Photos by Marco Torres Big night for the Big D.
It was brief and incomplete, but Saturday offered the first glimpse of how the Texans (2-0) may stack up with the league's elite.
Houston starters played for essentially a full half against the Niners, a team known for its punishing, physical play on both sides of the ball. The Texans, of course, are known for that as well, especially with Wade Phillips running the defense.
The results were what you might expect if these two played in the regular season. The Texans narrowly won the "starters" half in a 10-6 defensive battle, and only broke things open on an 87-yard punt return touchdown from Trindon Holliday in the fourth quarter.
It was largely a defensive struggle, one that represented the precise style of game the Texans must win to finally get over the hump against longtime nemesis Baltimore -- both on Oct. 21 and potentially in the playoffs come January.
Given that context, here's a look at what stood out:
5) Get well soon, Shaun Cody and J.J. Watt. As outstanding as the defense looks at times, it remains thin up the middle. With Cody out after tweaking his back in Carolina, Earl Mitchell stepped in at nose tackle. The results weren't pretty. The 49ers gashed the Texans for 94 yards rushing in the first half, an average of 6.7 yards on 14 carries. The Texans were able to regroup deep in their territory and kept the Niners out of the end zone, but the struggles against the run left them constantly under pressure.
"It was very real, it was a very physical game and they're a big physical team," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "They took the ball downhill at us in the run game. I think we have to tackle better, we have to hold up better against the run."
The weakness was most pronounced inside, where Mitchell was unable to shed blockers or diagnose plays with much success. Mitchell is fine as a situational pass-rushing tackle, but the Texans will struggle to stuff the run without Cody. Ra'Shon Harris stood out in the second half, but that came against reserves. Cody and the Texans are confident that he'll be healthy by the regular season. He needs to be.
The same holds true at end with the absence of J.J. Watt, who continues to recover from a dislocated elbow. Tim Jamison is an underrated sub and was able to pressure Alex Smith, but lacks the power to hold up in the run game like Watt.
4) Pass-first team? It likely won't last, but at the moment, the Texans' passing offense is more in sync than the run game. It's well documented that Arian Foster and the ground is the foundation, but that hasn't been the case this preseason.
With Rashad Butler and Derek Newton looking to replace Eric Winston at right tackle and James Casey and Garrett Graham filling the role of Joel Dreessen as second tight end, the blocking scheme isn't yet humming like it normally does. That was especially true against a stout San Francisco defense. Foster had a respectable 46 yards on 10 carries, but 24 of those came on a late second-quarter carry against a 49er defense comprised partly of second-teamers. Otherwise, Foster had 22 yards on nine carries -- an average of under three yards. Butler looked to outplay Newton, but further development is needed. The Niners were simply more physical up front.
Meanwhile, Matt Schaub looked in fine form (11-of-14, 128 yards, 1 TD) with a healthy Andre Johnson and several rookie receivers at his disposal. The Texans opened with three consecutive completions, including a 22-yard strike to Keshawn Martin on a seam route, before back-to-back Foster carries for minimal yardage stalled the drive. A similar story transpired on the second drive, which opened with back-to-back Foster rushes and a false-start penalty, leading to a three-and-out. On the third drive, Schaub went playaction and found Johnson deep for a 43-yard gain.
It's likely that run blocking will improve as new starters get more repetitions and coaching. In the meantime, having a healthy Schaub and Johnson -- something the Texans lacked for much of 2011 -- is a fine foundation to fall back on.
Arian Foster with room to run.
Beyond those four, the Texans still have DeVier Posey in development. Though Posey has shown little on the field in the preseason, Kubiak says he had an excellent training camp, and it's hard to imagine a third-round rookie not making the roster. There's also the issue of Holliday, who is pushing hard for a roster spot as a special-teams ace.
Before camp opened, uncertainty at receiver led the Texans to kick the tires on retread veterans such as Roy Williams. Two games in, things seem a lot more settled.
2) Graham makes his push Last week, I wrote that the kicking contest was Randy Bullock's to lose. It might happen. While Bullock missed a 51-yarder Saturday, Graham connected on a pair of long kicks (48, 49) and also outperformed the rookie on kickoffs. The guess here is that Bullock still holds the edge based on age, the Texans' investment (a fifth-round draft choice) and his accuracy during training camp, which was better than Graham's. But the veteran is making things interesting.
The Texans' plans at punter may also impact the kicking competition. Newcomer Donnie Jones will undoubtedly break camp with the Texans, since 2011 starter Brett Hartmann is out the first three games due to suspension. What are they planning after the third week, though? If the team goes back to Hartmann, they'll likely use his superb leg strength on kickoffs, just as they did a year ago. If that's the case, it diminishes the importance of Graham's biggest advantage over Bullock -- leg strength.
On the other hand, Jones doesn't do kickoffs. So if the Texans stick with Jones -- a wizard at hang time who downed two punts inside the 20 on Saturday -- it means the placekicker would need to handle kickoffs. In that scenario, advantage Graham.
1) Controversy at inside linebacker? After losing DeMeco Ryans in an offseason cap move, the Texans quickly signed ex-Cowboy Bradie James as a replacement, citing his experience with Phillips and ability as a veteran signal-caller. From a physical standpoint, he's yet to look the part. James whiffed on a pair of tackles Saturday and also looked slow in coverage against 49er tight ends. Meanwhile, backup Tim Dobbins continued to show a nose for the ball and was involved in yet another key 3rd/4th-and-1 stop.
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It's early, but both Dobbins and Mister Alexander seem to have outplayed James in game action. Phillips has yet to say he's considering a change, but it stands to reason that the veteran could use positive reinforcement.
He'll have a chance for that next Saturday night, when the Texans head to New Orleans and face a dynamic Saints offense. The preseason's third week represents the "dress rehearsal," so expect starters to play close to three quarters. Shaky starters such as James will be under the microscope.
Be sure to check out our take on the four winners and four losers from the Niners game.