There's no place like home.
I don't know who said it, but whoever did was a smart individual. The Texans traveling party arrived back in Houston on Friday afternoon and it was none too soon. They gave back to their fans by beating New England 27-23. More importantly, the Texans took significant strides in areas where they struggled a bit last week against the Panthers. It's the preseason, so there's no champagne or even major plaudits thrown Houston's way because of the win, yet it's good to win, no matter what.
Here are my observations on the night.
- Let me start with a few non-game thoughts. When we got in on Friday, I didn't go into the bowl, choosing to wait until Saturday to see it for the first time. When I walked out of the tunnel onto the field, I was floored. The field was beautiful. The numbers were in the Texans Font. The video board was in the Texans Font. They were all subtle changes to the naked eye, but noticeable yet pleasing to these OCD eyes.
- Oh, and let me not forget my pals in our video production and graphics department. They put together the opening promo of the players before they came out of the tunnel. It was bad a…, well, you know. It's amazing to think I work with such talented individuals in my department. All I do is talk; they construct incredible art on a daily basis.
- Okay, to the game, itself. Think about this, the Texans had nine receivers active last night. Of those, only three of them had ever caught a pass in an NFL regular season game (Bruce Ellington, Jaelen Strong and Wendall Williams), so they were certainly under the spotlight. Yet, that group did a solid job throughout the night.
- Jaelen Strong caught a touchdown pass against a team not named the Colts. In all seriousness, though, Strong excelled in workouts against New England in West Virginia and then had the first touchdown catch of the season. He beat star corner Malcolm Butler to the middle of the field and caught a laser from quarterback Tom Savage.
- At least the Texans fans had seen Strong in a game before. Bruce Ellington had never been to Houston before and he continued to make a seemingly amazing climb up the depth charts. During practice in West Virginia, it was clear that Ellington was going to get opportunity with the number of receivers on the shelf. He's been living with the playbook and doing extra sessions with receivers coach John Perry and assistant Wes Welker. That's paying off in a big way. On his first catch from Tom Savage, he showed some wiggle to avoid one tackle and speed for a first down. He caught a deep route down the field and got both feet in bounds later in the quarter. He then hauled in a short catch and ran for a long gain. It's hard to imagine Ellington not getting more and more comfortable in this offense, not that he's finally home, in Houston.
- I thought it was telling that the Patriots defensive front stayed on the field all the way through the first three quarters. In fact, the Patriots starting defense was without only two starters, presumably - Trey Flowers and Dont'a Hightower. Now, those two are massively important to that defense, yet the Texans had as many as four starters not on the field on offense as well.
- I don't know what it is about quarterbacks taking a hit and getting comfortable at that point, but that's what seemingly happened to Tom Savage. He took a hit from linebacker Kyle Van Noy and the Patriots defender drove him into the turf, which drew a 15-yard penalty from Walt Anderson. The next play? Savage stood comfortably in the pocket and dropped dime to Ellington down the sideline over Malcolm Butler. From that point forward, Savage seemed locked in from the pocket, even outside of it.
- Savage's throw to Ellington was a beauty. The touchdown throw to Jaelen Strong was a laser. The throw to Stephen Anderson that he made on the run, though, was his best throw of the night. On third and four, he got some pressure, stepped up in the pocket, moved to his right, saw Anderson and made a perfect, pinpoint throw for a first down.
- He'll still get a little too comfortable and hold the ball a tad too long sometimes, but he trusts his line to protect him and the strength of his arm to find an open receiver.
- We've seen J.J. Watt at training camp, so it was no surprise at all to see him make a quick move to make a tackle for a loss. That said, I know for the fans that love this team, it had to be a welcome sight to see Watt dart into the backfield like the old J.J..
- That last forced fumble by Ufomba Kamalu may have been the capper on win and an important play, but it wasn't the only one that the former Miami Hurricane produced on the night. He's had moments in training camp when he's been ultra-difficult to block. Last night was another of those nights. He finished with that sack, two quarterback hits, a forced fumble and four tackles. There were questions at the outset of camp as to the depth at outside linebacker, but Kamalu and Brennan Scarlett have competed and played well.
- Running backs as receivers...running backs as receivers...running backs as receivers...the Patriots have made a living with running backs as receivers and last night was a perfect example of that, unfortunately. Rex Burkhead and D.J. Foster scored touchdowns on the exact same play. Trust me, that's not an easy play to cover in any way, shape or form and the Patriots have the personnel to execute it well.
- Tyler Ervin looks so much more comfortable as the punt returner and he was a shoelace tackle away from breaking a long return in the first quarter.
- Running back D'Onta Foreman pass catching ability was on display as it's been during training camp. His big catch and run was perhaps the play of the game. He made a catch on a throw from Deshaun Watson and got a first down. The magic, though, was saved for after the catch. He broke through tackles, plural, ran over another guy, got a great block from fellow rookie Chris Thompson and sped into the secondary.
- Foreman's touchdown run, you talk about determined, man, he pounded that ball into the end zone. Think back to the number of times this offense was inside the ten yard line last year and finished with field goals. Foreman made sure that didn't happen on this night.
- Speaking of Chris Thompson, the rookie had that key block, and a big hit too, on Foreman's catch and run. He also made an excellent special teams tackle to pin the Patriots inside their own ten yard line. Looking at the Patriots on the other sideline, it's not outside the realm of possibility that a receiver can be a special teams star. Matthew Slater is a Pro Bowl star for the Pats and if Thompson keeps this up, he'll be hard to keep off the roster.
- The special teams return units have plenty of clean up work to do prior to September 10th. Andre Ware pointed that out last night and he was truly on point, as usual. The hidden yards aren't so hidden when players miss tackles on special teams and allow 10-12 yards in additional return after missed tackles or mistakes in coverage. That's happened the past two weeks.
- Andre Hal's interception was overturned, but I'll tell you what I loved about it. That route to Chris Hogan was one that really hurt the Texans in joint practices throughout the week. But, Hal played it perfectly to get underneath the route and make the play. If he makes a clean catch, it's a pick, but seeing Hal ballhawking again is a welcome sight.
- I think what made me happiest though was the reaction on the sideline when Hal made the play. That excitement from his teammates was awesome.
- Although the Texans gave up touchdowns on identical routes in this game, one play with a history stood out to me late in the first half. Patriots signal caller Jimmy Garoppolo threw deep to the end zone to one of his running backs down the far sideline; I believe it was James White. It was the same route that the Patriots used in the playoff game to score a touchdown to make it 24-13. On that play, safety Corey Moore hesitated a split second and he was unable to help Benardrick McKinney in coverage. This time, though, Moore learned his lesson and as soon as he saw the play develop, he knew. So, he darted over and helped Eddie Pleasant in coverage and knocked away the pass.
- The Texans got called for defensive holding twice on the night for grabbing offensive linemen on their way to block linebackers. It seems as if that's going to be a point of emphasis for officials in 2017.
- Man, did Brian Cushing explode into Rex Burkhead on a draw play just after Hal's overturned interception. Whooo! That was nice.
- Defensive tackle Daniel Ross flashed on Saturday night, making a couple of big plays on the night. Now, he can't just fire upfield and run amok, but when he plays his technique well, he's a long, strong, tough interior lineman.
- I was standing in the end zone when Deshaun Watson ran for a touchdown to give the Texans a 17-16 lead. Talk about stopping on a dime and freezing a defensive lineman, wow. When Watson faked the run to Foreman, Patriots defensive end Kony Ealy was in perfect position to make the tackle. Watson noticed it, cut back and found a straight lane to the end zone. Can't say that I've seen a Texans quarterback do that before.
- Cornerback Denzel Rice has made a ton of impact plays, forced fumbles, interceptions, in particular during camp, so it was no surprise that he was the one that made the key interception of Garoppolo. That was an ill advised throw, to say the least, but Rice made the Patriots quarterback pay for making the decision.
- Linebacker Shakeel Rashad came up with a sack for the Texans and it couldn't have come at a better time.
- Linebacker Dylan Cole came up with ten tackles to lead the Texans and probably could've added a few more to the mix had he played the whole game...and not missed a few in the process. Man, he's fast.
- Outside linebacker Tony Washington Jr. had his best game as a Texan. His strip sack was beautiful. Washington also broke up a screen pass later in the game that could've been a big play for the Patriots.
- Defensive tackle Ricky Hatley got to see a ton of time on the field with injuries to a handful of defensive linemen and registered the first sack of his career. He was much improved on Saturday night over the first game at Charlotte.
That's about it for the night. Thanks for reading everyone and I'll have more next week, starting with the joint practices in New Orleans. See ya then.