The atmosphere around NRG Stadium on Saturday afternoon was typical of preseason football here in Houston. Yes, all of the elements of the regular season — tailgating, drinking, music, crowd buzz — were present, but toned down about 50 percent. Admittedly, the summer heat will do that to enthusiasm, especially in the tailgating part. Outdoors in Houston in August blows.
Still, it was nice having football back on Saturday night, and for a series on offense, it even felt like a reasonable facsimile of regular season, with Deshaun Watson conducting things like the maestro he is and will be this coming season. On the scoreboard, the Houston Texans came away with a 30-23 win over the Detroit Lions, but it's the preseason, so we are more about position battles and other drama than the final score.
Let's quick hit some winners and losers. Here we go....
4. First team offense cameo
I'm not sure if it was Bill O'Brien's plan heading into Saturday, or if maybe there was a slight nudge from the business side of the Texans explaining that people paying full price on preseason tickets may want to see Deshaun Watson for a minute, but it was nice seeing the first team offense out there, and it was GREAT seeing them slice up the Lions' defense, particularly between the 20 yard lines. Watson to DeAndre Hopkins for the touchdown, on third and goal, was a classic connection between those two, and most importantly the offensive line held up nicely with Roderick Johnson at left tackle, so much so that the drumbeats became louder after the game to end the (three week) Matt Kalil Era. The only really detrimental thing on the offensive side of the ball to occur Saturday was rookie guard Tytus Howard breaking a finger that will knock him out for the remainder of training camp. There will be valuable reps missed now by Howard.
3. DeAndre Carter
On that opening drive, Carter was a huge component of the offense, nabbing three catches for 40 yards. Two of the catches were a result of running a quick "get rid of the ball" throw by Watson, executed as planned, but it was Carter's longest catch that brought the biggest smile to Texan fans faces, as Watson scrambled a bit to buy time, and Carter improvised his way into a an open area and Watson hit him with a rope for 18 yards. Carter was battling injuries at the outset of camp, but he's returned nicely with a good week of practice and a solid game on Saturday. He's made the 53-man roster.
2. Whitney Mercilus
The biggest beneficiary of Jadeveon Clowney's absence has been Mercilus, who is getting all of the first team reps at right outside linebacker and appears primed for a bounce back season, whether Clowney returns or not. (Side bar — at this point, I have no clue how the Clowney situation plays itself out.) Mercilus only played a series on Saturday night, but he made the most of it, with a strip sack and forced fumble. An underrated storyline heading into the back end of training camp is whether or not the Texans offer Mercilus a contract extension, and if they do, it will be very telling as to where the whole Clowney saga is headed.
1. Buddy Howell
Last season, Howell was with the Texans for the entire year entirely as a special teamer. He had zero carries in the regular season, so I'm not sure what to make of his rushing performance on Saturday night in the fourth quarter, slicing up a bunch of Lions third and fourth team guys for 84 yards on 15 carries. I think Howell is going to make the team in a similar role to what he had last season, but if he doesn't Saturday was a huge step toward putting down some film that other teams will see and say to themselves "Hey, this guy can help us out in multiple ways." It's on the board now, though, that Howell may have the Texans rethinking the third running back spot, where while before it might have been one of the two rookies, Karan Higdon and Damarea Crockett, out in front, maybe Howell has made Bill O'Brien rethink Howell's role as a possible ball carrier.
4. Matt Kalil
Matt Kalil got a veteran's night off on Saturday, so he didn't play. This followed an off day for the team on Friday, and another veteran's day off for Kalil at Thursday's practice. All of that followed a horrific practice for Kalil against the Lions on Wednesday. So this past several days has been a microcosm of the Matt Kalil Experience — a ton of unavailability with spurts of poor play sprinkled in. After the game, Bill O'Brien reiterated that Kalil is the starting left tackle for this team, despite very solid play with the first offensive line unit out of Roderick Johnson. If you're asking me my gut feeling on O'Brien's level of commitment to Kalil in the face of highly likely disastrous results if Kalil does start Week 1, I would say that O'Brien has eyes, and he can tell that Kalil is suboptimal as a solution, and that Johnson is, at the very least, less sub-optimal. This is a big week for Kalil. I don't think he's nearly the lock to start as O'Brien seemed to give off on Saturday night.
3. Press box awkwardness
If you were putting together a list of people I expected to see in the press box on Saturday night, I think you'd have to go several thousand names down the list before we got to former Texans GM Brian Gaine, and yet there he was on Saturday night, presumably doing scouting work for his new employer (actually, his "once again" employer) the Buffalo Bills. I'm not sure for whom it was more awkward, Gaine or anybody having anything to do with the Texans, but it ruined my dream of Gaine's return to NRG Stadium consisting of him brooding in the rafters with Crow faceprint, like Sting back in WCW, and then rapelling from on high to come down and destroy everyone with wrestling maneuvers and baseball bats...
2. Matt Patricia
The Lions have been one of the most underperforming franchises in NFL history. I don't think I am speaking out of turn by saying that. (And I'm sure if anyone from Detroit is reading this, they're like "Um, bro, you live in Houston. It's not like the Texans are the Green Bay Packers or something." I know, I get it.) After watching these Lions this week, in the small snippets I've seen, I feel safe in saying this iteration of the Lions will fit imperfectly with all of the other mediocre versions we've seen. Matt Patricia, their head coach, is one of the least impressive coaches I've watched, as he spent most of the two joint practices tooling around on his ATV, practically running over various media members, and acting like he owned the place. This would be fine, if he didn't look like he pulled his clothes out of the hamper every morning. This will remain one of the most ironic exchanges in NFL press conference history, Patricia critiquing the posture of another human being:
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1. Kahale Warring
One of the most competitive position groups on the Texans' roster right now is the tight end group. At this point, I think veteran Darren Fells and second year pro Jordan Akins are locks to make the 53 man roster. Jordan Thomas has bounced back from injuries that forced him out of practice for a week or so, and looks to be regaining form. (He caught all four Texans touchdowns from the tight end position last season.) Then there's Warring, the 2019 third round rookie, whose resume so far as a Texan is a couple lackluster practices here in Houston, a couple okay practices in Green Bay, and a whole lot of time in warmups doing exercise for whatever injury it is he's had nagging him. At this point, Warring, who has played more water polo than football in his sports lifetime, is veering toward spending a season stashed on injured reserve, Oh, by the way, if you're wondering just HOW deep the tight end position group is, the FIFTH string tight end, the guy behind Warring, Jerrell Adams, last night authored the most viral moment of the preseason so far....
So there's that.