The Texans lost a preseason game for the first time since August 2015 and a loss always stings a bit. In all honesty, though, the loss won't register for many when they wake up on Thursday morning. As with every preseason contest, there's some good, some bad and some "oh, please, Coach, don't see that on film" moments. Here are my observations from the Texans preseason opener in Charlotte.
- I have to start here… David Quessenberry played his first football game since 2013. Think about that for a second. Broken foot. Three years of cancer treatment. He finally gets an opportunity on the field to fight for a roster spot and it was all I could do to not get choked up. Okay, I'm a softy at heart, but David's story is a different deal altogether. His family apparently surprised him, flying to Charlotte to see the game. When it comes to interior players, it's imperative to get a true view of the film, but I saw him make some key blocks in the run game and hold up in the passing game. DQ has wanted nothing more than to just focus on football, making a bid for the 53-man roster. Now, that we're past that first game, it's all about ball for him and he probably wants it no other way. I go back to something his former head coach at San Jose State Mike MacIntyre (now at Colorado) told me. He said, "David Quessenberry is the best leader I've ever coached." I thought about that as I saw No. 77 go in the game and how the seemingly simple act of playing football was motivational for many watching and playing.
- Well before the game, I made a quick note of the orange in the stands and made mention of it on the broadcast. When I looked back up just prior to kickoff, it had become the predominant color in the stands. When Deshaun Watson went in the game, I had to remind myself we were in Charlotte. It was as loud a roar as anything I'd heard on the road in quite some time. I'll get to his performance in a bit.
- J.J. Watt played about four plays, which was exactly what we had surmised prior to the game. On the first play of the game, he chased Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin down from behind after he had made Kevin Johnson miss the tackle (of course, it was he and Jadeveon Clowney that chased Benjamin from behind - the team's two star defensive linemen chasing a wide receiver down from behind - think about that). I can imagine what that must have felt like for Watt to get that first hit. Then, on his last play, he beat the right tackle up the field and after drawing help from a running back, he forced quarterback Derek Anderson off his spot and to throw earlier than he wanted. The pass fell incomplete, setting up a field goal attempt. Captain Obvious here, but it's good to have No. 99 back on the field.
- Coach O'Brien was more than cognizant of the mistakes that the Texans made on Wednesday. He pointed out to me in our postgame discussion that limiting mistakes the past two years was one of the key reasons why the Texans won the AFC South in consecutive years. From that standpoint, there's a lot to take out of this game and a ton for young players to learn heading into practices and a game with the Patriots.
- The secondary will be one of those groups that has a tough film session on Thursday. It gave up the two touchdown catches of 23 yards or more (three in total) - one to Kelvin Benjamin in the first quarter and one to Damiere Byrd on a long Joe Webb toss in the third quarter. I'll put it this way, I've seen that group play much sharper in past years and certainly at training camp at the Greenbrier.
- Safety Corey Moore came up with a key pick in the second quarter to negate a potential Panthers scoring drive. Every day that we've been at camp, Moore has been one of the last to leave the field after catching all kind of passes. He had a pass breakup on a bicycle kick too. Think about that one. He literally bicycle-kicked the ball out of the receiver's hands for the incompletion.
- After a couple of three-and-outs to start the game, Tom Savage took the team on a 13 -lay, 75-yard drive that overcame a number of mistakes (two holding penalties and a false start). Savage went eight-for-eight on that drive, yet with overcoming the mistakes, they only had faced one third down on that drive, converting on a completion to Alfred Blue.
- Savage noted after the game that he and the offense needed to get out of the gate much quicker. Once he got his sea legs under him, Savage made a couple of solid throws, including a laser to Jaelen Strong for a first down on the scoring drive. That, though, is the thing that Tom knows he must do better going forward - quicker, EVERYTHING, has to be quicker. When he does do that, this offense flows. When he doesn't, those first two drives are a result.
- Speaking of Blue, he ran with a purpose on that drive and made that key third-down catch as well. As our player of the game, I spoke to him after the game and made the point that he got started much quicker than in past years. He's always seemed to be a guy that gets lathered up as the game goes on but he was out of the gates early in this one. He said the coaches talked to him about that very thing; they've wanted to see Blue start with more fire as opposed trying to work up to it as in the past. He certainly gave it to them. He ran five times for 33 yards and the first rushing touchdown of the season, all on that scoring drive.
- On that touchdown drive, the left side of the line caved in the Panthers defense and opened a massive hole for Blue. Then, Blue forced the Panthers defensive backs into business decisions. They passed, honestly. Either way, center Nick Martin had a tremendous block, turning a defensive lineman back to the inside on his own, which is not easy. That allowed left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo to bump up to the next level and it was wide open for Blue to target some poor defensive backs in his way of the end zone.
- He was not the only story in the running game, though. Rookie third-rounder D'Onta Foreman showed exactly why he was this team's third-round pick. There was only one disappointing play for the most part and it's on the same type of run that I mentioned early in camp that he needed to avoid. He tried to bounce a run to the outside on third and short, instead of stopping, cutting back to the inside and bulling over some white-shirted defenders. That run aside, Foreman was a beast. He showed his speed. He showed power. He picked up a 4th-and-1. He caught the ball twice, which was only five less than his entire last year at Texas. He had a 41-yard run up the right sideline to get the Texans out of their own territory. That run got the attention of many watching across the country. He went flying by me on the sideline and I had to remind myself that's a 235 lb. hammer sprinting away from defenders.
- Oh, how could I forget the hurdle too? Amidst the many intriguing aspects in this game, it was easy to forget the fact that the 235-pound Foreman hurdled a defender, easily I might add. Now, he did make a habit of doing that at Texas, but that doesn't make it any less impressive.
- Those watching this entire training camp know how tough the cut is going to be at running back and that decision didn't get any clearer, in a good way, though, on Wednesday night.
- Deshaun Watson, though, will be the major talking point for those around the country and right there in Houston. Look, the numbers were solid, but, to me, it was about the way he operated the offense. He handled the up-tempo stuff at the line of scrimmage like a seasoned veteran. He had more than enough zip on his throws. He threw well on the run. He had a few dropped along the way and had to throw a few away, so it wasn't a perfect night. Regardless, I watched the sideline when he was on the field; he had everyone's attention. We've seen him run on third downs, mainly, at camp, and he's been shot out of a cannon when he does. So, when he decided he was going to take off for the end zone, it wasn't a massive surprise that he covered ground as quickly as he did. He seemed comfortable in the shotgun or under center, which isn't always the case for young quarterbacks that come out of college spread schemes. He didn't solve all the Texans problems on one night but he put a charge in that stadium, two moments in particular: when he came into the game and when he ran 16 yards for a touchdown.
- Let's put it this way, if you didn't know he was a rookie, you wouldn't have known after the 60 minutes were off the clock. On one completion to Akeem Hunt, he spied a blitzer coming off the edge, pointed it out, made sure Hunt was aware and then drilled one to Hunt over the middle for a first down. Later, he eyed a corner blitz off the edge and threw complete to receiver Devin Street as the safety attempted to get over to replace the corner in coverage.
- A couple of drives were short circuited because of mistakes, really out of his control. Early in the second quarter, Watson scrambled to find receiver Dres Anderson on a tremendous third-down completion, but Anderson had stepped out of bounds before making the catch. On another drive, Watson completed a crossing route to rookie tight end Evan Baylis, but Baylis coughed up the pigskin after getting hit by a pair of Panthers.
- Inside linebacker Zach Cunningham played a significant amount of snaps in this game. I don't remember him coming off the field much, if at all, in the first three quarters. He started in place of Benardrick McKinney and racked up seven tackles to lead the defense. He was flying all around the field and wherever the ball was, he was in the vicinity. That man is going to be a factor on this defense in some way, shape or form in 2017.
- The Texans only got one sack and three tackles for a loss which won't sit well with the defensive powers that be. In fact, we thought defensive lineman Brandon Dunn's sack would go for naught because he happened to hit quarterback Garrett Gilbert in the helmet. But, the offensive lineman actually got his hands under Dunn's facemask.
- Each and every day, the Texans pass rushers do a drill where they work on batting down passes with the now famous foursquare red rubber ball. Every. Single. Day. So, on his first NFL play, outside linebacker Dayon Pratt knocked down a screen pass attempt as if he was just doing that drill in practice. I couldn't help but think of that simple drill that paid off for Pratt on that first down play.
- Defensive lineman Carlos Watkins told me after the game that he certainly appreciated all the orange in the stadium for his inaugural NFL game. During the game, I saw him take on blocks, use his hands to disengage and make three tackles in the process. He's been even more impressive against the run than I expected and his contributions are definitely necessary given the fact that Joel Heath hasn't been able to practice through this point in training camp.
- The Texans punt cover unit struggled with missed tackles and penalties that really killed field position opportunities throughout the night. Damiere Byrd's first return went for 13 yards after a missed tackle, which allowed Carolina to start at their own 29-yard line, instead of inside its own 20. The Panthers, then, drove 71 yards for a score. The Texans missed another tackle on Kaelin Clay on a punt return later in the second quarter, which resulted in a 20-yard gain. Eddie Pleasant ran into the returner on a return, giving the Panthers 15 additional yards, which put the ball at the 50-yard line. Quarterback Joe Webb threw a 50-yard bomb for a touchdown on the very next play. It's only the first game, but I'd imagine that this unit will get some aggressive counseling in film session on Thursday.
- Outside linebacker Gimel President looked as good tonight as he'd looked all of training camp. He flew down the line of scrimmage to make a tackle for a loss on 3rd-and-1. He got into the backfield with his pass rush as well. The depth chart behind Whitney Mercilus is far from settled so positive performances are a welcome sight at outside linebacker.
- Throughout the first week of training camp, it seemed that defensive back Denzel Rice made some sort of big play nearly every day in practice. Whether it was knocking away a potential touchdown completion or forcing a fumble, he seemingly made one play per day of a significant variety. So, when he forced the fumble that appeared as if it would tie the game, I was hardly surprised. Dylan Cole's touchdown was overturned as the officials ruled the receiver never had possession before Rice dislodged the ball. Rice also ended up with a pass breakup down deep in the end zone to prevent another long completion.
- Receiver Dres Anderson is still learning the offense and there are times he's not always where he needs to line up. But, he can fly and he may have to play a bigger role for this team with the spate of receiver injuries this team has suffered through tonight's game. He did a decent job working back to Deshaun Watson on third down early in the game but he stepped out of bounds before he caught the ball. He led the team with four catches for 80 yards and faces a massively important week against the Patriots in his fight to make the 53-man roster.
The Patriots are coming next week; we've all got to get ready. See ya' then, everyone.
The Houston Texans take on the Carolina Panthers for the first preseason game in 2017.