A win is a win and as Coach O'Brien will emphasize from here until eternity, it's the only thing that matters, even in pre-season games. The Texans left Levi's Stadium with a 24-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, feeling good about the win, knowing it wasn't perfect. There's plenty to work on heading into week number two of the pre-season, but plenty to feel good about as well. Here are my observations from game one of the pre-season.
- The defense's first two drives - three and out and a scoop and score for a touchdown. A great way to start. In fact, the third drive was nearly a three and out as well. We'll get to this one in a little bit.
- On John Simon's fumble return for the Texans' first touchdown, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and defensive tackle Christian Covington defeated zone stretch blocks to converge on running back Carlos Hyde. There was a debate with the guys in the booth as to who caused the fumble. I saw Covington immediately beat his block and had my eyes on him the whole time. So, when he collided with Hyde, I was sure that he forced the ball loose. But, watching the replay, Wilfork's left side definitely jarred the ball and Covington's hit fully lodged it free.
- It felt like the ball was sitting on the turf for an hour before outside linebacker John Simon picked it up and sprinted down the near sideline for the 41-yard fumble recovery. In reality after watching the highlight, Simon was Johnny on the spot. Literally.
- Simon started at outside linebacker as Jadeveon Clowney nursed a bit of an injury back in Houston. The fumble was the most noticeable play Simon made and for good reason. But, the one play that got my attention was his solo tackle on Hyde on the second play of the game. The 49ers ran zone read and Simon read it perfectly. As soon as Hyde got the ball, Simon rocked him for a minimal gain. The reason why it stood out was that the last time the Texans really, truly saw zone read was in Buffalo and Simon didn't have a great game that day. But, he had a much better one yesterday against a similar scheme.
- The offense set the tone for what it wants to do this year on the first play of the game. Running back Lamar Miller found a huge lane to the outside of the right side of the line and ran for 14 yards. Why was there an outside lane? Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz completely washed down 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks to the inside and Miller was able to hit it downhill. That's a scary place for a defense - Miller with space and a head of steam.
- Fiedorowicz's blocking has truly improved each year, but he added a key 12-yard reception in the first quarter. It wasn't an easy catch as the throw was a little bit behind him. But, he adjusted and sprinted up field for the first down. He does that a couple of times a game and it's a game changer, brother.
- On the bus to the airport, I was able to see each of quarterback Brock Osweiler's throws during the game. He's his harshest critic so he knows that he wasn't quite at his best. But, in all
honesty, he was off just a bit on a few throws that could've resulted in big plays. He threw up the sideline to receiver DeAndre Hopkins on a fade route and 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock made an excellent play on the ball. He just missed Braxton Miller on the crosser on third down. He missed Braxton on fourth down on the flat route at the sticks in the second quarter. Seeing Brock's improvement and comfort level with the receivers grow each day, those are going to be throws he hits in the near future. He just didn't nail them on Sunday night.
- As Coach O'Brien told me at halftime, the Texans were vanilla on offense, not showing much from the extensive playbook. That was clear on Sunday night.
- There's little question that the tackling needs a lot of work this week getting ready for the Saints coming to town. I don't have the number of missed tackles, but it was pretty evident from mid-1st through early third quarter that the defense struggled making open field tackles. It wasn't just one guy either. But, look, that comes with the territory. Teams don't fully tackle anyone in camp, so the first opportunity to do it typically comes in the first preseason game. The 49ers tempo was a factor, as well, in guys not getting into position to make tackles too. That's a double whammy, in all honesty, to face an up-tempo team in game one.
- The Texans actually were on the verge of a second three and out right after Simon's scoop and score before a illegal hands penalty gave quarterback Blaine Gabbert another shot at it. He made it pay off too.
- On that first 49ers scoring drive, they converted that third down, with help from the Texans defense. Then, they converted a fourth and one and a third down Gabbert scramble. This Texans defense was one of the best in the league on third downs defensed in 2015, but the 49ers were 50% on third down conversions in the first half which kept the Texans defense on the field longer than it should've been.
- The tackling, or lack thereof, reared its head in the second quarter when former Texans quarterback Thaddeus Lewis came into the game. He was sacked a number of times and then Houdini-ed himself right out of it. Somehow. There were a handful of sacks snatched from the grips of Texans defenders in that half. Give Lewis credit; he made plays throughout the first half.
- Outside linebacker Eric Lee had a solid start to his career. He got a ton of reps on the field with starters Whitney Mercilus and John Simon off the field in the first quarter. He got the first sack of his career beating former first round pick Anthony Davis. I said it all camp long, Lee is really tough to block out on the edge. He has Plastic Man arms and whips and throws hands well enough to get separation consistently. He should've had another sack or two as well, but as I said above, 49ers quarterback Thaddeus Lewis got free from his clutches.
- When we interviewed Executive Vice President and General Manager Rick Smith on Texans Training Camp live during the first week, Marc Vandermeer and I asked about the progress of running back Kenny Hilliard. In essence, he said that Hilliard came back in 2016 a different dude. He slimmed down and showed quick feet and burst and a different running style than he showed in 2016. He's been quick to the hole and ran the ball well throughout camp. With Alfred Blue unavailable on Sunday, Hilliard made the most of his time. He carried it seven times on his first drive for 31 yards. His first two runs were probably his best ones. Decisive. Powerful. Attack-mode.
- He also had a hugely important 17-yard catch from quarterback Tom Savage in the third quarter on the team's first touchdown drive, as well.
- Speaking of Savage, he was outstanding. He took a bunch of hits, something he told me after the game that he actually welcomed. He had some grass stains on his jersey and they were sort of a point of pride for him after missing all of last year after the injury suffered in week four of the pre-season at Dallas.
- After a three and out and a no gain on first down of the successive drive, Savage threw a dime to receiver Braxton Miller. What I loved about that throw was that only one player was going to make that catch - Miller. Savage threw it such that would've been caught by Miller or no one. But, the rookie made a wonderful catch that sort of broke the dam for the Texans offense.
- By the way, Miller tied for the lead on the team with four receptions, alongside Jaelen Strong. That catch, though, on the sideline was outstanding. Miller is a complete baller. After the game, when asked if he was nervous about The First One, he said "ummm, nah, not really." He's one cool customer.
- On the next drive, Savage held the ball about as long as he could before delivering to a wide open Hilliard for 17 yards and a first down. On the very next play, a 49er came threw and put his helmet directly on Savage, driving him to the ground. But, just before he took the hit, Savage delivered a dime to Jaelen Strong on the far sideline. Savage got up and was shaking out his left arm a bit. The hit was pretty wicked and I thought he was going to have trouble making it to the line for the next play. Nope. He was right back in the huddle the next play.
- On third down, Savage threw low and outside near rookie tight end Stephen Anderson, a ball that was trouble from the time that it left Savage's hand, seemingly. But, Anderson snatched it just before it hit the turf for his first catch and his first touchdown.
- Anderson might've spiked it. He might've handed it to the official. I have no clue, because I turned to see what his family and friends were doing. When I turned to look up in the stands on the opposite of the field, Anderson's mom had already climbed the railing and was running down the platform about 20 yards. She had so much joy, she just had to get out and run. I laughed out loud. As a parent, I can't imagine what that moment must feel like. 15 miles from his childhood home. Down Highway 101 from his college home. In front of 60+ family and friends, Anderson scored the game winning touchdown. His mom should've run up every aisle of Levi's Stadium. What a moment for Stephen, his mom, family and friends. I'm really glad I took a look her way after he scored.
- The second half wasn't perfect, especially from a tackling perspective, but a few players starred in the second half. Linebacker Shakeel Rashad had a strong 30 minutes of action. He should've had a pick six, but the ball went right through his hands. He delivered a couple of big hits - one on defense and one on a punt return. His being here in Houston is a bit surreal for me (I coached his older brother for a short time), but he's playing his tail off. He finished with three tackles, tied for fifth on the day. He also tacked on a special teams tackle.
- I got a tweet from a follower after the game asking who No. 48 was. That's Gerald Rivers, outside linebacker from Ole Miss. It seemed like he was in the backfield all night long. He had a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. All things considered, the outside linebackers played well, tough though it may have been facing a zone read scheme, one of a handful of teams in the league that run it.
- Safety K.J. Dillon may have gotten a bit of help from 49ers quarterback Jeff Driskel when he threw a pass intended for receiver Bryce Treggs to the inside instead of to the sideline. But, the rookie came up with a well-timed pass breakup right in front of the Texans sideline. I spied Dillon early on that play and he was flying toward Treggs from a long distance away. He arrived at the same time the ball did and ended up with the pass breakup.
- On the radio broadcast, the Voice of the Texans Marc Vandermeer mentioned that Dillon was talking after the play but he wasn't sure if Dillon was talking to the sideline or to Treggs. I can 1000000% guarantee you that Dillon was whispering sweet nothings to Treggs. That's the way he plays and always has. He has an endless fire for this game and I saw that crystal clear at the Senior Bowl back in January.
- The safeties, unfortunately, were tested in the run game, more so than they should've. As a result, Corey Moore and Antonio Allen were tied for second on the team with four tackles. Throughout the second half, Allen was a fixture in the 49ers backfield, rushing the quarterback and Moore and Allen each were credited with a quarterback hurry.
- Prior to the game, on our pregame show, Seth Payne, original Texan and co-host of Mad Radio on our flagship station Sports Radio 610, asked me for a name to watch when the twos/threes got on the field. I mentioned the safeties, specifically Kurtis Drummond, Moore and Allen, but the first name that I gave him was receiver Josh Lenz. He's been impressive in camp and he was one of the standouts on Friday during practice with the 49ers. Consequently, he followed that up with a strong performance on Sunday night. He flashed his 4.36 speed on a one yard catch in the flat that he turned into a 22-yard gain. He had three catches within four plays on the Texans last scoring drive of the night, piling up 37 yards after the catch. That's the thing; he's got some serious wheels too. He put a sweet start and stop move on a 49er defender to get loose for one of those catch and runs. It was one of those type moves that has guys going "ohhhhhhhh" on the sideline.
- I'm not exactly sure how running back Akeem Hunt didn't step out of bounds on his nine-yard touchdown catch. It was on the opposite side of the field, but when a 49er defender collided with him, I was sure he was out of bounds. But, he somehow kept his balance and got in the end zone to end the scoring on the night.
- The defense didn't have its best night, yielding 236 yards rushing and umpteen missed tackles. That said, the defense stiffened down on the goal line twice, giving up a lone field goal and causing a fumble inside the five-yard line.
- The maddening aspect of giving up 236 yards rushing was how many of those yards could've been prevented by keeping quarterback contained or not missing tackles. The positive aspect is that the team will improve as it should now that it's into game mode.
- Before the game, I was talking with punter Shane Lechler and he fascinates me with his approach to punting. I've talked with him before about how he knows the type of punt that he wants to make in every stadium he's played in. So, I asked him, this being his first trip to Levi's Stadium, how long it would take for him to know what type of punt he wants to make. He proceeded to tell me, after spending ten minutes on the field, the wind patterns in the Stadium and how best to approach punting that day. Then, he unleashed a 75-yarder and pinned the 49ers inside the 20 yard line on three of his seven punts. Dude's doing it for all of us 40-somethings!
- The punt returners struggled with the swirling winds inside Levi's Stadium. Tyler Ervin dropped one. Wendall Williams did too. Luckily, the Texans were able to get the ball back on each one. Inside NRG Stadium next weekend, a more true ball flight should help them make a clean catch and let their speed flourish. Williams did hold on to one and picked up ten yards on the return. I was so excited to see him have a chance that I held my breath the entire return, thinking he might pop a seam and house it.
- First round rookie Will Fuller had the one other return and got POPPED. I had a flashback watching Fuller jump up to snatch a bouncing punt right before getting drilled by 49ers defensive back Dontae Johnson. Texans color analyst Andre Ware astutely pointed out that Fuller saved the Texans ten to 15 yards, sacrificing his body for the yards. Thankfully, Fuller didn't end up in as bad of shape as I did when I did the exact thing on my last day as a punt returner. I saved those yards, though. So did Fuller.
That's all for now, folks. A 'W' is in the books and it's on to the Saints.
Take a look at the best pictures from the #Texans preseason opener against the 49ers.