Not all that long ago, the NFL's preseason was a lot more formulaic. The first stringers would play a couple series in the first preseason game, they'd play nearly a half in the second preseason game, they'd play practically three quarters in the third preseason game, and they would all sit out the final preseason game. Lather, rinse, repeat,
Thus, the third game always carried the label of "THE MOST IMPORTANT PRESEASON GAME," in part to try to convince the people paying full price for tickets that they weren't essentially lighting their money on fire. Marketing!
Now, the third preseason game is still important, but probably not the reasonable facsimile of regular season football that it used to be, in large part because NFL teams are now routinely practicing and scrimmaging with other teams during the week leading up to the game. Coaches see this as a better chance to simulate game situations. They like the super-scripted small stage of practice, as opposed to the preseason games, to accomplish their work. In other words, the importance of the third preseason game is being squeezed by practice.
To that end, the Texans are in New Orleans this week for a Thursday practice with the Saints followed by a preseason game tomorrow night. To my point above, the most important work on the road trip has probably already taken place in Metairie at the Saints' practice facility yesterday. However, we will all watch tomorrow night, and when we do, here is what I will be keeping my eyes on....
4. Deshaun Watson's continued development
Bill O'Brien could not have been more emphatic earlier this week in naming, once again, Tom Savage as his starting quarterback. He cited reasons and heaped praise on the fourth year signal caller. However, O'Brien was quick to point out how advanced Deshaun Watson was for a rookie, and even provided his "we all know the deal" tell, when he said "let's put our cards on the table" in the midst of the praise, almost as if to say "Hey yo, we all know who's starting for this team in 2018 (and maybe sooner). It's number FOUR!" For the long term, it's far more important that Texan fans continue to see progress from Watson than Savage. In these first two games, he's done a lot of good things, and he's made some mistakes. It will be interesting to see who gets the majority of the snaps in this game, since, as noted earlier, the NFL's M.O. on the third preseason game has been to give the starter about three quarters of work. I'm anxious to see what O'Brien's priorities are in this game, quarterback-wise.
3. Special teams improvement
So let's take inventory on how we feel about the Texans' special teams units, which have been ranked 28th, 32nd, and 32nd in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric in O'Brien's three seasons. The individual specialists are anywhere from great at their jobs (Shane Lechler, Jon Weeks) to good enough to make me comfortable (whoever wins the starting placekicking job, more on that in a moment). I also feel better about the upgrades in athleticism and juice at the back end of the roster (your special teams body inventory), as compared to years past. From there, it unravels a little bit. That athleticism needs to translate to execution, and the tackling in the coverage teams has largely stunk in games this preseason. In the return game, Tyler Ervin might be the most underrated X-factor for this team, as a big leap forward from him in the return game would greatly aid a first time opening week starter at quarterback in the field position department.
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2. Kicker battle
There is no doubt we have an all-out kicking competition going on between the incumbent, steady veteran Nick Novak and the second year, stronger legged Ka'imi Fairbairn. Fairbairn missed a huge opportunity to take the competition by the throat when he missed a 55-yarder against the Panthers in the first preseason game. (He didn't just miss, he missed badly.) Since then, they've basically alternated opportunities, and it may come down to mere preference — the short and mid range consistency of Nick Novak and his placement kickoffs, OR the less consistent Fairbairn with his potential for much deeper kickoffs (and resulting touchbacks). There's obviously something this staff sees in Fairbairn with them having kept him around on injured reserve last season.
1. More D'Onta Foreman
Now that we Deshaun Watson truthers have accepted his fate as a backup, at least to start the season, we can turn our attention to demanding something else with extreme front burner importance — the NECESSITY that rookie running back D'Onta Foreman get more snaps with the first team offense! Foreman is, far and away, the most physically gifted of the running backs on this roster, and he's shown enough of an understanding of the offense, and enough juice in the passing game (surprisingly good hands!) to where Bill O'Brien would be doing his team a disservice to keep trotting him out there AFTER Alfred Blue. Foreman should minimally be in a tandem committee running back situation with starter Lamar Miller.
Make it happen, Bill!
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.