Here are five things to watch in the preseason opener when the Texans take on the Vikings Friday night at Mall of America Field in the H.H.H. Metrodome.
1. Four Horsemen- The Texans running backs not named Arian Foster and Ben Tate will get the lion’s share of the carries at Minnesota. Foster remains on the physically unable to perform list with a calf injury and won’t make the trip. Tate will start, and head coach Gary Kubiak said the fourth-year pro will likely get “10 to 12 plays with the first group.”
That means veteran Deji Karim and rookie undrafted free agents Dennis Johnson, Cierre Wood and Ray Graham will split the rest of the carries.
Johnson would have started if Tate had been unable to play because of the groin tightness he experienced over last weekend. Johnson is 5-7, but said that height and measurable haven’t mattered for him during his time with the Texans, and won’t matter against the Vikings.
“Odds have always been against me because of my height,” Johnson said. “I just gotta stay focused.
2. Young Receivers- Pro Bowler Andre Johnson won’t play because Kubiak is resting a majority of Texans who normally don’t practice on artificial turf. Johnson’s a part of that group, and the Metrodome’s playing surface is field turf.
So rookie DeAndre Hopkins and second-year receiver Keshawn Martin will likely start. Both have been impressive during training camp in their own ways.
Hopkins has been a challenge to cover, and has made spectacular catches on a daily basis.
“The biggest thing with him is he’s a very competitive kid,” Kubiak said. “When it’s him and a DB and a lot of bumping and grinding going on, he finds a way to make a play.”
Martin, meanwhile, has drawn high praise from general manager Rick Smith.
“Probably the brightest thing I’ve seen at the position,” Smith said. “Obviously I love what DeAndre’s doing, but Keshawn and his jump is really significant. He’s been making plays and you can see his progression.”
3. Linebacker Limelight- Because of injuries and Kubiak also resting players who don’t normally practice on turf, it will be fascinating to see the mixed bag of combinations both inside at outside for the linebackers.
Brian Cushing won’t likely play inside, while outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus will be on the shelf as well because of a hamstring injury. Kubiak said Brooks Reed and Justin Tuggle will start outside, but it remains to be seen who will go inside.
Behind the Reed/Tuggle combo, expect long looks at Willie Jefferson and Bryan Braman outside. Jefferson is an undrafted free agent from Stephen F. Austin who has garnered praise throughout camp. Braman is a special teams standout who is trying to gain more reps on defense.
4. Swearinger gets to hunt- Rookie safety D.J. Swearinger often tweets out the phrase “You can’t eat if you don’t hunt.” The second-rounder finally gets the chance to light up someone not wearing a Liberty White jersey when he and the Texans take on Minnesota. Kubiak, Cushing and a few others targeted Swearinger as a player they’re excited to check out this evening. For the head coach, seeing the South Carolina Gamecock excel so far in camp while veteran Ed Reed’s been out due to injury has been a mild surprise.
“We knew that’s kind of what we were getting from our interviews with him and being around him,” Kubiak said. But I don’t think we had any idea it was this, just mature and what he does as a football player. He’s going to be a big part of this team.”
5. Randy’s Return- In 2011, Randy Bullock won the Lou Groza Award for being the best kicker in college football. In 2012, the Texans took Bullock in the Draft, played him in the preseason and placed him on the injured reserve in late August because of a nasty groin injury.
Now though, Bullock is healthy. During kickoffs in camp, he’s routinely driven the ball out of the end zone and made returns impossible. He’s shown great strength on field goal attempts. Look to see if that continues again tonight, as Bullock’s performance in 2013 will go a long way towards improving field position and helping the Texans in key situations throughout the campaign.