in the flat. Third-and-17, on the second drive? Attempted bubble screen behind the line of scrimmage -- yes, behind -- to Andre Johnson.
And when the Texans weren't conservative, they were flat-out stupid. On the play prior to third-and-17, the Texans sent Schaub on a naked bootleg -- directly to Jared Allen's side of the field, where he was unblocked. Allen leveled a massive hit on Schaub, who fortunately bounced up. (Allen, if you remember, knocked Schaub out for four games last season.)
The conservative plan culminated early in the second quarter, when Schaub's attempted slant to Owen Daniels was jumped and intercepted by Minnesota linebacker Ben Leber. It made sense -- why sit back on defense if the Texans won't throw down the field?
It wasn't Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's finest hour, and it was particularly embarrassing considering it came in the third and "most real" preseason game, when starters generally played a half or more.
But on the next drive, the slumbering offense finally awakened. Schaub rifled a pair of throws over the middle to Daniels for double-digit gains, including an impressive 15-yard strike two plays after injuring his ankle. Slaton punctuated that drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.
And after giving the 70,191 fans a collective heart attack when he limped to the sidelines and sat on the trainer's table, Schaub returned with 22 seconds left and moved the Texans 36 yards in two plays, setting up a field goal to bring the Texans within 17-10.
It wasn't the cumulative result they hoped for with the first-team unit, but it finally established momentum for what was the league's third-best offense last season.
"I feel like we've had a good preseason, although we're 1-2 and we'd like to be better than that," Schaub said. "I think guys have showed a lot, and I feel like moving forward, we are going to be ready week one."
That momentum carried over to the second half, when backup QB Dan Orlovsky opened things up by lobbing a beautiful throw to Andre Johnson down the left sideline for a 46-yard gain. But the drive stalled when a pass was tipped and intercepted inside the five, and with it went the Texans' best chance to tie the game.
"The play we had called to Andre, they took it away by a lineman, and you know [Orlovsky] still tried to shove the ball in there," Kubiak said. "He's got all the ability, but whether he becomes a big-time starter and a heck of a quarterback in this league is about decision-making for him."
Kubiak said Schaub would have continued to play had it been the regular season.
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The game's positives, of course, were largely overshadowed by the unexpected and continued weaknesses. That started with horrendous overall team tackling -- particularly from the secondary, where a pair of blown assignments late in the second quarter led to a Minnesota touchdown. The Texans are hoping the returns of Brian Cushing and Dunta Robinson will help matters there.
In addition, the Texans' offensive line struggled for a second consecutive week to open running lanes. Slaton rushed nine times for only 20 yards. The passing game wasn't efficient either, with Houston quarterbacks throwing for no touchdowns and two interceptions.
As a result, it was far from an inspiring performance. But unlike the 38-14 debacle against the Saints, Monday's game at least brought progress -- even if there is a long way still to go.
"We're getting better," Ryans said. "We definitely took a punch in the mouth on the first play. The guys responded well and we came back and played well. The play could have broken our back."