Check out our slideshow of the Houston Texans' season opener against the Dolphins.
It ended with the exact lopsided score we predicted Friday, but at the same time, the 2012 season opener was quite different from the anticipated Texans blowout.
The oldest NFL cliché is that winning depends on running the ball and stopping the run. The Texans (1-0) a year ago excelled at both, but on Sunday did neither very well. Arian Foster rushed for a meager 3.0 yards per carry, while Ben Tate was even worse at 1.2, largely due to inconsistent blocking. On the other hand, much-celebrated 2006 draft bust Reggie Bush gashed the Texans for nearly five yards per attempt.
By the middle of the second quarter, those factors converged to put the Texans in a 3-3 slugfest that had their own fans booing them at a sold-out Reliant Stadium.
In seemingly an instant, though, the Texans dug deep and decisively swung momentum. Wade Phillips's defense forced four turnovers in the second quarter alone, and the Houston offense converted three of those into touchdowns.
Somehow, the Texans had a commanding 24-3 halftime lead that would never be threatened -- even while falling short of their usual standards for success.
"I won't sleep good tonight," said head coach Gary Kubiak, who immediately began preparing the Texans for next week's game at Jacksonville (0-1). "I thought we were a little shaky early.
"But we were explosive as a team in that period of the second quarter."
Some could look at the early struggles as a sign of impending trouble. But it's important to note these Texans are still working in two new starters on the right side of the offensive line, and it stands to reason they'll improve as they get more repetitions.
The listless 20-minute stretch may have also reflected overconfidence from a Houston team eyeing bigger measuring sticks than a likely last-place team in Miami. It's a battle the Texans haven't often fought before, and it's not to be undervalued.
Regardless, these Texans were good enough in the passing game on both sides of the ball to overcome a few issues up front. Here's a look at Sunday's standouts that helped the cause.
5.) Brian Cushing The Texans' star linebacker had a team-high seven tackles and an interception, though his best play may have come on the ground. It's hard to remember, but the Bush-led Dolphins had rhythm in the early going, pounding the Texans up the middle against a defense seemingly reeling amid fewer-than-usual snaps for nose tackle Shaun Cody (back). If the Dolphins had been able to score an early touchdown, it might have made the Texan sideline very nervous.
Instead, on an early 3rd-and-1 inside the Houston 15, Cushing sliced into the backfield and blew up a handoff to Bush before it could even begin. That held Miami to a field goal and began to swing momentum.
4.) Kareem Jackson Jackson wasn't perfect, and found himself beaten on a couple of occasions by Miami's Brian Hartline. But what the Texans have to be happy with is his willingness to make plays on the ball. Jackson had the alertness to grab a tipped Ryan Tannehill pass for an interception and also avoided what could've been a costly interference penalty by turning his head and swatting at the ball, not Hartline. Both were plays he wouldn't have made as a rookie.
Jackson, now in his third year, lacks the deep speed to develop into an elite No. 1 cornerback. That's fine, because the Texans don't need him to be. That's what Johnathan Joseph is for, and Joseph did his part Sunday with the first of three Houston interceptions.
What the Texans need from Jackson is steadiness. His priorities are to stay with opposing receivers in the short and medium zones, funnel deep routes toward safety help, tackle well (he had five on Sunday), avoid major penalties and show the awareness to make plays on the ball when available. If he does those things, Jackson can be a capable No. 2 cornerback on a good defense, even without great speed. For one week, mission accomplished. 3. Andre Johnson The Texans were a run-first team a year ago because it fit with the usual personnel. That's not necessarily the case with a healthy Johnson, who showed that at age 31, he's still among the NFL's elite. Johnson's eight catches for 119 yards and a touchdown were a welcome sight for Texan fans that may be nervous about the inconsistent rush blocking. Even better, he didn't appear to limp a single time.
"Andre's Andre," said Schaub. "He's the best in the game, and he showed it today."
"We had guys that were in perfect position and he made the plays," said Miami cornerback Sean Smith.
A new role for Johnson could be as mentor, especially with three young receivers (Keshawn Martin, Lestar Jean, Devier Posey) on an active NFL roster for the first time. Martin dropped what should've been a first-down conversion on the game's initial possession, and Jean couldn't corral a possible 34-yard touchdown later on that same drive. Following those mishaps, Johnson draped his arms around the young wideouts and offered words of encouragement. Jean, in particular, responded well -- grabbing a key first-down catch on the ensuing possession.
Johnson is an incredible player individually, as we were reminded Sunday, and his contributions to understudies may make him more valuable than ever.
2. Matt Schaub The Houston quarterback made the majority of headlines following the game, when word leaked of his four-year extension. His performance against the Dolphins appeared worthy of the nearly $30 million in guaranteed money. With little running game to help out, Schaub still led the way by completing 20-of-31 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown. Most impressively, he never came close to a turnover, even as a salty Miami front four put him under frequent duress.
This is the sixth straight year that Schaub and Johnson have opened the season as Houston starters. That familiarity was on full display Sunday. Even with Johnson missing the majority of 2011 due to injuries, the pair had as much chemistry as ever. The capper was an incredibly rare fade pass from Schaub late in the first half on which the ball landed perfectly over Johnson's back shoulder for a touchdown to essentially end the game.
"That's one," said Johnson, speaking to his conversation with Schaub following the game. "Got 15 more to go."
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SHOW ME HOW
1. J.J. Watt The prized second-year end showed little effects from the dislocated elbow that cut short his training camp and preseason. His two sacks and one tackle for loss were impressive enough, but his two most impactful plays were a pair of tipped passes in the first half that each ended in interceptions.
"I felt like I was in a cage for the last four or five weeks, and they finally let me out of my cage," said Watt.
Watt, a tight end in his younger days, has a unique ability to read the eyes of opposing quarterbacks and extend his lengthy arms for such deflections, oftentimes even before the ball has been released. That skill, combined with his high motor, quickness and strength against the run, already has him among the best defenders in the entire league. With more games like Sunday, he could jump to the top of the list for Defensive Player of the Year.