I can't help but think about last year's opening preseason game after Saturday night's win over the San Francisco 49ers. I've been saying all training camp long that the offense is so far beyond where the offense was at this point last year and that couldn't have been proven more true Saturday night.
After working the game and then watching back early Sunday morning, here are my observations from the 23-10 win.
- The running backs had a solid night and Alfred Blue took another step in his development. One thing that bears watching is when the Texans run outside zone. Arian Foster is so good at making that "cut up" run behind the center when he feels the defense's fast flow is, well, too fast. He'll let the play develop then BOOM dart back behind center-guard blocks for significant gains. For the OL, zoning off every single DL to give the RB a downhill edge is nearly impossible. So, Blue and company are going to need to be a bit more cognizant of those cut up seams to not let fast flowing defenders win. Rookie Kenny Hilliard had one of those cut up runs later in the game and it produced a 13 yard gain.
- Cecil Shorts III was the recipient of Hoyer's touchdown throw but Garrett Graham's sliding catch on third down on Brian Hoyer's only drive of the night was the key to the whole drive. Graham's had a tremendous camp and it followed right in line with what I've seen all camp - no one can cover him. As such, seeing the tight ends do something of value early was a great sign.
- Throughout the week, people asked me "tonight's a success if...?" I said quality long drives by each QB, tight ends getting involved early and no significant injuries. That was pretty close to happening, I suppose.
- On the first offensive drive, guard Jeff Adams made a key block on the inside power/gap run by Alfred Blue. Adams wrapped around, as an uncovered lineman, eyed a fast filling linebacker and sealed him off. Blue burst right off Adams' block into the secondary for a solid 14 yard gain.
- Hoyer's touchdown pass to Shorts was textbook execution on third down. Protection was fantastic. Hoyer stood tall in the pocket. Shorts was quick into his route and even faster after he had the ball in his hands.
- On the two point play after the touchdown, Andre Ware immediately pointed out the press man by the 49ers during our radio broadcast. We talked about it during the break afterward - the cornerback can't win against Hopkins in that situation. If the corner plays for the fade, the QB throws to Hop's back shoulder. If the corner attempts to prevent the backshoulder throw, the QB throws for the back pylon, where Hopkins can catch the highball fade. Shareece Wright actually played it as well as he could. And lost.
- Tom Savage used that same methodology on his touchdown throw to Jaelen Strong in the 2nd half. When Strong has a defensive back on his back, it's over.
- The secondary didn't tackle well in the first half and although it's a bit disappointing, it's not that surprising. Those guys rarely get the opportunity to make many tackles in practice, but it's got to improve moving forward in preparation for running back Jamaal Charles on September 13th.
- On his last play of the night, ILB Brian Cushing blitzed the middle on third and seven and completely took out two 49er OL. He just knocked them completely out of the way which opened the gate for rookie DT Christian Covington to force QB Colin Kaepernick out of the pocket. Kaep had to throw it away. Cushing is going to be key for this defense and to see him play with the fire and explosiveness we remember is such a good sign.
- Speaking of Covington, the guy is going to find a way on the field to rush the passer. He's so much quicker than any other interior lineman the Texans have, not counting JJ Watt, of course. But, he's relentless and extremely difficult for pass blocking linemen to handle. When he got free on that pass rush, he exploded into Kaep's face and forced the QB to flee. He was a monster for the Redskins to block and flashed early in the game versus the 49ers on that pass rush.
- James "Brick" Ferentz may not look like an NFL lineman, but don't tell him that. There's no more feisty player on this roster. I think there were two, maybe three times when I saw him engaged in less than polite discussion with a 49er defender.
- Ryan Mallett threw one incompletion and most importantly threw the ball in the short to intermediate areas of the field as well as we've seen. That's been the so-called knock on him throughout his career - big arm, accuracy in the intermediate areas can go awry. Not last night. He got in rhythm early with his first throw to C.J. Fiedorowicz and it continued.
- The entire passing game operation worked well all night long. Other than some pressure from 49er DT/DE Arik Armstead (who is freakish) in the 2nd quarter on Mallett, the OL held up very well in protection all night long.
- Jay Prosch didn't have the rookie year he wanted to have but came back in 2015 with something to prove. He trimmed up his body, really transformed himself in the offseason and it's seemingly paying off. He didn't start training camp well as I thought he struggled, but at some point just before going to Richmond, he found IT, whatever IT is. He was a different player last night for certain. His lead block on Alfred Blue's 3rd and one run was key for the first down run. Prosch essentially chipped on linebacker Corey Lemonier, his former Auburn teammate, turning him inside. Without missing a beat, he then locked up the fast-filling safety to give Blue the edge.
- Later in the drive, Prosch then took out two 49ers to lead Blue through a gaping hole for his longest run of the night. THAT'S the Jay Prosch I remember from Auburn.
- I could watch Mallett to Keith Mumphery on the deep comeback all day long. Just so pretty.
- Down on the goal line...ugh, tough moment. The Texans had all the momentum in the game but couldn't punch it in. I can guarantee you this will be a Hard Knocks segment as I know there's nothing that'll frustrate Bill O'Brien more than not winning a physical confrontation once out of seven tries. Even more frustrating was the fact that safety Eric Reid made almost every tackle down inside the one. The dadgum safety, although he was essentially playing as a Mike linebacker down there.
- On 3rd and four to start the second quarter, 49ers signal caller Blaine Gabbert threw a dart to a wide open Garrett Celek. It appeared the Texans were in cover one - man with a safety free. ILB Benardrick McKinney was the one chasing Celek across the formation and it appeared that when Celek crossed the formation McKinney was responsible for picking him up across the field. Had he remained on the other side of the field, ILB Mike Mohamed would've run with Celek. Now, with coverages, there are a lot of different wrinkles, especially for crossing routes and linebackers, but it appeared that's what happened on that key third down on the 49ers 99-yard TD drive.
- Linebackers, please know this and remember this, if you ever, EVER shoot the gap and run underneath an outside zone run, you better get there. If not, you expose the defense in the worst way.
- Cornerbacks, if you ever, EVER fail to replace a safety that's cracked on, you expose the defense in the worst way.
- Those two things, combined with two missed tackles downfield, gave the 49ers their best play of the night on RB Jarryd Hayne's long run in the 2nd quarter.
- As noted on Hard Knocks last Tuesday, the rookie OLBs have to do a much better job of being physical on the edge. They can't just position themselves to set the edge. They have to physically overwhelm a tight end that attempts to beat them.
- As I type that on one play, OLB Lynden Trail does it perfectly on the next. On a 2nd and one run his way, he rocked the TE and forced the RB to bubble, allowing his inside linebackers to get over the top and limit Hayne to short gain.
- When a corner transitions over to safety, I want to know he's going to be stout filling in run support. As such, I wanted to see Andre Hal have an opportunity to do just that. He had one opportunity that I can remember and made a tackle for a two yard gain. It was textbook and gave me warm and fuzzies...so to speak.
- Tight end coach John Perry has consistently aggressively counseled rookie tight end Khari Lee throughout training camp on his blocking at the point of attack. It's working too. He had a couple of solid point of attack blocks lined up at Y. He then made a couple of catches down the field including one down the field in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal. They can't keep all the tight ends in camp and Lee and Mike McFarland aren't making that decision easy for Perry and this coaching staff.
- It was great to see OLB Kourtnei Brown step up and make a couple of impact plays last night. He and fellow OLB Jason Ankrah turned the tide of the game in the second half getting after the quarterback. Brown is physically built for this game but needed to show that he could take the next step. Suffice to say, it was a solid first step.
- Mike Mohamed's hit on Hayne on the flat route happened feet away from me. It was absolutely textbook. Coaches should use that as teaching tape.
- DE Tevita Finau flashed with a sack on Gabbert late in the 2nd quarter. He just stayed after it and got his man.
- Rookie CB Kevin Johnson's transitional quickness is outstanding. I saw him do this in college too, but last night the 49ers threw a smoke screen his way. He was in off coverage, eight yards deep and made the tackle for a one yard gain. That's impressive, folks.
- Returner Chandler Worthy got his confidence after a few returns. The crowd stood in anticipation each time he touched it after his return in the third quarter. On his last punt return, he gave the ol' okey doke to lull the 49ers to sleep before he hit the boosters for another solid punt return gain. He's fun to watch when he has the rock in his hands that's for sure and the entire NRG Stadium crowd felt it too. On that first return, WR Keith Mumphery threw a stellar clear out block to open the edge for Worthy.
- Throughout training camp, while Hoyer and Mallett seemingly compete for the starter's job, second year QB Tom Savage has steadily climbed the ladder. It's clear he's made a ton of progress and that showed in the second half of the game. His throw to Strong for the TD was just beautiful. But, it was his playmaking that stood out. Third and six scramble and throw to Chris Polk for a first down. Late scramble on third down in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal attempt. Going through his reads and then checking it down to Polk at the last instant as the rush enveloped him. Maturation and progress, that's what you want to see and we saw that in spades last night.
- Jaelen Strong doesn't show a ton of emotion, but I was a few feet away from him as the Texans rushed out to congratulate him after his TD catch. He had a smile to light up the city. I couldn't help but think what that'll do for his confidence going forward.
- The rookie offensive linemen had a number of positive moments. Tackle Kendall Lamm got a ton of snaps at left tackle and got more comfortable as the game wore on. Guard Greg Mancz played well at a position he hasn't played a lot as he played center at Toledo. But, he put some quality things on tape throughout the game, especially his reps at center late in the game.
Well, that'll put the first pre-season game in the books. It was night and day different from last year's preseason opener in Glendale. Training camp continues on Monday - I'll be back with more observations from training camp tomorrow.
View photos from the 49ers-Texans game at NRG Stadium on August 15th.