The first trip to New Orleans for the Texans since 2012 went about as well as could be expected. The 27-13 win over the Saints had plenty of moments, mostly good, so let's get these observations going.
- The Saints moved the ball well on the first drive, the only drive of the game for Drew Brees, but they were denied a touchdown by a sterling pass break up from Brian Cushing. That play isn't made last year, but Cush interrupted the pass route and said he should've picked it off. Either way, the fact that he made the read, sprinted there and knocked it down, especially because it was on third down, was a tremendous sign. Loved seeing that from one of the most talked about players in training camp. In a good way, of course.
- One thing teams will do going forward, which is fine by me, is test the Texans nickel run defense. The Texans were in nickel and dime on much of the first drive versus Brees and he checked to zone runs and screens a few times on that drive. Peyton Manning did that in Denver last year in game three when the Texans were in nickel or dime; he immediately checked to inside zone out of the gun. Teams will try that in the regular season too, but there will be two pillars they'll have to worry about – 75 and 99.
- Speaking of 99, in the third quarter, he came over to do a sideline interview with Erin Andrews and then me. He gave Erin a nice, great to see you hug. He looked at me like "oh, hey John". What, I'm not that huggable? I kid, I kid. He was great and gracious as always. Can't wait to see him unleashed on September 13th.
- I thought originally the size of the Saints defensive front would give the Texans offensive line some issues, especially with rookie Kendall Lamm at left tackle for injured Duane Brown. But, the Texans took it down the field, with a mix of run and pass to put seven up on the board on the first offense's only drive of the game.
- Recently named starting quarterback Brian Hoyer led three drives, putting up ten points with those three drives. He seemed in total command, made a brilliant touch throw downfield to DeAndre Hopkins for a key first down to keep the drive alive. All three QBs made some throws on the day and I'll talk about them throughout my observations. But, Hoyer, as the starter, kept New Orleans' defense on its heels. One of the best throws on that drive LOOKED like the easiest throw in the world, but the bubble screen to the slot WR/No. 2 wasn't easy. But, Hoyer threw it perfectly to Nate Washington, such that he could accelerate through the ball and get up field as desired.
- The term game manager is used too often and, at the same time, not used properly. After the screen to Washington, Hoyer spied a corner cat blitz and instantly changed the play to an Alfred Blue run, AWAY from the blitz. That's managing the game to a T.
- I did something that I should've learned long ago to never do – I gave up on the "TD" throw to Hopkins. I know, I know, shame on me. But, when the flag was thrown, I turned back to see where the ball was spotted then heard Marc Vandermeer say that "HE CAUGHT IT!" Lesson 124 covering the Texans - NEVER give up on a ball throw in his direction. EVER.
- After the review went awry, Hopkins looked at the back judge and gave him a thumbs down, like he was Siskel or Ebert giving one thumb down to Gigli (which is truly one of the worst movies of all-time). Hop told me after the game that one ref told DeAndre that he caught the ball. The other ref and the replay ref disagreed, sadly.
- The Michigan State connection was in full effect on the Texans second offensive drive. Hoyer found Keith Mumphery, who has flashed from the day he set foot in Houston last May. He didn't get his head around on a laser from Ryan Mallett later in the game that went through his hands, but other than that, he continued to make plays on offense and special teams.
- His fellow rookie receiver Jaelen Strong seemed to get better as the game went on. Perhaps it's a rhythm thing. Perhaps it's a comfort, nerves thing. Whatever it is, I hope he can start the game with the juice from now on. The first throw to him during the game, he double caught it and didn't make a clean catch. Had he caught it clean, he had enough room to run for the first down. But, then as Andre Ware noted during the broadcast, he flipped the switch as the lights got brighter. He made a low catch for a first down. He caught a rocket from Ryan Mallett for a first down. He caught a key first down in the cover two hole. Then, a few plays later, he made the touchdown catch on the slant in the middle of the end zone. Making plays. Philly style.
- In the second quarter, safety Lonnie Ballentine made a tackle for no gain, down near the goal line that forced a fourth down play. The hamstring injury has limited Ballentine's lateral quickness, but when he aligns as the dime linebacker next to the true inside linebacker, he does nothing but make plays. He plays the run 3,000x better than the DBs that played that position last year. He has a real knack for the ball when it's run inside and that's rare for any defensive back. I hope he can get completely healthy and more comfortable playing in the middle of the field, because that will eventually allow him to make more of those plays when the team has six or seven DBs on the field.
- Speaking of safeties, former Michigan State star Kurtis Drummond delivered a tremendous hit, the no-question hit of the afternoon. His running mate Corey Moore got called for a targeting penalty which might have been…okay, it wasn't the right call. The entire sideline, after seeing it on the replay board erupted, with good reason. I don't know if either can make the team, but Drummond, in particular, has really improved over the past few weeks of training camp and games.
- Kevin Johnson made bookend plays on the Saints 96 yard drive. He downed the punt at the Saints two yard line, then defended the fade route on fourth and goal from the Texans two yard line. Fearless. One on one, no help, all alone. Never blinked once. It's a quiet confidence but that guy knows he's a baller and he's making the plays to prove it.
- When outside linebacker Carlos Thompson went out of the game with a concussion, Tony Washington took advantage of the opportunity in a big way. He registered a strip sack that Kourtnei Brown recovered and then had a pressure of Saints QB Garrett Grayson later in the game. It was the best he's played all training camp long.
- Mallett led the Texans on a 16 (!!) play drive that resulted in the touchdown laser to Strong. Man, what a dart that was. One of the most impressive plays on the drive was the throw to Strong in the cover two hole on the Saints sideline. Earlier in the drive, the Saints played a coverage called two trap, inviting Mallett to throw into a rolled up corner. Mallett spied it early as he
was about to throw to Keshawn Martin and held it just long enough to get rid of it. It was actually a good incompletion because it easily could've been a pick six for Saints CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Two plays later the Saints were in the same coverage and Mallett, this time, found Strong in the hole behind the corner and in front of the safety for the first down. Like Hoyer, excellent game management and scheme understanding.
- The key third down throw on that drive was an unreal laser crossing route to Anthony Denham. The rpms on the football were just, wow…it hit Denham in stride for a first down. That throw was everything we've all wanted to see from Mallett – smokin' out of his hand, on time, in the perfect spot. If there was a 10 throw, that was it today. Unfortunately, Denham had to leave the game after a big time hit from Saints safety Pierre Warren.
- Akeem Dent returned to the lineup prior to the Denver pre-season game and he continued to make plays. A sack. A pressure. He would've had a TFL as well.
- What else is there to say about Charles James? When he went into the game at running back, I missed it originally but when Tom Savage turned to toss the ball to him, I nearly screamed into Marc's ear "IT'S CHARLES JAMES!!" Well, yes, I speak in all caps when I get excited. That said, have you ever seen a Texans ball carrier with juice LIKE THAT? Sure, it was called back, but when he hit that corner, James was gone.
- As James was walking into the locker room, he had the TD ball with him, even though it was called back for holding. He said to everyone walking in "I know it didn't count, but it did to ME!" I'm not sure how what to even think, other than he must have had his happy socks on under his normal game socks. He was genuinely thankful and blown away by his teammates running onto the field to congratulate him. Coach Bill O'Brien said that the refs told him that his team wasn't allowed to celebrate like that. Of course, that got the famous eye roll from the Texans head ball coach.
- Either way, it's going to one whale of a week for the defensive backs to see who earns those cornerback spots on this roster. All of them have had
good moments, including in this win, but one did it on defense, special teams AND offense – James.
- TE Khari Lee made an almost exact replica catch to the one that he made in Richmond, facing the Washington Redskins. Of course, immediately after this one, two all-out skirmishes didn't take place, only a first down. But, this young buck is making a serious bid to make this 53-man roster and even though his blocking leaves a bit to be desired, he could catch a BB in the dark, thrown behind him.
- Each tight end nearly ended up with a highlight reel catch. C.J. Fiedorowicz laid out for a corner route from Ryan Mallett and nearly came down with what would've been the best catch of the pre-season. Ryan Griffin made a sliding catch for a TD but replay overturned it on review. Then, Lee held on for the catch noted above on the Texans last scoring drive of the game.
- When defensive lineman Christian Covington is in the game, good things happen. He's a menace getting up the field with his pass rush, but he NEVER quits on a play, including making tackles ten yards or more down the field. That was no different in the win on Sunday.
- I've been hoping that WR/return man Chandler Worthy would have a chance to get loose and make a play. He did on his first touchdown catch as a Texan, catching short and sprinting around the corner for the touchdown. I'd still like to see him blow one out on a return to really show that 4.35 speed. However, that catch and run was a reward, in some sense, for the work he's put in since he's gotten to Houston.
- As noted above, all three QBs led touchdown drives, as Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage threw TD. Hoyer did too, but it was overturned on review. Regardless, Savage didn't get into the game until late in the third quarter, but he still threw it rather effectively. He underthrew one to EZ Nwachukwu that drew a pass interference flag on the Saints but other than that, he moved the third unit well, leading to his TD throw to Worthy. He would've had another touchdown drive on his ledger had it not been for the holding call on James electric TD run.
- And, oh, all you worried about the Texans throwing the deep ball, hopefully today has quelled your nerves a bit. No? Well, there's such thing as never being satisfied.
I'm sure there's more I'll find after reviewing the game on tape, but that's about all I've got from a day spent on the Texans' sideline. See in Dal…I mean, Arlington on Thursday!
The Texans and Saints tangled in New Orleans for a preseason game.